Actions

Work Header

A Winter Soldier Comes to Claptrap

Chapter Text

For the last two years nearly to the day, since being gifted his own residence in Claptrap, Steve has woken the same way. Taking a long silent moment, eyes closed, to experience what is and isn't there.

First the smells - herbs he's harvested and hung to dry mostly, last night's snack, occasionally a hint of whatever Vic's brewed up in the still and brought to share, flowers when they're blooming. There's a faint note of oil and engine grease ever present from his work clothes, and a not quite placeable scent leftover in the steel corrugated shipping container that makes up the bulk of his home. All in all it's a nice mix, homie in the way their tiny low income apartment had been, their smells and the smells of the neighbors all blending together.

He notices the lack of their stench more, all those unwashed bodies packed into old cargo vans and truckbeds or huddled on the stoney ground around a charred piece of...sure, he'll call it meat. That was the worst, how it smelt awful and good all at once. He hasn't eaten an animal, any kind of animal, in years.

Then there's the loose, open comfort of his nightshirts. Today it's his oldest one, fashioned from a tattered linen tablecloth he had folded in half and sewn roughly down the sides, leaving space for his slender arms to poke through and the bottom open for his spindly legs. He didn't think to measure back then and cut the neckhole too wide, which let it slide a bit off one shoulder. Nat calls it his sexy nightdress and jokingly asks to borrow it at least twice a month.

Next there's the feel of his sheets, still a thing of luxury even if these are a threadbare polyester blend and not Egyptian cotton, hung to dry just a little rough in the arid breeze. He loves waking up to them under the comforting weight of blankets cobbled together from any scavenged scrap of heavy fabric he could find - car seat and furniture upholstery mostly.

He appreciates the lack of waking in stiff, crusted jeans that he's spent days in, still up and belted if he's lucky. Boots on and already rubbing against the raw places where his socks have worn through. What's left of an oversized peacoat as his blanket, his numb arm as a pillow if his hands are free that night. Them. Pressed near.

His bed is blissfully empty as he stretches out like a starfish.

Then there's the sounds. The quiet meanderings of the first few residents of Claptrap to leave their shanties, the imperative to get certain tasks done well before the blistering heat takes hold spurring them from their hammocks and bed rolls. Most mornings there are birds too. More and more as the trees grow taller. One sings a sweet, if off key, tune somewhere nearby.

No chorus of snores. No grunting or whimpers he has to pretend he doesn't know the source of. Even if they come from him. Especially if they come from him.

He's ready for the last portion of his morning ritual, slowly opening his eyes to take in what he's worked very hard to turn from junk into a home. First the ceiling, mostly covered in collages of little found objects and old magazine clippings with potted plants hanging from hooks welded to the metal. Then around the room to his possessions, already expanded several hundredfold since his arrival. Piles of books, more plants, hand tools, containers of all shapes and sizes holding this and that, a chrome and seafoam green Formica dining set made before his grandparents were born that had only needed a little work. Then to the window, his pride and joy, large and bordered with stained glass, the soft colors of the sunrise just starting to spill in.

Then he'll see the best part. He's alone.

A loud rapping on his door - hardwood and from the 1920s judging by the handle that had still been attached, but reinforced with riveted strips of steel - pops his bubble of contentment.

"Get your skinny ass up. It's misfiring again!"

Clint. Fucking Clint.

Steve needed breathable air, potable water, nutritious food and adequate shelter like any other human being. However what really kept him going was a bullheaded streak a mile wide, a need for justice bordering on fatalistic in how often it spurred him to involve himself in other people's business and a strong sense of irony.

It seemed he had spent his entire childhood sick, bedridden as much as not, costing his mother the few dimes she had on medical bills. He couldn't so much as step on a playground without catching something. So how had he, the Notorious I.L.L., managed to be one of the glorious 10% immune to the pandemic? It had taken his mother, his neighbors, his city. Even Frank Delino, a painfully handsome mass of a boy that used to kick Steve's ass after school until an "incident" with a trash can lid made him think better of it. Frank was the picture of strapping youth. Steve had found him dead in his own vomit in the stairwell as he left the only home he'd ever known for the last time. He was eighteen years old.

He had been despised in his Brooklyn tenement as a freak. A quiet, bird-bodied nerd with his nose constantly in a book until an outburst of rage would send him flying at one of the bigger boys like a rabid spider monkey. In this new world, all that useless knowledge suddenly had real-life applications. His explosive anger got him out of (okay, and into) a lot of bad situations and earned him as much respect as ire. His ability to occupy himself, to be alone, kept him sane when everything came tumbling down, when there were weeks on the road without passing another living soul.

Somehow - after natural disasters fueled by climate change wiped out millions, after the drought, famine and resource wars that followed killed millions more, and the bug took most everyone who was left - loser Steve found himself with an excess of friends. He even supposed this fuckboi-who-sort-of-grew-up standing at his door was his friend in a way. Friends do shoot arrows into people for you in this world.

Steve would think about the irony of it all and laugh. Sometimes it would be at inappropriate times that at best got him looks once reserved for the babbling homeless and at worst got his lights punched out depending on the parties present. Him, Steven Grant Rogers, 120 pounds soaking wet who spent the first three months of his life hospitalized, was one of the genetically blessed and post-apocalyptically popular.

Chapter Text

"So can you fix it or what, bookboy?" Clint is bleary eyed, his short hair a greasy mess. Steve knows he and Nat were up all night fighting again and he wants to rub it in his face for ruining his last few moments of solitude earlier.

Instead he says "It's fucked," flatly and turns to walk off.

"Nononono wait!" Clint moves to grab Steve by the arm, thinks better of it after last time. He likes his pride hurt more than his face. "I apologize...for the bookboy thing."

"And?" Steve retorts, turning slowly with his arms crossed, looking equally like a factory steward and an angsty teen doing community service in his oversized tan jumpsuit and duct-taped work boots.

"Waking you up early." Clint grits his teeth and clasps his hands together, almost as if praying for this part to be over.

"And?"

"Parading around in your sexy nightdress last week, God!" he blurts out a little too fast and way too loud. "I was drunk! And...trying to get in good with the wife. Look, please?" Now Clint has a painfully guileless desperation on his face.

Steve lets out a huff and pokes a finger towards the other man's considerably wider chest. "Fine, I'll go to the yard and try to find a new cog but you have to promise me you'll keep this thing lubricated."

"Heh. Lubricated," Clint chuckles.

Steve had helped Clint design the machine and somehow became it's de facto mechanic. It extruded melted aluminum scrap into tubing for arrow shafts and Clint had mumbled "heh heh, shafts" at predictable intervals through the whole process. Carbon shafts were more durable but they couldn't work out production. It had been quite an undertaking for the amateur inventor but ultimately he pitied Clint. What is an archer without his arrows?

"I'm serious. This is the third time. You owe me!" The blonde steps forward and scowls up at his personal nuisance. Clint is all of 5'9" but he's still got four inches on Steve and never lets him forget it.

"Anything!" Just like that, the fool is beaming.

"Gas for the 'bile. Water for the trip, for me and Win. Snacks. Lots of snacks. No fucking jerky this time." Steve starts counting off on his long, spindly fingers, deep voice raspy from the smoke that had been billowing out of the machine a few minutes ago.

"Done, done!" The other man nods vigorously, like a big stupid dog, Steve thinks to himself

"Your goggles. Not the best ones. But the good ones."

"To borrow?" There's a note in Clint's voice that says he already knows the answer, dreads it, is begging without words for it to not be so.

"To keep, you idgit." Steve knits his brows, unmoved.

"Fine, fine. Anything else? A kidney? I have one left." Clint pouts.

"That'll do, pig, that'll do." Steve's sour face breaks into a smirk as he pats the taller man's shoulder, a rare physical interaction that does not go unnoticed.

Clint delivers on his promises, serving up a variety of not-quite-stale single serving bagged chips and gummies, his second best pair of goggles, two gallon milk jugs of water (sediment free) and a pile of saccharine praise that falls on deaf ears. Steve only had a tiny amount of regret for making him squirm so much. The truth was, neither he nor Win had been to the yard in a while and it was one of their favorite activities.

Claptrap was a junktown, a settlement formed partially or in whole because of its proximity to a junkyard, dump or scrap yard. People in the old world wasted so much, right up until the end. Furniture, scrap metal, machine parts, clothing, all manner of useful and unuseful but shiny trinkets, reusable containers, even food unopened in boxes and jars and cans. The massive facility now known only as the yard had served many purposes for the dozens of small communities that had once surrounded it - auto junkyard, trash dump, recycling collection facility.

The sand had started to claim the yard, the same way it would eventually claim the lower parts of Claptrap. A good part of their labor pool had been devoted to fighting it, trying to push it back as it expanded from the dried out wasteland, cleaning it daily off the buildings at the bottom of the small hill that formed the center of the community. It would blow in constantly, coating everything. It had been Steve's idea to use the sand to stop the sand.

They had scavenged a facility that had bags and bags of sodium carbonate. Steve had read in a book it was used for detergent among other things. Most importantly, it could be added to sand with limestone, easily accessible in the dried-out riverbed nearby, to form glass. He and Win and some others had built equipment to mix the ingredients, melt them down with crushed scrap glass from the yard, and pour the molten goo into molds to make all manner of things, most importantly glass block. It had taken weeks to get the mixture and the process right, months more for manufacturing and assembly, but they had a wall 30 feet high and 6 ft thick with regular buttresses climbing up like steps every hundred feet around the whole town, with extra room left for expansion. That had turned Steve from an annoying know-it-all into the resident boy-genius and earned him his very own "house" set up in just the right way on the hillside where nothing obstructed his view of the sky.

The yard, over an hour from Claptrap on the modified snowmobiles they had learned to ride through the sand, was impractical to haul block to. They had gotten the giant magnetic crane running well enough to pile up flattened vehicles from the junkyard around the area and even to start a corridor running out away from the scrap yard gate in the direction of the settlement. Win welded whatever sheet metal they could find over the outside to form a more solid barrier against the ever blowing sand. The dump itself was in the middle of a ringshaped man-made hill, the only high spot for miles. There had been talk of settling on the hill, letting the sand claim the scrapyard below, but between the ever-present stench of the dump, possible contamination of the soil and how much closer to the wasteland it was, it seemed impractical.

Teams would go in, use large, flat sled-like platforms with low sides (constructed from scrap lumber mostly and called "skiffs" because of their similarity to the style of boat) to drag trash onto the hilltop. It was given a rough sort on the hillside, separating what was truly useless from the rest. The useful would be dragged down the hill and into the now mostly empty scrapyard, to be separated meticulously into various categories. Things like spare parts and household objects that were not immediately claimed were set up under a series of makeshift tents on the grounds - they called it the Super Store and had even scavenged a few shopping carts for its "patrons" to use. Steve knew there were boxes and boxes there of nuts, screws, bolts, gears and the like. Maybe there would even be a looter or two they would have to dance with on the way.

He was so fucking bored of fixing machines and making windows, but it was a far preferable life to the one he had had only a few years before.

Chapter Text

There had been a period Steve could grudgingly admit to himself, riding the 'bile through the dunes with his arms around a waist just a bit smaller than his own, he had been in love with Win.

Their's had been a pretty typical meet cute. Steve had calmly explained to a pack of arguing Claptrappers that they could just take the hinges off a set of double doors they'd been battering at. When they finally listened, after a chorus of variations on "shut up, new guy," both doors came down in one piece, strips of metal soldered across them from the inside.

Nick - impressed but irritated with Steve as would become their usual - decided to reward (punish) his newfound friend by making him go in first. A slight figure wearing full welding regalia had ran from the darkness to swing a lit cutting torch at him almost immediately.

They pieced together from the discovery of a room filled with bunk beds, and the person's furious, unintelligible yelling, that the factory had probably been using illegal Chinese laborers and housing them on the grounds. The "dorm" locked from the outside and had a toilet, fully visible to the entire room, in one corner. The bottom mattresses each featured two neatly arranged corpses save the last, sporting a single body covered in dried out wildflowers.

"Bug must've got 'em." Clint said flatly, holding a bandana over his face against the lingering smell. "Wonder why the the survivor laid them out like that and put their welding masks on."

"It was the best they could do for a burial." Steve half whispers, remembering stretching sheets over his mother's body. Frank Delino's body. He considers what was required to seal yourself up inside a place like this alone, neat rows of your friends turning to soup in their coveralls never more than a few hundred yards away.

"I've got no good goddamn idea what they're sayin'. I just know it's Cantonese. Learned a few phrases for a business trip. But unless they're gonna point me to the john or make me a martini, it's not much help." Nick looked the stranger over with his good eye.

"We can find a way to make them understand. We can't just leave them here. Especially if we take everything!" Steve protested as someone passed him with an armload of canned goods. There had been quite a stockpile with fifty plus workers normally kept there.

"I'm not standin' here, in this motherfuckin' heat, drawing pictograms or some shit tryin' to explain we wanna be friends." Nick gestures to them, still waving the torch.

Steve, nearly defeated, had left to root around an office and found the previous foreman's English to Cantonese dictionary. It had taken the entire time the others finished picking the place clean, and a begged-for extra twenty minutes, to convince the welder to shut off the torch and remove their face shield.

"If I'd known that was under there, I would have been on your side," one of the men commented. Their new acquaintance turned out to be a not at all unattractive young woman. Steve flipped him off, but he couldn't deny feeling butterflies the first time she gave him a big, genuine smile a few weeks later. They took every scrap of welding equipment that they could find. There wasn't a single person in Claptrap that knew how to use them, and that had been Steve's ace in the hole in winning Nick over.

She'd been known as Win since she screamed the word, arms up in triumph, after brutally defeating a large group at poker in the town pub. They'd figured out her hand gestures easily enough for the game, after she had made it clear she had wanted to join and Steve talked them into humoring her, but Sam and Carol had been pissed when they lost their respective piles of loot. They certainly wouldn't invite him over that night. Steve could now guess how Win and the other workers had passed their few spare hours, locked inside their shared room. There were more than a few misunderstandings between Win and the residents, and at least one guy ended up with a broken eye socket when he got handsy; Steve could completely relate.

A few months before he had been fooling around with Sam and Carol regularly, at first after a card game when they had a bit too much to drink (it had just been flirting and a little kissing that first night) but sober after. He liked being kissed by them, touching them and - eventually, under his terms - being touched by them. He even liked watching them together (and they really liked being watched), the contrast of Sam's flawless dark skin against Carol's light, golden tan, Sam narrow in all the places she was round, his shoulders incredibly broad.

He had absolutely no prior experience with women, and Carol was mercifully not shy at all about giving directions. He had no positive experience with men. Sam was fun, friendly and patient, never talking to Steve like he was less than him or lacking in personal agency, never trying to be the macho guy that manhandled him. Both of them were so out of Steve's league on the attraction scale that he was constantly baffled they even noticed he existed. They were ex-military, in incredible shape, competitive to a fault. They had piloted the (supposedly top-secret) aircraft that carried Nick and his crew to this part of what had once been the United States and they lived in it at the base of the settlement. It was just another metal box with no way to refuel it.

He thought he had made it clear, without spelling it out, that penetration was off limits. They were all half-naked and making out when one of them (he was unsure who because they were wrapped together, hands everywhere) had seemed like they were trying to put a finger in his ass. He completely fucking lost it and reacted like a supermodel who had her photo taken without permission. It was weeks before he stopped avoiding them and, when things got comfortable again, he politely refused future offers to come over. To be fair what had happened could have been a misunderstanding or accident, but he felt guilty for not being more upfront about his boundaries. The fear it had engendered set him back significantly.

Nat for her part sensed a kindred spirit in Win the same as when she had met Steve. Underestimated for being petite and naturally "feminine" looking, not expected to do anything in this new world except be treated like a prize or a thing to be bought and sold, yet infinitely more useful than many of the mediocre, butch men who had managed to survive on only brute force. She supposed a lot of that had not changed so much from the old world. They bonded, spending hours pointing to things to teach each other words, sharing skills. Others made effort too, but it was Steve that Win gravitated to the most.

People traded things for her welding skills, gifts she often shared with the slender blond, especially junk food, and she spent a good portion of time helping set up infrastructure for the community. They became partners in crime, dreaming up contraptions - if he could draw it, she could weld it - then scavenging parts for their creations. Language barrier not withstanding, they shared everything, even clothes, being a similar build.

It had only seemed natural, despite their inability to exchange complete sentences, when she'd kissed him, post an intense game of Connect Four, about a year after their meeting. The kissing had turned heated and then she was taking off the oversized t-shirt she often wore around in her free time and he wasn't going to hyperventilate. He wasn't.

It was all a blur of hands and lips and tongues until she, in nothing but her work boots, straddled him where he sat on the floor. She freed his cock from his pants and, after a momentary pause clearly intended to give him time to say no, sank down on him. The moment focused to crystal clarity, feeling the soft, tight slickness of her around him, the light brush of her hard nipples against his bare chest, her quivering breath on his forehead.

Looking him dead in the eyes without a hint of shyness, she moved on him slow, putting her hands on shoulders that were narrow but had a surprising amount of wiry muscle. After he got his bearings, he licked his thumb and found her clit with it (thanks, Carol). Then she smashed her mouth to his and they clutched at each other, moving together with intensity, both making high pitched sounds in their throats. She leaned back, perfect half-handful breasts catching the lamplight, a sound pulled out of her that could only mean one thing as he feels her get even more wet. He, Steven Grant Rogers, had just helped a person orgasm with his penis. He finished immediately, practically screaming.

He had about five minutes to revel in the beauty of his experience, the first time he had ever been inside of anyone with that part of himself, and to think about what it might mean for them. Then she unceremoniously handed him his shirt and jacket, kissed him on the cheek and sent him into the night. She acted like nothing had changed the next day, politely rebuffing his attempt to kiss her. It had really hurt him, and his reaction to that was always pigheaded anger.

After he hadn't spoken to her in a week, Nat had to sneak the English to Cantonese dictionary from his place. Win painstakingly combed through the words, alphabetized unhelpfully for her in English, to write him a letter.

The body with the flowers at the factory had been her childhood sweetheart, who she married as a teenager. She cared for Steve. He was her best friend. She had enjoyed everything that had happened, would love for it to happen again and found him very attractive. There was no one else she was interested in. But she could not give him the romantic relationship that she now realized he wanted. Something inside her had nearly died when she had lost her husband and she could not go through that again. Because Steve would always be Steve, taking risks, getting involved. "One day, you will help the wrong person," she had ended the letter.

Chapter Text

Steve and Win spend a few hours sorting through boxes stored in the junkyard before they come across parts that will work in Clint's machine. They skim the newest assortment of items deemed potentially usable culled from the garbage and find two matching blue cotton tablecloths. Win holds one up to herself and parades around like a catwalk model, clearly mocking his nighties, sending Steve into fits of laughter. He keeps the fabric, planning to make a new nightshirt for each of them.

Then it's on to the real fun - sifting through one of the newest piles pulled from the dump onto the hillside. The people assigned to trash duty are taking their lunch out of the midday sun in the autoyard. Steve and Win are blissfully left alone, a rare occurrence in Claptrap for those with in demand skills. Trashpicking is an art of the imagination, asking not only what an item was intended for but what new purpose it could serve. It was the same way you needed to assess people in this world. A secretary could learn to be a sharpshooter; a grocer could learn to sell people instead of lettuce. Who or what they had been before was less important than who, or what, they could turn into.

Steve finds a small vintage trash can, perfect as a pot for one of his many plants, Win a massive monkey wrench so rusty it leaves her gloves stained orange. She hangs it from a strap on her waistband. Both she and Steve have a hard time finding pants, or belts, small enough and today she has on suspenders - the old-fashioned kind that are not stretchy. The added bonus being how much crap she can fill her cargo pockets with and hang from her belt loops without her pants falling down.

She snags a few tattered comic books - they're good English practice since she can infer context from the pictures. There's a half empty can of spray paint too; fumeheads will trade almost anything for it. She knows Steve frowns on enabling people's vices, but it's always good to have a savings account just in case.

They settle in on the other side of the hilltop, away from any piles, sharing potato chips as they gaze out into the tawny waste. Steve notices something glinting on the ground not far into the dunes.

There was stuff piled next to that side of the hill when the first Claptrappers had found it - possibly an illegal dumping site for those who did not want to pay waste disposal fees back when things like that existed - and what appeared to be a long-abandoned worksite, possibly an intended extension of the facility's offerings that had gone bust. Supports tipped with crossbeams rose up like the ruin of a steel coliseum no more than 200 feet from the base of the hill. Less than thirty yards out the dunes were already encroaching. The wind carries the sand, covering everything for miles in up to several feet of it. Large pieces of metal and other random hunks stuck up out of it here and there but what Steve saw looked different - shinier.

"Sinkhole," Win responds when he points it out, the twinkle coming from the middle of a concave spot in the landscape. The very real danger they posed was one of the first things he impressed upon her. A lot of the bedrock was limestone in that area; it was not uncommon for sections of it to erode over time and collapse, sucking down whatever was on top of it. When that happened to be several feet of wastedust and garbage it formed something very similar to a quicksand pit and was virtually impossible to escape from.

They finish their snack and wander cautiously down into the low dunes to check it out. Steve is surprised to see a gloved hand splayed out several feet down the slope of the depression. A gloved hand attached to a very shiny metallic arm.

The pair look at each other quizzically, then back down into the pit. The limb extends out from under random trash and a large flap of garbage bag, the heavy industrial kind, sand sliding down on it all in a slow trickle. Win pulls a long piece of rebar from the build site and cautiously reaches in to move the debris. They're greeted by a head - mouth, nose, cheeks and jaw completely covered in a black mask that looks like a type of hard plastic, vented in the front. Large black goggles with dark lenses cover the eyes and part of the high forehead. It has hair that looks brunette despite the layer of yellowish dust.

The human shaped object is buried up to the neck, only the left shoulder - also largely metal - and arm visible.

"Dead?" Win asks, poking the person's forehead lightly with the rebar.

"Maybe." Steve responds, putting his hand on her arm to still her.

"Hello?" Steve calls down into the hole. Nothing. No sound. No movement.

Win shrugs, raps the rebar hard on the silver arm, making several loud clangs. It's solid and her efforts don't leave even a hint of a scratch. Nor do they rouse the thing it belongs to.

"Maybe androids exist now?" Steve muses. To Win's questioning expression he responds with the Cantonese word jyutping - a robot or synthetic person. She raises an eyebrow and repeats it back to him in a very interested tone.

"Pull it out?" She says in English, smiling. Steve can't help but hearing Clint, heh heh, pull it out.

They return with a long spool of cable, one end formed into a sort of lasso which they manage to snag around the android/robot/very fancy mannequin's wrist. Whatever it is, it's heavy, especially with the constant pull of the sand and trash slowly being sucked into the empty space beneath it. They can barely budge it and when they're finally forced to let go, it sinks a bit lower into the pit

"Fuck." Steve grunts. "Fuck." Win agrees.

Steve looks around, plotting. There was an ancient scaffold up one side of the building frame - he climbs it and is ecstatic when the cable reaches the top, though with only a few feet to spare. The other end is still wrapped around their find. After a short chat, a few hand signals, and a lot of puzzled looks, Win is handing him up every piece of rebar small enough to lift. He lays them in a pile over the cable, eventually wrapping it around and tying it off to form a large bundle weighing a few hundred pounds.

"Get back," he calls down, gesturing her to the side. When she complies, he rolls the bundle off the top of the scaffold onto one of the crossbeams then unceremoniously shoves it off the other side. It falls the 30 or so feet with a massive thud that shakes the ground, yanking the thing on the other end of the cable out of the hole and into the low dunes.

"AHHHHHH!" Win screams in triumph, arms up, as Steve scrambles back down. He shoots her a cocky smile as they approach their prize. She let's out a dissatisfied huff as she sees the other arm is flesh. Just a person after all, probably a dead one judging from their complexion. Steve takes another step forward.

"Wait!" Win grabs his arm. She's basically the only person allowed to do that. "No smell."

She was right. A body dead long enough to start looking grayish should wreak, especially in this heat.

"Hello?" Win tries tentatively. The thing (man?) on the ground doesn't move.

"Sick?" Steve questions. Occasionally some poor soul who had found a good hideout during the spread of the plague would be pushed to leave their nest, not realizing basically everyone left was a carrier. They'd be dead in days usually.

Steve and Win had been in the thick of caring for the dying; their status was clear. They approached cautiously, then rolled the man (?) onto his back. Yes, definitely a man, probably six feet tall and built like a rugby player - Steve had watched things like that as a teen for the hot guys, though he'd never admitted that to anyone. There was no obvious signs of injury and, curiosly, he didn't feel hot to the touch. Not cold either, but certainly unusually moderate to have been buried in sand under the midday sun for who knows how long.

The man didn't so much as twitch, until Steve attempted to remove the mask.

Chapter Text

The man was up like a shot, his metal hand around Steve's throat, hoisting him easily a foot off the ground like he was a bag of feathers. Steve's fingers are scrambling at the almost-literally iron grip, his feet landing hard blows into the man's body that would have knocked the wind out of most. The man didn't flinch.

Win runs at him with a feral scream, the monkey wrench connecting with the man's head, cracking the left goggle lens, splitting the front of his skull open. He relinquishes his hold on Steve. The blonde falls with a thud on his ass in the sand, scrambles backwards immediately in a reverse crabwalk.

Maybe it's not a man after all because it doesn't go down, the blood pouring out of it's forehead so purple it's almost black. Win smashes the wrench into the side of its face again, almost doubling it over and breaking one of the latches that holds the mask on. It swings to the side, revealing a grimacing mouth with multiple long, sharp teeth.

Steve grabs her by the arm, half yelling, half choking. "Come on! Come on!"

They run frantically around the side of the hill to the auto yard, chaining the gate shut as soon as they're inside. Two trashers, middle-aged Greta and the almost-elderly Samir, look up quizzically from their card game in time to see the thing spring over the gate and land gracefully on its feet.

It pulls the now decimated goggles off, revealing a set of glowing white-blue eyes. Then it finishes removing the cracked mask, throws it at Steve's feet as if to say you wanted it, you can have it. Its face is perfect. Not a hint of what should have been fatal injuries.The blonde and the thing just stare at each other for a long minute before the crack of a rifle shot cuts the air.

"Get the fuck away from my kids!" Greta screams, pulling back the bolt to eject the empty casing. She had taught Steve how to shoot, how to can things and some very colorful new expressions. She had been two steps away from one of those survivalist nut bags before the collapse but he really couldn't make fun of her for that given their current circumstances. The first shot hit it squarely in what appeared to be a bulletproof vest. The hit should have at least knocked it back, even if the Kevlar stopped the bullet, but it barely moved. The next buries in its flesh shoulder, getting its body to twist ever so slightly to the right with the force of impact. Dark blood sprays out.

The thing digs in the wound with it's metal fingers, pulls out the crushed slug. It holds it up to them dramatically and drops it to the ground as the wound seals itself shut.

"Jesus, Mary and Joseph." Greta gasps. She fiddles with the ancient rifle, the bolt jammed. It approaches, fast. Win raises the wrench, prepared to fight to the bitter end, when it flies from her hands straight towards the sky. The thing doesn't even have time to look up, to see the wrench glued to the massive industrial magnet, Samir in the cab of the crane it's attached to, before it's pulled up as well by its metal arm and pinned there, kicking like a dying animal.

They have just enough time to release their collectively held breath, to cheer, before a sharp piece of scrap half buried in the dirt shakes loose and rockets to the magnet. It passes directly through Win's upper arm, slicing muscle, tendons and her brachial artery. She falls to her knees with a gutteral wail, blood gushing between her fingers as she clutches at the wound.

Samir shoots up, eyes wide, accidentally hitting the control panel. The thing falls back towards the Earth, pulling a handgun from a thigh holster before it even lands, firing at the old man. Samir dives out, takes cover behind a crushed SUV as the shots shatter the glass of the cab.

It whirls on Steve, already on his knees frantically trying to tie one of the scavenged tablecloths around Win's arm as she goes pale.

"We were only trying to help you, you fucking asshole!" Steve screams at the thing stalking towards him as Win starts to sag. He lays her out on the ground, slaps her face in a futile attempt to keep her awake. "Win! WIN!!"

The thing watches him for a minute, holsters it's weapon. Greta runs at it, swinging the rifle like a club. It catches the butt of the gun, tears it from her grasp, throws it twenty yards effortlessly. It stares her down, eyes like a pair of LED headlights in the shadows of the scrap car piles, freezing her to the spot.

It squats down across from Steve, reaches for the blood soaked cloth.

"Don't fucking touch her!" Steve pulls back to take a swing at the thing, panic blurring out his thoughts. It puts a hand in the center of Steve's chest and shoves. He slides several feet straight back in the dirt, the motion comical under other circumstances. It pulls the makeshift dressing from her arm, puts it's flesh hand partially in it's mouth and bites down hard.

It squeezes it's flesh hand with it's metal one over Win's arm, leaking dark blood into her wound. It's hand heals seconds later, the gash in her bicep immediately after. Steve and Greta stare, mouths open, dumbfounded. It looks over at Steve.

"Do you have medical supplies in your community?" The voice is a bit raspy, not quite as deep as Steve's, but even, eerily soft. Like someone calmly querying about a book in the library.

"It's just us," Greta answers quickly.

The thing's eyes don't leave Steve's. "It is unlikely two people so small and two more so old accomplished this operation." It is not unkind, just matter of fact.

"I'll show you too old, fuckhole!" Greta starts, pulling a hunting knife. Steve grabs her pantleg, urges her to move behind him.

"She will require treatment for the blood loss. Do you have access?" It's voice never waivers and it barely blinks.

"Our...our community isn't close," Steve stammers.

"Shut up, boy!" Greta growls, grabbing his shoulder from behind.

"Thirty miles due Northwest? The junktown on the hill?" It asks blandly.

"Y-yes," Steve replies. Greta goes silent with shock. It's gaze - decidedly less electric, irises faded to a pale turquoise - trains up to her, then back to Steve.

It stands, walks to the fence, jumps it effortlessly.

"What the fuck is that thing?" Greta half whispers, Samir finally coming to join them.

The thing hops back over the gate with a large black duffel, both it and the bag equally covered in sand. It probably went back into the hole for it, Steve half-thinks, used the anchored cable to climb back out. It was gone only minutes - it must be able to move incredibly fast and pursued them leisurely before. It kneels down next to Win, opens the bag, begins laying out medical supplies.

"What is that?" Steve asks when it takes out an IV bag filled with clear fluid.

"Vitamins. Sugars. Electrolytes. Medication. It is used to counteract the effects of blood loss," it says, opening a sterile package to take out a needle.

"What if he's lying?" Greta's nails dig into Steve.

"Why would he heal her just to poison her?" Steve responds, not taking his eyes from the thing as it disinfects Win's arm and places the needle, hooks up the IV bag it's already holding aloft.

"What if it'll make her like him?" The old woman breathes.

Steve swears it chuckles softly at that as it hands her the IV bag.

"I can assist you in returning her to your community," it offers to Steve.

"It tried to shoot me!" Samir counters, back in his hiding spot.

"Warning shots. I do not miss," it responds, cleaning up its supplies.

"Why would it help us?" Greta queries.

"I was in the pit for days," it says, rooting around in the bag for something else, "before he rescued me. The harder I attempted to extricate myself, the farther it pulled me in."

A familiar feeling, Steve thinks.

Steve stands, turns to Greta. "I can't hold her on the 'bile and drive and I'd be moving slow with her on a skiff. We'd be sitting ducks for hostiles. It can help keep her safe."

It takes out a mask and goggles, identical to the others but new. "Please do not call me it," the thing - the man - says, voice still placid, before covering his face.

Chapter Text

"Can it stay? It's not a fucking puppy, Steve!!!" Nick screams.

Nick and Phil are pointing some serious firepower at Steve's new companion, not letting them through the gate into Claptrap; a few others point rifles and bow and arrows at them from the wall above. The man has Win in his arms.

"He defended us on the way back! Took out at least twelve guys." Steve insists, trying valiantly but uselessly to shield the much larger man and Win with his body.

The marauders had ambushed them, had them pinned down for a while under heavy fire that severely damaged the 'bile. These weren't your typical lowlifes - they were armed to the teeth, one of them with a flamethrower, and there had been so many. Marauders usually only traveled in large bands where there were far more supplies and population. Claptrap got the occasional unwelcome guest in it's surrounding area but they usually showed up in very small numbers and were disorganized. Many of them were marked with white paint, large "X" symbols painted on the chests of their body armor and jackets.

The man was content to lay in cover and pick the others off with his sidearm, but then Steve was shot - the bullet passing all the way through his side. It had been clear earlier in the lines of the man's body when the fire passed dangerously near to them that it was a real threat and he could have easily abandoned them, Win half-conscious and Steve bleeding out in the sand. But he had not, charging into the fight knife in hand when his gun was empty.

The way his body moved put even Nat's physical prowess to shame - his metal fist and feet flying in quick, coordinated movements as his flesh hand slashed and stabbed with the blade. He could jump farther than seemed possible for even a professional athlete, launching himself on one of the men from quite far away. At one point he had grabbed someone by the front of their flak vest, whipped them out into the distance, their yell growing steadily quieter as their body flew before going silent when they landed with a sickening thud. How strong would you need to be to do that?

Steve had managed a few shots from cover - he had his own rifle on the 'bile - wounding two of their assailants and allowing the man to finish them. Once his ally was clear he landed one to the flamethrower's accelerant tank, making it go off like a small bomb, taking out it's owner and severely wounding three others. He couldn't see most of what happened after that from behind the wreckage of the 'bile, his head swimming from the explosion, but he swore when the man leapt onto another assailant he had latched his teeth on to their neck. Above the ringing in his ears he hears the men's frantic screams, some of them cut off in wet, choked noises.

When the yelling stopped, the man returned, covered in blood. He healed Steve, cleaned himself up with a rag, then checked the smaller man over for other injuries, running flesh and metal fingers carefully over the blonde's scalp, his ribs, the blonde too disoriented to do much but lay there. After the man fixed his mask back in place, he gently picked Steve up and put him on the skiff. He did the same to Win, then quickly looted the bodies, adding it to the makeshift sled, and headed towards the community without a word.

"Do you know what that fuckin' thing is? Go ahead, ask it." Nick demands.

"I, personally, would love to hear what it has to say," Phil responds, inappropriately giddy. He adds a mouthed "sorry" at Steve.

"I don't care what he is. He saved our lives and he can help keep Claptrap safe. We both know more people will always show up. Some of those people don't want to be friends. Now get the hell out of our way so we can get Win to the doctor." Steve's eyes flash with anger.

"Is that what you think this thing is? Your friend? That is a Winter Soldier. Durin' the Cold War, our military decided they needed shock troops for what came after the bombs fell, able to be the fist of whatever was left of the government during the nuclear winter. That thing, walking around, is a corpse they brought back to something like life, circa 1983." Nick edges closer.

Steve backs up, arms wide, herding the man behind him farther away. "That's ridiculous. Even if that were possible, he'd be an old man."

"They kept them in cryofreeze off and on. They were genetically modified, capable of surviving in fallout. But, shocker, there were side effects to playing God." Nick has never looked this crazy, not even when he accidentally caught Steve playing with his eye patch that one time.

Steve swallows hard, sets his face to something stony. "So you were involved with the program? A little hypocritical to blame him for what your people did to him." Steve was vaguely aware that Nick had been in some pretty high-level government stuff, but not the specifics. He'd assumed his so-called business trips were probably espionage missions, but what he was talking about was way higher level than that.

"I was sent in to see what they were capable of, if their handlers' mind control was really workin'. Because I saw the early tapes - they were fuckin' savages, rippin' apart anyone who got too close. I didn't buy that Pavlovs dogs were gonna salivate at the bell. I cut my forehead on purpose, just wanted to show the brass how the things would react. One nearly ate the eye right outta my head." Nick gestures at the patch, the scar surrounding it.

"If that's true, why didn't he go nuts when I was bleeding?" Steve counters, gesturing at his stained jumpsuit.

"The crackpots figured out a foolproof way to control them. Microchips in the brain. Because the bombs never fell, did they? And they needed to justify spending all that money on their little science project somehow. They used these things for missions to take whatever they wanted, to kill whoever they wanted. If it's here now, it's because someone told it to be," Nick practically spits.

"I am no one's puppet," the man - the Soldier - finally speaks, as soft as ever behind his mask. "I am only here because Steve asked me to be."

"And why do you give a shit what Steve asks?" Fury questions, tone incredulous.

"He pulled me from a sinkhole in the waste. If I had sank there, I do not know how long it would have taken me to starve to death. My neural network is non-operational. I am in control of my actions." The Soldier sounds perfectly calm, almost soothing.

Phil leans over to Fury, softly counters that the Soldier would be a great help if it was on their side.

"Fine, fine! But it's your head if he fucks up, Steve. You watch him every minute you're awake. You can keep him in your old cage at night," Nick says, not without relish, referencing one of the cells at the drunk tank.

Steve feels the Soldier tense behind him. "He's my guest, not my prisoner. He'll stay with me."

Nick stares at him for a long time, and for a minute Steve thinks he has pushed his luck too far, that Nick is about to give the order for them to blow the Soldier's head off. Maybe his and Win's too and bury them all in the sand. He now firmly believes that is the type of man that Fury was before all this started. The older man just sighs.

"They're still anatomically correct, you know, and it all works. Better watch your ass." Nick snarks.

Steve just scowls as Nick and his entourage leave, cut to the quick. It wasn't intended as homophobic. Nick knows that Steve likes men as well as women and that's not something he would mock him for. Nick has a pretty good idea of the excruciating details of Steve's past. This is his not-so-subtle way of saying that if anything happens to him, he's asking for it.

The Soldier says nothing as they take Win to what acts as an infirmary, as Steve talks to the doctor, then leads him to his home several hours later once he's sure she's safe. The taller man stands silently in a corner as his host explains some things about the community, talking more out of nerves than anything. Steve pulls out an old sleeping bag that served as his bed when he'd been a newbie to the town, a flat old pillow and a few extra blankets (one of them real and not made of scraps). He lays it out on the floor for the man, careful not to put him too close to his own bed but also not completely on the other side of the room like a dog made to sleep in the corner. "It can get cold at night sometimes. Almost no plants or clouds from the drought and no nearby bodies of water, so it gets sweltering hot during the day but the land doesn't hold any of it in at night." Nice small talk, Climatologist Rogers, he chastises himself.

Steve finally sits down on the edge of the bed, lets out a long sigh and looks up warily at his houseguest who is - unsurprising now that the mask and goggles are off - staring right back at him. If this were some sort of a trick, he could not imagine what purpose it would serve. Certainly if someone did control the Soldier, there were far more important things that they could be doing with him than spying on some nobody in a junktown. If he meant what he had said, that he was only here because of Steve, that posed a whole other set of questions. It was true as the man dragged the skiff through the sand that Steve, still high on adrenaline from their fight, had suggested that he take up residence in Claptrap, become their own private defender.

He knew that something had been done to the man and read enough sci-fi to guess it was probably an experiment. It seemed too ridiculous to think he was an alien or a werewolf. Those sharp teeth weren't just for show though, judging from the mutilated corpses he had seen. There had been a time, even after the bug had collapsed civilization and people had started to turn into their more primal selves, that Steve was loathe to think of anyone being killed and would avoid doing so at all costs. That had ended after he had met Brock. He realized that sometimes the most just thing was to kill certain people so that the rest of the world did not have to suffer them.

Steve shook that thought from his head, focusing back on the Soldier, noticing again the odd cast to his skin. Steve was an artist only as a hobby, never professionally trained, but he did know that purple and yellow are complementary colors, cancelling each other out to something close to gray. He assumed that the purplish color of his blood, moving beneath the surface, probably affected the way his skin appeared. It was not an off putting, rotten shade. It reminded him of fresh concrete and ceramics and extremely fancy candles he'd seen in a boutique once labeled "Earl Gray." If he pretended it was all just really well done FX makeup he could see that the man had classic heartthrob features - a pouty mouth, square jaw, sad eyes, high cheekbones and thick, slightly wavy shoulder length hair that hung over most of his brows.

He hadn't really considered the Soldier's attractiveness or lack thereof until about two seconds ago though. In truth, Steve was just a sucker for fairness, loathe to pass judgement on others as had been done to him his entire life. He should look at this person before him and see a monster (even if it was a kind of hot one), but instead he felt pity, maybe empathy and a sense of obligation after all the man had done for him and his friend. There was something wounded in the bigger man's gaze, rudderless in his actions. He had said he was not a puppet, but perhaps he was a marionette with it's strings cut, no longer under others' control but with no self-direction.

There was also a more practical matter he hadn't considered before. He never slept in his clothes anymore, not wanting to bring the filth of the day - literally or figuratively - into his bed. Putting his nightshirt on was his way of saying to himself that he was sticking around, that he wouldn't need to run in the middle of the night. Steve stood, taking one off a hook. "Do you mind, ummm, waiting outside...while I change?" He was breaking Nick's rules already, letting him out of his sight, but he couldn't feel so exposed right now.

The Soldier furrowed his brow ever so slightly, but complied. After he'd stripped, washed up and changed quickly, Steve alerted his guest he was finished. He offered the bigger man something to change into as well. He was rewarded with silence.

After they stared at each other for a few long moments, the Soldier said very softly, "I believe your friend implied I am a rapist."

Steve doesn't know how to respond, just opens his mouth and closes it again. He's more than a little shocked that the Soldier had caught on. Perhaps it had been the way Steve had cringed, gone silent and inside himself after what Nick had said, intentionally keeping as much distance as he could from the other man. Maybe asking him to leave the building had something to do with it.

"I am not." The Soldier says with simple finality and then takes to his bedroll, laying on top fully clothed, leaving the blankets untouched and folded up next to him. When Steve finally falls asleep hours later, his nightmares are of hands on him much hotter than the Soldier's and much less gentle.

Chapter Text

To say Claptrap was a close-knit community would be the understatement of the century. A typical "small town" had at least a thousand citizens minimum. Sometimes even in a big city it could feel like you knew everyone with the same hobbies. The junktown had less than 250 residents, a lot of them practically living on top of each other with only a few feet between dwellings.

Word about the argument at the gate travelled quickly. Clint had been on a hunting expedition when they had arrived the previous evening, had game to clean and a wife to visit when he got home in the wee hours this morning, but he was still knocking on Steve's door not long after sun up. He already smelled like a gin mill.

"So what is this I hear that you brought some kind of mutant flesheater out of the desert?" Clint pushes the door the rest of the way open, and just glides past Steve without an invite. Having been recently choked, shot, hit with a concussion wave from an explosion, and having sparse sleep riddled with past horrors, he decides to himself that suffering Clint would be the worst pain he'd feel this week.

Clint pulls out a chair, slow and loud, scraping the chrome legs across the metal floor. He plops down in it and hoists his feet up on the table, crossing his filthy boots on the formica.

"I heard that it's seven feet tall, has teeth like a piranha and you saw it chew the face from a man's skull!" Clint looks and sounds entirely too excited about the prospect.

"I do not eat flesh," comes a soft voice from the other side of the table. The Soldier, who had still been laying on his bed roll, sat up and fixed Clint with a stare that glowed neon in the dull morning light.

"HOLY SHITBALLS!" Clint blurts out as he tumbles over backwards. Steve can't help but smirk and just stands there sleepily, arms crossed over his chest, not even making an attempt to ask if he is okay.

Clint is up like a shot, backing towards the doorway.

"What the actual fuck, Stevie? You let it sleep in here with you?! With your sexy nightie on and everything?!?!" His voice had gone high and hysterical.

"For the hundredth time, don't call me Stevie. And don't call him it. He doesn't like that." Steve glares, hands balling up.

The Soldier stands, never taking his eyes from Clint, slowly circling the table to move between him and Steve. The archer's hands tremble for his bow, every hair on his body on end. Everything about its - no, his - body language says he is on the defensive.

"Woah, big fella. It's cool. Steve, tell him it's cool." Clint holds his hands up in a placating gesture. Steve looks to the man, who must have removed his vest and boots at some point during the night. He's wearing neither shirt nor socks. Steve can't help but notice his back is...sculpted, to say the least. Fuck, he really is tired.

"It's okay. This is my...My friend's husband, Clint." The blonde steps forward next to his guest, tries to relax his posture, sound friendly. He realizes everything about the way he was standing and speaking said that he did not want Clint here, which was probably giving his houseguest the wrong idea.

"Husband. That is a male spouse?" The Soldier queries. Steve gives him a "yep" back.

"Marauder do that to you?" Clint gestures at the smaller man's throat, which now sports an obvious hand print, bruised nearly black. Steve touches it, winces.

"I strangled him briefly," the Soldier says matter-of-factly, his eyes moving to the marks. Steve thinks there is something like regret reflected in them, but maybe that's wishful thinking.

"He thought we were attacking him. It was a misunderstanding," Steve clarifies quickly.

"You're both a few fries short of a Happy Meal. Steve does love a project though. Whatuh… What are you?" Clint sounds genuinely curious.

"I am Winter Soldier number 23," the taller man responds.

"I've heard some of the government goons talk about Winter Soldiers before, but I thought they were just apocalypse fairytales." His eyes move to Steve then back to the Soldier. "Nice to meet you, Fangs."

"Please do not call me that," the Soldier says, as calm and even as ever. He never lets himself think of them as fangs. Snakes have fangs. Monsters have fangs. People have teeth.

"So, wadda you go by?" Clint queries.

The Soldier looks at Steve.

"What name do you want us to call you?" the smaller man explains, looking back up at him. This is the first time they've stood side-by-side. The Soldier is head and shoulders (and a bit more if Steve's honest) above him, even with both of them barefoot.

"Soldier is acceptable." The glow of his eyes fades (he sees them reflected in Steve's and makes an effort to calm himself, to pull his shoulders slightly more downward). He cannot quite bring his fists to unclench.

"Damn, you don't look like a fish, but you definitely got some chompers on you." Clint pulls his lip backs, shows his teeth.

"Chalm-purse?" the Soldier questions.

"Teeth," Steve explains.

"Yes. I have teeth. People have teeth," the Soldier replies. This earns him a look from the others. What had he said wrong?

"Oooookay. You use those to drink blood or somethin'?" Clint muses, smirking.

Steve rolls his eyes. "Don't be an asshole."

"Yes," the Soldier states simply, overlapping with the smaller man's statement. He realizes this was the incorrect response when Steve goes silent, head whipping in his direction, his eyes just as wide as the other man's.

Well that certainly explains all the neck biting, Steve thinks. And here he'd hoped the chompers and the savaging done with them were just from...tiger DNA or something.

"You do not need to be concerned," the Soldier continues to Clint. "You have imbibed a large quantity of alcohol. I would not drink you unless I was desperate."

Clint's jaw drops. He points at the Soldier, swivels his arm to point over at Steve, then back again, his mouth working open and closed like he's gasping. Who's the fish now, Steve's inner voice says clearly through the buzz of his whirring thoughts.

The blonde springs forward, forces out a laugh as he takes a strong hold on Clint's elbow and leads him to the door. "He's just fucking with you." Steve makes a face that says you're so dumb, Clint, a face he's made thousands of times by now.

"So he doesn't…?" Clint still sounds a bit like a frightened child.

"Of course not. Don't be silly." The smaller man puts on his best you're so ridiculous smile. "Tell Nat I said hi! We'll come visit soon." What's this we shit, Rogers? He gives a little wave and then quickly shuts the door, spinning around to press his back to it and stare down his visitor.

"I think we need to have a talk," Steve rasps, his throat suddenly very dry. Swallowing hurts, on the outside at least.

The Soldier says nothing, now certain he has crossed some invisible line he was not aware existed. His eyes trail back down to the shape of his fingers on Steve's neck.

"You weren't actually joking, were you?" The blonde's voice goes low, almost a whisper. "You can't tell anyone, that you actually drink blood." What the hell, Steve? Is this really not a deal-breaker for you?

"I will not hurt you. I am in control of my need." It is not a lie, but it is not the whole truth. The brunette steps back, farther from Steve's space.

"I believe you, but it'll still scare the others. Do you... How often do you need to do that?" Steve tries to sound like this is any normal conversation as he takes an amicable step forward. His voice only shakes on the last word.

"I drank a large quantity in the altercation yesterday. I should not need more for some time." He remembers how good and full and strong he had felt after - the combined heat of the men pooling in his belly - and how difficult it had been to resist running his tongue over his lips and teeth in front of his new acquaintance.

Steve flashes back to just after the fight, when the Soldier reappeared, blood - red, not purple - coating the lower half of his face, running down the flack vest. He sees it and the boots, now spotless, sitting in a corner on a threadbare towel, no doubt placed there to dry. Well, he's very fastidious and considerate for a savage bloodsucker.

"I do not kill those who do not deserve it," the Soldier adds. It surprises him a bit, offering this information without being queried. He is unsure why he feels the need to express this to the smaller man.

Steve, ever the champion of justice, gets his hackles up a bit at that statement, takes another step forward. "And who do you think deserves it?"

"People who would hurt others only for the enjoyment of doing so." The brunette receeds, his back now literally to the wall. Perhaps he made a mistake coming here, becoming entangled with this person. He is so very tired of being interrogated.

"Well, there's no one like that here. What will you do when you need to…?" The blonde goes quiet, noticing how the man has retreated. Never corner an animal. It's Brock's voice this time. Steve lightly shudders, immediately hopes the man doesn't notice, doesn't think it's directed at him.

"There will always be someone outside the walls." The Soldier had been loitering in the vicinity of Claptrap for months, and there was no shortage of those with ill intent crawling the area, eager to take advantage of the burgeoning settlement.

"But if there's not?" Steve is blissfully unaware of how many people increasingly dot the sands, of how often the man before him has prevented the horrors of the outside world from showing up at his front door.

"I can feed without killing."

And didn't that make a thousand new questions pop up in Steve's mind.

"You can't do that here. They'd chase us out with torches and pitchforks."

"I can subsist on animals. There are still many small things in and around the wastes." They do not taste very good, but at least they are warm. Alive, he wants to say but does not.

"I thought Fury was just exaggerating about all this, being dramatic because he doesn't want to have to look you in the face every day after what he was a part of." In all the time Steve had known Nick, he had never heard him apologize to anyone. Dealing with his failings was not his strong suit.

"I will wear the mask and goggles. He will not have to see my face," the soldier responds matter of factly.

"That's not…" Steve sighs, sitting down at the table. This was going to get very frustrating. "Do you take everything so literally?"

"I only required as much speech as was needed for my missions. Euphemisms and slang are often unfamiliar." The Soldier peels himself from the wall, takes another look at the bruises he had left on his new...companion? There is something that sits strangely about that word. He moves towards his supply bag.

"Do you remember anything, from before you were...dead?" Steve barely breathes the last word, eyeing several large, circular marks on his guest's chest and upper abdomen as the man approaches him, items in hand. They look like healed-over gunshot wounds, except they're in a spot no normal person could survive.

That's how he died, a little voice says in the smaller man's head.

"I have short flashes. I am unsure if they are memories or random firing of my synapses due to the damaged neural net." He lays out medical supplies, fingers flitting up to the scars after he notices Steve's gaze.

"That's the thing they used to control you?" Steve averts his eyes (It's rude to stare, he hears his mother say), looking over the cotton pad, disinfectant and small syringe still in sterile packaging on the tabletop. His own hands fidget in his lap. Fuck, there it is again, that weird feeling of pity and empathy mixed together when he thinks about what was probably done to this...person. This person who is opening a needle pack, who now appears about to stab himself.

"It is interconnected microcircuitry providing stimulation to certain parts of the brain, while inhibiting others from functioning normally. I was dormant until a proper verbal sequence was given, then I would activate and comply," the Soldier explains calmly, putting the needle easily into his own vein just below the inside of his elbow. The blood is not as dark today. More noticeably purple. Steve wonders if this is because he had fed so recently. The puncture disappears virtually as soon as the needle is out of his arm.

"What happened to it?" Steve's eyes lock on the syringe and don't leave it as the other man places it on top of its empty plastic wrapper on the table. The Soldier picks up the cotton pad, adds disinfectant.

"The facility where I was housed was damaged by an explosion. When I awakened, metal and glass were embedded in my skull. Please tip your head back."

Steve just stares up at the Soldier, towering over him. "I will heal the contusions," the Soldier reassures him. The smaller man slowly complies, the wet pad cool against his neck as the brunette gently wipes his skin.

"So your... brain healed, but some of the circuits were destroyed?" He swallows hard despite himself.

"Correct." The smaller man's breath is warm on his forehead, the skin under his fingertips the same, the soft flicker of his pulse impossible not to notice.

"You're sure it can't still work?" Steve queries as his guest stands, drops the pad, picks up the syringe.

"Those who broke into the facility attempted to command me. I did not comply." The Soldier's eyes flare for the briefest moment before he leans back down. "There will be a small amount of pain. You should not move."

After so many stints in the hospital, so many trips to the doctor as a boy, Steve is almost immune to the sting of a needle. However he definitely notices the soft, warm grip of the Soldier's flesh hand as it slides around the back of his neck just below his skull, steadying him. His usual urge to bark out "don't touch me" is a lot more muted than usual. This is just too fucking surreal, after all.

"Do you remember things that happened, while it was still working?" You don't want to know about that stuff, Steve. Why are you asking?

"I remember the majority." The younger man's neck is so warm under his palm and the pads of his fingers, the hair at his nape silky as it brushes the side of his hand.

The Soldier is finished with his injections. He stands and watches the bruises fade to purple then yellow, shrinking all the while before they fully disappear, watches the smaller man's Adam's apple bob up and down as he swallows hard. His eyes slowly move up, roving over lips that are a bit fuller and wider than his own, dark pink in color, parted enough to show a hint of straight, white teeth. They continue over a strong nose, cheeks a bit flat in the front below pronounced cheekbones, to meet Steve's. He takes note not for the first time of their color, a deep blue, of the shape of Steve's brows above them, a bit dark compared to his sand colored hair, of his unusually long lashes. They flutter shut slowly, reopen fast, the younger man's breath coming more quickly.

The Soldier questions if the attention of his gaze is inappropriate and turns it away.

"What were you doing by the dump?" The ten-thousand dollar question.

"Watching the people there."

"To hurt them?" Steve questions, trying to keep his tone from being accusatory, fingering his now pain-free throat.

"If you believe I am a danger, why did you bring me here?" This answer surprises the Soldier even as it comes out of him. He did not like the way Steve had looked at him a moment before, something like fear on his features. He had done nothing to threaten the other man or his community.

"You already knew about this place and you could jump the gate, or probably just tear it off the hinges, whenever you wanted. I figure it's better we're friends than enemies... Besides, yesterday, everything was so crazy, and I was just grateful that you saved our lives. I wasn't thinking about much beyond the fact that you're alone and don't seem to have any place else to go." I'm Steve, a big, fucking naive softy. Did the bad government men make you into an unstoppable killing machine? Oh, you drink blood? Come with me, sleep in my house. Touch my neck.

"I had seen the marauders from a distance. I was unsure if they had taken the outpost. I became trapped in the sand while scouting the area." Outside he would just throw the trash anywhere. He is unsure what to do with it here, what would be considered appropriate, and just stands there with it held up awkwardly in his hand.

"That's why you insisted on bringing us back here? You knew that they were possibly nearby?" Steve stands, steps towards him.

"Yes." The Soldier looks down as Steve's fingers tentatively brush his metal ones, slowly opens his hand to allow retrieval of the used cotton pad and syringe.

Steve tosses the pad in his tiny garbage can (there's very little to throw out in this world), but thinks better of junking the syringe. There's not an endless supply of them, after all. He pauses for a moment before his next question, unpleasant reality dawning on him. "And we made good bait? To lure out your dinner?"

"Yes. Also I did not wish for you and the woman to be used and killed. It is fortunate they did not intercept you previously." There's the faintest hint of something underscoring "used." So he understands that euphemism.

"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Steve half-jokes, fighting back a shiver. The only thing worse than having that happen to himself would be seeing it happen to one of his friends. He pours a tiny portion of hydrogen peroxide into a very slender, short glass tube with a flat bottom and puts the syringe - disassembled into its three components - inside of it to sterilize. It was probably a vase for a single rosebud; the irony of using something so symbolic of romance to house a sharp object is not lost on Steve.

"You are very clever and brave, but very small," the Soldier says, matter of factly.

"Thanks, I think." Steve cocks an eyebrow at the sort-of compliment.

He doesn't ask the Soldier to step outside when he changes into his day clothes, just has him turn around and face the wall.

Chapter Text

Steve fully expected the Soldier to be the center of everyone's attention, especially that first morning. He braced himself for the looks, questions, maybe even threats. The Soldier appeared disconnected from a lot of typical human experience, but he seemed to understand when Steve explained that people could be hostile to him.

They agreed if anyone asked about his appearance they would say he had been a soldier who lost his arm in the war (the country was fighting five by the end). He still wanted to serve his country and signed up for a medical experiment to test a (sadly failed) vaccine and be given a very fancy new type of prosthetic. Under no circumstances was he to discuss being a military weapon, murdering anyone, drinking blood or using his own to heal people.

The Soldier even relinquished his mask, goggles, pistol (now empty anyway) and flak vest after a lot of cajoling. Steve reasoned he would not need them inside the community, and walking around looking like a shock trooper in a relatively peaceful settlement was the fastest way to make people uncomfortable. The Soldier thought his skin, eyes and teeth would do that on their own, regardless of false explanations, but he allowed his host to call the shots. Steve gave him his largest t-shirt - it was quite oversized on him but fit his guest like a second skin.

The Soldier is certain he must look unusual in the attire because the smaller man keeps glancing at him with a strange - but not unkind - expression. It felt foreign to have something so soft against his skin, to not feel the familiar rub of the vest or mask, the weight of the weapon, to be looked at with anything other than calculation, disgust or horror.

They go to check on Win first at the medical center, stares and whispers coming from some of the people they pass, even most of the ones who still greet Steve. It had been no easy task the night before explaining to the doctor why Win needed a transfusion when she had no visible injuries. There was no lie good enough, so Steve asked the Soldier to demonstrate, putting a few drops of his blood into a cut made on the smaller man's hand with a scalpel. The doctor had gone a little pale and sat down as their wounds both closed.

"You're going to put me out of a job," was all he had said.

Steve had begged the doctor, a bumbling curly haired man named Bruce Banner, to keep his knowledge about the Soldier's healing ability to himself. He eyes them furtively the next morning, pushes his glasses up by the bridge with a single finger, asks what it would take in trade to get more of the Soldier's blood. One of the head gardeners has lung cancer, as best as he can tell quite advanced and spread into some of her other organs. He had been a top oncology researcher, working on experimental radiation treatments before the fall, but he had basically nothing to treat her with here.

The Soldier calmly explains that giving an amount large enough to heal such a widespread illness would overload her neurological system, at best making her braindead and at worst killing her. It is not a lie but moreso there is the lingering concern that this man will try to study him, try to reverse-engineer what he is for his own ends, or to find a way to subdue him. The equipment they have is sparse, but there could be some secret location in the community or even outside of it. He trusts doctors least of all but this one promises to keep his secret, not-so-subtly hinting that he expects their guest to come through if someone has a serious injury in the future.

Win looks a bit under the weather, but otherwise no worse for wear, sat up on her cot putting her boots back on. She is less than pleased to see the Soldier - Steve can't make out most of what she says in her language, but he knows the incredulous tone. Steve, you're a well-intentioned idiot. He pulls the dictionary from his back pocket. This will require some obscure vocabulary. Where to begin?

The Soldier says something to her in perfect Cantonese. Win's mouth snaps shut so hard her teeth clack. She stares at him, then Steve, then the bigger man again for a long moment, mouth opening and closing a few times before she responds cautiously. He answers. They talk for several minutes before tears begin to spill down her cheeks.

"Hey, what are you saying to her?" Steve questions protectively.

Win picks up some of his words, notices his voice and face are filled with concern. She takes Steve's hand, smiling, says something to the Soldier.

"She asked me to tell you this is the first actual conversation she has had in three years," the brunette informs him. "She forgives you for being stupid enough to bring me here. She also says in this shirt I am...beef. I do not understand, but she is certain you will."

Win enlists the Soldier as her translator, takes him and Steve to visit everyone she wants or needs to talk to. They have to see Clint first though, confirm that he's kept his fat trap shut. He swears that he has, says that he knows no good can come of repeating what the Soldier had told him. He needs his arrows and he's not pissing off the people who make sure he has them.

"I know the blood thing was a joke anyway. You really got me there, Jumbo." Clint lightly punches the Soldier's arm. The taller man's expression changes in an almost - but not quite to Steve - imperceptible way that the blonde thinks of as his "assessing a possible threat" face. He's used to needing to notice the most minute changes in someone's look, to prepare for the consequences of their mood change.

"That's a friendly gesture," Steve tells him quickly. After a moment, the Soldier does the same in kind to Clint, with his metal fist. The archer winces, making Win and Steve chuckle.

Everywhere they go the Claptrappers eye the visitor - with distrust, fear, curiosity, morbid interest - but are often so taken with Win's discovery that he becomes a secondary concern. She and Steve are trusted and well-liked by most of the community. The other citizens are not as slow to accept the explanation for his new friend's appearance as he had feared (and Steve was calling him "friend," to put people further at ease). Claptrappers heard all kinds of reports of what happened in and beyond the wasteland; at this point something as simple as a medical experiment seems perfectly believable compared to the far-fetched tales being tossed around. The newest one, carried in by a group that had passed through a week before, was about a mutated monster with a terribly scarred up face who was roaming the land in search of a treasure chest.

Win has a massive list of work set up by mid-afternoon, enough to keep her busy (and rich in traded goods) for months. She is finally able to suss out technical details of jobs that were difficult to discuss with just hand signals and the dictionary. She and Steve walk their rounds, maintenance machinery, make a few simple repairs. They also stop to fix a few small leaks in the irrigation system. It's during this last task that Steve first learns the Soldier can eat actual food - one of the workers offers them fresh strawberries and he slowly munches a handful while looking around, intrigued by the scale of the production. Steve was surprised when the Soldier expressed guarded interest and gave him a (he hoped not too boring) agro lesson.

They had tried to grow produce in the open but the thin, dry soil supported very little. They had a bit more luck with container gardens, using bagged potting soil from a small country store that was still half standing about twelve miles away, but it was so limited in quantity. When Wanda and Simon arrived, college professors with pertinent backgrounds, they had formulated fertilizer from human waste to improve the soil. The locals were horrified, but it worked. The sterilization method was not completely safe, so they never used it on things that would be eaten raw or where the edible portion grew directly in the ground.

The community eventually scavenged industrial fertilizer and raw ingredients to amend the soil, such as nitrogen. Very few people were settling after the collapse and agricultural implements were often left untouched. There was plenty of rotten food, cotton balls, tea bags, coffee grounds and filters, paper towels and other compostable materials frozen in time in the tightly packed, anaerobic conditions of the dump. It was common to find newspapers decades-old that were still entirely readable. Unless it was obviously contaminated, they mixed in shredded paper and uncoated cardboard from the recycling facility, along with food scraps from Claptrap. Once they had their first fully composted batch, they could branch out into safely growing more foods eaten raw, no poo required.

Eventually the wall stopped the dust - the coating it left on everything had been affecting the plants' respiration and photosynthesis. They had built greenhouse after greenhouse once glass manufacturing took off, opening portions to ventilate the houses by day and closing them up at night to keep the temperatures to ideal levels. They had also created tarps that could easily be put over some of the houses to shade them if the variety of plant inside did not do well in intense heat or too much direct sunlight. Heartier crops could still be grown in the field. Food production boomed. Everyone who lived in Claptrap was provided with a small lunch and dinner, and that would include the Soldier now. Extra goods and non-perishable food could be earned through working for the community or traded for.

The Soldier takes in everything with rapt attention. Win's welding torch, and the sparks it creates, stirs an instinctual panic and he recognizes the distraction is useful. He had liked watching Steve work earlier - his long, clever fingers moving carefully, oiling pulleys, tightening gears, adjusting various small parts. He does not know how to define the feeling that settles in his chest watching the intense look the smaller man had gotten - brows furrowed, the tip of his tongue poking out between his lips - only that he finds himself impressed with Steve's skill. The bigger man knows many ways to make someone suffer without killing them and inversely how to end them swiftly with a single blow. He knows how to move silently in the darkness, how to use virtually any weapon. He knows nothing about machines, save the basics of the one attached to him.

The Soldier's metal arm was a more recent upgrade - his original flesh one had been completely obliterated on a mission, and they found he could not regenerate a limb (though he had pressed his severed hand back to his wrist once and watched - felt - bone, muscle and flesh knit back together). The new tech was why he was in a separate facility from the others when the government had fallen.

The arm was predominantly mechanical parts, designed to mimic the inner workings of a human limb, housed in a series of plates capable of sliding slightly under or over each other to allow flexibility. A breathable but waterproof seal fused each plate to the next, invisible from the external casing, which was molded to mimic his real arm. The experimental alloyed metal was not terribly heavy but it was incredibly strong - he had even deflected bullets with it. Separate from his body it was half hollow and useless, despite the interest it raised from many who attempted to take it from him.

The doctors at the facility had done a horrifically painful procedure to get nerves, veins, blood vessels and muscle tissue to grow down into the device, wrapping around artificial tendons, joints and bones. It allowed him fairly normal movement, control, even some sensation. It was a slow process and he had little time once it was fully operational before being unceremoniously ordered back into cryosleep. As such, he was not entirely familiar with all of its workings or maintenance. Perhaps it was fortuitous that he had officially met the little mechanic.

Chapter Text

"This is a...human child? I have never seen one so small." The Soldier looks almost as uncomfortable with the little girl's attentions as he had when the burst from the flamethrower passed near them. She pulls on his pant leg, babbling half-gibberish. He's bolt upright in the wooden kitchen chair he had grudgingly sat in at Steve's insistence (he would not take the first one offered, with his back to the door).

"Yeah. She's a toddler." Steve smiles wide at her as she turns to him briefly, makes a stupid face that gets her to giggle.

"Todd. Lur. It is not a... baby?"

"Like a baby but a little older. Violet, how old are you?" The little girl holds up two fingers in response before moving to fondle his metal arm. She raps her knuckles on it and shrieks happily at the soft clang. Steve bites back a laugh; after everything he's seen this is the moment that finally makes the Soldier's eyes go a little wide.

"What is it doing?" His voice is even a bit different, still soft but with the faintest hint of panic.

"I seem to remember you not liking to be called it." Steve says with a smirk as his new acquaintance eyes the girl like a tiny terrorist. "She's just curious."

"Steeeeeeeve!" She squeals happily, turning to put her arms up. He bends down so she can slide them around his neck, hoists her up with one arm tucked under her bottom.

Violet had saved Steve. Not in a literal way, like she had mind powers or knew karate or gave him an organ, nor had she stopped him from suicide (the thing many of his companions feared he would attempt when he first arrived). Even at his worst, he had only vaguely considered killing himself. He wasn't religious, but his mother had been a strict Catholic and he couldn't shake the nagging feeling it would disappoint her. There was very little left of Sarah Roger's son when he had come to Claptrap but the parts that kept his body going remained.

Steve had refused to stay with Nick, or anyone, when he and the others had first brought the young man to the settlement. He couldn't stomach the thought of them being near when he was asleep, vulnerable. Nick had let him stay in the drunk tank - the remnants of a county sheriff station remained at the base of the hill - but even then he wouldn't use the cot attached to one side of the cage, putting his sleeping bag in the middle of the floor, far enough from the sides that no one could reach between the bars and touch him. He used a little spool of wire he pocketed and the empty cans from the ancient soda they had added to his meals to rig up something like an alarm system if the door was slid open.

He barely ever left the cage to begin with, despite Natasha - a short, curvy, beautiful redhead with a slightly hollow look in her hazel green eyes - coming to urge him out into the world daily. She had been with Clint and Nick when they'd found him. He knew right away, at that first meeting, she was a smooth talker. Maybe an ex headshrinker. Or a con artist. She'd tried to use her charm, laced with subtle psychological cues, to convince him to put the gun down. He looked her dead in the eye and said "I'm not buying what you're selling, lady."

She respected that, which is why she tried not to break his arm when she kicked the pistol out of his hand. Eventually he let her think she'd wore him down, because he could tell it hurt her pride a little he wasn't coming around to her extremely well-done manipulation. Or maybe that was what she wanted him to think and it was another layer to her game. Either way, he was just so bored of sitting there. She had taken him to the pub for breakfast, was off in the back trying to convince Vic to sneak them both a cup of coffee, when he saw her, an infant in what appeared to be her father's arms (judging by the shared light blond hair).

Steve stared, open mouthed, even after the much taller man noticed and started to look back at him, frowning in concern. He knew from a very brief stint in front of a mirror that he looked horrifying - most of the right side of his face puffy and black with bruises, his lips split open in several places, a gash in his forehead. His expression is haunted, like the people he had seen on history films as a boy being freed from prisoner of war camps.

There's a soft but heated exchange between the man and the person sitting next to him, a woman in a bright red sweater with cream colored skin and long auburn hair. She takes the baby and stands. Steve finally looks away when she heads straight towards him, expecting her to freak out.

"You're Steve, right? I'm Wanda," she says with a tentative smile, "and this is Violet." She tilts the child enough so Steve can get a good look at her. Even at this distance he can't help but go back to staring, his good eye wide. His other eye had finally opened a little this morning after being swollen shut for days.

He had played nanny to Mrs. Polanski's kids when he was thirteen - a baby named Sid and a slightly older boy named Mark. He grew to love them surprisingly quick, doting and protective. Then she had gotten back together with her estranged husband. When he had come home to Steve at their apartment one night - and the children's mother had explained he had been babysitting once in awhile, would stay tonight if they wanted to go out - he had called Steve a faggot. He accused him of being unsafe to have around his little boys and demanded he leave.

"Wow, faggot. I've never heard that one before," the boy retorted. He was slight and pretty and shy in a way little boys weren't "supposed" to be - it was the go to insult around the building. He heard it less after puberty when he developed a voice almost comically deep coming out of him. He had heard Mr. Polanski hurting his wife a week later and stormed in, smashed a chair across his back, knocking him down and accidentally bouncing his head on the coffee table. There was no avoiding the ambulance. Only the man's lengthy record for domestic violence kept Steve from getting in serious trouble with the police. Court-ordered anger management followed. It was mildly successful, until the trash can lid thing.

"I'm not a creep, I swear. I just... I never thought I'd see one again," he whispers.

"A lot of people say that." Her voice is kind, holds an unspoken understanding.

"Would you like to hold her?" Wanda asks. "It's okay," she reassures, easing the tiny bundle into his trembling arms.

He looks down into the sweet little face, gray eyes peering curiously back up at him. His own mist over, hot tears running down his cheeks seconds later. He can't remember the last time the urge had struck him and he hadn't switched himself off inside - disassociating from whatever was happening - or let the rage bubble up and burn it away.

"Sorry," he says, trying to give the baby back after a droplet falls down onto her chubby cheek from his gaunt one.

"I got this!" Wanda takes a rag from her pocket, folds it over. She wipes the tear from her daughter's face then, moving slowly like he's a deer that will spook, dries Steve's face as well. He winces a little.

"Sorry! Parenting skills include immunity to disgust at the fluids of other people and no personal boundaries." She smiles. "Want me to blow your nose for you too?"

He laughs. When was the last time he had done that?

Wanda brings the baby to see him in the cell a few times and eventually invites him to visit the shack she shares with Simon - the tall, lanky man with straw colored hair and light eyes he had seen her with before. His accent is almost too British, like he's in a period film, and a contrast to Wanda's (which Steve has placed as Eastern European). It takes the older man awhile to trust their visitor, with his face moddled purple and yellow for weeks and his demeanor like a stray dog, but he is a gracious host. Simon also can't deny how quickly the baby takes to Wanda's new friend.

They shared their exodus story with Steve fairly fast. That was almost standard "how's the weather?" conversation here. Both had been teaching at the same coastal city university for a few years and fancied the other, but neither had worked up the nerve to do anything about it. It suddenly seemed so silly, with the plague spreading fast and places around the globe falling into chaos. With a few friends and colleagues they left as the city erupted into violence, heading through burning suburbs into rural America and beyond.

Wanda's brother, Piotr, fell sick first; he'd been visiting from overseas, which she thought lucky at the beginning. Soon Wanda and Simon were making an abandoned barn into a triage for their stricken companions. A week and a half later, they left the farm - alone. A row of crosses in a field was the only sign they'd been there at all.

Steve, emboldened by his new friendships, started working at the yard and even going on scavenging runs once Nick gave his weapons back. He brought Violet a cradle, scavenged at the dump and cleaned up, complete with a little mattress made of a truck's seat foam he'd even sewn a cover for. His mom had taught him - she was tired of fixing the rips in his clothes from fighting.

"A baby just shouldn't have to sleep in a box," he'd said, trying to side-step any praise.

They offered to let him move in with them a bit after and help look after Violet. Wanda was extremely busy with the community's agriculture and Simon was finding ways to filter used motor oil and coolant for the few trucks they had running. Steve slept on the floor near Violet's crib, in the makeshift addition they'd added as her room. He made himself a padded facemask to wear at night, to muffle himself when he talked and screamed in his sleep. He'd woken himself up in the drunk tank more than once that way.

When he jolted up, breathing hard, soaked in sweat, he'd go to the cradle and put a shaky hand on Violet's tiny belly, feel the peaceful rise and fall of her breath. A few parts of himself - his wit, his penchant for interesting conversation - came back quickly. His defiance and mouthiness had never entirely left. Others things took longer. Some, he realized, may not return at all. He wouldn't touch anyone but Violet at first, not even a handshake.

The baby symbolized all the cliché things to him that they so often do - new beginnings, innocence, a chance at a future - but also the easy way he was able to be around her reminded him he was still a person. She made him want to put himself back together so that he could build a better Claptrap for her to grow up in. So that her parents' trust in him as fundamentally a good person was not misplaced.

Violet had taken to Win immediately when Steve introduced her to Wanda and Simon. She helped build a crib when she was too big for the cradle and would talk to her constantly in Cantonese. At least - the welder thought - I'll have one person to talk with normally, eventually. After all the business, and pleasure, of today's visits, Win had saved the best for last.

"She wants to see the flower," the Soldier had relayed to Steve on her behalf an hour before, assuming she meant something in the greenhouse. He had not expected this or that Simon and Wanda would seem not at all afraid of him. On the contrary they were very friendly, too friendly, too curious. Simon in particular asked him many technical questions about his arm and the vaccine trials. He had no practice lying, had literally never needed to do it, and at some point simply stood up and walked out of the building rather than say something Steve would not want him to.

The younger man had smoothed it over, telling Simon his friend's injury was a sore subject, and Wanda chastised her partner for being so pushy. Steve had found the Soldier back at his home, mask and goggles firmly on along with the vest, laid out on top of the bed roll clutching a mid-sized automatic weapon across his body with both hands. He'd apparently had it in his massive bag, which Nick had curiously not confiscated.

He gave up attempting to get the brunette to answer him after twenty minutes. The Soldier even lay motionless while Steve knelt next to him, popped the magazine out and confirmed this weapon was just as empty as the pistol. Save the slow rise and fall of his chest as he breathed, he appeared dead. Steve sighed heavily and threw a blanket over the Soldier's face, regretting it immediately as he sees doing this for his mother's body with her bedcovers. He took it back off his guest as soon as he was changed into his nightshirt. He read a bit then went to bed early. It had been an exhausting day, after all.

Chapter Text

Steve is less than amused when the Soldier is in the exact same position the next morning and still won't answer him. He sits down next to the bigger man and starts to undo the mask's side clip. The Soldier's hand is up like a shot, tight around Steve's wrist. The pressure is not enough to hurt him but definitely to tell him that what he is doing is off limits. The hand immediately returns to the stock of the weapon.

In less than ten minutes Win arrives, eager to see her new translator. She's sorely disappointed when he won't move or respond. She speaks to him in Cantonese off and on for a while, before nudging him several times with her boot and asking Steve sarcastically if he's dead.

"No. Pouting." He makes a whiny face to demonstrate, twisting his lips into an exaggerated frown and pretending to rub tears from under his eyes with the insides of his fists. It's the same gesture Frank Delino used to make at him as he'd taunt "baby gonna cry?" Steve couldn't resist saying it back to him after he had smashed the trash can lid into his face several times, still clutching it in front of him like a shield by the handle. The truth was, Frank was already bawling. Steve begrudgingly had to admit the other boy was even more handsome after his nose healed.

"Call the wahmbulance," Win said pointedly down at the Soldier. She'd learned that one from Clint. She blows out a long breath, cheeks puffing up, then shakes her head.

The Soldier is surprised when Steve leaves with her without a word. Believing his host to be out for some time he begins to think about how he should spend it. He chastises himself for not planning during the previous evening. He had ransacked the smaller man's entire home once he was asleep, carefully placed everything back exactly as it was. There was nothing to indicate that Steve had been false with him in any way.

He had paused only briefly to watch Steve in his bed as he whimpered and twisted, had even considered waking him from his distress. It had been illogical though, the smaller man allowing him into his community, into his home, especially when he was so obviously wracked by trauma. There must be something else going on here. He watches Steve for another minute, ensuring that he is not acting.

He needed to see the quarters of the one they called Fury. It would be virtually impossible in daylight, even for someone as fast and stealthy as him, with how close together most of the buildings were. Perhaps he would have an easier time sneaking into the medical facility to evaluate what else may be hiding there. Then there was the home of the people with the small, squelching thing - the todd-lur.

While he is evaluating his potential targets, Steve returns. He can smell the fresh fruit before he even sees the bowl, which is only a moment later as Steve stands over him. The aroma is pleasant but not nearly as good as Steve (he smells similar to spiced peaches right now).

"I brought you breakfast," the blonde says pleasantly, sitting down cross legged next to him on the crumpled blanket that had covered his face, briefly, the night before.

He is unsure what had motivated him to get in full uniform last night, only that it had been safe, familiar. He had felt something twist inside him watching Steve through the dark lenses of his goggles as the blonde tried to get him to speak, face working through a series of expressions - worried, disappointed, resigned, weary. He did not know the words to express the foreign feeling of fear that had been slowly building in him since he came here.

He is at an impasse of what to do - he is hungry, and putting something into his stomach would help quell the need. That will require interacting, and he has no desire for more discussion, to hear this person pretend to befriend him while they conceal their alternate motivations. He realizes that he feels very foolish, falsely believing that the protection he provided earned him some measure of acceptance, that he could trust the intent of this person. Still he had not left even though he could have taken his things and slipped away well before Steve returned. He has no explanation and had puzzled through it the entire evening, stretched out on his bedroll.

He does not know why he came here. It was just as easy, perhaps easier, to continue his mission outside of the walls. Keeping Claptrap safe meant keeping the asset safe. He had told himself that he could recover intel, being inside, but it feels less like a reason and more like an excuse. Operating alone was common practice when he had still been a Winter Soldier in the true sense of the words and he had been confined without his "siblings" for many months in the supplemental facility, spent a long time alone on the road. Yet only a few brief hours of companionship and so quickly he had felt an instinctual need to retain it. He could not even blame The Cling, as he had with Luis.

Weak.

Steve places a strawberry directly on top of the vent in the front of his mask. His stomach loudly growls, though from which source he cannot say.

"I was not expecting that," Steve says with a little laugh, picking it back off. "Come on. You're obviously hungry."

The Soldier lies there, indecisive. Steve sighs in a way he has already become familiar with, puts the bowl down, then starts to work at the latch on his mask again. The Soldier's hand comes up, gripping his forearm but much lighter than earlier. He does not stop Steve from removing it - relinquishing his hold on the blonde - or the goggles after. The smaller man raises both eyebrows at him, one side of his mouth quirked up, as if to say was that really so hard?

Something like panic rises slow in his gullet at the feeling that look evokes.

The Soldier knows the food is not poisoned. He would be able to smell it, even if it were the most subtle of notes. He still doesn't move to take any or to sit up, only slides his eyes sideways to stare up at Steve.

"Fine," the blonde says, "if you're going to act like a baby, I'll feed you like one."

He picks up a strawberry and pushes it to the Soldier's lips. They tentatively open to accept it. The smaller man's fingertips are lightly calloused, so warm. He can taste Steve on the fruit.

After several more, the bigger man finally says, "It is shocking you will go so far to get my guard down, to gain my trust."

Steve looks away, shakes his head slightly side to side, and then turns back again.

"I actually thought I had it already, considering you didn't bolt out of here last night when you so clearly wanted to. If you think I'm out to get you, why are you still here?"

Steve pops two blueberries into the other man's mouth, almost angrily. The Soldier chews slowly, eyeing him with something close to naked suspicion compared to his usually guarded expressions. He does not like that the little mechanic's words seem to be mimicking thoughts he had only minutes ago.

"Did they choose you to lure me here because you are small and weak and I would not suspect you as a threat?"

"Wow, rude. So it isn't just me? I'm part of some sort of conspiracy against you?" The blonde almost sounds amused.

"First your leader lets me in without checking me for weapons, even though he knows the threat I pose. Then the doctor asks for my blood and the scientist questions me about my arm. It is clear they are attempting to gain information from me, to study me. You are working on their behalf to put me at ease."

Nick had ultimately been the one who had convinced Steve to return to Claptrap with them, but Bruce talked him into submitting to medical inspection; he had screamed that he wanted to fucking leave after they said he had to take his clothes off. Communicable disease was still a thing, even for the bug immune. People brought everything from ringworm to leprosy into the junktowns with them.

To the doctor's credit he had ushered Fury out of the room, very calmly explained that he needed to check the blonde over. To listen to his vitals, especially his lungs to ensure he didn't have anything like pneumonia or tuberculosis, and to see the extent of his injuries. Especially, those ones.

"I've seen other people sit like that before. I need to see how hurt you are. If you let it go, you could get an infection, have permanent damage. Believe me." Steve could see from the look in his eyes that he was sincere, sympathetic (or he deserved an Oscar for feigning compassion so well, not that there was anyone left to give it to him). The idea that Dr. Bruce Banner, with his rumpled hair and stammer, who had asked him quietly which position would be the least difficult for him to be examined in, was some sort of secret government sadist was laughable.

"It's almost funny, watching you be so salty around a mouthful of berries," Steve says.

The Soldier swallows the half chewed lump, eyes squinting ever-so-slightly at Steve. It was like the smaller man had shut off for a moment, his eyes going dead and then flickering back on.

"There's a glaring hole in your theory. You know that Nick knows exactly what you are and how you work. What would be the point of all the subterfuge?"

"Perhaps he is unfamiliar with the technology attached to me. Perhaps he does not know my weaknesses." I will not fall prey to your produce manipulations.

"Um, fire. Duh."

The Soldier is displeased. He had been trained not to show emotion, never to raise his voice to his masters, and when he was determined not compliant enough they had installed the neural net and taken the ability to show feeling or raise dissent completely away from him. The alterations in his facial expression and tone were extremely minimal even now. How had this person read into his subtle reactions so well after such a short time together?

"The alternate option is that you are foolish and overly trusting. As an example, I could easily bite your fingers off." He mentally congratulates himself on this excellent and very scary response.

"I'm not," the smaller man had said simply, not sounding at all concerned, just reaching out to him with more fruit.

"Afraid?"

"Trusting. Every person I trust in the whole world was in that little house last night, right before you left." Steve looks down at his free hand picking at the blanket, several berries poised in the other.

Was the blonde implying that had included him? That it had included him but only until he had (ran away) taken his leave? Or was his inclusion purely incidental? I trust those other people, you just happened to be there.

"I understand how hard it is, to come to a place like this where people still act like people after a long time of being around ones who don't. I was terrified at first, assumed everyone was out to get me. I had no idea how to make small talk or do anything that wasn't just stay alive. Every time people were nice to me, I thought it was a trick. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop."

"You thought they would steal your shoes?" The Soldier questions.

"No, it's a phrase. It means you are waiting for something you think will happen, you just don't know when. Usually something bad."

This almost perfectly described the creeping, anxious feeling in the Soldier's gut.

"What about Fury? Do you not trust him?" He cautiously accepts raspberries as Steve again offers. He is not familiar with those, and is unsure if he likes the taste at first.

"Nick has done a lot for me, but I'm not an idiot. He always has a plan and there's nothing that stands in the way of that, least of all me."

"Natasha? Clint?" He does not recall the name of the woman at the junkyard who referred to Steve as her kid. He knows that is a young goat. It must be a slang term.

"Nat puts her own agenda first, Fury's second. I'm on her important people list, but certainly not at the top. And Clint means well, but at the end of the day he's on her side, and she's on Nick's."

"Are these people not... your friends?" The Soldier says, chewing a rather large strawberry.

"Liking people and depending on them to have your back against an enemy isn't the same as naively believing that they're going to put you above their own wants and needs."

The Soldier knew all about Want. And Need. Right now the want was telling him to pull Steve on top of him, that he could be gentle, careful, not drink too much, that it would be so good. The need was telling him how empty his belly was, how weak and disoriented he would feel by tomorrow, how impatient it would become when that happened. He ignored both of them.

"I am dangerous," the Soldier does not understand why he says it, his voice gravelly and low, but he cannot silence himself. "I do not believe you can trust me."

"Everyone's dangerous in their own way," Steve says. He considers the bigger man for a long time after, to the point that the Soldier thinks to look away to break their locked gaze.

The blonde dips two fingers into the berry juice left in the bottom of the bowl, curling his other digits to his palm. He reaches towards the Soldier's face, presses the ends of his fingers to the center of the brunette's lips until they part, slides them inside his mouth.

The Soldier cannot help the little noise that comes out of him at the combined taste, the heat, the tactile sensation. Nor can he resist tightening his lips around Steve's fingers, sucking the juice off as they slowly start to leave his mouth. He presses his tongue to them, up and forward, forming a barrier between Steve's skin and his lower teeth, his lip pressing down from above to keep the fingers separate from the teeth on top. They are all very sharp, not just the pointier ones. The lightest contact and the blonde's blood will be in his mouth, and then he will not be able to stop himself.

The Soldier pictures Steve's revulsion at him - his eyes glowing, his tight grip around Steve's wrist keeping the fingers in his mouth so that he can suck from them, groaning helplessly at the taste.

He does not have words for the act of trust that has just occurred between them, but he knows he cannot ruin it.

"See? Fingers intact." Steve half-smiles. "Take this stuff off," he adds quietly. For the briefest second, the Soldier is confused at his intention. Then the blonde says "you can wear my shirt again. We'll go do something fun."

Chapter Text

The next six months passed quickly in retrospect. Steve and the Soldier fell into a somewhat comfortable routine, getting up around sunrise most mornings, changing with their backs to each other on their respective sides of the room. Steve's nightmares had declined back to their previous infrequency, and he was sleeping pretty well. It wasn't like his guest snored.

That second day they had gone to the Super Store to find clothes for the taller man, a few extra dishes (you brought your own to the messhall) and a brush to get the mats out of his long hair. The Soldier had eventually given up on sleeping in his clothes, often filthy from the day. He would not accept one of Steve's large night shirts to wear. He wondered how Steve could stand feeling so exposed. When he had certain ones on, and the fabric was clingy, he could tell there was nothing beneath them. He had found sweats to wear instead and even finally started to sleep inside the bag, blankets pulled over him. It had been laundered, but it all still smelled like Steve.

They would get their breakfast in the pub, something not everyone participated in. Clint explained to the Soldier that you could have a container of oats all to yourself and have to "eat plain, boring ass oatmeal until your insides glued up," or you could trade in your oats (or whatever breakfast items) to the pub. Those who contributed would get served from small cold and hot lines each morning for however long their trade-in credit was good for. Something big, like a family sized can of juice, would buy you a week. Something small like a single serving box of cereal, or helping in the kitchen that morning, would get you a day. This was how Vic - a handsome, early middle-aged, light skinned black man with a large build, close cropped beard and short afro - kept the pub busy. He offered breakfast cocktails in trade for other goods (part of why Clint was regularly drunk before eight o'clock). He was one of the few who did not participate in any public works and thus was entitled to almost nothing from the public stores.

Steve had traded for potatoes as soon as he got his "property," cut them up into pieces, layered them in barrels with soil and compost behind his house. It was based on a project Ms. Ruiz had done with them in middle school. Each piece would grow a whole new potato - he'd keep some of them and do the same again, trading the others for his pub credits. They had home fries or hash browns or latkas daily.

Lunch and dinner were in the messhall, made from the community's public produce and scavenged items; much of the non-perishable food found on the road would end up in the public coffers. Scavenging was a "public works" job - like agriculture, trashpicking, glass making, guard duty, working medical or messhall, or maintenancing the machines used for communal purposes - so the community got most of what was found with the scavengers getting a cut for their risk. People who put their name in rotated so everyone could have a chance. Many did not volunteer; it was not unheard of to encounter hostiles. Nick didn't want any chickenshits in the field who couldn't handle themselves anyway, he'd said.

The Soldier, required to be attached at the hip to Steve, was on rotation with him and went on all the same runs. On the first, they had headed out with Greta and some of the others. They didn't run into trouble, which disappointed the Soldier a little since he had only been subsisting on solid food and animal blood. He had gotten a few vermin in one of the abandoned houses during the brief minutes he could separate from the others. Greta watched him like a hawk almost the entire time. Unlike the others, who largely bought Steve's explanation for his friend's strange appearance, Greta seemed to know precisely what he was. She had seen what he could do at the yard.

They discovered the Soldier could not eat most processed food - he threw up several times after canned ravioli - but could consume produce and lightly cooked meat. His back teeth were a strange combination of a molar like structure but with sharper points. They could grind or tear.They had fed him some kind of tasteless gruel in the facility; he did not know what it contained. After he had caught and lifted Vic's new still tank up onto its foundation (it had slipped from its hoist and nearly crushed the older man to death as Steve was assisting him with the winch), the pub owner made the Soldier a bloody steak for lunch - perfectly trimmed and barely seared on the outside.

The Soldier ate it with relish while Steve took Vic in the back of the otherwise empty pub, got his word that he would not tell anyone what he had seen. Even what most people assumed was a robotic arm could not explain how he had hoisted the massive tank. It gave the Soldier long enough alone to lick the plate, it's spotlessness not lost on Vic when he returned. He started slipping the Soldier little glasses of blood, claiming it was tomato juice, when he came to breakfast at the pub if there was any available from the raw meat.

They couldn't keep livestock at first, not being able to sacrifice the huge amount of water they required, until they had been able to tap the aquifers near the town. Very few farm animals had survived in the local ecological conditions, often abandoned (or mercy killed) by their owners, but Claptrappers would run across them occasionally and bring them to the settlement. Steve and the Soldier would sneak to the makeshift barn - another public works employer - on their way home at night. If the workers were gone and they could shake their shadow, the Soldier could drink a little from the bigger animals while Steve kept watch.

When a cluster of ducks was butchered and hung to bleed out one day, Steve managed to fill a four quart plastic container, claiming he would use it to make czarnina. One of the butchers had looked at him with suspicion and disgust, but the other commented that his Polish grandmother used to make the duck blood soup. Steve was already preparing an excuse in case the guy asked to have some, but he quickly added that he didn't care for it.

Steve had sent the Soldier ahead (to avoid procuring the blood with his fanged, grayish friend at his side) and hurried home, lid firmly on to ensure it was still hot. The blonde had no idea what it said about him that he sort of enjoyed watching the brunette drink it, spying on him from bed over the top of his book to take in his half closed, glassy eyes, the way his throat moved, the way his tongue would swipe over his lips each time he brought the container away from them. He looked two steps away from drug fueled ecstasy and it wasn't even from a mammal - he'd never looked that way after they'd left the pens. Steve realized they were not rushed here; the brunette could drink it slow, savor it, really enjoy the affects.

When the Soldier had inquired how raw meat was kept fresh in the community, Steve explained they had started generating limited amounts of electricity through various renewable means. They had a small solar array and he and Win had built small-scale wind turbines. People had argued at first over how the power should be used. There wasn't close to enough for a fraction of the buildings, so they used battery operated lamps and candles in their homes. Ultimately everyone agreed that they wanted their medical center lit (the Soldier had noticed functional overheads on his first visit) and their beer cold. Ice for their liquor was nice too.

So power to just part of the pub - a former "house of ill repute" as Vic joked - had been turned on, allowing them to use the walk in cooler (now shared with the messhall and the butchers) and an ice machine. In return, every resident got one free drink token a week. The settlement was named after The Claptrap, the establishment predating the pub, much to Nick's chagrin. Steve assumed it was supposed to be a funny double entendre when the place was a strip club, though no one but Clint found it as such. It had served a wide swath of tiny communities who didn't want it in their own backyard, just like the dump. Hypocrites. Vic (the former bouncer and sometimes bartender), some of the dancers and a few locals took shelter there after their towns had gone to shit. Other than the sheriff's station it had been the only thing for miles.

Steve and the Soldier made the rounds if there was equipment that needed maintenance or repairs, assisted Win with translation and welding (though the Soldier always kept his distance while she worked). The other Claptrappers slowly stopped paying much attention to him, beyond the occasional odd look, idle gossip or judgmental comment believed to be out of his ear shot; with the Soldier's hearing, very few were.

People would refer to him as Steve's boyfriend regularly, and he simply presumed it meant a friend who was male. The smaller man had seemed strange about it when someone asked him directly if the brunette was, in fact, his boyfriend and had insisted that it was not true. It briefly called what they had built with each other into question for the Soldier. Were they not friends? Steve had certainly referred to him that way many times.

When he asked Win about it, she was not sure how much he would understand about interpersonal relationships, romance or sex. His Cantonese accent and sentence structure were academically perfect, but his vocabulary was just as stunted as in any other language, his reactions to things relaying his lack of real world experience.

"Boyfriends are...men who are more than friends. They have strong emotions about each other."

"More than friends" sounded like a secret level of friendship that you had to work extra hard to unlock. The Soldier liked a challenge. And he had strong emotions, plenty of them, but few tools to process them - if they were too complex he became confused, frightened or angry. He found himself envious of the ease with which other people interacted, often feeling that he was playing at being a person rather than actually being one. He would have to try harder, be better, more normal.

The Soldier had to kill someone in front of Steve literally the next day, crushing the assailant's skull with a hard blow from his metal fist when the man ran at them with an axe. Steve is angry at first, chastising him for killing the person so quickly when he may have just been acting out of fear. The Soldier tells him that he had smelled fresh blood - more than one kind - all over the man, among other things he would not elaborate on. He was a threat. They find four freshly dead bodies in an outlying building on the property, stripped and hung up to bleed out in buckets below. It's a horrible discovery, but the Soldier's quick actions impressed Greta and she eases up on him.

"Flesheater," the Soldier said, looking over the scene, thinking back to his first time meeting Clint.

Steve had told the others that he and the Soldier would bury the corpses while they picked the place over. The blonde calmly gave him permission to drain the man and drink whatever he needed to out of the receptacles.

The Soldier just stared at him for a long time until Steve, neck craned to look back up at him, quietly said, "It's not a test. I know you're really hungry, that the animals aren't enough."

How? How did he know that? The Soldier was so careful to hide it. He drank his fill from the man and the pails, after carefully taking down the bodies - a woman, man and two teenagers - and covering them with a tarp. They put them in the ground in silence, burying the butcher separate. Steve had stayed quiet the entire ride home, picking at the blister on his hand the shovel had caused.

The blonde apologized - looking very small and tired in his pile of blankets later at home - for chastising him, for not appreciating his protection. He assured the Soldier his mood was not about anything the bigger man had done. If they had only gotten there a little bit sooner, the people would still be alive. The brunette had searched hard for words of comfort or absolution, but could not find any. He felt something like guilt that much of the strength in him now had come from the misfortune and cruelty of others. He would not ascend to the next friendship level if things continued to go that way.

There had been a rough patch more recently. He had tried to make one of the faces at Violet that Steve often did, but she had screamed with terror rather than delight. The little girl toddled over to hide behind her mother, tears gushing down her reddened face. The Soldier lay on his bed roll with his mask and goggles on for a whole day. He could tell Steve was disappointed he had regressed to that but he could not stand to think of anyone else looking at him, only seeing the girl's horror reflected there. He finally took them off the next morning but would not leave the shack.

Two days later Wanda brought her daughter over with a drawing she had done; it was mostly colored scribbles but was obviously intended to be three people. From the hair, the smaller two figures were Win and Steve, her with the black buzzcut and his a fluffy shock of yellow. The taller figure has dark brown hair and the left-arm was colored with metallic silver crayon. Wanda was blissfully unaware the large man was hiding from everyone, which meant Steve had lied for him yet again, made excuses for his absence from their almost daily visits. Violet had kept asking where "Soljuh" was. When the Soldier quietly apologized for upsetting the child on his last visit, Wanda laughed and explained that once she had yelled "boo" unexpectedly and Violet had an identical reaction, running to Simon screaming like her hair was on fire. The Soldier shuttered internally at the thought.

The little girl had insisted that the Soldier carry her around after. Steve explained without Simon along for their walk, the Soldier was the tallest and offered the best view. The smaller man was not unhappy with the arrangement - she got heavy for him quickly nowadays. The taller man felt something like pride that the child had judged him worthy. Steve said he had offered to give her parents what he had called "alone time together." The Soldier was very curious what that meant, but did not ask. How could they be alone, together? And what were they doing while they were?

Even in this part of the world, stricken with drought and so close to the wastes, there were still subtle changes in the seasons. It was growing a bit more tolerable during the day but much colder at night. Steve's breath hung visible in the air by the time they returned Violet to her parents. The Soldier had stared at Steve in quiet surprise for a long time after he had offered to let him sleep in bed with him that night. Beyond catching the smaller man a few times when he had slipped at the yard, and a few accidental brushes, they had not touched again after the day with the berries.

"It's freezing in here, plus it's so big I would hardly notice you," Steve had said. The bed was impractically large for the tiny space.

The Soldier declined with no explanation - he had not fed recently and would not be as warm as Steve. He did not want the smaller man to notice this about him if he had not already, just one more thing setting him apart from the humans around him. Besides, it was so much harder to think that close to him when he was hungry. It was already difficult at a distance.

Steve had just calmly told him that the offer was open if he should change his mind in the future.

Chapter Text

In Claptrap, virtually everyone had a nickname. They were primarily used over walkie-talkie and CB, but some people - like Win - went by their's all the time. She had learned Americans gave no shits about what her real name was and would probably not make the effort to call her by it if she told them. Steve had tried, more than once, to get it out of her. She would just pretend to not understand and eventually he would change the subject.

Unlike other people, she knew he would make every effort to use it and say it correctly. Not telling him, not hearing her real name spoken fondly from his lips was just one of the many ways she kept the barriers up inside herself against him early in their friendship. The Soldier lacked the social niceties of other people. He had not asked what her real name was, maybe did not even realize Win wasn't it, and Steve had been too distracted to think to have him ask. For now.

It was Clint who had first started calling Steve "Captain America," after a particularly long lecture from the smaller man about what he felt the nation was supposed to have stood for and how they could bring those ideals into their new world, instead of the same pointless bigotry and scramble to be on top. Social Justice Warrior Steve had stuck briefly but it was too on the nose for Clint's liking. Steve in return had sarcastically nicknamed him Hawkeye because, for a former Olympic gold medalist with 20/20 vision who claimed he could shoot the wings off a fly, he seemed to constantly miss everything happening around him until there was danger or titties involved.

They called Nat "Black Widow" because she went through a long string of men before Clint came around. It was rumored that most of them had been killed, some even by her. She claimed she just hadn't been that interested in settling down, her lovers couldn't handle it and, since Claptrap had not had as much to offer then as it did now, had simply went elsewhere. She was dangerous though - Steve had seen that first hand more than once. She didn't talk about what she had done in the old world but she showed up here already knowing Fury and that said a lot.

Nick had been one of the first people to show up at Claptrap, other than thirty or so locals from nearby towns that no longer existed. His comrades, now former military, already called him Fury when they arrived with him after the collapse of civilization. Phil, who was more like an assistant to Fury than a colleague (he desperately wanted a nickname but never had one stick), drunkenly offered one night that Fury was in fact not a nickname at all but Nick's family surname.

"He just thinks it sounds cool, to pretend people chose to call him that," he said, rolling his eyes.

Names have power. They say a lot about who you are, or are not, to those around you. Did they care, or respect (fear) you enough to call you what you chose or at least something that represented just you? Or maybe something shared with someone, but with meaning, like naming your child after your parent. The Soldier had no name of his own.

Clint started calling him "Two-Three" over the walkie and the Soldier found it acceptable. It bothered Steve, wore on his mind like one of those little splits in your cuticle that would heal if you stopped fussing with it. The Soldier was a number, one of many. Like a socket from a set, interchangable and absent purpose without a wrench to guide it.

"Did they ever call you anything else?" Steve had finally queried one day.

After a short, silent consideration, the Soldier had responded flatly, "Deadman."

Steve couldn't help pondering that it would be a pretty badass nickname, but he didn't think it would exactly endear the Soldier to the locals. Some of them still whispered about him being a zombie or a cannibal, or a cannibal-zombie, which Steve felt was fairly redundant (like saying "assless chaps"). The fact that people heard Fury talk about the eye-eating incident was not helpful.

A few days later, Steve had returned to the yard on a foraging expedition. It was nearly Nat's birthday. He had strongly considered giving her the sexy nightdress, but since he had been sleeping in it (and occasionally jerking off in it) for two and a half years he thought that was a bit...grody. Some part of him liked the difference in the way the Soldier looked at him when he wore it versus his other bedtime creations, one freckle-spattered shoulder hanging out of the thin fabric, but he wouldn't actively admit it to himself.

He and the Soldier were going through a fresh pile of trash that the last team had excavated when they came across a mounted stag head. It had been a beautiful preservation job, and the ten-point rack was mostly in tact, but part of its face was missing. The Soldier held it reverently between his hands and stared intently into the remaining eye for so long that it started to make Steve concerned.

"Looks like Fury," Steve half-chuckled, attempting to cut the tension with a joke.

"Buck." The Soldier said simply in return, enunciating the consonants more than was typical for him, like he was feeling out the concept behind the word. The holes in the Soldier's vocabulary still occasionally surprised Steve. As best as he could tell, his new friend was extremely skilled in all of the languages he spoke. The younger man had watched him interact in at least half a dozen different ones by now - sometimes calling people out on not so slyly talking shit about one or both of them but often just to put people at ease. There were words he just didn't appear to know though, or seemed to take a long time to recollect the meaning of.

Steve imagined him learning pictures of animals in a workbook like a small child after the military reanimated him. This is a buck. This is a doe. You don't need to remember them; you'll be hunting humans.

"Have you," Steve paused, "seen one of those before? Alive I mean?"

"Yes," the Soldier stated simply, handing it to him without looking up.

Steve considers the state of the stag head. Nat is actually really into taxidermy, bones and pelts. Maybe that's why she fell for Clint. He is a gifted hunter after all. The blonde envisions a pretty but disturbing art project, and is lost in his thoughts when the Soldier speaks again.

"I remember a woman sometimes from… before." He makes an odd half-gesture towards his face with his metal arm. "She says this word again and again. Buck. I think… it is his name."

"Whose name?" Steve looks at the Soldier gazing at his silver hand and wants to say something sympathetic. Sorry the government felt the need to take your entire history from you in the name of their own selfish ends. Sorry you feel like a freak because they mutilated you, but hey, a metal limb is pretty cool right?

"The one who… was this body, before."

"So, then, it's your name?" Steve asks cautiously.

"No… Yes. I am unsure how to answer." The Soldier sounds perplexed, though anyone other than Steve wouldn't notice the minute shift in his tone.

Steve takes one glove off, reaches out slowly, gently squeezes the upper part of the Soldier's organic arm. "It's okay. You don't have to."

They look at each for a long moment, the Soldier unblinking, until Steve turns away. After rooting through the heap in silence for nearly twenty minutes the Soldier offers, voice even more soft than usual:

"You can call me Buck if you want."

"Okay. Buck." Steve swears a little shiver goes down the Soldier's spine when he says the word out loud.

Back at Claptrap too late for the mess meal, Steve makes them dinner while the Soldier - no, Buck - brings their bedding in from the line. Buck had thought from night one he would be fine laying with nothing on the cold floor, that this was an unnecessary luxury. He told himself he went through the motions for appearance's sake - to seem more human, to not reveal his abilities any further - not because he liked the physical comfort the bag and blankets provided. Lately he had become acutely aware how much looking "normal" for Steve motivated him. For instance, he ate the food the younger man offered even though it would do very little to keep the empty feeling in his stomach at bay. The need was loud this evening.

It was usually easier outside, in the open air. The smell of Steve, clinging to all of his possessions and trapped inside the small metal box that they both now called home, became overwhelming sometimes. Buck would lay there in the night, mouth watering, teeth extended, canines pressing into his bottom lip. Sometimes he would manage to drift off but the same dream would wake him - crossing the room, sliding Steve easily out of the bed, pulling the smaller man's head to the side, driving his teeth into the soft little neck.

At least when Steve was asleep, Buck could use the hatch in the ceiling to go up to the roof. He would lay on the cold corrugated steel until he was able to calm down, until he could no longer see the glow from his eyes reflected on his metal hand when he held it above his face. Until his teeth had retracted. Sometimes the visions crept into the day when the blonde was too near as well. Steve would lecture him ad nauseam about not wearing the mask inside Claptrap, so putting it on to hide what was happening was not an easy option. He could not let Steve see his face, changed with need. With want when the need was quiet. His friend would be disgusted or terrified.

After their closeness in the yard and back at the house today, his hunger felt massive. Buck wandered out particularly far to escape the thoughts that flooded in even stronger once Steve was settled under his covers. He heard gargled screams and followed them to two men next to a small fire, one writhing on top of a limp form while the other watched, laughing. Buck had barely gotten any blood out of the first one, practically ripping him to pieces and wasting most of it in the dirt. Chuckles ran off into the night, giving Buck enough time to realize that the prone body was already dead, one side of their head caved in.

He had easily chased the other man down, made sure that the bite was painful, that he felt everything as the life slowly left him. The Soldier drank every drop he could, forcing his own pulse into the man after his heart had stopped to keep the blood flowing. Buck lay on his back after in the scrub grass for a long time, watching his breath form little clouds with the starry sky as their backdrop. He felt sated and not the slightest bit conflicted about what he had just done. There were murderers who killed out of self-defense. People who attacked you out of fear. Thieves who stole out of necessity. They could be spared unless absolutely necessary, but rapists and slavers needed killing.

There was nothing of interest in any of their things except a map with this area circled. Perhaps they were looking for the settlement. Good then that he had found them before they had found it. He could not have any Claptrappers running across his kill - he messily buried them and their possessions with his hands. He dug a separate, better grave for their victim, closed their eyes with his metal fingers, crossed their arms like he had seen in one of Steve's books. The Soldier had a long debate with himself - he should just bury them, blood and all, but it could be some time before he got more; there was no bringing them back after all. Ultimately he drained them as well, then put the body carefully in the Earth with a small apology. He could not help but think of Steve's melancholy when they were only hours too late to save the people hung in the shed - Buck had missed protecting this person by minutes. He would do better next time.

Buck snuck back into Steve's home, stripped and cleaned himself up carefully, then changed into one of Steve's nightshirts. The smaller man looked surprised but not upset when he was awakened by Buck sliding in bed with him. He felt confident he could do that now that his belly was full and his body warm; not even the intense cold outside had touched him. The bigger man reached out, slow and careful, placing his flesh hand on Steve's upper arm and giving it a gentle squeeze, mirroring the smaller man's gesture from that morning. He tried to copy the little smile that bloomed on Steve's face with his own, closed mouthed to hide his teeth. It was nice to be so near Steve, to feel his heat, to touch him without the hunger constantly chattering at the back of his mind. Buck had even slept and woke well after sun up, feeling less muddled than usual.

Steve was already gone on his rounds, a note on top of the low bookshelf that made up his headboard under a can of peaches. He could not believe the younger man would be able to leave without the noise waking him. He stretched out in the bed - it really was huge - then rolled over face down, inhaling Steve's scent from the pillows. The feed-want he felt was only a pleasant titillation, not a desperate plea, the need blissfully silent. It was good to be full, to be in charge of his thoughts, his body.

It was his body. He was not a Winter Soldier anymore, not a tool for others to accomplish their ends. Nor would he ever be the the person who came before. He was becoming something like a person though and it seemed right to reclaim part of the name this body was called when it was human. Buck. He liked the way Steve said it, softness in the sound of the first consonant when his full lips pressed together to make it.

He was not sure why he had put Steve's nightshirt on, only that it felt right to wear it in the smaller man's bed. When he had turned onto his belly the covers slid partially off. Buck does not typically wake up this warm, buried in such heavy blankets that trap and amplify his body heat, nor does he usually leave his own bedcovers with so little on; his skin reacts noticeably to the chill and the contrast is stimulating. He is suddenly very aware of himself - goosebumps lightly prickling at his flesh arm, long, bare legs stretched the length of the mattress, a cool eddy between his legs under the open shirt. He mostly ignores those parts of himself even though, as Fury had mentioned, he was anatomically the same to a human in that respect.

He occasionally woke with his member partially erect and today was the same; he could feel it pushing awkwardly into the mattress and returned to laying on his back. Normally it would be pressing uncomfortably against the thick fabric of his uniform trousers - he would ignore it, it would go away. There was no restraint now. On the contrary, the soft, thin fabric felt good against him. He has never touched himself there before except in necessity, does not know why - in this moment, in this place - he reaches down and rubs himself gently through the cloth.

A little breath bursts out of him. The feeling is very pleasant; he grows harder, that want allowed to become a little louder for the first time. He keeps doing it, slowly intensifying the pressure, until a little groan escapes his mouth. There is a moment of doubt - perhaps he is not meant to do this, perhaps sexual pleasure is not something he has the right to - but he feels a small spark of anger at that. This is his body and if it is capable of enjoyment that hurts no one he should be able to feel it.

The Soldier has never been fully unclothed since he left the facility. He had been ordered to do so there, was often left naked in his cell, exposed in the laboratory or operating rooms for all to see, touched and prodded, used. The sudden surge of defiance presses him to disrobe for his own designs, no one else's. He stretches back out, completely nude, looking up at the collage that covers the ceiling. It has often fascinated him as he laid on his bedroll, but he has not studied this portion before.

As he surveys the artwork, his flesh hand drifts lazily back to his penis, still engorged. Touching it now, skin to skin, produces an even stronger sensation than before. He just rubs himself at first, not entirely sure what he is doing. Eventually he wraps his hand loosely around the shaft, slides it slowly to the tip of his length and then down to the base, nested in coarse, curly hair. His nerves buzz pleasantly as he repeats the gesture again and again, slowly tightening his grip. His fingers graze over the head on an upstroke, accidentally gathering the wetness that has formed on the tip, spreading it along one side of his length as he slides his hand back down. The slickness feels even better. He brings his hand to his mouth, licks it several times, covering it in a generous layer of saliva.

When he returns his hand experimentally to himself the slide of it is incredible. He openly moans, a guttural, needy sound. His hips rock up off the bed as his hand strokes, thrusting into the tight, hot wetness. His metal hand runs slowly over his body, fingertips light against his hip, abs, chest. Their cool press is invigorating against his warm skin. He finds the hard nub of his nipple, whimpers at how sensitive it is. He begins rubbing it in slow circles, panting, until suddenly a hot rush of pleasure whites out everything like a nuclear blast.

When he can finally open his eyes, he feels the cold air where he is wet on his chest and belly. He runs a trembling hand through the moisture and lifts it for inspection. The liquid that came out of him is slightly viscous, perfectly clear, with a mildly sugary aroma. It is the faintest bit sweet when he tastes it. He cleans himself with a rag, adds it to their pile of dirty laundry, eats his breakfast and then heads to find Steve, his body swimming with little currents of electricity.

"Does he... look sort of happy to you?" Clint asks Steve when Buck joins them at the aluminium extruder.

Chapter Text

Steve started a new pre-bedtime routine of reading together with Buck once it became clear the bigger man intended to keep sharing his bed. They would sit a few feet apart with their backs to the wall, legs splayed out on the mattress, each with their own choice in hand. Eventually, if their knees touched on accident they would not move away from each other. The smaller man voraciously consumed books - the monument to his gleaned knowledge was shimmering in the sun as it shielded the entire settlement.

It was slower going for the Soldier. Fiction fully baffled him. Between metaphors, euphamisms, slang, idioms and colloquialisms, he could only understand about half of what he was reading. He was certainly intelligent but context clues proved difficult for deciphering these literary devices. One had to understand what the sentence was conveying to presume the meaning of a word within it. If Buck did ask questions, Steve would patiently try to answer - occasionally the bigger man was even more confused after.

The event, no the act, that had happened that first morning in Steve's bed was in his thoughts a lot. What did it mean? Was the act something others did? Was it okay for him to ask Steve about? Was the location in which it was performed acceptable? When could he do it again? He was virtually never alone.

Steve asked him one night if he wanted to join him for a game of cards at Win's house - he had politely declined. The sweats were pooled around his ankles within minutes of the smaller man's exit, the sound of his spit covered hand making little wet noises as he stroked himself standing next to the bed. He finishes quickly and is surprised to find himself hard not much later. He does it again, tentatively cupping his sack with his metal hand. That part of himself is so sensitive and he quickly learns to be careful not to squeeze too hard; he does not enjoy pain with his pleasure. It takes much longer to get release a second time but it feels even more amazing when he finally does, his desperate noises echoing off the metal walls. Steve begins making a weekly habit of the card games - Win seems to miss having time with just Steve and he thinks it is good for Buck to not feel like he is being babysat (despite what Nick had originally said). The Soldier takes full advantage of this time alone, experimenting.

Buck started to read only manuals (even a random set of stereo instructions) and academic books. Their language was technical but straight forward, saying precisely what was meant. One day digging through a rather large pile of the latter in a musty box he discovered an old hardcover about human sexuality. It had what was described as a "rave review" on the back by someone named Dr. Ruth, lauding how comprehensive it was. He had side-eyed Steve, ensured he was not looking, then switched the dust jacket with one from a book about the rainforest. He had silently shown it to the blonde when asked, nervous he would sense the falsehood, but the smaller man just gave him a little smile and returned to his own book.

He understood what sexual intercourse was in the sense that it entailed the entrance of a penis into another person's anus or vagina, that in the latter situation a child could be produced, but beyond that… It was not a subject people seemed to speak about so he questioned if it was acceptable to do so and by extension to talk about what he was doing to himself. Certainly it seemed related to sexual intercourse even if it did not involve a partner. Perhaps he could gain information from the text. He reads the entire book in one night. Reads it again the next. Rereads it a third time.

It gives him answers - what he had done was a form of what was called masturbation, it was quite common and starting to do it was a normal part of adolescent development - however it raised so many new questions. Firstly, why was he just starting now? He was not an adolescent. It was clear from his primary and secondary sex characteristics, which he learned about in the book, this body had hit "puberty" long before the Winter Soldier existed. Certainly its previous owner had "jerked off," one of the many slangs listed for the act. He decided that was a terrible phrase since he had actually ripped off someone's penis before.

He could guess that what had been done to him had buried his "libido," as he learned the sexual drive was called. When he had awakened (no, had been reanimated) there was only pain, fear, confusion. Jumbled thoughts, cold skin, holes in his body that slowly closed but did not fully disappear. He could not form words or keep focus on what was being said to him by the people around him.

His human teeth had fallen out one by one once he was placed in isolation. His new set pushed into their place, leaving him spitting and drooling dark blood all over the metal box they kept him in as he screamed. He could feel the musculature in his jaws changing, adapting to retract the teeth partially into his gums. It left a more manageably sized portion of them - still longer than his original ones - exposed in his mouth. He cut himself on them often at first.

Then it had started, the need.

His new teeth descended from the top, ascended from the bottom, filling up the space to the point he could not keep his lips together. The drive to feed made him a mindless beast, tearing apart whatever - or whoever - they put in with him.

Only after the need was fulfilled again and again did something like coherent thought start to come to him, speech slowly following. The want took its place. He was untethered from whoever he was before and much of the knowledge that person possessed, unaware that he had even been anything or anyone else before gaining consciousness in this place. The context clues of what was happening to him were useless when he could not comprehend what normal human life or behavior was. You cannot recognize you are an experiment if you do not know what science even is. The want, at first, only said one thing in its wordless voice - if you feed, you will escape this for a time.

It held onto a piece of him even while his mind was systematically rebuilt by their techniques. Even when they experimented on him, testing his limits. Even when they tortured him to make him comply - when they shock him for raising his voice, burn him for showing anger, fear, hesitation. When they whipped his knuckles or the soles of his feet with a thin metal rod because he failed at some task.

We learn through suffering, the lead trainer had said.

The want contributed to his non-compliance. He attacked guards, doctors, even though he was well-fed (blood and gruel), even though he had started to learn to ignore the need. He wanted to behave, to please, to succeed, but the fleeting moment of bliss when he drank - of everything else melting away - was worth whatever they did to him. The memory of seeing the man with the rod ripped in half, of being soaked in his hot blood, became the bedtime story the Soldier told himself that allowed him to sleep.

Some days all he could see were his teeth falling out onto the floor of his cell again and again. He often resisted returning to it. The cell meant no distractions from whatever this existence was. Eventually he started to dream, seeing things that were not from this place, even though surely he had only ever been here. The dreams filled him with panic, longing, sadness - all things he lacked the words to express or experience to comprehend. Only cryofreeze stops them.

Dr. Zola, the small, bespectacled man with the pinched face who ran the facility, looked different when he saw him next. His hair thinned. Wrinkles around his eyes. All new staff attend his demands. The Soldier does not have a chance to do what the want tells him. Massive metal bands restrain him as they slice his scalp, the protective layer beneath it, clip them to the sides to keep them from healing back together. As they saw through his skull then slice the barrier around his brain. He is fully awake throughout - no anesthesia or pain killer has been found that works on his kind. He hears the screams of others before they are drown out with his own.

The doctor tells him a series of words - there is a static-like sound and feeling in his head, all of his nerves on fire, his ears ring, his vision going white. It is over in less than a second. Suddenly he is blank. Orders follow and he obeys. When he is meant to serve a new person, they tell him the series of words and he becomes their puppet.

He still possesses the skills they trained him in - multiple languages, hand to hand combat, weapons use, explosives, deciphering technical schematics and maps - and could speak when spoken to or required by mission parameters. He could register something like physical pain to alert him his body was becoming excessively damaged.

Looking back now he realizes even with the neural net in a vague, unconscious way he had sensed the need in its own prison somewhere in his depths. Even when he was not fed it was never for a moment free to take control. But there was nothing else - no thought, no feeling, no emotions. There are no dreams when they (rarely) allow him rest, only black void. He is in and out of cryosleep regularly, Zola becoming more gray and hunched each time he sees him.

The want was more elusive. It began to speak silently from many places yet from nowhere, growing more prominent over time in the emptiness of his mind, particularly when he was ordered to endure... certain things. Something is not right. Something is not right. Something is not right. We do not want this. Make it stop. Drink them. He cannot heed it. He is the picture of obedience. Later he will take comfort that the damage to his brain (though now healed) blurred out some of those memories.

The book talked about sexual trauma, but he skipped most of that chapter. It upset him in an undefinable way. He did not want to equate sexual violation with the victimhood he forced on others when he bled them. Was he violating them, even when he let them live? Did they wake in the night seeing his eyes, feeling his teeth in them, sweating with fear even though he was possibly hundreds of miles away? Luis had certainly not seemed to feel victimized, but that had been a special set of circumstances and he could not guarantee that someone else would react the same in identical ones.

It also discussed psychological development in tandem with sexuality. He was not thrilled to discover he qualified as "emotionally immature," but talk of the emotional bond that could lead to sex, or forge or deepen from it, was very interesting. He had not considered that people had intercourse for reasons other than their own base pleasure or pro-creation. In addition he is shocked to learn that "sex" does not need to involve a penis at all. It can be done between people of any gender identity (a very new concept to him) with hands, mouths, objects. He had looked at his metal hand for a while after reading that part.

It is difficult for him to understand the nuances between what the book calls romantic attraction versus sexual attraction, romantic love versus love based in friendship or family ties. This mirrors his own difficulty separating the want, the need, this new (old?) want, his desire for companionship.

Understanding why his relationship with Steve is not like those with others often vexes him. He would not sleep in bed with Natasha, does not feel a hot stab of neediness if Clint is too busy with other people. The warm feeling he gets when Win puts her hand on his arm or Simon smiles at him as he holds Violet is very different than when Steve does those things, but he cannot explain in what way. Emotions are ephemeral (he really liked that new word) and hard to pin down, hard to separate from the feed-drive.

The training in the facility allowed him to be more than the need, to be a warrior, but their other teachings lingered in every corner of his mind. He had to slowly build on becoming something (someone) else after he had left his cryotube for the last time, to develop his own way of being - absent instruction. His own morality (another newly learned word). Now, he was evolving again mentally, emotionally, perhaps recovering parts from the person he had been when he was actually Buck.

That suddenly felt correct, that he was the actual Buck, or at least pieces of whatever was left of him formed the foundation of who he was turning into. He was not some new consciousness stuffed into an empty vessel, even if he did not have access to their - his - memories. Maybe with a handle on the bloodlust, many advancements made towards undoing the years of brainwashing, there were very human wants and needs surfacing. Sexual. Emotional.

A realization dawns. Steve is human. He may have those wants and needs.

Chapter Text

Steve is a bit surprised to be summoned to Nick's office by Carol, explicit instructions to come alone (precisely what Buck was going to be busy doing, unbeknownst to the mechanic, during his absence). She eyes the Soldier with interest as he moves to stand not far behind the smaller man, still in his sweatpants and a t-shirt, looking her up and down.

"So, he's kinda hot," she offers after a few moments of walking in silence. "That why you don't come to poker anymore?"

"No, I've been playing at Win's and… just busy." He doesn't look at her.

"Busy gettin' busy? Or busy avoiding me and Sam busy?" She gives him a glowing smile, mouthful of perfect straight white teeth that he catches from the corner of his eye. She looks like the golden volleyball fantasy of every college boy, just that hint of tomboy that makes her even more approachable. Steve doesn't answer her.

"Look, what happened...I really hoped that we could at least be friends. For a long time I thought we would be. We were seeing you around a lot more and things were cool..." She puts her hands in her pockets, fans out her elbows as she walks.

"Maybe you shouldn't have kept inviting me over to have sex with you." Steve stops, looks her dead in the face. He had never admitted it to himself, but it bothered him that they kept insinuating they should pick up where they left off. Like what happened had been a minor inconvenience, easily forgotten, and not a breakdown-worthy event.

"We never said come over and have sex with us, did we? We just invited you to hang out. You read into things. Just like you read into what happened that night. No one was trying to do anything that you didn't want." Carol's voice isn't unkind, but it cuts through him anyway.

"Excuse me? So I, what, asked for it?"

"I didn't mean that like it sounded. I..." She looks sincere. He doesn't stay to hear the rest, walking away from her without a backwards glance, straight to Fury's office.

Steve and Nick have barely spoken since the argument at the gate, the former less than thrilled that the latter is still occasionally having them followed. Steve's inherent distrust of someone so blatantly used to being the biggest swinging dick in the room had only deepened once his suspicions about Nick's background turned out to be nowhere near as bad as the truth.

"How are you sleeping?" Nick asks with an (on-purpose) poorly disguised smirk.

"I presume you already know," Steve responds, staring the taller man down. So much for spying on them occasionally. He pictures Phil outside his window with a comically huge telephoto lense.

"You never cease to amaze me, kid. I once saw you pop Clint Barton in the nose for grabbin' your arm, but you invited a bloodsucking monster between your sheets." Fury is leaning against the long oak cabinet behind his desk, arms folded.

Invited. Is he listening to them too?

Steve wonders for the thousandth time how Fury can stand to wear that trenchcoat in this heat (though it's still a bit cool this early). He does cut an impressive figure in it - tall, dark skinned, head shaved, not exactly handsome but with a certain magnetic intensity radiating from his remaining good eye.

"Correction," Steve looks at him from under his brows, head pivoting a bit from side to side like it often does when he's spoiling to tell someone off, "he came up behind me and grabbed my arm. Buck is smart enough to not do that."

"Buck? You named the puppy?" Nick has that look. I'm very displeased with your flippancy, Rogers.

"No that is his name. Was his name. Before you and your friends experimented on him. Not sure you have room to talk in the monster department, using a dead man for your little program."

He feels like he's tarnished the gift given to him of the name by sharing it with Nick - the Soldier has only ever instructed Steve to call him Buck. The dig at the taller man makes him feel a bit better about it though.

Fury barks out a laugh, shakes his head. "It was never my little program. I thought I made that clear. Man, they took some serious time writing its back story, making it sympathetic."

"And who exactly is they?" The smaller man lifts his hand and circles it dramatically at the last word. "Do you have a Nixon complex or do you have someone specific in mind that's supposed to be plotting against us?"

"You can't see what it's doing? Endearing itself to you, using you to get access." Fury mimics his gesture.

Get access to what?

Steve let's out a loud "ha" - it sounds a touch hysterical. "If only you knew how much like the Soldier you sound. You're out to get him, he's out to get you. I'm a hapless pawn in one of your games, I'm a manipulative spy in the other. Yada yada." He sounds excessively bored with the whole thing.

"It told you it thought you were trying to manipulate it?" This actually seems to interest Fury.

"I mean, to begin with that's what he assumed. I guess my charming personality won him over." God, this was one step away from talking to a transphobe. Pronouns. Are. Important, Steve wants to grate out.

"I thought it was fooling you, but now I see you're fooling yourself. You think you have some kind of connection with it? You think it...what? Loves you? Wants you?"

The insinuation being no one could love him. No one could want him. Damaged goods. Crazy little shit that bites the hand that feeds. Pissing off hot blonde girls when they try to make amends with you.

"He protects this place. Helps with the work. And he asks for nothing in return anyone else here wouldn't." Steve tries to sound matter-of-fact but there's an edge to his tone.

Honestly, he disliked what Fury had asked just as much as how he had asked it. He had no idea how to define his relationship with the Soldier and actively avoided thinking about it, especially since they'd started sharing the covers. The blonde still had no idea what possessed him to offer that but he knew having Buck near did make him feel safer.

"Three hots and a cot, right?" Fury sneers. "It must have loved that Tupperware bin of blood you special delivered to it, maybe more than snacking on the cows."

"He hasn't hurt anyone." The smaller man is painfully aware of how guilty that sounded. You're caught, Rogers. Hand in the cookie jar. Duck in the Rubbermaid.

"Anyone inside the wall, anyway." Nick has that I know something you don't know tone the blonde often finds so infuriating. He follows it with an intentionally long pause.

Steve's brows furrow. What did Fury mean, no one inside the wall? Almost as if reading his mind, the taller man adds, "I hear it bashed a man's head in on one of the runs."

"He was protecting me." Nope, Steve, you don't sound incredibly defensive at all, buddy.

"And when it stopped to slurp down pails of blood from the slaughtered family, was it protecting you then?"

Yes, Steve wants to say. From himself. He could see the need twisting at Buck sometimes, even though he tried so hard to conceal it.

"There was nothing we could do for them. If that's what it takes to keep him strong so he can help defend us, I can live with it." And he can. Of all the things that bothered him about the situation, dead body bloodharvesting was quite far down the list.

"And when the animals and the corpses aren't enough?" Nick looks dead serious, not a hint of mockery.

"If you think he's such a danger, why did you let him in here?" He can't help but think these are words very close to Buck's own coming from his mouth. There's the briefest flicker of doubt; maybe, just maybe, the Soldier isn't here entirely for his stated reasons. Maybe he is quietly molding Steve's view.

"Keep your friends close, keep genetically enhanced hellspawn closer." Fury moves his head in a little circle as he says it, light reflecting off his scalp. He's sweating in his jacket after all.

It finally dawns on Steve. "There's something you want from him, isn't there?"

"Sure. Eternal life. And some of those tight pants he's always wearing. I just want this place and all inside it, even your punk ass, to be safe." Fury plays it off perfectly. Anyone would buy his sarcasm, his "I'm the mean uncle who still cares" routine.

Nick doesn't know it, and maybe the only other person to catch on is Nat, but he has a tell. Just a minute twitch of his spindly eyebrow. Steve had memorized even the smallest details of Brock's body language - he had to always be a step ahead of him, mentally at least - and all that practice now helped him read other people (like the Soldier, so he'd thought). He watches Fury's face - eyebrow twitch, right on time.

"That's exactly why I brought him here. He's a one man army." Steve pretends to play along, dropping his former question. Fury would only reveal his agenda directly if he wanted to, not if pressed. Catching him in a slip will be difficult but easier than trying to force the issue.

Fury finally raises his voice, like Steve is being willfully stupid. "Trouble being it's not a man!"

The blonde can't help thinking the Soldier certainly looked like a man. Steve had accidentally caught a peak one morning - when he'd sat up and pushed the covers back the other man's nightshirt was twisted and hitched up. It had happened to Steve in his sleep more than once. The Soldier had covered himself quickly and went back to wearing sweatpants to bed. Fury was right that it was all there so far as he could tell, grayish like the rest of him with a soft lavender hue in some areas rather than pinkish like Steve's.

That's possibly the most inappropriate train of thought in the world for you to be having right now, Steve, while your sort-of-boss grills you.

Besides, seeing him (seeing - ahem - it) had upset him more than anything. He had gotten comfortable thinking of the Soldier as a non-sexual being, someone it was okay to be close with because he would never, ever want anything like that. Admittedly it hadn't stopped the blonde from letting the brunette share the bed - just because the Soldier had a penis didn't mean he used it for anything. Steve's suddenly very sure he's overlooked something, though he isn't entirely sure what or in which way. Maybe he has been (is being) willfully stupid.

After a lot more squabbling, Steve returns home to a faintly sweet smell in the air he can't place.

"What did you have for breakfast?" He queries Buck as he sniffs. The Soldier is curled up with a book in bed. Steve notices, not for the first time, that the bigger man has been reading the same one about the rainforest off and on for over a month.

"Nothing. I was waiting for you." Buck gives him a little smile; it touches his eyes but isn't quite big enough to make the skin around them crinkle. Had he ever done that before, except in response to Steve doing it first? Steve feels something in him warm a little. He's instantly suspicious of the feeling.

Maybe he is manipulating me.

Steve waits for Buck to oh so casually ask what Fury wanted, but he doesn't.

It's not like what Nick had said was entirely off base or Steve hadn't thought about it a lot, especially at the beginning. It was absurd, all of it. The Soldier was designed to be a killing machine, an agent of destruction, a tool of global manipulation. Just because no one was pulling his strings - and Steve still couldn't imagine the amount of instruction that would have to go into making the Soldier behave in such a complex, nuanced way were he still able to be ordered around - didn't mean he was without an agenda.

Do you think it loves you? Wants you?

The Soldier had never seen Steve before the day he'd first saved the smaller man's life. Certainly nothing like affection or lust (if he felt those things) had driven him to do that. Right?

The taller man rises to change, pops his shirt off right before he strolls past Steve to his things. Okay. He had been openly shirtless in front of Steve before during the first time with the syringe but never after. The blonde presumed the Soldier had become aware nudity made him a bit...squidgy. Still, he can't help but note Buck's nipples are lavender, a slightly lighter shade than his…

Do you think it loves you? Wants you? He hears an internal voice pantomiming Fury.

Okay, this is ridiculous, Steve thinks.

He realizes Nick has gotten exactly what he wanted. In forty-five minutes he's shaken the seven plus months of trust Steve had built with the Soldier, made his subconscious start to not so subtly question what exactly the fuck he was doing in this situation.

Chapter Text

Many months before entering the vicinity of Claptrap, the Soldier freed a group of half-naked teenagers chained together under a highway overpass. Normally he gave the undeserving (as he had started to think of those not in need of being killed) a wide berth, ignored the need until they had passed. But it had been so long, he was so hungry. Could he feed and not kill?

A giant of a man ran from the scrub, machete in hand, to reclaim his chattel. One roundhouse kick to the temple knocked him flat. The Soldier restrained him with his own chains in the remnants of a nearby diner as the frightened kids scattered. Despite the man's size, he died not long after the Soldier fed. Stopping proved extremely difficult, the hunger shrieking at him to devour, the want whispering about blotting everything else out.

He had not needed to practice self-control for a long time, the neural net eliminating the necessity. It was his first time in decades (though he had spent much of that frozen) being entirely in charge of his own actions. When he was given someone to drink in the facility, or on a mission, it went without saying that he would kill them. He would need to practice.

Defeating the next group that attacked him, he kept them restrained in a former apartment building. One of them was young, terrified, begging forgiveness as the Soldier - blood covering his face from slaughtering their leader - tied him to a chair in a small basement apartment.

"Please," he begged, "I'm not like them. I just hooked up with them and they're, they're bad fucking people. I just...I played along."

They have a collection of identification cards and trinkets the young man states are trophies from those they have killed. His eyes mist up as he says he did not participate but did nothing to stop them when they murdered an elderly man the day before.

The Soldier had learned someone facing death would say anything, but he was not naive. The man was barely more than a boy, smooth faced, big green eyes, loose ringlets in his short dark hair. He had not been nearly as slight as the little mechanic, but not large either. Certain people would do horrible things to someone like that if they seemed weak.

"If you're gonna kill me, just... please make it quick," the young man had pleaded.

The Soldier decided to leave him until he could control himself.

He killed others by accident, but was eventually able to stop before his victims passed out or right after. With practice, he learned to bite quick and deep instead of moving his head side to side or pulling back to tear at them. It caused less pain (a concern were he forced to feed on the undeserving) and no blood escaped the tight seal of his lips against their skin.

He finally understood Zola saying "waste not, want not" when they had brought him, armless, back to the facility and the other doctors had asked if he should be terminated. When he had fed like an animal so much was lost.

Soon he could drink slowly, savoring it, healing them quick with a small bite to his tongue. They did not deserve his mercy, but there was no sense in wasting. He had learned purely by accident - when his blood had fallen into the knife wound of a man pinned below him some weeks before - that it could heal humans. Some part of him registered the irony even then, though he did not yet know that word - a weapon designed only to maim and kill who had the power to heal.

The slower, careful feeding had unexpected side effects - he noticed his pulse going into them, spreading from his teeth, weakening their struggles. He experimented on the young man, willing it into him much harder than the others. He was surprised at how quickly his victim's body relaxed, even as he tried to fight back, his pleading going quiet. When questioning him later his captive admitted the pain had disappeared, that he had felt...tingly. It takes a lot of explanation for the Soldier to understand what that means. The young man is rewarded with a large meal and time out of his chair for cooperating.

The next time the younger man made these soft little noises and the Soldier realized the throb was doing more than taking away muscle control or discomfort. His captive liked it, liked it enough he could not quiet himself. The Soldier cannot help but groan in response. The feed is better somehow.

The others never cooperate, cursing and threatening him on a daily basis, their noise irritating. He uses the pulsing to paralyze them but nothing else.

Every time one of them is released from their bonds, they attack him or attempt to escape. He decides to kill them one by one, eventually discovering he could use his pulse to force circulation into their corpses, making them easier to finish draining than a body with no heartbeat. There was often no one around but the dead. If they were fresh enough, he could use them.

The Soldier kept the younger man well fed, gave him regular time out of the chair, never hurt or threatened him; when he fed on him again, he had been less frightened, more yielding. The pleasure had been more intense for both of them, the Soldier's pulse pushing into him much faster and even harder, the helpless sounds coming out of his victim far louder than before. The Soldier pulled him off the ground, pressed him to his chest, the younger man's feet dangling as he drank. It felt so good, being against him, basking in his warmth, his captive's body so pliant.

He had liked pleasing the younger man, feeling bonded to him and lost in their mutual haze. Enjoyed the way he moaned, the Soldier also unable to quiet himself. It had all felt as natural as killing but satisfying in a totally different way.

After, the intimacy of it made the Soldier uncomfortable. He had a curiously hard time staying away, feeling an urge to be near him, constantly returning to check his vitals. He could not bring himself to return the restraints. Maybe his captive would wander off. Maybe that was for the best. But when the Soldier returned from scavenging the following afternoon, he was still there.

"I'm Luis," he had shyly offered. The Soldier says nothing in response. He had no name. Eventually when he is pressed he goes to his old stand by, Winter Soldier 23. Unlike many, who call him Soldier if they must call him something, Luis had called him Winter. He was unsure why, but it pleased him.

He let himself feed on the younger man many more times, stayed in the building well after he had finished the others. It always happened, growing stronger the more comfortable his captive became with him, the desire to be close after not even allowing the Soldier to leave the room, sitting in the chair Luis had once been tied to as he watched him sleep. He had started to think of the effect as The Cling. It, and the fact Luis never attempted to escape, made it difficult for the Soldier to stay objective about the nature of their situation. Especially after his prisoner (but was he anymore?) offered to let him.

Luis had bent his head to the side, taunting him with the soft expanse of his neck, telling him it was okay, that he wanted him to. It had been so incredible that time, overwhelming. The younger man bellowed with enjoyment as the Soldier rocked him back and forth to the rhythm of his pulse, drinking him slow, his blood so hot as it filled him, the Soldier's pleasure rising to an intense crescendo.

He had woken in the small bed the younger man used, tangled together with him, feeling so satisfied and relaxed. He tried to move, but the thought of separating from Luis was like ground glass under his skin. This finally spurred his ultimate decision - he needed to leave this place, this person. What good could come of taking Luis with him? Could he even protect or provide for him if he did?

The asset was still hundreds of miles away, probably in the wasteland. He only briefly considered abandoning his pursuit of it. What then? They were not exactly friends and certainly not what he would later learn to be "more than friends." The Soldier never touched him unless required, barely spoke and Luis mostly returned the favor. He could not live in (somewhat comfortable) silence with Luis forever, the occasional feeding the only thing giving him purpose. That was no life for the young man either, existing just to be his drug. Perhaps he was no better than a slaver for keeping him in the first place. Luis was undeserving.

No, he had to continue. Others could be looking for the asset. Others who could use it to hurt people like Luis. Like the many others he had freed.

He dropped the unconscious man off in the first settlement he came to later that night (as soon as he was able to bring himself to leave their warm little nest; no easy task). Mask and goggles firmly on, he made a deal with an old woman, leaving a bundle of supplies as trade for her taking in his…? He had settled on the word associate.

"Why's he out cold?" She queried, tapping Luis with her foot. The Soldier, his urge to protect still strong, had everything he could do not to break her leg.

"Low blood sugar." It is not a lie, just not exactly the truth.

The Soldier kept his pulse in check with live victims after that, still using it to semi-paralyze them or take away the pain of his bite if he wanted. Even to give them the pleasant, tingly sensation Luis described if they were worthy. He would not let it go into them further, would not risk The Cling.

Steve paid lipservice to his understanding of Buck's need for blood, even helped him obtain it. It could be different if the glowing eyes and sharp teeth were directed at him, if he had any inkling of how much Buck thought about drinking him. The need had demanded or begged or whispered to him, depending on how recently he had fed, from the first moment he was near Steve. Even at the dump, in the heat of the midday sun, or coated in engine filth, the blonde smelled delicious.

But he was in control of the need, enough at least. The want was more seductive.

The dreams and fantasies started quickly after coming to live in Claptrap. Pushing his pulse into Steve hard, pumping pleasure into the small frame, Steve's helpless little sounds filling his ears. The want would whisper to him about how much Steve would love it, how they could be wrapped together after, warm and safe. He could be careful. Gentle.

It made it so much harder to resist. The longer he spent with Steve the more he wanted to please him, to be close to him; it was difficult for him to decipher what he felt and the feed was the only type of intimacy he understood. His friend had strict ideas about bodily autonomy. If he forced his teeth in him, even if he gave him enjoyment, Steve could be angry. Perhaps he would even feel violated by the effects of his pulse, by Buck's actions in the thrall of The Cling.

Now he has the book, and it enlightens him on dozens of ways people are intimate. Did Steve perform the act? He had certainly never heard any sounds in the night and the little mechanic was rarely away from him. Did he avoid doing it because Buck was there? Would he like the Soldier to do it for him?

The book said the majority of people were attracted to someone of the opposite sex. Perhaps Steve would not want to be touched by another male. Buck feels a hot stab the text helps identify as jealousy at the thought Steve's time with Win could be sexual in nature. The Soldier reminds himself that would be Steve's choice. Win is kind, smart, brave. She makes Steve laugh and she can build things. He can only destroy.

Even if the blonde liked to be touched by males, it did not mean he would want the Soldier. He was not normal. Not human. Not any shade of peach or brown or pink. And he had no experience pleasing someone that way even if he memorized the technical specifics.

The book was explicit about body parts and how they could be stimulated, but it did very little to explain the rituals involved with sexuality between humans before the touching began. How did one offer such things?

The Soldier would have to talk to the one person he knew that spoke about sex openly. He would need to get Clint alone.

Chapter Text

"So me and your boy had a long chat last night while you were at Win's." Clint is spreading ancient peanut butter onto toasted homemade bread. He's already three Bloody Marys deep. Tater tots weren't the only thing Vic was making with Steve's spuds.

"Wuduyamean?" Steve asks around a mouthful of grits. The Soldier is helping Vic in the back, had said he owed him in trade. Clint, of course, had said yeah, rough trade, heh heh, immediately after Buck had told them.

"He showed up at my place with some beers, which explains the trading," Clint makes air quotes with his fingers, "going on in the back right now."

"The Soldier," Steve points towards the back of the pub, "left the house without me, which he never does, to come to the pub on his own, to promise Vic, who he has talked to like twice, something or other that convinced him to hand over his beer, so he could bribe you for…?"

"As a master of the penile arts, my expert advice was needed." Clint makes a sweeping gesture with his bread.

"I cannot fucking roll my eyes hard enough. What did he actually want?" Steve snatches the toast from Clint's hand, takes a huge bite, gives it back.

"Asshole. Soldierboy was all like Uncle Clint, tell me about the birds and the bees!"

Natasha returns to the table, one Bloody Mary for herself and the second for Clint.

"Enabler," Clint half-whispers. He kisses her quick on the lips, then turns back to the blonde. "Yeah so, our weird, gray little boy has grown into a weird, gray big man and he has a whole lot of questions."

Steve - lips pursed and brow furrowed in his usual "please make him stop" way - eyes the redhead.

"Oh no. Don't look at me. I can't even shut him up with a ball gag." She raises her left brow suggestively.

"Oh, baby." Clint moves like he's going to kiss her cheek but ends up making that stupid nom nom nom sound like a parent pretending to eat up their baby while he moves his mouth against her neck.

She shoves him off. "Focus, Barton. You can eat me later." Nat's already smoky voice goes extra sultry. She has that down to a science.

Steve had never been jealous of their relationship with each other - he was never interested in either of them "like that" - but he's always been envious of the ease with which they flirt and show each other physical affection. Steve considers that he has precisely zero game and most likely if someone tried to nom-nom him he'd break their jaw.

God knows he'd slugged the archer more than once for getting touchy. He has a face like a cinderblock though - Steve's knuckles ache with the memory. The first time they met, after Nat booted his pistol, Fury had motioned to Clint. He had held up his hands placatingly as he stepped towards Steve.

"We just need to talk, little fella. Since you so obviously didn't learn anything from the ass whoopin' someone gave you earlier, I'd rather not have to gift you a second."

Steve, half his face dark purple and his blood-crusted lips swollen, just put up both skinny arms, balling up his slightly-too-big-for-his-body fists.

"Man, you think you got some big jangly stones on you," Clint had chuckled, getting into a grappling stance. "Okay junior, let's dance."

Steve jolted forward on his right foot, kicked Clint, hard and quick, right between the legs with his left.

"Maybe you should worry more about your own balls and less about mine," Steve spat at him.

The archer had tackled him as soon he could stand fully upright again. The blonde was flailing, scratching, biting, then Fury knocked him cold with the butt of his rifle.

Steve always remembered when he woke up, the first thing he heard was Clint telling Fury off. "You didn't need to do that! He's just a fucking kid."

"Yeah, so," Clint continues, pulling Steve back mentally to the breakfast table, "he tells me he's been, uh, dancing solo," Clint makes a slightly open fist that he pumps up and down, "and now he wants to know how you go about asking someone else to tango."

"That's..." Steve stops, deep line forming just above the bridge of his nose, mouth quirking up on one side in something that is definitely not a smile. "Wait, he's been doing what?"

"He's flogging the dolphin. Whipping the bologna pony. Spanking the monkey…" Clint makes a lewd gesture with the celery from his already half-empty new drink.

"Choking the weasel," Nat chimes in.

"Stroking the one-eyed pudding flinger," Clint replies.

"I fucking get what he means!" Steve practically yells, people turning to look at them. "But he's not...He does not do that," Steve follows in a too-loud whisper. He sounds irritated, incredulous and just a tiny bit unsure.

"Oh he has and he does. Like a bunch." The archer takes a huge, loud bite of the stalk in his hand. "He came ovah," he says with his mouth full, "tuh teww me, how heez bin comin aww ovah yer howse."

Steve looks at Nat, who just shrugs. "I was not around for this. I have hobbies."

"And when is this hauntingly described debauchery supposedly taking place? Considering he's barely out of my sight ten minutes a day." Steve crosses his arms in challenge.

Please don't say when I'm asleep. Please don't say when I'm asleep. Please don't say-

"Uh duh, he has free time every week when you're at your little card games." Clint tilts back the drink, finishes it in a few hard swigs.

Steve just stares at the bigger man for a long moment, then laughs.

"Okay, dude. Very funny. You almost got me, you weird, sick old man." He makes double finger guns at Clint.

"Okay, fine, you don't believe me? I'll bet you." Clint takes his best goggles out of his bag, smacks them down loudly on the table. "Also I'm only like ten years older than you, dick."

"More like fifteen," Natasha chimes in.

"Now that you've possibly broken them with your ham hands, I'm not really sure I wanna bother." The blonde pokes the goggles with one long, bony finger.

"Cuz you think there's a chance that I'm right, and you're a little chickenshit." Clint is grinning from ear-to-ear, and Steve desperately wants to hit him yet again.

"And how exactly do you propose I spy on a highly trained super soldier?" He means it sarcastically, but Clint has clearly thought it out.

"The next time you're heading out for the night, and he's staying in, you make sure your curtains are cracked just enough that you can see in. Then you go for a walk, sneak back ten or fifteen later, kneel down in front of the window and see what he's up to."

"He would absolutely see me lurking outside," the blonde retorts.

Oh what big eyes you have.

"In the dark?" Nat queries.

"Yeah." Steve has stopped pulling as many punches with the other scavengers about what Buck can do - they've witnessed during runs some of the unexplainable feats the Soldier is capable of. He hopes eventually Buck won't have to hide much or any of what he is with their community.

"With the light on inside, all he'll see is the reflection of the room," Clint counters.

"He'll hear me."

Oh what big ears you have.

"Take your shoes off a ways out. Fuck, you only weigh like ninety pounds."

Steve gives him the finger.

"And if he catches me, spying on him reading the same book about the Amazon for the hundredth time, and he's super pissed?"

Oh what big teeth you have.

"Then you'll win the bet and I'll take the blame, smooth things over." The archer slides the goggles slowly off the table. They are incredibly high-tech, once a very expensive piece of equipment that Barton used to hunt at night.

"Fine, fine. But only because I know you're wrong."

"And if I'm right..." Clint starts.

"Make it my first born," the blonde interjects, smiling wryly.

"I wanna know the deets." The archer leans in conspiratorially.

"What deets?" The smaller man copies Clint's stupid finger quotes.

"Length, girth. Is it gray? Does he growl? Does he just stand in a corner with that blank look on his face? Does he say your name while he does it?"

"You're a very disturbed man." Steve shakes his head.

"He's very open minded for a heterosexual male," the redhead chimes in.

"She's right. I even do butt stuff. But what I really want to know is how does a vampire - "

"For the thousandth time, he's not a vampire." It's not technically a lie, it's just not the whole truth.

"How does a vampire wank and is his dick bigger than mine. That's it! Not so much to ask."

"You married this person." Steve looks at Nat whilst pointing at Clint.

"I don't actually believe in marriage and since there's no government anymore it's not legally binding anyway. But he was all whiny about it. He wouldn't agree to let me peg him until I said yes."

"What does it mean to peg someone?" The Soldier's quiet voice drifts from beside them and they all jump.

Clint opens his mouth.

"NOPE! Nope, we're not having that conversation right now," Steve cuts him off.

The first conversation Steve had (if you can can call it that when one person is just screaming) after coming to was with Clint. Clint carefully cleaned the split in his forehead, holding Steve's chin with one hand to keep his head still while he thrashed against the cuffs they had him hooked to the truck wall with. His legs had restraints as well and he couldn't get enough motion to kick.

Clint tried to gentle him down, to explain about the community, that if he hadn't pulled the gun everything would have been fine. Steve was frantic. Had he really gotten himself back into this sort of situation in only one day? The others were outside somewhere, close enough that he could hear them talking but not close enough to make out all of what they were saying.

"DON'T FUCKING TOUCH ME!" he screamed again and again until he was hoarse.

"Look kid!" Clint finally yelled back, dropping onto his haunches. Steve momentarily went quiet, ready for threats or a backhand. "I don't know what that fuck did to you but I can guess." The bigger man took an arrow from his quiver, held it up so Steve could see its length. "I'm as straight as one of these, so you got nothing to worry about."

"They all are until they're not," Steve retorted.

"You are gonna go home with us and everything is gonna be fine. Eventually you're gonna forget all about those animals. You're only gonna fuck whoever you wanna fuck and if anyone messes with you, anyone, they'll answer to me."

Steve had laughed in his face at the time, unsure if it was some sort of weird game to butter him up or if the guy was really just that naive. To think Steve setting up shop in their silly little junktown would make it like the last several years of abject horror never happened.

On their second scavenging run after Steve came to Claptrap, he had been caught unaware in a high school science lab by two guys. He'd managed to smash a beaker and stab the first one in the neck, when their less than pure intentions came to light, but the second one was huge. The blonde walloped him upside the head with a super thick textbook; it only seemed to piss him off. He slugged Steve in the gut, hard, winding him.

In a few brief moments he had Steve's arm twisted painfully behind his back and the blonde's chest shoved against a long, high worktable. Steve thrashed and screamed at the top of his lungs, the rage whiting out his vision almost as much as the pain, but it was not much use against the huge bruiser. He picked Steve up by his twisted arm and the waistband of his pants and put him over the counter as his legs kicked uselessly against the man's own.

His attacker was slowed trying to get Steve's suspenders off since he had a jacket on over the shoulder straps. He fiddled with the tiny buttons that connected them to the back of the blonde's pants, telling Steve the whole time what he was going to do to him, and how he planned to keep him after for "a few more rounds." The blonde got a good shot to the man's temple with his pointy elbow when he leaned close to talk in Steve's ear. The giant pushed his other arm so high up his back he felt like he was going to pass out.

There was a whisper quiet sound like schick behind him. The grip on him loosened, released, then the huge man was stumbling back, falling with a crash, arms and legs scattering the metal-legged stools around him. Steve slid back to his feet, whipped around to see the guy on the floor, clutching at the arrow in his neck. Clint is suddenly there, yanking it out while his boot is on the man's chest, bow in his other hand.

"You okay?" Clint tried to sound calm, like it was no big deal, but his face said otherwise. Steve, wide eyed, just nodded.

The man on the floor was gurgle-screaming, spraying blood from the puncture ( jugular, Steve thought absently). He clutched at it with one huge hand, the other flailing to try to grab the blonde's pantleg. What followed was the one and only time he saw Clint Barton lose his cool.

The archer stomped on the man's outstretched arm, then on his face, again and again and again, screaming down at the dying man. Some of it was unintelligible but there was a lot of "you motherfucker," and "I'll fucking kill you" and "you sick fuck" repeated. He brought his black boot down on the man's skull until it was just pieces, brains falling in small clumps from the sole each time he lifted his foot.

Whenever he's really exasperated with Clint, whenever he really, really wants to tell him off hard or embarrass him in front of everyone or kick him out of the house, he reminds himself of that moment. More so what the archer had done (and not done) after. Clint didn't tell anyone what he had seen almost happen, just gave a chuckle, said "little scrapper got one of them" and acted like there was nothing more to report.

Chapter Text

Waking from cryofreeze the last time was similar to when he had first gained consciousness in the facility, after being made into this thing. The Soldier is confused, in agony, his mind a jumbled mess, his body so cold. A trembling hand raised to his head feels sharp objects embedded there. It comes away coated in blood that is pitch black.

The Soldier smells the intruders - fresh and stale blood, gun powder, boot leather - before he hears them. His ears are still ringing from the blast, from the damage to his skull. Memories splinter and reform into a sickening whirl, leaving him to act on emotion and instinct.

He rips at the things buried in him, thrashes at the debris pinning him inside the busted cryotube. They are near now, footsteps and excited voices around the corner. Muddled memories return of other boots down this hallway, coming to take him from the emptiness of his frozen sleep and push fresh horrors into his mind, into his body.

The metal arm takes him by surprise at first, the pain of the procedure rushing back to him, only increasing his panic. He can see them long before they can see him in the semi-darkness. The need is screaming, all of his reserves used on healing his body. He leaps on one, legs around their waist and arms around their shoulders, burying his face in their neck, ripping and slurping. Their companion starts to read the words, Zola's words.

The want speaks, stirring other memories. Something is not right. Something is not right. Make it stop.

The woman is done reading the words by the time he releases the corpse of her partner. She smiles triumphantly, orders him to stand. He does, looks at her for a long moment, as she gives him commands. There is just time to notice the necklace made of human ears and bones around her neck before he flies at her, rips her head from her body. What is left of the one on the floor is also decorated in human parts, sections of his jacket made of tattooed skin.

There are others. He hears their voices and footsteps from somewhere above yet far away, vaguely aware that he is underground, that they have somehow breached this hidden place from the surface.

More approach. He cripples one with a swift blow to the sternum from his metal fist as a second buries a knife in his chest. The Soldier only takes the briefest second to glance down at it, impaled directly in his heart, before he leaps at the person and buries his teeth in them, shaking his head from side to side like a rabid dog, blood flying in every direction. More, more, more! the need screams inside him; others are already beating him with clubs and pipes as he feeds. He barely notices, enraptured.

He is suddenly on his feet, grabbing one with both hands, impaling them on the twisted rebar hanging down from the damaged ceiling. Their hot blood raining down on his face is incredible - he stands there, head tilted back, mouth open. There is a shocked silence among the remaining attackers and he is suddenly very aware of them surrounding him.

The Soldier does not have words to explain what happens next, but it is as if some sort of switch flips inside him. He crushes an attacker's windpipe with a high kick, his flesh fist flying out in the opposite direction to break the jaw of another. His metal hand clutches the throat of a man, hoists him up off the floor, breaks his neck, hurdles him into a woman so hard she bounces off the wall, skull fractured. He finally thinks to pull the blade from his chest, then he's stabbing and slashing with a fluid, effortless grace.

He hears singing in the distant recesses of his mind. Ashes, ashes. They all fall down.

There are more scents wafting from above, voices. There are so many. The need chimes back in, tells him to run at them, to rip and slash and bathe in them. The want reminds him of his years in captivity, tells him to run. His training agrees - there are too many and they have fire. He loots the bodies, the parts of the facility he can still access, then finds an alternate route to escape so that he can bypass the ones coming down from above.

At a safe distance, he climbs a small knoll to look back. There is a smoking crater in the ground. His eyesight is excellent, but at this distance he still needs to use the binocular vision setting of the goggles. Dozens of warriors, mostly men but women as well, many in some combination of body armor, leather and human parts, all heavily armed. Their leader wears a hard composite mask that covers his head and face, white paint streaked on the front. It resembles a skull.

"FIND IT! FIND IT!!!" he rages. There's a white X crudely swiped across the front of his body armor.

This was the first time he became conscious of being called it. The Soldier has a stab of dislike for the term immediately. There is a familiar pull in his head - the neural net is not completely non-operational. The asset is signaling him. With no other direction to take, he stands and runs into the night, heeding its call.

When he is far enough away from those who wish to capture him, he stops to review the documents taken from the facility. The notes, which cover everything done to him since the initial experiment, only list him as "cadaver #23." He destroys them.

The Soldier slaughtered everyone he fed on without thought upon first entering the ravaged remains of human civilization. They had all tried to murder or capture him - eager to take his weapons and his arm, not understanding it was useless if removed from him. He did, however, quickly form certain compunctions about who he attacked.

It became clear that the little he had known of how things operated outside of the facilities no longer applied. This world was broken, in chaos. He crossed people being attacked, being used, being held captive, being eaten. He did not yet remember a large portion of what happened to him since Zola had woken him all those years ago, but he could recall what it felt like to be restrained, commanded, helpless.

Unacceptable, he had thought simply before murdering his first slaver (squeezing the man's head between his hands until it burst) and freeing those he held. He stared at them, staring at him, as he licked the blood from his fingers before simply walking away.

The Soldier did not have any sense of ethics at this juncture, no code or higher purpose guiding him save his journey to the asset. He would simply see something inflicted on someone else that reminded him of what was done to him and it would fill him with rage, disgust - he would have to act. Sometimes those he freed would ask who he was.

"Winter Soldier 23," he would respond. He was still conditioned to present title to his previous handlers. He did not yet realize these civilians wanted a name, something that identified him as a person rather than a weapon.

Occasionally he would encounter other free people wandering the shattered world who showed no ill intent towards him; they gave him a wide berth and he ignored the need as it begged him to take them, knowing he would find someone deserving shortly.

By the second month on the road, still heading towards the asset, he had recovered many of his memories from the facilities and missions. There are blank spots, few and far between, and other sections that are vague or disjointed, but overall the majority comes back with painful clarity.

He frees a woman and two children along the road, considers the latter's smallness; he is vaguely aware that they will grow into larger people. Adults. This body would have been a child once, but he does not remember ever not being the size he is now. It suddenly fits together. This body was a cadaver - a dead man as the guard had called him - before being woken in the first facility. Whoever was in this body when it was a child was gone, replaced with whatever he was.

The woman was standing between him and the children now, her posture defensive, yelling at him to stay away. He realizes he has been staring for some time, blood all over him. The Soldier leaves her the supplies and weapons of the man and woman who had been holding them (the cannibals are just blood spatter and parts in the dust now) along with some of his food. He lines it all up silently in the road while the woman continues to keep her children pressed behind her. For the first time he feels the indescribable sinking in his chest from how another person looks at him, suddenly very aware that he is a monster.

The Soldier finds the asset months later, in a large barn not far into the edge of the waste. It appears to have fallen through the roof from above. He has long enough to contemplate how he will move it - he can lift it, but it is awkward and cumbersome - when he hears voices from outside. There is a small alcove at the end of a row of enclosed horse stalls where tools were stored. He retreats there, into darkness, lays in wait.

There is a tall man, dark skinned, bald. He recognizes him, vaguely. From the facility? Not a guard. Not a doctor. It is unclear. Perhaps from a mission. His firearm is large, high-tech. A former special operative of some kind?

The red-headed woman with him has two pistols and an electro-shock disc launcher on each wrist. This weapon had been used on him before - it will not paralyze him as it would a human, but he recalls the intense pain it caused, the burns taking longer to heal than his other injuries. It will slow him.

More enter, with others outside. He hears the ones he cannot see. The ones he can are all armed, some of them clearly ex special ops from their uniforms and automatic weapons. The panic flares in him, the want and need in agreement he will have to fight his way free at any cost before he can let them trap him.

"Holy shit, it's big," he hears a deep voice say.

When the blonde it belongs to comes into view he is not at all what the Soldier expects. Nearly a foot shorter than him and probably a bit younger (though of course the Soldier's age was relative). The man is slender, armed with an ancient rifle. Definitely a civilian from his clothes. He has an innocent face but eyes that are unsettlingly aware and worry lines on his forehead.

"That's what she said!" A man with a quiver of arrows on his back comes to stand beside the small man. A bit taller, far more muscular, bow in hand. The shorter man rolls his eyes, but begrudgingly smiles. It is different from the interactions he normally sees within groups of the deserving.

There are many other non-military. Even an old woman with a hunting rifle. No one wears human trophies - these are not cannibals. Nor do they carry the scattershot of homemade weapons common to marauders. They look relatively clean, well-fed. Perhaps from a settlement. He had run across places before with ex-Army or Marines holding together a community. He reminds himself not all military are like the men in the facility.

A few keep watch while the rest eat, talking and laughing, in a circle on the ground. The blonde heads in his direction and the Soldier freezes. He smells amazing and the bigger man has a brief war with the need as it demands he pull the smaller man into the dark. The blonde goes behind a wagon, pushes the suspenders from his shoulders (small, but a bit wide for his proportions), unzips, starts to urinate into the straw there.

The Soldier can see his lower back, narrow hips and the top of his buttocks where his too-large pants are slightly down. He is covered in scars. Burns, cuts, what appear to be the gouges of fingernails. It is clear they travel further under his clothes in both directions. He has never seen a human so marked.

Amazing one so small could endure such torment. He remembers his own punishment in the facility and feels a stab of pity. He would like to say he bears no such marks as reminder of his suffering, but the reactions of others to his appearance tells a different story.

The blonde puts himself away, tucks his shirt back in, pulls up the suspenders and turns to go. He stops. Stares into the pitch black of the Soldier's hiding place. He is sure he has not made a sound, his eyes hidden behind the dark goggle lenses, yet the small man seems to know he is being watched. The blonde takes a screw from his pocket, throws it into the right side of the cubby. The Soldier silently dodges it and it hits the back wall with a thunk. He takes out another, does the same but aiming to the left. The Soldier quickly side-steps it. It strikes home again.

Clever.

"Quit fucking off or you're not getting any chocolate," the archer calls to the blonde. He slowly retreats back to the group. The Soldier watches them all split one large bar, each snapping off a small square before passing it. Sharing is not something the deserving do.

He decides to let them take the asset. They have transportation, a place to house it. Easier to let them do the work and follow at a distance. If their custody can be trusted, he can guard the settlement, thus guarding the asset.

A brief flash of recognition is all that keeps him from breaking the smaller man's neck - and killing his attacking companion in the throes of the Soldier's confusion and thirst - months later in the dunes by the yard. He puts together precisely why he recognizes the little blonde after they flee, when he sees the manner in which he was removed from the sandpit.

Clever.

Curiosity had driven him to follow. He had no idea where it would lead.

Chapter Text

Six days after their uncomfortable breakfast conversation, the mechanic asks Clint how he will know if Steve sees anything when he spies on the Soldier. Clint simply replies that the blonde is terrible at lying - except perhaps to himself. The smaller man is less than amused. No amount of self-deception can make him forget what he witnesses when he sneaks back to his shanty fifteen minutes after saying he was going to Win's.

He had left the curtains open a crack, just like Barton had suggested, and the light was on inside, just like Clint guessed it would be. Steve scans the room slowly from the left, not seeing any sign of him. He fully expected Buck to be sitting on the bed reading, or at the table taking apart something. Even though he didn't have any ammunition, he still frequently disassembled and cleaned his guns. Steve had started showing him how to do the same with engine parts, ironically to put his hands to better use.

For a minute, he considers the Soldier has gone to see Vic or Clint again. But then he hears it, the breathy little noises from the back right corner. He moves closer to the glass, angling his head to see that dimly lit part of the interior. Even when he gave vague consideration to the idea that Clint could be telling the truth, he never imagined he'd see this.

Buck isn't in fact pounding off or pulling his pud or whatever childish euphamism one wanted to use for the act of stroking one's penis. The Soldier is completely naked, down on the floor, his body forming a ninety degree angle. The lower half of his legs run behind him, the tops of his feet and shins pressed to the floor, soles and calves pointed to the ceiling. The rest of his body is raised up on his knees, the front of his thighs, belly and chest forming an almost straight line save the shape of his muscles and his full erection. There is a large, ragged towel stretched out in front of him (well that's considerate, Steve thinks absently).

He's not in fact touching his cock - now more deep gray-purple in certain parts - at all. The Soldier has his silver arm bent back behind him. Two ribbed metal fingers, glistening with something slick, slide in and out of him. Buck's breathing slow but hard, a little groan coming out on each exhale. Steve clutches the window frame, frozen and wide-eyed. Buck turns his hand ever so slightly. It must change the angle enough for his fingertips to rub over the sensitive spot inside him even better. His sounds get louder, closer together as his breathing speeds up, more high-pitched as his chin tilts up and he arches back. Unh, unh, unh...

Holy fuck, is Steve's most eloquent thought.

The noises quiet for a brief second.

"S-Steve…" Buck practically whimpers.

Holy fuck!

Holy fuck holyfuck holyfuckholyfuckholyfuck!

Steve stands on legs like gelatin, backs slowly up about twenty feet, then turns and runs, scooping up his boots as he passes them. He finds Clint at the pub, like always, slides silently onto the stool next to him at the bar. When the bigger man turns to look at Steve, the blonde's face is shell-shocked.

Steve raises a finger, signaling Vic. He was always doing odd jobs for the barman, like replacing window panes and figuring out ways to mould more drinking glasses, and had developed quite a credit stash since he almost never drank. Luckily he hoarded them in a cargo pocket on his coat.

"Whatever's strongest and make it a double."

The blonde throws back the requested liquor in a single gulp, returning the glass to the bar a bit too loud. "Another, please."

"Told you," the archer says simply, sipping his beer.

"Fuck you, Clint. Fuck you so hard." He sounds like he just watched an old woman try to dry her dog in the microwave.

"So?" Barton queries.

Vic places a mixed drink in front of Steve. "Have this instead, lightweight. On the house."

Steve clutches it with both hands as he sips, looking like a kid with chocolate milk.

"He was...bigger end of average. Or smaller end of big. I don't know! He was definitely not growling, and he wasn't standing, and he...said my name. He said my fucking name!"

"Woooah..." Clint puts his empty glass down, motions Vic for another, pays him with one of Steve's tokens.

The archer swivels towards the mechanic on his stool. Steve turns his head towards the taller man - Clint looks pensive, like he'll say something thoughtful.

"But what color was it?" He raises both eyebrows.

"Ohmygodfuckyou!" Steve snatches his drink back up, takes a large swallow.

"I picture it super black and and all ridgy, like a mutant horse cock."

"You are a terrible bastard and I don't know how I let you talk me into this." He immediately glugs his drink down, pays for another. Vic starts to say something but Steve waves him off.

"This is great news though, right?" Clint smiles.

"What? How? Why?" He immediately starts drinking the new one.

"Who, when, where," Clint answers. "No but really, now you know your little crush isn't unrequited."

"Excuse me, my what?! I… not. I don't… I'm not interested in him like that." After a brief pause, Steve snatches Clint's beer from him, as if to make up for his uncharacteristic lack of a snappy comeback.

"You think you're so slick. I see the way you moon over him and check him out when he's got tight clothes on. Which is, like, always because he's a beast. It's nothing to be ashamed of that you want to bang a beefy dude." Clint hails Vic down again.

"I've literally never hidden that I'm attracted to women and men. That's not remotely the point!" He slams the beer back in front of Clint.

"I meant you still wanting sex with dudes is nothing to be ashamed of." Clint's voice goes softer, trying to tread lightly around this particular subject. "You doing some dudes doesn't mean you want every dude."

"Another one of these, please." Steve gestures to his empty drink with one hand, pushes a token forward as Vic comes over. The barman sighs and shrugs, leaves to make it.

"I've had sex since…I got here. I've done stuff with dudes here..."

"Yeahyeah you and Win did it like once and you messed around with Sam and Carol a million years ago." Clint takes a swig of his drink.

"The fuck, Barton? Nosey much?"

Steve glares at him as Vic puts a new mixed drink down, carefully avoiding eye contact with the angry blonde.

"This place is tiny and everyone talks. And hears everyone else...ya know." He makes a loose fist with one hand, jams the pointer finger of his other hand into it repeatedly. "We heard Greta one time!"

"So I'm not a fucking cassenova like you when you were single. Sue me." Steve hoists his new beverage, takes a long drink.

"You're practically a fucking monk. He wants to do it. You want to do it. Bingo bongo. If you're a-okay, like you say, what's the problem?" The taller man slugs his beer.

"He doesn't understand what doing it even means. He doesn't get that kinda stuff."

"Uhh he clearly does!" Clint makes a pumping gesture near his crotch.

"He wasn't… He wasn't doing that." Steve doesn't know why he says it, regrets it immediately.

"Was he like… fucking a Vaseline filled sandwich bag between the mattress and bedframe?"

"That's...weirdly specific." Steve turns to eye him.

"Using both his feet to stroke it?"

"That's a thing people do to themselves?"

"Oh my God. Was it butt stuff?" Clint puts his beer down a little too fast and a lot too loud. He takes Steve's silence as an answer. "It was butt stuff! Good for him. I told him butt stuff is pretty awesome."

"Clint, why? Just why?!"

Vic winces at the other end of the bar as Steve's drink also bangs down.

"What?! This is like, ideal. He can just bottom and things will be more..." Clint takes a really long pause, "comfortable for you."

A tiny voice in the back of Steve's head congratulates Clint on saying "bottom" instead of something offensive the mechanic would expect the archer to say like "be the girl" or "bite the pillow."

"I'm not saying that I want to do stuff like that with him, but even if I did, I couldn't, because that would be taking advantage." Steve snatches his drink back up, takes a long pull.

"Umm, pretty sure taking advantage of him is exactly what he wants you to do." The archer finishes his beer, slides the empty glass past Steve to Vic.

"He has the emotional IQ of a twelve year old." The blonde stares into his beverage.

"I mean… so do I. And I'm married." Clint catches the refill Vic slides to him.

"It's not the same! He asked me one day if we were more than friends and I went into full panic mode until I realized he had no idea what that actually meant. He thought it was just like, friendship version 2.0 and was all eager to play on advanced mode."

"Yeah, because he wants to be your special friend that you like more than everyone else."

The goddamn finger quotes again.

"Yeah, like a little kid." Steve finishes his drink.

"Like someone who doesn't have the words to describe having a crush on someone. Who maybe doesn't know what it means when you want to be around someone all the time and have them like you best and have them do stuff to your butt." Clint is doing his best fatherly wisdom voice. He puts a hand on Steve's shoulder but the blonde immediately jerks away from him.

"That right there is exactly what I was talking about earlier." Clint's voice suddenly goes serious.

"What? I just don't like that!" Steve spits back.

"Oh but you're so well adjusted and nothing's wrong.. Which is why one of your best friends can't even put his hand on your arm without you trying to rip it off." Clint tilts his beer back.

"You're not my friend! You're a huge fucking pain in my ass!"

"Watch what you say, kid!" Clint points his finger at the blonde.

"It's called liking personal space! It's perfectly normal!"

"That. That is why you can't admit that you like him or he likes you or that you want to make sex on each other. Because you can't admit to yourself how much what happened before is still effecting you." Clint turns towards him again on the stool. "You won't talk about it. You dance around it when I do. It's not healthy."

"Oh thank you, Dr. Barton. Do you accept my insurance or should I use a credit card?" Steve swivels towards the archer, one fist clenched in his lap.

"I'm serious, Stevie."

"Don't fucking call me that!" Steve yells up at Clint as he finishes his beer.

The bigger man sets the glass down, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand as he stares the smaller man down. Clint leans forward until he's inches from Steve's face.

"Stevie. Stevie. Stevie." He grits out through clenched teeth.

Steve stares back at him for a long moment, enough time for Clint to see something bubble up in the mechanic's face that tells him he has made a grievous mistake. The blonde is on him in an instant, knocking him back off the bar stool onto the wooden floor, toppling over with him. He has a thigh on either side of Clint's stomach, pummeling at the other man with his fists - left, right, left, right - as the archer tries to shield his face with his forearms. The archer thinks, not for the first time, The little shit can throw a punch.

Clint bends his legs up, grips either side of Steve's narrow waist with his calves, flips the blonde on his back as he rolls to straddle the smaller man, holding himself up on his knees to not crush him. The bigger man puts his hands up in front of him, palms facing out.

"Peace, Steve! I don't wanna hurt you."

Clint barely has time to squeeze the words out before catching a left-hook to the eye. He grabs the blonde's skinny wrists and yells "Calm! Down!" into his face.

Steve knees him in the balls, scrambles backwards away from him, is up on his unstable feet fairly quick. The room tilts a little, the alcohol suddenly hitting him much harder, but he shakes his head, puts his dukes up.

Clint slowly gets to his feet, holding himself, staggers a bit before finding his footing. Everyone is staring, and it isn't because of his biceps.

"I think the patient needs to act out some previous trauma. You want a replay? You'll get one," the archer says, now fully upright.

Clint runs at Steve, tackles him onto a table. Steve bites him on the shoulder, making the bigger man wail. He stands half up, socks the kid one in the face. Fuck, is their lead in his cheekbones? He's in the middle of pulling back to fire off another - Steve already digging his nails into the tender meat at the back of Clint's other arm and grasping a glass with his other hand to smash into the bigger man's face - when a strangely firm hand grabs the archer's wrist. He turns to see the Soldier, eyes glowing brightly, standing beside him.

"Uh, hey big fella this isn't what it loooooooooooooo!"

A simple movement of the metal arm hurdles Clint into the nearest wall. He barely has time to get on his hands and knees before the Soldier is on him, grabbing him by the throat. He hoists the archer several feet off the floor.

"Stop! Stop! Stop!" Steve runs to him, grabs his flesh arm. "Please, please stop!" The Soldier looks at his face, already reddening from the blow, a small cut their sluggishly bleeding, then back at Clint. He's pulling at the Soldier's silver fingers as his face turns beet red, heels thumping uselessly into the wall.

"He hurt you," Buck says, voice low and even. There's something beneath it though, something dark and terrifying. You could hear a pin drop in the bar behind them.

"It's my fault. I started it. Now let him go!" Steve says urgently. The Soldier seems to ignore him. Clint's face is turning maroon. "Please, Buck!" the blonde pleads.

The Soldier simply releases Clint and he drops to his feet, legs almost going out beneath him as he doubles over, knees bent, choking and gasping. The Soldier lords over him, points a finger in his face.

"Do not touch him again." His tone is cold, volume ever so slightly elevated. Compared to his usual voice, he may as well be yelling.

"Let's go. Please. Let's go!" Steve herds the Soldier out of the pub, stopping only briefly to meet eyes with Clint as he coughs.

Chapter Text

Fury is less than pleased to see Clint and the Winter Soldier waiting outside the small construction site trailer that functions as his office. It's well before anyone, save those on guard duty, are awake. He hasn't even unlocked the door to let himself in yet.

"What shit sandwich have you come to feed me, Barton? This community is entirely too devoid of coffee for you to be bothering me at this hour." His gaze runs slowly over both of his uninvited visitors.

"My buddy here has a request and I think you should hear him out," Clint offers, sounding pretty exhausted himself.

"Psssssh." Fury crosses his arms. "He speak for you now?" Nick juts his chin at the Soldier.

"Negotiations sometimes require a third party familiar with both sides," it quietly responds.

"Cut the bullshit. If you're half as smart as an actual person, you know Clint is less than useful at making compelling arguments about anything." Fury's good eye flares then narrows.

"I believed you would feel less threatened if I did not come alone," the Soldier calmly responds.

"You do that to his face?" The older man gestures at the archer, his black eye nearly swollen shut.

"I did not strike him. I only strangled him briefly. It was a misunderstanding. I have apologized," the Soldier says calmly.

"It's been thirty-six hours since I took this hit. I'm sure you knew all about it in twenty minutes." Barton folds his own arms in a blatantly mocking way.

"That kid is gonna be the death of us all. Why in hell did I let you talk me into bringing him here?"

The archer looks at his feet, sighs, shakes his head, before returning eye contact to Fury. "Keep tellin' yourself it was all my idea."

The truth was, Nick had an intense love-hate relationship with Steve that almost bordered on paternalistic. He deeply respected the kid, found him bright and with almost too much gumption. Fury also had to hand it to someone who never backed down from a fight when they were so lacking in physical size or prowess. Natasha was all of 5'3", but she was highly trained, honed by years in the field.
The blonde was just some scrawny nobody.

Nick was also endlessly irritated with him. Arguing and sarcasm were their version of fishing trips and playing catch. Steve could never leave well enough alone, never fall in line, always questioning, always with some new idea that would infuriatingly work after everyone said he was insane. He had such an uncanny knack for seeing through Fury's half-truths. The older man's bread and butter had been secrecy and manipulation for far too long to appreciate it.

You want something from him, don't you? Steve's voice echoes in his head.

When they'd met, the blonde was barely in his twenties and practically feral, with half his face smashed in. Nick couldn't fathom how he'd survived, particularly with Brock. He guessed it was the Brooklyn in the kid - not the privileged, hipster kind but the old school kind. Descendents of immigrants who came here with nothing, people who fought and clawed to stay in their city no matter what tried to push them out.

Steve almost never talked about his mother, but Nick had gleaned that her people came from Ireland during the famine, they'd settled in the city after crossing Ellis Island like so many others and had never left. Generations of cyclical poverty later, his mother was still holding multiple jobs to get by when everything had went to shit. The kid had variously mentioned her working at a laundry, as a seamstress and as a nurse's aide. Which made sense why the blonde could sew or get out a bloodstain just as well as he could bandage a wound.

Nick could make excellent ribs but outside of that his skill-set was largely in people management. Sometimes that meant killing them. But often it meant moving them around like pieces on a chessboard. Fury still had lingering guilt for the last thing he'd said at the gate that night the Soldier arrived, but he needed Steve to get close without getting too close and old habits die hard.

Telling the blonde befriending the Soldier was a stupid idea would make him want to do it even more. Giving just enough back story to make it sound wronged and in need of a champion would get the kid's hackles up. But reminding him he could get abused if he wasn't careful might help him keep at least some of his wits about him. Still, the pained look on Steve's face made him regret his actions for the briefest moment.

The kid and Win had endeared themselves to a number of key players in the junktown; their opinions held weight, especially after the wall went up, the irrigation system, the wind turbines (small though they were without adequate equipment to build or hoist larger ones and this wasn't exactly the windy city). Clint busied himself teaching people archery after the aluminium extruder was completed and they could make a virtually endless supply of arrows - now everyone in Claptrap who was able could shoot a gun or a bow.

When Steve and Win told people "this man saved my life," that was what they chose to see, a man. A strange man that drove a lot of speculation and gossip, but a man. Not a thing. And that was how Nick was able to bring it inside the gate, to keep an even closer eye on it, to work on molding its intentions towards his own ends.

If he'd welcomed the Soldier with open arms everyone would be suspicious, most of all Steve, and distrusting of his judgment. I didn't want it here. It was all their idea. It was great cover. As the Soldier lays out its proposal in the office, Nick contemplates the work it took to get the Soldier to his gate.

One of the remaining solar powered mini-drones had shown him the Soldier, or at least the part of it emerging from the pit in the dunes, as it did its daily fly by of the yard's perimeter. It had taken him an hour to figure out what to do about it. The aerial surveillance made Fury aware a while ago that the creature was circling Claptrap, picking off ne'erdowells as they approached, freeing their captives if they had any and sending them off in the opposite direction with supplies. The Soldier didn't direct them to the junktown because if it did they would have reported it was out there.

Still, when it discovered a child in the back of a now-dead cannibal's truck with the corpse of her mother, the Soldier left her at Claptrap's gate in the middle of the night. To this day no one but Nick knew where she came from but Steve had commented on how often the mute little girl would follow him around once the Soldier arrived. If the neural net was functioning properly the thing would be a blank, immobile shell without the commands of a master. That meant it had none; no one with the knowledge to control it would be the type to use their weapon to save children.

The microcircuitry must be damaged. That didn't mean it was harmless or on their side either. Most likely it could sense the asset was near, or had even followed them from the barn where they'd recovered it, but it doesn't know where they put it. Trapping it was out of the question. It wasn't impossible, but it would cost far too many lives and it was obvious that they would not be able to make it comply if they were successful.

He could not help but recall when they had first encountered Win in the factory. She had nearly carved Steve's face off with an acetylene torch yet he had begged Fury not to abandon the stranger to starve alone; he had no idea who was even under the mask and baggy coveralls. The kid didn't speak her language and still managed to convince her to come along. They could just barely hold a full conversation now with months of the Soldier's tutelage.

Steve was a powder keg under the right circumstances, and there was certainly some dark shit swirling behind the non-threatening, boyish face. But he was usually thoughtful, patient, funny, jovial. He wasn't judgmental or afraid of much. Fury remembers Steve staring into the dark of the barn's tool storage cubicle; always too curious for his own good.

If it had been in the dark alcove as the blonde peered in, it definitely saw him. The thing could have yanked him in there, clamped a hand over his mouth, drained him before any of them noticed he was missing. But it hadn't. Maybe something about Steve had convinced it to let them be when they'd taken the asset. If it recognized him in the dunes, that could work to his advantage.

If the Soldier was playing at being a person, maybe it wanted a friend.

It had only taken a little late night tampering with Clint's machine - flushing out some of the lubricant, creating a hairline fracture in a cog with a hammer and chisel that would split under pressure when it overheated - to get it to breakdown the following morning. To send Steve right where he needed him. He knew the mechanic and the welder always had their snack facing out into the wastes, away from the trashpicking. The marauders had been a convenient turn; Nick had known they were near and timed Steve's "surprise" trip perfectly so they would be on his path when he returned. The Soldier could handle them but Nick had his (now meager) tactical team on stand by in case things went south.

He had gone to a lot of trouble to bring the Soldier into the fold. Yet here it was telling him it wanted to leave the junktown (and without its babysitter).

"I am not a dog. I do not wish to follow someone around anymore." The Soldier stares up at him across the desk, sitting in the chair Steve had been in recently. Unlike the blonde - face an open book, nervous energy spilling out into a constantly jiggling leg as his long, spindly fingers picked at something on his pant leg - it sits unblinking, back straight, hands in loose curls facing palms-down in its lap. Its eyes are a color reserved for gel ice packs or glowsticks. God, it is unsettling.

"And if I give you what you want, what guarantees do I have I won't regret it?" Fury queries.

"If my intentions towards you and this community were violent in nature, you would already be dead and it would be rubble."

Cocky. Steve had rubbed off on him. Fury immediately imagines Clint's lewd response to that statement.

The archer, thankfully, hadn't stayed after saying his piece. It amounted to give the thing whatever it wants, though the shorter man had addressed it as Bucky. Clint had a fetish for calling people diminutive versions of their name. He had called Fury "Nicky" just once and the withering look the older man had given him deterred him from doing it again. He had referred to the mechanic as Stevie for years despite the blonde's repeated protests.

He was already well aware Steve had rubbed off on Clint. The archer had taken to the mechanic right away like he was a stray dog (subtly needy once you got past the biting). That was why he had not asked Clint to sabotage the machine. He noticed the kid often made a show of keeping Clint at arm's length, but to Fury it only confirmed how much Steve valued the other man's company.

"Let's say I granted your little request. What else would you need?"

"I would require ammunition. And the assistance of your metalsmith in the creation of several items. In addition, permission to make modifications to one of your vehicles. Win would assist me." Its face is almost without expression save something stirring deep in its eyes.

"What reassurance do I have that you'll keep your word?"

"I was not trained to lie."

You weren't trained to have domestic squabbles either. The scene in the bar, and the loud argument that followed, caused some significant chatter throughout the community about their long-term guest. Perhaps it was for the best to remove the Soldier from the equation. Fury had initially assumed the situation with Steve would blow over, but the blonde would not come out of his shanty. Regardless of his long-term goals, in the short-term he needed his machines to run, his power to stay on and the equipment watering the crops to work properly.

"What about Steve?" Fury cocks an eyebrow.

"What about him?" The Soldier's tone stays bland but there's a flicker of something on his face.

"I need an hour to make the necessary arrangements. Will that do, sir?" he asks in a sarcastic, put-upon tone he hopes is not lost on the thing.

"Acceptable." The Soldier rises abruptly to leave.

Chapter Text

Steve wakes in his bed, not entirely sure how he got there. It feels like a full sized marching band is performing Mardi Gras music inside his skull. His body is slick and gritty under his filthy jeans and too-warm sweater. At least his boots are off; Buck must have done that. It makes him warm a bit but then he twists the soft feeling into anger.

He sits up slowly on shaky arms, his hands incredibly sore. When everything stops going gray and he can move without fear of falling on to the floor, he lifts his hands to check them. His knuckles are bruised dark and swollen; one of them even split open.

Yeah. That happened.

His face is worse, a steady burning throb from his left cheek spreading into his jaw and molars. Clint had pulled no punches, literally. Turning his head feels like an immense endeavor that takes hours - he's moderately dizzy, stomach lurching, the room still moving after he has stopped. He's hit with a memory of throwing up all over the floor, on his hands and knees. Buck must have cleaned it up.

He vaguely remembers the bigger man wiping his face with a rag as he slapped at him, scooping him up while Steve battered him with his fists, putting him in bed as the smaller man raged and called him every name in the book.

That was nice of him. Steve's rational voice sounds so much like his mom.

Fuck him. He shouldn't have touched me. The stubborn one is all Steve though. Or maybe that's his dad coming out. He wouldn't know. He'd never met the man.

You would've preferred waking up in your cold puke on the freezing ground?

Steve's eyes scan around again - the small trash can is on the floor next to the bed, lined with a plastic shopping bag. There were several bottles of water, a package of crackers and a container of aspirin on the top of the headboard.

That's like gold around here. Bruce would have given him a couple, if he begged, but not a bottle.

It must have come from the Soldier's duffel, or the "bag of tricks" as Steve had labelled it since Buck would pull the most random things out of it. The duffel. It was usually in the corner almost straight across the shack from the bed, along with Buck's unused, rolled up sleeping bag and a small trunk they'd found for him to store his few clothes in. The corner was completely empty. Steve feels like a pit has opened in his stomach.

It's just the hangover.

You shouldn't have said the things you did.

I just told him the truth.

Only stupid people mistake cruelty for honesty.

He had been cruel.

So what? The Soldier deserved it. It was hard to put words to exactly why, harder still to remember all of what he'd said. He'd felt betrayed or cheated or tricked. And so very, very pissed off.

And you certainly never use anger to mask your other feelings...

He'd yelled at Buck for going after him to the pub, for making a scene in front of everyone. They had definitely noticed his glowing eyes, not to mention the extreme level of violence that he was capable of, even against someone who befriended him. Steve said he was sick of the Soldier following him around like a big, stupid dog.

"You ruined everything!" Steve had screamed up at him as soon as they were inside the shanty. Fuck, he's drunk. When did that happen?

"I will apologize. The others will understand."

"Fuck Clint. Fuck the others. You ruined everything for me! I trusted you. I trusted you to stay in the house when I asked and not to be fucking yourself while I was away!" He's starting to slur his words, to get that weird feeling like his head is a balloon coming untethered from his body.

The Soldier's face stays painfully blank.

"I did not ask you to spy on me." His voice is low and even, but there's that hint of anger beneath.

Fuck, so he knew.

"It's my house!" Good comeback, Rogers. Very sound argument.

"It is my body. You do not decide what I do with it." For the first time ever, the Soldier actually raises his voice. Not just to a typical volume like earlier, which had seemed so loud to Steve, but a level actually above that. It only pushes the button in the blonde's brain that tells him to be even more confrontational.

"I let you sleep with me!" The blonde throws his hands up, feels dizzy and off-kilter immediately.

"I have not done it in the bed. When you were here."

"YOU DID IT IN MY BED?" Steve practically screams. I bet the neighbors loved that.

"Only the first time. I did not realize what would happen." His voice is low again, perhaps even a bit embarrassed, not at the act itself but at his lack of knowledge.

"I really thought I wouldn't have to deal with this bullshit from you. That I could trust you of all people to not want that. I mean, what the hell? You shouldn't even think about things like that," Steve rants. He suddenly has to grab the back of a kitchen chair, the room starting to spin slowly on a tilted axis.

"I have not done anything wrong. It is a normal part of human behavior." The Soldier looks genuinely affronted. Something about that really bothers Steve. A childish voice in the back of his mind says that Buck is just copying facial expressions from those around him, trying to mimic real emotions rather than feeling them.

"Well you're not fucking human, are you?" Steve retorts, raising his eyes to look the bigger man in the face. Real hurt blossoms there. The Soldier's brows knit together, his lips press into a little frown.

Steve didn't have time to contemplate that reaction before he was violently wretching. Now he's stuck in bed with all the time in the world to think.

Nobody ever wants me in the way I want to be wanted. Win didn't love me back. Sam and Carol just used me to entertain themselves. Everyone else who's ever made advances towards me thought I'd be weak and easy to control. They just wanted to lord their power over someone. The last thing that I need is some random monster getting off thinking about doing god-knows-what to me. Because it's never enough for people to just fantasize about hurting someone, eventually they always do it.

The other voice tells him that he isn't being fair, that he's not a psychic and he has no idea what's in Buck's head. Steve pushes it away.

He feels like he literally wants to die. The nausea and headache are terrible, his body throbbing with pain, and he knows the twisting inside him is from far more than overdoing it at the pub. He desperately needs to hate everyone - the Soldier, Clint, all the stupid people at the bar who had laughed at them while they beat each other, Fury for letting this happen. He needs to hate them so that he doesn't have to hate himself.

He sleeps most of the day away, barely eating anything and refusing to let himself take any of the aspirin. Physically he feels passable the next morning, but he just can't bring himself to get out of bed. His sleep was riddled with nightmares and unlike before, when he would wake up and see Buck there (and occasionally even put his hand on the sleeping Soldier's belly to feel its calming rise and fall as he had once done to Violet) he is completely alone.

Steve can hear and feel and smell Brock like he's in the room. He wraps his arms around his head, buries his face in the crooks of his elbows, but it does nothing to block it out. It does however muffle his screaming, equal parts disgust, rage and frustration.

He drifts in and out the whole day, seeing Brock, his mom, Jack. He can't bring himself to eat anything, only gets up once to piss in the trash can out of desperation. Several people come knocking on his door that day, Nat and Wanda among them, but he tells them all to leave him alone. He's afraid if he doesn't respond at all they'll tell Fury he's offed himself and the strike team will break the door down.

By the third day he smells awful. He's still in the same night shirt that he had begrudgingly changed into after waking up, which would normally be fine but he had not washed up at all before or since putting it on. There was even more urine in the can, and it certainly didn't smell like roses either. He makes himself eat, but goes right back to bed.

Steve had never thought of himself as a prissy or germiphobic person, but he was definitely fastidious. His mother had kept an extremely clean apartment and he'd been expected to pull his proverbial weight since he was a small boy; Sarah Rogers hated the idea that people thought of the poor as dirty and unkempt. Every time he started to convince himself to get up, he looked over at the empty corner. He reaches up and touches the swollen spot on his face, the little cut there crusted over.

What had he done?

He doesn't want to face the people in the town. He doesn't want to have to answer for his behavior or Buck's behavior. He doesn't want to listen to Nick's smug observations.

When he wakes up the fourth day he just can't fucking lay there anymore, drowning in his own stink.

Cleaned up and changed, trash can emptied and relined, he makes his way to Win's. She's not really a breakfast person and always has tea or coffee in the morning while she reads her comic books. The welder had never failed to cheer him up, and he thought they could go on their rounds together, returning some sense of normalcy to his life.

"You look like shit," Win says without a hint of humor, sitting at her small table as she sips what appears to be Earl Grey from the smell.

He had avoided looking in the mirror at home, but she directs him to the one hanging behind him near the entrance. His face sports a black and blue lump with a scab in the middle, green and yellow moddled bruising spreading out from it. He's more pale than usual (even with all the scavenged sunblock in the world his fair skin still burns and then very lightly tans), eyes rimmed red and hair looking greasy. Well if she didn't want to date you before, Rogers…

Everything in her place is metal with very few exceptions, soldered from scrap, trinkets and random parts that they had scavenged and spray-painted in various bright colors. She's buzzed her hair again somewhat recently and it's extra short. Watching her sit at her teal scavenged garden table - braless in a men's white muscle shirt, woven leather suspenders holding up her paint splattered cargo pants,their legs rolled up at the bottom just above her unlaced boots - Steve wonders how he ever thought he was cool enough for this person. Win took the apocalypse in stride along with every hardship it had to offer and somehow came out incredibly confident and driven.

He realizes quickly her inability to suffer bullshit is in full effect. He watches her eye him with displeasure as he sits down across from her. She must be mad about the thing with Clint. Or him sticking her with the work the last few days. Or her translator skipping town on what she probably guessed was his account.

"You were asshole to him," she says bluntly.

"Can you be more specific?" is all he can think to respond.

She gestures to Buck's things, piled in a corner.

"He's...he's here still? He's staying with you?" There's a tone to the last sentence even he can't quite decipher.

"We are friends."

Steve knows her well enough to hear the implied "duh" in her tone. He supposed it was true. Win and the Soldier were certainly huddled together in conversation a lot when he was busy fixing something. Come to think about it, they were a bit handsy with each other. Were they…?

"He's in love with you." She says it flat and direct, like she's saying that shit stinks. "He does not really understand. But he is."

Yeah. Yeah that kind of makes sense.

"And… how do you feel about that?"

"Sorry for him." She sips her tea. Just like Kermit, he thinks, full of not so subtle judgment.

"Where is he?" Steve is a bit embarrassed at how much like pleading that sounded.

"Run." She picks her comic back up, lays it across the knee she has balanced against the side of the tabletop.

"We're not assigned to go out for a few weeks."

"He is assigned every run now." She opens her book, flips slowly through a few pages like he's very boring. After a long silence, she finally looks up at Steve's pathetically forlorned face, sighs, tosses the book on the table. "Few days trip. Clint though, at the pub. Go!"

"I don't know what to say to him." Steve stares at his hands.

"Maybe words not your strength. Try something else." Her English was still far from perfect, but Steve couldn't judge since his Cantonese was far worse. She's certainly smarter than him, regardless of the language she uses.

Clint sees Steve way before he gets to the table, the smile fading from his equally bruised face. He gets up and makes a bee line to the bathroom. The toilets don't work so the stalls are boarded shut, but there's a urinal trough that drains just fine.

Nat calls to the small man as he passes in pursuit. "That's not a good idea, blondy. He's not in a place to hear what you have to say right now."

When Steve bursts in, the archer actually is taking a piss. He intentionally draws it out, whistling a tune and wheedling from side to side as Steve waits in silence; by the end he's just forcing out random drops. After he's zipped up he covers his hands in entirely too much sanitizer, stares Steve down as he aggressively rubs it around for far too long. Steve just gazes back, an uncharacteristically nervous look on his face.

"This had better be fucking good," Clint finally growls, "I mean an epic apology. Grovelling. Begging. Promises of servitude."

Steve takes a step towards him, slowly reaches out and takes Clint's (slimy, alcohol scented) hand. The blonde moves it to his own bony shoulder. Clint's face twists as Steve looks earnestly up at him, eyes shiny. Steve leans forward and pushes his face to the bigger man's chest.

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry I hit you. I'm sorry I said you weren't my friend." The smaller man's deep voice, half muffled, crackles as tears start to spill down his cheeks, soaking hot through Clint's shirt.

"That'll do pig. That'll do." Clint lightly squeezes his shoulder. Steve sobs, his own hands dangling at his sides as his body starts to shake.

"Can I…? Can I hug you?" the archer asks tentatively. He feels Steve nod against him and slides his thick arms loosely around Steve's upper back. "It's okay, kid. It's okay."

Another patron enters, eyes the two men. "I need to piss. Get a room."

"Fuck you, prick! We're bonding here!" Clint yells.

Once the man has backed out of the door, Steve starts giggling. He slowly stands upright, wiping his face as he breaks into fits of laughter. The archer does the same. Soon their maniacal cackling is echoing in the tiny space and spilling out into the pub.

Chapter Text

Buck had not developed any sort of plan as to what his requested position - permanent scavenging run point leader - could gain him. He recognized going to Fury and asking to completely change the nature of their arrangement was poorly thought out, a purely emotional reaction. In some small way that gratifies him; it is very human. It was clear he could no longer spend all his time with the little mechanic. Perhaps he would not be spending any of his time with him.

He tried to push away the feelings that thought made claw at the inside of his chest and stomach. Regardless, they both required space that could not be had if the blonde were required to continue watching him or if Buck had to remain constantly on the grounds of the junktown. He could not hide inside Win's (very interesting to look at) home forever.

He had not acknowledged previously how wasted his skill set was within Claptrap. It was good to feel the weight of the full magazine and the weapon that housed it hanging on the strap across his body, of the loaded pistol in its holster against his thigh. Perhaps he should not enjoy wearing the uniform - goggles, mask, boots, heavy slacks - forced upon him when he was one of many identical soldiers. Maybe it speaks to him as a creature of violence to be pleased with the makeshift harness he had added to the front of his vest for the two dozen throwing knives the metalsmith had forged for him. Yet he feels comfortable and alert in a way he had not in some time.

On his request, and with Fury's permission, Win had welded two circular steel mounts on the top of the heaviest run truck's cab, several more sets along the roof of the cargo box attached to it. The vest had retractable strapping along both sides - designed to rig himself into an aircraft were it to become damaged and lose pressure - just above his waist. Each could be extended about five feet and featured a steel caribener on the end that pressed flat to his ribs when the straps were fully in. With the rings he could clip himself to the truck, wherever was necessary. No matter what he was hit with, he would not be removed from the vehicle.

The welder had also constructed and attached metal plates over the front windshield and side windows. They featured a series of holes large enough to see out but small enough to be virtually impossible for even very low caliber rounds to pass through. She also added a structure made of large pipes across the front of the grill, similar to the so-called cow catcher on a train. He had seen that in one of Steve's books.

Fury had suggested two options for his first major mission - hit a group of reavers that was gathering to the east in the remains of a farming town or invade a formerly friendly stronghold in the west that had been violently colonized by Burners.

The reavers had limited transportation, but were savage cannibals. They would move into a town or facility, carve up the locals, settle in and then start branching out with raiding parties, killing and eating everyone within fifty miles before moving on to the next area. They barely even bothered to scavenge. Claptrappers on runs had come across reaver kills who still had hoards of canned food and other useful supplies with them. There wasn't much around but the junktown and it was only a matter of time before they found their way to the front door.

The Burners had some transportation but largely stuck to their compound and the general vicinity. They had agriculture, solar power, hand dug wells, hydroponics. The settlement, a former green living experimental facility that hosted retreats for wealthy vegetarians and guilt-ridden soccer moms, had been a mini zen paradise before the collapse but it was too small to support more than fifty people so Fury could not move his community there.

Claptrap did not have direct communication with the Green Place, as it was simply called. It was out of walkie and cb range so even after they had sent a party to say hello and do a bit of trading there was still no easy way to know what was going on there. They had worked out a fairly regular pattern of meeting halfway to exchange information and goods. After their representatives did not appear one day, Fury retasked a drone to check out what was happening. They were met with a series of giant crosses - burning - with people strapped to them just outside the Green Place's perimeter wall.

Claptrappers had crossed paths with Burners before on the road - if they were not "of the color they preferred" (as Fury put it) they had tortured and killed them, setting them on fire in the wastes at the edge of the dunes, maiming their white companions as "race traders."

Nick explained Burners, short for Crossburners, were remnants of several social and political groups that believed in the supremacy of so-called white or Caucasian people over all others. It had taken Fury a lot of time to make the concept even semi-clear to the Soldier. Buck gave little thought to people's flesh pigmentation, beyond noticing its wide variety and that his own was like no else's. The Soldier certainly did not group the deserving or undeserving based on it or any other factor of bodily appearance. He decides, not for the first time, that there are many things about humans not worth emulating.

Even with Fury's tutelage, the Soldier cannot begin to understand the complexities of bigotry, extending well beyond complexion. The need to make someone else an other so that you can be the normal. Telling yourself that someone else is lesser so that you can feel above and use that as an excuse to take from them. An inability to respect that people may believe different things or hold different cultural norms and that did not make them bad or wrong or weird. Buck certainly does not understand that even people in Claptrap, ones that he would think of as good, may hold some lesser version of these beliefs.

For the first time in a long time, he knew precisely what his goal was and how to achieve it. There was no ambiguity to slaughtering a known enemy. The idea that these people would hurt Win or Vic or any number of others in the junktown simply because they disliked something about their body completely determined by genetics made him all the more certain he would sleep well after killing them.

Fury described in detail some of their allies who may be left at the Burners' compound if they had taken prisoners. He did not know how many of their former trading partners had been murdered or enslaved. This portion of the conversation had further cemented Buck's resolve to eliminate the Burners first. Now he knew there was someone specific at the facility he wanted to meet.

He had quickly formulated the idea to use one of the bigger delivery trucks as a battering ram after Nick had explained the layout of the facility, particularly its wall and massive gate. Stationing himself atop it, he could easily use the high sides of the truck as cover from close ground fire. Those inside would be safe behind the shielding and within the box of the truck, small rectangular holes cut in the sides to allow firing out. Other trucks could move in for scavenging once he and the main crew had dispatched their foes.

He would need someone reliable and fearless to drive the main vehicle - they could take heavy fire from armor piercing rounds, even something rare like a rocket launcher was not out of the question. It would be a very dangerous position to be in and they would need to think fast. He had asked for Greta.

She seemed flattered by the request, despite her reservations about what he was. She did not like the idea he may be giving her orders, or "running the show" as she had put it, but he had calmly relayed his plan to her and asked her advice. She thought it was solid, "ballsy," and said she was eager to "kill some fascist scum." The Soldier was unsure what that meant, but saw it as an encouraging sign that she was excited for the task at hand.

The Green Place's defenses were one of the main reasons Fury had not attempted to send anyone in after he had discovered the takeover. The walls were high, now topped with heavily armed sharpshooters, and they would have lost a lot of people trying only to possibly save no one. Most of the compound, even the agricultural areas, was not open to the sky so he had no idea how many survived (if any) from the previous residents.

Buck took heavy fire well before the truck approached the gate including high velocity rounds, the impact of which may have removed him from the speeding truck without the straps. Only one penetrated the kevlar. He was an excellent shot and was able to remove all fifteen of their wall guards before he had taken more than a few hits, several going through the meat of his arms and legs. Each hit is a blinding hot flare, like always, but he is used to pain and pushes it from his mind. Most of the holes heal quickly from within, forcing out the bullets that did not pass through.

The Soldier unhooks from the cab, reattaches halfway down the box and lays on his back. The truck smashes through the gate at full speed, debris flying over top of him. Well done, Greta. Then he's on his feet, firing and re-positioning methodically as the Burners seem to attack from every direction. Many do not have guns, attacking with clubs, machetes and a variety of other implements. He unhooks one strap, repels down the side of the truck on the other, runs along it slashing throats and throwing knife after knife, easily flipping back up on the roof to fire again when there are too many in one area.

The compound's main building is low, the roof unsuitable for mounting a defense from - they have no line of fire on him from above. Walls that protected them from the outside also kept them boxed closely in, the courtyard completely surrounded with buildings and possessing very little ground cover. The people in the back of the truck open fire. Even the least skilled marksman manages to hit someone with such close proximity to their targets. It had been made clear up front that this was not a negotiation and they would not be taking prisoners; Greta had said anyone who was squeamish should stay home.

"Like shooting fish in a barrel," Greta had commented after. "Nazi fucks."

She had also suggested several clever ways for him to feed without the others seeing. At first the Soldier pretends to not understand what she is indicating, but she finally tells him that she is not a fool and he does not need to pretend with her.

"Whatever you are, I'm just happy you're on our side. So why don't you take one of these degenerate fucks that's still alive into that building over there and interrogate him alone. Then volunteer for body duty. We usually at least pile them up inside a building if we have to take out a few. No reason to leave a mess for the next guy."

The Soldier is grateful. He is so very hungry and it has been weeks since he has had anything human. He busies himself getting his fill while the others start cleaning the place out.

Later, he finds a man locked inside a makeshift medical facility. He had thick black hair streaked with gray swooped over his forehead and a full moustache and beard. His height, skin tone and iris coloring were as described by Fury as one of the people who frequently came to the trade meetings. While the Soldier surveyed him, the man pushed up his glasses by the bridge with a finger. They make his eyes look even bigger.

"Dr. Gurminder Arneja?" The Soldier questions.

The shorter man responded after a brief pause. "Uh...Yes…?"

The Soldier makes a pleased grunt in return.

They pick the facility clean with the help of the survivors, filling all three trucks and several more the Burners had on site, even strapping some items to the rooves. Fury had been concerned the remaining Greenies would protest leaving, and if there were a significant amount he'd been given orders to help secure the compound and leave them. Nick said he "wasn't playing colonizer" by stealing the resources or autonomy of another group. But of the forty-one original residents, only six remained. None disagreed with the plan to strip the facility and head to Claptrap.

Once it is too dark to work, the solar array already disassembled and packed, they settle in around a fire to eat. Buck spends the evening speaking with the doctor at length about himself, his past and his current... situation. He is as honest as he is able to be. It feels good not to second-guess his words or how others will respond to them.

To his credit, the man's fear dissipates quickly. If anything, the Soldier seems to pique his interest. As a rule, he distrusted and feared doctors, but Gurminder was a different kind than he was familiar with. He also seemed to know just what questions to ask to get Buck thinking about something in a different way than he had before.

Several days later, after giving mission report (no casualties, only three minor injuries clearing out a building of stragglers) he assists in offloading supplies. It is evening and grows dark earlier this time of year. With his responsibilities completed, it is not long before he is standing at Steve's door. It feels right to knock; he no longer lives there and is unsure if he ever will again.

Chapter Text

The blonde's face is hard to read when he opens the door - surprise, anxiety...relief? He looks tired and drawn, his aroma says he has not been eating well (though Buck is shocked at how much it still affects him). Win had informed him that, after much cajoling, Steve had returned the Soldier's things to his shanty. He can see them over the smaller man's shoulder in a neat row on the table.

"I'm not presuming you'll stay, I just...I was afraid you wouldn't talk to me otherwise."

It's something akin to physical pain to see the large contusion, slowly fading, on the little mechanic's face. To see the fear and hurt there. To realize that the fear is not of him, but of him not being receptive to the smaller man's attempt to reconcile. Buck is unsure that he can; things cannot be what they were before.

Steve stares down at his feet. "I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. I was…"

"A large asshole." Win's words out of his mouth.

"Yeah," Steve says simply, looking up at him with his head still bowed. "Can we talk inside?"

"Remember what we discussed about personal boundaries," a voice chimes in from the Soldier's right. Steve leans far enough out of the doorframe to see Gurminder.

The doctor gives him a little wave and pleasant smile. "Hello! You must be Steve."

"Ummm… hi." The blonde sounds confused and less than pleased at the intrusion.

The man in his fancy quilted vest, fleece jacket, slacks and loafers would look like a wealthy suburban dad going for a fall stroll save for how filthy and tattered everything he has on is.

"Buck, uh, who is that?" the smaller man asks.

"After you fell asleep from the alcohol, I went to apologize to Clint. He revealed my understanding of several terms was inaccurate and during that discussion he said," the Soldier looks up, making effort to recite from memory, "maybe I was wrong trying to hook you two up. Steve does not need a boyfriend. He needs a good psychiatrist."

Buck looks at Steve after in silence for a long moment, the ghost of a proud smile on his face, as if his accomplishment is obvious.

"So you're telling me you…kidnapped a psychiatrist?" Steve is talking to Buck but not looking at him, eyes fixated on the doctor.

"Rescued, actually," the stranger chimes in. "From Burners."

"Don't take this the wrong way, but you don't look like someone the Burners would keep around."

"I thought for sure I was dead, but then they asked if I was a doctor. I guess they figured every well-dressed brown guy with the right accent is. Not many healthcare professionals kicking around these days so they couldn't be choosy. I just never told them what kind of doctor." Gurminder laughs, little lines forming at the corners of his eyes.

"How'd you pull that off?" the blonde asks, sounding mildly impressed.

"I had enough medical training to fake it for the simple stuff. The first appendecitis or bullet wound and I would have been screwed. But my friend here," he gives the Soldier a pat on the arm that makes Steve's brow furrow a bit at it's level of familiarity, "liberated me from their bondage."

Bondage. Another topic Clint and the Soldier had discussed. Buck decided it would be, as Clint had said, not his thing. He had been restrained enough for a life time.

"Can we talk?" Steve sounds a bit exasperated, weary.

"We are all talking," Buck responds matter-of-factly.

"Alone." Steve turns to the doctor, voice dripping with sarcasm. "Ten minutes long enough for me not to erode his boundaries?" He holds up his arm and taps his wrist, indicating the watch on Gurminder's own. "You can time me. You're used to that in your profession."

The doctor nods when the Soldier looks to him. Buck follows Steve inside. The smaller man sits on the edge of the bed, runs a hand through his (finally clean) hair, not sure where to start.

"Sit?" Steve motions to a kitchen chair.

The Soldier remembers the dog comment, recalls seeing people give the simple command to their canines, and bristles slightly.

"Please?"

There is something vaguely desperate in Steve's tone. He slowly complies, but chooses a different chair, even though it does not face the closed door like the one previously gestured to. Perhaps he had absorbed some of the little mechanic's stubborn nature.

"Okay, where to start. Firstly, I know I was a huge asshole and I said a lot of things to you that I shouldn't have, and I slapped you, like a bunch of times, and also you had to clean up my puke and that's really awful. So I'm really, really sorry and I get it if you're pissed off at me." Steve fiddles with a thread on one of the blankets.

"And?" Buck says flatly, employing a technique he has witnessed Steve and Clint use on one another.

"I get it, if you want to go stay with Win or someone else. But I really, really would like you to move back here."

"And?"

Taste of your own medicine, Rogers. Steve finally looks at him, but quickly looks away.

"I'm sorry that I spied on you. That I got mad you were… I didn't want to think of you as wanting things like that but it was selfish to expect you to not have...needs...just because I get...weird about that stuff. Part of why I got so upset was because… Well, you were… You were clearly thinking about me when you were doing it."

"I do not think about anything while I do it, except that it feels good." The Soldier's voice is as placid as ever.

"But you...moaned my name." Steve's cheeks redden at that, even the bruised one.

"I called to you because I realized you were outside the window," Buck says calmly.

Oh, Steve. You goddamn idiot. He feels foolish, then - strangely - a bit disappointed when he believes Buck did not want him that way, perhaps any way, after all.

Then the Soldier follows up with, "and I hoped you would join me." There's a faint hint of something smoky in his voice.

"Wait, what?" Steve blurts out.

"I choose not to think about you when I touch myself because it feels inappropriate to put you in a situation you may not want, even in my imagination. But I do have sexual feelings for you. I would have been pleased if you had come in, had touched me or let me touch you."

Well, goddamn. Steve is uncharacteristically speechless.

"I would never touch you in that way without your permission or force you to do anything, save to protect you or prevent you from harming yourself, as I did when you were intoxicated. I would never hurt you. You have nothing to fear from me or my genitals."

Steve knows Buck's not trying to be funny with that last part, which is what in fact makes it hilarious. He can't help letting out a short chortle.

"Um, okay. Thank you for… clarifying."

"I have also, with help, realized I am... romantically attracted to you. If you do not reciprocate those feelings, I would still like to be friends. However, our relationship cannot be what it has been. It is too confusing and difficult for me, emotionally."

Wow. That shrink must have made a fortune before the collapse. Or Clint really does have good advice occasionally.

"So let's say I… was open to the idea of maybe having those types of thoughts and feelings about you. Would you move back in?" Steve tip toes carefully around stating anything outright.

"Only if you will agree to speak to the psychiatrist as much as he deems necessary." Buck's face is a mask, giving away nothing.

The blonde sighs, long and hard, stares up at the ceiling.

"Fiiiiine," he groans like he's accepting a terrible punishment.

"You must also realize I will make my own decisions about what I do with my time and body." Buck's voice gets the slightest bit louder, more forceful.

"I won't boss you around or try to control you, but I have conditions too." Steve side-eyes the bigger man.

"Name your terms and I will advise if they are agreeable." His voice is soft again, a glint of curiosity in his eye.

"When you… touch yourself, you'll hang something on the outside of the doorknob. A bandana, a shirt, something, so I know to give you your privacy." Steve's face grows a bit pink.

"Acceptable. However, consider my invitation to join me still open regardless of the presence of a cloth." He stares at Steve, unblinking, not a hint of shame. The blonde's face reddens even more.

"And about… that stuff. I…" The smaller man looks down at his hands. Fuck, is he really going to do this? "What do you know about the people I was with, before here?"

"That they were deserving. That they hurt you. That you have many scars from them." The Soldier's eyes, now more ice blue than their standard pale turquoise, start to glow slightly.

"You've seen those?" Steve's voice goes quiet, but there's something vaguely accusatory in it.

"When your shirt has pulled up in the back." It is not a lie, it is just not the whole truth. He had not seen the marks since the day in the barn. He was careful not to look when Steve changed.

"What else do you know?" Steve continues, voice still low, cautious.

"That your time with them still affects you. That you have nightmares. That you avoid most physical contact. That it is difficult for you to trust others, especially males."

Steve let's out a long wavering breath, steels himself for what he's about to say.

"Their leader was a man named Brock. He was ex special ops, like Fury, ran a crew of others who were too. I thought, at first, I'd got lucky meeting them. I'd been alone for a year, had a few run ins with dangerous people. Brock's crew had supplies, vehicles, weapons and they were military. People who protect you." He swallows hard, looks up at the ceiling. "And Brock was…He was really attractive, well-built, and...convincing. I was nineteen and I had never even kissed anyone and even though he was a lot older I was flattered when he paid attention to me."

Steve finally glances at Buck. The Soldier watches with rapt attention, eyes just a bit wide, lips pressed together.

"The first night he offered to let me stay in the lead truck. He gave me a bedroll, told me I'd sleep better there, away from the others' snoring. He...sat with me. Asked me all sorts of questions about myself. He seemed so friendly and nice. Then he…he pulled me up onto his lap. He said...I was so pretty and...put his hand between my legs. He had his other arm around me tight and he was really strong and I...just froze." Steve stops, picks a bottle of water off the headboard, takes a long drink.

The Soldier's eyebrows are drawn towards each other when he looks back at him, corners of his mouth turned down.

"He...he put his hand in my pants and… stroked me. I was freaked out that he would just do something like that without asking and…I thought maybe I'd done something, to lead him on." His voice goes lower, twists with shame. "No one had ever touched me like that and I… Even though I was scared I got hard. He took his hand out and I thought, thank god, he's realized I'm not comfortable, but then it was back, just...wet. I was disgusted, but my body just…reacted and I… finished in my pants, really fast."

Steve looks down at his lap, rubs both hands over his face, the pain from his cheek bringing him back to himself.

"He just sort of...pushed me off him and got up. I asked if he had anything I could clean up with and he said...He said sit in your mess, slut and I knew, I knew immediately I had made a huge mistake. I tried to run for the door but he caught me, started beating me. I fought back, really hard, but it wasn't enough and he…Brock raped me." He barely whispers those words. He's never said them to anyone. "He kept telling me how it was obvious I wanted it. That I couldn't deny that he'd got me off. Like it was all my fault because I came when he touched me. He never tried to jerk me off again, but he forced himself on me over and over. I resisted every single time so he'd...He would torture me, sometimes during, sometimes after."

The Soldier's brows have drawn harshly down in the middle, his lower lip trembling, eyes blazing blue-white with anger.

"So, I...I may want to touch you. I may want you to touch me. But I'm not sure…how I'll react. Sometimes, even when I touch myself, I feel...panic. Disgust. I need to go slow. Really slow. I need you to be patient and understand it's not about you."

"You will have all the time you require. I will not touch you at all unless you ask. I will sleep on the floor." Buck's face has softened, but his eyes are still fierce. In his head he can only chant I will kill this person, I will kill this person, I will kill this person…

"No...I...I missed you in the bed, when I was upset." He tries his best to give a little smile, is unsure if it comes across that way. "And… if you want to touch me, in a non-sexual way, as long as it's not from behind and I see you coming, that's…that's okay too. It's...nice when you do."

Buck gets up, crosses slowly to Steve, gets on his knees in front of him, carefully takes his hand and pulls it to the side of his face. He rubs his cheek back and forth against it as he looks up at the blonde, then turns his head, presses his lips lightly to the smaller man's palm. Now the blonde is sure he's smiling.

Right on time, Gurminder knocks on the door.

Chapter Text

The next few weeks pass slow for Steve and Buck. There is a lot of nervous energy between them, especially when they are alone together, but they resume reading in bed (as well as sharing it to sleep) immediately. There isn't even another conversation about it - after Buck helped the doctor and the Greenies get settled in temporary housing, he goes back to Steve's and ten minutes later they are changing with their backs to each other in their usual spots.

Buck barely sleeps, mind buzzing after their mutual admissions. And that was what Steve had done in his own way, admitted he shared the other man's feelings. The Soldier understood being open about such things - vulnerable - was not the little mechanic's way but how calmed the smaller man seemed by his presence said a lot. Despite the slight awkwardness and tension between them when the lights were still on, the blonde fell asleep fast and did not move or make noise save his deep breathing, utterly exhausted after not having the brunette there to make him feel safe in the night.

Steve started his appointments with Gurminder after only a few days. He expected the doctor to immediately prod him to talk about some of the things he had discussed with Buck, assuming the Soldier had repeated them to his new confidant. But the subject doesn't come up. Gurminder only seems genuinely interested in getting to know Steve right now. The blonde knows this is step one with any therapist worth their salt, gaining your trust and getting you to be more comfortable with them. He tells himself it won't work on him, but mentally commends the doctor on his technique anyway.

Nick had liked the idea of having a head-shrinker around, not only to keep track of the stability of the residents - and deal with their ever-mutating interpersonal problems - but also to obtain information on them. He sets the doctor up with an office and treats his position as a public works job, allowing him access to food and supplies from the community coffers. In return the doctor provides free services to anyone who needs them. Gurminder even starts doing mental health workshops teaching people about things like meditation.

There is a lot of snickering and rolled eyes about the silliness of things like this with the current state of the world, but with all the improvements to their living situation the people finally have a little free time and are bored of the same activities. They start to show up to his group classes and eventually his office. Many of them don't even realize how traumatized they are by everything that has happened until they start to talk to him about something trivial and, as is his way, he slowly encourages them to self-direct into something more serious. He tries that technique with Steve a lot, but the blonde has been down this road before and catches on quickly.

Fury is sorely disappointed when he realizes the man will not cooperate in repeating any of what he hears from the Claptrappers - especially from Buck - nor even in giving him a general impression of their psychological health. He tells Nick that since he seems like "the police around these parts," he will follow the same protocol of only letting him know what is happening if he feels like someone will hurt themselves or someone else. When Gurminder finds a listening device in his office, he moves it to one of the outhouses. Steve is less than thrilled about having to go to the appointments, but after he hears whisperings of the doctor's rebellion against Fury, he gains a lot more respect for the man.

The blonde does have to wonder if his time with Gurminder is somehow affecting him subconsciously. Things quickly become different than before between him and Buck. They touch each other a lot - a casual hand on an arm, thighs brushing at the dinner table. Steve even gives in to the urge to play with the Soldier's hair, running his fingers through it lightly when it is out of place or pushing it out of his eyes. Their conversations are different as well, deeper somehow. He holds less back when the Soldier asks him questions, tries hard to remember how confusing and difficult this must be for Buck.

Gurminder had advised against Buck moving back in and definitely against sharing the bed. He felt it may engender a false sense of intimacy, making Buck think he was getting what he needed when in actuality it was a way for Steve to have the Soldier close without doing the work to open himself up emotionally. It was falling back into the habit of staying in a gray zone with one another, engaging in behavior that was not quite friendship but was also not openly romantic in nature. It is the one area in which Buck ignores the doctor.

Something warms in him seeing Steve relaxed in the bed next to him. The smaller man lays closer than he would have before, arm folded beneath his head, on his side to face the Soldier. The bigger man mirrors his position while they talk about all manner of things - ideas for runs, words or concepts that the Soldier needs clarification on, the meaning of certain interactions he witnesses between people. Watching Steve's eyelids grow heavy, his long lashes finally coming to rest against his cheeks as he drifts off, is not something Buck is willing to surrender even if it gets him more emotionally invested in their (possibly going nowhere) relationship.

The Soldier never feels more useful than when Steve wakes from a nightmare and calls out to - or reaches for - him. He may not know many words of comfort but at least he is present, able to be touched or provide touch if that is what Steve asks. Usually that is the warm press through his thin shirt of the smaller man's hand on his stomach, nothing new though Buck no longer pretends to be asleep when the blonde does it. But then one night Steve, trembling lightly and soaked in cold sweat, pushes close and requests simply hold me. Buck does his best, cognizant of his metal arm's weight and hardness where it rests against the little mechanic's delicate ribs. When the Soldier's dreams - minute flashes of the old Buck's life and his time as a Winter Soldier flickering through his mind like images on a broken computer screen - drive him from sleep he is careful not to wake his companion.

Eventually Buck had even revealed what, in fact, he had been reading all those weeks. Steve skimmed the book, face a bit pink (even though he does not think of himself as a prude, it was quite explicit and the state of certain pages made him realize they'd been read more than the rest). He blanches when he reaches the chapter about trauma. Buck notices his reaction and quietly informs him he had not been able to read the chapter at first, that the subject matter had upset him too much. But he had forced himself to after what Steve told him about his experiences.

He thinks he can use kernels of wisdom from some dimestore therapist to fix me.

He's just trying to understand. It's the thought that counts.

"I apologize if I upset you." The concern on Buck's face is so visible, not the usual subtle changes Steve really needs to look for to notice, that it surprises the smaller man.

"It's okay. I asked about it." Steve gives a little smile, hands it back to Buck.

"I apologize for misleading you before. I thought the subjects in this book may be inappropriate to discuss. Not just with you, but with anyone. People seem to bring up sexual things in jest but otherwise it is virtually never mentioned." The Soldier looks at it for a long time, takes the dust jacket off, sets it and the book carefully on the bookshelf headboard on what has become his side of the bed.

"There's a lot of shame and taboos around sex in many cultures. Even where I grew up, which is fairly open-minded, you wouldn't hear someone having a frank conversation about masturbation." Steve is sitting atop the covers, knees folded up to his chest.

"Is it okay we are having this discussion? It does not make you uncomfortable?" Buck has his back to the wall, legs also bent though stretched out a bit more to let their feet touch.

"I don't need you to walk on eggshells." Steve pulls his legs in even higher as he slides the covers from beneath him, then settles between the sheets, pulling the blankets up to his waist.

"Walk on eggshells. This is a metaphor?" Buck follows suit, putting a pillow against the headboard as Steve had and leaning his back against it, stretching his long legs out under the bedcovers.

"Yeah. It means…to choose your words and actions really carefully so they don't upset someone. You don't have to do that with me. I just… I want you to be honest with me and I'll try my hardest to be honest with you. If something you say bothers me, I'll tell you, but I won't be mad." Steve turns a bit on his side to look at Buck, who considers the response silently for a long time.

"Have you ever…masturbated?" The Soldier looks down into his lap.

Wow, okay right to the hard stuff, Rogers. No pun intended.

"Yep. Lots of times." Steve says it as matter-of-factly as he can.

"Have you done it since I came to live with you?" Buck turns to his right to face Steve.

"Not very much. You were around all the time and I thought that would be weird for both of us if you accidentally heard me." Steve tries hard not to blush or sound like it's a thing that he asked. This isn't something he wants to make Buck think is embarrassing, especially after how shitty he'd been about it before.

"Now you have more time alone, while I am out on runs."

"Yeah…" But I'm too stressed out and tired to even think about it most of the time. Steve slides farther down, pulls the pillow with him. Buck follows suit, both cradling their head with their bottom arm.

"It would not be weird for me, to be near when you do that." There is a soft hint of lust under his calm tone.

"One step at a time." Steve reaches out and gently pats the larger man's chest.

"I understand that phrase but not what it conveys in this context," he responds, looking down at Steve's hand on him. It comes to rest near his heart and does not withdraw.

"When you… want to be sexual with someone you also have attraction for… romantically… you do...other physical things before you go right to… masturbating in front of each other." Fuck, did I really just say that out loud? "You touch a little - not sexually - at first, to get comfortable, to show the other person you… have feelings for them. And then eventually you...increase that."

Steve feels a bit selfish. Perhaps he is being misleading explaining things to Buck like they are working towards going steady in 1957, acting as if there is some rule book to follow. But he had already made it clear to the larger man he needed to move very slowly when it came to this issue, so he supposes it is best to infuse what he wants and needs into his advisement on the subject to not send mixed messages.

"Nnh," Buck half-grunts in the affirmative, "you are referencing displays of physical affection. I read about that. I was unsure if you would be comfortable with those behaviors."

"I did say you can touch me." Steve's voice is almost shy as he says it but he doesn't look away.

"Yes, and I have done that more but…I have concern that I will do it in the wrong way. That I will misunderstand what is affectionate rather than erotic."

The sound of you saying erotic is pretty erotic, Steve can't help but think. He pushes the bedcovers down to his knees.

"Basically touching someone anywhere between here and here" - Steve puts one hand sideways and level with his hipbones and the other one across the middle of his thighs - "would be considered sexual." He pulls the blankets back up.

"What about...nipples?" Buck recalls touching his own and how stimulating it was.

"Uh, yeah and those too." Fuck, is that something he likes?

"It is hard to know where the line is with certain behaviors between sexual and non-sexual. Kissing in particular is very confusing. The book mentioned the act as both physical affection that could be romantic or platonic and as a type of sexual foreplay. What determines that?" The Soldier looks incredibly fascinated, like Steve has promised to explain the meaning of life.

Shit. That's a tough one. Maybe Gurminder could explain it better. Okay, but also he could talk to Clint again and you saw how that went last time.

"Okay...umm. Does the book say what an...erogenous zone is?" Steve does blush a little at that despite his best efforts.

"Yes."

"Kissing someone there, or the area I showed you a minute ago, would be sexual. Kissing other places wouldn't be."

"What about the mouth?" Buck had wondered about humans pushing their lips together since the first time he had seen it done. Sometimes it was soft and silent, sometimes quick with a loud smacking sound. Other times the mouths opened and moved together.

"Ummm… That has to do with how you kiss someone."

"I do not understand." There's that expression again, like Steve has all the answers.

The blonde gets an odd look, a bit worried, then presses his mouth tight, draws his eyebrows down and sets his jaw - a face the Soldier has seen him make many times when he is setting his mind to a task. Steve leans forward and presses his puckered lips lightly to Buck's mouth.

"That's an affectionate kiss."

"Oh." The Soldier is silent for a long time, eyes scanning back and forth across Steve's face. Finally he asks, "may I try?"

Steve slowly nods. Buck leans in very cautiously, mimicking the way Steve had moved his lips. It's almost a bit comical how exaggerated he looks, like he's eaten a lemon. He pecks Steve's mouth very lightly, the smaller man pushing his lips out a bit to meet Buck's.

"That was very nice," Buck practically whispers, an awestruck look on his face.

"Good." Steve gives him a little smile, slides the hand on his chest over his collarbone, lightly up the side of his neck and cheek, brushes the hair back from his face.

"May we do it again?"

Chapter Text

Buck had gone out on one other run since eliminating the Burners, heading back to the Green Place to protect a crew tasked to disassemble more of the agricultural equipment and bring it back to Claptrap. The trip is uneventful, but he was gone several days and Steve begrudgingly admits to himself that he misses him terribly. Apparently the sentiment is returned.

The mechanic is in the pub having breakfast with Clint and Nat when Buck strides in from the road, heads straight towards him, sits down without so much as a hello and kisses him on the mouth. He does it again and again, with all the technique of a twelve year old, for what feels like ten minutes to Steve with everyone watching. The blonde blushes hard at the sloppy display of affection. Only Nat's nails digging into Clint's leg under the table keep him from saying anything.

"Um, hi," the archer manages when the Soldier finally let's Steve up for air.

"Hello," Buck returns, painfully oblivious to the reactions from everyone else and smiling like he's just won a contest or got to hold a puppy.

As soon as the Soldier is standing at the hotline on the other side of the building getting his breakfast, Clint breaks into hysterical laughter.

"Oh man!" he gasps. "That was painful to watch!"

Steve leans over the table, whacks Clint's knuckles with the handle of his butter knife. "He'll get better. We just started doing that." His voice is testy but ultra-low.

"Well, god, give the poor guy some pointers. That looked like my Aunt Mable with her pomeranian."

"Fuck you, and also I don't want to hurt his feelings. This is super new to him and I don't want him to think he's screwing up right away." Steve is still talking super soft.

"Why are we whispering?" Clint too-loud whispers back.

"Because he has really good hearing."

"There's no way he could hear from over there." Clint turns to watch Buck, in conversation with Vic, across the room. It's loud in the pub as well, fifty people talking and chewing and scraping their plates with silverware.

"Buck, if you can hear me, give me a thumbs up," Nat says in an only slightly above normal voice. Without missing a beat the Soldier's arm is up, giving the gesture.

Steve points both hands, palms up, in Buck's direction as if to say see.

"How do you talk shit about him under your breath when he pisses you off?" Clint asks.

"Right? That's like... twenty-five percent of our relationship," Nat replies. Clint kisses her on the cheek as she roles her eyes.

"Unlike you two, we don't argue. We talk about things like grown-ups." The blonde cockily moves his head from side to side.

"Too bad you aren't smooching like grown-ups." The archer grins, loudly bites his over-dry toast.

"He's coming back. Not. One. Word." Steve stares Clint down.

Clint invites Buck over to play cards that afternoon. The Soldier, having helped unload the equipment and debriefed Fury, has little to do that day while Steve works. They've been playing for all of twenty minutes when the archer finally can't help himself.

"So...what was with the suckface at breakfast?" Clint draws a card, eyes it likes it's very interesting. He never beats Buck - he's good at faking people out but the Soldier's poker face is flawless and he's clearly been trained to think strategically.

"I do not understand." His face is perfectly blank. Win had taught him to play and to give nothing away.

"You and the kid, locking lips."

"Oh. You mean kissing." Still not a hint of a change in his expression as he reviews his cards.

"I mean...if you can call what you were doing to his face kissing," the archer says low as he rearranges his hand.

This finally earns Clint the faintest hint of consternation on the taller man's features.

"Steve enjoys what I do to his face." He schools his own back to blank, save something vaguely uncertain in his eyes.

"If you say so."

The Soldier's brows knit together ever so slightly.

They focus on the game, Clint sure he's rattled his opponent. After he triumphantly slaps down a straight flush the Soldier calmly lays his cards down on the table. Royal flush.

"Jesusfuck! Every goddamn time!" Clint grabs the deck and throws the cards up in the air; they drift down slowly around both of them.

"What am I doing wrong? To Steve's face?" Now he's wearing a full on frown. It continues to surprise Clint how expressive he's become.

"Well, you've got the enthusiasm but your technique is all off." Clint slides his chair closer to the bigger man.

"How do I learn this…technique?" Buck looks at him earnestly.

"Oh, me and you are totally gonna practice." Clint smirks.

He's barely gotten the words out before Buck leans in and jams his mouth to the archer's.

"Woah! Woah! I was kidding. It was sarcasm." Clint's hands press the other man gently away.

"I do not understand sarcasm. It is stupid!" Buck pouts, throwing himself heavily back in his chair with his arms crossed.

"Look, I can explain what to do," Clint tries to console him.

"Nnn," he grunts. "You do not learn to fight by being told how. You are shown and you practice. Steve does not provide direction and I have limited time with him in which kissing is appropriate."

Clint leans his head back, sighs heavily. "Fuck it. Fuck it, fine. Come'ere."

Buck just scowls at him, hands sliding further along his sides as his hold around himself tightens. Clint grabs the seat of his chair and hops it over next to the bigger man.

"You can't tell anyone I did this. I don't care if people think I kiss dudes, I just don't want Steve to sucker punch me again." Clint leans in closer. "Okay, first of all your body language is shit. You need to be relaxed when you kiss someone, make them feel welcome in your space."

The archer takes ahold of Buck's arms and, after a moment of immobile resistance, the bigger man allows him to unfold them and to turn him in his seat towards the archer.

"Okay, so usually you want to touch the person before you do it. Not grab, just light." He puts Buck's hands on his waist. "Then you give the look."

"Look?" Buck questions, before pressing his mouth back into a severe line.

"The I want to kiss you look. Like this." Clint's eyes go warm, scan over Buck's face, settle on his mouth. "Then you see how they look at you. Are they giving off the vibe?"

"Vibe?" The Soldier sounds fascinated now.

"It's, like, the energy they give off. Do they look like they want to kiss you back? If they're just sort of...meh," Clint makes a bland face, "then it's probably not the time for a good liplock."

"Vibe. Okay." Buck responds like a college kid taking notes.

"You want to start slow, especially if things are new. Don't just pounce. You're libel to chop his lip off with those chompers." Clint leans in, slides his hand to cup the side of Buck's face, lightly brushes their mouths together. The bigger man tries to pucker up and the archer pulls back. "Nope, nope. That's just for like...an affectionate peck like..." he plants a quick kiss on Buck's cheek with a little popping sound. "That's something you'd do to a lady friend or a relative. Or maybe your significant other if you were in a hurry. And you don't usually do it more than once."

"Oh," Buck says, embarrassed that it is the only kissing technique he knows and yet he is apparently employing it incorrectly.

"Relax your mouth," Clint instructs.

Buck's jaw drops open.

"Not that much. Just a bit. Like you're about to say something. Like this." He parts his lips slightly and when Buck follows suit he leans in and presses their mouths lightly together. The Soldier emulates him, pressing softly back.

"Better! Much better. Okay, so that's nice if you just want a quick kiss, but if you want it to be more romantic, you need to fit your mouths together more and sort of...move them against each other. Like you're...lip dancing."

"I have seen people do this!" Buck sounds like he's about to say eureka. It's the closest thing to excitement Clint has witnessed him express.

"You want to tilt your head a bit more to the side so your mouth is at like...a forty-five degree angle from theirs." He figures the Soldier will understand technical instruction. "But if they're already tilting their head you want to do it in the opposite direction. So if I tilt mine to my right, you tilt yours to your right." Clint bends his neck a bit and the Soldier copies him. "Okay, so we go soft at first and then, when things feel comfortable you open your mouth wider. And you close your eyes while you do it."

Clint tilts up into the kiss, lips just slightly parted. When the Soldier seems to have that down, the archer pushes against him a little harder, opens his mouth a little wider, moves his lips subtly up and down, forward and back, working his mouth against the other man's. Buck is fine at first copying his movements, but he gets a little overzealous, opening his mouth too wide.

Clint leans back, wipes the spit off with the back of his hand. "You're kissing his mouth, not trying to swallow it. Your lips should be against his, not around them."

"Okay. May I try again?"

Clint nods. Buck leans in this time, emulating Clint's gesture, putting his hand to the side of the shorter man's face. He brushes their mouths together first, then slowly tilts his head, leans in harder, intensifying the kiss. He moves his mouth against the archer's with much more finesse than last time, his pulse picking up as he imagines Steve's much fuller lips against his own.

"Ahem." A sound comes from the entranceway.

Their heads both whip towards the door to see it a bit open and Natasha standing there. She raises her eyebrows. The Soldier is shocked he did not hear her, even with the distraction.

"This isn't what it looks like!" Clint blurts out.

"It looks like you're making out with your friend's boyfriend."

"Okay, it is what it looks like. But it's not for sexy times. I'm teaching him." The archer gives her a goofy smile he hopes is convincing. She closes the door, sits down at the other end of the table, eyeing him seriously.

"You know some part of me always wondered if I'd at least get a little horned up kissing a guy, but nothing. I mean, gray skin aside you're a dish, Bucky. But not even a ghost of a chubby." Clint looks at his lap.

"Don't ruin it for me, Clint." Nat snaps quickly. "You know, Buck, if I watched I could probably give you some good pointers." She smiles sweetly.

"Critique of form is useful when learning a new skill," the Soldier agrees.

"Riiiight. Did you teach him how to do it with tongue?" Nat grins wickedly at Clint.

"Have you seen his teeth?"

"Well if you're too scared…" she counters, smirking.

"Fuck you, I'm not scared." He turns back to the Soldier. "Okay, so, we're gonna kiss like we just were, but I'm gonna put my tongue in your mouth juuuust a little. Like...just barely inside your lips. And you move the tip of your tongue against mine."

"This is... romantic?" Buck questions.

"Well it's...sexy kissing," the shorter man explains.

"Sexy?"

"Yeah like, to get the other person turned on," Clint says. Nat nods a little too vigorously.

"Turned on?"

"Horny. Ready to go. Hot and bothered..." the archer lists off.

"He means sexually aroused," the redhead chimes in.

"Oh." Buck contemplates if this is something he should learn. Steve is not ready to be sexual with him and he does not want to overstep. Still, it can only be a positive to know if the eventuality arises. "Okay. You may put your tongue in my mouth."

"Great! Now we're all having fun," Nat perks up.

"Don't. Fucking. Bite me." Clint points a finger in the bigger man's face before leaning back in to kiss him.

"Yes. Yes, good form. Okay, now slide your arm around Clint's waist. Nice. Yep. Kiss a little harder. Uh huh, that's good. Open your mouth a bit more. Perfect. Now...let me see that tongue boys." Nat's hands slide off the table.

Later, Steve can only wonder silently if Buck has been making out with his hand or a pillow. The Soldier kisses him (without tongue) so well before he shuts the light off that the blonde's toes curl. He can't deny the heat that spreads through him and he lays awake, distracted, for a long time.

Chapter Text

Steve's rotation for a run is coming up soon and his usual excitement is compounded knowing it means Buck won't be out on the road without him. The Soldier seems practically invincible but he still worries. For starters, from what he's been told there are twenty-three other Winter Soldiers (eleven other males and twelve females). Who knows where they are or who is in charge of them. Would their old/new master(s) use them to claim Buck or at the least try to destroy him?

If they did capture him, was there still someone capable of repairing his neural net? The thought of the Soldier - a blank-faced, empty-headed killing machine - unleashed on Claptrap is terrifying. Steve would have to defend his friends, their community. He can't even think about what that means. Fire scares Buck but he has no idea if it will stop him or if he could bring himself to try.

The group of marauders from the first day they met is on his mind off and on as well. They were organized, well-equipped, the white X on each of their chests like some kind of matching warpaint. There had been rumors of massive gangs rising up, a thousand or more strong. They ran whole cities, destroying or enslaving anyone in their path deemed unworthy to join. Could they be from some larger group?

Others developed well-oiled personal armies that treated the sections of the former nation they took over like a fiefdom and those within them as serfs. It wasn't enough for people who craved power over others to loot, pillage and kill at random anymore. Systematically oppressing those who had established something with their own sweat was now the easiest route to prosperity and dominance.

Buck could take on thirty men, fifty. But what about a hundred? Five hundred? He was superhuman but he had his limits. And Claptrap now had a lot to steal or grift off of via threat of force. That meant more people lingering in the outskirts, more danger on the road.

Certainly Brock had found no shortage of people to follow him; he'd had over eighty at Steve's last count. The core of them were other ex special ops and ex military Brock had worked with before and during the collapse. Like Jack. He'd started pulling in all sorts eventually, even flesheaters. If they were strong and brutal enough, or could provide an invaluable skill, they were brought into the fold.

Steve was the only "pet" and the others weren't allowed one; their conquests were left behind or killed as they tore their way through small settlements and what was left of towns, their terrified, starving residents cowering in the remains of their homes. When one of the others put their hands on him in the night, Brock didn't beat them later to avenge the smaller man, but to establish his ownership. He often made Steve sleep among the lower-level foot soldiers, daring those beneath him to touch what belonged to him (filling the blonde with constant terror of what the others might do to him was a bonus for the leader). After Steve broke enough underlings' noses and fingers, Brock went back to leaving him on the truck.

It was part of Brock's prestige in his position to be the only one with human property. They never settled, which meant no permanent infrastructure, dwellings or agriculture. Without any of that to tend to, the enslaved only served one purpose (okay, two if you accounted for the occasional cannibalism the group partook in), and "having some ass around," as Brock so eloquently put it, wasn't worth keeping them fed or transporting them.

Trusting Fury's motivations towards Buck also proved difficult. Even though the older man rarely ventured into the field anymore - choosing to sit in his office pulling strings and watching his drone feeds (something only a privileged few knew about) - there were people from his ex special ops crew on every scavenging rotation. Who knew if they would be tasked with betraying Buck once his guard was down? Enough bullets, a few well-placed grenades and...

Steve thinks it speaks to just how paranoid and untrusting he's become since Brock that he has a virtually indestructible...boyfriend?.... that's basically a living weapon and yet he still manages to concoct worst-case scenarios. Maybe, he ponders, it's because things have been far more intense between them lately and it's made him go all soft and gooey.

They've worked their way up to nearly a half hour spent kissing before they go to sleep and it's gotten more and more passionate each time. He'd stopped pretending a while ago that it was just affectionate, then even that it was only romantic - they had clearly crossed the bridge into sexy town. It's impossible to deny how incredibly turned on he gets as of late and more and more he forgets why it had worried him so much before. He's even pulled Buck's big hands from their gentle rest on his waist lower, to his hips, or urged the larger man's arms around him, pressing close. These invitations to touch more heatedly have occurred enough times that the Soldier feels confident now to do it without prompting.

One night the blonde balls his hands up in Buck's shirt, yanks the other man closer, puts his leg over the Soldier as their mouths move together. The bigger man's flesh arm tightens around his back, pulling Steve farther into his space, and just like that - with their height difference - Steve's hard on is rubbing through his flimsy night shirt against Buck's belly. He groans into the other man's mouth at the feel of it, Buck taking this as his cue to finally ease his tongue carefully between the blonde's lips.

Steve's tongue brushes his lightly - the little mechanic is so hot there, soft and wet. Buck groans, his hips shifting minutely, involuntarily. The bulge in the brunette's pants comes to rest lightly against Steve's inner thigh. And there it is, the old familiar panic rising up in the blonde.

The mechanic pulls his head back, puts his hands flat against the Soldier's chest, pressure light but firm to ease them apart.

"Umm, I'm...really tired. I think we should go to sleep," he says, withdrawing his leg.

Buck looks at him searchingly for a moment, eases his arms from around him. "Everything is alright?"

"Yeah. Yeah of course."

"Did I… do something wrong? Was the kissing too...sexy?"

Steve can't help but chuckle at that. "No! No it was perfect." Steve leans back in, kisses the Soldier long and slow. "Goodnight."

Fuck. The blonde lays there for an hour - still mildly horny and very pissed off at himself - before he finally manages to go to sleep.

He'd seen the bandana on the outside doorknob a few times since Buck moved back in and the more things progress between them, the more often it's there. Steve makes a beeline for anywhere else - helps pour glass and stack block, gets a beer at the pub, heads to one of his friends' shanties, even goes to pull weeds at the ag field - anything to distract from thinking about what Buck may be doing to himself.

The day after the "accidental boner rubbing" as he'd dubbed it, the rolled square of fabric is there (mocking him) when he goes home to get a part for one of the water pumps. He stands outside the door, biting his lower lip for a long time, thoughts swirling around in his head. He could just walk in there and get the part, right? No big deal.

It's just your sort-of-boyfriend possibly fingering himself. Nothing to see here.

Then he hears the very distinctive sound that had been coming from his shanty the night he and Clint beat the crap out of each other at the pub.

Unh, unh, unh…

"Fuck."

It's almost like another person possesses his body. He sees and feels his hand on the doorknob, but doesn't seem to be actively willing it to move. The same with his feet as they take him inside, his elbow as it pushes the door shut behind him. Buck - panting hard in the exact same position he had seen him in the other time on the floor - turns his head to look over at Steve. With the curtains closed and no lamp on, his irises glow softly in the dim light. He doesn't remove his fingers from himself, just stills his motion.

For the first time the blonde really let's himself look the brunette over, takes him in slowly from the soles of his feet to the top of his head. His body is so enticing - his legs long, thighs strong, the curve of his ass perfect, the slight pronouncement of his hip bones inviting hands to rest there, beneath magazine ad worthy abs and rounded pecs. His nipples and his cock, the latter deeper purple than the former, are hard even though he isn't touching either.

Steve has never liked admitting to himself that he finds athletes from certain sports - rugby, soccer, MMA - really attractive. Not that he has only a certain look for men (or women for that matter) that he likes, but he can't help but notice Buck is definitely that type - lean, extremely fit without being comically overgrown, effortlessly masculine. It feels so in line with sexist stereotypes about what "real" men should be - and what people attracted to men are supposed to want - to lust after someone like that. Someone whose form stands in such sharp contrast with everything about Steve's own body.

But he realizes in that moment he doesn't see Buck as just some specimen of physical idealism or fulfillment of his teen fantasies. He's certainly sexy, tall, muscular, handsome. But beyond that he's struck by how beautiful all the things that make the Soldier different are. How the flush high on his cheeks is lavender instead of pink, the soft electric blue of his eyes, the sharp points of his perfect white canines and the almost identical but slightly smaller teeth next to them just visible. His pale gray skin is flawless, save the circular scars in the center of his torso.

It also occurs to the blonde that this may be why Buck is attracted to him - because he does not look like anyone else, this unusual mix of features labeled feminine and masculine. Steve wouldn't say he has no self-esteem, no characteristics he likes about his body, but he certainly isn't vain either. Next to the cozy house where his self-worth lives grows a garden of insecurity seeded and watered by a society whose ideals he couldn't conform to right from childhood. It was heavily fertilized by a mountain of shit heaped on it by an abusive psychopath.

The part of him that believes every bad thing that's ever been said to him wants to ask why the gorgeous, powerful creature kneeling so near would even look twice at him. But the bullheaded part of him - the one that loudly yelled fuck you at the world, the one that made him get up again and again when he was beat down, the one that still called Brock "liar" while the rest of him started to believe - won't hear that nonsense.

Nobody gets to tell us what we deserve anymore.

Buck doesn't in fact look twice at him; the Soldier stares at him with awe like he's the center of the universe. In that moment Steve feels wanted and seen in a way he never has. He thinks he'll spontaneously combust if he doesn't do something to release the churning energy it builds inside him. His legs carry him over to stand in front of the Soldier, completely unsure of what's about to happen.

His eyes never leave Steve's, even as the arm behind him starts to move again, wet little sounds filling the air briefly before his mouth drops open and those incredible noises drown the others out. Steve stares down at him for several long moments - only five or so inches taller with Buck lifted up on his knees - watching the Soldier's face contort in pleasure.

The mechanic's own cock tents his too-big pants. He easily slips his hand inside the large waistband, suspenders doing nothing to impede his motion, no underwear beneath today either. Steve starts to stroke himself roughly, Buck's eyes widening ever so slightly as he finally breaks their gaze, eyes trailing down to the blonde's hand moving under the fabric. Both of them breathe hard between their groans.

Buck suddenly grips Steve's wrist with his flesh fingers, eases his hand out of his pants, runs his tongue over it several times in slow, wet stripes from palm to fingertips, watching Steve throughout. He returns it to it's former position. The blonde whimpers at how much better it feels, hunches forward as he pumps himself. Buck catches the little mechanic's lips with his, still careful of his teeth even as he deepens the kiss, as their tongues lightly swirl and press and retreat randomly so they can moan into each other's mouths.

Buck's right hand goes to the side of Steve's face, the blonde's free arm wrapped around the Soldier's upper back while they both work themselves, quick and needy. The blonde practically hyperventilates as he gets close, Buck easing him back so that he can watch. Steve's dark rose lips hang open, little broken sounds - starting almost gutteral and ending high - escaping him, lids half closed, top lashes ghosting lightly over the bottom ones, face flushed with color.

The Soldier wishes he could see exactly what the blonde is doing, precisely the way he likes to be touched to make him come apart like this. He moves his fingers slightly inside himself to just the right position, urging himself closer, forcing his own sounds to get loud and desperate. When the smaller man cries out seconds later, eyes slamming shut as his fingers dig into Buck's shoulder, the bigger man quickly moves his free hand to his cock. It's not to stroke it but to pin it to his belly - fingers cupped over the head to contain his release - as he finishes hard with a wail.

Chapter Text

The Soldier and Nick meet several days before the scheduled raid on the reaver compound. They go over the list of everyone who was due to be up on the next three rotations and pull them in to the office in small groups. They discuss the operation and ascertain if anyone wants to back out. To say this will get messy is an understatement. Reavers are brutal cannibals, mutilating their victims, often cutting pieces off of them while they are still alive. Sometimes they keep captives for long periods, cauterizing a stump or wound where they have removed something, coming back later for more. There is no question what will happen to them if they lose.

Steve, Win, Greta, Clint and Nat meet with the two run planners in the late morning.They are all, with total certainty, in. After how invaluable she was with the Burners, Buck has convinced Nick to let Greta have option to join any run that she wants, asking the older woman to act as his second-in-command. She is a crack shot, unafraid of anything, quick on her feet even compared to someone much younger and always has useful ideas. It did not hurt that she had helped him procure his meal in the Green Place without a hint of judgment.

None of them, save maybe Nat and Greta, really relishes having to kill anyone. But neither are they in a moral quandary over picking off some violent, semi-rabid flesheaters. Especially ones who are no doubt planning an offensive to come for them in the night or may snatch a group of trashers from the yard. There were so few other options for human meat in that region. Steve knows from past experience that were they to invade Claptrap, one of the first people they would eat would be Violet. Kids are apparently tender.

Unlike in the Green Place, the small town that the reavers have taken has a lot of low ground cover. Burnt out cars, tool sheds, and all manner of other random junk and small structures dot the community. The entire village is less than a quarter mile square, with maybe two hundred houses. It had hosted a half-dozen businesses and a tiny school to service the neighboring farms. The area has been thoroughly trashed by marauders more than once and about a third of it is partially or totally burnt down. It's not unmanageable with a big group, but there are a lot of places to hide.

It is decided that Win, Steve and Clint will stay atop the trucks with several others, shooting their rifles and arrows from above. It's important to have an elevated view, and to be able to call out to the others who are on the ground. Fortunately, there are very few structures that are over one-and-a-half stories, so they are not too concerned with snipers. That isn't the reavers' style anyway. They tend to prefer hand to hand combat, slashing, stabbing and chopping.

The Claptrappers will bring in four trucks, each half full of personnel, and park them in the center of town in an X formation with their cabs (all with the windows shielded, courtesy of the welder) facing each other. The back doors will roll up, and everyone will file out at once with those atop each truck laying down cover fire if needed. The ground crew will spread out from there in a circle and Clint will make his way up to the roof of the lone three story structure, an old Bank next to their planned spot. He'll be able to walkie multiple people to report from his bird's-eye vantage, using his fanciest goggles to detect body heat and magnify what he's seeing. The extremely expensive compound bow that he carries on his runs has quite a range. He named it Cecilia and no one else is allowed to touch it, not even Nat.

Aerial views from the drone of the community show very little organization to any of the vehicles or trash that lines the streets. Nick feels it can go one of two ways. The reavers could mount a full-on defensive attack once they know they are being invaded, trying to take the Claptrappers out as soon as they exit their vehicles (they are so far from anything else, everywhere silent as the grave in the post-apocalypse with no traffic and no power, and the enemy will hear and see them coming). Or it could be a brutal guerilla fight, having to go building by building to flush them out of their hiding places. Reavers don't retreat - they will fight to the last woman and man - but they have no problem laying in wait until long after they are assumed defeated, only to spring out and slit throats.

Steve has fought reavers before on the road and seen Brock's crew tangle with them. He offers that they will most likely not swarm the trucks the way that the Burners foolishly did. They may seem to behave like animals but they are still people. Their relative lack of high-tech weaponry has encouraged them to use their wits in a way that the blonde would were he in their position. They work together in packs, use trickery, booby traps, human lures and often carry multiple hidden weapons. The reavers have had several weeks to dig in at the town and prepare whatever horrors may await anyone who dares step onto their turf.

Buck is impressed with how knowledgeable Steve is on the subject, how many extremely useful observations he makes. He wants to ask more, to find out specifically what happened in his previous encounters, but he knows this is not the place or time to press the subject. The longer the little mechanic talks, the more a creeping sense of dread spreads through him. He has gone on runs with Steve before, and they have encountered dangerous people, but it was not like this. He is willingly taking him into a war zone, one where he will be brutally tortured and killed if they are not victorious.

"They won't want you two anyway," Clint jokes to Win and Steve. "Not enough meat on your bones." Win flips him off. He's getting used to her knowing what he's saying most of the time and they've started ribbing each other constantly.

"Sorry we don't have meat arms like you." She mockingly flexes her biceps. "Have better things to do than push-ups all day. Need to keep place running while you stay pretty."

Nat laughs, a guttural woodpecker-fast repetitive sound from her chest that's jarringly dorky coming from such a beautiful woman. Steve and Greta join in. Even Buck chuckles softly from his spot sitting on the edge of Fury's desk.

"Can you assholes focus for five more minutes?" Nick queries, less than amused.

"Ooooooo, you're in trouble," Clint says, soft and high-pitched.

"Shut it, Barton," Nick retorts.

"Yes, sir," the archer responds.

"If you fuck this up, if you trip and fall, if you get cornered, they will tear you apart. And if they have the time, they'll eat you. You may even be awake when they do it," Fury lectures.

"And if we lose, once they regroup they will come here. Claptrap will be left with far less warriors to defend it. They may be overrun." Buck's statement is sobering, even to himself. He thinks about Wanda and Simon trying to protect their little girl. He thinks about Vic, valiantly defending those who would take shelter in the pub to his last breath. They cannot fail in their mission. He cannot fail in his mission. There can be no distractions.

Steve is a distraction. Even in this kind of setting he cannot keep his eyes off of him for long. What had been staunch determination to succeed has melted into the terror of losing him. Was there any victory in destroying this enemy if he could not protect the person he most needed? The little mechanic is clever and brave, determined, vicious when cornered. But he is not a soldier. Not a warrior. He is small, weak even for a human (though he would no longer ever make such a statement to the blonde's face). Still, if Steve feels he is up to the challenge, who is Buck to tell him otherwise?

Fury had actually suggested in the earlier meetings that they exclude the mechanic and the welder from this mission. Their skills were invaluable and losing either of them would be a huge blow to the community, especially when until recently there had not been adequate free time for them to start training anyone else on their daily tasks. Win's recent improvement in English had allowed her to start teaching a small group of teenagers. She would still be the most technically skilled and in demand for private jobs, but they could at least do simpler tasks for community works.

Other than the Soldier and Win, Steve had not showed much of anything to anyone. He was a fairly patient person, but he had no background in training others, unlike Win who had acted as a shift supervisor of sorts, showing new people the ropes at the factory. In addition, some of the machines in Claptrap he had designed were more of an art than a science. The welder could do basic maintenance, and replace some of the more simple parts as the person who had helped build them. But the overall blueprints of the machines existed entirely in Steve's mind and without him they would quickly break down.

Nick had acted very put-upon when Clint had urged him to bring the kid back to Claptrap (even though the archer was sure it was all an act, and that Fury felt just as much sympathy for the small blonde as he did). After he had grilled Steve at length about what happened with Brock and his crew, he had given him an interview of sorts, silently ascertaining if he had any useful skills.

"The truck you came here in. Who got it started?" Nick asked, gesturing over to the vehicle. It had been taken from Brock's fleet.

"Umm, I did. Duh," Steve answered snottily, wrists still shackled to the wall of the Claptrappers' truck.

"It's hot-wired."

"And?" the blonde snapped back at him.

"You don't look like much of a criminal." The older man smirked.

Steve bent down, pulled a bobby pin off of his jacket pocket with his mouth where it had been stuck over the top. He eased it up to his fingers, using his teeth to help adjust it into a certain shape, then picked the lock on the cuffs with it.

"You were saying?" Steve chucked them and they landed with a rattling thud on the floor boards. He went to work on the lock holding the restraints around his ankles. Fury just watched, amused.

"It's a manual transmission," he continued. "Not many people under eighty that know how to drive stick these days."

"I used to drive an old repair truck." The blonde was getting frustrated with the lock. The cuffs were an older model, easy to pick, but the ankle restraints were something more fancy and modern.

"You do the repairing, or just drive around someone who did?" The bald man watched in amusement as the kid continued fiddling with the lock, knowing full well it couldn't be forced by that method.

"My mom had this boyfriend for a while, Taj. I guess she really didn't have time to date, but they stayed friends and he was pretty cool. When I got my working papers, I apprenticed with him. He sent me to classes and stuff too. Once I finished school I worked with him full-time for a couple of years."

"He still around?" Fury asked pointedly.

"Died in the first wave. Caught it from some old lady when we went to fix her washing machine. Nobody knew yet, how bad it was." Steve stilled for a minute, thinking not for the first time that he probably carried the bug straight home to his mother and to every other customer that they saw thereafter. Fury read it on his young face like a book.

"How old are you kid? You look like a teenager." Nick finally let a vague hint of sympathy show in his voice.

"Does it matter? Not sure there's anyone left to worry about whether I drink or smoke or vote. Or who has sex with me." He went back to fiddling with the lock. Nick is not a stupid person and he picked up on that last comment right away.

"Is that why you did what you did? Revenge?" Fury queried, referencing their earlier conversation.

"I did what I did so no one else would have to live with it." He looked up at Nick finally, good eye to good eye, his other already swollen shut.

Nick remembers that look of determination - and how impressed he had been throughout their entire conversation - quite often. He especially dwells on it when he desperately wants to throttle the blonde. Steve may be small, but he is no wimp (mentally or physically) and far from helpless. That was why he didn't demand that Steve be removed from the run. Instead he casually dropped the suggestion and left it up to the Soldier, hoping that the heated discussion about the reavers would make him - and he had started thinking of it as a him despite himself - see the light in terms of just how in danger the mechanic would be.

Chapter Text

Maybe it's the thrill of this new direction their relationship has taken that gets Steve to do it. The two of them are huddled together - in the bed or occasionally at the table when they just can't wait or even on the floor - virtually every night since Steve's little walk in. They vigorously touch themselves while they kiss and moan and clutch at each other, Steve's hand working in his own pants or under his nightshirt.

Or maybe it's the little high Steve always gets the night before a run. He scavenged alone for fourteen months before meeting Brock and he'd developed such a taste for the searching. The need to think fast and improvise, the triumph of a good find, the adrenaline rush of uncertainty. He was grateful for the safety and comfort that this place provided, but he couldn't deny feeling couped up sometimes, getting the itch to be back on the road living by his wits.

Maybe he's just feeling particularly touchable, watchable, after his first real bath in a long time. The Green Place had developed a system of solar powered electric coils used to heat water in vintage metal claw foot tubs. All six of the units, with curtains strung around, were put in part of the open-sided pavilionesque structure they used for large meetings. He'd been a winner of the first lottery - after that there would be a monthly schedule - and asked Buck to join him. Water conservation is important, right? At least a few other winners had shown up with friends or spouses.

The bigger man had stripped without a hint of hesitation, slid into the hot water with a soft sound of contentment, arms coming to rest on the high sides of the old tub (his left settling with a soft clank), head leaning back against the edge. He'd lifted his hands, unprompted, to cover his eyes while Steve undressed and got in. They washed themselves in comfortable silence, but he saw the Soldier sneaking glances. The blonde has never been without clothes in front of him, not even shirtless (nor with anyone else since coming to Claptrap).

Maybe it's the spontaneous thing Steve did before, once they were back at their shanty. Steve has his back to the headboard wearing only a clean nightshirt. Buck sits on the edge, long legs bent with his feet on the floor, in just his sweatpants. The bigger man is reading him something out of a book - he's trying very hard to concentrate but every tiny shift of the Soldier's frame, every move to turn a page, minutely flexes the already distracting musculature of his shoulders and upper back.

Steve doesn't know what motivates him - courage, lust, their increasing openness - to ease forward, slide his legs to either side of Buck's. His inner thighs are against the bigger man's hips, arms wrapping around his midsection from behind. The brunette keeps reading, using his free hand to lightly rub Steve's arm.

Buck is warm and he smells good - his usual mildly sweet aroma mixed with the soap and shampoo they'd used. The blonde had brought an empty cup with him, had used it to rinse the suds from the Soldier's hair after he had given it a good scrubbing. The bigger man had bent forward, making a soft hum of enjoyment as Steve lightly worked his nails all over his scalp. After a few minutes of listening to Buck read, Steve can't resist pressing his lips several places along the brunette's spine. A shiver goes through the Soldier, a little mmm slipping out of him.

"Aren't you supposed to be reading?" Steve questions mischievously. He slowly rubs his cheek next to the bigger man's shoulder blade. He's always surprised at how luxuriously soft Buck's skin is, but he finds an even more delicate spot when he bends a bit to the side and forward, lightly kissing over his ribs not far below his armpit.

The Soldier resumes speaking as Steve puts the side of his face against the bigger man's back, listens to his heartbeat - normally so slow - pick up speed a bit, to his lungs as they expand and contract a little more quickly. Steve's hands start to trail down the bigger man's belly, brush lightly at his waistband. Buck's voice stutters as the blonde pulls the elastic slightly out with his left, allowing the fingers of his right to ease slowly beneath. He just rests his hand on the flat, firm plain of the bigger man's lower stomach, feeling the Soldier breathe harder, his left arm moving back around the bigger man's waist.

The smaller man is suddenly hit with a memory very like this, but in reverse. Don't assume this is okay with him, one of the many voices of his subconscious whispers as he feels the ghost of Brock's grip on him. They've kissed, rubbed, even lightly grinded against each other's legs and stomachs. But they haven't directly touched like that; Buck has never overtly given Steve permission to.

"Can I?" he asks softly, voice husky.

"Please," Buck responds, barely above a whisper, his tone almost pleading.

Steve's hand slides lower, fingers just grazing the thatch of hair at first, then carding through the coarse curls lightly to gently brush the base with his fingertips, teasing. Buck gets hard so fast (every time they do anything, honestly). The blonde can't deny that feels like a compliment, even though he's aware the other man's lack of sexual experience is probably a factor. He grips him only loosely at first, sliding his hand so very slowly to the head and back, making Buck whimper. God, he feels like iron wrapped in velvet.

He has watched the Soldier jerk his cock - openly, without shame - on many occasions. After what happened the first time they touched themselves together, it didn't seem like an issue to just openly gawk at him while he did it. If anything, Buck appears turned on by the smaller man watching. He doesn't handle himself the same way every time, but there are some common themes - not too rough or too fast, working the whole length, never doing it dry for very long.

The mechanic has been squirreling away slick stuff to rub one out with for a long time. There's not exactly an endless supply of lube or olive oil or watery lotion in this world, after all. While he hadn't had the urge that much until recently, he was never dead below the waist like some people thought. He has a tiny bottle of unscented massage oil he pilfered on a run sitting in a bin, with various sundries, on a shelf of his headboard. Steve pulls his top half away from Buck to grab the little vile.

"Would you like me to finish myself?" Buck says low, voice gravelly with need, but not at all demanding or whiny. He sets the book down with his left hand. When he reaches for himself with his right, Steve wraps his slender leg over the Soldier's forearm, pinning it to the bigger man's thigh with his calf.

"Patience, patience." He peppers kisses along the bigger man's back as he puts a bit of the oil onto his palm and fingers, tosses the sealed container on the bed beside him.

When his hand finally wraps around Buck again, strokes slow down his length, the bigger man let's out the most delicious, surprised moan.

"S-S-Steve…?" he manages right after, the blonde's hand now moving back towards the base.

"Yes, Buck?" Steve tries to sound non-chalant, even as he slightly tightens his grip, begins to put a little twist in his motion, careful to have his curled pointer finger rub the sensitive spot just under the head on each pass.

"You f-feel so good." Buck's hands come back, lightly brush from Steve's knees to his thighs. "I want to touch you too, so badly."

Fuck.

"Just relax. Enjoy yourself," Steve coos, working him just a bit faster.

Maybe it's what Buck says next that makes him do it.

"I want...I want to look at you," he barely gets out between hard breaths.

Steve stops, presses his forehead between Buck's shoulder blades then slides his hands and legs from the bigger man. He scoots to the side and climbs off the bed, moves to stand a few feet in front of the Solider. Buck is panting lightly, looking a bit confused like he has perhaps said the wrong thing, cock painfully noticable in his pants. His hands grip the edge of the bed as if for dear life.

The blonde gazes at him a long time, and that's when he decides to do it completely on a lark. He reaches down, grips the hem of his nightshirt, and pulls it off over his head in one swift motion. Buck's eyes go wide with surprise - he stops them when they start to trail down the smaller man's naked body, nervous, unsure.

"It's okay. You can look. Wherever you want."

Steve holds his arms out sideways a bit, palms facing the Soldier as his gaze resumes its path. His eyes move side to side as they go towards the floor, mouth slightly open like he's taking in some work of art. They rest a bit longer on the "forbidden zone," between his lower belly and upper thighs, then continue down his legs to feet that - like his hands - are awkwardly big for his small frame. The Soldier is smiling lightly as he looks back up, meeting Steve's sea-blue eyes.

Then the blonde does something even more unexpected. He turns slowly around, making one complete rotation and then another half, so that when he stills his back is to the bigger man. The Soldier takes in the wiry muscle the little mechanic has built up in his shoulders, arms and upper back. The beautiful shape of his slender neck, the narrow little hips he so enjoys touching. The surprisingly round swell of his cheeks, always hidden in too-big pants or coveralls.

Just as Buck had suspected before, the scars he had seen on the blonde spread in both directions. They covered his lower and mid back, growing more sparse as they expanded up to stop about halfway over his shoulder blades. They also ran down his buttocks, thinning out towards the soft curves where they met the tops of his legs. There are a few there too, lightly dotting the cream-colored backs of his thighs. They were of all shapes and sizes and seemingly from different sources. He can just make out teeth marks on Steve's left side in the soft meat below his ribs.

Buck very badly wants to press his mouth to each one, to tell Steve they are still him and as such just as desirable as the rest, that he never needs to hide any part of himself. He does not have the words yet for such things, and knows the blonde does not like to be touched from behind. He sits in silence and waits.

Steve turns. They give each other a small smile before he comes forward, grips the waistband of the bigger man's pants.

"Lift your hips," he gently instructs. When Buck complies - putting his weight on his hands - he slides the sweats down and off. Steve is pleased to see his big reveal, ugly as some of it was, has not at all dampened the Soldier's arousal. That gets Steve's libido going again immediately. He steps closer between the bigger man's legs, kisses him deep and slow before whispering, "lean back on your elbows."

The brunette slowly does as he's told and let's Steve, gripping his hips, ease his body forward towards the blonde, positioning his bottom just a bit off the edge of the bed. All Buck's body weight rests on his forearms, lower back and feet. The mechanic grabs the vile off the bed, pours more of its contents into his hand, rubs it lightly all over two fingers on his left and across his entire palm and the inside of his digits on his right.

"Is it okay if I touch you here?" Steve questions softly, proud that he manages to sound sultry instead of scared as he moves his left hand low between the Soldier's legs. His fingertips almost, but not quite, brush the bigger man's hole. Buck just nods, open-mouthed, eyebrows up. The blonde strokes over the puckered skin lightly, up and down at first and then in slow circles. He'd done this and more to Sam a few times with the pilot's direction. It's never been lost on him how much Buck likes to touch himself here, his sounds far more unhinged than when he strokes his cock.

When Buck's face starts to look more drunk than surprised, his breath quickening again, Steve gently eases one finger into him. Fuck, he's hot there and so tight. Breathy little sounds come out of the Soldier as the blonde gently works himself in deeper, starts to slowly thrust. They get louder when he slides the second digit carefully inside to join the first.

The blonde changes angle, speed, depth until Buck begins to make that (by now) very familiar sound. After, he works him for all of two minutes before he starts to get wet there, the mechanic's fingers moving more easily in and out. Steve was vaguely aware that was possible for some men, but he didn't think it was common nor was it anything he'd personally experienced. The blonde can't lie that it gets his own cock even harder - it visibly twitches. That doesn't go unnoticed by the bigger man.

"You...You can put yourself inside me if you want," the Soldier manages brokenly.

Fuck.

Steve moves forward, aligns his own cock with Buck's. He wraps his long, clever fingers around both of them, rocking his hips to slide his length against the other man's, simultaneously pumping them both with his hand. The feel of it is incredible with the oil, especially with how silky smooth the Soldier already is. The blonde is struck by how similar in size they are, even though their shape and coloring is quite different. It had been brought to Steve's attention in the past that his cock looked almost comically large on his small body, even though it was by no means unusually big.

Buck cranes his neck to watch Steve work them from where he is still resting on his elbows. He moans, long and loud and overwhelmed, again and again, the little mechanic's fingers pushing deep into him with each forward thrust of his body. Steve let's out quick, gutteral sounds as he rolls his hips fluidly, pushing his length into the slick space between Buck's own and his hand as it slides up and down them. He curls his fingers lightly inside the Soldier, better stimulating the sensitive spot there as he speeds up the rhythm of his hand and body, rocking against the bigger man with abandon.

"Oh!Oh!OhSteve!" Buck basically screams, voice going as high and loud as ever. His release arcs onto his own chin, neck and chest. Steve practically growls at how fucking hot that was to watch and follows suit, hips thrusting forward fast and hard as he lets out a series of deep, short groans, spraying onto Buck's belly.

The Soldier's breathing slows faster than Steve's, his right arm lifting off the bed high enough so that he can gently rub his fingers along the blonde's hip. The mechanic opens his eyes to see Buck gazing at him like there is no one else in the world. Steve feels like a big, warm hand reaches inside his chest and squeezes his heart so hard it may burst. The feeling terrifies him, knowing with crystal clarity in that moment that he is in love with this person.

The blonde cleans them both up slow and careful, him noticing - and Buck commenting on - how unalike what had came out of them looked. The Soldier also mentions how different it smells and tastes, running fingers though the blonde's release and bringing it to his face. Steve figures, after everything else he has done tonight, why the fuck not. He swipes a finger tip through Buck's load, puts it near his own nose and then in his mouth. It tastes vaguely like a hard candy without being cloyingly sweet, bringing to mind something emulating fruit but not a specific flavor.

They fall asleep ten minutes later, wrapped together naked between the sheets.

Chapter Text

Steve knew that Buck had been loud the previous evening, but he didn't know how loud until they got to the pub.

"Oooh, Steve...can you pass me an apple?" Clint asks, while they're at the cold line. The smirk on his face tips the blonde off right away something's up.

"Oh, Steve...can I cut ahead of you?" Greta requests, sliding in front of him in line. She'd started eating with them more since the Soldier had become her number one fan.

Were they referencing...?

"Oh, oh, Steve...can you hand me the ketchup?" Nat queries at the little condiment station.

Yep. That's what they're referencing.

The mechanic says nothing, cheeks turning pink. He hands her the ketchup with his lips squished together so hard they turn pale.

"Oooooooh, Steve, can you pass salt?" Win, who at the Soldier's behest had started joining them more for breakfast, questions when they're all settled at the table.

"Et tu, brute?" he asks. She grins.

Buck picks up on this repetition surprisingly fast, eyebrows getting closer and closer to the center of his forehead the more times the phrase is uttered. By the time it comes out of the welder he's finally figured it out. His eyes narrow.

"You are mocking what I said last night during sexual activity," the Soldier declares at a totally normal volume that all close by can hear.

Steve puts his face in his hands. Everyone else in their little group breaks into raucous laughter. They keep at it for what feels like a small eternity, the mechanic now leaning on his fists, propped up on his knobby elbows, eyes on the ceiling. His face is getting more red by the second.

"Perhaps if any of you were having satisfactory physical relations, you would not be concerned with mine," Buck says pointedly, not coloring in the slightest.

They all stop laughing but Greta, who only does it louder.

"Sick burn," Wanda says from Buck's right. She offers him a fist and he carefully bumps it, one of the many friendly gestures he's been practicing performing more gently. Being amiable with a super strong, metal handed man could lead to injury. "You noticed we didn't feel the need to bring it up," she continues, gesturing back and forth between herself and Simon, who's smirking as he feeds Violet in his lap.

"You guys heard him?" Steve aggressively whispers leaning forward to look at her around the Soldier. They don't live on the other side of the community but they aren't terribly close either.

"Everyone heard him," Phil chimes in from the next table.

Phil lives next to Nick. The thought of Fury hearing what his boyfriend yells during orgasm is more than a little disturbing to Steve.

"Our relations are more than satisfactory," Clint finally retorts, sliding an arm around Nat's waist.

"Too little, too late." Win, sitting to his right across from Steve, elbows the archer lightly in the ribs.

"I live next door to you two and it's been pretty quiet over there lately," Greta says with a smirk, popping a strawberry between her lips. "In fact," she begins, talking with her mouth full, "the last time I heard you two loud enough to blow the doors off the place was a few weeks ago. I remember because Buck was over alone right before and that doesn't usually happen."

Nat and Clint are suddenly looking everywhere except at Steve and Buck.

"Nosey!" Win points at the older woman.

"Bored," Greta responds. "Besides, I flagged him down for a card game."

"Did you make out with him after?" Nat asks quietly

The mechanic can practically see the gears turning inside the Soldier's head so hard he's afraid smoke will come out. Buck turns suddenly to stare down Clint and then Natasha, face scrunching up like an irritated child after a few seconds of looking at the redhead.

"Your instruction was not intended to be helpful," the brunette says to her curtly.

"I don't think you wanna have this conversation right now," she smiles, sounding chipper but with an obvious under-layer of tension, as she gives a quick head nod in Steve's direction.

"What's all this about?" the blonde questions.

"I finally beat him at cards. Right, Bucky?" Clint raises his eyebrows at the Soldier. "It's okay, big guy. Nat maybe...misled you a little after she offered to help. But she's very sorry."

"Very sorry," the redhead repeats.

"And she won't do it again." The archer turns to look at her. She gazes back in silence for a moment, then frowns.

"And I guess we...I won't do it again," she says to Buck with a sigh.

The bigger man makes something like a growl in return, then starts eating his food in silence.

They all go their separate ways after to get prepared for the run. Buck leaves the pub with barely another word and heads to Nick's office. Steve knows he and Fury need to finalize mission details and review the most recent aerial footage but he is a tad concerned at how the Soldier practically stormed out. He's gotten fairly used to Buck's glowering silences and figures they'll have the ride when the Soldier finally decides to tell him what's bothering him. They meet back up at their assigned truck an hour later.

"Where's Win?" the blonde asks, adjusting the rifle strap on his shoulder. The gun was ancient but reliable and easier to find ammunition for than some. Greta had shown him how to maintenance it and Buck had also felt the need to meticulously check it over.

Steve is fully outfitted for the road - cargo pockets on his pants (held up with his most reliable pair of non-stretch suspenders) and jacket packed with supplies and extra ammo, a medium sized hunting knife in a holster strapped to his belt. He has a bandana tied around his neck ready to be pulled over his mouth and nose, goggles high on his forehead to be slid down at a moment's notice. The wind kicks up the sand and dust constantly outside the wall and it needed to be kept out of the eyes and airways. There could also be smoke and flying debris during the fight. He'd tucked his slingshot into the back of his waistband and had one easy to access coat pocket specifically filled with stones, lug nuts and other small, hard objects just for it. The old one that had served as his lone projectile weapon when he was on the road, pre-Brock, had come in particularly handy against reavers.

Clint is there too, leaning back against the cargo box. His arms and ankles are crossed, two full quivers and Cecelia leaning against the tire. He has a few small knives tucked various places, including a switchblade he's rather proud of. Wearing a flak vest over a sleeveless shirt (show off), heavy leather gloves, thick black jeans and the boots he'd crushed the would-be rapist's skull with, Steve begrudgingly admits he looks pretty badass.The archer's fancy goggles are strapped on, resting on the top of his head, flattening his eternally spiky hair a bit. The blonde resists the urge to make fun of him because he's still got cologne on.

"I have asked her to stay home," Buck answers flatly, "and go on your normal rounds with you today."

"I...I don't understand," the mechanic responds, eyebrows knitting together as his lips purse.

"You are not going on the mission. You have important work to do here." The Soldier sounds calm, like what he's saying is no big deal. His face is blank.

"What the fuck, Buck?" the blonde demands, stepping into his space, head leaning back to look up into his face.

"Yeah, what the fucky, Bucky?!" Clint chimes in, standing upright. "Baby brother always goes on runs with me. What's this shit about?"

"We've talked and talked about this run at home! I even sat through your stupid fucking little meeting with Fury, not that either of you listened to a word I said, because what do I know about reavers. I guess I just did this to myself." Steve yanks up the left side of his shirt, reveals the bite scar there Buck had seen the night before. "And you planned to bench me the whole time?" Steve's eyes are as fierce as the Soldier has ever seen them.

"No. The decision was made this morning," Buck responds, maintaining the bland, toneless voice he had used when he first arrived.

"By who?! Fury?" the archer demands.

"He did suggest I reconsider including the two of you," he looks from Clint to the blonde, "due to your invaluable services within the community..."

"Oh fuck that noise!" the archer cuts in.

"However, I made the final determination." Buck turns to Clint, "I need to speak with Steve."

The archer gestures to the blonde as if to say have at it.

"Alone." Finally a bit of emotion comes back into the Soldier's voice, cracking his robotic facade.

Clint looks at Steve, who nods, then walks off.

"I can't believe you'd do this! Especially after..." Steve looks around to see if anyone is near, lowers his voice, "after last night."

"Last night only cemented my decision," Buck says softly, a look in his eyes that's difficult to read as he gazes down at the smaller man.

"Because of what everyone said this morning? Are you... embarrassed of me or something? Is that why you don't want me to go?" The hurt on the little mechanic's face twists something in the Soldier's gut.

"No, of course not." Buck carefully takes Steve's hand. "Last night made it even more clear that you need to be protected."

"I can take care of myself!" Steve rips his hand away.

"You are brave and resourceful and clever but you are small -"

"You're taking Nat! Fuck, she's shorter than me!" the blonde argues.

"She is a trained fighter!" the Soldier's voice gets slightly louder, surprising even himself.

"I know how to fight! I was on the road over a year, completely alone, after I left Brooklyn."

"You are not a warrior! Not a soldier!" Buck's tone gets uncharacteristically intense, his eyes starting to change color a bit.

"There are a lot of people with fucked up faces who would disagree with you! I always got myself out of a bad spot!"

"Yes, until Brock captured you and tortured you." There is a simmering rage under the surface of his words, but it is not directed at Steve.

"Don't do that! Don't throw what I told you, what I showed you, back in my face to try to win an argument!" The blonde's face contorts in anger, sadness, disgust.

"This is not an argument. An argument indicates two sides attempting to sway the decision of the other. I do not need to sway your opinion and nothing you say will change mine." The Soldier's voice is firm, final, back in control. It makes the blonde even more pissed off.

"Oh, so you're the boss man now? Whatever you say goes? Fuck what I think?" Steve's voice gets even louder. He's dangerously close to really losing his temper. The mechanic knows it is absolutely unacceptable to hit his significant other, even if it will do all the damage of a bug squashing against a car windshield, and he's been trying really hard to tamp down his violent impulses since the fight at the pub. Still, his fists ball up.

"What you think is of paramount importance to me in every situation, save this one. Yes, I am in charge. Of these people, this mission. I cannot properly perform my duties if I am distracted thinking of your safety." He sounds earnest enough that it cools Steve's rage a bit.

"What about your safety?" The blonde's voice breaks the slightest bit. He lowers his volume again. "Reavers use fire."

Buck laughs softly.

"This of all things you find funny?" the mechanic practically yells.

Buck reaches out, slow and cautious, and takes Steve's hand again, pulls it to the side of his face. "I am flattered by your concern, but there is no need to fear for me, little mechanic. They are only human and I am very fast." He rubs his cheek side to side across Steve's palm, then places a soft kiss there, just as he had done that first day he admitted his feelings. "The moment I step off the truck upon return, I will come find you."

With that he turns on his heel and walks off, leaving Steve to stare daggers into his (dammit, oh so muscly) back. The mechanic storms back down the line of trucks, plotting to snag Win and go to the yard or get good and drunk. They're sure as fuck not doing rounds. He's almost past the last truck when he hears a familiar whistle from above. He looks up to see the welder with her head over the edge of the trailer roof, the top of the crow's nest she'd built there when they were readying the vehicles just visible behind her. Win tosses him down a rope.

Chapter Text

The trucks roll into a town that looks completely empty. Not so much as a tumbleweed graces the streets. They get into formation in the center of the tiny downtown square and everyone disembarks as planned, snipers taking to the rooves to provide cover that appears unnecessary. As planned if the reavers didn't show themselves, three quarters of those on the ground spread out - Buck running lead on a bigger group headed to the school - preparing to search the neighboring buildings. The remainder form a tight circle around the trucks with Greta in command.

Clint makes his way to the bank - after a brief survey of the surrounding area with the goggles' thermal vision - then makes an impressive jump to grab the edge of the first landing of its fire escape. The ladder to the ground isn't down; he hauls himself up, remembering Win's push up comment.

I bet you'd be impressed with my meat arms now!

He uses the goggles to scan through windows - largely broken - as he climbs. There's no sign of anyone living. The second he makes it to the edge of the roof he has an arrow drawn back in Cecilia ready to fire. He's not alone, two human shapes defined in the thermal vision.

"It's us!!" the mechanic calls out.

"Fuck, Steve!" Clint eases the string back to a resting position. "Where the hell did you two come from? I was just about to put this through your eyeball." The archer yanks the goggles back.

"Snuck on the last truck. Jumped before others got on top," Win says, scanning what's left of the town with a pair of novelty binoculars they'd found on a run. They look like two crocodiles, each holding a lense in its mouth, with a wide plastic bridge connecting them. Clint liked to joke she was looking up their asses. She'd usually ask if he wanted her foot up his in return. They're too tense for such banter now.

"Hawkeye, are you in position? Over." The walkie, turned low, comes to life on his belt.

"Affirmative, Two-Three."

"Anything to report?" Buck's voice is eerily calm.

Clint stares Steve and Win down for a long moment.

"Negative. No sign of hostiles in the structure or immediate area. I'm seeing a lot of debris under the sand though. Watch your step. Over." There were large pieces of what appeared to be plywood and sheet metal flat on the ground randomly strewn about the area. They weren't noticeable from the aerial photos with all the blowing dust partially obscuring them. He could spot a few on virtually every street and a half dozen dotted the town square where their trucks were parked.

He slides the fancy goggles back down, surveys the side streets, alleys and areas around vehicles below. Even the most expensive thermal vision can't see through thick objects. Anything with a modicum of insulation or density would block out the heat signature behind it. But they're still useful for flimsy structures or people hiding in the shadows.

Buck and his group start to advance on the school, the others breaking into small clusters to search the surrounding buildings. Multiple people report over the open channel that they find nothing. It's dead quiet otherwise.

"Maybe they took off in the night?" the archer suggests, switching over to binocular vision with a few soft clicks.

"Reavers don't run," Win says.

"They're playing hide and seek with us. I told Fury this would probably happen." Steve surveys the area with his own small, fold up binoculars. He'd found them in a house with a lot of bird watching books. It was hard to put his finger on why, but they'd made him really sad. He'd kept a few and buried the others with what was left of their decomposed owner.

More of the ground units call out the all clear from first floors and attics. The roof crew can see them moving past windows as they go room by room.

"They couldn't have had more than twenty minutes notice someone was coming," Clint says, using the binocular vision to survey farther out.

"Could have practiced. Ran drills. Hide fast," Win offers. She'd certainly prepared multiple scenarios for the factory being invaded but she hadn't expected them to get the big doors down. Steve was lucky he had a sweet kid face as she'd been very close to burning it off.

"They could have also had someone watching us, like we were watching them. Just the good old fashioned way." Steve holds up his binoculars. There wasn't a lot of cover around Claptrap, but definitely enough for one very sneaky person. And reavers were nothing if not sneaky.

"Two-Three, I've got a hole cut in the basement wall at the grocery store," Phil's voice comes over the walkie.

"Ditto in hardware," another ex ops, Hill, responds. "We've got moles. They're burrowing," she adds.

Several others join in the walkie chatter. A lot of the small houses were old enough that they didn't have basements, and the people in them report holes cut directly into the floorboards.

"Over there!" Win points.

"Two-Three. I've got movement on the school roof. Single female, no sign of a weapon. Over."

"Reaver?" Buck comes back.

"She's wearing a baby skull necklace. You do the math," the archer responds.

"What is in her hand?" Win questions.

"It's an airhorn. Tell them to pull back!" Steve demands.

"I don't -" Clint starts.

"It's a signal, you idiot! Tell them to pull back!" the blonde yells.

Win takes aim at the woman as she holds the canister aloft, fires a second too late. The short burst of the horn and the crack of the rifle echo through the vacant town. The woman falls forward off the school, lands with a loud thump below. For a long moment nothing happens, everyone on the street standing at ready, eyes darting around. Steve is thinking about letting out the breath he's holding - he can just make out Buck semi-obscured behind a car, checking the skydiving cannibal.

Then practically in unison most of the plywood and sheet metal are tossed back and dozens of reavers emerge. Some are immediately hurtling already lit molotov cocktails, others raising glass jars and bottles of liquid to light the rags hanging out of them. The first volley lands on and in the fronts and backs of the structures most of the ground crews are inside of.

"Shit!" Steve runs to take position, yelling to Win, "Shoot the glass before they can throw them!"

He fires and one hoisted vessel bursts, raining liquid fire on the reaver holding it and others around them, several dropping their own lit jars, creating a pool of flames at their feet. Win joins in and they shoot one after the other, causing a similar effect throughout the cannibals. Clint starts lobbing arrows into the ones who aren't badly burning.

A second wave emerge from the tunnels carrying all manner of hand weapons - machetes, axes, even a few pitchforks - and descend on the Claptrappers escaping the burning buildings. On Greta's command the truck crews fire into the hoarde. Screaming, echoing shots and the sick wet thuds of sharp metal connecting with dense tissue and bone fill the air. Clint scans the area.

"Come on, baby! Where are you? Come on!" He finally spots Nat as she runs from a burning house, jumps through the air, wrapping her legs around a reaver's neck. She uses the force of her weight in the maneuver to flip him over and puts a bullet between his eyes with her pistol as soon as she's on top. The redhead is up in an instant, firing and kicking.

"Clint, she can take care of herself," Steve says, reloading. "Don't stop firing! The people in the square need cover!"

The archer goes back to the task at hand, arrow after arrow going into necks and eye sockets with only the occasional miss. It's chaos below, everyone surging, and there are cars and other things in the way. There are so many, but he has a hundred and twenty arrows. More than enough, right? His first quiver comes up empty when he reaches back. Only a few minutes have passed since the airhorn.

"Fuck!" the archer screams.

He drops the first quiver, straps on the second, falls back into the delicate dance of firing and alternating spots with Win and Steve. Suddenly there's the sound of an arrow cutting the air, different from his own. The bolt skims his cheek, leaving a stinging trail.

"Two crossbows on the western side!" He yells, crouching to dodge a second shot.

"I've got two more on the north!" Steve responds, joining him.

"One here too!" Win pulls back, narrowly avoiding a bolt.

"I can't believe they'll reach up here!" Steve reloads his rifle.

"Modern crossbow'll get sixty, eighty yards with accuracy. Even accounting for the drag of their firing angle, we're only maybe fifty feet up." Clint nocks another arrow. "Let's take those fucks on the north."

The three of them, crouched, edge closer to the indicated side of the building.

"On three. One, two…"

Schick

A bolt hits Clint from behind. Steve hears the impact loud next to him. Win whirls to fire on the reaver standing on the ledge, fresh off the fire escape. The woman flies off the building, crossbow in hand.

"Clint! Clint!" Steve screams next to the bigger man as he hunches forward.

"It's okay, kid. Vest slowed it down. Pull it out."

The mechanic complies. Only the tip of the bolt head is bloody, a small hole in the flak jacket a bit to the right of his spine just under the spot where the quiver angles across his body. It would have went into his kidney, probably a death sentence without quick medical care.

"Oh fuck! I'm so glad you're okay!" Steve throws his arms around the bigger man's neck, head resting on his shoulder.

"Okay, kid. Okay, don't get all sloppy on me." Clint grins, pats the blonde's arm.

"Kiss each other later! We have company!" Win yells, firing right after. Reaver's are pouring off the fire escape onto the roof. Steve takes a firing position on one knee, just like Greta taught him, takes his shots carefully. Clint is up on his feet firing arrow after arrow into faces and throats in quick succession, avoiding body shots due to their leather clothes and homemade armor. They're fast picking off the oncoming cannibals but not fast enough.

A woman with a bone through her septum tackles Win. They struggle for the rifle. Steve picks off the man, wearing a full human rib cage strung together with wire, that tries to bury his axe in the welder's head. Win wraps her pointer and ring finger around either end of the nosebone and yanks, hard, tearing it free with a spray of blood and pained squawk from the reaver. As soon as she can get two hands on it the welder slams the butt of her rifle into the other woman's face, quickly turns and fires on a second that runs at her with a large knife, then shoots the first before she can recover.

Steve and Clint have their own new friends to contend with. The archer cries out as a guy bites off part of his left ear, a woman grabbing his right arm as she stabs him in the shoulder. He jams an arrow into the man's side, pulling forward hard to cut a wide swath between two ribs into the cannibal's lung. Clint kicks the woman off the building, landing a foot solidly to her chest. He shoves the guy off too as he stumbles backwards, blood foaming from his mouth.

The archer had lost his bow over the side when he got tackled. He pulls the knife from his shoulder, throws it into the temple of one of the guys on Steve. Buck had taught him that. The blonde has a whole office carpool on him. He's staying low, taking kicks and punches as he blocks his head with one skinny arm, dodging machete swipes. He slashes one guy's belly with the hunting knife Greta had given him, and shown him how to sharpen, his intestines bulging through the wound. Blood sprays onto Steve's jacket and face as he stabs a woman in the leg, right in the femeral artery - Buck had told him blood pumped easily through there, kissing over it softly when they were alone in the shanty.

Win - finally out of ammo - clubs one of the reavers on the mechanic from behind with the butt of her rifle, then smashes it into his head again and again until he's twitching on the ground. Steve springs up, burying his blade under a guy's chin. The man falls back, taking the knife with him. His rifle is ten feet away and there's no opening to grab it so he dives on the nearest reaver, buries his teeth in their neck and pulls back til the flesh tears. He didn't actually learn that from Buck but the similarity isn't lost on him.

Fuck, just let him be okay.

The gunfire below has become more sparse, but hasn't ended. The blonde can still hear the smash and whoosh in the distance of firebombs being tossed. He links his hands together and swings the double fist into the chest of the bleeding cannibal, knocking him off the roof. Clint is in a hand to hand scuffle with a huge guy and Win is tangling with the last reaver on the ground.

The welder grabs the hair of the woman under her, as she stabs Win lightning quick in the side with a stilletto-like object, and smashes her head into the ground over and over. She screams while she does it, keeps forcing the broken skull up and down long after the other woman is dead. Steve jumps on the back of the man tussling with Clint, gets him in a chokehold long enough for Clint to pull out his switchblade, open it expertly one handed and stab the huge cannibal in the heart.

They all fall back on their asses, panting, covered in sweat and blood.

"Bet you're happy to see us now," Steve rasps out.

Chapter Text

The ride to the reavertown is painfully devoid of distraction for Buck, sitting in the back of the box truck with Greta and some of the others. With nothing to focus on save the nervous, idle chatter of the few who bother to speak, the hum of the ground beneath the tires lulls him deeper into his thoughts. All he can see at first is the pained and angry looks on Steve's face during their conversation right before he had left. They fill him with guilt, sadness, worry.

At Gurminder's suggestion the Soldier had taken to examining his emotions as they occur, picking them apart mentally and naming them. It made it a little easier to keep from being overwhelmed when he felt several at once. The doctor had even given him a book, one of the few things of his that the Burners had not destroyed, that talked about how to identify feelings - what did a certain physiological or psychological reaction or sensation mean. It had seemed absurd at first but after he worked at it for a while it greatly cut down on his level of frustration and reduced his outbursts.

The blonde had been quick to apologize the last time he had offered harsh words to Buck, yet the Soldier knew the fault for this disagreement was largely on himself. It was not right for him to make decisions for others, devoid of their input, as had been done to him for so many years. Yet his intentions were not malicious - he had only wanted to keep the little mechanic (and Win) from harm. He realizes suddenly that he had called the blonde the diminutive nickname at the end of their discussion. The bigger man had long referred to Steve as that in his head, yet never allowed himself to say it, unsure if the smaller man would find it condescending.

His mind searches for an escape from his fears, going back to the night before. The memory of their calm, silent time in the big tub and the feel of the blonde's hands in his hair is pleasant. Something so simple and yet the warm feeling he had now felt so many times had blossomed in his chest. Buck had yet to name that feeling, but knew the frequency with which it occurred frightened him. Its hold on him remained through the night and into the next morning and had weighed heavily on his decision about the mission.

The unexpected reveal of the blonde's body had only made things worse. The Soldier had long wanted to see what was hidden beneath his nightshirts - if the freckles spattering his shoulders and speckled light across the tops of his cheeks and over the bridge of his nose travelled anywhere else. To know the shape of his musculature and skeletal structure, if he had hair in any of those unseen places and what color it was. He understood that some of this was driven by lust and some by simple curiosity, but mostly it was motivated by his need to know him. To know every part of him, to be close and trusted in a way no one else was.

The little mechanic had given him that and then so much more.

The Soldier had penetrated and stroked himself many times and he greatly enjoyed doing it, even more so when he could kiss and touch Steve while the blonde sought his own pleasure. Yet never had it been so arousing or satisfying as when Steve had done it for him. The way the mechanic's fingers moved inside him was indescribably amazing and had drowned out his thoughts in a haze of sensation; he was as shocked as the other man when he had offered himself up to be entered.

He was curious why Steve had not accepted, but he was not disappointed; the sexual act the blonde had performed after - with his hand around them both, rocking their bodies together - had felt incredible. Buck was unaware that maneuver existed; the human sexuality book had not mentioned it. Even here on the cold metal floor of the box trailer, prepared to go to battle, the thought of how intense his orgasm had been - and of Steve's that promptly followed - makes him start to get hard.

After they had both reached release and cleaned up he had expected the blonde to cover himself, but he had made no attempt to do so. Waking with him, Steve's soft milky skin exposed everywhere and against his own, made him feel close to the other man in an entirely new way. With permission, he ran his fingers lightly all the places he could easily reach, learning the feel of him, watching how the smaller man reacted to the touch on different parts of his body.

Buck's hands ranged down the little mechanic's thin but corded arms, over his narrow boney chest and flat firm belly - there was just a bit of hair trailing below his naval to the nest of sandy light brown curls around his member. They are the only places he has hair save what is on his legs, forearms and armpits, all of which is quite light, some if it almost white. The Soldier massages over his shoulders and back, easing down to lightly cup his buttocks (and that was met with a look of surprise and only thinly disguised arousal from the blonde), then lower to brush the backs of his thighs. Buck felt the many different textures of the scar tissue under his flesh fingers.

"I enjoy touching you so much," the Soldier had offered softly, needing the little mechanic to know how much he liked all the parts of him.

Steve wore a little smile through it all, amused at the brunette's curiosity. He had also giggled - a bright, high sound - when the Soldier's fingers grazed feather light over his ribs. It had taken the smaller man some time to explain "being ticklish." Buck recognized in his own way that choosing to be unclothed together after being forced to disrobe for the agendas of others was an important thing for them both. Letting his body be explored like that was most likely something the blonde had not done with anyone else. It made the warmth flare in the Soldier's chest even stronger. He knew with certainty he had to keep this person, and what they have together, safe.

Buck swears he smells Steve when he exits the truck, a faint but seemingly fresh hint of him in the air like when he entered a room after the other man had just left it. The Soldier assumes he is picking up the scent somewhere on himself, possibly in his hair, or on one of the other people present such as Clint. Still, the longing it inspires brings back all of the negative emotions from earlier. He wonders for the thousandth time what he will be returning home to, if in his attempt to protect what they have he has irreparably damaged it.

So much for removing my distraction, he thinks as the mission advances.

Suddenly the situation at hand changes and he is in the thick of a fight. Buck manages to avoid the first wave of reavers and their fire, quickly dispatching many of them with his automatic weapon and dodging the few volleys that make it from the reavers' hands. When the second wave of cannibals swarms him, over a dozen trying to wrestle him down and take the gun away as many others bash and chop at him, he is suddenly stabbing and hurtling them in every direction. He unclips one side of the mask, bites his attackers with abandon.

Normally he would not be so blatant with what he is in front of the others, but there are so many of the enemy and there is no time for propriety when lives hang in the balance. He tears off limbs, puts his metal fist through skulls, rips out jugulars with his teeth. There is so much blood on him by the time he has a moment to pause his movements that it runs off him in little rivlets, dripping down onto the dirt below.

More reavers come, keeping their distance, making hand signals and strange calls to each other. One emerges from a shed with a girl, no more than twelve, held up like a shield with a knife to her throat. The man is moving her slightly back and forth and adjusting his own position constantly and at random, making it difficult for Buck to ensure a kill shot - he fears simply injuring the man will lead to him fatally cutting the girl. Others dart at the Soldier from their hiding places, distracting him with the need to dispatch them, as the cannibal backs away with the child.

The Soldier pursues them into an alley, weapon trained in the general area of the reaver's head, waiting for that split second with a clear line of sight. The cannibal is weaving back and forth so much that the bigger man does not notice him sidestep a certain area on the ground. Buck walks over what he realizes too late is a heavy tarp covered in sand, plummeting into a concealed pit lined with spikes, impaling himself several dozen places. The reaver looks down from above, laughing.

Buck breaks his flesh arm free - yanking it sideways and busting off two sharpened wooden sticks, nearly two feet of each sticking through his bicep - and shoots the man between the eyes. He and the girl topple into the pit. The Soldier manages to get his metal arm, still without a scratch, up quick enough to catch her before she lands on the spikes. A long metal rod with the end bent into a hook juts down into the hole, wraps around the strap on his weapon and yanks it free from his injured arm while he is distracted.

A reaver leans over the edge and attempts to shoot his own weapon at him. It will not fire. He lowers the girl next to him at the side of the pit, carefully avoiding the sharp poles sticking out of him. There is just enough space for her small body to crouch between the dirt wall and his feet. He pulls both sticks from his arm and hurdles them into the cannibal still uselessly trying to fire the automatic weapon. Unfortunately when they slump over dead they do not drop the gun into the pit.

More of them appear from above. Buck shows his teeth, growling, yanking spike after spike out of himself and slinging them at those above, impaling several. He sees them start to light the rags hanging from their accelerant jars. There are still so many spikes in him at odd angles - through his feet, legs and torso, many of them made from sharpened rebar and other pieces of twisted metal rather than just wood - so he cannot simply break free and jump out.

The first fire bomb that falls he is able to smash with a swing of his metal arm, little droplets of liquid flame raining down all around him. Suddenly there are a half-dozen of them lobbed into the pit nearly simultaneously. He curves his body over the girl protectively as several burst on his back, another falling behind him and lighting up the bottom of a pantleg. The vest, slacks and boots will take a while to burn through but some of his exposed parts are in flames, the skin blistering and scorching darker by the second.

The Soldier grits his teeth at the searing pain from his flesh arm and the back of his neck. Accelerant burns on parts of his metal arm as well and the intense heat transferred through to the delicate tissue inside is awful. But if he moves, if the child is struck with a firebomb, she will die. The girl coughs, the pit filling with acrid smoke. He pulls his dangling facemask from its remaining mount, the air vent in the front already closed to keep out the dust, and pushes it over her face.

As soon as she complies with his order to hold it tight, he digs frantically in the side of the pit, covering her in earth as two more firebombs burst on his back. One of them sets the ends of the hair at the base of his skull and crown of his head on fire. The burning trails of the liquid slide beneath the vest in several places and he screams in agony, a terrifying, animalistic sound.

Once the girl is buried, protected, he shoves his arms in the soil of the dessicated pit wall, then throws more earth onto his back and legs. Buck barely has the flames out before another volley rains down on him and he is engulfed anew, the superheated air scalding his lungs. The Soldier knows he needs to get out, to pull free of the remaining spikes, but his body - losing blood from multiple wounds and severely burnt - is going into shock as he tries to remove more of them. His hands stop obeying him.

Suddenly there is no pain and the world grays, the smashing of another bottle and the crackling of the flames that consume him quieting into the background as he starts to go slack. The Soldier's last thoughts before everything goes black are that he will not get to apologize to the little mechanic or tell the blonde he was correct about everything. Buck knows Steve's pride well enough to believe the words "you were right" would mean more to him than "I love you."

Chapter Text

Clint's walkie is toast after the rooftop tussle. Steve has a whopping five bullets left for his rifle, Win zero, and the archer about three dozen arrows (but his bow is on the sidewalk). As much as all of them would love to stay high above the battle raging street to street below, their friends are in real danger and it is only a matter of time before more of the cannibals ascend. At least on the ground they have more room to maneuver, the archer can grab Cecelia and they can possibly get more ammo from their compatriots. The trio head down the fire escape, Steve running point despite Clint's protests. He has to shoot two more reavers, and their progress halts when the building shakes lightly from several explosions in the distance, but at street level most of the fighting has headed elsewhere.

Only the rooftop snipers are left to defend the vehicles from the cover of their crow's nests, hatches beneath them so they can pop back into the truck if needed the same way they'd gotten on top. Greta must have taken her crew out to help the others. A quick exchange reveals that none of the truck toppers have ammunition that will work in the welder's or the mechanic's rifles. The archer gets his bow back and Win finds a nail studded baseball bat on the corpse of a reaver. They are saddened to see a few of their allies dead on the ground (and they have been stripped of their guns, possibly by the truck team as they advanced).

"We find Nat, then we head to Buck, regroup, make a plan," Steve says as he grabs several knives off the dead and slides them into his belt. He'd recovered his own from the cannibal on the roof and returned it to its holster, cleaned of blood like Greta taught him. Win follows suit, grabbing multiple blades off the maroon-stained earth and putting a hammer through the strap on her pants after she shakes the wet brains off of the head. The blonde pulls out his slingshot and readies a fat, short screw to fire.

The area a block out from the square is utter chaos - they can hear the sounds of fighting inside and in between buildings around them. Multiple structures are fully engulfed and there are bodies in the sand everywhere, including a number of severely wounded. If they are reavers, Clint helps them along - its ugly business killing someone when they're down, but it has to be done. If they're Claptrappers, they carry them back to the trucks where a few wait in the safety of the boxes to provide medical care. It takes them ten minutes to find Nat. She is in the center of a circle of bodies piled three to four deep, covered in blood, reaver machete in hand as she chops the head off a final attacker.

"Hey, girl. You come here often?" Clint calls to her from behind.

She turns, machete raised, then drops it as she breaks into hysterical laughter. The redhead jumps on him over the small wall of corpses, arms around his neck and legs wrapping his waist, kissing him like her life depends on it. Steve and Win can't help but grin despite the situation. They meet up with Phil and Greta - both bloody but with only minor injuries - minutes later.

"Everyone's scattered! We couldn't stay clustered with the firebombs," the older woman informs them. "There's so many more of the bastards than we thought and the tunnels seem to run everywhere. They hunker down and then pop out. I've got a solution for that though!"

She opens her jacket to reveal a row of grenades, takes one off, pulls the pin and tosses it in the nearest reaver hole. It explodes with an impressively loud rumble as the tunnel collapses, dirt, debris and body parts fanning up from the entrance. Well, that explained the several booms they'd heard as they descended.

A horrific, almost inhuman scream suddenly fills the air. Buck.

Steve runs in the direction of the sound at full speed, Clint yelling at him to wait as he and the others give chase. He's quick - little and slippery - as he snakes through burning debris, over cars and between people desperately fighting for their lives. The first pull of his slingshot launches the screw, luckily pointy end first, through a reaver's eye as he runs past - they were very close to bashing Hill's brains in and it drops them where they stand. Win and Nat are in quick pursuit, slashing and bashing where necessary. The archer fires into reavers as they run at his friends, snatching the arrows back out as he passes the bodies as he'd done when they'd gotten down into the town square. Unfortunately a lot of the recovered arrows aren't reusable, heads snapping off in the dead or shafts bent. He adds the ones that look passable to his quiver as he goes.

Greta and Phil take up the rear, him covering her as she blows reaver tunnel after reaver tunnel. In some places the ground above completely collapses, creating a deep impression in the earth. When she's out of grenades, she starts pulling dynamite from her pack. One quick cannibal tosses a stick back out of their tunnel - it lands under a car, launching it into the sky, glass and twisted metal flying in every direction. An ex ops in body armor and a helmet shields the older woman from the debris, then goes back into the fight.

Not even the massive blast slows Steve down. He finally spots a group of reavers around what looks like a pit in the ground, hurtling in Molotov cocktails. The Soldier's distinctive automatic weapon is on the ground near the edge of the hole, which is billowing black smoke. The blonde launches object after object into the glass jars the reavers hold aloft with his slingshot, spraying the accelerant on his enemies. Two really light up and topple into the hole - he hears them get impaled before he can see in and it dawns on him the pit is an elaborate trap. One deep and dangerous enough to catch a super soldier so you can rain fire down on him from above.

No. Nonononononono!

The blonde shoots car lugnuts, marbles and rock-hard hunks of sharp edged glass block scrap into the faces of the cannibals. One runs at him, tackling him to the ground. The mechanic has a knife out of his belt and into their side fairly quick and when they pull back, howling in rage and pain, he takes a second from his waistband and crams the blade just under their sternum. Win runs up, kicks the knife deeper into the man's chest. Her bat crashes into his skull as soon as he's on his back, just to be sure.

Nat dropkicks a cannibal hard in the stomach then breaks their neck in a swift, double-handed move when they bend over. Arrows fly in quick succession into the remaining few reavers as Steve scrambles to the edge of the pit. Buck is limp, body held upright by a dozen sharpened spears and metal poles crammed through him. He is burning.

Clint tackles the blonde as he tries to jump in. "Are you fucking insane? That's a tiny pond of liquid fire filled with spears!"

"I have to help him! I have to help him!!!" he screams, flailing against the bigger man.

Win grabs a large piece of sheet metal laying on the ground twenty feet away, the former ceiling to a reaver hole. "Help me!" she yells at Nat. They use the wide flat object to scrape sand piled up next to the buildings into the hole again and again until the flames inside - including on Buck - are smothered.

Clint shoves Steve down again, jumping up quick. "Let me! Everything's scalding hot. I've got gloves!" He eases down into the pit, puts his ear close to the bigger man's mouth to listen for breath. "He's alive." He starts trying to remove the spikes through his friend.

"There's bolt cutters in the truck!" Greta yells to Win.

The welder takes off, Nat joining to watch her back. Steve slides into the pit, wraps his coat sleeves over his hands to help Clint pull a blackened, smoking pole out of Buck's thigh. The women are back minutes later sweaty and panting, handing over the tool. It takes Clint and Steve together to force the cutters through the thicker rods, but eventually they're able to free Buck, Greta joining in the hole to help hold him up as they pull the last few. The three of them below and Phil, Win and Nat above manage to get him out of the pit.

Once they're all back on the street, Steve tilts his head toward the school - its one of the few structures that isn't on fire. "There!"

Four of them lift him, Greta and Phil providing cover with their few remaining bullets. The fighting seems to be dying down and other Claptrappers are finally radioing in on the older woman's walkie. They move Buck inside, trying to get defensible cover to check his wounds, but many of the rooms are barricaded or boarded shut. They bust into the gymnasium, cutting the chain on the double doors with the bolt cutters.

There are people inside, nearly a dozen chained in various spots to the ancient heat radiators and pipes. Greta guards the door into the hallway as Phil sweeps the perimeter, ensures the doors to outside at the back of the room are also chained and padlocked.

"Stay the fuck back!" a man yells as Steve and the others come near. He's on his knees holding an old woman behind him, protecting her body with his, his fist raised with a length of chain wrapped around it. His friend looks terrified and confused, babbling nonsense. They're both restrained at the wrists, ankles and around the waist.

"Yeah, yeah, calm down. We're the good guys, kid!" Clint responds as they carry the Soldier over to a wrestling mat on the ground a few feet from the prisoner who had spoke.

"Holy fuck. Holy fuck! Winter? Winter?!" the guy exclaims. Steve finally turns to look at the captive - he's a bit older than the blonde but not much, caramel complexion, ringlets in his dark chin length hair. He has big green eyes. "What did you fucks do to him?"

"He's our friend, dipshit. The cannibals lit him up," the archer snaps.

"Shit! Oh shit. Let me loose!" the young man requests.

"We'll get to you! Patience is a virtue," Nat barks.

"I can help him! I've seen him get burnt before!" The captive crawls to the end of his lead chain and onto the edge of the mat.

"Woah there, pretty boy! You weren't invited to dance with the prom queen." Nat puts a knife to his throat.

"It's cool! It's cool! I know him! We're... associates." The younger man has his hands held aloft, like it's a stick up, the redhead's blade making a small dent in his skin. "He got lit up before. It wasn't nearly this bad though. Just part of his shoulder and upper back. Bullet wounds, stabs, that's nothing to him but this..."

"You know what he is?" Steve asks.

"Yeah, yeah I do. A hundred percent. You're wondering why he's not healing, right? He told me a deep tissue burn kills the nerves, destroys the blood vessels. If it's bad enough there's no blood flow so the skin can't repair itself. He'd have to wait for it to basically die and slough off and then he'd grow more but that takes weeks."

The young man removes Buck's goggles - they're partially melted to his face and some skin comes with them. The bigger man groans in pain, the first sound he's made save the wheeze of his labored breathing.

"Sorry, buddy, sorry!" the younger man soothes.

"Buck? Buck?!" Steve scoots in closer. The Soldier's eyelids flutter but don't fully open.

"So that's your big solution? Leave him horribly fucked up for a month and hope he sheds it like a giant sunburn?" the archer demands.

"Fury can't see him like this," Phil chimes in. "I think you know that." Nat looks at Clint, nods.

"Before, he cut it off. The charred skin. He had me help with what was hard for him to reach." The younger man is working on removing Buck's vest. "We need to get all this melted shit off him and then...we basically need to flay the burnt parts."

"Shut up, new guy!" Win exclaims.

"You're out of your goddamn gourd, kid! Been hanging out with that dementia case too long." Greta gestures to the old woman, in heated conversation with a blank spot on the wall.

"Listen, Granny Clampett, unless you've got a PhD in vampire medicine I suggest you shut the fuck up!" the younger man yells at her, unclipping the last strap on Buck's vest. "I lived with him for six months. I know what I'm talking about."

"What's his favorite food?" Steve asks.

"He really likes fruit," the captive responds immediately.

The mechanic pulls a knife from his belt, holds it up in front of himself, stilling the young man's motion for a long moment. "Let's do what he says," the blonde finally rasps, offering it handle first to the prisoner.

"Are you fucking insane?!?!" Clint screams. "We don't know this guy from Adam. He could be a reaver. It could be a trick!"

"Yo, busted ass Robin Hood, I've literally pissed in these pants and I'm just sitting around in them. You think one'a them would be that devoted to their act?"

"He does stink," Nat adds.

"We're doing this!" Steve takes another long knife from his belt, starts to cut Buck's slacks away. Win goes to work on removing his boots. All of the punctures are healed, new skin there in circles that stand in stark contrast to the black and red flesh around them.

"There's just one problem. Judging from those marks, he's already lost a lot of blood and he'll lose a ton more when we cut him," the young man says, "which I'm sure you think isn't a problem for him, but when he loses enough he gets a little crazy."

"Crazy how?" Clint asks.

"Feral. His need for blood'll be enormous and he won't be himself. He could attack us. Last time we took a lot less skin than we'll need to now, and he still got hangry really quick."

"He obviously didn't kill you though," Steve replies.

"But he wanted to hurt me. I could see it. He prepared."

"Prepared?" Win questions.

"Yeah, he kept some of the guys that burnt him alive, had them tied up nearby. As soon as he was healed, he pushed me out of the room and then…Well, it was a huge mess when he finally came out." The prisoner pulls the last strip of the vest away. "I guess he'd got hurt bad enough at some point before that he knew that would happen. Lucky me. He was still super hungry after too even though he was in control."

"So we pull in some reavers. There's bodies everywhere," Greta offers.

"I can do you one better," the young man responds.

Chapter Text

After Steve and the others free the prisoners, the young man entrusts his elderly friend to one of the women that had been chained nearby. He leads the mechanic and his friends, save Win who stays to watch Buck, to a side office with a large floor to ceiling equipment locker. There are three men inside chained to the wall of the metal grid structure, all in some semblance of body armor and leather; they've clearly been beaten senseless and picked over. Their boots are gone and they each have several toes missing. One has bite marks on his face and another is missing an ear. Clint finally remembers his own, reaches up to find a large chunk of it gone. It hurts like hell but it's clotted at least.

Steve and Greta recognize the remnants of the white X painted on each prisoner's chest immediately.

"Some of those shitbirds that attacked you in the desert," the older woman offers, pointing to the mark. She had seen the corpses heading back from the yard. "I say we listen to the kid, give Buck these marauding bastards. A few less scumbags in the world." She spits in their direction.

"You're gonna die for that, bitch," one of the men says to the older woman.

"Not before you, fucko," she responds.

The younger man snags a set of clothes - sweats and a thermal shirt - folded up on a chair. There's even socks. He shakes the dust out of it all and strips out of his filthy clothes, down to his birthday suit, behind the desk. Using some wetnaps he found in a drawer (along with the unlocked office door's key), he cleans up quick before putting the new-to-him clothes on. Steve can't help but notice in addition to being absurdly cute he's in good shape, his compact body fairly muscular and broader than the blonde's. How exactly does this guy know Buck?

"So we unlock the cage, bring Winter...Buck...in, skin him and then bounce quick, closing every gate and door between us and him," the young man offers. "Normally it wouldn't slow him down much, but he'll be weaker until he eats. Hopefully after he does, he'll be back to his senses. If not, we run like hell and hope there's enough of those cannibal fucks outside still breathing for him to get his head back on straight."

"Hey, we don't know these people. I mean, that one's a dick clearly," Clint motions to the man that threatened Greta, "but just because they've got some X painted on them doesn't mean they should all be...vampire chow." Clint crosses his arms as Steve picks the lock on the cage. "By the way I'm really pissed off you lied to me about that, like, a whole bunch of times. I mean...I had my tongue..." the archer trails off as he sees Nat shaking her head violently out of the corner of his eye.

"They destroyed our settlement then tried to get in good with these reavers by giving us to them. The country jamborees in this town only serve barbecue, if you know what I mean. Isn't that right, fumehead?" The former prisoner kicks the boot of one of the X-marked captives with his worn out sneaker. They're a sallow, twitchy fellow with bulging eyes. "Reavers just don't give a fuck about deals though, do they?" He smirks at the guy, glaring up at him. "When we showed up the cannibal queen ate their point man's face off in front of us while he was still alive and her people put the rest of these fucks in here. They started taking some of them each time they took some of us. My only consolation to the fact that these shits got dozens of my neighbors killed is that the cannibals already ate two thirds of their friends too. No great loss to humanity there."

"Fuck you, beaner trash. Your whore mother should have stayed in Mexico instead of squeezing you out on American soil," the bug-eyed captive replies.

"Okay, definitely let Buck kill that guy," Clint sneers.

"Actually my mother was Guatemalan and my father was Puerto Rican," the young man responds, unfazed, like he's heard it all. He turns to Steve. "Last guy that called me a racial slur Winter practically ripped in half. He didn't even know what it meant, he just didn't like his tone. He really hates assholes. That's how I know you're good folks." He flashes his pearly whites at Steve.

Great, he goes from cute to gorgeous when he smiles. Can I put him back where I found him?

"Do you have anything douchey to say? I'd really like a clean conscience about this," Clint addresses the third captive. "I mean you do have a toucher face, but I'm not sure that's a good enough reason." Clint's left eyebrow cocks.

"A what face?" Nat snorts.

"You know, the face of a toucher. Someone who touches people in a not right way," the archer responds. "Like the type of guy who gently brushes your ass while you're in line ordering a pastrami on rye at Jeff's."

"That's oddly specific," the redhead returns.

"Why would they wanna get in good with reavers?" Steve questions, circling back to the matter at hand.

"To prepare the way for glory," the third man in the cage offers suddenly.

"Man, I hate riddles," Clint responds. "What does that mean, dickwad?"

"If the ones with the X know a big chunk of our fighters are here, keepin' busy with the cannibals, their own group could attack Claptrap while the defenses are weak," Greta offers. "Phil, you need to radio Fury. And don't lie to me that you can't - I know you've got that fancy doohickey on you to report back to him." She walks up to him, pulls a knife quick as lightning and puts it to his throat. "And not one fucking word about Buck. Not one."

Phil nods and she backs down. "I need to go to the roof to use it."

She nods at the other freed captives. "Take them with you. If you can see a clear path to the truck, get'em there."

"The reaper has not yet arrived. He sits and waits and bides his time," the third captive continues, "but he will always finds you."

"Who are we talking about again?" Nat asks, sounding mildly bored.

The man juts his arms up as far as his restraints will allow, one forearm facing forward and crossing over the other to form an X. "CROSSBONES!" he screams, grinning wildly.

"Crossbones!" the fumer agrees.

"Crossbones," says the racist.

"Crossbones?" the redhead questions. All three men say the name again.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah..." Clint responds. "We get it. Who the fuck is that?"

"Crossbones is their leader," the freed captive offers. "I only saw him once, at a distance. The X, they copy that from him. He has a big one painted on his body armor. White shit on his mask too. They say he has powers. That he like...mutated or something. Which would have sounded nuts to me before I met Winter but now..." the young man trails off.

"He's coming. He's coming! He won't be denied! CROSSBONES IS NIGH!!!" the zealot continues from the cage.

"Crossbones!" the fumer repeats.

"Crossbones," says the racist.

They decide to gag them all with jump ropes, then head back out into the gym to get Buck. The young man turns to Steve, both of them on their knees with Win and Nat at different quadrants of their friend's prone body, ready to lift him.

"The queen, she was saving Muriel's granddaughter and me for victory dinner. Did you see a little girl out there anywhere? They took her earlier."

"Sorry, no," the mechanic responds.

"Pit," the Soldier rasps.

"What, buddy?" The young man leans closer.

"Girl. Pit. Under...dirt," Buck manages. "No air."

"There was a pile on one side, but I thought he was trying to put himself out. I'll go check the hole!" Clint runs out. Steve knows its been a rough day when the archer doesn't even giggle after uttering those words.

They carry the Soldier to the cage. After a few minutes of discussion, the young man goes over the basics of the plan again.

"Okay, we have to make this quick. Get as much as you can, but it doesn't have to be flawless. We can clean up the rest later when he's in better shape. The second I say break, we run like hell. I'll shut the cage once we're out. Steve, right?" The blonde nods. "Steve, you head straight to that office door and be ready to lock it as soon as we're through. The keys are in the doorknob. Then its out in the hall and the old lady chains the door. That's three layers he'll have to bust through if he comes at us. Normally that's not a problem for him, but he'll stay pretty weak til he eats." He lightly strokes the part of Buck's face that isn't scorched, bending over so his own is quite close. "Winter, buddy, can you hear me?"

The Soldier groans, his eyes open slightly. "Luis?" he barely forces out.

"Yeah it's Luis, big guy." The young man smiles down at him fondly.

Steve is decidedly not smiling - who the fuck is this guy? He decides now isn't the time to act like a jealous high-schooler. But, fuck, he's good looking. And way too familiar.

"Am...dead?" the Soldier rasps.

"No, no you're not dead." Luis laughs softly. "You thought we were in hell together, huh? You are burnt up bad, but we're gonna help get the charred parts off so you can heal."

Buck breathes out raggedly, "No...attack you..."

"We've got some tasty deserving here for you, pal," Luis replies. "This is gonna hurt real bad, but you've gotta keep still, okay?"

The Soldier makes the tiniest nod, the burnt flesh of his throat cracking.

Luis takes the belt off his ruined jeans, folds it over several times. "Bite on this, buddy," he offers as he eases the leather between Buck's parted teeth. His fingertips lightly graze the Soldier's cheek again, a comforting gesture, and Buck hums gravelly and soft. Steve can't help the hot stab in his gut, the formless anger that he knows is immature and a needless distraction in this situation.

The former captive turns to the others. "Don't cut too shallow, or you're hurting him for nothing. Watch me for a second, then do what I do. This is how he showed me."

Steve can only nod. Is this really happening? Are they actually going to cut him up? He feels queasy, dizzy, but tries to shake it off. Luis starts seconds later. The sound of it is awful, even more nauseating than the smell of Buck's burnt skin and hair. They watch the young man carve a long slice of scorched meat from the Soldier's arm like a well-trained butcher and then all turn to their task, quick and silent. Buck whimpers and groans, biting hard into the leather, his canines and the pointy teeth next to them punching through first, the flatter (but still sharp) teeth in the front sinking in eventually. They all extend out of his gums a bit, then the pointy sets seem to start getting longer more and more by the second. The brunette's eyes glow aqua, turn ice blue and then go almost white, blinding in their intensity. His sounds become more animalistic, the mat beneath them and their pants where they kneel down sopping wet with his dark blood. No one will notice with what a mess they already are.

The younger man stops, cleans his blade, turns and slashes across the tops of the prisoners' bare feet with his knife, drawing blood and grunts of pain.

"Okay, go, go!" Luis is up and out of the cage so fast, holding the door. There's a brief second where the others worry that he will close it on them, but he doesn't. The young man shuts it the moment they get clear. They hesitate momentarily, watching new skin knit together all over the Soldier's body as he thrashes in pain. Suddenly he goes still, silent.

"Buck?" Steve whispers, fingers twining in the grate of the cage as he peers in.

The Soldier sits up slowly, the belt dropping from his mouth. He bares his teeth, growling low in his chest and starts to crawl forward. The prisoners sit stockstill in silence behind him.

"Run!" Luis instructs, pulling Steve from the bars as Buck jolts forward, all snarling teeth. The blonde barely has the key turned in the office's heavy steel door, locking it between themselves and the Soldier, before Buck bursts out of the cage. He runs straight at them, smashing his face into the thick panel that serves as a small window in the door, screaming incoherently.

"Buck? Buck?!" Steve calls out to him on the other side as he bashes his face into the glass again and again. The blonde looks very close to tears.

"He's not himself right now," Luis says, not unkindly, to the mechanic. The Soldier's metal fist smashes into the door, denting it severely, then crashes into it a second time nearly tearing it from the massive hinges.

He almost bit off my fingers after all, Steve thinks absently. The mechanic feels like his grip on reality has snapped, and he can't pull himself together. He's never been afraid of Buck, not after their first meeting, even when he knew logically he should be.

"Need to go!" Win grabs his arm.

Nat and Luis help physically wrestle the blonde out of the room, Greta slamming the double doors and chaining them. They have two long thin window panels as well, just big enough to pop an arm through. Seconds later they see the steel office door give way, fly from the jamb then land with a loud clatter. It slides across the floor to the far wall. They watch in horror as Buck stalks out, looking like a monster from a horror movie, eyes blazing, teeth massive. He's even drooling. They prepare to run but suddenly he stops, tilts his head back and scents the air like a dog - he must smell the fresh wounds of the prisoners. Buck turns on his heel and runs back into the storage room at full speed. The muffled sounds of screaming and chains rattling against metal just reach them through the doors.

Minutes later a naked, red-blood spattered Buck emerges from the office. He stumbles all of eight or ten steps then faceplants into the wood flooring with his arms stretched out like Superman. His bare ass and his flesh arm, back and legs - save a few small spots - are gray again. They all stare in silence for a long moment before his flesh hand half lifts up off the floor and he groans, "help."

They steal clothes off bodies to dress him, boots too since his are run through in multiple places, sole's sporting inch to inch and a half wide holes. He can't stand let alone walk and barely gets words out. Luis slides under one of his arms and Steve beneath the other - it's all they can do with Greta pushing from behind to keep him upright. Nat and Win each pick up a leg and they carry him. The younger women release him once they hear other Claptrappers approaching and the men and Greta walk-drag him to the truck, trying to avoid prying eyes as Win and Nat distract the onlookers.

They meet up with Phil and the other freed captives - he swears he said nothing to Fury about Buck and chastises Greta for what he considered an unnecessary threat. Nick's drones don't see anyone approaching Claptrap or in the vicinity of the burning town, so they breathe just the tiniest bit easier at that. The small group stuff Buck into a corner of a truck box with his knees folded up to his chest and his weapon in his lap, Steve under one arm propping him up, trying to make it look like they're having a celebratory cuddle after the fight.

Yay, we're alive and shit.

It feels like an agonizingly long amount of time while Win, Nat, Greta and Phil go out to help the other Claptrappers once again comb through the dead and dying for their allies. Luis heads to find Clint, taking Muriel with him. The junktowners pick clean what little the rubble has to offer. There is certainly an abundance of hand weapons, plywood and sheet metal. Greta orders it all put into the truck that the blonde and the Soldier are set in, leaving only enough room for Win, Phil and Greta to ride back with it, keeping others away from the Soldier. When people ask where Buck is, each one of the Claptrappers who had been with him in the school tells a different lie, so that no one is aware which truck he is actually riding in or what his state is.

Clint and Nat ride in the truck with the medics, the archer clutching the hand of the little girl he had found buried in the pit as they work on her - she has serious burns on her legs and she wasn't breathing when he found her. His other fingers hold Buck's mask.

"He put it on her," the archer whispers to his wife, "even though he must have known that the heat from the fire would burn him from the inside out. What the fuck do we do about his lungs? You heard how he was breathing."

Luis lingers nearby, maintaining control of Muriel. She seems to drift in and out of awareness of what is happening to her grandchild, becoming briefly hysterical before collapsing in on herself to mumble and whisper. "He'll heal, with time," the younger man reassures. "And enough..." His eyes dart around to the strangers in the truck. He has no idea how much these people know. "Enough food and rest."

When they're finally ready to go, all the trucks loaded and the doors closed, Greta comes and sits down near Steve and Buck. She pushes the hair back out of the Soldier's face. "How you feelin', kiddo? You gave me quite a scare."

"I'm so tired," Buck whimpers. He sounds on the verge of tears.

The older woman eases him away from Steve, leans his head against her chest. She wraps her arms around him and rocks him back and forth.

"I know sweetheart, I know. Go to sleep," she soothes.

In that moment Steve realizes that Greta had been a mother and his thoughts, for the first time in a long time, go to his own. He had been very close to having to pull sheets over a lot of people today. The mechanic grips Buck's metal hand and sobs, finally letting the reality of the day set in.

Chapter Text

To say Luis had been terrified of the creature at first was an understatement. He had no idea where he'd got the cojones to try to reason with it or ask it for mercy after it dragged him, kicking and screaming, into the basement apartment and tied him to the heavy wooden kitchen chair. Honestly he was surprised at that stage, with no one left to give a shit about or to give a shit about him, that he even cared if he lived. What was life worth when it only boiled down to survival? Since he'd left Queens he'd known nothing but hunger, pain, exhaustion and fear.

It was not necessarily the thought of death that spurred him to speak, so much as the cloying guilt of letting those assholes he'd been running with hurt the old man. There were maybe no priests left to confess to, and he wasn't sure that the thing before him would even understand what he was saying, but he needed to get it off his chest if he was about to die. It had just looked at him, blank-faced, and then left the room.

Luis was shocked when it returned the next morning with an open can half-full of cold spaghetti, a bottle of water and an empty bucket. It released him from his bonds without a word exchanged between them and left the room. He heard the footsteps stop not far away and realized it was waiting for him to eat and do his business so it could put him back in the chair. That's their routine, he guesses around seven a.m. and six p.m., every day for nearly two weeks. After the first three days he'd worked up the courage to ask for a fork and it was in his can the next morning.

Then one day the thing comes in empty handed in the middle of the afternoon. It's four pointy teeth look bigger than ever (the others maybe a bit longer too) and it's eyes are glowing a crazy shade of electric blue that reminds him of a neon sign in his mother's beauty parlor. The fear ramps back up in him - this is it. It's probably killed all the others (they're far enough away in the big building that he virtually never hears them; no loss there) and it's his turn. Luis tells himself he won't beg. He grits his teeth, closes his eyes, says a silent prayer in Spanish his grandfather had taught him as a boy and waits for the thing to rip him apart like it had Al.

It bends down without a word, pushes his head to the side with one hand and his shoulder down with the other and sinks its teeth into him. Luis cries out from the pain - it's like someone's closed a small bear trap on his neck - and thrashes against his bindings. He whimpers and, yes, begs it to stop. It's not just the pain; he can hear its slow, measured swallows as it drinks from him, feel the pull of it lightly sucking even as his own heartbeat forces the blood out of him into its mouth.

After a long few moments, the pain starts to fade gradually into the background. A gentle pulsing replaces it, spreading from where the thing's teeth are buried in him up and down his neck a bit more with each beat. By the time it branches out into his spine he starts to involuntarily relax - he can still move, but it feels like he's underwater, every motion slow and requiring great effort. It gets hard to form words and soon he finds he doesn't really want to bother.

A tingle, similar to the feeling when someone had rubbed their fingers lightly over his arm or he'd watched an ASMR video, spreads with the pulsation. They both get steadily stronger. He feels it reach up the back of his head to the crown, prickling pleasantly along his scalp and then down to light up his vertebrae one by one. The pulse - and the sensation that follows it - fans out across his back, around into his ribs, down into his hips and legs, until it buzzes lightly through the soles of his feet.

It's hard to describe how it felt when he's questioned by the creature later - dumb with shock as it's the first time it had spoken to him, it's voice a bit deep but calm and soft - but he tries his best. Luis can't really explain why, and he knows it's probably stupid, but he's less afraid. The creature releases him from his bonds, takes him upstairs to the dining area and let's him pick three different cans from his stash of food. It even allows him to heat them up - there's still gas in the tank outside for the stove - while it observes silently. He offers to do the same for the green beans it's eating with its fingers and after a long, flat stare it holds the can out to him.

He cautiously asks later if he can not go back in the chair at night, reasoning to it that there are bars on the basement windows and the thing already locks the apartment door (the style of deadbolt is very sturdy and requires the key for both sides) - there is no way for him to get out. It looks at him for a long time, blank faced, then nods. That evening, it carefully ties him to the small bed in the basement apartment where it had been keeping him. Luis' heart drops into his stomach - he definitely knows what it would mean to the type of people he had been with when he arrived here to get restrained in this way - and asks the thing over and over "please don't hurt me." It just throws the bedcovers over him and leaves.

When the creature bit him next, over a week later, it had been just as unceremonious as the first. He was anxious but overall far less scared - Luis certainly wasn't thrilled about spending so much of his day tied up, but at least the thing was meeting his basic needs and started letting him free to help loot the apartments (though supervised closely) as well as continuing to release him regularly to go to the bathroom (unsupervised thankfully, though it was never far away if he was loose). The creature bound him to the bed every evening. When Luis quietly asked one night if he could lay on his side, it paused, nodded and let him move into a more comfortable position before it went back to restraining him. At this point, Luis feels he has to focus on any small comfort that he can - he's alive, dry, warm, fed, (relatively) non-abused and sleeping on an actual mattress with sheets and blankets.

Luis also has to admit that he had liked whatever it had done to him last time and hoped that this time would feel the same. Certainly it was a better alternative than the agony of the creature's teeth buried in the meat of his neck as he felt it suck him down like a human juice box. He doesn't offer struggle or protest when the thing grabs his shoulder and pushes his head to the side, but can't help his body going tight. The pulsing started precisely as before, but it escalated quickly, getting stronger and stronger until it was a dull throb through his whole body.

The tingle got intense, spread everywhere, wave after wave of sensation washing over his skin and through his muscles. He grits his teeth, tries not to let on how good it feels. After a bit he can't stop himself - drugged little sounds spill out of him. The thing's moan in response is audible, even with it's mouth clamped on him, and he feels the sound rumble through its chest as it presses itself closer to him.

It leaves him in the chair even less after that, letting him pick his own food and eat daily with the creature in the dining area. The thing even allows him to be at a greater distance from it when he's unrestrained. Maybe he's crazy or weak or a coward for not resisting the creature keeping him like a pet and blood bag but how would he escape it and where would he run to if he did? They finish looting the building they're staying in and he compiles a big stack of stuff to use; the thing seems indifferent to him taking anything that isn't a weapon or food. With little to do one day and some modicum of personal freedom, he spends most of the afternoon flipping through magazines on a couch in the lobby. The creature sits on the floor taking apart and cleaning its weapons across the coffee table from him.

Eventually Luis realizes that the thing has gotten very quiet. He looks up to see it staring at him, eyes slightly glowing that eerie but somehow pretty blue. The creature has a thin line of saliva coming from one corner of its lips. It occurs to Luis in a vague sort of way that its mouth must be watering. The thing slides the coffee table aside with an effortless gesture and then it's on him, the metal arm sliding around his waist as the other hand grips the base of his skull, maneuvers him. He tries his best not to tense up or cry out - the pain of the bite only lasts seconds, the pulsing ramping up to a hard throb very quickly.

The sensations rock through him, turning from pleasant to pleasurable so fast that he has no idea at what point he goes slack or starts moaning. The thing pulls him off the sofa, holds him so high his toes don't even touch the ground, pressing him close. It makes its own sounds of enjoyment again and again right along with him. The experience seems to stretch on a long time, everything else melting away.

After, he's vaguely aware of it carrying him to his bed, covering him, coming back in over and over to push it's flesh hand to his pulse, chest or forehead. Luis is so relaxed and warm, his thoughts swirling slow and dreamlike. The creature seems mildly agitated, pacing, eventually settling in the chair nearby as Luis finally gives in to his intense urge to sleep. When he wakes he's not bound and the deadbolt is unlocked. The thing is nowhere to be found.

Luis has a long debate about his next move. He realizes what happened the night before is probably clouding his judgment and maybe the logical thing to do is get the fuck out. But it seems the...man?... doesn't intend to hurt him, despite how blatantly homicidal he was. Perhaps they had started as captive and captor but that arrangement had clearly ended; they would be something else if he chose to stay. Luis couldn't blame the guy for tying him up, for thinking he was bad news, since he had reluctantly helped the others try to kill him - he'd even shot him in the leg.

He has food here, shelter, other creature comforts. The man obliterates any threat that arises (the area gets its share of less than friendly visitors, most of whom end up one more bloodstain on the man's clothes) and seems relatively open to requests to meet his needs. Luis also can't lie that he very badly wants the man to do again whatever he had done to him last night. His body still aches pleasantly with little after shocks from it and he had gotten his best sleep in years.

It should be weird, having another dude clutching at him and pleasuring him and moaning against his neck. He's not homophobic but he'd never so much as thought about holding hands with a guy and had a laundry list of ex-girlfriends. But Luis knows on some level that what the man did to him was not about sex or romance. The act and the feelings it creates - pleasure, relaxation, a need for closeness, a type of shared simple intimacy - don't have an easy label based on human behavior because the man isn't human.

Still, he can't lie when the guy finally comes back hours later he feels some kind of relief and tentative connection to him. Luis surprises himself when he offers his own name to the other man; he says nothing in return but does address him as Luis the next day. They fall into a pattern - first they eat breakfast together in silence, then the man quietly outlines their scavenging plans for the day. They each pack a small bag and loot another area of the suburb they're staying on the outskirts of. Eat lunch in silence. Loot more. Trek back. Eat dinner in silence. Sort their haul. Go to bed once he's tired.

It's just like the racist old white people thought, he laughs to himself, staring at a portrait of the most tense WASP family he's ever seen, the brown guy has come from the city to take their shit. I bet they never guessed gray guys would be involved. Eyeing their dead security keypad, he imagines what an infomercial for a vampire home defense system might look like and chuckles outloud. That earns him the tiniest movement of the man's eyebrows. Luis thinks of it as Facial Expression #2 from then on, the man's usual blank look being #1.

At night for a few hours before bed, or when the man just decides for whatever reason they'll stay in all day, he is mostly let alone to do what he wants. He hangs out in the fancy common areas, including a glassed in patio on the fifth floor and the roof deck next to the long-dry pool. He even gets the man to play ping pong with him after he teaches the rules (the bastard wins every time).

Eventually he starts asking a few questions here and there, getting the man to tell him his…Well, it's not a name exactly. Winter Soldier 23. No, he's not a cyborg or an alien or supernatural in origin. Yes, he is a science experiment. He elaborates a bit on that when pressed but not much. The soldier doesn't answer why he's there or what his plans are - if any - after this place.

He takes to calling the man Winter, both out of convenience and because unlike "soldier" it feels more like a name than a title. Winter feeds on him regularly. It surprises Luis how often he can do it before the smaller man starts to feel out of sorts. Winter seems to notice, doting on him for a few days, insisting he stay on the lobby couch with a blanket when he's not in bed, bringing him hot food and fresh water. He even leaves for an afternoon and comes back with medical supplies, hooking an IV up to Luis. He's more careful not to do it so close together after that.

Getting fed on feels more amazing every time, despite the fact the bigger man just sort of finds Luis wherever he's at in the building when the mood strikes him and latches on without a word. Finally one day he's had enough of being man-handled. Winter charges into the kitchen as Luis is about to make dinner, a very familiar glow about his eyes as he drops down on the floor next to where the smaller man is digging through a cabinet for a mixing bowl. He grabs Luis by the upper arm with his metal hand, his other going to the back of his neck, yanking him forward.

"Hey! Hey! No!!!" Luis doesn't know what possesses him to yell and push against Winter's chest, nor why the bigger man actually stops. He looks at the smaller man with Facial Expression #2 (maybe it will even be a #3 because there's a faint hint of annoyance mixing with the confusion).

"Hungry," Winter says, quiet but insistent.

"Yeah, well so am I. Fuck, can I at least eat and take my boots off first? We've been home all of ten minutes."

Home? This is home now?

Yep, definitely adding a #3 to the list. There's subtle irritation on Winter's features. He lets Luis shake his metal hand off and pull back from the one on his neck, sliding a few feet away.

"And you don't need to be so rough!" He pulls up his t-shirt sleeve to show the new and old finger shaped bruises on his bicep. "I don't even try to fight back, so I don't know why you think you gotta grab onto me like that. You could just, ya know, ask me."

Is that a #4 expression maybe? Winter's eyes go ever so slightly wider as he surveys the marks, mouth turning down the tiniest bit at the corners. Luis would never notice if the bigger man wasn't literally the only person he'd seen for nearly two months and wasn't around him twelve plus hours every day. He leaves the smaller man alone until the late evening.

Winter knocks on the basement apartment door (another thing Luis had finally complained about after he'd walked in on him changing for the dozenth time). When he's told to come in he walks to the edge of the bed where Luis sits and kneels down in front of him.

"Please," Winter whispers, voice thick and gravelly. "I need it."

The feeding is the best it's been so far that time, Winter's pulse buried in him, flooding him with pleasure. Luis is embarrassed the next day of how loud he'd moaned, seated on the bigger man's lap where he'd been gently pulled. Winter had been hunched over him, his own sounds frequent and needy, as he sucked from Luis slow.

He doesn't hesitate to tell the bigger man what he thinks after that, earning him a lot of #3 and #4 looks. Winter seems particularly affronted when he brings up his hygiene or cajoles him into doing something outside of his very limited comfort zone. Luis sees something in him, a spark of a personality, he hopes isn't just his imagination. He tries carefully to fan it into a flame.

Chapter Text

There's no easy way to smuggle Buck back to Steve's shanty. Claptrap doesn't exactly have standard sized roads and the large cargo truck will not fit anywhere near his home. Gurminder takes charge of Muriel, leading her to medical to see her granddaughter and help Bruce assess the old woman's state. Clint had stayed back to help with Buck, letting a medic take the child to Dr. Banner - she is stabilized but not out of the woods. Steve had urged Luis to go with the psychiatrist or the little girl, but the young man insisted on staying to help "Winter."

Steve was already really over him calling Buck that.

It's Win's idea to put the Soldier on a piece of sheet metal and cover him with a tarp, surrounded by random stuff they'd salvaged from the reavertown. The welder and the mechanic were always hoarding scrap and engine parts for their various projects. She helps Steve, Luis, Greta and Clint carry it through the junktown, Buck invisible to passersby. When they're sure no one is around, several of them hurry him into the mechanic's place and put him on the floor on the tarp. Then they all casually take the junk pile to the lean-to on the back of Win's they use for storage, letting others see them and hear them talking normally. Fury had ears and eyes everywhere.

Nat and Phil head to give report to Nick and make excuses for the Soldier's absence. They're counting on at least a few nosy people having overheard the fight between him and the blonde before the run, and it having got back to Nick. They plan to tell him that Buck had entrusted them with the mission information so that he could go and smooth things over with his boyfriend. If that doesn't work, they'll turn things on their head and say Buck and Greta are furious with Nick for not having caught on to what the reavers were up to in his aerial footage, maybe even insinuate that he had intentionally withheld information. Some of the gang had discussed just that before they had parted ways.

Steve and the others make a big show of shooting the shit and organizing the scrap. Random people stop to talk to them about the mission. They assure them it was successful, though they all turn sorrowful when discussion of casualties comes up. There is no official final count yet, but they place the number at somewhere around fifteen with another two dozen severely injured and many more suffering cuts, contusions and broken bones.

The blonde invites the others in, loudly enough but not too over the top, for a drink. Once they're inside and the door is shut, a whirlwind of activity ensues. They strip Buck out of the filthy reaver garb and Greta and Steve start cleaning him up with wet, soapy rags, working around and after Clint and Luis, who trim the few remaining charred patches off him. The Soldier whimpers but is otherwise still. He has been mostly out of it since falling asleep on Greta, the old woman chuckling softly when he'd drooled on her. Once he's as sanitized as he'll get without a bath, Steve and Greta get him into his sweatpants and they all lift him up onto the bed.

Luis grabs a straight razor - another great find from the yard that had needed minimal clean up and sharpening - from where it sat in a tin cup on a shelf. Despite how smooth-faced he looked, Steve had to shave every other day to stay that way, growing a thick beard the sandy color of his brows fairly quickly. Buck also developed stubble over a good portion of his cheeks and jaw - with his hair so dark it was virtually always visible through his skin even when freshly shaved, though it took a lot longer than the mechanic's to grow to any length (Steve had zero problem admitting that the almost permanent five o'clock shadow the bigger man sported was pretty hot).

When Buck met Luis he had a thick raggedy beard a few inches long, matted with filth, that the younger man had fairly quickly talked him into cutting off. It was the only thing he found gross when Winter bit him (after the first few times at least). Buck thought about the young man every time he shaved, because for several months Luis had done it for him. Brock had insisted Steve do it as well, but not for hygiene. The blonde had a good idea in addition to being a rapist pig, the ex ops sadist was probably a pederast and liked that Steve looked - at least back then - about fourteen when he was clean shaven.

Luis climbs in the bed with Buck, shimmying up against the headboard, feet on either side of Buck's head just above his shoulders. The young man's knees are bent up towards his chest.

"What the fuck are you doing?" Steve questions, taking a few quick steps to the edge of the bed, as Luis unfolds the razor.

"Easy, blondey. I'm just getting the burnt hair off." Luis starts sliding thin swaths of the brunette locks between his thumb and the blade, shearing off the ends. He stops every few minutes to hold random pieces out on either side of the Soldier's face and head, checking that they're the same length like a professional stylist would do.

"You look like you know what you're doin' there, kid." Greta sits on the foot of the bed and watches.

"I grew up in my mama's salon. I saw her razor hair hundreds of times. I used to cut his for him every three weeks, like clockwork. I sucked when I tried it with scissors because his hair's so thick. It looked choppy. But this I figured out pretty quick." He works fast, placing the cut off pieces in a small pile on the headboard. "Help me turn him?"

Clint assists him in rolling Buck on his left side so Luis can go to work on his right. There's a long silence while they all watch, then they flip him to the other side.

"Okay sooooo now that shit has calmed down a little… How the fuck do you know our friend and why were you grooming him on the reg?" Clint pulls up a kitchen chair and faces the back to the bed. He sits on it with his legs splayed, watching Luis, arms folded on the top of the chairback. The faces Steve has been making since the younger man revealed he had some kind of relationship to the Soldier weren't lost on the archer.

"That's a very long story. Suffice it to say we met under bad circumstances and helped each other out," the would-be hairdresser responds.

"So you and him weren't….?" the archer queries.

"Weren't…?" Luis has a tone, like he either knows exactly what the archer's asking, but is pretending not to, or like he's maybe being a smart-ass and letting them know it's not their business.

Steve doesn't like that one bit. Clint just lifts both of his eyebrows and smirks, as if to say don't play dumb with me.

"Look, when I met him he was basically an animal," Luis starts, not pausing in his work. "He was filthy, his hair just a bunch of snarls with blood crusted in it. I didn't want to look at him like that everyday."

He starts to ease Buck up into a sitting position, motioning for Clint to help him. Greta puts her arms around the Soldier's upper back as far as she can and eases his forehead against her shoulder so that Luis can cut the back of his hair.

"Also, I guess... I guess I thought there was a person in there somewhere under the crusty exterior. I was never sure how far I got with helping him discover that, but it seems like you guys are all his friends so maybe I did something right."

"He is our friend," Win says, coming over to lightly rest her hand on Buck's arm. She makes a concerned face. "He doesn't feel warm enough."

"I've noticed him like that before," Steve comments, "when he hasn't...fed recently. I'm sorry I kept that from all of you, that he has to do that. I didn't want anyone to be afraid."

"The injuries and then what we did to him took a lot out of him. Just the three guys aren't nearly enough to get him back to normal. He'll be weak like this for a while and he'll need to drink a lot more."

Luis is finally done cutting. Steve brings the garbage bag with the reaver cast offs over and they throw the scorched hair in. Greta and Luis lean Buck back against the young man, the Soldier's head resting against the middle of his sternum, his back over Luis' now crossed legs. The young man's arms hang loosely around Buck's chest.

Steve doesn't like that one bit either.

"He told me about it months ago," the welder says softly. "The need."

"I figured it out pretty quick too," Greta adds. "I mean, look at those teeth. And then you two volunteering to be alone with those bodies we found in the shed. I saw his face when he looked at all that blood in the pails. Like a dog looking at a sirloin."

"Well why the fuck was I left in the dark?" Clint demands. "And shouldn't we...get him some then? Maybe from the cows?"

"Stalls were very busy with people when we passed," Win responds.

"Because you have a really big mouth, Clint, and also I didn't want you doing anything stupid like asking him to bite you," Steve scolds the archer.

"So he's never bitten any of you? Not even you, blondey?" Luis questions. He had been sure the little guy and Winter had a similar arrangement to the one they had shared in the apartment building.

"No, of course not. I mean, he said he can feed on people without killing them, but…" Steve trails off. "I thought about offering - because it's so hard for him to get enough here when he can't really risk attacking people - but I figured he'd be weird about it, since it'd be painful for me."

Except earlier. Earlier he had wanted to rip you apart. Steve had always thought that Buck, even at his most hungry, would never hurt him. Right from the beginning when the mechanic found out what the Soldier was, he had this unexplainable, naive trust in the man.

Luis chuckles. "So you guys don't know?"

"Know what?" Steve furrows his brows.

The mechanic's tone, though trying to sound controlled, turns into something that Clint recognizes as angry. Fuck, the archer had some inkling the kid was the jealous type - that's why he'd kept his little make-out session with the Soldier hush-hush - but Steve turns practically as green as Luis' eyes when their new ally lifts his hand and gently runs his fingers through Buck's hair.

"Under normal circumstances, it's totally fine for him to bite you. He's actually really good at it, really careful. He used to feed on me all the time."

Clint thinks that Steve's face is practically an open book now, big bold italic letters asking why Buck has never done it to him then.

"You let him do that to you?" Greta questions in surprise.

"He didn't exactly ask, not at first, he just did it. It took a lot of work to get him to understand boundaries with other people. But then, yeah, I let him." A ghost of a smile crosses Luis' face as he looks down at the top of the bigger man's head. "Hey," he eyes Greta, "can you sanitize a small, sharp knife for me? I can feed him, show you guys it's no big deal."

She does as he asks, avoiding the mechanic's withering gaze. Luis tilts Buck's head back, craning his own neck forward. "Winter, buddy, can you look at me?"

"Nnnn," the Soldier responds, opening his eyes. They're glowing blue again.

"I'm going to let you drink from me, okay? I know you're really tired and it'll be hard for you to bite me without it being a mess, so I'm gonna make a little cut and then hold it to your mouth. I just need you to remember that you gotta be careful, okay? Don't drink too fast or squeeze my arm too hard. Can you do that for me?" Luis' voice is soothing and quiet, his thumbs lightly stroking Buck's jaw.

Steve desperately wants to stop this, to get the guy the fuck away from the Soldier. He knows Buck needs to eat though, and if this works maybe he can do it for him too. He feels incredibly silly and childish at how worked up he is at the whole situation and tells himself it's probably just the stress of the day. Steve had not lost anyone dear to him thankfully, but it had been so close. There had also been acquaintances among the dead, all decent folks.

Even those he did not know had someone here who cared; the mechanic's heart went out to them. He presumed they were all fundamentally good people. As shit as the world was, Steve still usually assumed most people were good deep down. He decides to try to give Luis the benefit of the doubt. Even if there had been something between the young man and the Soldier before, even if there were a lot of things that the mechanic hated about himself and found unworthy of affection, Steve can't deny the way Buck looks at him says he is in love with the blonde.

When the Soldier nods to the young man's query, Luis jabs the point of the blade a fraction of an inch deep into the lower part of the inside of his arm. He quickly presses his bleeding forearm to Buck's mouth. The bigger man goes from looking barely conscious to extremely alert, eyes going wide and glowing brighter as he brings his hands up quickly to clutch Luis, to press him tighter to his mouth.

The bigger man groans, long and low in his chest, and it's only a few moments before he starts to look drunk. His eyelids go half-closed over irises turned violet. He makes soft sounds of enjoyment again and again, and Steve can see where his fingers are lightly denting Luis' flesh. The mechanic can't help but think about what Buck's soft lips must feel like against his skin, about the vibration of his little moans through his arm.

"See? No big deal. It doesn't even hurt after a minute." Even with the flat fronts of Winter's teeth just pressed against him rather than buried in, he can feel the bigger man's pulse. Luis can't help but think back to their many times together. He had been trying all day to block out the thoughts of it, to focus on what his friend needed rather than his own wants.

After a bit, he softly asks Buck to stop and to heal him. It takes a second for the Soldier, so obviously drugged by it, to comply but he does. Luis strokes his hair for a little while longer, telling him what a good job he'd done. Then he asks the others if any of them want to try it. Greta goes first, then Win, both commenting on the slight tingly feeling that they get from it once the pain stops, but when Steve approaches the bed Buck says no and turns his face away.

Chapter Text

"Greta, Greta, do you copy?" Suddenly Phil coming in over her walkie breaks the awkward silence.

"Copy, Phil. What's the sit-rep? Over," the older woman responds.

"He saw Buck in the pit on the drone feed! He saw us pull him out, carry him in and out of the school. He saw us put him in the truck. The ex ops guys are armed up and they're heading to Steve's. I don't know what the fuck you're going to do, but you better think of something quick." The walkie goes silent.

Before Fury approaches the shanty, all twelve of the ex ops team circle the tiny building in combat stance, automatic weapons raised. They're in full battle armor - some bloody from the reavertown fight - and helmets for those who still have them. There had been twenty of them when they arrived at Claptrap years ago, with Nick, Phil, the pilots and Hill. They had been sent out at least a few to a time on every run since the beginning and their need to take point in dangerous situations had taken its toll.

He has Natasha with him. Phil had apparently been left behind - no doubt Fury had allowed him to spin his lies for some time before the taller man had revealed he already knew precisely what had happened. Steve is standing at the front door, rifle in hand pointed directly at Nick's face. Greta, Win and Clint are on the roof, their own weapons trained on the approaching ex ops soldiers. Luis had even tagged along, the older woman giving him a handgun.

"Hiiiiiiiiiiii," Natasha says - in a fake, high pitched voice that's intended to be funny and diffuse the situation - as she steps forward. "It seems to me like we may have gotten off on the wrong foot. How about we all put our phallus representations down and talk about this like grown-ups. I don't know what Phil told you, but Nick just needs Buck to go on a little trip, and then he'll be right back. No one needs to get hurt."

"I really like you," Steve responds, "and I hope tomorrow we're still pals, but if you take another step towards my door I'm gonna put a bullet in your shoulder."

"Baby," she calls up to the roof, "please come down here and tell your brother from another mother to stop pointing that thing at my boss before I have to take it from him and shove it up his ass."

"No can do, baby," Clint responds, "Sort of busy here."

"This is really the hill you want to die on, Barton?" Fury queries. "For that thing."

"He's my friend," the archer responds, "which is more than I can say for you. I don't believe for a second that you didn't know they dug that trap, or the tunnels, or that there were so many of them. Is that what you thought it would take to kill him or get him weak enough where you could? Throw an entire army of cannibals at him, fuck how many of us died in the process."

"That's why you didn't want Steve and Win to go," Greta adds. "You knew what would happen and you couldn't lose your wunderkinds or this place would fall apart. But the old bitch and her crew are expendable right?"

"They must have laid the scrap out at night, you idiots," Nick blasts back. "If they started digging inside the houses we'd never see it. I will admit, I should have noticed the shit in the streets increasing bit by bit, but with all the sand…"

"You know you can't trust him, Nat," Clint calls to his wife. "If you're not on my side now, then I'm not sure that's an option you'll have in the future."

Nat turns and looks at Nick, searching his face for the tell. She doesn't see it, but she backs up next to the house anyway, pointing her wrist electro disc unit at one of the nearest ops guys. "Sorry, Fury. This is the post-apocalypse and good D is hard to find."

"Do you really think I would send you, my soldiers, Hill...fuck, even Coulson, into a situation I knew they definitely wouldn't all walk away from?" Nick demands.

"Why not? You're doing it right now," she answers calmly.

"There's no winning this. We have you outnumbered and outgunned," Fury insists.

"We may not take your whole team, but there sure as fuck won't be many of them left after," Steve seethes. "You really want to sacrifice them to kill someone who isn't even threatening you?"

"Walk away while you still have one good eye, shithead! I won't let you kill one of my boys!" Greta adds.

"What part of I need him alive do you not motherfuckin' comprehend?" Nick yells.

"And after you get whatever you want from him you'll just let him go? My skinny ass. What's your plan? You think you can restrain him while he's weak to fix the neural net?" Steve accuses, slightly lowering the rifle.

One of the ops guys surges forward, attempting to tackle the blonde. Clint has an arrow in the guy's leg before he gets five feet from the house.

"Hold your fire!" Fury puts up his hands. "Last chance, kid."

"Go fuck yourself," Steve spits.

"Fire on my order," Nick calls out, "non-lethal if possible. Deadly force authorized if necessary."

"Even if I have to drag him out of here over your corpse, he's not gonna be anyone's puppet again," the blonde declares.

The door whips open behind Steve, the Soldier standing there in just his sweats, looking like he's been run over by a truck. "Enough," he says softly.

"Go back inside!" Steve moves to stand directly in front of him. "We can handle this."

Buck looks over at Fury. "Ammunition for the type of gun your people carry is very difficult to find scavenging. Judging from the way they are carrying their weapons, some of their magazines are completely empty, others have less than a quarter mag. Clint has approximately twenty-two arrows, some of which may no longer be usable as they have already been fired at least once. Greta has fifteen bullets, Luis six, Win is empty. Steve is probably empty as well."

A split-second after he stops speaking Steve points his rifle up in the air, fires it off with a loud crack that echoes through the tiny junktown, brings it back down to level it at Nick's face again as he moves the bolt to eject the casing.

"You can't have him," the mechanic says again, voice raspy and broken.

Buck steps to stand beside the blonde, reaches over, calmly puts his hand on top of the rifle and pushes it down to face at the ground. Steve stares up at him in surprise.

"If you ask your personnel to stand down and leave the area, I will allow you to come inside and we will have a discussion. I am very tired, but I can and will still kill them if they attempt to harm us." His eyes flare as he stares down the older man. "I do not wish to tear them apart, or you, in front of our friends."

Fury hesitates for only a moment before ordering them to stand down and return to the small building they use as their home base. The Soldier steps aside, motions him in. Buck sits wearily down on the edge of the bed, Steve settling in beside him with the rifle still in his hands and Nat leaning against the wall with her arms crossed. The others stay up on the roof, just in case, but the hatch is open.

"I know what you desire. You want me to unlock the asset," Buck says to Fury after only a brief silence.

"Asset?" Steve questions.

"The large metal crate you aided in recovering from the barn in the edge of the wasteland," the Soldier explains.

Steve's brows furrow in confusion. "Who told you about that?"

"He was there, tracking it down same as us. You were just ready to murder me and some people you've played cards with dozens of times over him. Except he's not here for you. He wants the crate, and he knows it's nearby but he can't figure out where we put it. Probably figured if he got in good with you, you'd tell him."

"You said it contained emergency supplies Nick - medicine and whatnot - that you added to the public coffers. That was all bullshit?" The blonde points his finger at Fury.

"What's in the box?" Clint's head pops through the hole in the ceiling.

"Two hundred grenades. Thirty pounds of plastic explosives. Forty-eight automatic assault rifles, seventy two pistols, six thousand rounds of ammunition, four rocket launchers, sixteen rockets, twenty four grappling hooks with climbing rope, forty eight sets of multi-system display binocular-capable goggles and carbon fiber masks," Buck rattles off.

"That's enough shit to bring down a small country," the archer responds, dangling down through the hole by a double grip on the opening's edge, flexing his thick arms.

"Yes, that was the idea. The crate would be air-dropped along with the Winter Soldiers on foreign soil. We would recover the asset and utilize the tools inside to take down a government hostile to the military's interests. The asset is designed so that no one can open it save a Winter Soldier, so that we can safely leave it unattended in the field and return to it as needed to rearm," the Soldier states.

"Is there, like, a special whistle or some shit? I remember seeing that thing and it just looks like a huge steel box, no handle, no control panel, no seams, nothing." Clint sits at the table opposite Nick.

"It requires placement of a Winter Soldier's hand in a specific area. Chemicals unique to our makeup that exist in the oil of our skin are read in tandem with our pulse signature, which also differs greatly from a human. This is why he needed me alive."

Nick nods. "Those weapons could protect this place, allow us to scavenge safely even farther out. I thought, maybe, if Steve got chummy with him, I'd talk the kid into talking him into opening it for us."

"The crate contains new-grade WS series weapons. Aside from the plastic explosives, they would be less than useless to you." Buck gets up, crosses the room to retrieve his automatic rifle. He hands it to Fury. "You can remove the magazine to ensure that it is loaded, but it will not fire. The trigger functions the same way as the panel on the box, as with all WS series weapons manufactured post 2030, including this mid-series which accompanied me to the second facility."

Nick checks the mag, reloads it, ensures it's ready to fire. He aims at Buck - Steve sucking in a sharp breath - and pulls the trigger. Nothing. "Well fuck me."

"I don't understand," Clint says. "If you're on our side, and you can use the weapons to help us, and you know no one else can use them, why haven't you just offered to open it?"

"One. Fury would not grant me access to such an arsenal. He has an emotional reaction to my kind due to his facial injury. Once I opened the crate he would attempt to destroy me. Two. The crate was also used to hide another item, one which I cannot allow any human to have access to. Three. I am not the only Winter Soldier and I do not know the status of the others. It is better that it remain shielded and undetectable rather than others discover its location and obtain what is within. Four. I...did not want to reveal that I had an ulterior motive in entering the community with Steve."

"Face it kid," Fury says as the blonde's expression twists, "you got way too chummy. I knew you wouldn't listen to me, maybe you'd even turn against me and help him find it."

"Can you blame me? You're constantly playing little games with everyone. Sprinkling in half-truths." The mechanic scowls.

"You mean like your boyfriend?" Fury questions. "I watched him on the drone feed for months outside the wall before you brought him here and I kept doing it after. While he was supposed to be under your supervision, he snuck out at night regularly to murder people in the scrubland."

"Only the deserving!" Buck interjects.

"He'd killed four different clusters of those folks with the white X on'em before the ones you all ran into the day you found him in the sand. Now, I know how he knows the crate is here, but the signal was completely blocked well before any of them showed up. Which means those people probably aren't looking for the crate. Bet he didn't mention any of that. Then you just so happen to find some of those people with the X at the reavertown where there just happens to be a trap good enough to capture him."

"What do you hope to gain by telling him these things?" the Soldier barely whispers.

Fury glares, leaning forward. "I want him to know the type of person he was willing to shoot me in the face for."

Buck turns to the blonde, face sad and guilty. The little mechanic will not look at him. He turns back to Fury. "Where is the asset?"

"Over my dead body," Nick responds. "How do I know you're not bluffing about the weapons?"

"I am a soldier, not a spy. I was designed to kill, not to infiltrate. I was not trained to lie nor does it seem to be inherent in my nature to do so."

"Yet you have zero problem keeping things from me apparently. Crossbones' people. The crate. The hot guy on my roof," the blonde quips.

Buck looks at Steve. "Withholding information is not the same as lying."

"I told you that you two are painfully alike," Steve says to Fury as he stands. He crosses the room and walks out, slamming the door.

Hours later he's sitting on the hill around the yard eating a stale bag of nacho chips alone, staring out into the wastes. Steve looks out into the distance and thinks to himself that he should have - just for once - left well enough alone when he had noticed the glint in the sand nearly a year ago.

Chapter Text

Steve had found the ancient suitcase under the old woman's bed when Brock was out of the room. What was left of her had melted into the mattress, and then dried out into a husk barely recognizable as a person aside from the remnants of a blue rinsed perm and the indestructible polyester floral nightgown. It was amazing how little what he deemed old lady chic had changed since a hundred years ago; this could be his great-great-grandmother based on their style choices.

The blonde had a similar "roommate" for multiple weeks while he was still alone on the road - he nicknamed the shriveled corpse in the recliner Florence after he put a sheet over her. Her closet only contained house dresses and nightgowns; since he had not had a clean set of clothes in weeks he said fuck it and started wearing them around her house. That was how he had discovered his love of the absurdly comfortable sack-like garment. After his talking to Florence went from a joke to something he just did without thinking about it, as if she'd answer, he decided it was time to leave and maybe find some actual people. What a bad idea that was.

He had a different suitcase back then, a fairly modern one with wheels and an extendable handle that he had taken from one of the other apartments in Brooklyn. Brock of course, being the overreacting piece of shit that he was, had thrown the entire thing away (including his innocuos items inside, like books and clothes). This suitcase was very different - probably twelve decades old and covered in robin egg blue faux leather, it had a rectangular hard body and featured an impractically small lucite handle with two massive, tarnished latches. It was a testament to the products of that era that aside from some scuffs it looked no worse for wear. He thinks of Taj's stories immediately. The older mechanic had served in three brutal guerrilla style wars and occasionally something would slip out about his time overseas while they worked.

The need for the suitcase stemmed from his increasingly unruly behavior as of late. From day one, he fought Brock or anyone else who tried to touch him, but he had been relatively reserved the rest of the time. There was no need to invite further assault upon his person. Now, however, there was very little logical or self-preserving (beyond survival instinct to eat, sleep, shit and try to stay warm) functioning in Steve's mind. The bullheaded part - the cynical, anti-authority, no-fucks-given part - was a molten pit of rage that didn't fear pain or injury and now it was usually in control.

Steve spent his days mostly tied up in the truck at this point because of his behavior - if Brock or any of his men were nearby or inside, he was constantly running his mouth and doing other things to fuck with him. He would talk about how small the leader's dick was or whatever else he could think of to embarrass the man. After Brock had taken to gagging him, he would find other ways to be annoying, like humming very loudly while he beat his feet or head rhythmically against the metal of the cargo box. One day Steve had quickly and silently untied the man's boots and then knotted the laces together in the middle. Brock, already barking out orders, moved to leave the back of the truck and toppled out, face-planting into the dirt.

The blonde had cackled wildly, even through the fabric in his mouth, and continued to do so while he was kicked and punched, until Brock had beat him unconscious. It was four days before he saw another person, the light streaming through the back door of the truck blinding him after being in the dark for so long. Since he clearly couldn't be trusted to have his hands bound in the front, they were now behind him, so he was unable to even pull his prick out. Honestly pissing his pants was fairly low on his indignity list at this point and replaying the memory of Brock tumbling out of the truck, boots flying up in the air still tied together, was totally worth it. He is not surprised when the person in the doorway is finally recognizable as Jack.

When the blonde had first been abducted by the Rape Ape (one of the many nicknames he had given Brock), the leader had still shared a truck with his top lieutenant. They spent hours stuck in the back of the truck together, while Brock usually rode shotgun with whatever lackey he gave driving honors to that week. The blonde had only begrudgingly started to talk to Jack - the man had pointed out it was better that they pass the time that way than staring at each other in awkward silence. Ever with an artistic and structural eye, Steve had studied the man's unusual features.

The second in command was very tall and lanky with broad shoulders. He had multiple deep facial scars and one of his hazel eyes occasionally turned to look wherever it wanted - Jack said they'd put over twenty pins in his face to reconstruct it after a Humvee accident. He was lighter than Brock's olive complexion, but not as pasty as Steve, with a strong Cupid's bow lip shape and an aquiline nose. His dark hair was slicked back from his high forehead and reached the base of his skull. While he was not exactly handsome he was striking. Steve quickly learned that Jack was smarter and a lot more interesting than the others, and had a sense of humor unlike His Highness Fluffyhair MacMeathead. If Jack wasn't helping a group of uber-violent monsters burn their way across the countryside - if Steve wasn't imprisoned by his serial abuser friend - things could have been different between them.

Jack was a good fighter and quick witted, but he lacked Brock's sadism, charisma and commanding presence. The two men had traveled the world with their ops team, murdering people on every continent in the name of the United States of America - among other things - before the collapse. Now they worked for their own ends, taking whatever they wanted from whoever they wanted, some vague goal insinuated but never specifically spelled out. It was clear the two men were not of a single mind on many subjects; Jack for instance didn't involve himself in torturing and killing civilians, only joining a battle against marauders or reavers or another rogue military band who didn't want to play nice.

None of them - at first - explicitly talked about what was happening between Steve and Brock, but Jack was not stupid. He had never seemed too pleased with what Pope Phallicus Limpicus the Third referred to as his "arrangement" with the young man, and would do a number of passive aggressive things to run interference between them. Sometimes Brock would ask him to leave the truck, and he would just calmly cross his legs and put his hands behind his head, then complain about how tired he was, telling the other man that his dick could wait. It only took a few months of this before the leader settled the matter by "rewarding" his second in command with his own truck, arguing that it was better to store all of the explosives in one place under his strict supervision. The big man was their demolitions master after all.

That turned out to be a grave miscalculation on the part of General Giraffe Genitals, as Jack was unimpressed with the faux ass kissing and promptly booby-trapped every entrance to the vehicle, rigging them all up to a keypad that only he had the passcode to. The leader couldn't simply do away with the other man - if the truck or keypad were tampered with, blammo and he knew even under torture Jack wouldn't give up the code. Despite the broad skill-set that Brock and his other followers possessed, none of them was highly trained in explosives. They regularly needed him to clear the road or get into buildings, sometimes even to fight other crews that had heavily armored vehicles. Besides, even if they could have guessed at volumes and figured out detonators until they got it right eventually, he now had all the boom boom under lock and key.

The big man never looked at Steve the way that Brock or some of the others did, but eventually the younger man got an inkling Jack had a crush on him. Maybe it was the complete lack of anyone around who wasn't an unwashed murder machine, or maybe it was just that Steve made him (often unintentionally) laugh and knew a little about a lot of things. Either way, it turned out to be an asset to subtly stoke that fire. Every time things got deeply dark and scary with Brock, every time that Steve was sure this was finally it, that he was at long last going to be murdered or horrifically maimed, Jack would find a way to intervene.

And here the tall man is again, stepping up into the truck, closing the door and turning on the overhead lighting. He takes the gag down off of Steve's face, careful not to press any harder over the raw spots extending out from the corners of his mouth, and then unwinds the wire from his wrists. He hands the blonde a warm can of broth.

"Drink it slow or you'll be sick."

Steve, for once, does as he is told. He knows he is reaching the end of his rope in terms of going without food. Soon he won't have the strength to even lift his arms, let alone take a swing at the President of Douchenozzles Incorporated when he shows back up. After he slurped all he could out of the container, he ran his long fingers around the inside to get the residue. When he finally looks up to Jack, the bigger man is staring at him with an intense expression.

Steve twists his face into a mocking, exaggerated grimace. "Oh, we're very serious today," he rasps. Fuck, he's thirsty.

"I used to think you were so clever," Jack says, taking the can. "You pissed him off just enough to keep him interested, because you saw what he did to the others when he got bored of them. But you knew when to stop. Now you're just plain suicidal. Not that he doesn't deserve every second of humiliation you can dish out, but even he has a point where his infatuation with you won't overwhelm his desire to save face."

"Thank you for that little kernel of wisdom. Now kindly tie me back up and fuck off." The blonde makes a big show of licking his lips, then wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.

Jack had been Steve's first human pincushion. Throughout the years he would accumulate several more; Clint had primarily served this role for quite a while but he'd done it to Buck more than once. Projecting all his frustration and anger onto people, who for whatever reason just suffered his behavior indefinitely with very little retaliation, had become something of a regular habit with him since meeting High Lord Taintly Knobgobble. Because his living punching bags themselves were far from perfect, he excused his own behavior towards them. After all, Jack had not stopped Brock, had he? So he deserved whatever Steve said to him.

"I'm trying to help you," the big man responded, handing him a bottle of water.

"Oh, you're super helpful, Jack! You just did so much to stop Brock from kicking my ass all those times. Or from fucking my ass all those times for that matter. Oh wait." Steve dramatically eyes the ceiling. "No, you actually didn't. You moved into your fancy truck so that you didn't have to listen to it." The blonde fiddles with the cap but can't get it off with his shaking fingers; Jack reaches over and unscrews it .

The blonde knows that talking about this subject makes the big man extremely uncomfortable, and he can see the guilt twisting his already permanently somewhat-twisted face. The better parts of Steve would feel some sort of sympathy for that, would argue that the man was in an impossible position surrounded by zealots who worshipped their paranoid, super violent leader with a fanatical devotion. They would say that Jack had already put himself at risk over and over again to give Steve what little protection or comfort he could offer. But those parts of Steve are usually silent these days.

"I was never okay with this, but what can I do?" Jack helps him steady the bottle as he tries to drink.

"Oh, gee, I don't know," the blonde says, tone dripping with sarcasm. "Blow him the fuck up."

"We're not gonna have this conversation again. Even if he was out of the picture, the others would stop us or chase us if we managed to get away."

"Better to die young in the woods than live long in a cage," Steve retorts.

"You wanna be given to the cannibals he recruited? To be flayed alive? Or tossed to the foot soldiers so you can get bent over by every single one of them? There are worse things than this."

"Easy for you to say when you're not being put in that position. Literally put in that position."

"Just, please, behave during the day. In front of the others," Jack picks up the wire, then puts it down again when he sees how mutilated the blonde's wrists are. He takes gauze out of a pouch on his belt to wrap them.

"I'm fucking bored, Jack." Steve pulls his arms away. "My whole life is this box and... and him." He grins, "maybe I need a hobby."

"What do you suggest?" The bigger man cocks an eyebrow.

"Well, fingering myself is out," the blonde says wistfully.

Jack blanches, stares down at his boots.

"I used to read a lot. Maybe you could get him to let me have a book." His tone for a brief second is almost hopeful, and he gives Jack a look he knows melts the other man.

"On the next loot, I'll see what I can do." Jack offers him a hint of a smile.

"You can't bandage my wrists. He'll know it was you." There it is, Steve offering a little crumb of returned concern for the bigger man to try to make a meal from.

The big man convinced Brock to let Steve come along as they search a cluster of houses a few days later. Five Star General Colon Polyp had grudgingly admitted in the past Steve was an excellent scavenger, finding things the others missed. The blonde knew in a way he was helping his enemies, but it was the only fun he had left aside from playing increasingly dangerous mind games with his captor. Besides, maybe one day he'd find a hidden blowtorch and melt Brock's deceitfully handsome face off so he could never use it to trick anyone again.

There was a bedroom at the back of the house, all boarded up, and after Captain Colossal Cockstain had assured himself there was no way out of the room and no obvious weapons, he ordered Steve to pick through it all and left, even closing the door. He probably thought Steve would be freaked out being alone with the corpse in the dim light.

"Hi, Edna," Steve says to it. Funny, the names people still used jokingly to refer to old ladies, given most of them now were named things like Braylen and Riley.

He'd seen the bookshelf filled with hardcovers first, then a bunch of crafting supplies - a sewing kit, glue sticks, two pencil grip type exacto knives with the blades too short to really think it practical for a successful surprise murder - and then the suitcase. He'd thought of Taj and a plan had formed. When he'd showed the suitcase to Brock ten minutes later, full of books topped with the sewing kit, the big man had scoffed.

"The fuck do I want with this?"

"I thought I could keep it. I'm bored," Steve shrugged. He stares the bigger man down, even as Brock moves to grab him roughly by the arm.

"Maybe I need to visit you more then." His hot breath on Steve's face makes him want to vomit, but the blonde's expression doesn't change.

Jack speaks, calmly, from the doorway. "May as well let him have it, man. You know..." He takes a few steps closer, lowers his voice. "Some of the guys joke about how he acts to you. If that shuts him up, why not?"

That was a gamble. Brock could just as easily have lashed out at Steve, maybe even killed him on the spot. Big man who can take a bullet but cannot handle being laughed at. Emperor Enema tears the contents of the suitcase apart, holds up the sewing kit when he's done.

"The fuck is this for?"

"I know how to sew. I can fix uniforms, stitch wounds. I'm useful for more than getting bent over." He adds a tone to the last few words, just for Jack. See, I was listening.

"I'll hold onto the needles," the big man glowers, putting the pack in his pocket. "Clean this shit up. If you can carry it, and lift it into the truck alone, you can keep it." He turns to the taller man. "You've torn your one ticket for helping him today."

When Brock storms from the room, Steve gives Jack the best smile he can manage with his busted face and the big man sheepishly smiles back. The taller man has no idea what he's just done.

Chapter Text

Steve had long made a habit of stuffing his pockets with little things that could be useful - buttons, bobby pins, twist ties - and anything small and hard enough to be fired from his slingshot. Brock had of course thrown the weapon away the first night. It was the only thing the blonde had that once belonged to his birth father; he liked it because he knew Sarah Rogers had almost put the thieving asshole's eye out with it the last time she'd seen him, as he tried to steal her ancient television while baby Steve screamed in the next room. She had never pulled any punches talking about Joseph Rogers, whose severe, once-hidden drug addiction to prescription pills had probably contributed to Steve's health problems and small size. The stress of a sick, expensive, constantly crying baby escalated Joe's behavior into blatant dependency and physical violence.

The blonde had learned many things from his mother - including sympathy for those struggling with the illness of addiction. Chief among the lessons was that abuse was not acceptable and not to be tolerated. No one had the right to hurt anyone else (reasonable self-defense or protection of another withstanding) or use you, no matter what your flaws. Your body was not for someone else's comfort or enjoyment - not your appearance, not your sexuality, not your actions - save in a healthy, equal relationship where both parties acted to make each other happy. She taught him to see the parasitical, gaslighting behavior that abusive people would engage in, to understand that they had a hole inside them that could never be filled but they would try their damnedest by sucking up the misery and devotion of others. Sometimes he wondered if her teachings were all that kept him going with Brock aside from his borderline-crazy stubborn streak.

The blonde had done as promised once he had the suitcase and the supplies inside, no longer working to humiliate his captor or intentionally irritate the man. He spent his time silently sewing, reading and helping administer first aid when needed. Some of the men call him faggot and other less than pleasant names, but he just silently revels in the extra pain he intentionally causes stitching them up or hides boogers in the collars of their shirts (sometimes he sees them dried to the backs of their necks days later). He does an excellent job at his tasks and after a while most of them have less to say, even Brock.

There are members of the man's crew that can't look Steve in the face when they ask him to do a job - ones that feel shame at what is being done to him. This is especially true of some of the women. Certain men thinking women were objects to be used and discarded wasn't new to the world, only now there were no repercussions beyond what a woman and those she depended on could meet out. When the collapse happened, women became instant targets of degradation and homicide - the girl in the neighboring apartment that the guy could just never have, the ex-wife that had stilted someone, the female boss that had fired a guy because he didn't do his job, the total stranger who was just unlucky enough to be smaller and weaker.

Men now outnumbered women nearly two to one, especially if you excluded women who were in slavery from the general population. Even supposedly hetorosexual guys regularly turned their violent sexual behavior towards smaller and more "feminine" men, like Steve, after the first few months of the fall. The easiest way to tell if a group were decent people was by how many (free) women - and younger men - were with them. As Sarah Rogers would say it was about how you treated people you didn't have to be good to that showed your character.

Of course there were plenty of hardcore women in the world, before and after the collapse, but society had a long history of keeping most women from being ready and able to defend themselves. Learning things like hand to hand combat and weapons was still uncommon for women when Steve was growing up, despite the ever-increasing time gap between the foundations of feminism and his era. There were more female soldiers than ever, but the average gun owner was still far more likely to be a man. Teaching women that they needed to be dependent on someone else to protect them, that the way to get things done and survive was to be demure and agreeable, was still the norm an uncomfortable amount of the time before the collapse. Meanwhile, Steve felt like all he had been told by society as a male since he was born was that the way to solve his problems was through aggression and crushing down things like empathy.

Now that the blonde was allowed out of the truck a lot more, since his behavior had improved so much (wink wink), he was pocketing anything sharp that he could find. Little pieces of glass or metal, screws, nails, small stones. His ragged clothes don't leave much to the imagination at this point, so Brock just gives him a quick visual once-over to make sure it doesn't look like he has a weapon and never goes through the formality of patting him down anymore. Every bit of debris the blonde collects makes it back into the truck with him.

Back in the old lady's room, he had used one of the exacto knives to make two small slits running on either side of the works for the handle over to the inside sections of each latch. Then he had slid a glue stick and an exacto inside each space and very carefully sewed the liner up with matching thread. To look at it, or even run your hand over it, just felt like internal supports ran beneath the fabric and the casing on that side of the suitcase. He sewed an identical seam around the inside of the back wall of the case as well, just for appearance's sake.

Whenever he had alone time in the back of Brock's truck, he'd open a book up about a third of the way, then cut a large rectangle out of the inside of the remaining contents, leaving about an inch border around the outside of the pages. Steve carefully glued every single page together of those with the big hole in the middle, forming a sort of box hidden inside with the first fifty to a hundred pages still normal. Then he would pack the secret compartment - as tight as possible, and with some of the removed portion of the pages shredded up in it, so that the stuff would not rattle around and make noise - with all of the pointy things he's collected. Once a hiding place was full, he'd glue down several of the solid pages over it to form a seal. This way he could still take the book out, flip through the front as if it was totally normal and no one could see a thing nor would anything fall out.

Once every book was hollowed out and refilled, save two (in case, god forbid, someone asked to borrow one), he would lift the case over and over to get stronger. He had to move it in front of the others in a way that it was not obvious it weighed a lot more than it had previously. Then there was the cut out paper to contend with. He'd eaten some of it at first (it was not like he was fed a lot and it helped his stomach feel full) but that had physiological ramifications after a while. He found the best way was to shred it super fine and fill his boots with the confetti, dumping then out the second his lower half was out of the line of sight of any of the others. Brock had taken to putting him on a heavy wire lead - like one used for a large dog in a yard, wrapped around Steve's waist and secured with a lock - so he could wander farther away to shit or help loot. It was easy to bury the paper with his waste or dump it into heating grates in buildings.

Steve still resists when Brock approaches him at night. The bigger man never threatens the suitcase or really does anything to directly coerce the blonde into yielding sexually. The sadist tells the younger man he deserves punishment when he cuts or burns him, but never actually directly tells him not to fight back. It's fairly obvious that the bigger man likes the struggle. Sick fuck. Steve knows that this is his ace in the hole, no pun intended, because acting submissive would be the easiest way to make the other man lose interest.

There's a random day where the whole caravan is stopped, taking inventory and recovering from a fight. Brock is off somewhere getting reports from his unit commanders and leaves Steve outside tethered to the back of the truck to mend bodies and garments alike. The encampment is never without a plethora of armed guards, not at any hour of the day, so even if he did have something capable of cutting the heavy wire (or he picked the lock, which he was pretty sure he could do with a few minutes alone) he wouldn't make it thirty feet before he was shot in the back. Suddenly Jack sits down next to him, offers him a hot can of soup wrapped in a rag, a spoon already in it.

"I have an idea," Steve says as he takes it.

"Oh, you're welcome. My day's going great, thanks. Yours?" the tall man quips, digging into his own can.

"Hello, Jack. It's good to see you. Lovely weather we're having," the blonde says in his best Stepford Wife voice, wearing a plastic smile. "I have an idea." He takes a big bite of the soup.

Jack sighs, grins. "What now?"

The guards have wandered a bit off to avoid Jack. Even if the blonde isn't anywhere nearby, the big man bitches loudly about being spied on by the increasing number of patrols ever-loitering around. Brock's micro-managing and borderline fascist strategies have gotten to him.

Steve's face goes serious as he swallows, his voice turning soft. "You want me to be with you, right? I'd like that too. "

Jack's cheeks color. "I'm not an idiot. You flirt and play with me, but I know you don't want me like that."

"Given the circumstances, I don't want anybody like that. I don't even want myself like that since I came to live in this fucking truck." It was true - he had tried to masturbate (to pass the time more than anything, but also because the thought of Brock slipping and falling in his load was hilarious) but he would just think about the time that the sadist grabbed his dick and couldn't even stay hard. "But that doesn't mean eventually things won't change if I was away from him. I like women, but I like men just as much." Jack gives him an unreadable look at that, takes a big bite. "Besides, I'm nice to look at if nothing else. A real trophy piece." Steve turns his face to show the most bruised part of it and hooks a finger into the corner of his mouth, pulling back to reveal two missing molars. "Total beauty pageant winner," he adds after he releases his cheek. "Really brighten up your truck."

Jack chuckles despite himself. "And how do you propose we make that move happen?"

"You said before that you thought I was clever, pissing him off enough to make him stay interested. That was never my intention in resisting, I just...I have to, you know? But you're right that he's kept me around because he hasn't broken me totally. If I stopped fighting, he'd get bored." Steve takes another bite of food.

"Yeah and kill you!" Jack's brows knit together as he plops his own can down hard.

"Not if we maneuver him just right. I've heard you guys talking. There's some big job he really needs you for, something that has to be precise or whatever is inside'll get damaged. You can always act like you've lost faith in him to take you to that place. I know he's having trouble finding it. Get him to suck up to you, get him to offer you whatever you want." The blonde leans closer.

"He'll offer me to take someone else from one of the towns, or new equipment or some other bullshit. No way he hands over his prized possession." The big man's expression goes from intense to guilty. "No offense... I'm not saying...I know you're not a thing."

Steve waves his hand. "It's whatever." He sighs, both of them eating for a bit in silence. "But if he was already losing interest in me, already prepared to get rid of me, he'll see it as a two birds with one stone scenario if he knows for sure you're interested. I've always noticed that he's quick with the stick, but he also uses the carrot to keep a lot of his people loyal. He knows that giving you something you want will go a lot farther to keep you on course than trying to threaten you."

"If I asked for you directly, he'd know that we were up to something." The big man isn't wrong. Brock is no genius but he also isn't a fool and he's extremely suspicious.

"He's not as dumb as we would love to think he is, sure. I picked up on you liking me a really long time ago, and I'm sure he's seen the way you look at me."

Jack rolls his eyes. "What way?"

Steve runs his finger around the inside of the can, pops it in his mouth, pulls it out slow with his lips tight around it.

"Okay, point made. But how does that help us?" Jack looks down, scrapes his can.

"Well, I'll start to make things a little less interesting for him, plant the seed. If he complains to you, you can always throw out a comment about wanting to give me a try, getting me in line, something like that. He already knows you want to fuck me so put your cards on the table." Steve's voice is even, not a hint of embarrassment as he says it.

The bigger man's mouth opens and closes several times before he stammers, "I-I-I wouldn't." He goes very quiet. "Not ever, unless you wanted me to."

Steve wants to believe him, he really does. But the jaded, furious part of his mind that is largely pulling his strings whispers aggressively that this is a lie, that this man will only be patient until he isn't. Then it's face down on the cold metal.

"Yeah but he doesn't know that," Steve plays along. "Maybe he thinks that giving me to you will be an entirely fresh hell for me. You wear like a thirteen shoe after all." Steve gives Jack a shit-eating grin. "Plus he'll think that it will keep you happy, get you to stick to the mission."

"You're too fucking smart - and reckless - for your own good."

"No, I'm too fucking smart to spend the rest of my life chained up, reading the same twenty books over and over again while I fix holes in douchebags' uniforms and get came in." The blonde finishes his soup.

Jack sits in silence, just watching the younger man. "Okay, Stevie, okay," he finally says. "When do we start?"

Chapter Text

It only takes two weeks of Steve gradually resisting less and less for Brock to become irritated. He starts to do increasingly depraved things and beats the younger man even more violently, trying to get a rise out of him. One day the ex operative is sitting side-by-side with Jack, having breakfast, near the remnants of last night's fire. They've just finished their dozenth heated conversation about the mission, the scarred man again not so subtly questioning if Brock still has a bead on their goal. He knows exactly how to push the issue without coming off as disrespectful, an important skill when dealing with a narcissist.

The pair are finally eating in somewhat comfortable silence when Steve comes out of Brock's truck with the suitcase, putting it on the ground - he regularly sits on it outside. The lead is around his tiny waist already and after a wobbly stretch he plants himself cross-legged on the case and starts reading. His battered face looks like an impressionist painting it's so many different colors and he's moving like he's been thrown from a horse. The leader stops chewing and starts staring daggers at the blonde.

"Trouble in paradise?" Jack jokes.

He had realized early on that he could get a lot farther helping Steve if his associate didn't overtly know that he disapproved of what was happening. During the initial few months when they were all living together, he had played along to some degree as if it was no big deal, as if he was just annoyed with the intrusion of this snot-nosed kid (and Brock wanting the truck to himself so much) rather than dealing with any sort of moral issue. The few times when he'd directly asked (or insulted) Brock about it, he'd been met with harsh blowback and he only hurt Steve more.

Jack learned to frame his attempts to help the blonde as ultimately helping Brock - let me make sure your toy doesn't starve/bleed to death/hurt himself so you're not salty about your plaything being gone once you calm down. It's hard for the blonde to give the big man any credit for this - if roles were reversed, he'd cut Brock's throat in his sleep before he'd let him put a hand on someone else that way, consequences to them both be damned. It's years before he can admit to himself that Jack's way had kept Steve alive and maybe the bullheaded voice that said "better to have both died then" was wrong.

Brock glares at Jack, then his face softens a bit, twists into a smile that can only be described as menacing. "He's been...less fiery than usual. I'll have to give him some more encouragement. Nothing I can't handle."

"I seem to remember him getting pretty worked up when you threw him in to sleep with the dregs. He busted a lot of faces. Maybe he needs a little strange to get the adrenaline going." Jack smirks, chokes down his disgust.

"And you wouldn't have anyone in mind, would you, Jack?" Brock gives a knowing look to his lieutenant.

The taller man laughs. "Caught!" He leans in conspiratorially. "You've probably guessed I've always wanted to know what that ass was like. I could definitely help set him straight for you."

"Like I want your sloppy seconds." Brock makes a fake grimace.

"Well fuck," the taller man smirks, "I'd take yours. If you decide you're bored with him, pitch him my way." Jack openly laughs, claps the other man on the shoulder.

"Please, I've ruined that one for other men." Brock pops a pear slice into his mouth.

"For most probably, but I wear a size thirteen shoe," the bigger man smirks, Steve's words coming out of his mouth. It gets a genuine laugh out of Brock.

Over the next few weeks, Steve goes from offering moderate resistance to basically playing possum. The coup de grace to their "arrangement" comes after Brock desperately tries to force himself on the pliant Steve but can't get hard. The bigger man grabs him by the throat in frustration, hauls him up on his knees, twists him around to pin him to the wall. He's furious, eyes bulging out, red-faced.

The blonde had always refused to fellate him, repeatedly telling him that he would bite his cock off - regardless of what was done to him - if he tried to put it in his mouth. But this time Steve just looks up at Brock without a hint of defiance and takes a hold of his soft prick, leans forward with his mouth open. The bigger man slams his hand against the blonde's forehead, bashing Steve's skull into the wall of the cargo box.

Minutes later, Brock dumps the blonde's naked, battered body on the cold ground outside Jack's door. He pounds his meaty fist on the metal.

"Special delivery," the sadist grins when Jack cautiously opens his door.

"This a loaner or a gift?" the bigger man makes a show of nudging Steve with his huge boot.

"I know we've been at odds a bit lately, but the mission will be successful. This is to show you that your faith in me as your friend is not misplaced. He's all yours."

The two men shake hands, both smiling. "Consider me convinced, old pal," Jack responds.

Steve is severely disoriented, the back of his bleeding head leaving a trail on the step up and the floor as Jack makes a show of dragging him roughly up into the back of his truck.

"Sorry, sorry," he soothes a few moments after the door is sealed and Steve is sat up against the metal side of the truck body. He gently rubs the red spot where he'd grabbed the blonde's forearm, then tosses a blanket over the smaller man's lap. After checking the peep holes all around the vehicle, Jack steps out and comes back with the suitcase. Brock must have chucked it out of his truck.

The blonde's mind is fuzzy and he grays in and out. He's only vaguely aware of the bigger man bandaging his head, washing him up (he can smell actual soap), then putting some sort of cream on the open wounds on his back and face. Jack slides the first pair of clean clothes on him that he has worn in over a year, a sweatsuit that he doesn't actually swim in. The entire time the tall man is softly apologizing for touching him and assuring him that everything will be okay, that he's safe, that not even Jesus could get in the truck. Jack keeps him awake til he's responding somewhat normally and can drink water on his own, fearful of letting him drift off with a possible concussion. When the big man finally lets him lay down again, he has his first full night of rest in over twenty months.

Steve goes through a long sleep-eat-bathroom-sleep-eat-sleep-some-more-then-repeat phase. Maybe it's finally having a bedroll and blankets, maybe it's feeling relatively safe for the first time in a long time, but it's like almost two years worth of exhaustion and hunger hits him all at once. When he's consistently awake normal hours, but still eating everything in sight though, he and Jack fall into an easy routine. The bigger man makes their meals, checks the blonde's injuries, comments on how nice they are or are not healing (doctoring them up in the latter case), then asks about his discomfort level.

The smaller man sometimes, but not often, accepts half a pain pill to deal with his three cracked ribs. Everything still hurt, but that was arguably the worst of it. He doesn't like how it makes him feel during the day, dopey and slow, but even more can't stand the thought of becoming like his pillhead father. They're fine at night though, when he can just drift off after. Even the angry, paranoid voice doesn't think Jack will try anything so soon. It tells him Jack will attempt to win him over and then, when that doesn't work, he'll force him. It gives Steve two months, tops. As soon as he can stand not to, he refuses the pills all together.

Unlike the leader, the scarred man takes the blonde wherever he goes once he's well enough. They ride together in the cab if it's a travel day (no one else is allowed in Jack's truck, not even a driver, even though he's more than important enough to have one), or loot together when the caravan stops. No one comments on the lack of the wire tether because he never leaves Jack's eye-line - doing that would invite Brock or one of the others to mess with him. If there's a battle, Steve is sent to the cargo trailer. He's in no position to argue - he's about twenty pounds under his scant normal weight, limping a bit and still gets tired easily.

At least twice when they're caught unawares during scavenging he jumps on some bigger guy's back to slow him down while Jack finishes him off. Brock wouldn't take kindly to him having any kind of a weapon, even as weak as he is and even if it was non-projectile. Neither of the ex operatives have any idea Steve could pick most of the locks on the explosives' storage containers if he wanted. Jack religiously inventories the stuff - he'd know if some went missing - and the blonde isn't ready yet to say fuck it and blow the whole thing with himself inside. Plus he doesn't know how to use the detonators.

The two months his inner monologue gave him come and go without incident. The scarred man teaches Steve about his work after he notices the blonde watching him - positioning C4 and setting up the equipment to blow it - with rapt interest. He's always been impressed with the smaller man's mind, commenting on how quickly he learns and how clever he is, and that admiration seems to only increase the more time they spend together. Jack asks one day if Steve thinks the large lump of explosive he's holding will be enough to take down a heavy steal door with multiple locks the others had been battering at. The smaller man answers, without hesitation, that he just needs a little to blow the sheathed hinges off - no one that had apprenticed with him in the service or ops had gotten that question right the first time. He teaches Steve how to set the detonator as his reward.

Jack finds out the blonde can drive his manual transmission truck (and lets him sometimes, much to Brock's chagrin) and maintenance its diesel engine. The smaller man can also fix a lot of other things, knows tools and how to make certain parts work for things they weren't intended for. What a waste, Jack commented, having him imprisoned all those years while thing after thing fell into disrepair. They had legions of killers, but virtually no one with other practical skills. Like Buck, Jack knew about destruction, but very little about creation.

It's not lost on the leader how increasingly comfortable Jack and Steve are with each other. Brock glowers at them as they chat amiably and share meals sat a bit apart from the other men around the fires they so often light. The blonde notices and makes a big show of touching the scarred man more, leaning against him or putting his hand on the bigger man's leg, smiling and laughing often, even kissing his cheek once. The tall man is a bit upset when he tries to mirror the affection in private and the blonde gets standoffish.

"So you're just doing it to piss him off?" Jack sounds impressed and disappointed all at once.

"Yes. No. It's just... scary when we're alone," Steve explained, looking into his lap. And it's true. He's found despite Jack's many sins, and the warning voice, he doesn't mind them touching when he's sure it won't lead to anything he doesn't want. Even Brock had never taken him in front of the others and he certainly knew the bigger man - who barely liked to leave the truck shirtless he was so shy about his body - wasn't going to.

"Okay, Stevie. I get it, just... You don't have to be scared of me. Don't think because you let me put my hand on your shoulder, or wherever, that I'm going to take that as an invitation to anything else. What I said before was true. We don't ever have to do anything you don't want."

Liar, the seething internal voice replies. The blonde just nods. He wants the voice to shut up. He wants to believe Jack. He wants to think about something, anything, that isn't revenge, especially now that he knows how to use the detonators.

Jack plays along with Steve's game, laughing loudly at the smaller man's whispered jokes, his arm slung around the narrow shoulders when they're with the other warriors. Brock slowly behaves more and more erratically as it eats at him. He knows he's been played, but under the unspoken rules of their crew he can't demand the gift he's given back without being seen as someone who breaks his word or (worse) is weak over a piece of ass.

The scarred man doesn't openly sew seeds of discontent against the leader, but he does subtly add water when he comes across any that are already planted. He and Steve hope, in private, Brock's other increasingly dissatisfied high command will rebel against him. The leader is picking fights constantly, acting more paranoid and violent than ever, even knifing a low-level follower when they don't attend demands to his satisfaction. None of the poor souls he picks off the road last more than a day, which fills Steve with intense guilt. It wasn't like he stopped abducting and forcing other people when he held Steve captive, but it was fewer at least.

Steve starts to be cautiously physical when he's alone with Jack, letting their legs touch when they sit near each other or fixing the bigger man's hair, even occasionally slipping under the blankets to press against his back when it's cold or he's had a nightmare. Jack had woken him from one once and the blonde grabbed the knife from its holster on the bigger man's belt, put it to the scarred neck for his trouble. It took long minutes to talk the blonde down, his shaking hand moving the blade around just enough to draw blood. Steve had apologized and then went blank, inside himself, shutting out the flood of emotions. When he woke the next day, a fold-up style pocket knife was on the floor next to his bedroll. It's not lost on the smaller man it's also referred to as a jackknife.

"If that makes you feel better, keep it. Don't use it unless you have to though."

It's also not lost on the blonde, years later, how much his early time with Buck mirrored this period with Jack - minus the attempted throat slitting - or the many similarities between the men. Both were tall with dark hair and light eyes, had extensive military training and a bit of a strong, silent type thing going on. The brunettes obviously felt unworthy of the smaller man's attention, even though they craved it, just as on some level he felt undeserving of their devotion. Like Buck, Jack gave zero shits about the comments others made about the nature of their relationship.

Maybe that's why Steve had gotten comfortable with the Winter Soldier so quickly. Maybe that's also why he'd looked for any excuse to not admit his feelings. Maybe that's why he literally ran away and is sitting in the blazing sun on a dusty hillside next to a dump thinking about things he's blocked out for years instead of being in his own clean, comfortable bed comforting his exhausted boyfriend.

Chapter Text

One evening Steve and Jack are making a display of flirting in front of a blatantly staring Brock when the scarred man gets carried away and kisses Steve's neck several times. It's soft and dry - more affectionate than erotic - but still sends a little thrill though the blonde, the kind he hadn't experienced in years. That night, or more precisely early the next morning, his mind reproduces the feel of Jack's lips and big, warm hands on him while he sleeps. He smiles groggily at the tall man when he wakes him for breakfast in the middle of it. Normally he'd let Steve sleep as long as he wanted but the caravan is on the move early today.

The blonde yawns, propping up one elbow as the bigger man sets an open can of pineapple next to his bedroll.

"I was dreaming about you," the smaller man says.

Jack grins as he stands, stretches his big arms up to hold onto one of the pipes in the ceiling, showing a tiny sliver of his flat stomach and the trail of hair there. "Yeah? Was I skiing?"

"It wasn't a cold dream. It was a hot dream." Steve's tone, and the warmth in his blue eyes, makes the bigger man still for a moment.

A look of fond irritation spreads over Jack's face as he puts his hands at his sides. "What have I told you about that? You don't need to lie to me."

The scarred man's voice isn't angry, just matter of fact. He's told the blonde repeatedly he doesn't need to flirt with him (outside of what they do to piss off Brock) or insinuate they'll have a sexual relationship for Jack to keep protecting him. He has no plans to remove Steve from his truck, regardless of whether their situation remains only friendship.

"Would I lie?" The blonde bats his massive eyelashes.

Jack smirks. "You? Absolutely."

Steve impulsively pushes the blankets down to his thighs, reveals his tented sweatpants. The bigger man freezes, open mouthed. Steve gives him a smug I-told-you-so-look, eyebrows popping up and back down suggestively.

"Do you...want some help with that?" Jack asks, cautiously optimistic, pink spreading across his high cheekbones.

Steve, still grinning, pulls the covers back up. "Not today," he says pleasantly enough.

"Okay, Stevie." After a pause during which Steve can see the big man carefully packing his libido away, Jack adds, "You are lying to me though," as the blonde sits up.

"About what?" Steve asks innocently, putting a dainty bite of fruit in his mouth.

"That's a very heavy suitcase," Jack replies, as if it's an answer, dropping down to squat on the floor.

"Books are weights for the mind." The blonde smiles at him beatifically.

"Little smart ass. So is what's in there for Brock?" The big man fixes him with a look.

"He's not much of a reader." The smaller man shrugs, picking up a big pineapple chunk burrowed deep in the can with his long, clever fingers.

"Not the novels. The IED." Jack sits down right in front of him, the small metal cylinder the only barrier between them.

"Now, how would a sweet faced little thing like me know what that is?" Steve reaches to Jack, slides the fruit in his mouth, staring the other man down with a flirty look as the blonde's finger tips graze his lips. This was a maneuver he'd end up using again.

"Well played," the bigger man responds, around the huge chunk. "But I know all your tricks."

Jack chews intensely, their eyes locked in the millionth small battle of wills they've fought with each other over the last few years.

"The improvised explosive device, just missing the explosive bit. Which I can't help but notice you've conveniently maneuvered yourself into a truck filled with." Jack doesn't sound mad. Maybe even a bit impressed. But there's a hint of something there, an undercurrent of that you'll get us both killed tone the blonde has heard many times before.

"Mmmm...still not ringing a bell." Steve has the art of chewing sarcastically down pat - pushing the food in slow exaggerated arcs inside his cheeks, first to one side and then the other, making as much noise as possible.

Jack's voice goes low, finally done with their game. "The goddamn shrapnel bomb you built, Stevie."

"Oh. Oh that." The blonde chuckles softly. "There was this guy I used to know, Taj. He told me this story... about a suitcase bomb. He said that's what happens when the military fucks with the little guy. They make anything they can into a weapon."

He stands up, walks to the shelf the suitcase is lashed to, and reverently opens the two foot by three foot monument to his ingenuity, perseverance and need for revenge. A dish best served cold, his narrow ass.

"I'm a little guy. And this is my weapon."

"And how did you plan to use this weapon, if you could arm it?" Jack twists on the floor to watch him.

"You said it yourself, it's not enough to just kill Brock. His men would come after us, the devoted ones at least."

"There's less and less of them everyday, though." The big man moves to join him, standing beside him rather than behind, which he knows the blonde doesn't like. "If we wait...."

"How many more people does he rape and murder while we wait? How many more people do they all while we wait?" Steve sets his hands on the books, a silent prayer to the god of the boom - as Jack likes to call it - to bless him.

"They're not all like him. Some of them hate him just as much as...." Jack trails off.

"As much as me?" Steve's head whips to look up at the bigger man. He laughs bitterly. "I highly doubt that."

"Still. I served with a lot of these people. Things would change if they were in charge. If we were in charge. We could right this ship if a few people just went overboard. "

"We? Meaning you and me? I'm gonna help run things? Your pet. Your prag. Your bitch," the blonde spits.

And it started as such a nice morning.

"You know I don't think of you like that." Jack's eyebrows furrow as he reaches for Steve, then aborts the gesture. "I want him dead too. I thought about it now and again, before you were even in the picture, when I started to see what he really is now that there are no rules, no one for him to answer to. And I should have, years and years ago, before he was the personal Jesus of an entire congregation of savages. By the time he snatched you, I was thinking about it a half dozen times a day, then it was thirty, a hundred. Now the thought is always there, no matter what."

Steve turns towards him abruptly, pokes one of his long, spindly fingers into the center of the scarred man's chest. "But you didn't kill him did you?! You let him fuck me over and over for nearly two years while you hid in here!!"

"Things were different two years ago, with the other lieutenants. They still had blind loyalty. His guards watched everything we both did, every move we made and they still do. I would have been dead five minutes after he was and you would have been chained to some other asshole or a corpse right beside me!" Jack lightly grabs Steve's biceps when he turns to walk away. "And the world is still what the world is now, regardless of him! We need to be practical to survive. The caravan is the best way to do that. People don't last on their own, not even someone as dangerous as me or as smart as you."

"I was on the road alone a long time before you fucks! I can handle myself!" And didn't this argument with Jack flood his mind, years later, having almost the same one with Buck by the run trucks.

"It was only a matter of time before some other piece of shit would have done the same thing to you! Only someone with no truck to keep you in or extra food probably would have killed you a lot faster. And possibly fucking ate part of you first."

"I'D RATHER BE DEAD!" Steve screams up at him, wrenching his arms from the loose grip. "I would have rather died out there, quick, than have to die slow trapped here with him!"

"Then why aren't you dead? Why aren't we all?" He grips the blonde's wrists carefully and the smaller man only offers half-hearted resistance. "I know you could find a way into one of these crates. It's scary how fucking clever you are. And you know how to use the detonators now, I stupidly made sure of that. So why haven't you rigged up your suitcase and taken it to the fire when they're all there? You were so fucking smart, bringing the case around all the time to sit on. The guards search the rest of us, but they just let you haul that stupid thing right up and sit down, every council meeting. Pop it open, what's inside? A bunch of fucking books. Nothing to see here. So why didn't you do it?"

"Fuck you!" Steve screams in his face. Jack doesn't release him, only pulls him closer.

"Better yet, why not blow the whole truck? A few well-placed charges while I'm asleep or out taking a shit and blammo! So why aren't we all vaporized already? Why isn't the whole camp a smoking crater?" Jack hunches over him, inches from his face that's slowly caving in on itself. As the big man rants, the blonde's lips start to quiver, jaw working, cheek twitching; his eyebrows draw up and towards the center of his forehead, eyes starting to glisten. Steve can see himself reflected in the bigger man's pupils as Jack's expression softens, as he reaches up to lightly ghost the knuckles of his curled fingers over Steve's cheek. "Why, Stevie?"

"Unless you were in on the plan....there was no way to be sure..." the blonde practically whispers before dropping into silence, averting his eyes.

"That you'd succeed?"

"That you wouldn't get hurt," the smaller man's voice cracks as he looks up at Jack.

Jack leans forward, presses his forehead to Steve's. "Well I'm in on it now. We'll give it a month, and if the others haven't dealt with him...We'll do it. We'll blow the son of a bitch up and the rest of them too."

Two weeks later Brock thwarts an assassination attempt by several of his top people, then he cleans house. Virtually everyone who had spoken against him in any capacity, or were close with those who had, is summarily executed. Jack is in no position to argue or help them - it all happens very quickly and any question of his loyalty would have him on his knees next to them. Half of the other lieutenants are dead before he even knows what's happening, Brock ordering him to go back in his truck when he comes out. The leader promotes people from the ranks of the dregs, even cannibals (one step away from reavers), to fill the many holes in his war council.

The blonde and the scarred man ready the suitcase immediately, start going over best and worst case scenarios for its deployment. They can't just rig the truck and run with the insane amount of security Brock now has stationed throughout the high and low camps - they'd be caught and then killed in the blast or murdered outright.

A few days later they reach the place. Brock was intensely secretive about it - he'd only told Jack, not long after the collapse, that it contained high-tech weapons, ones they could use to rule half the continent if they wanted. The tall man doesn't need to take down the massive blast doors - they're unlocked when they make their way into the hidden shaft that goes to the underground lobby they face. The leader goes inside with his best twenty tactical soldiers - his screams of rage punctuate the air not long after.

"Someone fucking beat us here!" he hisses at Jack, reemerging. The big man puts himself more firmly between the furious Brock and Steve. "These are all inactive and one's missing!"

One of the ex ops guys comes out. "Sir, we've found someone."

An hour later Steve is watching a shriveled, ancient man even shorter than him drink tomato soup. Apparently he'd worked at the base years ago and he knew there was another. The missing weapon had been taken there for upgrades but never recovered from storage because of the increasing pre-collapse turmoil. Brock is ecstatic. The man is settled into his own truck in the second camp with a bevy of armed guards and equipment from the base.

"I don't like this," Jack whispers to him that night as they share a bedroll. They've done that every day since the tall man committed to killing Brock. Steve likes to pretend that he's doing him a favor, that it's the least he can do given the circumstances, but he has certainly slipped beneath the big man's covers on his own plenty of times before. "There's something off about the guy. He looked like he was two hundred years old if he was a day. And what was all that shit they brought with him? I think we need to move up our timeline. I don't even want to know what's at that other base."

Their first attempt doesn't go as planned. Steve brings the big case to the fire like always, opening it calmly and taking out one of the books that is still whole. He closes it back up, slowly sits down on it next to Jack. He's already set the detonator and they're both counting silently the way that the bigger man had taught him to do to ensure that his timing was perfect. The plan is that Steve will say something about needing to go to the bathroom at a certain point, and he and Jack (ever his keeper) will wander off long enough for it to do its job.

Someone comes from the lower camp with news, whispered in Brock's ear quiet enough that they cannot overhear; he looks elated and then leaves. The shape of the man's teeth as he gave that terrifying smile, and the glimmer in his eye that accompanied it, scared Steve a thousand times more than Buck's appearance at its most monstrous ever could. At least part of the Winter Soldier was still human.

The second attempt cuts it very close. When Steve gets up to go to the woods, Brock grabs his skinny wrist as he walks by. Jack freezes a few feet away as the leader pulls the small man a little closer.

"You're getting kind of fat. And you've got that shit all over your face," he motions to Steve's now fairly thick beard. "Playing at being a man are we?"

Every line in Jack's body says that he wants to leap at Brock, but Steve gives him a look that stills him. The detonator is counting. There's no time for shenanigans.

"Why don't you just pull your little cock out here and piss? Show them all you're not a girl after all." He shoves the blonde lightly back. Some of the crew leaders taken from the dregs are chuckling, but most of the older ex-ops people just look terrified or uncomfortable.

"Sure, whatever you say." Steve unzips, pisses into the fire, unceremoniously shakes it off and puts it back in his pants. Brock just laughs as he stands and starts to undo his own fly.

"Brock," Jack says, his tone a warning.

"Mind your own fucking business, Jack. The old man can just punch some buttons and get me into the other place. You've become a whole lot less useful." Brock starts to piss on the ground a few feet from Steve's boot, slowly getting closer and closer as the blonde watches. Finally when it's only a fraction of an inch away, Brock turns and finishes going on a burning log, laughing. He zips up, turns to Steve.

"I wouldn't piss on you if you were on fire," he practically spits into the blonde's face. "Get this fucking thing away from me!" He gestures dismissively to the tall man.

"Let's go, Stevie," Jack's hand is firm on his shoulder, the suitcase under the other man's arm. There's no time to make it to the woods - they disarm it in the truck with seconds to spare.

They pick a better spot next time, one where they can easily make a beeline to the trees without the leader in the way. Steve stands, like before, counting inside his head as the time on the detonator silently winds down and Jack moves to follow.

210

209

208

"Come'ere," Brock beckons to the blonde.

"Just leave him alone, man," Jack says, standing.

Brock nods his head to some of the guards, always lingering nearby. Two of them grab Jack by the arms while the other pair drag Steve over to the leader. Brock pulls the blonde down onto his lap with their help, wraps his muscular arm around the small man in such a way that it pins his arms to his body.

"This is just like our first date," Brock coos. "You were such a pretty little thing then." He grabs Steve's soft cock roughly through his pants. "You'd never even been jerked off."

"Don't you fucking touch him!" Jack yells.

Brock's arm tightens, his other hand squeezing harder between Steve's legs. "So I've made a decision, and it's really weighing heavy on my heart. See, I'm a man of my word and I gave you to Jack. But Jack didn't get you fair and square, did he? You two fucks tricked me. I don't like to play the fool, not for anybody, not even you sweetie pie. Not even for my oldest friend."

He nods at the others again. With the help of a third guard they force Jack on his knees, the one in back pulling a pistol to put it to his head.

175

174

173

"Say goodbye to, Jack, sweetie pie. Say goodbye real nice."

168

167

165

Jack suddenly jerks violently to one side, right before the weapon goes off, as he slams one of his big elbows into the gut of the guy behind him. He grabs the guard's neck as they double over, snaps it and whips the body forward into one of the others. No one is allowed weapons at war council meetings save the guards, so the others sit and watch at first. He grabs the gun from the dead man, fires repeatedly into the other guards. One of the cannibal lieutenants flies at him and Jack shoots him twice. When he whirls to aim at Brock, the leader is already laughing. The gun is empty. Micro-managing bastard even knew how many bullets were in his lackey's weapon.

98

97

96

The tall man screams and runs at Brock, another guard shooting him in the bicep as he dives onto his former friend, knocking Steve sprawling into the scrub grass. A violent hand-to-hand scuffle ensues on the ground. Jack is bigger and well-trained, but killing people with his hands has been Brock's bread and butter for most of his life. As the tall man slams his big fist into Brock's neck, the leader pulls a hidden knife and shanks the bigger man between the ribs. Jack slugs him squarely, grasps at the deeply buried blade. Steve gets up, moves to jump on Brock, but Jack's words stop him.

"Tic tock."

Jack throws himself on Brock in a bear hug. The leader grabs the knife handle and wiggles it but Jack doesn't let go, not even when he coughs out blood.

"Twenty-five!" the scarred man manages to Steve over Brock's shoulder. "Twenty-four!" The remaining guards and several council members pile on him.

The blonde turns on his heel and runs as fast and hard as he ever has. He can hear Jack counting for what feels like a long time and then nothing but the sound in his own head.

15

14

13

He hears the crack-whiz of someone firing at him, the yells of those giving chase.

9

8

7

He scans from side to side, searching for the widest, sturdiest tree.

4

3

2

Steve flattens himself to the back of a massive oak as the explosion shakes the ground. Thousands of small objects pelt the trees like hail.

Chapter Text

It feels like a small eternity before Steve's ears stop ringing and his body is under control enough that he can move. There's something warm on his left arm. He reaches up and touches it gingerly, pulling it back red with blood. Apparently he had not gotten behind the tree completely quite quick enough. Investigation of the slash in his jacket shows the wound beneath is wide but shallow.

The blonde breathes hard and fast. He desperately does not want to come out from behind the oak, does not want to see what he fears will be waiting for him. Ironic that, to finally have achieved the thing that he daydreamed about for months and yet be unable to enjoy the results, to kill the person that he hates most at the expense of the only one living that he cares about. Slowly, he pulls himself from the bark and moves back through the woods towards the encampment.

Every tree, including the west facing side of the one he had been behind, had dozens of shards of glass, nails, screws and bits of metal in it. There are chunks of ceramic plates, bits of barbed wire, even hard pieces of plastic worn sharp by their time in gravel or rocky soil before he found them. The first body is about thirty feet from the trees, the entire bottom of a smashed glass bottle impaled in their cervical vertebrae, along with other smaller objects sticking out of the entire back of their body. It's one of the guards - he takes the handgun they dropped.

Some of the remaining lieutenants are still moving or making noise. He sees one of the cannibals that had given him chase crawling slowly across the scrub and shoots them in the head. One by one, he does the same to everyone he comes across that he is not positive is dead. Sometimes, in his nightmares, he still hears their sounds and feels the vibration up his arm as the weapon goes off. This was not what he had wanted, for these strangers to suffer, especially the ones that Jack had vouched for previously. None of them were innocent though; now neither was he.

Finally he reaches the tall man - he's face down on the ground and Steve's human pincushion analogy comes back to him with a sickening force. A few parts of Jack have no shrapnel. He was probably blocked by the men that he was struggling with, all of whom are shredded to pieces on the ground around him, some of them with their limbs draped over the big man. There are many things impaled in his back, in his skull, and when Steve turns him on his side and pushes up his bloody sweatshirt he can see nearly a dozen small holes where objects passed completely through, along with the gaping, almond shaped wound where Brock had stabbed him.

Judging from his location, and guessing about how far the blast itself may have pushed him, it looks like he dragged the entire pile of them closer to the bomb in his struggles before it went off. It's terrible to see him like that, worse still when Steve realizes he is alive. The blonde goes blank, numb, as the big man struggles to breath, blood pouring out of his mouth, runners of it coming from his nose and ears, oozing from the holes in his chest and abdomen. If the smaller man were the most accomplished surgeon in the world, he could not save him.

He sits down on the blood soaked earth and takes Jack's hand because he doesn't know what else to do. It's already going cold. The gun is empty - he can't even end his suffering quickly, not that he has any idea if he could pull the trigger. Steve leans down and softly kisses Jack on the neck several times.

"That's what you were doing to me, in my dreams," he whispers in the brunette's ear.

"S-S-Stevie," the big man manages, his hand squeezing the blonde's for the briefest second and then going slack. Steve sits up, watches as his hazel eyes seem to power down like old fashioned headlights dimming once the switch is flipped.

Steve screams as his pain and rage and utter helplessness to do anything boil over. It's the most primal sound he had ever made, probably would ever make, in his life. He sits there for long moments, his breath making little clouds in the cold night air as he pants, mind scrambled. Jack's lighter - an ancient Zippo he'd watched him fill many times - lays on the ground glinting at him; he palms it and slips it in his coat pocket without thought. Slowly his internal voice starts to form sentences. One sticks out above the rest.

Where the fuck is Brock?

No more has he said the words inside his head then he is struck from behind by a piece of firewood. Lightning bolts of pain spread up and down his spine and for a long minute he's too stunned to do anything but sprawl face down on Jack's bloody corpse. A big, familiar hand grabs him by the back of the hair, bending his neck to look up; a fist smashes quick into his eye, then cheek, then mouth before he's dragged, flailing, towards Brock's truck.

The bigger man hoists him up and pins him against the side of the metal box trailer with a hand on the back of his neck. When Steve moves to resist, to reach behind himself, Brock pulls him slightly back and then slams his head into the side of the truck again and again. Everything is spinning and gray by the time he's stilled, a high-pitched, staticy noise inside his brain blotting everything out. Warm blood trickles down his face and from his split lip. He's vaguely aware of the bigger man yanking down his pants, of the thing being done to him that's been done so many times, the thing that he truly believed - this morning - would never happen to him ever again.

That very specific pain brings him back to himself enough to reach for Brock again, his fingers groping over debris embedded in the bigger man's shoulder and neck. He feels a piece of glass there, grips it with his long, spindly fingers and yanks it sideways towards Brock's windpipe in a quick gesture as he applies pressure. Hot blood sprays onto his hand and suddenly he's not being touched anymore. Steve turns to watch the thing, the monster that would haunt his nightmares until the day that he died, clutching at its throat with wide eyes as red pours between its fingers. It - he - looks very silly. And very afraid.

The blonde pulls his pants up, opens the back of Brock's truck, takes one of the gas cans lashed there. He unscrews the top. Brock is half on the ground now, probably woozy from the sudden drop in blood pressure. The bigger man clutches at his neck, but there's already a dark stain soaking down his mutilated shirt all the way to the waistband of his still-undone pants. Steve only needs to get about five feet away to splash him with the contents of the container. He pulls out Jack's lighter, flicks it down his leg like the scarred man had taught him, holds it up so he can see the flame reflected in Brock's eyes.

"I wouldn't piss on you if you were on fire," Steve says, a crazy smile on his battered face.

He tosses the Zippo at Brock and the thing, the monster - now a terrified, wet mess on his knees in the dirt - goes up like a torch. After what feels like hours of watching him flail and blacken, Steve's own personal devil collapses and stops moving. The blonde watches him burn with relish. Something like Jack's voice and the bullheaded part of him talk in the back of his mind almost in unison, reminding him that this is only stage one of the plan, that those in the low camp will have heard the explosion and are headed here.

After transferring the bags that they had prepared from Jack's truck to Brock's, along with the big man's bedroll (he leaves his own) the blonde sets the wires and detonators just like the tall man showed him. Then he gets out and, after a brief last look, seals up Jack's truck. No one can get in without the code, not unless they've got a cutting torch or a very heavy duty angle grinder and neither would get through in time.

He's not digging on Brock's smoking body to find his keys, and they may even be on one of the lackeys, so he just hot wires the (former) leader's truck. Steve's countdown is flawless. Right on time a massive explosion, punctuated by multiple smaller booms, shakes the ground beneath him as he drives, now over a mile away. In the rearview mirror, he sees the giant fireball shoot towards the sky.

"Goodbye, Jack," he says to it, watching the flame dissipate into the star-punctuated darkness above like it was his soul being released from the Earth. Maybe it was. Maybe the god of the boom had a nice place for people who spent their life blowing shit up, like a pyromaniac version of Valhalla. Steve says a silent prayer to whatever is listening that his friend makes it there.

It's only about four hours later as he's rummaging through a building for food, as Brock had greatly reduced their rations in the weeks leading up to his overdue demise, that he encounters Nick and the others. Apparently they had discovered that the small army was headed in the direction of their community and decided to be proactive, coming after them in the night rather than waiting for them to show up at their doorstep. They had already searched the blast site, drawn by the explosion, and found it littered with body parts and burnt corpses. Any remaining followers who were not caught in the explosion of Jack's truck must have scattered. Most of the caravan trucks were on fire, or damaged with debris, but there were a few sets of tire tracks leading away.

He told them everything, well...almost everything. Steve can't bring himself to talk about Jack, and hasn't since. It felt a little dishonest, taking credit for the whole thing. He did have the original idea, built the bomb, and Jack had let him put in the explosives and set the detonator. Ultimately Brock fell at his hand, even though the cost had been enormous. Certainly talking about the scarred man wouldn't bring him back, so he just left those parts out, along with the specifics of what Brock had done to him (not that Clint hadn't guessed).

It wasn't a lie. It just wasn't the whole truth.

He stays at the yard for days after running from Claptrap, from Buck, going over everything that happened all those years ago in graphic detail again and again for the first time since that day. The mindless labor of hauling trash helps free his thoughts up to shamelessly dwell on every minute detail. Greta and a group of well-armed trashers arrived to replace the current rotation on the sixth day that he was there. Those assigned to trash duty all camp inside the fenced scrap yard at night rather than some going home daily, look outs on the dump hill, now that they know the surrounding area could be much more dangerous than initially thought. She tries in vain to get him to go home.

"He's in a bad way," the older woman says, not bothering to define who she's talking about.

"Some rest, some food, a few dead chickens. He'll be fine."

The blonde doesn't even look up from where he is meticulously sorting the giant boxes of washers, cogs, bolts and similar objects into smaller containers. He's meant for a long time to separate them, even bring some coffee cans back of stuff he knows he'll need the most often. Besides, anything that isn't really usable - a fractured gear, a screw with the tip sheared off - can go in his pocket for his slingshot.

"I don't mean his body, you fucking idiot," she says with a lot less bite than her words themselves would seem to supply. It's one of the few times he sees her look genuinely upset. Her expression is not without effect on him, his brows furrowing slightly as he frowns and looks back to his work.

Greta sits down next to him, quietly helps him sort. She even pulls a retractable tape measure out when she realizes that he's separating some of the things by size.

"I don't need help," he says curtly.

The older woman sighs. "Everyone does sometimes. Even... whatever Buck is. Even you, stubborn as a goddamn mule though you are."

Steve says nothing.

"He's sorry. That he asked you to stay home," she says almost casually, tossing a washer in a resealable plastic box that once held spinach.

"It's not about that," he snaps.

"You're telling me you've never kept anything to yourself, from your friends, from a lover? I sure as hell have and still do."

"Everyone knows you and Samir fuck sometimes and then you and Coulson fuck other days," he says, looking back to his boxes.

She laughs. "Oh honey, that's not much of a secret. If phones still worked, I'd have a little black book. Live by the porksword, die by the porksword."

Steve suppresses a chuckle by glowering even more intensely.

"So he wasn't completely honest with you," Greta continues. "Have you been completely honest with him? I mean, really? Told him every person you ever diddled, every mistake you made, every hole in the ground you dragged yourself out of after a good bender?"

"Hole in the ground," Steve half-whispers. His head shoots up. "I know where they are. The others like Buck."

Chapter Text

It takes all of them, even Nick, to rein Buck in when he tries to follow Steve out of the shanty. They can all see the immense effort it takes him to stand before he's gotten inches off the bed. First Luis wraps his arms and legs around him, but he just stands up with him attached, nearly bumping the younger man's head on a plant hook in the ceiling.

"Winter, stop! You need to rest."

The big man is wobbly, weaving a bit from side to side, making the smaller man nauseous quickly.

"Buck, please sit down," Win adds in Cantonese, grabbing his left arm.

"Don't be a shithead," Greta chastises, clinging to his right. "The kid needs some alone time. And you need bed, young man."

Clint puts his muscly arms around the Soldier's waist. They all hang on him like dead weight, but may as well be a jacket for all it slows him. Buck just keeps going with them attached.

"If you keep moving you might hurt us!" The archer knows exactly what to say, remembering the look of incredible guilt on the Soldier's face when he had shown up at Clint and Nat's house to apologize after the incident in the bar. "I mean, you were very scary earlier. Maybe you wanna hurt us."

Buck freezes. "No! I do not wish to harm you. I...was not myself, before. I am sorry if I caused you distress."

"I'll go find him and bring him back once he's cooled off, if you promise to lay back down." Nat gives him her best smile.

"You are not a very honest person," he responds matter-of-factly, all of them still holding onto him.

She snorts out a geeky laugh. "That makes two of us. Secret boyfriend. Secret gun box..."

"It is not a secret Steve is my boyfriend," he says, cross.

"You have a boyfriend?" Luis, still on the Soldier like a backpack, twists around to look at Buck and the bigger man turns his face so they make eye contact.

"Sorry, pal. He's moved on," Clint says with faux sympathy, looking up into the confused green eyes.

The smaller man let's out a disbelieving chortle. "Wait, you guys thought....? Me and Winter....?" He starts to laugh so hard he's nearly crying. "He barely understood he had a dick, let alone tried to bang me with it."

"I do not entirely understand it, but I find your comment offensive." The Soldier's irises flare very slightly.

"Aww don't be salty, buddy. Just...I mean...." Luis turns to look around at the others. "He used to walk around in the morning sometimes with half a chub, like it was nothing, and when I finally said something he just sort of....looked at it and then shoved it down. Like it was an inanimate object in his way." He laughs again.

"I do not find you amusing." Buck's now glowing eyes narrow. "And genitals, to my understanding, are an inappropriate topic of public conversation."

"I mean, I'm loving this conversation personally," Nat chimes in.

"Madre de dios. Is that what blondey was so bent out of shape over?" Luis grins.

"You're a hunk, bro," Clint shrugs. "And Steve's...mildly insecure."

"Extremely insecure," Win corrects.

"My husband thinks you're hot," Nat loudly whispers, winking at the younger man on Buck's back.

"Thaaaanks....?" Luis responds, mildly confused.

"Okay, so if you two didn't bone...what was going on? You're way too touchy," Greta looks around the Soldier to Luis.

"That's sort of...hard to explain. We lived together a while, in an old apartment building. He took care of me, I let him bite me. We were...chummy. Or as chummy as he could be then, since he barely said twenty words a day." His voice gets more firm. "We didn't get it on, and we were certainly never boyfriends. I don't care if guys are your thing..." he eyes Clint.

"Oh, they could be his thing," Nat chimes in.

"But they're not mine," Luis finishes.

"Our relationship was not romantic or sexual in nature," Buck adds, unsure of how far beyond that he wants to go. He only wishes to clarify to their friends that his situation with Steve is unique. He also has no language to easily define his feed-bond with Luis, equally different from his relationships with anyone else, or The Cling.

"Why'd you two...separate?" Nat questions.

Luis scowls at the Soldier. "He ditched me. I guess he got bored."

Buck turns to look at him with big eyes, faded back to their normal light turquoise. "That is not the case. I..." He again goes silent. This is not a conversation he wishes to have in front of the others. They are not - nor ever have been - a couple, but he still feels the younger man deserves a private explanation. "I need to find Steve." He starts to move again, then stops. "Please release me. I do not wish to harm you."

Nick takes out his communication device. "This is Fury. I need eyes on Steve Rogers. Don't engage, just observe and report. Over."

"Copy, sir," a voice responds. A few minutes later a follow up comes through. "He's doing maintenance on the extruder. Over."

"See, nothing to worry about. Let him work off some steam, he'll come back," Nick assures. "God almighty, you're both so dramatic."

"It is your fault he is angry with me," Buck grits out to the bald man, eyes brightening again.

"You did lie to him, pal," Clint says softly, gazing up at the Soldier, who frowns deeply.

"I did not lie. I was selective with what I revealed."

"You were dishonest. That is just as bad as lying sometimes," Win responds. "Especially to Steve."

With a resigned huff, Buck sits back down on the bed, taking them all with him. They can feel him shaking lightly with the effort it took to stand and support them all - he's certainly still very strong, could throw any of them through the window if he wanted, but he's also exhausted. Luis slides down off him and rubs soothing circles on his back as the rest of them slowly ease away.

"Come on, pal. I can see how worn out you still are. Just lay back down. Steve'll listen to one of us better than you right now, anyway," Clint soothes, putting his hand on Buck's shoulder.

"Please go and speak with Steve, Natasha," Buck says after a long pause. "Please ask him to come back. Tell him I am sorry for...being dishonest."

The redhead nods and leaves. Fury takes to his communicator. "Romanov will assume surveillance on Rogers. Over."

"Copy," comes a voice over the device.

Buck settles back with their urging, Luis sitting beside him on the bed with his knees up and back to the headboard, gently stroking his hair.

"So, you have a boyfriend? That's a big step for you, buddy. You do...know what that means right? Boyfriend? You know it's not a...friend who is a boy?"

Buck gives him an annoyed but embarrassed look. Luis knows him so well.

"I am aware it is a male you have a romantic relationship with, usually with the addition of a sexual relationship." His soft voice still gives away an undertone of irritation.

"Okay, okay. I'm just making sure. It's nice! I wouldn't have thought...." The young man trails off, not wanting to say anything insulting. Winter - Buck - is a person after all. And people mostly, though not always, have the same needs no matter how weird they are. Companionship, love, even sex. He's known for a long time that the Soldier can think for himself and feel things, so it makes sense as he got more open to the latter he'd want to have someone special. Still, it's hard to picture when he thinks about the filthy, blank-faced statue Buck used to be.

Nat comes over Fury's device about fifteen minutes later. "Hey, Nick. I just saw a skinny chicken hawk flying towards the yard."

"Well, since you all seem to have the fort held down here, I'm going to do some bird watching." The bald man stands.

Buck turns to look at him, suspicious.

"He's an amateur ornithologist," Clint offers, catching on to his wife's thinly veiled statement and knowing Buck doesn't get veiled statements usually, thinly or otherwise.

"Truce?" Nick holds out his hand. After a brief moment, the Soldier carefully shakes it.

Fortunately Buck falls into a heavy sleep soon after and doesn't wake until the wee hours of the next morning, Luis curled up in the bed a short distance away and Win asleep in his old sleeping bag on the floor. He's mildly hysterical when he stumbles to Nat's door, desperate to know where Steve is. She leads him calmly to Fury's office, where the bald man is already doing his morning review of the cams, and they show him the blonde on the drone feed working at the dump.

Buck crosses his arms and glowers when Nick refuses him access to transportation to venture there himself. "I will walk then."

"You most certainly will not. Fuck, you're as stubborn as the kid. The way you're moving, you'll keel over half way there." Nick crosses his arms in almost the same way, and it isn't lost on Nat how much alike they look in the moment despite their many physical differences. "Maybe I won't let you open that crate, but someone else sure as hell would use you to if they could find it. You're not helpful to this community, or Steve, in a cage somewhere."

Buck's jaw works angrily, but the redhead can see his gears turning, knows he can't deny the logic of Fury's statement, especially now that Crossbones' people had been very close to aiding the Reavers in causing his demise. The Xs just as easily could have wanted him weak and captured as dead. As Luis had so gently pointed out, Reavers just don't give a fuck. They probably decided getting the super soldier out of the way before they raided Claptrap was a great idea.

Eventually Buck lets her take him back to Steve's and, with Luis' help and her insistence, drinks from her. He falls back asleep right after and she babysits him while Luis cleans up and uses the outhouse. She had found the kid's devotion touching, but a bit odd, until the tingly feeling Buck caused had gone from mild to full body. It felt like she'd smoked some really good pot and then gotten a back rub from 1990s Brad Pitt. She could sort of get the appeal of being tactile with him after. Luis explains it was different with the others when he was weaker and they were all probably more than a little freaked out, given the circumstances. That if you're relaxed enough, and Buck is with it enough, it can be even better.

The Soldier goes to Fury's daily, multiple times. He insists on seeing what Steve is doing. Other than the small man's facial hair turning from scruff to a short beard, a whole lot of nothing changes over the next few days. The blonde eats his snacks alone on the hillside, looking into the waste, makes casual conversation with the trashers (but mostly avoids them). Nick tolerates only so much time per visit before shooing him out of his office, but even the amount he does allow surprises Coulson and Hill. His lack of any seeming plan to get control of Buck shocks them and Nat - he'd leave her out of it but she always knows his tells and the others'. Possibly seeing four people piled on him when he was almost running on empty, and him just holding them up like it was no big deal, tipped him off that his threat outside the house about tearing Nick and his team apart was not hollow. The redhead knew herself the violence she was capable of even ground down to nothing emotionally and physically and she wasn't a Winter Soldier.

After the second day, Buck had refused to eat food or drink from anyone. If he was not at Fury's he was in bed and barely said two words even to those sitting with him. Clint, as always, is good at getting things out of him and cajoles him into talking a bit.

"I have pain, in my chest. My breathing has normalized, but perhaps I am still damaged." Buck rubs absently at his sternum.

"Okay, well the doctor should check you out," Clint offers.

The bigger man's head whips up to look at him. "No doctor."

"Come oooooonnnnnn. Banner's nice. In a....dopey, hyper puppy kind of way."

Buck's eyes glow nearly white and he shows his teeth. "NO DOCTOR!"

Chapter Text

Buck sits pouting on the exam table, arms crossed, but Bruce doesn't take it personally. He's talked to the big man enough times to gather that he has an almost pathological distrust of medical professionals. Doctor Banner takes his white coat off and stuffs it in a drawer, just to put him more at ease, as the Soldier always eyes it like it will bite him. Ironic. On impulse he hands the taller man one of the lollipops he usually keeps for children (and Greta) - this one's watermelon, his personal favorite. He had noticed whenever he bumped into Steve & Buck at the mess hall or breakfast, the Soldier seemed to really like fruit.

"It's candy," he states simply when Buck stares at the object in his hand like it's poisonous. "You have to take the paper off first." The damn things basically never go stale, and someone is always bringing him a bag back from a run. He begrudgingly admits he eats way too many of them and there's no dentist in Claptrap.

Clint roles his eyes, takes the lolly from the taller man, unwraps it, hands it back. Buck still just eyes it with suspicion.

"It's a treat. It tastes like fruit," Banner insists.

Buck sniffs it, makes an odd face. He opens his mouth wide, like he's going to crunch a whole side of it off.

"Wait!" Banner stops him. "You'll break a tooth. You suck on it. You don't bite it. "

"That's what she said," Clint can't resist whispering under his breath.

"Who said that? And about what?" Buck asks quizzically.

The archer scowls at being caught, takes the lollipop from the taller man, demonstrates by putting it in his own mouth and rolling it lightly back and forth with his lips closed around the stick. "Like that," he says as he hands it back over.

The Soldier puts it cautiously to his tongue, then closes his mouth, emulating the archer.

"Trust me, doc, he's not breakin' those teeth," Clint offers, listening to the hard, red, sugar ball clank off the Soldier's canines.

Banner watches the taller man, who seems rather pleased with the flavor. "It's good?"

"Yes."

"Waddawe say?" Clint baby-voices.

"Thank you," the Soldier says around his lolly.

Bruce gives him a little smile. "You're very welcome."

"We're working on his people skills." The archer grins at the doctor.

"My ejaculate tastes vaguely like this," Buck says all of two seconds later, looking thoughtfully at them.

The shorter men just stare at him for a long time, jaws dropped and eyebrows raised, as he swirls the candy around in his mouth, gazing innocently back at them.

After a minute the Soldier, registering their shocked expressions, asks, "Is ejaculate an inappropriate topic of public conversation?"

Bruce and Clint nod in unison. Buck pulls the lollipop from his mouth with a wet pop.

"Apologies. I should have realized. It comes from genitals and is related to sexual intercourse and masturbation, which are all, I am told, inappropriate subjects of public conversation." He puts the candy back between his lips.

The doctor looks from the Soldier to the archer, then back again. He repeats this movement several times while lifting his hand in a strange, half-gesture in Buck's general direction, his mouth opening and closing. Finally, Banner shakes his head.

"Okay, anyway. Clint said that you were having some pain. Can you tell me about that?" Bruce asks.

The Soldier presses all five finger tips of his flesh hand, spread out, against the center of his chest. "It mostly hurts here, but inside."

"We were in a fight, with reavers," the archer explains, "and he inhaled a lot of smoke." Client decides it's best to not say that he had been fucking on fire. Maybe the doctor is clueless about the whole super human healing thing. "Maybe his lungs...?"

"I thought... That you just..." Bruce looks from Buck to Clint and back again, unsure of how much the archer knows about the whole super human healing thing.

"I believe that my lung tissue is fully healed. This pain feels different than when my airways were scorched. It is inside my whole chest, but strongest in the center." Buck lays his hand flat, as if willing the feeling to stop.

"Okay, let me take a listen." Bruce picks up his stethoscope. Buck stiffens. "Have you seen one of these before?"

"Perhaps a similar apparatus." The Soldier eyes it with distrust. It reminds him vaguely of the electrodes the men in the facility would stick to him, except metal. He knows that material to be an excellent conductor of electricity. "Will it shock me very hard?"

Clint makes a sympathetic face.

"Not at all. This is just to help me listen to your heart and your lungs. It won't hurt. It might be a little cold though." Banner presses it lightly to Buck's flesh arm just so he can feel it and the big man leans back quick like he's been burnt. "See? No big deal," Bruce soothes as the Soldier slowly relaxes.

Buck reaches out suddenly as the doctor lifts it, taps the center of the concave little disc with one of his metal fingers. Bruce lets out a small yell and yanks the eartips out by the stem with one hand. The taller man's eyes are a little wide and he looks sheepish, realizing he's done something wrong.

"This is the chest-piece, also called the head, of the stethoscope. It lets me hear soft sounds really loudly, so if you hit it, it hurts my ears." To Banner's credit he doesn't sound mad at all, quite the opposite.

"Apologies," Buck nearly whispers, lollipop - glistening with his sightly thicker than average saliva - held in one hand.

"Is it okay if I put this under your shirt?" Bruce questions.

The Soldier considers for a long moment, then nods. After the usual series of take a deep breath, hold it in, let it out all around his chest, he moves to Buck's back and does the same. Banner takes the eartips out, raps the tube of the stethoscope around the back of his neck to let it hang down on either side. He gently feels for the glands in Buck's neck and under his arms, earning him an annoyed look.

"You're not ticklish are you?" the doctor asks playfully.

The Soldier raises his brows in the middle, frowns slightly. "Steve is ticklish."

The doctor takes out an old fashioned glass thermometer and tells Buck to open his mouth.

"It just tells him your body temperature," Clint assures when the bigger man doesn't comply.

The archer takes it, puts it quickly in his own mouth and let's go, holding it between his lips briefly in a similar way as the lollipop stick. When he takes it back out, the Soldier reluctantly lets Clint put it between his lips.

"Sharing saliva isn't sanitary," the doctor comments.

"It's fine. I'm sure he can't catch a cold or anything."

"We have already touched our tongues together, several times," Buck adds.

Bruce looks between them and the archer shrugs. Banner sighs in that I'm not even going to ask way Steve does to Clint so often. He reaches down and gently grips the taller man's flesh arm - he goes rigid, glaring up at the doctor with slightly glowing eyes.

"He's just checking your heartbeat," Barton offers.

The Soldier's brows furrow, but he lets the doctor turn his arm and press two fingers over the pulse point in his wrist. Bruce looks at his watch, an odd expression forming on his always slightly nervous features.

"Have you been feeling unusual in any other way?" Banner asks.

Buck shakes his head.

"Oh bullshit," the archer cuts in. "All he wants to do is sleep most of the day. He seems out of it when he's awake. Barely talks. Won't eat. He won't even...drink." Shit, big mouth. Hopefully he thinks you mean water.

"I noticed he looked a little more... gray than usual," the doctor muses. "So, Buck. Where's Steve today?" The doctor takes the thermometer, looks at it, makes another strange face. "I hear you two are an item now." The tickling comment, or more precisely its tone, hadn't went over his head.

"He's on trash this week," Clint answers quickly for his friend.

"That is not being honest," the Soldier looks over at him before popping the lolly back in his mouth. "Id is na a wie, buh id is naw da dwuth," he says around the candy.

The archer shrugs. "I mean, he is doing trasher work...even if he assigned himself."

The Soldier pushes the lolly into his cheek. "I was dishonest with him. He is angry with me. He ran away from me." Buck addresses Bruce, then looks at his lap. "Perhaps... he does not wish to be my boyfriend any longer."

Bruce makes a sad face, sits down and wheels his chair up to the bigger man. "This pain in your chest, Buck, what does it feel like? Does it spread anywhere else?"

"I have tightness through my ribs, my heart rate is slightly elevated, I have a feeling inside as if I am...melting. But cold. My stomach also often feels tense."

"Okay," Bruce pats the Soldier lightly on the knee. "Do you know what heartache is?"

"I am familiar with the term heart attack. Is it similar? Am I experiencing that ailment?"

The doctor sighs, unsure how to proceed.

"Honestly, I can't tell you anything about how your heart muscle is functioning. Your pulse is incredibly slow and very different to any I've heard before, but I'm going to take a guess that that's normal for you."

Buck nods.

"Your temperature is also about 10 degrees below average for a human. I'm gonna also assume that's normal if you haven't had blood lately. I've shook your hand before and you felt closer to a typical temp then."

"Depending on how recently I have fed, yes," the Soldier responds.

"Oh, so basically everybody knew except me, huh?" Clint demands.

"On the plus side, your lungs sound completely clear."

"So basically you know nothing?" Clint asks.

"Buck, physically I can't find anything wrong with you. I think maybe you're still just recovering from the fight. Maybe it took a lot out of you to heal."

The big man just nods.

"Can you do me a favor?" the doctor continues. "Three buildings down, the lady that lives there has some supplies for me. Can you pick them up and come back?"

The Soldier nods. He knows about trade after living in Claptrap for so long. The doctor had given him services and candy. He needed to do something in return. Once he's out the door, Bruce opens his mouth to speak. Clint holds up his hand, shushing him.

"Wait."

After a moment, the doctor opens his mouth to speak again. The archer presses his fingers to Banner's lips.

"Waaaaaaait."

Bruce pulls back, runs his hand through his wiry curls in annoyance, mussing them even more than they already were. "What are we waiting for?"

"Him to get out of hearing range," Clint whispers. After another long pause, the archer locks Banner with a serious stare. "Okay give it to me straight, doc. What couldn't you say in front of him?"

"I'm not the kind of doctor that he needs to see. What's wrong with him isn't physical, it's psychological."

"Did you just call my friend crazy?" the archer snaps.

"Admittedly his vitals are confusing, and I'm sure his blood work would be even more so. But essentially he seems to function the same way as any other person. His symptoms are all consistent with depression. He's experiencing a physiological manifestation of his emotional distress."

Clint scrunches his face towards its center, pursing out his lips dramatically. It's the classic I don't understand this bullshit face.

"Look," Bruce takes his glasses off, pinches the bridge of his nose, "if him and Steve are having problems, that might not be the easiest thing for him to deal with. He doesn't seem very well-equipped emotionally. He needs to talk about how he feels with someone."

"He could've talked to me," the archer sulks.

"Preferably not somebody who's best friends with his significant other. He sees Gurminder sometimes, right?"

Clint heads to the psychiatrist's to fill him in, leaving Banner with instructions to send Buck to meet him when he returns from his errand. The archer makes up a lame excuse for somewhere he needs to be and tells the Soldier he and the shrink can hang out for a bit. It never takes the doctor long to get the bigger man talking. It helps - he stops spending the day in bed, starts eating food, and taking turns tagging along with different members of their little group between his visits to Fury.

He's still incredibly mopey. They try to distract him teaching him different things. No matter how much Win cajoles him, he won't go near the welding torch when it's lit. She does get him to help with some simple maintenance of machinery and they're both surprised how much he remembers from watching Steve work. Clint fares well showing him archery. Buck picks it up a little too quickly for the archer's liking and he's hitting the bull's eye nearly every shot within twenty minutes.

The Soldier even goes back to the medical center with Luis to check on Muriel and her granddaughter, Alicia.

"Uh. Lee. See. Uhh," he repeats when she teaches him how to say it properly. She's utterly fascinated with her savior, not at all afraid of him. It makes him feel good for the first time in days.

Now that he's near full strength, he lets the doctor take some of his blood to inject in the worst of the burns on her legs. The little girl is terrified of the needle, but Buck assures her she will feel much better after. He lets her play with his metal arm to distract her while Bruce gives her the shots.

After the doctor explains Muriel's condition to him, Buck - without a word - draws as much of his blood as he knows is safe to give a human while Banner is distracted talking to Luis. He injects it carefully into an artery in her neck that feeds her brain.

"Woah, woah, woah, big guy. ¿Qué estás haciendo?" the younger man demands.

"La estoy ayudando," the Soldier insists.

"So, if my Italian can be trusted to take a guess at his Spanish, he said he's.... helping her?" Banner addresses the younger man.

"Yeah." He turns to eye Buck. "Estás seguro de que es seguro, Invierno?"

"Yes. I am certain it is safe."

"Luis? Luis, I feel...I feel different," Muriel says.

"She didn't know me, when we got here. She hasn't really in a while," the green eyed man offers. "Hey, hey old lady," he addresses her, grinning and tearing up a bit.

"You little shit." She smiles, bumps his chin lightly with her fist. Her face falls. "Where are we? Where's Alicia?" She turns to eye Buck, realization slowly dawning over her. "You're the one. With the mask. That gave me the kid." She nods towards their young friend. "Thanks."

"Let's go see Alicia, abuelita." Luis guides her off the exam table.

As Buck watches them leave the room, he says to Banner, "I do not know the extent of the effect or how long it will last, but I am happy to give her more once it is safe to do so."

He likes helping people, likes healing them, especially from injuries he isn't responsible for. If only it were so simple with Steve. A few drops of blood and their relationship is fixed. A few more and the little mechanic never thinks about the deserving who hurt him, about Brock, ever again. But the Soldier is filled with the healing liquid and it has not dissolved his own emotional pain, his own memories.

Chapter Text

Buck urges Luis to stay with Muriel in the medical building and keep Alicia company for the night. Steve had been gone five days - while it weighs on him, he has decided to have faith the little mechanic will come back. He needs time to think about what he will say to the blonde to fix things between them. Besides, the little girl still has minor smoke inhalation (much more difficult and painful to treat with a blood filled syringe than her burns) and the old woman needs to be monitored, just in case. They have no idea how much her condition has been reversed without observation or how long it will stay that way. The doctor states they can both be released the following day if their conditions remain stable.

The Soldier realizes what a good decision it was once he is in Steve's bed alone. There is really only one person he wants there with him that night and he cannot help but imagine the little mechanic next to him. It is a soft, warm thought at first, but it slowly shifts to something hot and wanting. Buck's usually very active libido had been silent lately, but it perks back up. He lays on the bed naked, positioned like the first time he had touched himself, but he cannot get comfortable. The ceiling collage is dizzying rather than dreamy, something about his hand on himself not quite right. He had also found some time ago he could no longer keep his mind blank when he does this - all his experiences with Steve come back to him. When Buck had asked the blonde a few weeks ago if that was alright he had told him, pink cheeked, it was acceptable; they were boyfriends. Buck turns his body to put his feet on the floor and his bottom a bit off the bed, conjuring up his last sexual encounter with the smaller man.

He strokes himself loose and slow with his saliva-coated flesh fingers, remembering the blonde's hand moving in his sweatpants, the warm lips on his body. After a bit he tentatively slides farther down, stretching his long arm, trying to touch himself in the way Steve had next. First he strokes lightly up and down over his entrance and then in slow circles, remembering exactly what the pads of the little mechanic's fingers had felt like dragging over him, slick but his callouses a bit rough even through the oil. Buck cannot form those - he has no need for a protective layer on his skin when his body heals so quickly - so his own fingertips are relatively smooth other than the minute ridges of his prints. He wipes some of the spit off them on his leg, allowing him to feel a bit more friction when he returns to rubbing the puckered skin.

There is a brief moment where he pauses, considers if enjoying conjuring Steve up is acceptable now when the blonde is angry with him, may not want him anymore. No, he will not agree to that; he will not believe that what is between them cannot return to how it was before. The little mechanic had been very enthusiastically sexual with Buck many times, even if they all - save one - involved them only "getting themselves off" (he learned that phrase from Clint, of course) as they kissed and eagerly groped each other. Even in his fantasies he never strokes or enters Steve - he does not have his real-world consent to do so, has not yet asked, even though he aches to pleasure him. He reasoned now it was not a violation to imagine things the blonde had done with - or in this case to - him already. Or, it occurs seconds later, things he was quite certain the smaller man wanted to do to him.

At that thought, he eases his pointer cautiously into himself, then lets out a needy whimper. Buck has never fingered his hole in this position and it is a bit awkward at first, though still stimulating. He tries to copy the way the blonde's digits moved in him. Going slow at first he figures out how he needs to angle his hand and curve his lower back to mimic it. When he starts to get more slick there - his skin feeling deliciously hot everywhere as his breath picks up and he eases in and out of himself easily - he adds a second finger. He recalls how amazing Steve's had felt inside him, stretching him, rubbing him lightly in just the right spot.

He had never entered and stroked himself at once, as the blonde had done for him, but now he craves it. Licking his metal hand generously, he gently wraps it around his length and starts to slowly pump himself. He had avoided doing it with this arm previously for some reason - primal fear of the dangerous object on his most sensitive parts, perhaps? Of course that had never stopped him from fucking himself (as the smaller man had put it) with it, but tonight he had wanted to use his other hand, the one that would feel more like Steve, for penetration. Ultimately, the ribbing of the fingers feels nearly as good on him as it had inside him and he has enough sensation and dexterity with them to be careful. The brunette starts to pant, to gasp out hungry, breathy sounds as he works himself both ways.

Buck experiments using his legs to move his body forward and back, eventually rolling his hips up each time he does the latter. He forms a little arc with his movement, first forcing his fingers farther into him, then sliding mostly off them to curve up and thrust into his slick fist. The motion of his body reminds him of the way the smaller man had fluidly rocked them together. When he gets the speed and rhythm just right it is so good. He moans outright, curling the fingers inside him as Steve had, twisting his hand as he strokes his shaft, thinking of the blonde's smooth length against his.

The memory of offering himself up to be fucked by the little mechanic floods him again and he squeezes his hole slightly tighter. He cannot help but think about how the smaller man had looked at him after, like Steve's arousal would consume him. Suddenly the blonde had needed to chase his own pleasure as he satisfied Buck, where seconds before he had seemed contentedly focused only on the bigger man's needs. He could see Steve had wanted to be inside him, badly. At the thought, a guttural sound comes from him he cannot even identify.

The Soldier lets himself imagine the blonde taking his glistening length - mostly pink and red when it was fully erect, unlike his own - in hand and guiding the domed, thick head against Buck's opening. The little mechanic would carefully ease into him, spread him slowly open. Buck is so wet there now - he easily slides a third finger to join the others, fucks himself slow and deep, imagining the blonde filling him again and again. He finishes minutes later, harder than any other time save when Steve had touched him, his noises so loud they deafen him a bit echoing off the metal walls.

AHHN! AHHHN! AHHHHHHHN!

As he slowly comes back to himself he remembers looking up at Steve, the blonde's eyes closed and his body trembling lightly after the force of his own orgasm. Touching him softly caused the long lashes to flutter up, the beautiful sea-blue irises to fix him with an indescribably soft look. He remembers the warmth in his own chest getting so strong then, frighteningly so, and thinks back to Gurminder's book about emotions.

Love. That feeling is love.

The Soldier lays awake a long time after he cleans himself off. Perhaps he was wrong and "you were right" was not the most important thing to say to the blonde. Perhaps the words he has heard other couples use to one another - I love you - hold more meaning than a casual declaration of affection. Perhaps if he had said them to Steve, the little mechanic would not have abandoned him. Perhaps if he said them still he would be forgiven, the blonde would understand how much he needed him.

The next day, he does rounds with Win. That afternoon, Luis and the Soldier help Muriel and her granddaughter get settled with the woman who cares for the little mute girl. She had still not spoken since the Soldier brought her in from the scrubland, back when he lived outside the wall, despite the doctor's claims he could find no physical cause. That had been Nick's idea, having the two girls under one roof, and Buck wants to believe it's a caring gesture and not a ploy of some kind. The children do take to each other quickly, holding hands and following the Soldier everywhere for the afternoon.

After dinner in the mess hall with his friends and the reavertown survivors, he asks Luis to come over - he wants to talk about why he had left him behind, though he does not say so. Placing a younger man in housing was a bit more difficult than the girl and old woman and Luis didn't want to sleep on the floor in temp again if he could help it, even with the bedroll Winter let him borrow. He asks if he can sleep over after they "hang out." A bit more together mentally than when the young man had shared the bed before, the Soldier recalls the others claiming Steve felt romantic or sexual jealousy towards Buck's...friend (?). Perhaps allowing him to "sleep over" was inappropriate. It would be nice to feel someone there, to not wake up alone, and he had changed the sheets after his previous evening's exploits. He had made quite the mess. He agrees to Luis' request.

It feels very natural to sit with him at the table in companionable silence, though they are playing cards now which they had never done at the apartment building. He studies Luis casually as the younger man focuses on his hand. The big green eyes - fringed with thick black lashes - are the same, hair similar too now that he had cut it. He is still smooth-faced though he looks less boyish than before and he has easily put on twenty pounds, mostly muscle.

Had he been attracted to Luis, all those years ago? He can certainly see the appeal of his physical appearance and, when he considers it, he had always liked looking at him. Certainly he had no inkling of what that meant before, perhaps did not even consciously realize it was happening. What if he had started to understand, all those years ago? What if that had been part of what frightened him rather than just The Cling getting so strong?

Luis, like so many times, catches him staring. He gives him a sly grin. "Using your x-ray vision to see through my cards?"

"That is not a skill I possess." He turns back to his own, feeling his face flush, something uncommon outside of sexual activity. He is not easily embarrassed.

"Are you... blushing?" Luis reaches over, lightly ghosts his fingertips across Buck's too-warm cheekbone.

He had went back to feeding from the animals and Greta had brought a nervous Coulson over to drink from. In addition now that so many from the town had seen him in action on the battlefield, biting and feeding, word traveled about what he needed. Some looked frightened of him, far more so than ever before, but many whispered about him like he was their champion. Of those, several had offered to let him; he had made it good - but not too good - for all of them. Sucking from the small cut, rather than biting, made it easier to not push his pulse in too deep. It was also less frightening, he felt, than his teeth.

"Apologies" the Soldier whispers.

"For what?" The younger man leans forward, eases his fingers to cup Buck's face lightly.

They had touched more and more during their time together. The Cling effected Luis as well, and he would regularly ask Buck to move more near to him, or just gesture for him to do so after the feeding. Usually sitting on the floor near the bed to let the younger man stroke his hair was as close as he would allow himself, even though he wanted to be closer. Sometimes he would convince Buck to sit on the edge of the mattress and then wrap his arms around the Soldier's waist, pressing his face into his side as he fell asleep, the bigger man lightly rubbing his back or stroking his arm. The urge to be close had lingered, low, all the time after a while if he was honest. They became very "touchy" the last few months and he sees how that mirrors his experience with Steve - perhaps it had confused him.

"Everything," the Soldier finally answers quietly.

Luis gives him a wry smile, leans back in his chair. He puts the cards down and crosses his arms. "Winter, I don't think you need to say sorry for quite everything. But you did abandon me. I'd at least like an explanation."

Buck looks at his own cards, wants to put them over his face - hide himself - but he does not. He has very recent experience with being left behind. Slowly he lays them down. After a pause he makes himself look at Luis.

"I needed to pursue a military asset and ensure it did not fall into the wrong hands. Taking you with me into the wasteland did not seem like a feasible option."

It is not a lie but it is also not the whole truth. Dishonest, he hears Win say.

"You just dumped me like a bag of garbage. You told Muriel I was your... associate. Not even your friend, after everything between us." Luis scowls, trying to look mad, but his eyes reveal hurt.

What had been between them? Had some part of him wanted Luis, as he wanted Steve? Did some part of him want the younger man even now?

"I only thought of your safety and to see your needs provided for."

Dishonest.

"You left me with strangers!" Luis counters.

"I surveyed the settlement many times. I knew they were undeserving. The deserving would not keep a useless old woman." Buck realizes immediately his word choice was poor as the anger finally touches the green eyes.

"Don't call Muriel useless!! She was there for me when you weren't! She kept me fed! She gave me a place to sleep! She made me part of her family!!! You ran away! That must be why you and Steve are a thing! A couple of fucking cowards who can't deal with their feelings." Luis bangs a hand on the formica tabletop, vibrating the metal supports underneath. A clanging echo, for a long moment, fills the utter silence between them.

"I do not understand your meaning," Buck finally says.

Dishonest. Just as bad..

"We had something with each other, something important. It wasn't romance or fucking, but it was...a connection. It was so hard for me when you broke that. Especially without a word, a good-bye, anything." Luis looks into his lap.

"It was difficult for me as well. Leaving you," the Soldier says softly. "I have thought of you often."

"Was it because you got scared? I got too close to you?"

"Yes," Buck states simply.

"But... it was fine for so long. The feeding, the touching." Luis does not sound angry. If anything he sounds desperate, sad.

"It....changed" the Soldier manages.

"Changed? How? Did you fall for me? Did you start to...want me?" To Buck's surprise, the younger man does not sound disgusted or offended, though his tone is hard to decipher.

Had he? Did he? Perhaps his feelings for Steve were based on touching. Perhaps he believed he loved the little mechanic because - after the bond of their friendship - they had kissed and more, much more. He needs to know the truth, if what he feels for the blonde is real - unique - or a side effect of shared comfort and physical intimacy. After a long silence he stands, crosses to Luis' side of the table, kneels down next to him. After his friend turns to look at him, Buck slowly leans up, ghosts his lips over the smaller man's. Despite Luis' previous statements to the others, when Buck starts to withdraw he follows, pressing their mouths together more firmly.

Chapter Text

Steve makes a mental to do list as he prepares to head back to the junktown.

1) Ambush boyfriend at home. Try to be a grown up and smooth things over. Talk about (gag) feelings. Control temper.

2) Change clothes, wash up, shave.

He's been in the same outfit an entire week and his beard is so fucking hot.

3) Go to pub. Suck up to friends for ditching them with a sickly, probably super mopey vampire to take care of. Buy them many alcoholic beverages. Eat all the delicious greasy breakfast foods and, oh my god, berries.

He hadn't had fuckall while he was gone but chips and cream of celery soup. They'd found a whole case of dented cans, still shrink-wrapped together, in the dump that hadn't even reached their expiration date yet. Literally every other non-perishable thing they had stored there contained meat.

4) Ask Win if anything needs urgent maintenance. Do said maintenance. Pray Clint has not destroyed extruder. Control temper if he has.

5) Get Buck alone. Do bad things to him... Maybe even with him. And by bad he means good. Really good.

He'd had a dream last night about making the big man's toes curl. About Buck's lips on his neck. Steve wanted to stay angry, told himself he was only going back because of what he had figured out, but he knew he was lying to himself again.

He missed Buck. Missed talking to him and making him smile.

Missed cuddling with him and kissing him.

Missed watching him cum all over himself.

Ahem. Focus, Rogers.

6) Figure out what the fuck to do about realizing he has known where the other Winter Soldiers were all along.

Not so fucking clever after all, am I, Buck? he'll say.

All these plans are put on hold minutes after he enters Claptrap when he runs into his neighbor, Jasper, heading somewhere. Probably to lick Fury's boots. Yet another person who had followed Nick here, he'd been a pencil pusher for the same special operations group.

"Hey, Steven," the man with the shaved head and deceptively sweet face calls to him, pushing up his wire framed glasses with one finger. "I'm really sorry that you and Buck broke up. I hope you moved pretty far from him. His new guy's really vocal."

"Sitwell, what the fuck are you talking about?"

Steve has zero patience for the man. The saddest shit? He is pretty cute in a math club president kind of way. The first time they'd been introduced (and Jasper had covertly looked him over), the blonde had a ten second fantasy about making friends and maybe, like five years down the road after he was super comfortable, asking him out. Then Jasper had spoke and - he thought to himself - that mini-crush had blown up even faster than his only recent love interest. Jack would have found that crack funny.

Lately Sitwell had a lot of comments about the noises that the mechanic and the Soldier made at night. It was one thing for their friend group to pick on him. To have this person who he has no social relationship with, beyond begrudgingly returning a hello, mention it repeatedly was really weird and irritating.

"We get it," Steve had said after the umpteenth time, "we all live on top of each other and we can hear everything each other does. You don't need to bring it up to me. Especially in such a creepy way."

Jasper had shrugged, mumbled something about not being able to stream porn anymore. Steve reminded him he claimed (in a borderline queerphobic way, he'd wanted to add) he was straight after finding out Steve wasn't. Sitwell curtly claimed he pretended the noises were from women. The mechanic retorted that must be difficult since they both had pretty deep voices. Sitwell, ex government snake that he was, quickly feigned offense and told him not to be sexist, plenty of women had deep voices too. Sadly Steve has to concede - if only to himself. He was stereotyping, and that went against his beliefs, but Jasper is as much of a feminist as the blonde is a bodybuilder.

Back in the present, Sitwell makes the pinched, arrogant smile that always begs the mechanic to punch him in the face.

"You know! That new guy that he's with. A little lighter complected than me, amazing green eyes. I saw them leave your place - Buck's place I guess now since I haven't see you around - like ten minutes ago. The guy was all kinds of loud last night, and your ex was the night before too. Works out for me though. New guy's voice is definitely not as deep as yours."

Without a word, Steve turns on his heel and heads towards the pub. He'd meant originally to get back early enough for his boyfriend to be at the shanty but he'd had trouble with the snow(sand)mobile. Breakfast was most likely where the Soldier was headed when le douchebag had seen him and Luis.

When the mechanic enters Vic's place, Luis is in line with the others. If Jasper knows, everyone knows. His friends know. Yet they're so...chummy with the guy, all laughing together, Win grabbing his arm and almost doubling over, Clint turning to poke him lightly in the ribs, big grin on his stupid traitor face. He watches the young man head alone to the spot where Steve had always sat. Buck is in line still, holding up the others - there are two little girls hanging on his every word as he helps the old woman from the reavertown fill their plates.

Steve's to do list is on fire. The ashes that remain of it have only one new task to reveal.

He strolls over to Luis. "Heyyyy," he says amiably enough

"Steve? Hey man. Uh, you...just get back?" Luis looks instantly nervous.

"Yeah, yeah," the blonde smiles. "Can I just," he jerks his head towards the empty side of the room, "talk to you a minute?"

"Ummm...okay. Sure," the young man answers.

The mechanic can't help but notice him glance over to Buck and the others, but none of them are looking in his direction. Once they're both standing near the bank of ancient, broken payphones on the side wall - Steve's face still the picture of friendliness - Luis nervously asks, "What's up, dude?"

"I just... wanted to clarify something."

"Okay...." The green eyes get a bit bigger.

"You know Buck and I are a couple, right? Current tense. As in dating. As in being exclusive."

"Yeah, yeah he told me." Luis shuffles from foot to foot.

"Oh, okay. Say, were you possibly at my house last night? My neighbor swore he heard you." The mechanic gives him his dopiest grin.

"Yeah, about th-"

Luis doesn't get a chance to finish his sentence, Steve cutting him off when he slams his fist into the other man's jaw.

The blonde smiles at him crazily as he's picking himself off the floor. "You two have a nice life. Really. Wonderful. Keep my house. Keep all my shit. Enjoy it. You can have my friends. You can have my spot at the table. You can have it all."

"You're a fucking lunatic, you know that?" The young man stands, clutching his face. "He deserves better than you."

"Steve?" he hears Clint's voice from behind him. He turns to see the whole gang by their usual table, Buck and the children trailing behind. They're staring at him with their mouths open. He unceremoniously holds both middle fingers up high at them, then whips around and storms out.

He builds a new to do list as his worn out boots crunch rapidly on the gravel.

1) Get essentials from house.

2) Set house on fire.

3) Hot wire most convenient truck.

4) Leave this place in the literal dust.

Sweet baby Jesus, he hears the Sarah Rogers-esque internal voice say. You learned absolutely nothing from an entire week of self-reflection.

Sure I did. Trust no one. Depend on yourself. Don't get attached, the bullheaded one answers.

Running angry is just a mask for running scared. You don't want to see them end up like Jack. Pushing them away won't make you stop loving them, stop being in love with him.

Someone calling his name pulls him from his thoughts. It's the Soldier. He's asking - no pleading - for Steve to stop.

"What did I tell you about following me like a dog?" the blonde yells, not slowing or turning to look.

It only takes the super human seconds to catch up to him, to be in front of him on his knees in the road so fast the motion blurs. Buck's arms are around his waist just as quick, the bigger man's face pressed to his abdomen before he can even react.

"Steve," he says muffled by the shirt. "Steve."

That's not the name he's been yelling lately, the malicious voice says. The blonde shoves him roughly. He may as well have delicately dumped a bag of feathers on Buck for all the good it does.

When the Soldier leans his head back to look up at the mechanic his irises are a color that the smaller man has never seen before, a light periwinkle. "Do not leave again. I will be honest. I will not keep things from you. I will tell you whatever you want to know."

Liar.

You don't know that, ya broken record.

"I don't want to hear a goddamn thing you have to say. Let go of me!"

He sees the flicker of uncertainty on Buck's face, like he knows he should comply but can't. "No," the bigger man says, tightening the circle of his arms. "You must listen to me first." He looks pitiful.

It fakes it so well. Pretending to feel. Pretending to care. Do you think it wants you? Loves you?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. We've heard all this before. Oh come on, kid, look at how adorably earnest he is. Let him talk.

Steve furrows his brows, twists his mouth into something between a scowl and a frown. He says nothing.

"I saw you for the first time in the barn, when you found the asset. I watched you from the alcove, studied your scars when you were standing in the hay. I realized how clever you were when you threw the screws into the darkness. I had not made a sound, nor was there any way you could see me there, yet you knew that I was. As if you sensed my presence. No human had ever done that before."

The color of his eyes deepens to something like blooming hydrangeas. The Soldier takes a wavering breath, licks his lips.

Man they make it life-like.

Don't call him it. He doesn't like that.

"I thought about you many times," the Soldier continues. "I saw you occasionally, on the wall or going to the yard. I found you so... fascinating. Different. Then you saved me from the sand and I saw the way Win protected you and how you cared for her when she was hurt. I wanted to protect you. I wanted you to care for me when I was hurt."

Steve's lip quivers.

You're not listening to this shite are you?

Shhhh. I'm making popcorn.

"I have learned and experienced so much since I came to live with you. I have become...a person. I have made friends. I have... created a life that is more than survival or accomplishing a mission."

"But that's why you really came here," the blonde spits. "Your mission."

"The asset must be kept from the wrong hands. To keep the undeserving safe."

"You're supposedly being so fucking honest now. Tell me what the other thing is inside the box," Steve challenges.

"Experimental serums, similar to the one administered to the corpse I was before I woke as this, but intended to be used in living tissue. Zola's final creations before they removed him from, and his access to, the secondary facility. Those above him came to chastise him for creating the chemicals without permission. I was present for the discussion."

Zola. Was he the creepy little man Brock had pulled from the base? No, not a base. A facility. But if that man had made Buck, circa 1983 as Nick had mentioned, how could he still be alive?

"His commanders felt that the serums were too dangerous and that they lacked the resources to properly test them or contain whatever creations they would birth. I was ordered to place the case holding the serums in the crate and seal it. They stated they would take the entire crate to a secure facility and were locking down all locations with Winter Soldiers pending potential social collapse. Zola attempted to take command of me but they silenced him. Then they removed it - and him - from the facility before I was returned to cryosleep."

Steve is dumbfounded. He had expected excuses or subterfuge, not detailed answers.

"Oookay," he says, anger slipping from his voice. He reverts back to his snarky tone immediately. "But what did you do with Luis last night?" the blonde queries, upping the ante of their little truth game.

Show me your so-called honesty, big boy. Watch, he'll lie right to your face.

"I invited him to our home. We played cards. I kissed him very briefly. He kissed me back a bit longer. After, we both decided that the confusion we feel regarding our bond has to do with the lack of the common culture's ability to explain the nature of our relationship."

"And what is the nature of your relationship?" the mechanic all but hisses.

"We share a connection that is very difficult to explain. I have fed on Luis very intensely many times, in a manner I have not with anyone else. It is very pleasurable and overwhelming for both of us and, after, we have a deep need to be close together. This has engendered a sense of comfort when we engage in physical interaction with one another and caused an amount of shared affection to develop."

"Oh, I heard all about you two engaging physically and sharing affection!" Steve snaps.

The blonde starts to lightly struggle, more for show than anything. He's not done listening - he needs an admission of guilt to heat his simmering anger to a boil and block out Buck's admission he had been crushing on him since minute one.

"I do not understand your meaning." Buck is still on his knees, arms in the exact same position tight around Steve. Now that he's at full strength, he does not tire easily.

"You've been fucking each other while I was gone. In my house, no less. The neighbors heard you." The mechanic tries to sound self-righteous but can't help the hurt that slips into his voice.

Steve is not averse to non-traditional relationships. He'd flirted with the idea of being a throuple (the word made him chuckle every time) eventually with Carol and Sam more than once and did not at all judge them sharing sexual partners. Lord knows he had gotten plenty out of their mutual activities. Nor did he look down on others he knew being in open relationships or polyamorous or even just proudly promiscuous. If they were honest and not hurting anyone, more power to them. But the blonde and the brunette had talked about monogomy, what it was and if it was an expectation either of them had. The Soldier had insisted he wanted no one else and - while the book said jealousy was a negative, immature emotion -he did not want to share the mechanic either. Steve had foolishly believed him.

Buck makes a truly puzzled expression.

"What is between Luis and I is not sexual. That is what we determined after we kissed. Also that our relationship is not romantic in nature. Finding him attractive and being attracted to him are not the same, as loving him and being in love with him are not the same. Humans equate pleasure and intimacy with sex and romantic love. The experience of pleasure and intimacy Luis and I have together from the feed-bond and our time cohabitating does not fit into any human paradigm. Unless there are others like me who are awake and free, it is likely we are the only two people in the world who share such a relationship."

"What was all the noise last night then?" the blonde demands.

"Luis was moaning quite loudly when I fed on him. As I mentioned, it is quite pleasurable. That is what this..." Buck grasps for the word, "nosey person heard."

Quite pleasurable. Tuck that little chestnut away for later.

"And the night before that? When they heard you making sexy noises?"

The Soldier's face flushes, lavender spreading across his cheekbones.

Caught you!

"I was," Buck's voice goes low, almost to a whisper, and his eyes drop. "I was pleasuring myself, while I thought of you..." He swallows hard. "While I thought of you fucking me."

Steve's eyes go a little wide at that and he barks out, "Take me home. Now."

Chapter Text

Buck, as he so often does, takes Steve's words very literally. He stands with his arms still around the blonde and carries him towards the shanty. The mechanic begrudgingly allows him to and admits to himself it's a pretty good view from up there, head well above Buck's own; lord knows he needs a change in perspective. He had nearly destroyed everything in his little fit of jealous rage, like a pop diva smashing up her man's truck because she sees him talking to another girl. Only now the police were here, asking how someone could be stupid enough to carve their name into the leather seats. Every time he thought he'd made real progress with his temper, with his urge to distrust and put up barriers, he relapsed hard into his old ways. Violence, manipulation, pushing away those who cared about him, lashing out verbally to wound.

It's like that song Grandma used to play. Two steps forward, two steps back.

The bullheaded voice was quietly sulking in a corner, not wanting to admit it had been wrong, shrivelling from the accusation that it was what encouraged Steve to start being overtly sexual with the Soldier in the first place. The day he'd decided to walk in on Buck masturbating had been a "oops, dropped all my fucks" situation - the voice loved those, reveling in rebelling against real or imagined slight or restraint. Which is how the same voice that told him one day he deserved to wank with abandon in front of the object of his affection because screw what anyone else thought had spent the last week trying to poison him against the bigger man.

The reasonable voice was offering praise for Steve choosing to listen (okay sort of choosing - Buck did have him in a bear hug after all, but he hadn't put his fingers in his ears and went la la la la laaa like he'd initially wanted to). It offers soft encouragement, reminds him he hasn't broken anything yet his clever mind can't fix. Apologies to everyone - especially Luis - will be hard, like taking his medicine, but he'll feel better after. Shooting the double bird at his friends is far down the list of horrible things he's done, afterall. He's punched Clint nearly twenty times by now.

Buck pulls him from his thoughts. "Do you forgive me?" he asks quietly. His face is incredibly sincere, sad, hopeful.

"If you forgive me first." The blonde gazes down at him as the Soldier's eyes flick up to his.

"You have no need of my forgiveness. I was dishonest and it drove you away. I am to blame."

The bigger man frowns deeply and the mechanic gets a bit of a lump in his throat watching it. How had he ever thought this person, so blatantly dependent on Steve's approval, could conspire maliciously against him? His pride wants to let Buck think it's all his fault, but that would tarnish his sense of fairness. It would be dishonest, and while Steve is many things he is not a hypocrite (or tries very hard not to be).

"I acted like a brat, running off without even hearing you out. I ditched you when you needed me. I totally freaked out based on paranoia and gossip. My actions were just as bad as yours. Maybe worse."

"If you feel you require absolution for your behavior, I grant you that," the Soldier responds softly.

The mechanic gets a weird church flashback from that and a ten second fantasy of Buck dressed as a priest. Damn. Are they home yet?

"I forgive you, for not telling me about the crate or Crossbones. And I'm sorry I jumped to conclusions about Luis. And...that I may have broken his jaw."

"You struck him very hard." Buck is trying to sound stern, perhaps even upset about the turn of events, but his tone is more than a bit self-satisfied. His eyes twinkle the littlest bit, one corner of his mouth quirking up.

"Oh my god. You like that I was so jealous!" Steve smiles wide, chuckles.

The Soldier's cheeks color again. "Jealousy is a negative and immature emotion that is not helpful in the maintenance of a relationship," he says, obviously trying to make his tone judgmental.

That only makes the blonde laugh harder. "Sure. But you're loving that I slugged someone because I thought they stole you."

The bigger man is silent, sheepish expression on his face. After a moment, he sets Steve carefully down at their door and looks deep into his eyes. "No one could ever take me from you." He leans in, kisses the blonde soft and slow.

The mechanic grins as he unlocks the door. Once inside, they both get visibly nervous as Steve starts taking off his dust-covered boots, jacket and pants. Asking (okay, ordering) Buck to take him home had been on impulse, but now they were here. Alone. With a bed. With the admission of what the brunette wanted bouncing around. He hadn't fucked the bigger man before when offered because he worried maybe Buck, lost in the moment and inexperienced, did not really understand what he was asking for. It was clear now he was very into the idea, and it definitely made Steve all kinds of hot and bothered thinking about it.

There's still a voice, different from the many others he often hears, expressing apprehension. He knows logically there's nothing wrong with anal sex, that it's no more weird or shameful or less valid in a romantic sense than vaginal sex, that a lot of people find it very enjoyable. But to some part of his psyche, that act is awful, painful, humiliating. It's what sadists do to weaker people to feel powerful, dominant. Something that leaves you leaking in the worst possible way, sore, ashamed. The fact he would be the one doing it rather than the one having it done to him is little comfort. He does not want to feel like he's using the person he loves for his own enjoyment, debasing him.

And yes, he's sure of that now, that he loves Buck.

The enormity of the betrayal he had felt earlier was testament to that, but so was how quickly the warm feelings flooded his chest again even when he clawed and battered at them in resistence. Firstly, it happened when the Soldier talked about his immediate interest in Steve right from their almost-meeting in the barn. Maybe that was his (flimsy) ego talking - he wanted all this right away! Maybe he should even find it creepy on Buck's end, a bit stalkerish, but he didn't. It was flattering, to be noticed out of all the people who had been there, many of them more attractive than him. It touched him that seeing his scars had made the Soldier feel some kind of connection to him (even if he was a bit embarrassed that he'd seen them while he was taking a piss).

The feeling flared stronger when the brunette had asked shyly for forgiveness. It's clear Buck desperately needs things to be good between them. So does he. He wants things to be very good between them right now as he glances over at the (mercifully stain-free) sheets. He isn't ready to give the Soldier what he desires though. Not exactly. But he is a mechanic - sometimes if the regular tool for a job isn't handy, you have to improvise.

Sometimes when they had done sexy things - and especially the last time - Buck seemed to like being told what to do. The blonde had spent a little time unpacking that previously, worrying it was a holdover from the bigger man's days of essentially being enslaved. It wasn't like the brunette didn't have a mind, a will, of his own which he had clearly exerted again and again outside of their carnal activities. He'd also took the lead in certain things, while they chased their pleasure together, and made requests. Even the night before the reavertown he had insisted on seeing Steve, despite the smaller man being firmly entrenched behind him quite comfortable stroking him off. The mechanic decides it's a manifestation of the Soldier's trust in him, comfort and excitement taken in being given direction he knows will lead to his pleasure, not a lingering urge to be subservient.

The blonde, now in just his ratty t-shirt and boxer briefs (mercifully clean, since he kept a bag with a few essentials in one of the old employee lockers in the scrapyard's small office building) leans up on his tip toes to kiss Buck. The bigger man's arms are around him in a second, lifting him back up effortlessly like he's as heavy as a pillow. Their mouths work eagerly together, tongues joining in moments later. One of Steve's arms slides around the bigger man's neck and his other hand tangles in the thick, dark hair, pulling them tighter together. When Steve starts to feel the brunette's erection pressing through their clothes against his leg, he eases back. Maybe it's fucked up and wrong after everything that's happened - Gurminder would certainly say it was unhealthy - but they both need this right now. The mechanic fixes the bigger man with a hot, commanding look.

"Take your clothes off and lay on the bed," he instructs, firm but quiet. The Soldier looks surprised, then like he's just been promised a forty room mansion with its own chocolate fountain. He sets the smaller man down, strips without hesitation, neither of them breaking eye contact while he does. When he turns to go, Steve lightly grabs his arm.

"Don't touch yourself until I say you can," he breathes out, barely above a whisper.

Buck's periwinkle irises flare slightly brighter as he nods, mouth hanging a bit open. The blonde glances down at Buck's cock - he was a bit more than half erect before and now he's all the way there.

Yep, definitely likes me telling him what to do, an internal voice chimes in that's just himself, or the self he likes to think of Steve Rogers as.

That gets the mechanic pretty excited as well. He wants to pounce on the Soldier, slam their lips back together, pull the man's big hand to his hard-on and in the most loving, respectful way possible order Buck to jerk him off while he reciprocates. Patience, patience. Unlike the last time he'd said those words - though it had been aloud then - he's reminding only himself. He takes his remaining clothes off slowly, like he has all the time in the world.

Steve grabs Buck's hairbrush off the small dresser they'd scavenged recently to keep their clothes in, brushes the sand residue from his beard and smooths it out, watching behind him in the little mirror attached to the drawer unit as Buck stares blatantly at his naked ass. The nausea inducing level of stress even thinking about being naked in front of Buck would have caused a few weeks ago isn't lost on him, but there's surprisingly not even a hint of that now.

The blonde had made fun of the brush in his mind from the minute the Soldier picked it out at the Super Store. The handle was about six inches long, a cone shape with a small rounded end that slowly went wider, then abruptly tapered back in to a short cylinder shape that fused it to the paddle. Other than it being hard, smooth plastic instead of rubber, it looked remarkably like a long, slender butt plug. He walks over to the table as he detangles his hair with it, then sets the brush down on the formica.

The blonde makes up two small buckets of soapy water, like he often did for his "bath." Cleaning himself slowly, he gazes at Buck. The big man's flesh hand is resting on his thigh - occasionally it twitches as he watches Steve run the wet cloth over himself. The Soldier's cock does the same when the mechanic wraps the rag around his own, gives it a few careful strokes, then goes lower, washing all his sensitive areas.

When's he's squeaky clean everywhere, and wiped down again with a wet, suds-free cloth, he leisurely dries off. He tosses the towel with his other dirty clothes in their hamper, noticing someone had done laundry while he was away. Steve realizes he's all grown up and domesticated when the thought of Buck washing their clothes gets him a bit more turned on. People helping with chores was very sexy in his book. He picks the brush and the wet rag back up on his way to the bed, sets both on the lowest shelf on his side of the headboard.

"You were very patient," Steve says softly, kissing along Buck's clavicle, mouthing up the side of his neck and over his jaw. "I think you deserve a reward." He kisses the bigger man - deep and passionate - quickly easing his tongue into the other man's mouth, feeling Buck's brush eagerly against his.

God, how did he get to be such a good kisser?

Watching some people French, when he'd occasionally seen others do so in public (like a trainwreck he couldn't look away from), could be disturbingly gross. Tonsil hockey was not his sport of choice. He had to admit Buck was even better at it than the others he'd been with, though all of them were good. The brunette knew exactly how to slide their tongues together, didn't try to just cram it down his throat or drool all over him.

Hmmm. Saliva.

He eases back, holds his hand up to Buck's mouth. "Get it wet," he says softly, looking him dead in the eye. The Soldier grips Steve's wrist, repositioning so he can carefully suck the blonde's ring finger into his mouth then pop it back out, shiny and slick. Next he eases the middle one and the pointer together against his slightly extended tongue - it's lavender too. Buck draws them slowly into his mouth, tightens his lips, bobs his head several times as he takes them in repeatedly. Steve is suddenly aware he's not breathing.

Who exactly is in charge here, Rogers?

The brunette doesn't bother with the mechanic's palm. The blonde takes that as a clear indication of what he wants.

"Put your right leg over my knee," the smaller man calmly says, gesturing to his bent leg, trying to sound authoritative rather than like he's going to cum at any second. When Buck complies, resting his calf there and leaving a large space for the blonde to reach under it, around his thigh, the mechanic also tells him to move the left over. He does, spreading wide.

Buck is already panting a bit and Steve hasn't even touched him there. The waiting game really got him going and honestly he wasn't the only one. The urge to tease him further is strong, to refuse to please him until he begs a little, but that makes the blonde feel a bit squidgy. The power play is to be sexy, not cruel or demeaning. He rubs gently around the Soldier's entrance, making him let out a small gasp, as if he'd forgotten just how good it felt.

Steve returns his attention to the bigger man's neck, noticing not for the first time how much Buck enjoys when he intensifies the pressure of his suction. The hickeys fade almost instantly, but it's still exhilarating to leave them, to hear the Soldier whimper needily each time. There's a line with how hard he likes it though - the smaller man had learned quickly the Soldier did not like pain, not even the careful, minor kind so many enjoyed during these activities (including Steve).

For a few days after he'd figured this out, the blonde had worried it said something about him, liking to be hurt a little after everything that had happened. Buck had what seemed the much more sensible reaction to being abused. But Steve remembers he'd liked those things long before he met Brock. Back when he was a dorky teen rubbing one out in his bedroom, he would squeeze his nipple over and over, progressively harder each time. Thinking about the Soldier doing those things for him makes him moan softly against the bigger man's skin. When Steve's fingers graze directly over Buck's opening a moment later he feels it slick there.

Fuck, he's so wet already.

The blonde pushes a finger in, careful but not overly so, and the bigger man groans. He just leaves it buried at first, moving the knuckles to press gently at the sensitive area in him again and again, until he's leaking out onto Steve's hand. The bigger man makes enticing, short sounds somewhere between a grunt and a moan. The mechanic all but slams the second finger into him, it slipping in faster and harder than intended with how lubricated the bigger man is.

Steve opens his mouth to ask if he hurt him, to apologize, but a decidedly non-painful "uhhhn!" issues from beside him. He repeatedly draws the fingers out slow, pushing them back in quicker, a bit more forceful each time. The same incredible sound comes out of Buck again and again, getting louder and more out of control. He starts to curl his fingertips on the way out.

"Please," the Soldier groans. Steve looks up from where he's ducked his head to lightly suck at a lavender nipple. Purple-blue irises, glowing brightly, bore into him. "Please fuck me, Steve."

Don't cum don't cum don't cum don't cum don't cum don't cum, he chants to himself like a holy mantra.

The blonde reaches for the brush, wrapping his hand around the smooth, slightly curved back of the paddle. He points the tip of the handle towards Buck's mouth.

"Get it wet," he says for the second time, soft but stern.

The Soldier's eyes flip from Steve's to the object several times, lips slightly parted. The blonde watches realization dawn over the bigger man's face. Buck licks his lips, slides his head forward to take half of it into his mouth, once, twice, three times, making quite a show of the way his lips and tongue trail over it. Even watching him do this to such a mundane object is super arousing. He's definitely thought about his cock in the Soldier's mouth several times, but razor sharp teeth around what's essentially a blood tube understandably make him nervous. Plus he's not sure he's ready to reciprocate, and that would be unfair.

Steve moves the brush slowly down, under Buck's bent leg, carefully brushes the small, round tip over his hole. The big man's chest is rising and falling fairly quickly (for him at least), and a wavering breath bursts out of him. When Steve gives him a questioning look he nods eagerly. The blonde immediately starts to push it into him, slow but steady.

It doesn't get as thick as the mechanic's two fingers together until several inches up, but from there it fans much wider. It's not as girthy as Steve's cock at the widest part, but it's also hard and unyielding. He needs to be careful. When it gets to the half-way point, really starts to stretch him wider, Buck sighs out a long sound of enjoyment.

"Do you like me filling you?" Steve whispers in Buck's ear, zero idea where the confidence to do that came from, as he continues burying it deeper in the bigger man's body.

"Yes," the Soldier barely manages, adding an "aaauuuuhhhnnn!" when the thickest part stretches him, then slips inside.

Buck's rim tightens around the small cylinder connected to the paddle, the widest part of the handle buried a couple inches inside him, pressing against his sensitive spot. Steve flicks the paddle hard a few times with his thumb, creating a pleasant vibration through the bigger man's prostate. Buck forms little unintelligible, gasped words, and the mechanic takes that as his cue to ease it back out, then push it back home a bit faster. He starts to move it in and out steadily, in much the same way he had his fingers - dragging slowly out, then thrusting smoothly back in to the hilt.

The Soldier loves it. He makes a high-pitched, overwhelmed sound in the back of his throat each time the thick end stretches him, pushes into him, metal hand shooting up to grip a shelf of the solid wood headboard. The bigger man starts to rock his hips down to meet Steve's upward motion. The blonde leans close again.

"Do you liked getting fucked by me?"

"Y-y-yessss," the brunette whimpers.

"Are you thinking about my cock inside you?" Steve is shocked - and impressed - by himself. He'd felt ridiculous trying to dirty talk Sam and Carol.

"Yes! Yes!" Buck responds frantically.

"You want me to spread you open with my fat head? Bury it inside you? Fuck you slow and deep?"

Coincidentally, that was precisely how Buck wanted it. He moans loud, not even able to form an answer, metal fingers tightening on the wood so hard it creaks.

"Fuck, I want to be inside you. To feel you tight and wet and hot around me," Steve says in his most lusty tone.

Well shit, just let it all out, Rogers. No going back now.

"I want to make you cum with my cock, without you even needing yours touched. The ridge of my head rubbing you just right each time I push in or pull out. Do you want to now though? Stroke yourself?" Steve had seen the Soldier's flesh hand repeatedly start to move towards that end, then stop.

Buck's sounds get desperate. Finally he manages, "Please, please, please."

"Touch yourself," the blonde breathes into his ear, before leaning up to watch.

It takes the Soldier less than ten strokes before he brokenly screams and orgasms so hard it hits his own neck and face, Steve fucking him through it for what feels like a blissfully long time.

Chapter Text

Steve chuckles softly. "Whatever you do, don't open your eyes."

There are several long runners of the Soldier's clear jizz over his face, one trailing from his cheek up across his closed eyelid to his forehead and a second dangerously close to the corner of his other eye. The blonde blesses himself for having the forethought to bring the rag over and grabs it off the headboard. He cleans Buck up slow, including the large amount on his neck, settled into the dip between his clavicles and at the top of his sternum. He leaves the little line over his chin to his bottom lip. That Steve licks off, marveling again at how it tastes, running his tongue over the bigger man's mouth before pressing his own to it.

The brunette kisses him back lazily, utterly spent. His leg had slipped from Steve's seconds after he'd taken the brush handle out. The blonde sat just the paddle end carefully back on the headboard, the glistening grip hanging off the edge. The blonde eyes it now, tempted to clean the slick off with his hand and stroke himself shamelessly he's so turned on. His boyfriend is boneless and quiet, probably already asleep, which he's not even mad at. It's a huge compliment how thoroughly satisfied he seems.

Suddeny the Soldier's flesh hand grazes lightly down the mechanic's belly to just above his pubic hair, then up to his chest, skimming a nipple.

"May I please you?" Buck asks, turning his head to look up at the mechanic.

When Steve looks him in the face there's not a hint of shyness there, only affection and want. It makes him feel hot everywhere, his face flushing, his cock getting harder. He nods. Buck sits up, moves the pillows into a little pile, gently grips Steve's waist and slowly, giving him time to protest, moves him to the center of the bed to lean half-upright against them.

Buck, sitting between his parted thighs, leans in to give him an incredible, electrifying kiss. He runs his tongue lightly over Steve's lips after as the blonde had done to him moments before, sending a thrill through the smaller man. The Soldier moves to kiss Steve's jaw, his neck, flesh hand going to the headboard to steady himself. The mechanic's eyes flick to it and he notices the wood is actually cracked where the Soldier had squeezed it so hard before with his metal digits.

Fuck, I rock, he thinks in a rare burst of self-confidence.

"Tell me what you like," the brunette breathes into his ear, flesh fingers moving to lightly stroke the blonde's nipple as he moves his metal hand to the shelf on the opposite side of Steve's head.

"I like my neck sucked on, but... harder than you do."

That makes a groan come out of Buck that's very different from the many types of sexy noises the mechanic had heard him make. It occurs to him, as the bigger man presses his open mouth to Steve's pulse point, the Soldier is probably thinking about a different kind of neck sucking.

"Why..." the blonde starts but trails off, causing Buck to lean back and look at him with concern. He can't help but notice the Soldier's eyes have gone slightly more purple, remembering they were violet when he fed on the others. "Why haven't you ever bit me?"

Someone you really fucking want was about to touch your dick, Rogers. Don't ruin this for yourself.

The brunette eyes him thoughtfully. "I do not want to hurt you."

"But it only hurts a little while, right? Then it feels good? Besides..." and, shit, he can't believe when this next bit comes out of his mouth, "I like some things to hurt a bit."

Buck looks utterly scandalized, like he's told him he enjoys fucking the eye sockets of dead sheep. Steve sputters out in clarification, "during... sexy times. Just like...a little bit."

The Soldier's mouth is still hanging open, his eyes going even wider.

Fuck, you made it worse! Quick, think of something!

"Remember when I squeezed your nipple and you said it was too hard? Well, you don't like that type of pain. I do. But, like, just that much. Not a lot more."

To his surprise, Buck reaches to Steve's chest again and gently tweaks his nipple, then does it a bit harder, repeating several times with more force until it gets a little breathy sound of arousal out of the blonde. The Soldier's eyebrows go up and he makes a face like he's discovered a scientific breakthrough. He does the same to the other side, leaning back in to suck hard at the sensitive spot a bit to the right of where Steve's neck curves into his shoulder. The mechanic softly moans.

"What else?" the Soldier asks eagerly, voice husky.

"I...I like teeth grazed over me. And to be...bit... softly..." He goes quiet, registers the shock on Buck's face when the bigger man pulls back. "I understand you can't do that though. Because of the whole... razor sharp thing. And because," he circles back to the matter at hand, "you don't want to drink from me."

After a moment of silence wherein the brunette stares down at his hands resting on the tops of his thighs, Steve chuckles, trying to break the tension. "So I smell bad or something? Or like... tiny, weakling blood doesn't interest you?"

Buck's eyes flare brighter and when he speaks his voice is low, gravelly and wanting. "You smell incredible. There are days I can think of nothing but my teeth in you, how good you will taste, how much I will enjoy you."

Steve's mouth drops open for a long moment before he speaks. "Then... Then why haven't you?"

"At first, I thought you would be frightened, disgusted even, especially to see me...like this." The Soldier motions open-handed to his face - his eyes glow brightly, pointy teeth extended.

"Okay, but... I've seen you this way lots of times now. When you've fought people. When I brought you blood from the animals. Have I ever seemed grossed out?"

Buck shakes his head.

"So... Why haven't you ever asked? I mean, I even offered and you said no." Steve tries not to look too dejected, but he can see in the brunette's face that he failed.

"I...I was afraid I couldn't resist."

"Resist what?" The blonde makes a curious face.

"Pushing my pulse into you." The bigger man stares right into his eyes now, his own only getting more intense. "Burying it in you deep, pumping pleasure into you."

The mechanic's jaw drops. He works his lips several times before getting out, "And thaaaat's...bad?"

"I did not want you to be embarrassed in front of the others. You would...make sounds. Like the one's the neighbor heard from Luis. He did not do that intentionally. He cannot stop himself. He used to try. I would feel him tense with the effort of resisting, not wanting me to know how good it felt. But eventually the noises would escape. The better it became, the louder he was."

"But what about before then, when we were alone?" Steve asks.

"If I fed on you deeply, as I have Luis, it would be very overwhelming for you. You would most likely not be able to move, to speak, and after we will have an intense need to be near each other. I will especially feel that. I am afraid with how close to you I am, how much I care for you, want you in every way, it will be far stronger than it ever was with him. I will be even more...out of it, as they say. I may not even let you leave the bed. I would tear apart anyone who came near you. I thought, given the things that happened to you, and your many boundaries... all of which I understand...you would not want to feel so helpless."

The blonde seems to consider his words a long time, a thoughtful expression on his features. "What if we...went slow with that, too?"

"I do not understand."

"Well, I'm assuming the effect is much stronger if your teeth are actually in someone," Steve muses. "We could work our way up to that."

"Yes. But I was still able to achieve some of the effect even with my mouth on the knife wounds."

"What if...you just graze me? Take a little? Then heal me up. You could do that a few times..." The blonde gives him a sweet look. "Then it wouldn't get so intense for either of us."

"But I wanted...to please you," Buck half-whispers, looking down at Steve's now mostly-soft cock.

"You could do both."

The look on Steve's face is decidedly not sweet when the brunette looks back up. It's positively searing. He grips the Soldier's flesh hand, brings the fingers back to his nipple. "You can touch me anywhere, except my hole," he whispers.

Well done. Just put it right out there what's a no go. Avoid a repeat of the accidental-almost-fingering from the power couple. Although, hole is such a not sexy word, Rogers. Do better next time.

"And I mean you can touch me with both hands," the blonde adds. "The metal one doesn't bother me."

The bigger man's eyes go wide - he looks very hungry in several different ways all at once. He leans back in, presses his lips to Steve's neck as his fingers tease at the now-hard little lump on the narrow chest. The metal arm slides around the blonde. It feels fairly warm today and the ultra-smooth fingers slide up and down his spine like silk, then ease up to lightly grip the back of his neck. Buck sucks harder at the sensitive flesh, tightens his thumb and finger around the pink nerve bundle.

Steve moans outright, hips slightly bucking. His right hand tangles in the dark, silky locks, his left grips the bigger man's right shoulder.

"Taste me," he whispers in Buck's ear. The Soldier groans against his skin, then lightly grazes one canine over it. There's a little electric crackle of pain, just the right amount, and Steve moans. He tightens his grip on the brunette as his mouth locks over the scratch and he sucks hard.

The Soldier whimpers, metal arm sliding down and tightening around the smaller man, flesh hand moving to the side of the blonde's face. The Soldier drinks just long enough that the pulse starts to flit into the mechanic, melt the pain, spread a soft tingle out a few inches in every direction from Buck's teeth where they press against him. Steve feels the wet lave of his tongue seconds later, healing him, and - fuck - that's good too. The bigger man pulls back, eyes electric purple now, half closed.

"You taste so good," he groans, voice deep and broken. "So sweet."

Steve bends his head the opposite way, offering the other side of his neck. Buck is on him in seconds, making another small cut, reveling in the little sounds that come out of the blonde. He sucks even longer, allows his pulse to spread farther. His hands trail all over the smaller man, down his chest, around the slight curve of his waist, gripping his narrow hips then sliding under him to gently squeeze his cheeks. He remembered Steve's face when he had done that to him before and he's gratified when it pulls a groan from the little mechanic.

Buck sucks dark marks into Steve's neck between each little taste, making the blonde whimper needily, his fingers pressing into the Soldier's scalp and shoulder. The bigger man feels hot, his skin buzzing, pleasure taking root inside him and growing stronger the more he drinks. He's never combined feeding and arousal nor equated the two, would have never even thought of it before now. Despite the previous confusion about his feelings for Luis, he had assumed any sexual attraction he may have had for the man was separate from his blood-want. The brunette knows he'll crave this with Steve from now on, the combining of all his wants, all his needs.

The bigger man moves down his body. Kiss. Suck. Scratch. Suck harder. Tingle. Throb. Lick. Both of them moan softly again and again as Buck repeats the process, getting steadily lower, hands moving occasionally to roll the blonde's nipples between his fingertips. He presses his lips to Steve's inner thigh as he slides his metal hand down to lightly grip the blonde's sack, rubbing then squeezing gently several times.

"Just a little harder," Steve breathes. The Soldier complies, applying more pressure with his fingers, careful not to go too far. When the blonde moans loud, he thrusts the point of one canine into the meat of his slender leg. It just grazes the artery there and he clamps his mouth around the puncture. They both groan, Steve at the pleasure-pain and Buck at the hot, rich blood weakly spurting into his mouth as he presses the flat fronts of his teeth to the blonde's soft skin. He reaches behind himself with his metal hand, runs the fingers through the slickness still on his body, then grips the little mechanic's hard length, starts slowly pumping him.

"Uhh!" Steve exhales, his grip tightening on Buck.

The Soldier groans loud in response, vibration running through Steve's thigh along with the tingle-throb spreading there. His flesh hand grips the back of the smaller man's leg just above the inside of his knee, lifting it slightly, pressing it tighter to his mouth. Buck can't resist pushing his pulse into the little mechanic harder, making him moan louder as he works him faster with his hand. The blonde takes a hold of it, repositioning it half way up his length.

"From here to...to the tip... Straight up and down. I...I like that best. Especially...right around the head."

Buck groans in his throat at the direction, which he eagerly follows. It draws a wail from the smaller man as he strokes him smoothly mid-shaft to end, rubbing his thumb across the sensitive spot on the underside of the head as he rounds his fingers over the tip, extra pressure on the middle knuckles over the slit. He does it again and again, exactly the same each time, Steve's nervous system lighting up until he feels like he's melting in the best possible way. Each pulsation only drives the feeling harder, spreads it farther, pushes something low in him to coil tighter until it feels about to spring.

"Don't stop!" the blonde suddenly groans. "Please don't stop, Buck! I'm... I'm gonna... I'm....!"

Steve finishes blindingly, toe-curlingly hard, making loud, open, long sounds he didn't know he was even capable of. His load coats his chest and belly, the Soldier's hand, droplets spraying onto Buck's cheek. It feels like hours - days - as the spasms wash through him, the slow throb of the pulse occasionally overlapping and pushing them harder, forcing his cock to spurt farther. After, he feels untethered, like he's floated out into the universe, soul adrift in a bathwater warm sea of nothing.

Chapter Text

At first the after effects had made them painfully open and intensely emotional. They laid close, whispering secret things to each other, revealing and confessing and admitting. The blonde tells him about his mom under her sheet, his pillhead father. He talks about Frank Delino and the trash can lid, about Jack and the bomb, the fear he feels for his own nearly bottomless rage.

Buck tells him about the people he was made to kill, how he sees their faces and hears their begging in his dreams. For the first time he talks about a guard in the secondary facility who would take him to the examination room earlier than the doctors requested. The man would order, Bend over the table. Spread your legs. There had been no pain though he could feel it pushing into him. He didn't register discomfort, had no active thoughts, with the neural net. Some part of him still knew.

Something is wrong. Something is wrong. Make it stop.

Steve starts to cry and worries aloud if the things he's done to Buck were what the bigger man really wanted. His greatest fear is not people like Brock, but to become like Brock. The Soldier pulls him close, tells the little mechanic he had only ever felt good and safe when the smaller man touched him. He explains how the new memories layer over the old one by one, making the unwanted past more and more dim. The blonde apologizes that it can't be that way for himself, that he can't give or accept freely in every way and isn't sure if he'll ever be able to. Putting himself back together is not a matter of covering over the bad with the good. It's like assembling a jigsaw puzzle where he doesn't know what picture is on the box and a lot of the edge shapes are missing.

Buck tells him he is grateful for whatever pieces of himself that Steve offers, holds him close, whispers "I love you," to him. The smaller man buries his wet face against the Soldier's chest and sobs hard until he wears himself out. It is okay that Steve had not repeated Buck's words back to him - he had not rejected them either. They eventually fall asleep, drift in and out throughout the morning. Tangled together, they're both still naked with the blankets haphazardly yanked over them.

After the initial upset, they have a sort of catharsis. Both let themselves get lost in the feed afterglow, amplified by all the post-orgasm soft and fuzzy hormones coursing through them. Steve's warmth was all around the Soldier, inside him. The sea-blue eyes fixed on his when he woke, the smaller man leaning to press soft kisses to wherever his mouth could reach. Sometimes they said nothing, just gazing at each other. Other times they babbled merrily about inanity.

For the very first time in the short part of his body's existence where he'd actually been in control of it, the Soldier feels at peace - with his surroundings, with what he is, with who he is. This is all he wants or needs, this shared intimacy. To be accepted and deemed worthy and trusted by this interesting, clever, complicated, beautiful person.

Only the blonde's increasingly loud belly rumbling had gotten them out of bed.

Buck has a big dopey smile on his face as Clint notices him enter the mess hall, eyes a color he's never seen them, chin length hair messy in a way he still manages to pull off. He's got on black sweats and a ratty teal sleeveless t-shirt, showing off his impressive physique, but he's not wearing socks or shoes. Steve is under his arm, wearing only his work boots - untied with the laces tucked in - and one of his less sexy nighties. He's absently scratching at his short, thick beard, the Soldier reaching over to do the same, making him laugh.

The bigger man starts to pile things from the hot line on a comically large serving tray they brought with them, sliding it slowly down the counter with his flesh hand.

"Oooh, oooh. Glazed carrots. Get the carrots!" Steve too-loud whispers, his arms are wrapped around Buck's waist from behind. He has his body twisted to press his right cheek to the left side of the brunette's ribs, so he can see around him. The bigger man's metal arm is bent with his elbow resting against his own back, forearm wrapped around Steve's shoulders.

"Care-ruts." Buck says. "That is a funny word. Caaare-ruuuts."

Steve starts to giggle. "Care-ruuuuts!" he responds, speaking in a voice much lower than his already naturally deep one, dropping his jaw dramatically on the second syllable as the Solider turns to look down at him. The brunette lets out a throaty, stuttering laugh that's painfully dorky and much too loud.

"Huhuhuhuh!"

Everyone turns to look.

"So, hiiii," Clint says at a safe-from-being-throat-punched distance behind them.

Buck turns, Steve still attached to him, effectively moving himself between the archer and the mechanic. He had not meant to, but maybe it was instinct. Whatever was happening was a bit...Cling-like. He's too pleasantly fuzzy to get very reactive, especially when he sees it's the archer.

"Heeeyyy, dude! Did you get any," the blonde drops his voice again, "care-ruts?"

"Are you two alriii...?" Clint trails off as Buck reaches back to the tray, then around his front without even looking and shoves a huge, sticky carrot hunk into Steve's mouth.

"Mmmmmm. Deese'r so sweet," he says around the mouthful, looking up at the Soldier as he wipes the juice from his facial hair.

"Just like you," the Soldier replies, then kisses him lightly on the top of his head. The archer thinks it's an endearment (and it surprises him since Buck doesn't do non-literal compliments), but the mechanic knows the big man is referencing how he tastes. Steve rubs his face back and forth on Buck's side affectionately, happy he'd shared that part of himself with him finally, the trust between them more important than the pleasure. The brunette leans down a bit and copies the gesture in Steve's fluffy blonde hair. It lasts an awkward amount of time, holding up the line.

"Okay, what the fuck? What are you two on? And why didn't you share?" Clint pouts.

"We're high on love," Steve says very seriously. A second later his face breaks into a big smile and he starts to laugh hysterically.

Buck joins in like some alternate-reality Butthead. "Huhuhuhuh!"

"You're holding up traffic!" someone complains from behind them.

"Get a room," someone else adds.

"I'll get a room with your mom!" Steve calls over to them, then turns back to Buck. "Beep beep!" the blonde says, tweaking the taller man's side. "Gotta motor, Clint."

"Clint sounds very similar to clit," the Soldier muses as he turns back to the line, putting a big scoop of everything that doesn't have meat in it on one side of the tray until it's piled high. "I do not find vaginas arousing," Buck continues, looking up at the ceiling as if lost in thought. "They are fascinating to look at, but not a...turn on. I do not believe I am sexually attracted to women."

"Not all women have vaginas," the mechanic reminds him.

"Yes. I read about that in the book." He pauses, considers. "I am not aroused by breasts either. Would you prefer if we had the same...orientation?"

"Nah. Less competition for me," Steve grins.

"You do not have any competition," the Soldier says, smiling warmly at the blonde pressed to his side.

Buck is messily filling the other half of the tray with a mountain of raw produce. Steve pulls up the front of his nightshirt enough to form a little sack, which he fills with rolls. The archer walks along behind them cleaning up the damage.

"Oh, gag. What's with you two?" their friend demands. "You're being even weirder than usual."

The Soldier leans back, conspiratorially, and whispers entirely too loud, "We did sexy things to each other."

"You're all good now then? Just like that? After Steve ditched you for a week when you were hurt?"

The brunette nods.

"And after the big guy kept a bunch of shit from you?" Clint looks at Steve.

"We kissed and made up," the blonde smirks, presses himself back to the tall man's side.

"So after he assaulted your pal and told him he could have you, and his whole life, including his friends, you just... get right back to fucking?" He eyes the Soldier with annoyance. The naive moron.

"I mean...Yes. But also, there was talking," Steve answers for Buck. The second he doesn't need both hands, situating his grip to hold up his shirt-sack with just his left, he links arms with Buck and they start to walk towards the table.

"Using your dickcraft on Buck is one thing. You gonna try to fuck us all into forgiveness?"

Buck makes a pissy face, growls low, pulls the little mechanic closer.

"I'm not serious. God. You're as bad as your boyfriend with that jealousy shit. Steve, you were a total jackass. Everyone's salty, even Win. I'm not sure you should sit with us till you've got your head on straight and can apologize."

"Oooooo, was I voted off the island?" The blonde looks up at the Soldier. "I was very naughty," he loudly whispers. "I can't sit at their lunch table anymore. Or copy their math homework."

"Do not be mad at Steve," the brunette implores.

"Why the fuck not?"

"Because I love him," Buck says like it's the most obvious thing in the world. Clint's jaw drops. "And because we are sharing a plate, so we need to sit together. But I also wish to sit with you. Please do not make me choose, Clint." He makes a surprisingly effective puppy dog face. "You are tied for my second favorite person who is not Steve."

"Fine, fine! That must have been some real sexual sorcery you did to him, Stevie. Shit, sorry. I didn't mean to call you that."

"You go ahead to the table," the blonde tells the brunette.

"What about you?" he pouts.

"It's okay. Really. I'll be there in a minute."

"Only one minute." Buck makes a very adorable frown.

Steve chuckles and nods, leans to press a loud smacking kiss on his metal bicep.

"We're gonna talk about this second favorite crap when I get over there! After everything I've taught you!" Clint calls after the taller man.

Once the Soldier is saying his hellos to the gang on the other side of the room, the blonde turns to the archer. "Will you forgive me if I let you call me Stevie without retaliation?"

Clint considers. "Tell me why you don't like it."

"Okay. I had this...friend. Jack. He died, saving my life. He was the only person that ever called me that. It was the last word he said to me."

Barton's face falls. "I'm so sorry, dude. Why didn't you just say that, before?"

"I never talked about him. To anyone. Until earlier today." Steve looks over to his boyfriend, settling in at the table, goofy grin still on his face as he insists on fist bumps all around.

"You guys really talked then? Not just humped?"

Steve nods.

"I love you, man. You know I do...."

"Yah, yah, in a not gay way." Steve mocks the archer, playfully rolling his eyes.

"I didn't say it this time! But seriously, you can't run off like that. It's not fair to everyone, especially Buck. He's so hung up on you and he doesn't have the faculties to just brush off your mood swings like I do."

"I know! I know. I just... panicked. Everything was going so great, before the reavertown. And it all just crashed and burned in a day. He almost died. Then my friends almost killed each other at my house and then...I thought it was all a lie. Everything he told me, made me feel. I just...crumbled inside."

"Look, it was a scary day. I know, I was there. And I get you being miffed he didn't tell you the whole truth, but fuck. We were all worried sick. Plus... we're your family. You're supposed to look to us when things are hard. You don't need to do everything alone."

The mechanic puts his hand on the archer's shoulder. "Thanks, Clit." He smiles. "I'd hug you, but right now Buck might punch your lights out. We...may have done some bitey stuff too and he mentioned before he could get a tad protective. Rip someone in half like a phonebook protective. Also, I'll drop all my rolls." Steve looks lovingly into his shirt-pouch. "I need you. I need all of you."

"Speaking of bitey, you do know Luis has never done your man, right? They're just neck munching homies and nothing else. And honestly if you give him a chance, he's pretty cool. Fair warning though, I think he has a little thing for Win."

"She's a free woman. Besides, my heart is otherwise occupied." Steve puts a hand dramatically to his chest.

"Gross. I don't think I like you this soft." Clint grins.

"That's what she said," the blonde responds.

Once he approaches the table, everyone goes quiet.

"Hi," he offers meekly. Man, this was harshing his buzz.

"Hello!" Buck says happily, patting the spot next to him.

Clint takes the spot two over from the Soldier, across from Nat, who's flanked by Greta and Win (with Luis to the welder's right, across from Buck). Clint gestures for the blonde to sit between him and the Solider.

"Umm, I was a cock. Again. But I'm going to make it up to all of you. Just...ask me for anything. One time opportunity." He dumps his carbohydrate hoard on the table and sits down. The blonde picks up a roll and shoves half of it in his mouth, groans, chews loudly.

"Anything?" the redhead questions.

Steve nods. "Sexuh nidey?" he asks around the second half of the roll.

"Kiss Clint," she says immediately.

"Oh my god, you've thought about this!" Clint sounds scandalized.

"I have!" Greta raises her hand.

"The beard is really doing it for me." Nat winks.

The Soldier growls.

"Buuuuck, certainly you don't mind if someone kisses my husband a bit?" The redhead had a very specific tone.

The Solider quiets, sheepishly shakes his head as a lightbulb practically goes off over the mechanic's. "Did...Clint teach you to kiss?" he asks.

Buck's eyes go wide, but he is being honest, so he nods.

"Well," the blonde shrugs, turning to the archer, "at least I know you're not bad at it, if your pupil's any indication," Steve says to Clint. "Pucker up."

"Yuck. You're like my brother," the archer grimaces.

"If you kissed Buck you've basically already kissed me," the mechanic says matter of factly. "Do it for the family," Steve half-whispers, grinning.

"You people are fucked up," Luis laughs. "I'd rather go back to the cannibals than kiss Clint."

"Can't take heat, leave the kitchen," Win grins. "Well? Haven't got all day," she addresses Clint.

"Fine! Fine!" the archer relents. "But no tongue, Stevie!"

Steve looks to Nat. "Acceptable," she responds.

"You're all crummy," Clint grumbles, reaching up to ruffle Steve's beard.

Steve grabs the archer's face abruptly with both hands, hits him with a searing liplock. The girls all cheer and hoot as Clint grudgingly returns the kiss, grabbing the mechanic by the shoulders to be funny. The blonde pulls back half a minute later, then licks the front of Clint's nose, across his nostrils. The archer giggles despite himself, rubbing at his face with the back of his hand. "You asshole!"

"Ladies. Scores?" Nat asks.

"Four out of ten," Win grins at Steve. "Seen you do better. Fix water pump three after lunch and we are good."

"I'm a little damp. And it isn't incontinence," Greta responds. "Welcome back." It turned out she hadn't even been on trasher rotation. She'd rode back with him, rifle at the ready just in case.

"I give it a six for form, but a nine for enthusiasm. Bonus points for degrading my husband publicly, which I'm very into. Apology accepted." The redhead offers him her hand, which he shakes.

"Luis, could I talk to you? In private." Steve tries his best to look non-threatening.

"Wanna make both sides match?" the green eyed man asks, showing his left cheek then turning to reveal the black bruise and swelling on his right.

"Please," the blonde asks, heartfelt.

Luis looks at Buck, who mouths please. He sighs. "Fine, flaco. But I'm swinging back this time if I need to."

Once they're in a far corner, the mechanic crosses his arms, suddenly feeling exposed and nervous.

"Buck... Winter...told me everything," Steve starts. "Including that he kissed you and you kissed him."

"Did he tell you I laughed immediately after and said what a dumbass I was?"

"I want to hear your version," the blonde says sincerely.

"It's really difficult to understand what he is to me. I think, when I found out he was with someone, that he liked men, I started to question if maybe there was something like that between us and neither of us knew it. Then he kissed me and I said fuck it, might as well try it. But, it isn't like that. It just...is whatever it is. I don't want to do him, or date him, and the feeling's mutual. He wouldn't shut up about you. Kept saying how he was sure now that his feelings for you were real and he had to get you to forgive him. Poor lovesick idiot."

"Can you forgive me?" Steve says earnestly.

"What'll you give me?" Luis asks.

"I'll let him keep biting you."

"With respect, you don't let him do anything. He's his own person." Luis crosses his arms. "And you sure as fuck don't give me permission to do anything."

Shit, it's like looking in a mirror, Rogers. A funhouse mirror that makes you hot.

"Fine, fine. I'm just saying I won't stand in the way of whatever's between you two. Unless I think the whole not having a crush on him thing changes. Then I'll go Hammel House on your ass."

The green eyed man makes an interested face. "Hammel House? You from Queens, man?"

"Brooklyn actually. Born and raised. Lived in Queens for a bit though."

"Ha! Isn't that some shit! I came up in Pomonok. Lived in Queens my whole life 'til this."

"No way!"

"Fuck, I miss the city." Luis grins.

"Funny how quick the fancy folks left once part of it was under water." The blonde shakes his head.

"Truth! You didn't see any of those yuppies stacking sand bags."

They both chuckle.

"Look," the mechanic says after a brief pause "a little birdy told me you seem to like Win."

"This the part where you tell me she's your ex and hands off?" He's smiling pleasantly, despite his words. "I noticed the comment from her earlier, about the kissing."

"No! I mean, sort of. But no." The blonde shakes his head. "She's my best friend. I did used to have a thing for her. We," he considers Win's privacy, "kissed. But she didn't want a relationship. I sulked but I got over it. It's old news."

"So why are you asking?" The young man eyes him.

"Well, I noticed your tattoos, back at the school. Mayan art, right? They're really nice work."

"Thanks. My cousin did'em, God rest her."

"She's definitely into that. Show those off. You're good with cutting your own hair too. You ever have a mohawk?"

"Sure, a bunch of times."

"I've flipped through a lot of magazines with her." And by that he means accidentally found her spank bank. "Trust me when I say she has a thing for that. Yes, I know, laughably pathetic I thought I had a shot." Steve gives him a self-deprecating grin. "Beyond that, just don't bullshit her. She'll smell that a mile away. She either likes you, or she doesn't, no help or interference from me. But if you screw her over, I'll have a roll of quarters in my fist next time I sock you."

"You're a hardcore little motherfucker, you know that?" Luis chuckles.

"Maybe I'll get that tattooed on my neck? What do you think?"

"I think Winter would ruin it really fast. I could tell he bit you proper. You're all loopy. Welcome to the very exclusive club."

"The first rule of bite club is you don't talk about bite club." Steve grins.

"Seriously though, I'm happy he's not alone. He deserves to have someone, to have people."

"Yes, he does," Steve agrees, suddenly realizing in his blissed out haze he's forgotten something very important. Buck's other people.

Chapter Text

Steve figures the loose garment will only be in his way, so when he goes home to get his tools he changes out of it into his work clothes. The Soldier watches, obviously already interested. The blonde grins as the taller man moves close; big, grasping hands reach for him carefully.

"Bed," the brunette insists.

"Water pump!" the blonde replies.

The bigger man was already leaning low to kiss his neck and the smaller man's response earns a groan of disappointment against his skin. The mechanic chuckles.

"The faster I go, the faster I'll be back," he whispers in Buck's ear before pecking him on the cheek. "I have a few other errands while you do your chores but we should still have some time before the gang gets here for cards."

The Soldier tries not to pout. He respects Steve's wishes, especially about when and how they are physical. He has also been aware for a while that his libido is more insistent, perhaps a side effect of so recently discovering the sexual part of himself. More than once when they were still only "getting themselves off," Steve had kissed and touched him as Buck chased a second - and even occasionally third - orgasm, the blonde long since spent but more than happy to be involved. He had not needed more after Steve had pleased him, but the want flared again fast enough a few hours later.

He also feels hypersensitive from the morning's events. Needy, Clint would say. It seems harder for him to not be close than for the mechanic. The Cling is manageable but still pulls at him, along with his lust and some other hard to define force. There is fear as well. The bigger man draws himself slowly away, attempting to make a pleasant face as he stands. He must not succeed because the blonde laughs, sudden and loud, when he sees it.

"Sorry, sorry. You look like someone kicked your dog," Steve says breathlessly a moment later.

"I do not have a dog," he responds quizzically.

"I think it's an idiom." Steve hoists his tool box. "It means you look like someone wronged you. You can, uhhh, cheer yourself up while I'm away. I won't mind." The blonde wiggles his eyebrows suggestively and then looks pointedly at Buck's crotch.

"I do not feel wronged. I am..." Needy. Aroused. Afraid you will not come back. "...not interested in staying home."

"I need you to do those chores I asked, though," the mechanic says pleasantly enough. He can see how hard it is for Buck, the thought of them separating. Maybe it was good if he didn't bite him right away if this was just from sucking briefly on a few tiny wounds.

"Will you... Are you sure..." The Soldier starts and stops.

Steve looks at him hard, suddenly serious. "What's wrong?"

"You will..." the bigger man pauses, eyes flicking away and back to meet the blonde's. "You will not leave again?"

"No! No. Of course not." So it wasn't just the feeding making him like this. The smaller man puts his hand on the brunette's arm, face perplexed. How can he convince him? After a moment the blonde brightens. He fishes in the toolbox, pulls out something, hands it to Buck. "Here!"

The bigger man looks down at the object, recalling the mechanic explaining its use and why he preferred it. "This is your favorite spanner wrench."

"You can hold onto it for me until I get back." Steve gives him a warm smile, trying to be reassuring, kicking himself again for being such a fucking stupid asshole before. Running away like a selfish coward was not his finest moment.

Buck holds it tight, presses it to his belly. The gesture - or all that it conveys - makes Steve very badly want to take the big man with him. He knows he won't get anything done with a clingy Buck around though, especially when he himself is still feeling so distractible. God, he looks good in that shirt. Plus he needs the Soldier to put his meticulous attention to detail to work without himself there to throw him off.

"I will...do the chores you requested." The bigger man attempts a smile which Steve returns briefly before exiting the shanty.

Water pump three was a real shitwaffle. Steve hadn't had as many good parts by the time they got around to building it and had to improvise. It had always broke down a lot and - with what a hodge-podge the guts of it were - it was a wonder it had never exploded. Now it was getting a lot of extra use with the tubs from the Green Place. The bath water was siphoned after and put on the crops, so it wasn't wasted (Wanda had assured it was perfectly safe if they stuck to using certain types of cleanser), but it still meant extra wear on the equipment to fill them. Fuck, a bath sounded good. Even a "sloppy second," the knickname that had stuck for popping in the tub quick after the person who was on the schedule had already used it. It grossed some people out, but he knew from his books hundreds of years ago - before indoor plumbing - entire families took turns using the same tub full of water.

I don't want your sloppy seconds, he hears Brock say to Jack.

Really? Really, today? Still? Steve yells inside his head angrily at the intruding thought.

Maybe that's why, when Jasper appears with all the bad timing of a sitcom, he's even less pleasant to the bespectacled man than usual.

"Hello, Steven. I heard you and Buck made up." The voice comes from close behind him and that alone is enough to make him startle and cringe.

"Holy fucking shit, Sitwell!" The blonde throws his wrench down. "Get a boyfriend already! Or just, like, give a blowjob to a bored stranger! Something."

"I meant I heard some gossip. Not the two of you...actually..."

The mechanic's eyes go big. "Oh," he manages, feeling rather stupid.

"And I've told you repeatedly I'm not interested in men." The bald man frowns, reddens.

Steve usually runs away from these conversations, literally or metaphorically, quick as fuck. It's hard for him - pretty and delicate and weak his whole life - to imagine what not being considered queer by everyone was even like. Of course his appearance had fuckall to do with his orientation - big strapping Buck had unintentionally announced himself as homosexual at breakfast, after all, but some people were still ignorant and acted on stereotypes. He'd just always lived with being thought of that way, especially when he was out. Whether negatively, positively or in the neutral, indifferent way most people were about the subject now people usually just assumed who - what - he was. Passibility was never something he had to surrender.

Plus he'd had the best, most supportive mom in the whole world. One who always watched his favorite vintage movies starring Rachel Weisz - his number one crush for years, even though she was geriatric in real life at that point (but still a foxy old lady he might add) or told him when MMA was on with that knowing look. She was equally likely to nudge him and say "he's cute" as "she's cute" if they saw a group of kids his age on the train (he was equally likely to turn red and silent in return).

Something today just itches to be scratched. Maybe it's thinking of Brock, another probably-closet case who had told him at length all the ways he was like a girl (but better! Because no periods or pregnancy; hard eye roll). It isn't a malicious feeling like the ones that usually get him to react to his neighbor. It's a sad one honestly. Maybe how amazing his morning was made him feel bad that Jasper couldn't have that with someone. He scoops up the flung tool from the ground.

"Look, it's been almost a hundred years since Stonewall and queer people had it better than ever before the collapse. But there's still that minority of phobic assholes and probably always with be. So some people are still afraid to admit who they are, even to themselves. And I get it. I've heard it all since I was a kid. Cocksucker. Pillow biter. Faggot. It doesn't feel good, even for someone like me who's really never been ashamed of that part of myself."

"That's...I..."

"Look, Jasper. I'll be honest. I saw you check me out when we met. I've seen you do it lots of times. So I get you get a thrill listening to me and Buck and, as fucked up and weird as it is to do, maybe talking to me about it is as close as you know you'll ever get to fucking me."

Sitwell, for once, has nothing to say.

"There was a time I even thought you were cute, that I'd ask you out eventually. And honestly you being a closet case wouldn't have stopped me from going after you, even if it would have gotten me in a situation I'd be less than happy in." He looks down at the wrench.

"What did?" Jasper says quietly, surprising him. It's dangerously close to an admission on his part that Steve isn't far off base.

"You're a fucking dick. A massive, creepy, clueless, arrogant dick. And until you can have a normal, civil conversation with me that's not about my love life or how important you used to be, I don't think I want you to talk to me."

Sitwell turns several colors, teeth grinding. "You'll be really sorry you said that to me, Steven. Really sorry." He storms off.

Doubtful. But he would be really sorry about what he had to do next if it didn't work in his favor. He fiddles in the pump, moving around parts and not lubricating a damn things like he should. Then he turns it on and stands back. Way back. Two minutes later it overheats and blows up spectacularly, the noise drawing people to him, including Nick. He feigns frustration and swears loudly, still a good actor when he needs to be. The bald man chews him out in his office for nearly an hour - about the pump, his little escape act, pointing a goddamn gun at his motherfuckin' face.

"I can get a new pump. I can get three new pumps. I passed by some when I was on the road with Brock. I just need a truck and a crew."

It's a hard sell. Fury is more than a tad suspicious, but - as Steve so often does - he eventually gets Nick committed as if it were his own plan.

Back at the house, Buck assures him he's checked every millimeter of their dwelling and the surrounding areas. He found no listening devices nor anything else suspicious. To his credit, he'd been pretty laid back about this random request. Steve hadn't told him why he needed it done when he'd whispered it to him at breakfast (far too low for anyone human to hear, even if they sat right next to him) after his discussion with Luis. The bigger man didn't ask now - perhaps their mutual distrust for Fury seemed like reason enough and the man had been in their home recently. After all, the Soldier also knew about the listening device Gurminder had found in his office, probably planted by Nick himself during a drop-in.

Once Steve pops his clothes off and takes his sweet time putting his nightshirt back on, Buck isn't thinking about too much else. The blonde's libido shocks its owner for the second time today when he quickly finds himself huddled on the bed in a make-out session he instigated with the bigger man. The Soldier had, somewhat reluctantly, returned the spanner wrench and it was sickeningly adorable. The smaller man could picture him walking (and climbing) around the place, and the neighboring dwellings, still clutching it like a magic charm. He feels awful for making Buck so insecure about their status, needs to reassure him. It's far too easy to kiss him, then to do it harder. To walk him back to the bed when warmth flares in Steve's belly, to push the bigger man until the backs of his legs hit the side of the bed, until he sits down. It's easier still to give in to Buck gently tugging at his hips - always hesitant to be too forceful or pushy - and take the cue to shimmy up on to his lap.

On the surface it's far more mundane than their intense (and super kinky! Steve thinks proudly) exploits from the morning. It feels amazing though, in a very different way. It's like their connection from earlier switches back on immediately, amplifying every sensation. The very cells of their bodies seem to percolate with energy as soon as they touch, everything else fading away. There's no frantic urgency like before, but that's just fine. Both of them are warm and hazy, taking things slow as molasses. Their sounds are low, awestruck, and just for them.

The feel of the bigger man's lips - pressing long, soft, open-mouthed kisses to the slender column of his neck - makes his skin vibrate. Trails of fire follow the Soldier's hands as they travel over his body, running up and down his back, over his hips and across his little abs beneath the nightshirt. They stop their movements long enough to grip the blonde's waist, pull him closer.

Steve had gotten Buck's top and pants off before they'd even made it up on the mattress and now he has his bottom on the Soldier's crossed bare legs with his own splayed to either side of the bigger man's hips. He eagerly touches the flawless soft gray skin, gently trailing circles around the brunette's chest scars with the tip of his finger when he reaches them. Mouthing at the spot where metal meets flesh on Buck's shoulder pulls a delicious little groan from the bigger man.

The blonde pulls back, looks into the periwinkle eyes, whispers softly "show me what you want."

Buck carefully eases the nightshirt from beneath Steve and pulls it up around his belly, revealing the mechanic's sharp hip bones and full erection. He effortlessly slides Steve close until it is flush with his own. The Soldier gently takes Steve's hand, pulls it to his face, rubs his cheek against it several times before kissing - and then generously licking - his palm and fingers. He moves it to them, around them, looking into Steve's eyes with humble expectancy.

At first he can only whimper at how good the little mechanic feels stroking them, his weight (what little there is) firmly in his lap for the first time. He is so warm, so soft beneath the pads of Buck's fingers, and he smells so good. The urge to taste him, to have his pulse in him, grows strong but he wills it to calm. Their friends will be here soon and Steve will need his faculties for whatever he wants to tell them. Besides, he likes this slow unraveling of each other. While he had enjoyed the sounds it drew from Steve earlier, he finds he does not always want to cause him pain during these activities.

He loses a grasp on any real thought not much later, melting into the sensation of their extra sensitive lengths pressed together, the lightly calloused hand moving up and down with ease, spreading the wetness he had put on it. The Soldier loves that Steve allows him to see his cock now, to see him touching it without shame. Buck stares down, open mouthed, lids heavy, as the blonde's hand works them. It looks so enticing, the similarities and differences between them laid bare. Steve's is only a half inch shorter, his flesh tone turning to pink and red where his own is gray with lavender and purple and especially dark at the tip. The base of both are nearly the same girth, but the blonde's stays that thickness all the way to his head, which is fatter and more round than Buck's. His own length tapers slightly, head a bit more flattened along the top, bulging slightly more at the bottom.

Buck wants to tell Steve how amazing he is, how incredible he feels, how beautiful he looks - flushed cheeks, parted dark rose lips, sea-blue irises narrowed by widened pupils and partially obscured by his big lashes. The pink spreads down his neck - the dark marks the Soldier had left their earlier standing out against it - and even reaches his chest. A soft uhhh is all the brunette can manage though, again and again, the little mechanic responding with a rumble deep in his chest. They lock eyes, quick breathing the only sound in the room for a moment, then they both finish simultaneously. The bigger man presses their foreheads together as they pant and groan through it, clutching at each other while they tremble.

Chapter Text

There weren't chairs for all his guests, so some brought their own but there's not enough space at the table. Nat is on Clint's lap and they're all crammed in like sardines. It's good though, to have everyone there like old times. Steve had let Buck, or more precisely all the emotional turmoil his presence had stirred, get in the way of this. While the Soldier had only gotten closer with the mechanic's friends, Steve had occasionally felt uncomfortably distant.

It wasn't for their lack of trying and of course he'd had his little moments with Clint and Win and occasionally the others. His flashbacks and anxiety had proved a deterrent to him being as involved as he once was. He didn't want them to have to shoulder his emotional burdens or suffer his mood swings so he quietly withdrew a little at a time, a thing he hadn't fully grasped he had done until this moment.

Steve had always let (maybe "let" was the wrong word, implying it was solely his choice) the fallout from Brock affect him, but he'd had the Jack part mostly locked away in a neat little dusty box. Or maybe it was a suitcase. It was never to be opened more than a crack, especially after his first few months in Claptrap. Steve hadn't actively sought out memories of the scarred man until his recent time at the yard, but he realizes the subconscious weight of their strange, stunted relationship and his death - the denial, confusion and fear it engendered towards his growing emotional attachment to Buck - had started to tug at him a while ago.

As soon as he had any inkling, even if it wasn't conscious, he had feelings for the Soldier and vice versa the box (suitcase) had started to pop open more frequently. The night at the pub with Clint had busted a latch. Stevie, he'd heard Jack say, voice sputtering and wet with his own blood. His time with Buck before the reavertown had blown the lid clean off.

Being in love with Win had been so easy by comparison to his terrifying realization, as the big man looked up at him from the bed, that he had fallen so utterly for the Soldier. There was nothing about her that reminded him of the past and the hurt, fear and loss it held; when he looked at her, he'd thought only of the future. Maybe that's why he'd resented her rejection so much - she was like the glass wall, beautiful, bright and strong, keeping all the rough blowing things outside where he'd never need to feel their sting or clean up their mess. But it wasn't her job to shelter him, least of all from himself, to allow him to pretend the past didn't happen.

Speaking of men from the past, and wanting to be in Win's future, Luis is here too. He doesn't own a chair - or anything but the clothes on his back - and he sits on Buck's small trunk. Steve supposes it's fine, even though he still feels some kind of way when the young man and the Soldier accidentally catch eyes and give each other a little smile. Being friendly isn't a crime, the blonde reminds himself. Why does he have to be so good looking though?

Luis has only a few inches on him, but is probably thirty five pounds heavier and really fit. His skin is a gorgeous shade and flawless, unlike Steve's splotchy weak-tea-stain tan and irregular sunburns, marred with oblong freckles, worry lines and copious scars. It should be illegal to look as good as Luis does right now, especially in an apocalypse.

We should cut his face, the angry, impetuous voice whispers, finally offering input after hours of silence. It was apparently back on team Buck, and all bets were off.

The green eyed man pops his sweatshirt off, revealing a tight black undershirt. He's clearly put lotion on his tattoos, because the colors look sharp and fresh, making his biceps seem even more impressive. Steve notices Win noticing. The blonde mostly feels proud of himself. His best friend deserves to, at the least, get herself some and if it goes anywhere else, more power to them. He can't lie he's also feeling more than a little inadequate. It's not lost on him that two different people he'd been in love with both find the same person physically appealing. He remembers Buck had said finding him attractive wasn't the same as being attracted to him. So he did find him attractive... He supposes you'd need to not have eyes to not notice him.

Ooo! We could gouge his pretty eyes out! bullheaded offers.

There's a surprise guest too - Coulson, though unbeknownst to the others, Steve had invited him. He's Greta's plus one at most things after she apologized about the whole knife to the throat thing at the reavertown. It had put a damper on their sex life, after all, and the woman had needs. Samir was getting too up there to get it up there - as she'd so eloquently put it while she and the mechanic sorted parts in the yard - so their visits were for board games and not much else at this point. She'd pissed off enough of her other lovers, as Greta did and said whatever the fuck she wanted whenever the fuck she wanted, that the ex ops assistant won by default. Or maybe seeing Phil murder cannibals and betray Fury was like a strange courting ritual for them.

"What's that about?" Nat asked, arching one ginger eyebrow as she gestured from the older woman to Phil.

"This is the post-apocalypse and good D is hard to find." Greta repeats the redhead's words from the standoff with Nick. Phil's severe face turns a bit pink.

"High five on laying the good D!" Clint offers a raised hand to Coulson which he meekly slaps.

"What is laying the good D?" Buck questions. It's met with laughter from some of the group.

"I'll tell you when you're older," Luis grins devilishly at the Soldier, making his face even more appealing.

We could kick his teeth in.

Buck's face scrunches. "I was most likely born in the 1960s."

"He has a point, man, he has a point. I think you're gonna halfta tell'em now," the archer directs, almost chuckling.

"Ahhhhhhhhh I don't know," the young man says sheepishly, running his fingers back through his thick, glossy ringlets, still attractively tousled from removing his overshirt.

We could shave him while he sleeps and glue it to his back.

"D means dick." Win attempts to spare Luis.

"The shortened version of Richard?" The Soldier questions. There was a man in Claptrap who had explained the concept when Buck became confused at people calling him two different names.

"Your willy. Your weiner," Clint responds.

"Your trouser snake. Your tickle stick," Greta chimes in.

"Your peepee. Your dingus." Nat makes a fist, sticks out her pointer and wiggles it.

"Your penis," Coulson adds flatly.

"Oh! Your...cock."

The Soldier sounds obviously proud he knew that one and everyone laughs, which he likes. He had figured it out from context clues when Steve said it during sexual activity. I love to watch you stroke your cock, he had breathed, eyeing Buck's hand moving on himself as his did the same inside his pants. The blonde had turned red and shy after, embarrassed he had said it (not that it had stopped him from finishing hard minutes later after he watched the brunette do the same). There was no shame from him this morning though, as the little mechanic whispered into his ear. The Soldier cannot believe how stimulating it was to hear him speak that way, especially with such confidence.

"Why would you...lay your cock somewhere?" he asks, brow furrowed.

He has an unpleasant memory of being ordered to place his genitals on the edge of a metal table and being struck. That was when he had finally allowed the beast out on the man who swung the rod. It was more than the pain. It was the indefinable violation of his body - and the obvious pleasure the man took in it - he could not stomach. He had torn the man's cock off first, a massive scrap of his uniform pants and undergarments tearing away with it. He had grabbed the screaming man by both shoulders and pulled until he ripped down the middle. The Soldier did not even drink - he wanted nothing more from that person.

"For Chrissake, it means they have a nice cock and they fuck you really well," Greta barks.

"Oooh."

The others laugh at that too, at his surprised, almost scandalized tone. Except Steve. Who looks the slightest bit uncomfortable, like he's bracing for Buck's further response. Steve had fucked him. But also not fucked him. He decides he should not comment on either.

After the Soldier wins his third round of poker, Clint demands he be excluded and the others begrudgingly agree. The bigger man scowls and drums his metal fingers on the table during the next game - as he glares at the archer - and causes quite the racket on the echoing formica and chrome undercarriage. Steve knows he shouldn't find his little tantrums adorable, and he never encourages or enables them (usually choosing the ignore the child when they act out method), but fuck it's cute. When Natasha does it back mockingly with her always-perfectly-manicured-despite-the-fucking-apocalypse nails, Buck's eyes narrow further while they stare each other down.

"Pouting," Win whispers to the big man as she grins and taps his silver hand with the reusable straw she's been sipping her ice tea with.

"Call the wahmbulance," he says grouchily. It makes her laugh loud. He looks first surprised, then pleased. His hand stills. Nat stops.

It amazes Steve the things the Soldier remembers. How many months had it been since Win had made that crack to him, as he sulked in his mask on the sleeping bag? It makes the blonde wonder how much he'll recall from the facility or about his "siblings," like how to wake them. Certainly he was not intentionally taught such things, but Steve knew Buck only needed to see or hear a thing once. Just as the Soldier recalled so much about Zola's serums and his disenfranchisement from the Winter Soldier project based only on being present for a brief conversation, certainly his handlers had done and said many things in front of him (as if he were an object and not a person) that he would vividly remember.

"I'll sit out this round too," Steve says. "Why don't you let Luis have your chair and you come over here?" He gestures to his boyfriend who happily obliges. Buck surprisingly plops his bottom on Steve's lap, emulating Nat's position on Clint except looping a long arm around Steve's shoulders. The blonde smiles up at him, tilting his head far back, and the Soldier takes it as an invitation to lean in and kiss him. It's not short or soft and gets a few oooooos from their audience. Never one to be outdone, and probably enjoying the view, Nat lays an intense liplock on Clint.

"Man, is this turning into an orgy or a swingers' party? Either way I'm in," Greta comments, lightly elbowing Phil before grabbing him. He makes an almost frightened squeak as she crams their mouths together.

Win and Luis get very still, nervously staring straight ahead. After a few seconds she clears her throat and starts loudly shuffling the deck. That seems to bring people back to the task at hand. Steve gives it all of two minutes before he has to ask the bigger man to move to the floor because his legs are going numb. He whispers it too softly for the others to hear, as he liked doing lately. It was their own private special little thing - even when it was about something mundane - and another acknowledgement he was impressed with and accepting of Buck's differences.

The brunette settles between his legs, leans his shoulders and head against Steve. His bent arms come to rest along the tops of Steve's thighs. The blonde in turn hunches a bit forward to loop his arms loosely around the Soldier's neck. The mechanic can't seem to touch him enough after this morning, his previous discomfort with pda flying right out the window. Emboldened by their closeness, he works up the nerve to finally say his piece.

"I blew up the water pump on purpose."

All the laughter and talking and rustling of cards stops. Every set of eyes turn to him. Win starts to chew him out in Cantonese while Greta says he's even crazier than she thought. Clint is insisting they go to group therapy, which Nat is loudly refusing. Luis is saying something about him having problems and if he wants to act out, punching people is a lot less destructive. Steve keeps trying to speak and getting cut off. Buck looks up at him with immense concern, head bent back, crown pushed hard to Steve's sternum.

"Hey!" Phil shouts, quieting them all. "He has a plan." They all look at him, including Steve. "Fury's getting a truck and supplies together for the kid and a team of his choosing to go scavenge three new pumps. Steve must want to take you somewhere he doesn't want Nick to know about, so he sabotaged the pump as an excuse to go on a run. And he invited me here, to listen to the little speech he probably has prepared, because he thinks Fury will let me be his eyes on this trip instead of sending some other ex ops to keep you all in line."

They look to Steve, who nods.

"That's your fatal flaw," Phil continues, all eyes flicking back to his end of the table. "He caught me lying for Buck before. He won't trust me now, or Natasha, to report back to him honestly."

"I know that." Steve smiles. It's like the others are watching a tennis match, silently moving their eyes side to side.

"Then what's your big idea?"

Group eye flick back to Phil.

"Convince Hill."

Group eye flick back to Steve.

"Hill! Ha! That's his right hand woman. There's no way she'll go for it."

Group eye flick.

"She trusts you. And she has a thing for you."

Group eye flick, except Greta, who watches Phil.

"That's preposterous."

Eye flick.

"I notice those things. I notice everything." Steve thinks of the careful way he'd assessed Jack, his minute changes in expression and body language when the blonde was around.

"Except Buck having a raging crush on you," Clint retorts.

"Which you so helpfully pointed out at the time was denial. Which isn't the same as not noticing."

"Okay, fair point, but what's this all about, Stevie?"

"Buck's other family," Steve responds. The crown of the Soldier's head pushes harder against his chest. He can feel the brunette boring holes in him with his eyes, even if he isn't looking back at him.

"You mean, like, his parents? Wouldn't they be..." Nat trails off.

"No, his other other family. The Winter Soldiers. I know where they are. Brock took me there. I just...didn't realize until recently that the weapons he talked about inside the place were people. I never went in, but he said they were non-operational and one was missing. I think he didn't understand how to control the others. They're just sort of...blank without instructions."

"And you want us to what? Instruct them?" Greta asks.

"Yes. Keep them out of the wrong hands. Protect this place, and Buck, from Crossbones."

"Keep them as slaves!" Buck sits up abruptly, his face twisted with hurt and anger.

"No! I mean I guess sort of. But only at first. We could wake them up, one at a time. Take the control chip out. Have the others all ordered to restrain them, protect us from them. We could feed them a whole bunch, until they can think, and then we could help them. Help them remember who they were." Steve hopes the naked sincerity of his voice convinces the Soldier. He means every word.

"But what happened to Winter was a fluke." Luis stands, agitated. "No one woke him up. It was an accident. And everything that followed for him was random. You can't guarantee the same results just by playing at duplicating them. He was alone a long time with an endless stream of bad guys to feed on. We don't have that for them, unless you plan on starting to take and keep prisoners. Plus, Buck doesn't really remember who he was. Just his name and a few other little things. Who says they'll remember anything? That any of who they were before is left?"

He turns his green eyes apologetically to Buck and then back to Steve. "I know you want to think of them like you think of him, like a damaged person that just needs your help to become whole, but you didn't see him how he was before. And even the worst thing I knew him as was probably a far cry from the animal that he was to begin with. He had already been out in the world for a long time. He'd already learned so much and started to develop a personality, some kind of...ethics, on his own, on the road where he wasn't endangering an entire town of defenseless people. We can't force morality on them. We wouldn't even know where to begin."

"He's right. I see the benefit of having them under our control, having them protect Claptrap. But we don't know who else knows the codes to control them. Maybe even Nick knows. Or this Crossbones guy. They could say a few words and suddenly our protectors are our killers," Nat adds.

"Even in the best case scenario, even where we can keep them fully fed and have the controlled ones protect us from the awake one, then the awake ones help with the newly awake... Even if we can help them develop some kind of self, we don't know that that self will be a good person. Just because Buck is, doesn't mean they will be. You have no idea who these people were before. They could be serial killers for all you know. Sadists. Rapists. They could play us, pretend to be safe like him and then turn on us. Use the commands to control any others that aren't free. You could be giving a super soldier nut bag a small army of other super soldiers to control. Do you really want to be responsible for unleashing something like that into the world?" Greta questions.

"They're people. They're his people. They deserve a chance to have lives, real lives. Friends. Lovers. And think of all the good that they could do, once they have fully formed personalities and free will. They could go wherever they wanted, protect their own settlements, or team up and take out whole armies of marauders and reavers. They could help build a much better world than the one we have now."

Buck thinks he has never loved Steve so much as in that moment.

Win stands, crosses to Buck, puts her hand on his shoulder. "I know what it is like to be the only one in a group of people who are not like you, who cannot really understand what it is to be where you are from or to think the way you think. Buck has us, but it is not the same. He deserves to have others of his kind, who understand his experience. I think, if this is what Buck wants, then we should help them."

The others go quiet as the Soldier smiles up at her, puts his hand over hers. He looks around the room at his friends one by one, then at Steve. "I want to help them."

Chapter Text

Nick won't let Steve's (not so) little excursion move forward until the current runners return. There are multiple trucks at the Green Place, sent by Fury while Buck was still....heartbroken? The ex ops leader settles on not up to resuming his duties, preferring not to think about the Soldier as literally sick with loneliness while Steve was gone. That was making him too human, something he's still not overtly willing to do. The leader had moments of pity, even empathy, for the Soldier as he stared - forlorn - at the mechanic on the drone feed, remembering checking his own wife's social media again and again after they separated.

Greta all but told the bald man to fuck himself when he showed up at her place a few days after their stand off at Steve's. He'd asked her to take point on the run team to clean out the Greenies' community. Drive your own damn truck. Right off a cliff, she'd huffed before slamming her door in his face. He'd sent a half dozen of his old crew with the scavengers instead, the most experienced put in charge as they had been before the Soldier's brief stint in command.

The Green Place was a gold mine of equipment and supplies, especially with so few survivors to lay claim to it. There were no water pumps, inconveniently - the whole carrying water with a bucket thing was part of their spiritual enlightenment through hard work hokum. The community was designed to hold less than a fifth of the population of Claptrap at their peak - their primary water sources had been hand-dug wells with old fashioned ropes and pulleys supplemented with gray water recycling and rain barrels when the climate had been less unforgiving (years before the collapse). It never rained in this area now - the best they could hope for was dew occasionally, which the Claptrappers had collected religiously before they'd tapped the aquifer. Truth be told, he wasn't sure how much longer the Greenies would have lasted - the wells on the property were largely dry now, something they'd never admitted to their trading partners.

Fury had someone take pictures of what was left with a digital camera - he could upload the photos to his laptop, his office one of the few places with constant power to charge such things - after they'd taken the obvious stuff on the first run. He showed what was still there to the mechanic, letting him pick what was most useful to bring back on the second trip. Well, after he'd stopped griping about Fury letting Buck go on every run. The blonde had a lot of half-assed reasons why that wasn't okay, which Nick ignored. It was almost, almost, touching the kid was so worried about the monster's safety. What could hurt him after all? The bald man would have that question answered painfully fast.

This run, the third and final trip to the Green Place, he'd sent the crews to pick the place clean. The people of Claptrap had suffered quite a blow at the hands of the reavers. Stuff wouldn't fill the void of those who had lost loved ones but it still went a long way as a distraction for the general public. Plus, the Greenies would get first dibs when the caravan came back, picking out any of their own possessions they'd needed to leave behind or important items from their deceased friends and loved ones.

Things that were useful to ration or keep for public works would be moved to locked storage or integrated into public spaces - electric overhead lighting fixtures, candles, technical books, solar equipment parts, batteries, flashlights, any type of fuel or weapon (though the peaceniks had painfully few - the poor bastards - they were still finding ones from the Burners), exterior paint, furniture for common areas, various boxes of screws, bolts and nails, gardening tools, non-perishable food, cleaning supplies, building materials, medical supplies.

The rest would go to a free market in and around the public pavilion (except the best tools, which would be set aside for Steve to look through first if the difficult little prick ever dragged his skinny ass back from the yard). Personal effects and household goods of all kinds - dishes, clothing, bedding, trinkets and knickknacks, musical instruments, art supplies and more - would be on display. There was a lottery to decide which group people would be in. Numbered one to ten, each was a cluster of about thirty to avoid chaos and arguing in the limited space. Nick had everyone pulled from trasher duty, plus the next rotation, to help with the sort and set up when the trucks returned. They'd also brought back newer finds from the yard to bolster the selection when it would inevitably dwindle later in the day.

The market would be followed by the pièce de ré·sis·tance, a movie screening. Sure, there were viewing devices in Claptrap - laptops, cell phones, small-scale hologram projectors, tablets and an elderly TV/DVD combo in a common area with a battered pile of discs - but power was very limited. A few had solar-optional devices, but they were inconsistent and the feature was intended as a back up to electric, not the primary source to keep it running. Limited power meant very little charging of devices - and the modern products didn't take any sort of removable, non-rechargeable battery like older electronics - so they were largely useless without someplace to consistently plug in. Even the common tv was kept to a strict, limited schedule, viewers on a rotation just like the baths.

The Greenies had an old projector, multiple films in dented canisters and a massive, white drop screen to watch it on. They'd had ample solar for their tiny (and mostly device free because of pre-collapse retreat rules) community. Movie night was a team building activity to watch a classic film and discuss if it was "problematic" in some way. Fury was less than entertained at the notion when Gurminder explained it to him. Still, it was a pity the Burners had destroyed anything they found offensive (read: featuring not white people). The whole place would be ashes soon enough - after it was stripped, Nick had ordered the shells of the buildings burned at dusk, when both the smoke and fire would be least noticable in the distance. They'd also dynamited large sections of the wall, just to be sure it couldn't be used as a stronghold. It wouldn't do to have more troublemakers setting up shop so close to them in the remnants of the community.

Steve and Win were tasked with heading a crew, including her teenage students, to build rigging for hanging the screen and a platform for the projector. They started the morning of the trucks' return, as soon as they had proper measurements, using a blank section of the hillside as a natural amphitheater to give everyone a clear view. The trasher crews started sorting the haul with the Greenies help. After a bit Gurminder had gathered a small box of items - things from friends, a few personal possessions he'd squirreled away after the take over. They included his wife's favorite sari, stuffed in a garbage bag and buried behind his previous residence. He'd offered to go on the run to retrieve it, to say goodbye to his former home, to watch their shared dream turn to smoke and drift away much as she had years before. Nick had refused but did instruct someone to dig up the fabric and bring it back.

Gurminder also filled a bag with clothes and a pair of boots that had belonged to Randall, a young, hiply dressed professional on a business retreat at the GP when it had all went to hell. His friend, now gone, had similar proportions to Buck. Gurminder blocked out thinking about his death as he screamed on the burning wooden beams, and chose to focus on what a giving, friendly person and hopeless romantic he had been. Randy would appreciate the doctor's planned gesture. He found the Soldier helping the others with the framing, scampering up it with no harness to run more rigging to a certain section. He climbed down from his precarious, one-armed hang at the top after seeing the psychiatrist waving below. The older man was more than a little shocked when the brunette set the bag down, seconds after Gurminder had finished explaining its contents, and hugged him. He even picked the smaller man a bit off the ground.

The big man had been to see him - both with and without Steve - several times in the last few days. He mentioned when he was alone that he was very nervous after some of the others had talked about going to the movie as a "date night." His conception of what that meant was limited, but he gleaned it was a romantic courting ritual and entailed "getting spiffy." Oh that Clint Barton, what an eloquent man (he had been seeing the doctor too; work to come to grips with his long-term abuse of alcohol, pre-dating even the plague, had started after the fight with Steve in the pub). The Soldier was quite fixated on what he would wear for his "date," as he only had a few ragged, scavenged things and no one was a good size match to borrow from. As was so often the case, he wanted to impress Steve.

Steve. He was so difficult to reach. Which of course only made him more interesting, his sly evasiveness and wit endearing him to the older man. The blonde had shocked the doctor when he showed up with the Soldier, had asked Gurminder to facilitate him telling Buck about his experience as a prisoner with the ex ops soldier he called Brock. Specifically, he'd wanted to talk about a man named Jack, how together they'd murdered his captor and all his top lieutenants, but at the expense of the other man's life. Steve had already told Buck the basics but said they'd both been...a bit out of it. The doctor was unsure what that meant and didn't pry. He was impressed with the insight the mechanic had about his former friendship (relationship?) with the explosives expert and how it tied into his current situation with Buck. He resists letting any quotes slip about the fear of loss leading to the dark side, but smiles a bit internally thinking about going to see the classic film at a festival with his father as a young child. They'd owned a copy but the presence of Billy Dee Williams got it torched by the Burners.

Gurminder mostly listened, tried not to look shocked (or impressed) about the IED, just added commentary or asked questions when needed to guide the discussion between the two men. Steve apologized to Buck for so many things, but he's the most sorry he had taken so long to clarify that Brock was dead. That subject had vexed the Soldier and came up a lot in his appointments. Should he leave Claptrap to find this man? Should he bring Steve back his head, his phallus, maybe both? Convincing him that body part offerings wouldn't heal the mechanic's trauma wasn't easy. The brunette had gotten the idea from a book about the Bible of all places, specifically a chapter on John the Baptist. Reminding the Soldier his presence here was important - and a wild goose chase (an expression he'd needed to explain) to find the culprit could take him away from the blonde for months or even years - did the trick. It turned out the man had already gotten his justice.

The psychiatrist had taken an instant liking to Buck - how guileless, curious and straight-forward he was - and felt protective of his almost childlike innocence and gaping need for affection. As such, he had probably discouraged his romance with the mechanic a bit more than he should have. Despite enjoying the blonde's intellect and sense of humor, he could sense the emotional typhoon constantly blowing around inside the petite man and didn't want to see his new friend (and yes, he could easily admit Buck was that as much as he was his patient, even if that wasn't entirely professional) swept away when it made landfall. Only in their group session did the intense affection the blonde had for the Soldier, and the depth of their connection with one another, become clear. Gurminder forged a resolution to help advance their relationship rather than stand in the way.

"Some options for date night," the psychiatrist had said with a smile, pressing the bag of Randy's things into Buck's hands a few days later.

After they'd finished hanging the screen, getting the projector mounted and power ran, Win and Buck headed to the mechanic's shanty while Steve met with Nick. She had an idea about how to help the Soldier feel more confident for date night; with him as a look out she stole every picture of a guy that was even semi-clothed from Steve's spank bank. The welder knew him just as well as he knew her and had stumbled across it before. For what it was worth, only a few of the women in the pile are Asian (and none of the papers are streaked with anything). It was nice to know he'd just been attracted to her, not her "type" or some preconceived notion of who she was. If anything, someone would be hard pressed to even draw similarities between the people in the saved magazine photos - they're different races, body types, ages and styled differently.

The welder smuggled them back to her place for the pair to pour over along with his bag from Gurminder. Buck likes a couple photos in particular, one of which surprises Win though she isn't sure why. They pick up a few things at the market to spruce themselves up with. The two of them ended up via lottery in a group with Nat, Greta, Wanda, Simon and Violet but none of the other usual suspects.

"This bazaar is bizarre," Nat whispers to the welder. "We're just combing through a bunch of dead people's stuff. This feels like a graveyard of hippie ideals being picked over by the vultures of a police state."

"Everything left to scavenge is dead people's stuff, dollface," Greta retorts, eyeballing an old man's fishing vest with lots of useful pockets. "And some of us old buzzards aren't afraid to say fuck the man when he stomps up to our door in his jackboots with his stupid fucking eye patch..." She trails off when she finds a magnum condom in one pocket of the garment. "What a waste!" she muses of the vest's deceased owner as she puts it on.

Buck is utterly perplexed looking over all the items. There are so many things he does not even understand the purpose of. He had no remembered experience of what a home was pre-dating the chaos of this new world. His experience of houses before was the frantic dark intrusion of his missions, often into the palaces, mansions and corporate buildings of the rich and powerful. In addition he was suspicious of something so easily gained, not through fighting or hard searching or trade. What had he done to deserve these people's things?

He thinks of Gurminder saying Buck had liberated him from bondage. It makes him feel a tiny bit better, but not much. The Soldier had never helped anyone for profit or gain or even gratitude. Still, it did seem his actions had some small role to play in his rewards - his new clothes, his home, his friends, his relationship - and if he can use any of the objects to enhance those things, he supposes it is acceptable. He wants Steve to want him - to look at him and be a fraction as attracted, as awestruck, as Buck is when he looks at the little mechanic - and for the blonde to be sure he has made a good choice in a mate. To his mind the smaller man, beautiful and brilliant, could have anyone.

The Soldier does not think twice about going back to Win's to get ready with several of the women. Sexual predilections aside, gender matters as much to him as eye color or shoe size in evaluating behavior. He does not know how this resembles old fashioned, sex segregated social rituals. None of them bring it up - they hadn't meant for it to happen either, everyone intending to get ready at their own place, mostly with their own significant other. But there is something pleasant about the waiting and anticipation to see Steve. It fills Buck's stomach with a fluttery feeling and his chest with the most pleasant tension, far different than the emptiness he had felt there a few short days before.

Chapter Text

Luis trims Steve's hair and beard as Clint shaves. They'd ended up in the same market group, running into Buck and the others as they left, and wandered back to the mechanic's place after finding out their "dates" would all be getting ready at Win's house. Coulson - who had also been in their lottery group and invited back to the blonde's - is nowhere to be found. After Steve's satisfied with his new look, which he begrudgingly admits is a vast improvement, he helps the green-eyed man clean up the back of the wide mohawk he'd given himself. His big curls lay beautifully along the center of his forehead and the back of his neck.

"Fuck you're even hotter now!" Clint groans after they're done. "Stay away from my wife, seriously. I'd hate to have to Sheriff of Nottingham you."

Luis is wearing fitted olive green joggers with lots of zipper adornments around the upper legs - found at the market - and his black, grey and white high top sneakers (as cleaned up as they can get). He'd also picked up a thin, sleeveless white t-shirt and black mesh vest with a hood to complete his ensemble. Steve is only vaguely envious as he notices how good everything hangs on him, how his tattoos - in addition to being in plain view on his toned arms - peak through the more see-through parts of the top over his chest and shoulders. He looks stylish and effortlessly cool, both things Steve would never describe himself as.

"He's a hundred percent going to ask you to make out with him in front of her at some point now," the mechanic chuckles.

"Accurate," the archer nods, "but like, make yourself scarce after. You cannot, I repeat cannot, join us."

The archer has on gray plaid dress slacks that fit incredibly well - tucked into his usual pair of mid-calf black combat boots (newly polished) - and a pair of Steve's lesser used stretchy black suspenders. His white button down is tucked in, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. His vibe is punk rock office worker and Steve admits its a good look for him. The blonde had even taken in the shirt for him quick, since something that accommodated his big arms, chest and shoulders was way too large in the waist.

"Doesn't that bother you, her asking you to do that?" Luis muses. Steve wants to take it some kind of way, but the tone of the man's voice is good humored enough. "It's not like you go both ways, like blondey over here. Wait, is go both ways offensive?"

Steve shrugs, grins. "I'll allow it."

His attraction to all genders was about the same, so he was less bothered by comments like that or even being called "half gay" than some bi people he knew. In fact some in the queer community didn't even like him to say "bi," when people still debated such things pre-collapse. Steve had always held it meant attraction to more than one gender and didn't exclude anyone. He didn't call himself pan (even though he didn't care if others did) because the whole hearts not parts comments a lot of people threw around about the orientation sort of bothered him. As if it was somehow bad to admit you were physically attracted to someone instead of solely into their personality.

The blonde was perfectly happy admitting a portion of what he liked about other people was their parts, thank you very much, regardless of what those parts may be. Eyes, lips, bottoms, pecs, breasts, long lean legs, thick, curvy thighs, penises, vaginas...They were all nice to behold or think about and didn't diminish his interest in the actual person they were attached to. He can't help but think about Buck's parts, about how often he's seen and touched them lately. About how eagerly the brunette has reciprocated. They're like bunnies after the morning he'd got back from the yard.

Last night, for instance. In a surprising display of unabashed initiative, Buck had pulled Steve on top to straddle his stomach as the big man stretched out on his back in their bed. They were both already naked and the brunette had easy access to stroke the mechanic's cock the way he knew he liked best. He ran his metal fingers everywhere else - stopping randomly to squeeze just hard enough at the blonde's nipples, his sack, the perfect pleasure-pain making Steve moan louder - as the flesh hand insistently performed the same incredible motion between his thighs over and over.

Buck had never broken eye contact even once as he watched Steve slowly fall apart under his ministrations. Then he'd cupped the smaller man's right ass cheek tight, used his grip to silently urge the mechanic to lift his hips a bit, to rock them forward repeatedly. Steve realized at some point, other than the pointer finger curling rhythmically over his head and the pad of the thumb running under it, the Soldier wasn't moving his hand anymore. His eyes glowed brighter, finally leaving Steve's, trailing down. Buck moaned as he watched the smaller man fuck the tight, wet circle of his hand. His gaze returned to the mechanic's with a hot ferocity. The realization of what Buck was thinking about Steve doing to him, what he'd wanted the mechanic to think about doing to him as he thrusted on top of him, made Steve cum - sudden and hard - onto the Soldier's chest.

"Can you honestly tell me you've never asked two girls to kiss?" Clint demands of Luis, pulling the blonde from his sexy thoughts.

Thank God, his instant embarrassment fades his semi-erection immediately. His new pants were a bit tight and wouldn't leave much to the imagination. Clint had loudly insisted, as the archer stuffed the pants into his hands at the bazaar, you have an ass, now show it. They probably belonged to a teenage girl judging from the juniors sizing - which makes his chubby feel even more inappropriate - but he'd still had to roll them at the bottom because of the length. That had made him sigh a bit considering he was 25 fucking years old.

"Nah. Girls where I grew up would tell me to go fuck myself, even if they were into chicas."

"You never watched lesbian porn?" The blonde makes air quotes at the L word, since there was clearly not a single actual daughter of Sappho in any of the "girl on girl" adult movies he'd seen.

Luis grins guiltily. "Okay, okay, I definitely mainlined a lot of that back in the day. It's so hot seeing women together. I would never creep on girlfriends actually kissing in public though."

"It's the same for women who like men," the mechanic replies. "As Nat says, what's better than one hot guy? Two hot guys. Preferably making out."

"Yeah, but how is she not jealous when he does it? Or like..." he turns to Clint, "worried you'll get into it? Don't you ever, like, feel maybe you're not enough on your own to keep her interested?" Luis is choosing his words carefully, tone clearly not intended to offend.

"Oh, I see where this is going! You're worried Win liked our little stunt at the cafeteria a bit too much!" Clint elbows him.

"Maybe," Luis pouts.

"Look, I was that dick frat guy that pressured girls to kiss all the time at parties, out at bars. This is for sure karma. Plus if it gets Nat turned on what's the harm? She knows it doesn't do anything for me. It's not like she'd ask me to fuck a dude, not in a serious way." Clint, after his fifth failed attempt, yields to Steve tying his narrow black tie. "And I'm super comfortable with myself as Stevie can attest. If someone wants to think I'm secretly bi or gay, or pussy whipped, let 'em. I mean, my wife is the the most awesome, smartest and definitely most hottest woman on earth. And I don't even mean that last bit figuratively since, sadly, most of the women are dead."

Steve slaps the archer lightly upside the head at that last comment, making Luis chuckle.

"I don't think you need to worry about Win asking you to make out with Clint," Steve reassures Luis with a grin.

"Okay, but if she does want me to kiss a guy, do me one solid Steve and take one for the team. Because I'm absolutely not making out with Winter or... blech...Phil." The green-eyed man shudders. "And you look pretty good right now, blondey," Luis reassures, catching Steve nervously surveying himself in the mirror again.

The mechanic had tried not to fret too much about what to wear, but when Clint had started aggressively picking things out for him - mostly female-coded because they looked the right size - at the market he got the hint that his wardrobe fell short. Steve had worn "women's" clothing a lot over his life, especially post-collapse when he couldn't exactly run to the store. There was so much more selection. He wasn't in the slightest offended to be thought of as "like a girl" because - as he'd told people plenty of times when they'd hurled the comment as an insult - there's nothing wrong with being a girl.

He'd settled on an incredibly soft, thin tawny sweater probably owned by a classy female banker to go with his maroon jeans. He'd even managed to find some brown dressy leather sneakers in his size. The blonde told himself all three items were practical - the jeans were heavy enough for night weather, the sweater comfortable to wear around the house and the shoes better for running than his clunky dilapidated boots.

The whole walk to the makeshift drive in, Steve chastises himself for getting so nervous, feeling so self-conscious about his appearance. Maybe he should have shaved. Maybe his outfit is ridiculous in this place (though he would have looked perfectly at home working at a laptop in a coffee shop back in Brooklyn). It's just a bunch of the same people he eats and works with every day, sitting around on blankets on some scrub grass watching an animated kid flick. Yes, Buck will be there, but so what? They'd already seen each other naked, for chrissakes! What did he have to prove? It's not really a date anyway and certainly the Soldier wouldn't even know what the others had meant when they'd joked it was. Or so he'd thought until he sees him waiting in the designated meeting spot.

Buck has on narrow black slacks, desert style gray suede ankle boots, a lilac, black and gray pinstriped dress shirt and a turquoise velvet blazer. Everything fits like it was tailor made for him and the colors compliment his complexion and lavender lips, bring out his eyes. His eyes! They're rimmed expertly with black kohl, smudged the smallest amount, making the light irises pop even more. It gives him a sultry, dangerous look. The dark brunette hair is slicked back away from his high forehead and for a moment the resemblance to Jack is uncanny. Steve gets pink and swallows hard when the big man waves.

Luis elbows him and chuckles, but doesn't fair much better when he sees Win. He'd nervously asked if she wanted to sit with him at the movie that morning at breakfast. She'd shrugged non-chalantly, then said a simple sure. The girl had game. Now she's sporting an intense blue cat eye and wearing what was probably a teenage boy's navy blue church suit. It hugs her slender body perfectly and there's nothing underneath the jacket but a black lace tank top, the coat falling just the right way to hide the important bits.

"Uh, wow, you look...wow," Luis stammers as she approaches.

"I know," she grins, running a hand over her freshly shorn buzzcut, making the jacket open just a bit further.

Clint, on the other hand, is at no loss for words. "Oh myfucking gooooddddd baby! You're gonna give a man a heart attack!" he coos, sliding up to Nat in her skintight black and silver mini dress. He puts his big hands on her hips, kisses her neck when she moves her face to avoid his mouth, smirking as she feigns annoyance.

Her lips are red, ample milky cleavage and curvy legs exposed. "If you're good," she says in her smokey voice after he steps back, looking him over with thinly veiled appreciation, "you can take it off me with your teeth later." Her tone is just indifferent enough to get him going even worse.

"Yes, ma'am," the archer practically purrs.

Suddenly Phil strolls out of nowhere to Greta with an honest to God bouquet of flowers he must have spent a few hours picking from around the settlement and the ag houses. Every jaw drops and a rare quiet settles over their friend group. Even the little girls - Violet, Alicia and Silence (as Buck had taken to calling the mute girl) say nothing as their adult caretakers look on. The older woman - in her least stained jeans, an oversized flannel and the fishing vest - let's how shocked and touched she is glimmer across her face for only a moment before calmly offering the highest praise she'll ever give the man.

"Not too shabby, Coulson."

Steve can barely even talk to Buck - just stammering out a hello, red-cheeked - as they get settled on the blanket he'd brought. Fuck, he looks amazing and he'd clearly put in a lot of effort. The blonde alternates between staring and not being able to look at him. He can't picture any of his friends styling him this way - it's not to any of their taste, even if they liked the end result - so he must have dressed himself. Despite the modern cut, there's something vaguely 1980s about the whole ensemble, especially the shirt unbuttoned a bit low at the top and jacket sleeves rolled up a third. Was this how Buck dressed before he was a Winter Soldier? Did he go out? Date? Fall in love?

When the bigger man fixes him with those dark rimmed eyes - irises now periwinkle - and gives him a brilliant smile, Steve forgets everything, even to breath.

Chapter Text

Steve chews his lip as the twilight slowly fades, the first stars appearing overhead right before the projector finally comes to life. Virtually everyone around them is already cuddling, even Greta and Phil (his head on her shoulder), but the blonde sits stiff and nervous a foot and a half away from the Soldier. As the ancient previews flicker up on the screen, a few couples start making out. The memory of what was is a powerful aphrodisiac. Even Simon and Wanda, half wrapped in a blanket, are locking lips. It should be funny, cute even, but it makes something in Steve knot up. He should be doing that, or at least the light version - they certainly had no qualms about being all over each other in private - but the mechanic doesn't know how to act out this ritual of normalcy. It feels false somehow, playing pretend.

Muriel (who's still largely with it) and her roommate, Sarafin are watching Violet. Silence and Alicia are incredibly entertained by the smaller girl and are playing a vigorous game of peek-a-boo, leaving her parents to their activities. Steve wishes he could also hide his face. He's red, anxious, twitching. Suddenly he's very aware there are people behind him, then all around in the dark when the last preview cuts off. His stomach twists - it's suddenly like the nights on the ground with the dregs at the caravan, not knowing who it was he felt so near, if they were reaching for him. There's a vaguely familiar shape nearby, big shoulders. Sweetie pie, it says. The mechanic's fingers dig into the blanket, his chest going so tight he's sure he's having an asthma attack like he had when he was a kid.

The movie starts, bright light bathing the audience. It's just Clint there, whispering sweet nothings to Nat and trying to get handsy. He looks over his shoulder - Vic and some of the former dancers are behind him. The bartender gives him a little wave and Steve nods, turns quickly back around. The blonde closes his eyes and tries to steady his breathing, wills his pulse to slow. Brock is dead, with so many of the others, the dregs scattered. These are friends. This is home. He is safe. It seems untrue - there is no such thing as safety anymore, maybe there never was - but still Steve lets out a wavering sigh.

He watches the introduction to the fairytale unfold, the old woman turning to a beautiful sorceress, punishing the prince who had denied her shelter. Steve had never been arrogant, vain, cruel. He'd never refused to help anyone, even when it was to his own detriment, even at the risk of his own life. What had he been cursed for? Why had he been made to suffer? Certainly, he thinks wryly, no one had needed to strike his appearance - it had never been anything impressive - but he'd been punished in so many other ways. Then he remembers his scars and, yes, on top of being granted social isolation, bottomless anger, a formless internal darkness, he'd also been deformed.

Steve realizes despite the many coping mechanisms he'd used as a shield against the negative thoughts, in this moment he still felt very small, very pathetic, very ugly - especially next to Buck. It was impossible not to notice as they'd stood near each other earlier this evening. The brunette is more than head and shoulders above him, their bodies even more strikingly different in size when the blonde's clothes actually fit. Buck is gorgeous, strong. He had looked so handsome, so sure and confident when he smiled at Steve. But how could he want Steve? What could his broken mind, his wilted heart, be worth to anyone?

He's not sure where this is coming from - last night he'd been grinding on Buck naked for fuck's sake, both of them completely blissed out. Their relationship had seemed to advance by leaps and bounds in every way. Steve thought he was past this self-loathing nonsense, past the shivering fear of who was waiting in the darkness, past hearing the voices of the dead hissing at him about how weakscrawnypaleweirdstupidfaggydisgusting he was. He's suddenly aware he's trembling - with frustration, with fear.

A big warm hand lightly rests on his own as it claws into the fabric beneath it. The mechanic jumps, turns to see the Soldier staring directly at him, eyes filled with concern. The blonde swallows hard, resists the urge to pull away or lash out as he had so many times when startled by physical contact. He thought he was past that too, the fight or flight response from the most innocuous of touches, especially from Buck.

"Are you...alright?" the brunette whispers, bending low.

"Yeah, I'm fine," he lies, poorly.

When he looks up again, the Soldier's brow is furrowed.

"Have I...done something? Are you...displeased with my appearance? Perhaps you dislike the way this liquid makes me smell? Natasha insisted it was...sexy."

Steve almost wants to laugh, but not at Buck's last comment. Here the mechanic is, picking himself apart brutally, letting every fear he's ever felt about being unlovable batter at him like so many ocean waves. And yet here's the person he'd felt intensely unworthy of moments ago, all wide-eyed with concern that they had done something wrong. That they were not enough. The blonde practically throws himself against the bigger man's side, presses his cheek against his ribs, slides his arms around his waist. After a moment of frozen surprise, the Soldier loops an arm around the small, wiry shoulders.

"You look amazing," Steve finally assures in a low voice, tilting his head back to meet the Soldier's gaze. He stretches up, takes a delicate sniff. The bigger man is wearing just the right amount of an intoxicating, probably expensive cologne. "And you smell very sexy. You're perfect." He presses a light kiss to Buck's jaw.

"I...tried very hard. To make you happy," the Soldier whispers. "I have never...been on a date."

"Neither have I," Steve responds quietly, looking down.

It was true. Going to the pub with Sam and Carol before heading to their place was as close as he'd gotten, and cards or darts followed by heavy fooling around hardly counted. He'd been too shy to return interest in the very few who showed it back in Brooklyn, or too wary - Taj had warned him about older men, the promises they would make and the control they'd want in return.

If only he'd ran from Brock right away.

No more of that shit. The bullheaded voice makes a sudden appearance. We burned that motherfucker up - we saved all the people he would have hurt if we never met him.

And because of the boom, Nick found us. Because of Nick, we have a family again. We have Buck. Don't blow this up too.

"If I am doing something wrong, or not doing something I should be, please tell me. I am...very nervous," the Soldier implores with naked sincerity.

"I'm just as clueless as you and probably twice as anxious," Steve continues. "I'm sorry if you're not having a good time. I...tried hard too. To look nice. But now I... feel silly." The blonde runs his eyes down himself.

Buck puts a finger under his chin and gently tips his head back to look at him. The bigger man's eyes glow softly, the periwinkle color of blooming hydrangeas, a shade that materializes just for the blonde.

"Little mechanic," the Soldier whispers softly. "You are always so beautiful. I always enjoy being with you. I love you."

Buck kisses him, long and slow. The warmth of it washes over him, melts his fear, his self-hatred. He thought he remembered the Soldier saying the words before, when they were in their emotional throws after the feeding, but he had dismissed it as his imagination or Buck's attempt to calm him as he sobbed. He couldn't have said it. Couldn't have meant it if he did, even though he'd known deep down it was true since the day Win pointed it out. It seems right now - surrounded by his friends, soft glow of the screen on their faces, stars faint overhead, warm and safe in the bigger man's arms - to say it back.

"I love you," Steve whispers, nearly silent.

Buck's smile can only be described as beatific. He kisses Steve again, gentle but insistent. It grows intense quickly. For a minute they lose themselves to the feeling of their mouths moving together.

"Ewwwwww!" Alicia interrupts, Silence and the toddler beside her. "You're not supposed to be gross like the other grown ups, Buck."

She's wearing his old mask, the cracked one. He'd fixed it with epoxy and traded her for the whole one (smokey but undamaged), while she was still in med bay. She'd demanded it back from Clint as soon as she was awake and wore it like a security blanket, but the Soldier knew he'd need it eventually in the field. He'd had Steve sew her an elastic strap for the repaired one, something simple, so she could easily pull it off and on. The girls regularly "play Soldier," pretending to do martial arts, taking turns wearing the mask, their hair pushed in their faces as his so often is.

Buck sits up fully, smiling at the girls standing in front of him. Violet throws herself onto the blonde.

"STEEEEEEEEVE!"

He smiles that she's finally getting the V sound but shushes her. She copies his gesture, one finger to her lips. "Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh," she repeats loudly.

Silence appears to sign something to Buck.

"Yes, Steve is my boyfriend," he responds, signing back the words as well.

Of course he knew how to sign, Steve had thought the first time he saw him do it months ago, and of course he had started to teach her. What else would a genetically enhanced, bloodthirsty super soldier do with his spare time but help a mute child communicate? Steve feels even smooshier as the girls all settle in around them to watch the movie. Like Hallmark greeting card, Lifetime movie gag-worthy saccharine feels. He smiles, watching Buck start to get intensely into the movie, eyes going wide as the first big musical number with the dishes happens.

The Soldier's dorky laugh (huhuhuhuh) fills the air several times during the movie, the girls giggling either with him or at him. Eventually Simon takes the sleeping Violet from Steve and the other girls, rubbing their eyes, crawl back to Muriel to settle in. Buck seems particularly tense when the villain and the cursed prince battle, even more so after he's defeated and the kiss of true love....

Fuck.

...turns the kind-hearted monster back into a man.

As soon as the credits start to role the Soldier is up like a shot, walking off quickly, hands curled almost into fists. He's going so fast Steve is almost jogging to catch up with him, then speed-walking to keep beside him. The blonde says nothing at first, just patiently let's Buck stew. His eyes are glowing pale blue now and he's scowling hard. Eventually they're away from everyone else, clearly headed to the glass making area. There's a messy stack of cast offs there, blocks with too many imperfections to be used, intended to be broken down and mixed back in with the scrap.

Buck takes his blazer off, then his shirt. He lays them carefully over the back of a bench forty feet from the pile. The big man proceeds to smash block after deformed block with his metal fist, stopping occasionally to shovel up the shards and dump it in the intended bin. Steve sits beside his discarded clothes, waiting patiently. When the Soldier is still at it several minutes later, Steve slips off his sweater and picks up one of the sledgehammers the crew had been using. There's a pair of goggles there too.

Safety first.

Buck stills when he walks up next to him. Steve gives him a little smile, then swings the sledge with practiced skill, shattering a block. The Soldier's eyes widen a bit, then he crushes another block with his fist. They take turns watching each other, muscle working under flesh. Steve sweats, face red as he breathes hard, but he shows no signs of stopping. When they're done, over a hundred deformed blocks are crushed and added to the scrap bins. The blonde all but collapses on the bench, panting, his head going back. When he finally picks it up, Buck is sitting beside him, watching him intently. Steve grins, still breathing hard, as he wipes sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand.

"I am not human," Buck says directly, voice firm.

"I don't need you to be," Steve manages, throat dry.

"I will never be human again," the Soldier challenges.

"You're more than human," the blonde rasps, "and that's more than enough for me."

Buck is on him in a flash, hunching to crush their mouths together as he straddles him on the bench. They make out like it's the first time - like it's the last time - hands everywhere, tongues colliding. Steve grabs the Soldier's ass with both hands, urges him to rock his hips as he ruts up against him. The mechanic is hard beneath him, the bulge in the brunette's pants rubbing against the blonde's belly, as they grind progressively faster.

"I want you inside me," Buck breathes into his ear. "Please, Steve. Please," he begs, pressing down on him harder.

Home wasn't close, but the mechanic was great at improvising. He knows he has several bobby pins in one pants pocket, it being an old habit to grab them before he leaves the house, and a quick survey of the surroundings yields a building he knows will be empty. Urging the bigger man off him, then grabbing him by the wrist, he pulls him to the side door of the messhall. It takes him less than a minute to pick the lock, then he's leading Buck inside. It's even quicker to pick the padlock on the pantry. Steve lifts a tray of wrapped bread off a low table, puts it on a shelf, throws a tablecloth where it had been and another on the floor in front of it.

"Take everything off," Steve whispers, eyes blazing. The Soldier complies, watching him silently as he searches the shelves. He grabs a jar of coconut oil and moves to stand on the cloth.

"Come'ere," Steve purrs, curling a finger to beckon the taller man.

Buck walks over, unceremoniously bends over the table, widens his stance a bit. After a moment of stillness in the room he asks, nervous, "Is this acceptable? I have not...done this in any other position."

It breaks Steve's heart a little. He hasn't either, not really if you remove the table from the equation. It was always some variation of this - face down, ass up - like a very old rap song his neighbor used to play. Steve lays a hand on him, urging him with movement to turn over, then to sit on the edge. The blonde moves between his legs, Buck's knees bent and flaring out, thighs spreading, inviting. The mechanic's guess was right - the table was the perfect size to make up for the difference in their height. He kisses the bigger man, soft at first, gradually increasing the pressure, the movement, as his hands wander over hard muscle and soft skin.

Steve's mouth works down Buck's smooth throat, then around to suck at all the sensitive spots on his neck that he knows he likes, while he picks the jar back up and opens it. He dips in to pull out a small glob, head moving lower to flick his tongue over a lavender nipple, as he twists the lid back on and sets it aside. He puts the little lump in one palm, rubs it to warm it, carefully runs two fingers through the resulting liquid as his mouth moves to suckle the other firm nub. The brunette pants lightly, fingers running down the mechanic's sides to his waistband, following it to the center to undo the button and zipper. Buck slides the jeans down over Steve's sharp hip bones to his knees, then his hands move back to his waist, slide lower. Fingers flesh and metal follow either side of the V of Steve's lower abdomen, down to graze one hand over his length as the other slides around his sack. The brunette's hands trail away, come back, away, back as the blonde starts to lightly rub his entrance.

"Ehhhhhnn," Buck has time to groan before Steve's mouth is on his, tongues working languid as the smaller man's fingers work him slow, picking up speed as his hand and mouth become more aggressive, as he eases his pointer into him, out of him, back in, over and over. Even with the oil, it's easy to tell how fast the bigger man self-lubricates.

"Fuck," Steve whispers against his mouth, pulling back a bit, pressing their foreheads together, "I love how you get so wet for me."

"Nnnnnn," is all the Soldier can manage as the mechanic carefully slides another finger inside him. "Uhn!" he adds as Steve thrusts a little harder. This time he spreads his fingers slightly, helping him loosen. When they're practically flying in and out of him, he quickly pushes in a third, working him a bit slower for a moment before thrusting harder and deeper, moving his fingers apart rhythmically.

"Please, please fuck me," Buck whimpers. Then, just to be sure there's no doubt to his meaning, no thought of evasion to other pleasant but placating tactics, he adds, "Please put your cock in me."

The mechanic can't say no one had to ask him twice. At this point the Soldier has asked with words or movements multiple times. But right now, right here, in the goddamn pantry, he doesn't need any further urging. He pulls his fingers out, rubs the remaining oil between his hands, uses one to rub over Buck's opening while he strokes himself with the other. This had to be good for Buck, painless. Steve moves forward, purposeful, certain. Well, almost.

"You're sure?" he whispers, the tip of his cock just against the puckered skin.

The Soldier nods vigorously.

"Promise me if it hurts at all, or is even just uncomfortable, you'll tell me."

"I promise," Buck breathes.

Steve presses their foreheads back together as he slowly directs himself into the Soldier. They make a shocked, high sound almost in unison as the head breaches him. The blonde hesitates, but Buck's big hands grip his narrow ass, urge him slowly forward. They groan together as the thick dome spreads him open, makes room for the shaft to follow, slowly stretching him. When the mechanic is mostly inside, the bigger man lifts his long legs effortlessly, knees level with the middle of his ribs as he spreads them wider apart, allows Steve to enter him fully.

"Fuck, fuck," the blonde half-whispers, half-whines, leaning a bit back to look down at Buck's cock, laying fully hard against his angled belly. His eyes trail lower, to the vaguely purplish sack drawn up tight, the small blank space of the Soldier's perineum glistening with slick, lower still to Steve visibly buried in him up to the hilt.

"Oh my God, Buck. Oh my God," he gasps, watching as he carefully eases most of the way out, then back in, repeats the movement slowly again and again. "You look so good taking me."

"Do...do it harder," the big man breathes, fingers curling into Steve's skin, eyes glowing purple-blue.

The mechanic slides his arms against the backs of Buck's thighs, pushing his legs out and back even farther as the blonde grips the fabric covered edge of the table. He rolls his hips, not pulling out as far, fucking into him deep and steady. The blonde buries his face against the Soldier's neck, kissing, licking, sucking, feeling his pulse speed up under his lips. The most delicious sounds come out of Buck, breathy and high and gravelly all at once, getting louder and closer together.

"You take me so good," Steve groans in his ear. "You feel so incredible. You have no idea how much I thought about this, about making you cum like this." He can't believe he's saying these things, even after the other times, isn't sure it's appropriate "first time" behavior (or location or anything). Shouldn't they be in a bed, lots of candles, missionary position, cooing sweet nothings? That's how they did it in the movies.

"Could...I could see it. When I asked. How much you...wanted to be inside me. Your...your cock feels so good," Buck whisper-groans, eyes partially closed but only getting brighter. "I love it filing me. I love you. Don't stop."

Okay, scratch everything he'd thought a minute ago. It's not like a single thing about either of them or their relationship was at all conventional, obeyed any logic, any rules. This is perfect. This is heaven. He kisses Buck hard, tongues rolling together, bodies following suit as the Soldier cants his hips up over and over to meet Steve's thrusts. The blonde bends his knees a bit, changes the angle ever so slightly and then the Soldier isn't saying anything, can't say anything. A long series of increasingly helpless sounds come out of him as the ridge on the mechanic's head rubs just so over the sensitive spot inside him. Suddenly his head falls back, his wail deafening in the small space as he finishes all over both of them. The feel and sound and taste and sight of Buck are suddenly all too much and Steve nearly blacks out as he empties into him, screaming against the bigger man's neck.

Chapter Text

The destination would only be about eight hours away, pre-collapse but - between roads choked with heavy traffic as people fled, the occasional city that was still burning, avoiding known strongholds of marauders and reavers, and the extreme conditions of the landscape after so much climate change - Buck estimates the trip will take them over a week. The fastest route after crossing a wide, land-locked area heading away from the wastes, was through a coastal area ravaged by hurricanes. The changing weather patterns had made them more frequent, intensified them significantly from what they were even a few decades ago, let alone at the turn of the century. They completely leveled entire areas, ripping out every piece of vegetation and obliterating the structures there.

The Soldier has been more forthcoming with Steve and the others about parts of his neural net still being operational. He had not wanted them to worry, especially the little mechanic, that he could still be controlled by someone. The woman had said the words and they had not worked. Plus when he had pulled the debris from his head, he had seen the smashed brain matter, pieces of the micro-circuitry there. He had reviewed schematics of what was inside his head enough, by accident, on the doctors' charts and holograms to have an idea that it was the limiter chip cluster that allowed them to take him over.

One of the remaining functional chips connected to a weather satellite. He would know precisely when a hurricane was approaching, when they should take cover, how strong it would be and from what direction the wind and rain would come. That meant they could travel in the area most others avoided. He had been through some of this landscape on missions, before the plague, and had several ideas of well-built structures that could withstand the onslaught. Buck very carefully avoids thinking about what he was doing while he was visiting these towns and cities in the past. They could travel into the dangerous region, take cover when the hurricane approached in one of several large buildings, rest for a few days and scavenge within their shelter, then move on. In addition, were they to be followed, they could lose anyone on their tail in the storm.

He also had a chip for GPS. It did not track any certain place, such as the location of either of the facilities (which was a thing hidden even from him in case he were to be captured and studied), nor would it provide directions to a specific locale, but it told him constantly what his precise latitude and longitude was. It could be helpful if they became separated. He had worried briefly that it would allow someone else to find him, but somehow he could sense that he received data from it, but it did not send out a signal. In addition it would be easy to keep track of sites they may wish to return to in the future for scavenging.

There were other chips - some containing data storage like maps, weapons schematics and other useful information that was highly technical and difficult for even a mind like his to remember in precise detail - and some of them he did not know the purpose of. He presumed that they provided backup processing power or worked as a routing system to connect the chips that were wired together into the various parts of his brain. He had considered briefly having Banner remove them all. However many of them proved useful, especially the one tracking the asset were it to ever be moved or stolen, and they also lack the equipment to properly restrain him. He could become violent, especially with excessive blood loss.

He had not felt the pull of the asset in some time, becoming separated from the Claptrappers as he followed on foot while they carried it towards their community in a large vehicle. Part of him regretted not running after them, full speed, so that he saw precisely where it was stashed. At the time he had thought of his limited energy reserves, also of being caught in a trap if he proceeded too quickly and they knew he was following. The fact that he must be extremely close to it, yet cannot sense it at all, is the only thing that comforts him enough to leave the area. Certainly if he cannot find it, someone from the outside would have no idea that it was there.

The Soldier is unsure why things seem different between himself and Steve. He cannot keep his eyes from the little mechanic as he drives the big truck, calmly explains to Buck how to work the manual vehicle so that he too can learn to drive it. Certainly he has always liked looking at him, right from the first time he saw him in the barn, but there is something different this morning after their activities in the pantry. They have engaged each other sexually many, many times at this point and he had already told the blonde that he loved him. Perhaps it was because he had said the words back, perhaps it was the intimacy of the smaller man inside him, the feel of their bodies linked together.

Steve had looked at him during the entire event as if he were perfect and beautiful, the only person he wanted. Everything about the experience had been incredible, such a stark contrast to the times bent over the cold table in the second facility. The little mechanic wanting to face him - wanting to kiss and touch him, to slowly ready him so that he was comfortable and enjoyed every minute of it - warmed him immensely. He looks at the Soldier differently as well, sneaking glances, a private smile on his face. When he notices how distracted the bigger man is, it only grows wider, showing his perfect white teeth (and just barely the small gap far back on the left side where several of his molars were missing). His hand leaves the stick shift temporarily to lightly squeeze Buck's leg.

They've decided on a rotation. Steve will drive the first two hours, helping Buck learn what to do, then they will give the Soldier some practice time in the flat scrubland that they know from the drone surveys is largely empty. Once he has gotten comfortable, he will drive for a few hours then Steve and Buck will eventually move up into the crow's nest, allowing Win into the driver's seat with Luis riding shotgun. The rest are in the box on the back. Eventually Greta will take over driving with Coulson up front, and the others will take turns rotating between the enclosure and the lookout.

Steve had taught Win how to drive stick several years ago. In fact, part of how he had convinced Nick to allow him to bring her, aside from needing her welding skills, was the fact that she could be a back up driver, along with Greta (their all around bad ass bitch, who brought a lot of her personal supply of weapons with her, including more grenades). If someone were to be killed, the mission would not fall apart simply because they did not have transportation back. Luis had worked in his uncle's body shop, and could be helpful if they needed to do any repairs to the vehicle or get any others running to clear them from their path. Mostly, he just wanted to tag along, and Steve agreed after Buck's urging.

Clint and Nat were muscle, obviously. They could run into virtually anything out here, even with their best laid plans of avoiding population, even with one of the smaller drones and a tablet loaned to them to scout ahead. That was the same reason that Fury had allowed Buck to go (not that he could have stopped him) - even though he had little in the way of any of the skills needed to retrieve the pumps, sending him was like sending several dozen well-trained operatives. It was easier to dispatch a small group under his protection than to send out his entire ops team, requiring multiple vehicles and a lot more supplies, not to mention leaving Claptrap without skilled soldiers who had leadership experience.

Coulson had convinced Hill to join, but at the end of the day one chaperone was not enough for Fury. Maybe he knew that she liked Phil, trusted him a bit too much. Or maybe, as was his way, he just could not resist fucking with Steve and the Soldier. He had sent Sitwell along to babysit them, under the guise that he could run the drone and the tablet, something that Hill already knew how to do.

"Good to have a back up," Nick had said.

He had also insisted that Sitwell was not as useless as he seemed when the mechanic said he was a weasel and a pencil pusher not suited to danger (Buck could draw associations to the mammal called a weasel, but he was unsure what a pencil pusher entailed - It sounded like a torture method). Fury informed the blonde that Jasper had been in the field as a spy for nearly ten years before he had taken a fairly prestigious job behind a desk. He was not without hand-to-hand combat skill and was a good shot. The fact that he was annoying, and a bit obsessed with Steve, was neither here nor there.

After a few rotations, Buck and Steve are in the back of the truck with Jasper. The bespectacled man avoids eye contact, getting a bit red when he realizes that the Soldier is glaring at him. The big man had literally growled at him when he had arrived at the truck, Fury there to smooth things over (which really meant some variation of him saying this is how it is, and if you don't like it find your own goddamn truck and supplies).

Steve had never told the Soldier directly about any of the conversations with their neighbor, but of course if he were anywhere nearby he could hear every word. It was obvious even in Buck's limited experience that the man wanted his boyfriend, and was very inappropriate in the way he spoke to him. Still, he was not big, not a threat, and he believed Steve more than capable of defending himself against him. He did not want to overstep, act hyper protective or jealous.

The Soldier grasped from several of their interactions that Jasper was either not entirely aware of his attraction to Steve or at the very least could not admit it openly. That confused and even saddened him. Buck was completely oblivious to the behavior of typical people or their social relationships for so long, yet he had started to develop inklings of his romantic and sexual interest in Steve quite early. Once he was certain of what those feelings meant, he had no qualms about expressing them directly to the blonde's face. He cannot imagine anything else, cannot imagine being so close to Steve for so long and never doing anything about wanting him. It worries him, makes him think that Jasper's path to getting Steve's attention or being with him in some way will be negative, dangerous.

The first day passes without incident. They clear the broad swath of the scrub land, and come to a small town, mostly burnt down and heavily picked over. Buck and several of the others search the buildings, finding nothing of value but also no sign that anyone has been there for a very long time. They set up camp in an area with lots of high ground cover to hide their fire from any prying eyes in the distance. It is good to be out of the confines of the vehicle after the long, bumpy ride, largely off road.

The Soldier notices that Win and Luis are holding hands as they all sit around the flames (minus those on watch), waiting for their dinner to heat up. It warms him, seeing two people that he cares about possibly finding something together that he has so recently discovered the importance of. Without thinking, he leans forward and slides his flesh arm loosely around Steve's neck in an affectionate gesture. The smaller man was knelt down a bit ahead of him, stirring their food. The blonde goes rigid, and the Soldier sees Clint give him a warning look from across the circle. He pulls back immediately with a soft apology.

After they have all eaten, the couples snuggle up together around the fire, making small talk. Jasper and Hill are on watch, maybe offering intentionally so that they can avoid seeing the objects of their affections pressed close to someone else. Steve surprises Buck when he sits between the bigger man's bent legs and leans his back against his chest. He grips the metal wrist and pulls that arm around his waist.

"It's okay if you do it with this one. Then I know it's you," Steve whispers only loud enough for Buck to hear him.

The Soldier bends down and presses his lips to the crown of the blonde's head, leans lower still. "Little mechanic," he whispers in his ear. A pleasant shiver goes down Steve's spine at that, and suddenly all he can think about is how many days it is going to be before they have any time alone.

Greta takes out a baggie of dried plant matter. "Alright, kiddos. Who wants to get baked with Mama Greta?"

After a lot of debate, and another infrared drone sweep of the area, they decide to all smoke except the two on watch and Buck. The Soldier insists it will not do anything for him, though to be honest he is unsure. They had tested many pharmaceuticals on him, but he does not believe that marijuana was among them. He enjoys seeing them all giggly, talking about inanity. Their behavior reminds him of the happy times with Steve and himself drunk from the feeding - when they had laid in the bed ranting about nonsense, or their antics at the messhall.

Buck suddenly wants to bite him very badly.

He had thought the want would subside, now that they did so many other pleasurable things together, shared so many types of intimacy. Tasting him had possibly been a bad decision. His sweet flavor lingered in the Soldier's mind, the pleasure of drinking even a small amount so intense. Even more, he loved the sounds that Steve had made as he pushed his pulse into him, how that light use of it only intensified the smaller man's arousal and sexual pleasure. The Soldier wants it to go beyond that - to bury it in him, to make him bellow and feel him sag in his arms, all thoughts of anything else, any other sensation, drown out in the waves of the throb that he forces through him.

He cannot. Not with the others here. Besides, they would be wrapped up together for hours afterwards, even possibly overnight and into the next day. There is no place to be alone, short of lashing themselves to the crow's nest, not precisely a comfortable place to curl up when they are in such a delicate state. He cannot guarantee he would not hurt one of them if they came near Steve, especially Sitwell. Buck pushes the thoughts away, tries to focus on how pleasant it is to hold the blonde this way rather than on how warm he is and how good he smells. He tilts his head back, trying to get some air that does not just taste of Steve, and sees Jasper leaning over the top of the truck staring down at them.

Chapter Text

"We don't wanna do that," Clint insists. There's a cluster of them gathered around a giant paper map, spread out on the ground with stones on every corner to hold it down. "It's too close to the city. It'll be a clusterfuck. I...came from that way." There's something in his tone Steve has never heard before. Fear maybe?

"Look," Sitwell responds, "you all saw the footage on the tablet. The bridge is collapsed, so unless the Soldier's going to hoist it up out of the water, then hold it aloft while we drive over it, we're out of options. Everything else is clogged or obviously filled with hostiles."

"He could carry the truck across the river," Clint challenges, gesturing to Buck. The statement earns him a you're such an idiot look from Steve. With his eyes up, he also notices the Soldier glowering at Jasper as he kneels down next to the blonde.

"Doubtful. But either way, unless he can also fly," Jasper continues, "we'd need it lifted a lot more than eight feet. That river is forty feet deep, easily, anywhere near us. The truck isn't water tight. This is the only road clear enough to get us where we need to go. Unless you want to backtrack to this other one," his finger slides sideways on the map, his shoulder moving closer to the mechanic's, "or try to find a more shallow spot to drive across, which is still insane. Either way, adds two days minimum to reaching our destination."

"He's right," Nat agrees. "The terrain is getting too rough to off-road anymore and any riverbed is unpredictable at best in a heavy vehicle."

"Plus this truck's air intake is pretty low. Even shallow water would stall it," Luis adds.

"Let's say Buck could actually lift a cargo truck and carry it across a river," Steve glares at Clint, "or we just try to drive through, we're still wasting time finding a shallow enough spot and then a good road on the other side. We need relatively clear blacktop to make time and not waste fuel." Steve traces the route with his finger to a point where the line splits in multiple directions. "If we take the highway and slingshot half way around the city, through these burbs here, then get off before the clog up once we get closer to the major entrances and exits..."

"Entrances?" Win asks. "But the people would have been leaving."

"Yeah," Luis replies, "if it's like the city...New York...people just started driving the wrong way on the streets to get out. So pretty soon they just filled both sides tryna leave."

They. The panicked, the stricken, quite often the soon to be dead who tried to flea en masse from the chaos of the dying city. Many of them succumbed to their illnesses where they sat, some murdered for their supplies or killed in the numerous traffic accidents - and resulting fires that spread through the cars - caused in the frantic exodus. Many others had simply fled on foot, abandoning their useless vehicles.

There were largely two types of immune who had survived what was later called the collapse. Those who had fled populated areas well in advance of this tipping point, like Greta (set up in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, packed to the gills with survival gear and supplies, not a single person to share it with) and those who had dug in and waited patiently until the worst of the insanity had died down. Steve fell into the latter category. He had walked past tens of thousands of cars with bloating or scorched corpses inside on his way out of the city and its surrounding communities. One of his many recurring nightmares is the endless, shining metal river of them stretching silently into the distance.

"It looks like we'll have a lot of options once we get around here." Steve points to the place where multiple smaller roads branch off the highway. "One of these has to be clear enough to make it through. Then we book it past these outlying second ring suburb areas on the other side and into the storm zone."

"I agree. We have limited additional fuel." Buck looks to the side, as if listening. "There is a category six that will begin affecting the zone in eight to ten hours. We need to reach the shelter before then."

"Category six? I thought they went to five?" Nat asks.

"The last scale, before the collapse, was amended. They rated the most powerful hurricane as a seven. Humans have destroyed the equilibrium of the planet. Old metrics no longer apply." The Soldier gestures around at the landscape, so much changed from his first visit decades before. He had been to the area at least four times. This had been a paradise once, and it had attracted the wealthy and powerful. They had attracted him, or at least those who commanded him.

"Isn't that too dangerous?" Jasper looks up, brows furrowed. "Even a category five will level most anything."

"We will be far enough away from the coast that it will lose a significant amount of its strength when it makes landfall. I am certain the structure that I have in mind will tolerate winds of up to a hundred and fifty miles per hour and impact by large debris, in addition to having an underground parking facility to protect the vehicle."

"And how do you know its specs so well? Do you have an avid interest in architecture?" Sitwell crosses his arms.

"They were uploaded," Buck taps his temple.

"For what purpose?" Jasper continues.

"I was sent there to kill its owner. He had a highly protected penthouse with a variety of reinforcement and security measures, in addition to the overall structure being designed to withstand natural disasters and explosive attack. This included steel shutters, which will no doubt have been employed before it was abandoned."

"If it was abandoned," Sitwell counters.

"There are storms virtually every day and catastrophic damage to the communities. It is unlikely any occupants remain. There would be no place to scavenge or grow crops. We will be very safe there."

"And did it keep him safe from you?" Jasper asks smugly. "This man with all his planning and strong walls?"

"No," the Soldier says simply, looking into the smaller man's eyes.

"And what did he do, to deserve something like you being sent after him?" Sitwell asks as he roles up the map.

"I do not know." Buck looks at his feet, then stomps back to the truck. He slams the passenger door after he's inside.

Steve's gaze trails after him, then he shoots Jasper a heated look. "That wasn't necessary," he says tersely, brows furrowed, before walking off.

Luis and Win scowl at the man, take their leave. The archer grabs Sitwell by the upper arm as he stands.

"You better watch yourself, Jasper. A lot can happen on the road when you don't have any friends," Clint smiles. They're the same height but the archer has thirty pounds on the other man.

"You don't have any friends, and you seem to manage." Jasper eyes the fingers clutching his arm.

The archer let's out a sharp laugh. "These folks are all my pals, including Buck, and if you speak to him like that again, I'll knock your teeth in."

"Buck is nice to you because you're a gateway to Steve."

"Maybe you should have tried that method. I could've got you somewhere with my baby bro if you weren't such an asshole."

"Your baby brother. Who's struck you, mocked you, dozens of times in public. Much like your wife, who humiliates you every chance she gets. You're a joke to these people. You know why they keep you around? Because you're like a dog. Loyal, good at killing things. But not very bright. Not one to question or resist. You really only excel in doing what you're told."

"Clint, let Sitwell go." Nat's mildly exasperated but mostly bored voice carries over from near the truck.

Jasper smiles, raises his eyebrows as if to say see what I mean, as Clint releases him. He walks to the back of the truck to stow the map before taking position with his rifle in the crow's nest next to Hill. Barton stays in place, stewing, until Win calls him.

"You sure you're up to this?" Nat asks, ignoring Sitwell but clearly referencing him more than his lookout partner.

Hill just nods. Nat didn't know Maria well on a personal level, but had always liked her style. Woman of few words, all around badass, Fury's closest confidant and advisor. The redhead had watched the tall, athletic brunette mop the proverbial floor with cannibal after cannibal in the reavertown, her expression barely changing. Other than the brief moment before Steve had helped her out with a well-placed slingshot volley, she'd looked about as concerned as if she were doing her taxes.

They're miles out from the city and they can already see the smoke. Parts of the western suburbs are on fire. It drifts lazily across the overpasses, making them slow to a crawl as they get closer, choking the sky and obscuring their vision.

"I will walk ahead," Buck offers, when visibility drops to nothing. Steve gives him a fearful look, but nods as he puts the goggles and mask in place, gestures to his walkie. "I will radio instruction."

It's a tense forty-five minutes easing around smashed semis and pile ups, the Soldier coming over the channel to give course adjustments, or occasionally asking them to halt. They can hear the scrape of large debris - smaller cars probably - being pushed out of the way. Occasionally there's the loud crash of something big landing below after he's hoisted it over the side. Steve realizes they'd never make it through without him to clear the path, but of course he's the reason they're going in the first place. Still, there was only so much near the junktown to sort through. It was inevitable that they would come out this far eventually.

Finally they're through and he returns to the vehicle, wreaking of burning clothes, drapes, water bottles, children's toys, a thousand other things releasing an endless stream of toxins into the air.

Because the greenhouse gasses from using fossil fuels wasn't enough already, the mechanic thought to himself, now we're just going to set all of the shit we made out of plastic and polyester on fire as well.

And these were intentional fires. It had been six years give or take since the collapse, the panic, and there was no doubt in his mind that these were arson. Warring gang factions fighting or marauders burning people out of their sanctuaries. Clint was right (and what a rare thought that was). They shouldn't have come so near such a populace area. Steve barely has time to finish the internal sentence when he hears the signal from above - two quick thuds. In the driver's side mirror he sees a heavily decked out truck pull onto the entrance ramp they had passed a quarter mile back. There's a human skeleton wired to the grill. He guns it.

The others gain on them quickly - their truck is lighter, even with the relatively open back filled with people. Shots ricochet off the plated guards over the backs of the Claptrappers' tires. They were hinged, made of multiple strips linked together, allowing them to push up if they hit against a low-lying patch in the road. Going on flat pavement at this speed they hung practically vertical, only slightly flared back at the bottom by the speed of the truck. The basic concept was Steve's idea but Win had perfected the manner of execution and done most of the assembly. They shoot out the passenger side mirror next.

A shot suddenly cracks from above and Steve sees the other truck weave, then go over the side. Hill must have gotten the driver. There's no time to celebrate - a Humvee with a plated window speeds up to take it's place. They have heavy artillery mounted to the top.

"Shit!" Steve yells, swerving from side to side randomly as the marauders open up on them. The shells on such a weapon could probably go through metal. The attackers miss several times, but then the box takes fire. The blonde hears it ricochet around inside. "Fuck! Fuck!"

"We must get beside them," Buck says, sounding inappropriately calm.

"If we do that they'll take out the tires for sure!" The mechanic weaves hard again, putting a wrecked car between them.

"Not if we only pass them briefly," the Soldier replies. "Pull to the right. Slow down. When I give the signal, hit the brakes very hard." With that, the passenger door is opened and closed in a split second and he hears him on the roof.

Steve closes his eyes tight briefly, lets out a long wavering breath, then slows the truck. He keeps to the right lane, allowing them to get close. Then he hears it, two quick deliberate thuds of the Soldier's boot slamming on the top of the cab. He hits the brakes as quick and hard as he can without dumping the truck. As the other vehicle flies past, he sees a blur smash through their unprotected rear passenger window.

The Claptrappers' truck comes to a stop but the Humvee keeps going. The vehicle swerves, slows, coasts into a wrecked vehicle. He can see muzzle flashes in the confined space. Then nothing. A door flies off. Out steps Buck, covered in blood. Steve has long enough to register how that barely even phases him anymore before he hears the signal from the roof again. More incoming. The Soldier must see them too, because he's picking up the discarded door and running towards their truck. He slides to a halt on the pavement a few feet from Steve's partially plate covered window as he throws it. The mechanic watches in the driver's side mirror as it smashes through the wire mesh covered windshield of the approaching pickup and it swerves into one of the wrecks.

People start to file out of the cab and the bed - a barrage of gunfire erupts from the Claptrappers' truck and from the Soldier, who is advancing towards the rear of the vehicle. The blonde realizes from the sounds that there must be more people above in the crow's nest than before, probably climbing through the hatch after hearing the recent signal. Person after person falls dead behind them.

Suddenly a leather clad woman zooms up on a motorcycle, spinning something similar to a Molotov cocktail on a rope, already lit. They come at the truck fast. The mechanic watches as an arrow goes into their neck and they topple off, the bike slamming into the guardrail. The woman's own weapon bursts on her as she falls, setting her aflame mere feet from Buck's boots. He sees a dozen more bikers with the same style of weapon emerge over the crest in the road behind them. Steve rolls down the manual window so that he can yell through the small holes in the plating.

"Buck, get back in the fucking truck!"

Chapter Text

Steve is weaving quick through the narrow corridors between parked and wrecked cars, but the stalled traffic is getting thicker and the blonde can see the metal river starting to solidify in the distance - they'll have to exit soon, before they hit the part of the highway that's nothing but auto graveyard. The rifle he'd heard go off when the first truck's driver was taken out was distinctive. The ex ops all had military hardware, not civilian hunting equipment like Steve and so many of the others. Each time he heard it fire a marauder fell from their still-moving bike or they went slack and wrecked, their companions spreading out to avoid being taken out. When the marauders occasionally got closer, he'd hear the familiar higher cracks of Greta's rifle or look back in time to see an arrow sticking out of an unprotected throat.

The cycles don't have enough room with all the cars to move up on them and their pursuers have only been successful so far in (briefly) setting the back of the box on fire, but he knows the bikes are fast and they won't lose them in an open race once he exits the crowded highway. The Claptrappers have taken out nearly half of the approximately three dozen bikers that ultimately joined the pursuit. They take return fire, which terrifies Steve, but he reminds himself the metal cargo box and shielding on the nest are excellent protection - his friends will be safe so long as those above are careful.

The mechanic thinks the rag-tags in the trucks at the beginning were separate from the cycle gang, who all wear a green bandana around their left upper arm. He'd probably been right about the fires - rival groups fighting for turf, both distracted by the promise of supplies the big cargo truck offered. This is confirmed when another shielded truck attempts to break through the cycles only to have a biker shoot out their tire. Steve prays their own back tires weren't damaged by the spray of liquid fire earlier when he takes a sudden sharp turn down an exit ramp, rocking the truck briefly off the right set and onto the outside edge of the left before they land back on all four wheels with a loud rattle-thunk. Buck bounces so high in his seat he bumps his head on the ceiling.

"Seatbelt!" Steve yells at him.

"I should exit the vehicle and engage them before they are able to flank us," the Soldier counters.

"Absolutely fucking not! They have fire!" the blonde argues.

He scrapes the front right corner of a wreck near the bottom of the ramp with the truck's bumper intentionally, causing the battered car's back end to angle out and clean several of the attackers off their bikes. They're down to around a dozen in pursuit, but if they get alongside the truck it will only take one well-aimed volley of their whirling firebombs - to the side of the cab hard enough to break the window around the plating or into the crow's nest - to burn them or some of their friends alive.

"They will move alongside us and attack those on the roof if I do not halt their advance before we reach open road!" Buck insists.

Steve slams on the brakes suddenly and the closest two bikes smash into the back of the box. When he pulls away and they fall, their wrecks take out three of the others. A rapid series of shots from the high-tech rifle above picks off the drivers who dumped their bikes. They could be up and in pursuit in minutes otherwise.

Smart, Hill.

He notices Buck reach for the door handle. "If you open that goddamn door, I will never fuck you again!" The big man's hand stills. "You need to trust me and the others, not just go all Rambo like at the reavertown. Now put on your fucking seatbelt." He hears the click seconds later. "Thank you."

"You are welcome," the Soldier returns softly. Clint's really making progress on getting him to use his manners.

Once they're off the exit, it's mostly open road. There's a few scattered vehicles but weaving around them is not much cover. The remaining seven cycles start to form up, several with firebombs at the ready. Steve spies a carwash to the right - there's a wash lane with semi-height clearance. He whips the truck sideways, down the ruined driveway and through the tunnel, praying the people in the crow's nest will duck. The thin, garage style door is down on the other side and he blasts through. The debris takes out the two that followed them in but the other five are lined up, waiting. Several throw their volleys, covering the hood and windshield plating with liquid fire, while the others open up with automatic weapons.

Steve yanks the wheel, abruptly turning the truck almost sideways, and smashes into three of them. He hears the meaty thuds as they hit against the box, then - almost instantly - the high-powered rifle goes off above, killing the downed as he hears Greta's rifle take out one of the bikers that's still upright. An arrow hits the last attacker in the eye and they drop over unceremoniously. There's a triple thud from the roof - the all clear. The mechanic finally brings the cargo truck to a stop, knuckles white, panting as he leans his head against the steering wheel.

"It is a very good thing I was not driving," Buck says calmly.

Steve isn't sure why it's so funny, but it makes him laugh long and hard. He shuts off the ignition. When he rolls his head to face the Soldier - still chuckling - the big man looks confused, but he offers the mechanic a sheepish grin. The blonde sits up, reaches over and grabs Buck's face with both hands. The brunette lets himself be pulled, forward and down, into a searing kiss. It doesn't take much urging before the bigger man is returning it with vigor, reaching over to unbuckle Steve. Buck's arms wrap around him, pull him to straddle his lap.

"Thank you for listening to me," Steve says after breaking their kiss.

"Thank you for keeping me safe," the Soldier whispers.

"I'm gonna fuck you so good the second we're alone," the blonde promises.

The Soldier all but smashes their mouths back together, hands gripping the blonde's ass through his cargo pants, pulling them tight together. Steve can feel him half-hard beneath him.

They hear a thump and loud curse from above.

"Best go check if anyone's wounded," the blonde whispers. Buck kisses him again, almost closed mouthed and sweet, before setting him back in the seat and unbuckling his seatbelt. Steve opens the door and leans out to put out the blaze on the hood with a small fire extinguisher. The Soldier stands stark still on the other side of the cab, clearly listening.

"We are alone," he assures after a few minutes.

They move around to eye those on the crow's nest.

Clint laughs. "You're some kinda wheel man, kid. That was impressive shit, other than the part where you almost took our heads off."

"Couldn'tadone better myself," Greta adds.

"You guys with the aim though! I've certainly never shot anyone off a moving motorcycle from atop a speeding truck. Or through a windshield! Holy crap, Hill. I can't believe you got the first driver from that distance." Steve realizes it should be weird, congratulating each other on their kills. But this was the world now.

"I can't take the credit for that," Maria says, standing. He sees she's shot through the shoulder, clutching it with her opposite hand. She tilts her head quick at Sitwell. That explains why he'd stopped hearing the second military rifle - she'd been too badly injured to fire and the first was, apparently, Jasper's.

"He's a real ace," Greta begrudgingly admits.

Steve can't hide the shock (and admiration) on his face as the bespectacled man looks down at him, large high-powered rifle over one smallish shoulder.

"Excellent driving, Steven." Jasper smirks, and for once it doesn't look douchey.

"Good shooting, Jasper." The mechanic offers him a small but genuine smile. Buck doesn't seem to like that one bit, literally stepping in front of Steve and then jumping easily up onto the cargo box to help Hill. He crowds past the bespectacled man, intentionally bumping into him.

The Soldier also heals a few bullet grazes, scrapes and contusions on the others. Luis had taken a ricochet across the meat of his forearm. With all the others occupied outside the truck, he silently offers the wound up to his friend inside the cargo box. The bigger man grips him gently, presses his mouth over the graze, sucks softly for a few minutes. His violet eyes close as a little sound of enjoyment comes out of him. The familiar taste is grounding, helps him calm down. Other than Steve's, it is his favorite. He bites his tongue and heals the smaller man. They give each other a little smile.

"I am happy you were not badly injured," the Soldier almost whispers, easing Luis' arm into his lap.

"I'm happy you kept your ass in the truck when they had all those fireballs."

"I attempted to engage them but Steve stopped me."

"Oh, so you do listen to reason sometimes. Or did he threaten you?"

"He said he would not sodomize me again if I left the truck," Buck says matter of factly.

Luis' green eyes go wide and then he bursts into hysterical laughter.

"Please..." he gasps through his chuckling, "please don't say sodomize ever again. Especially to Steve." There's actual tears streaming down his face he's laughing so hard. "That's like...the least sexy word. That just conjures up, like, Christopher Meloni going over his case file with Ice-T." He chortles loud at the look of confusion on the bigger man's face. "Oh Winter, buddy. Yer a trip. All your man had to do was threaten to cut you off." He starts laughing again hard as the Soldier scowls.

The most injured party was the one Buck couldn't help - the truck. Bullets and engines don't mix, it turns out. It took an hour of scavenging the adjacent rest stop to pull replacement parts, Steve and Luis frantic as they do repairs even as Buck assures them again and again he hears no one. He leaves several times to drag bodies into the empty car wash and drain them. Jasper looks on with disgust from the nest, certain the Soldier is doing it in his eyeline intentionally. When they're finally finished, the young men are exhausted but the vehicle is in working order, they have a stash of spare parts, some siphoned diesel and two extra tires. Greta takes over driving, an even more tense than usual Phil in the passenger's seat.

Steve doesn't make good on his promises once they're alone. In his goggles with a bandana pulled over his nose and mouth, he falls asleep almost instantly when his adrenaline crashes. The bigger man, in his own goggles and mask, carefully adjusts him - sitting up with his rifle strapped across his chest in the crow's nest - so that he's leaned back to back against Buck. His calm breaths and the slow thump-thump of his pulse lull the Soldier and he feels at peace, even as he constantly scans the distance for threats. They're eventually tailed briefly at a distance by another group of hostiles. By the time they get a few miles outside the storm zone they're utterly alone.

It turns out their safehouse is a twenty story steel and concrete luxury hotel built in the early 2000s. They pull up just as the sky darkens even further - and isn't that a marvel? Actual rain clouds. The massive structure had back-up generators but they're long since drained of fuel. Buck simply lifts the huge, heavy rolling door to the underground parking garage by hand, then uses a long, thick pipe to push it up far enough for them to drive in. The only access from the parking garage into the building is an elevator, useless without power. They gather up the supplies they'll need and head back out to the street. The Soldier easily forces the security shudder up on the front, Steve picking the lock on the lobby door behind it rather than letting Clint kick it in. They'll need every bit of protection from the elements they can get and the slatted shudders aren't rainproof.

Once inside, Steve drops his stuff and unceremoniously strips down to his underpants, his scars exposed for all to see. He walks past the others as they file in, by Buck still supporting the roll up shutter.

"What the fuck are you doing, kiddo?" Greta asks, grinning. "At least wait till you've got a room to seduce him."

"Can't you feel it?" he asks, smiling wide, as he walks backward outside. "It's gonna happen any minute now."

They're all inside, watching him standing in the street facing them with his arms outstretched a bit. For a few seconds there's only silence. Then the sky seems to crack open and rain cascades down. Steve leans his head back, closes his eyes. It washes far more off of him than dust. It's like years melt away, some of the immense weight of everything he carries sloughing off to pool around his feet. Win joins him first, topless and wearing just a pair of blue granny panties. She laughs and grabs his hands and they spin, bodies glistening, their feet kicking up wet trails. Luis is out next, in his white boxer briefs. They soak through instantly, leaving nothing to the imagination, but no one seems to pay attention as he joins the little circle with the others, all of them linking hands and turning together.

Ring around the rosie, pocket full of posies. Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down...

Buck shakes his head, willing the song away, unsure why it always leaves him so unsettled.

Nat comes out next in her lacey black bra and panties. They're totally impractical, but they make her feel good, like life is about more than survival. The rain plasters her red hair to her face and neck as she squeaks - it's a rare and precious thing for the others to see her so vulnerable. Clint's naked when he emerges from the building. His wife laughs loud and jumps on him, a mirror image of the day when they'd found each other in the reavertown, her arms going around his neck and legs encircling his waist. She screams happily as he spins her around. Even Greta comes out, wearing men's boxers and a very practical bra with massive straps to support her shockingly ample cleavage. Win grabs her own breasts jokingly, then motions to Greta's, getting a hardy laugh from the older woman. Phil and Jasper look at each other briefly, both blushing at the entire display, then go back to staring outside, immobile.

Hill just mumbles, "Civilians," and walks farther into the building alone.

Steve has to motion to Buck to get him to join. He wedges the long pipe under the shutter and slowly strips in the doorway. Like the archer, he has nothing on under his pants. He hesitates but removes them and slowly comes out, his many differences laid bare for all to see. No one stares - his friends only smile at him and return to their various shenanigans. The mechanic walks over, carefully pushes his instantly saturated hair back out of his face, then slides his hands around the back of the bigger man's neck to pull him down into a kiss.

Their moment is abruptly interrupted when they're hit with a huge splash of water. It's much colder than the rain. Clint, the bastard, found a bucket somewhere. He runs over to refill it under the rushing torrent from one of the building's downspouts. All Steve can do is laugh, watching his friend running through the rain naked - ass as white as Steve's - attempting to douse his wife, who giggles through her own protests as she fleas.

"I have never stood in the rain before," Buck says, catching his attention. "It is...wet, but good."

The mechanic gives him a smile, something unplaceable flashing in his eyes. "I'm gonna show you every good thing I know, Buck."

"I will try hard to do the same." The bigger man smiles, leans back down to press their mouths together, arms encircling each other.

Clint stops in his revelries as he notices Jasper glaring at the kissing men, sees him gather up his bag and quickly walk deeper into the building alone. He's pulled from his thoughts as Win slaps the bucket he's holding, spilling icy water all over his cock and balls. The gang breaks into riotous laughter at his high-pitched screams.

For many of them, the hours spent at the hotel would be among some of the best of their whole lives. For some, those days would be among their last.

Chapter Text

Steve and the others - now dressed - meticulously check every room, floor by floor. Buck - still naked - crawls around the outside of the building urging down any steel shutters that are not fully closed. The rooms they were meant to protect are a mess of debris, broken glass and moldy, sopping wet carpet from repeated storm damage. He slips multiple times in the downpour, but manages to catch himself every time but the last. Buck lands with a sickening snap-thud on the pavement, an arm and a leg twisted behind him, his head ringing. He is half sitting up and adjusting the shattered limbs back into place quickly - they are healed seconds later. Briefly he considers the positive of the limiter chip in avoiding such excruciating pain.

No, better to feel suffering some of the time than nothing all of the time.

There is a roll down that is damaged, dangling precariously by only one corner at the top. It had come partially loose in his hand, caused him to tumble. Now down on the street, he looks around for something to repair it. There is a long tangle of wire around the bumper of a wreck. He pulls it free, coils it around his wrist and climbs back up to the fifteenth story as the hard sheets of rain batter at him. Stringing the top of the shutter back to its mount inside the storage unit above the window, he carefully slides the sides of the shutter back into their tracks, then manages to fully roll it down. Not only will ensuring they are all closed offer them more protection now, but it will keep the building from falling into decay if they wish to use it in the future.

Ultimately he circled every floor of the building, swinging from ledge to ledge and sill to sill, ensuring its integrity is fully intact and every window protected. Finally he climbs to the roof, a metalwork dome-like structure fitted with massive, ultra strong glass panels. They were similar to what was used to build observation decks and could withstand thousands of pounds of direct pressure, even tank fire. Unsurprisingly, they are all still structurally sound. He recalls being air dropped here from a great height, landing against the glass, sliding down its curved surface, then climbing the outside of the building to the penthouse on the floor below. Those windows were also incredibly strong, but there was a small ventilation shaft through the concrete. He dislocated his shoulders and snapped his collar bones to squeeze in.

Buck had been ordered to kill all inside, not just the owner. His mistress, his guards, housekeeper, wait staff, even his dogs. He was told to use his hands, his teeth, not weapons. The thought chills him far more than the rain, which has turned icy cold. Everything is in order so he climbs back down. For a moment he just stands in the street, trying to focus on the happy time there, trying to convince himself he was worthy of being shown every good thing as Steve had promised. He tries to block out the woman's terrified begging, the sound the dogs had made as he tore them apart.

He makes himself recall every detail of the little mechanic from earlier - he had been so enticing, soft skin shiny and slick everywhere, short beard glistening with droplets, saturated hair pushed back away from his face, little beads of water on his big eyelashes, his soaked underwear clinging to him. Buck had pulled away from their intense kiss, concerned the others would see his body react, but just as much so because he felt completely overwhelmed emotionally. It was all too good. They were all too good, especially Steve. He did not belong there.

Telling the blonde they should begin readying the building, as the storm would quickly worsen, earned him a bit of a disappointed look. He had not even bothered to go back for his clothes, scrambling up the side of the building immediately, reasoning the heavy, wet fabric and stiff leather would impede his progress. Really, he could not look at Steve looking at him another second or risk the smaller man's questions. He would break under the weight of his gaze, his words - he would pour out all the horror he had wrought here.

Monster. Murderer. Creature. Abomination. It. Even Luis had called him an animal when talking with the others about their early times together. He had not meant to insult Buck, had looked at him with sympathy, but the truth of it was even harder to hear from someone he held so close.

The Soldier tries to remind himself that he had used his great capacity for violence for good today, and for many days - months, years - before. Yet the truth was he did not know the people he killed that morning, their situations. There could be many like Luis among them, frightened and desperate, doing whatever they had to for protection. They may have committed deserving actions but been undeserving. Even Steve had admitted he killed people with the suitcase bomb who may not have been truly deserving in the course of meeting out justice to those who were.

For the first time, the Soldier decides he is tired of killing. There are other things he can do with his body. Scavenge supplies, help his friends settle in, make Steve comfortable. More than comfortable. Suddenly, he badly wants to be with him, against him. It is more than lust; it is a deep, nameless need - a longing - he has not felt before. He feels himself sinking, like in the sandpit, and just as that day the mechanic is the only one who can pull him out. Something pings off his metal arm, pulling him from his thoughts. There is another and another, his face and shoulders now stinging as well as he is pelted with hundreds of tiny objects. It has started to hail, a rare thing for a hurricane.

Buck hurries inside, closes the storm shutter over the lobby door (which he locks), sealing them safely in. He finds a stack of towels waiting with his clothes, folded up on a chair with his boots next to it, and quickly dries himself. Following his nose to Steve is easy, too easy, a trail of his delicious scent zig zagging through hallways and up stairwells. They have three quarters of the building checked already when he catches up to them - they find no one, not even corpses. He decides they can do without the mechanic for the rest of their sweep.

"The building is sound, all shutters are now down, and the roof is fully intact. Perhaps Steve and I can begin reviewing what there is to scavenge in the public areas." The blonde makes a face like he's about to argue, but then Buck says the magic words. "The pantry may have bulk supplies which were not easily carried out on foot or in smaller vehicles. If this place were closed up in the normal course of business for the intensified hurricane season, and no one utilized it after the collapse, there could be many supplies."

"Go on, Stevie," Clint nods towards Buck. "This is probably overkill with so many of us anyway. We can radio if we see anything."

They are three floors down when Steve finally speaks, side-eyeing him with a grin. "That was very sneaky."

"I do not know what you are referring to," Buck says in a bland, even voice.

"You know, we're wasting a lot of time walking down all these stairs. I wouldn't be averse to you just...carrying me to the pantry. Unless of course, you don't really need to get there quick..."

Without a word, Buck scoops him up and just starts jumping from landing to landing, the blonde making a surprised hoot and then giggling.

They are in the big kitchen in minutes, moving through to the huge store room in the back. There are piles and piles of linen tablecloths and napkins, serving carts of all shapes and sizes, dishes, cookware. Steve is standing on his own two feet and looking around for all of thirty seconds before Buck is against him, kissing his neck, sliding his arms around the narrow waist. The bigger man is vaguely aware his own body is trembling, even though the cold should not affect him that way, even though he is still warmed through with the fresh blood from earlier.

Steve's hands come up to his cheeks, easing them carefully apart. He pushes the brunette's hair, still a bit damp, out of his eyes then gazes into them intently.

"Are you okay?" the blonde asks softly, stroking his temples. "You're shaking."

Buck swallows hard, pushes their foreheads together. "I...need...I need to...do something good, in this place."

"Do you want to tell me, what happened here?" Steve breathes. The big man shakes his head, the smaller man's moving slightly too with the force of it.

"I want to think of you in this place. Not what was before." He pushes his chin forward, ghosts his lips across the blonde's as his grip moves to the narrow hips. "Let me pleasure you."

When he pulls back, Steve's eyes radiate warmth as much as his little body does and there is a soft pink glow over the apples of his cheeks. He slides his hands down over Buck's jaw, the sensitive skin of his neck, to the buttons on the uniform shirt Fury had outfitted him with. The long, clever fingers undo them quickly then push the sides of it back, revealing his pecs and abs.

"I want to please you," Buck whispers, stilling the blonde's hands as they move to his holster buckle.

"Pleasing you right now will please me," Steve responds, smiling sweetly.

He leans forward to mouth at the Soldier's chest, drawing a soft moan from the bigger man when the hot, wet tongue flicks light over his erect nipple. The Soldier releases Steve's hands and they continue undressing him, easing the shirt off his shoulders, then unbuckling the straps that hold his weapons, moving finally to his fly. Buck is suddenly very pleased that he chose not to put his boots back on, the fiddly laces always taking so long when they undress together, making him want to just tear the leather from his feet to get his pants off faster. He steps out of his slacks easily when they pool around his ankles a minute later.

Steve presses against him, still fully clothed, tilts his head back to look Buck in the face as he slides two fingers into his mouth, then moves the hand low. He parts the Soldier's long legs carefully with his knee, moving it from side to side to urge them wider. The big man gasps when the slick fingertips graze his entrance, start to rub and circle and press, light at first and then harder as his wetness begins to slowly leak out. He sighs and groans softly again and again. It is not long before a finger eases into him and the feeling of being penetrated is so exquisite. He moans outright, sees heat flare in the other man's eyes before his own flutter shut.

He is suddenly struck by how much he would like to do these things for the smaller man, to give him that unique pleasure. Being touched there, entered by someone he wants, is such a different sensation than anything else.

"I...I know I cannot touch you like this," he whispers, "but could I...could I...use my mouth on you there? Could I use my mouth on you right now?"

Steve's hand stills, draws away and his expression is unreadable when he moves back a few steps. Buck swallows hard, thinking he has perhaps overstepped by even asking. After a long, silent moment, both of them frozen and wide-eyed, the blonde's hands move to slide down his suspenders. He kicks off his sneakers and lets the too-big pants fall to the ground.

Chapter Text

"Where...? Where should I...?" the mechanic asks softly, breaking off. He is standing in the middle of the pantry in just his t-shirt, looking incredibly self-conscious.

Buck gazes around quickly, grabs a large stack of banquet-sized tablecloths from the closest shelf, scatters them on the ground. He grabs another, shakes it out and spreads it across the pile. The big man moves forward, kisses him gently, slides an arm around Steve and hoists him up effortlessly. He bends a bit to grip just above the back of the smaller man's knee with his free hand and lifts, switches which arm supports his meager weight and does the same again to the other side, urging the smaller man's legs around his waist one at a time. He is careful not to rub his erection against Steve, not wanting the blonde to think he will try to enter him.

The Soldier turns with him and drops slowly to his knees, eases Steve onto his back on the soft padding. The bigger man runs his hands gently down Steve's sides, grips the hem of his shirt, urges him to lean up a bit more so he can take it off him. Fingers both flesh and metal drag slow to the mechanic's narrow hips and outer thighs as Buck sits up, letting the blonde's feet slip from the small of his back to the sides of his waist.

"Comfortable?" the Soldier asks softly, returning his fingers along the path they just travelled.

Steve swallows hard, nods.

"You are certain that this is acceptable?" Buck queries, concerned with how tense the smaller man seems.

The mechanic nods again, licks his lips. "I've never...No one has ever... And I...have some scar tissue there...I may not...feel everything. Or I might feel...too much. I don't know. But...yes. I'm sure."

"I have no experience in this either. Please provide me direction." He rolls his fingers around to the soft, sensitive insides of Steve's parted thighs, trails them lightly down to his knees and then back. "Tell me if something feels good or is uncomfortable. I assure you I will be gentle and I will stop if you ask."

The blonde nods a third time, eyes still a bit wide. Buck's own wander down his petite body, to his flat belly, the hint of abs there, the thin runner of sandy hair below his naval drawing the bigger man's gaze. Steve is fully hard against his lower abdomen, leaking even. That is all the convincing the Soldier needs to shimmy back, grip the smaller man's calves and lift. As Buck bends down, he brings the mechanic's legs to rest on his big shoulders and upper back. His biceps press against the backs of the blonde's thighs, elbows bent with his forearms angled in to curl fingers gently around the narrow hips.

The Soldier presses soft kisses along the insides of his legs, mouths gently at his sack, at his perineum. Steve hums softly, then makes a shocked sound when Buck's tongue - slick in that particular way the Soldier has noticed only his is after kissing several humans - laps daintily over his hole. The bigger man does it again and again, experimentally changing the pressure, the type of movement. There are light flicks of the tip, broad laps of the whole width of it - Steve's soft comment indicates he prefers the former - as he first tries more focus over the entrance and then around the outside. The blonde's breath gets ragged when Buck runs the tip of his tongue clockwise in slow, firm circles, mimicking the movement Steve's fingers have made on him.

"That's...That's really good," Steve barely manages, back arching.

Buck repeats the movement for a while, occasionally stopping to flick his tongue over the entrance in the way the blonde indicated he liked earlier. Soon the little mechanic is trembling under his hands, moaning, tilting his hips up. The Soldier moves one hand behind himself, copies the motions of his tongue on his own hole, groaning. He feels the smaller man adjust, looks up to see him resting on his forearms, shoulders and upper back curled off the ground and head lifted. The sea-blue eyes flick from Buck's own to the metal arm bent back around him. The smaller man moans louder at seeing him obviously pleasuring himself. Steve had already gotten him so wet and he badly wants to be entered again. He has a thought, tilts his head up to more fully look at the smaller man, who is flushed and panting.

"May I put my tongue inside you?" he whispers.

A brief pause and then another nod. Steve's mouth hangs open, his eyebrows lifted in the center. He looks ravaged and helpless in the most beautiful way, lost to what the Soldier is doing for him. Buck returns to the slow circles, the light flicks, increasing the speed and pressure of both before sliding his tongue into Steve. The blonde's hips buck and he whimpers. When the brunette looks up, the mechanic's head is hanging back, exposing his delicate neck, his thrumming pulse tantalizingly visible. He repeats the series of movements again and again, copying them on himself with his fingers. Circle, flick, circle, thrust. The Soldier groans each time he penetrates himself.

"Buck, Buck, that's so good. That's so..." Steve interrupts himself with a long, high moan. He looks up again, making eye contact briefly, before turning his attention to Buck's metal arm. "Are you...are you...inside yourself?"

Buck makes an affirmative groan, thrusting his tongue in the blonde several times to ensure his answer is understood, filling himself now with two fingers.

"Fuck," Steve whimpers. "Buck, I want...I want..."

The Soldier raises his eyebrows, stares at the blonde hard, but does not stop the movement of his mouth. Tell me, his expression says.

"I want to be in you. I want you to ride me," the mechanic practically whispers, cheeks getting even more red.

Buck buries his tongue in Steve deeper, presses his lips to the puckered skin, groans hard to let the smaller feel the vibration. He slips another finger in himself as he curves the tip of his tongue, flicking over the sensitive spot in the blonde as he works the one in himself, making both of them wail. The Soldier is loose and so slick, aching with want after what Steve has requested. He pulls back from between the slender thighs as he removes his fingers from himself, then sits up on his haunches.

Wiping his mouth with the back of his flesh hand, he knee-walks forward, swings first one leg and then the other wide to straddle the narrow hips. Then Buck presses his weight into his shins and the tops of his feet, lifting up high to make room for Steve's cock beneath him. Taking it in his slick metal hand he gives it several slow strokes, pulling a delicious sound from the smaller man. He looks the blonde dead in the face as he stops touching him. When he speaks, his voice is low and gravelly.

"I am ready. Put yourself inside me."

It is as much a plea as a command and the mechanic eagerly obliges, gripping his shaft and guiding himself to the Soldier's entrance. His other hand clutches the bigger man's side, urges him gradually down as Steve slightly lifts his hips. The blonde breaches him slow, both of them making the same high, surprised noises as the first time he had entered him. Buck starts to push down rapidly and the blonde grips his hips, tries to prevent his motion.

"Stop! That'll hurt you," he whispers urgently. The Soldier stills. "Nice and slow at first. There's no rush." The mechanic smiles, rubs gentle circles over Buck's hip bones with his thumbs. "They're twenty floors away by now probably. And if they walk in on us, oh well." His grin turns hungry, makes the brunette swallow hard.

Buck returns to the careful pace of his previous descent, watching Steve's face scrunch up as he is slowly enveloped by the bigger man's body. The blonde's shoulders and head drop back on the floor and he makes a little, overwhelmed sound in his throat when he is completely inside. The brunette lifts up slow, eases down again, repeating the motion until the stretch feels less intense and no longer borders on discomfort. He is strong, with incredible stamina, and does not even need to rest his hands anywhere. As he pistons his legs, he lightly grazes his fingertips over Steve. The mechanic moans under him, clutching at him, eyes moving occasionally from Buck's to the place where they are joined when the Soldier lifts up.

It is amazing for Buck, to feel so in control simultaneously of his own pleasure and his partner's. He finds just the right speed, depth, position that makes his body light up, lost in the smell and sound and feel of Steve beneath him and inside him. The physical exertion of climbing the building had barely increased his pulse or respiration, but now his heart is pounding, breath coming harder. The angle is teasing the spot inside him, pushing him nearer to the edge; his sounds get loud and high, his movements faster. The blonde must be able to tell he is close - he grips Buck's hips, rocks up into him just so over and over. It makes the bigger man wail, his head going back, eyes glowing so bright he can see them reflected on the tin ceiling. He goes still as he finishes, letting Steve fuck up into him as he gets tighter, as his entire body seems to pulse. The smaller man spills inside him seconds later with a guttural moan.

After they have cleaned up, Buck cannot resist being close, pressing into the smaller man's side. He lays his head on Steve's chest and listens to his heart pound, thinking about how he had caused that.

"I greatly enjoy pleasuring you," he says softly, fingers running lightly over all that soft, exposed skin.

"Ditto," Steve says, twisting and stretching a bit to kiss the brunette's forehead. Buck had learned that term from context a long while ago. Originally he had known it only to mean a worksheet. They had given him dittos for certain things, in the facility, in the beginning when he was regaining his literacy.

"I apologize."

"For what?" the blonde moves in a way where his head is farther back and he can see Buck's face.

"Perhaps you have felt...pressure to..." He refrains from saying sodomize me. "To have sexual intercourse with me. Both times I have exhibited emotional distress beforehand. The time with the brush as well."

Steve sighs, but it is thoughtful, not annoyed. "I mean, I can definitely hear Gurminder saying sex isn't a replacement for romantic intimacy...but...Connecting like this has been... amazing. Important. I mean, you make me feel so comfortable with my body and...being affectionate and that's helped me in so many other ways. Like, reminded me of parts of myself I'd forgot. Don't ever think it's just you getting something out of it emotionally or that I don't want and like all of it just as much. It's a big deal for me, to be naked with someone, to do the things we do, to let you do what you did to me today especially."

"Then you...enjoyed my mouth?"

Steve chuckles softly. "I'm pretty sure you could tell that already."

"I would very much like to do it again in the future."

"Sure. Just...ask first, okay?"

"Of course. Have I... overstepped in any other way? Stopped asking permission or waiting for your direction for things you would still like discussed?" Buck leans up, eyes Steve seriously.

"Not at all. You've been very understanding and patient."

"I would never want to do anything to hurt you, little mechanic." He puts a big hand on the center of the narrow chest, thinking of the pain he had felt there when Steve had left. He would never want to inflict that on the smaller man.

"I know, Buck," the blonde says softly. There is a comfortable silence between them for a few moments, the Soldier moving to rest his head again. "Buck? Will you...tell me why you were so upset earlier? Please."

"I am...too embarrassed," he whispers. "You will think poorly of me. Of what I have done."

"Do you know what Catholicism is?" Steve asks softly, stroking his hair.

"A widespread religious practice."

"Yeah. My mother was Catholic. There's...a lot of bad things about religion. Especially that one. But there are good things too. In Catholicism, you confess things you've done or thought or felt that you think are bad, in private, to just one person. Okay, technically to God too, but I don't know if I believe in that... Anyway, the confessing part I think is good. It lets you release things you keep bottled up inside. So you can feel better about yourself, so you can acknowledge that the action or thought or feeling was just one little part of you and not the whole of who you are. So the weight of all those things doesn't build up and hold you down. You understand?"

Buck nods against him.

"You can also just talk about things you're struggling with. And the other person won't judge you."

"Can you...give an example?" Buck asks quietly.

"At the movies, I had this...episode. I started to have all these bad thoughts...about myself. Memories of things that happened before seemed to...overlap with what was real. I even thought I saw..." He hesitates. "Brock, next to me in the dark." Buck stiffens at the name, slides his arm protectively around the blonde. "I felt really awful, unworthy, unlovable."

Buck jerks back, eyes Steve intently. "You are very easy to love. Very worthy."

"You are too. I want you to know that," the blonde says softly. Buck does not respond, hides his face as the mechanic continues. "I understand what it's like to have things in your head that work against you, that haunt you, tell you you're not good enough. Voices that you can't easily shut off. You don't have to tell me what happened here, but...know that you can if you want to. I won't think less of you."

Buck sits up suddenly. "The others are a few floors up."

Steve slowly rises, stretches. "Time to put our dicks away."

"They have already seen mine," the Soldier says matter of factly.

That makes Steve laugh loud. The sound melts more of the remnants of the cold thing lingering inside him. Perhaps if he confesses, it will dissolve the rest.

Chapter Text

After a few moments of Steve and Buck searching the pantry in silence, the bigger man tells his companion he dreads entering the penthouse. The mechanic assures him they can stay in any of the other dozens of rooms, but the brunette insists it is the most secure location - he will not risk the smaller man's safety for his own comfort. As his earlier work had shown, the shudders were not indestructible and this storm was already very intense - the building rocks with the force of it and they can hear the constant pounding of the rain, the scrape of things being pushed around outside, the thud of debris kicked up against the building.

The Soldier finds some bulk dry goods hidden deep under a low table, behind a mess of haphazardly placed carts and empty boxes. There's a fifty pound bag of rice, large sacks of beans, dried mushrooms and chilis. They're dusty but not damaged and their expiration date isn't terribly important given their preservation method - it's enough to feed their small group for weeks, months if rationed. Someone had probably intended to return here but the plague or a hundred other dangers had gotten them first. They move it to the lobby on a cart, along with a little pile of other useful things. Being selective is important since the water pumps will take up so much room; they can only weight the truck down so much before it overly affects handling and speed.

How to transport the Soldiers is a whole other matter they'll need to discuss in more detail later. Steve fears Buck will want to keep them at the hotel, away from Claptrap and in the virtually impenetrable (inescapable) fortress of the penthouse. He feels a tightness in his chest at the thought it may not be possible for him to stay with the brunette if that is what he decides. Certainly if a Soldier were awake - really awake - and not near to Buck's level of self-control, Steve would be a dangerous temptation. He had watched the bigger man wrestle with his need many times when they were close, even saw it sometimes when Luis was around.

The hotel would also provide ample space for prisoners. Buck had killed three grown men, then taken a bit from multiple others after he'd been burned. The blonde can only guess at how much twenty three of them would need to recover from a weakened state. And that was its own question, their state - what had Brock meant by non-operational? Were they still frozen, were they simply immobile without the right commands? The second thought is horrible. Could they really stand in place for years with no sustenance, gathering dust, slowly wasting away?

Buck had no idea how long it would take him to starve to death, if he even could, at what point his healing factor would give out entirely. The longest stretch they had made him go without any blood while he had the limiter was two months and he had remained largely operational, though tests by his superiors revealed decreased speed, strength, muscle mass and reaction time. Without the control chip he had lasted five days. Any longer and he feared the need would start to take over, a thing he desperately did not want.

There are other complications to the delicate and dangerous situation. For one, when the limiter is removed they will essentially go from non-sentient slaves to self-aware prisoners. Even a person good in their core who knows they are being helped would chafe under that, distrust it, lash out. The blonde certainly knows he would. A lovely cage is still just that. Being told it's for your own good is little comfort.

He'd felt the sentiment sometimes in his cozy nest with Jack, despite how well he was treated and the many freedoms afforded to him after years of being almost totally denied agency. He wondered, not for the first time, if the scarred man had lived and Steve had asked to leave him after Brock and the others were dead, would Jack have allowed it. Today he thinks well of the man and decides, yes, he would have, but there are other times he isn't so sure. Whatever affection he had would have evaporated had that been the case, no matter how comfortable he was made, no matter what was promised to him.

On top of that the Soldiers will be ravenous at first, confused, terrified. It could take them months or ever years to regain something like a personality, a moral compass, free will that operated outside of the constant shadow of the need. Maybe he's been foolish, naive, to think even with Buck to guide them they will have any idea what to do. He pushes it from his mind for now. They have days to talk it over. Seeing the intense guilt the big man feels for his past actions, the way he so often seems to collapse in on himself with the weight of being what he is, makes the blonde certain they have to free the others.

"This fancy ass place is really built like a brick shithouse," Clint announces, barging into the pantry. "Greta thought there was a problem when you didn't answer, so I started heading down, but once we were more than a few floors apart I couldn't reach her either so I realized it was just the walkies with these thick concrete floors. I went back and let her know. Fury should have given us some of the communicators like he gave the ex-ops folks. Those things work for hundreds of miles, through just about anything. Hill already wandered off to give him a mission report while we were fucking around."

"Something wrong?" Steve queries, concerned.

"We need Buck. The penthouse door is...well, I don't even know how to describe it."

"Would you like me to carry you back up the stairs?" Buck asks softly, gazing down at the blonde, after they're back in the lobby.

Steve smiles shyly, noticing the archer's expression at the question. "No, I'm...I'm good. Why don't you go help the others. I'll walk up with Clint."

The Soldier sighs hard through his nose.

"You don't have to go in without me," the blonde assures him, putting a hand lightly on his arm. The bigger man nods and heads off. They hear him leaping up the stairs for a few brief moments before he's too far away for the sound to travel.

"Why doesn't he want to go in? What Jasper said to him?" Clint's brows furrow at the mention of the ex-ops.

"I don't know. He seemed to get spooked earlier, when we were all outside. He practically ran up the side of a building naked to get away from me." Steve frowns.

"Maybe he could feel that creepy little four-eyed bastard staring. I don't like the way he looks at you. And don't think Buck hasn't noticed. That could go south veeeery quickly. Maybe he'll eat him!" The archer shows his teeth like Dracula in a cheesy late night cable film and mock growls.

"Buck was pretty upset when we first came down here."

"Funny, he didn't look too shook when he came up to whisk you down the stairs." The archer cocks an eyebrow.

"Whaddaya mean?" Steve asks innocently.

"I saw your cozy little tablecloth bed in there and your hair is all fucked up in the back." Clint reaches over to fix it and the smaller man lightly slaps him away, smooths it himself. "He totally boned you."

"No he did not, thank you very much." The blonde tries to sound very affronted, but it comes out embarrassed. He's gotten soft on Clint, for sure. After a dramatic pause he adds confidently, "I boned him."

"Well, good for you, Stevie. Haaaass he boned you though?"

"That's totally none of your business." He again doesn't manage to come off as actually angry. It's more like a Victorian lady who's had her honor questioned.

"I just think that's like...a good metric of your emotional recovery...or something, if you did that. Not that I don't get it if you haven't. Or don't. But we could swap tips on what positions we like it in!" The archer elbows him softly as the mechanic rolls his eyes. "So, was this the first time you did it or...?"

"We've been doing....hand stuff for a while and then.....the other night, after the movie..." Steve trails off, looks up at the ceiling and waggles his head back and forth a bit.

"I wondered where you two got off to. Literally got off, it seems."

"We....did it in the pantry."

"You did what?" Clint stops and practically yells.

"I fucked him on the bread table, okay!" Steve blurts out.

"You're a wild man!" The archer claps him on the shoulder - the mechanic shakes his head but doesn't jerk away. It occurs to him as they start climbing again how many times they've casually touched lately. He supposes he has made a lot of progress.

"Does that make me fucked up? Like...abnormal or something? Just...going at in kitchen storage." The blonde makes an uncharacteristically unsure face.

"Hell no! It's hot. It means you're like, both super eager to get it on and can't wait. I wish I was having pantrics with my wife."

"If I talk to you about something, can you not be you about it?" Steve's a bit winded now. They've made it up seven stories and man, he's regretting not accepting Buck's offer. Clint, the bastard, isn't phased.

"Rude," the archer smirks. "What's up, kiddo?"

"My hair is messed up because I was on my back earlier....But because he asked if he could....do stuff to me with....his mouth." He gets redder, and it isn't from the exertion.

"I'm assuming you don't mean a blowjob or you'd just say that. He rimmed you?"

Steve just nods.

"And? He like...needs pointers? Because for the record, I'm not practicing that with him." The archer makes double finger guns as they round the landing on yet another floor.

"No! It was...really good, actually. I've just....never let anyone near there since....And I never thought I would. Not even him, but then he asked like...." He pauses, blushing even harder. "His voice and the way he phrased it and the way he looked at me..." Steve shivers. "I would have said yes to almost anything."

"I totally feel that. You've seen some of the crazy shit Nat has talked me into. Even got me to kiss you with that!" He reaches over and playfully scratches Steve's beard.

"Well, now I'm thinking...maybe, eventually, I'd kind of want to try other things. And I'm wondering...where to start. Because I've never....had someone do any of that stuff to me. Like....with hands."

"Well, I mean, I'm assuming you do that stuff to Buck? I'm assuming you weren't a prick and just jammed in your prick."

"Of course not. I mean yes, I did. Not jam my prick in I mean. The other thing..." the blonde stammers.

"You fingered your boyfriend. Jesus, Stevie, you can say it. You fucked him on some bread after all."

"Yes. I have fingered him, but I moved the bread first. I'm not a total savage." Steve finally manages to sound rankled.

"You're a freak and I love you and if my wife ever leaves me, I'll be knocking on your door. But you have to shave. And grow tits." Clint grins wider, then gets a bit more serious. "Have you ever touched yourself there at all?"

"No," Steve says quietly.

"Well, I think that's step number one. You can't tell him what you like if you don't know."

"Okay. What's step two?"

"Toys," the bigger man says like it's obvious.

"Huh?"

"Putting objects in your rectum," Clint says very seriously, like a cop explaining why he pulled someone over.

"Uhhhaaahhhh..." Steve is sure he must be maroon now.

"Was that English?"

"Step three? What's step three?" He changes the subject, tries not to think about the hairbrush in Buck's bag.

"Talk to your boyfriend about what you want, idiot."

"I don't know. I don't...I don't want him to anticipate stuff happening that maybe won't, you know? If I let him...finger me...and he tries to take that farther? What if he doesn't..." Steve trails off.

"Take no for an answer?"

The blonde doesn't say anything, just gets wide eyed and half nods.

"Has Buck ever done anything to you that you didn't want or been anything less than respectful?"

"No."

"Focus on that. If you try things...alone...and aren't into it, maybe it's not for you. But if it is, just remember that if anything happens with him, he'll listen. He'll stop. He wouldn't hurt you. Fuck, I think he'd rather die first." Clint throws a companionable arm around the blonde. "I get it. I get why you're scared and you don't have to push yourself. But if you do, my best piece of advice is..." He looks very sternly at Steve. "Lots of lube."

"Look at this. A straight guy giving a bi guy advice on butt stuff. It's a brave new world." The mechanic grins, throws his arm around the bigger man's waist. "Thanks, Clint. For everything."

"Of course, baby brother."

They walk most of the rest of the way in comfortable silence.

"Holy fucking Christ!" Steve yelps as they reach the top of the stairs.

The thing there isn't so much a door as it is a vault entrance, six feet wide and fifteen feet high. Buck is pushing it. He's straining, growling even, but it's slowly moving. It has to weigh several thousand pounds and be designed to resist an attacking force, but he's fucking pushing it. The mechanic suddenly realizes the gravity of what they plan to do, the repercussions of there being twenty-four people in the world capable of that. For the first time since Jack died, he prays. When it finally slides open enough to see inside, they all gasp.

Chapter Text

They were prepared for a small armed contingent protecting some drug lord with hundreds of crates of canned goods and a harem of his favorite call girls (or boys). Or a random staff member, now crazy, locked away there for years with no one else, mind slowly decaying as they lived off military rations. Perhaps even a dictator from some other country with a stake in American real estate, a faction of his military police holed up there with him after flying in on a private jet. Lord knows between them they had walked in on all those scenarios and more since the collapse.

Certainly this was way too good of a hiding place to be unused, even with the weather, especially for someone who had the money to buy this type of building after the previous owner's demise. They could afford to stock it with enough non-perishables for decades if they could purchase something this fancy. They'd never need to go outside again. Buck also informed them that the absurd door was new, an extreme upgrade over what had already been there. At the best, they expect it to be filled with corpses, perhaps victims of the plague or just of the confined space. Even the best of friends, lovers, could turn into enemies trapped inside a finite area with no way out.

What they aren't expecting is for the place to be completely devoid of bodies - living or dead - and untouched. It's spotlessly clean, plates set out on the table with a tablecloth that probably cost more than some of them made in a month before the collapse, everything tidy and in it's place like the maids were waiting for the boss to come home. Yellowish storm light pours in through the floor to ceiling, indestructible windows as they're coated with sheets of rain. It shows off tasteful furnishings accenting a mostly open floor plan with a large, well-stocked bar against one wall and a massive kitchen. There are no window treatments because, as they had all noticed from the street, you could not see in from outside. The view is incredible, even through the harsh precipitation.

It's absolutely gorgeous, and one of the few places any of them have been in years that smells truly clean. The amount of effort that must have went into sanitizing the place to the point there were not even any particles in the air to settle into dust would have been immense. It must have had its own air filtration system of some kind at one point, and no one had been here to track anything in (or shed skin, since the dry flakes were what made up a lot of household dust) since it had went down. A tasteful wood block calendar - the kind with little cubes that are rotated to show the proper number - reveals that no one has been here since before the collapse, at least no one who cared to update it.

After long moments of staring around in wonder, they branch out with their firearms at the ready to search the attached rooms. All save Steve, who notices that the Soldier is still lingering in the doorway. He turns and gives the bigger man a sympathetic smile, moves to step towards him. Buck holds up a hand to ward him off, then cautiously peeks his head farther into the space and takes a long look around. After a full minute, he slowly steps in.

"It looks nothing like before," he says with obvious relief.

Steve smiles wider, reaches out and carefully takes his hand. "That was really something, with the door. How do you manage not to crush things on accident?" The blonde gives his fingers a playful squeeze.

"I do not remember ever being different physically than this. That probably made it easier for me to adapt than if I recalled how my body functioned before." He brings the small man's hand up to his lips, gently kisses his knuckles. "You have noticed that I have very good fine motor skills, even on delicate things."

Steve gives him a dopey smile before glancing over his shoulder. The massive vault door has a series of thick metal rods down its edge that have drawn mostly back inside of it. He can see around the frame that there are openings where they would enter to seal it shut.

"Was it unlocked?" The mechanic, curious, steps closer to examine it, fingers still linked with the bigger man.

"No. Jasper was able to attach a device which gave power to the keypad and allowed him to discern the combination. Without the electrical grid or the backup generators, I still had to open it manually after he disengaged the locks."

"Why would he have that? He thinks we're going to get water pumps out of a factory." Steve whispers it very quietly, so that only the Soldier can hear.

"It was fortuitous. I do not believe I would have been able to get it open otherwise."

The others all emerge, save Clint. They hear him call from a side room, voice so high and wild it sends them all into a panic, running to the doorway with their weapons drawn. It is the only room with no windows, a large pantry stocked floor to ceiling with all manner of packaged and non-perishable foods. There are things in jars and tins, canned goods, cheese coated fully in rinds, bottles of various oils. Most of it is foreign or extremely high-end brands. The room must be perfectly insulated, because it is a cooler temperature and the air feels different than the room outside.

The archer actually squirts a few tears as he hugs a massive wheel of cheese.

"This is the single greatest day of my life," he hoarsely whispers, before bending down to kiss the wax protecting his prize.

His wife rolls her eyes, but then spies a jar of marinated mushrooms, the label in Cyrillic. She's in them like a shot, groaning as she jams several into her mouth and mumbles something that sounds like Russian. Soon they are all grabbing a snack from the massive stockpile, even Hill showing a glimmer of excitement as she breaks into a tin of octopus marinated in a spicy tomato sauce. After Buck seals the door, they spend hours going through the place.

In addition to having a massive master bedroom with a custom-made bed that is even bigger than a king size, there are multiple other large bedrooms. Every bed is made up with expensive sheets and silk brocade comforters. There are a variety of items in each as if the owner was expecting guests, including thick, fluffy bathrobes, but nothing in the closets. The master has a walk-in half filled with high-end men's and women's clothing. Nat, Win and Clint play dress up, while Luis and Steve jump up and down on the massive bed.

Hill sets herself up on a chaise lounge with a book as Sitwell starts going through every scrap of paper in the large personal office. Greta breaks into the wine - there's an entire little room of it, once perfectly temperature controlled - and after some cajoling gets Coulson to join her, heading off to one of the guest rooms alone. They all practically shit their pants when the overhead lights come on, running into the main room all at once.

"I did not want to ruin the surprise," Buck says as he emerges from a small utility room on the side.

He explains that there is a massive state of the art solar array stored in a sub-floor between the penthouse and the upper dome, rigged with sensors that tell it to eject the panels and fold them down when weather conditions are ideal. The system has continued operating all on its own with no one here, a bank of batteries both fueling it and storing the power that it creates. The penthouse also has its own fully electric hot water heaters and the dome's downspouts are designed to divert and filter water into storage tanks. While the filtration system is not operational for drinking water, they can use the running water and heat it up.

A lot of them are unabashedly excited to take a shit in an actual toilet for the first time in years. They all take long, hot showers, some of them with their partners and some of them alone. It was far too much of a hassle to rig up that type of running water in Claptrap, or to heat it, not to mention wasteful. The aquifer only has so much. Buck had quietly requested that he and Steve take a bath instead of a shower - the master bedroom has a huge tub in its private bathroom.

After they are settled in, facing each other, the big man bends forward and low as he hands the blonde a drinking glass he has brought from the kitchen. The mechanic smiles, remembering their time in the Green Place tubs, and soaks the Soldier's hair. He lathers it vigorously with an appropriately lavender scented shampoo, rubs his scalp in soft circles. They discover that the big tub has jacuzzi jets, and sit side by side with their legs tangled together and Steve leaned against the bigger man's chest as they let it run for a long while. It's definitely romantic, the lights dimmed and a few random candles lit, but it's been a long, hard journey and they both fall asleep.

The blonde wakes up first, eases slowly away from the bigger man and then out of the tub. He watches him sleep for a bit. Buck must be truly exhausted after all his exertion, because Steve has only managed to move away from him a few times while he was asleep and not had him wake. There are all sorts of fancy lotions and bath oils on a shelf nearby. The mechanic has a thought suddenly, bites his lip. He takes a bottle labeled unscented massage oil and then makes himself comfortable on the edge of the sink across the big room. It's behind a partial wall, shielded from the tub.

Rubbing the oil between his hands to warm it, he tries not to make too much noise. He takes a deep breath, holds it, lets it
out slow in a calming exercise he'd learned years ago. His hand slowly goes low, between his parted thighs. The first graze of the fingertips against him makes him jump a little bit, even though they are his own and he knew they were approaching. Steve can feel a few fine runners of scar tissue there, is momentarily embarrassed that his boyfriend would have felt them with his mouth even though he had warned the bigger man about them.

It's just awkward at first, weird and somehow shameful. He stops, sighs. When he slowly starts to move again he tries thinking about the things that he had done to Buck that the bigger man seemed to enjoy, stroking lightly up and down for a while at first. The sensation becomes less odd, but it isn't particularly doing anything for him. He tries the slow circles around the outside instead, something that seems to drive the Soldier crazy. That's definitely better, and after a bit he can't help but think about the way the brunette had mimicked it with his tongue.

That gets him going. He tries to remember in intense detail the way that Buck's mouth had moved on him, copies it - slow circles punctuated by the occasional light stroke over the center. His breath picks up and his face flushes as he spreads his legs farther, ever so slightly widening the middle of the pucker. That makes him even more sensitive there, the feeling even more intense. Steve stifles a little sound as it tries to come out of him, feels himself hard against his belly. He takes his hand away, applies what is probably far too much oil, then goes back to his previous ministrations.

He mirrors what Buck had done, after he'd started putting in his tongue, alternating circling the puckered outside, light flicks over the center and (shallowly) penetrating himself. At first it's just the tip of his finger, but he's so slick from the oil more goes in with limited resistance. There's a moment of panic when he gets in to the second knuckle - his insides revolt, muscles clamping down, a wave of nausea and fear hitting him. He takes slow, calming breaths again and after a few moments his body relaxes enough to ease in fully.

It's a strange and utterly new feeling, being penetrated painlessly, intentionally. His touch is just exploratory at first, almost clinical. He can feel more scar tissue there, a few small areas that are numb or where the sensation is off somehow. It's disappointing to think that he can do this mentally but physically isn't getting much out of it. About to give up, he curls his finger experimentally. It finds his prostate and a hot bolt rocks through him. He stills, gasping - it's good but way too much. When he moves again, he carefully rubs over the area much more lightly, slow and rhythmic.

"Oooohhhh..." he lets out softly, eyes squeezing shut.

It makes his insides boil in the most delightful way, everything from naval to mid-thigh tingling, hot, roiling. He does it for a long time, feels himself pushed to the precipice and just hanging there, but it doesn't quite send him over. Finally, almost desperate for release, he strokes himself quick with his other hand. He cums fast, shoving his mouth against his shoulder to muffle himself. Buck stirs in the tub and calls out to him.

"I'm coming," he says appropriately, as he cleans up the mess with the softest towel he's ever touched.

Chapter Text

The gang lay out bedspreads in the middle of the main room, near the electric fire place, around a massive spread of snacks on the hard wood floor. They're all in bath robes and little to nothing else except Jasper and Hill - the former still in his inexplicably well-kept clothes and the latter in a pair of full length men's pajamas. The robe is too large on Steve, hanging nearly to his ankles with his hands totally covered, but the even shorter Win and Nat pilfered the few smaller ones. Greta and Phil are quite stoned, giggling at literally everything. Luis and Clint smoke some too - after they shotgun Sitwell for the fourth time, the bespectacled man finally grabs the joint in annoyance and gingerly puffs it.

Buck's sleeves are not quite long enough and the bottom hem comes just to his knees, his long, muscular legs crossed in front of him. There's very little he can eat of the bounty other than plain vegetables - he snacks on a can of organic, unsalted green beans while the rest gorge on all manner of delicacies, most of them heavily imbibing as well. He likes watching them, relaxed and laughing. It's one of the few times, other than during sexual activity, he sees the little mechanic look totally unburdened.

"Yer not drinking anything?" the mechanic asks Clint, surprised, as he returns from the bar with another round for himself and the girls on a tray.

"I, uhh, haven't been doing that. Since our fight."

"Aww, man," Steve plops down next to him, sets the tray in the middle of the floor for everyone to reach, then puts an arm around his broad upper back. The blonde is warm and sloppy from a good amount of whiskey. "Dat wus...that was my fault. You were just tryin' to be a goo'wingman. And I wuz...I wus a dick."

"No, it's..." The archer trails off, looks serious suddenly. "I hit you. Really hit you. Tackled you. I could have hurt you bad. I'm the dick. I'm...a terrible person."

"What?! No! You're the best person. Tell him he's the best person everyone!" the blonde insists.

Most of them offer their praise and encouragement and the small man shakes him lightly. "I love you, big brother."

Clint puts his face in his hands and sobs. Steve looks with surprise to the others. Win raises a hand, and her brows, in a what the fuck gesture and the mechanic shrugs his free shoulder, looks at Nat.

"Babe, maybe we should go in our room for a bit. Lay down." The redhead starts to get up.

"No!" he half-chokes, leaning his head on Steve. "I'm sorry kiddo."

"Fer what, dude? You... You always put up with my shit. I wus...never nice enough to you before. Thas all differen' now." The blonde smiles at him. "I'm gon be the best little brother ever."

"I don't deserve that!" Clint practically growls, wiping tears from his face with the back of his hand. "I'm a piece of shit. You don't even know. None of you know."

"Hey, we've all done fucked up things to survive," Luis offers.

"It's not about that. Before, before everything, I was garbage. I was the best at one thing for a lot of years, won all those medals. You probably wouldn't think it, but there was a lot of money. Endorsements, fame. Everybody wanted to shake my hand or take a selfie with me or give me their number from the time I was barely more than a kid. Everyone wanted to buy me a drink, and I always said yes. Until there was nothing else. Until I was a dumb, shitfaced asshole more than not, fucking up my career, pissing off my friends, screwing around on my wife."

"Wife?" Steve can't help but breathe out, face twisted in shock. He looks at Nat - her eyes are blank, as they so often are.

"Which is why when she got sick, she was living in some totally different part of the city from me. By the time I got to her on foot through the snarls of traffic, she was..." He lets out a wavering, groaning sob. "So I went to my parents, to the big fucking house that I bought them with the high wall and the huge gate. We holed up there, me and my kid brother, Thomas, stealing whatever we could from the empty houses nearby. Then the big fire happened while we were asleep. The wind was high and it swept in after it took half the block. The whole city went up eventually. Then it was just me and Tommy."

His big hands are shaking badly. Steve reaches over and takes one of them, pulls it onto his own lap, squeezes it tight. The room is utterly silent.

"Me and him, we heard the cities farther south had safe havens, military support. We made it pretty far down the coast, but then we had to cut farther inland because of the storms. We hadn't really run into too much trouble on the road. People were still so shell shocked, and looting was so easy - the bug reduced the population so quick and there was so much to take everywhere, they weren't really coming after each other much yet, at least where we'd been. We ran into a few tough guys, but nothing we couldn't handle. Tommy wasn't big but he was a scrapper."

His grip on Steve's hand tightens, tears flowing freely now as he keeps talking.

"Then we got close to the city here, on the highway, in the big jam we saw earlier. People came out of nowhere, a couple dozen of them, and just started shooting at us. They snagged us both, dragged us back to some random little house in the suburbs. They took Tommy out of the room, and I heard him screaming for so long. Screaming, begging, yelling my name and big brother, big brother over and over. I tried and tried to get free but I couldn't. Then he was quiet." He grits his teeth, rocks slightly forward and back, looking at nothing.

"That wasn't your fault," Steve almost whispers.

"When he was born, when they put him in my arms for the first time, they said to me a big brother has one job - to protect his little brother. I fucking failed him. I failed him over and over again for years. I didn't let him hang out with me in school. I acted like I didn't want him around at home. I barely talked to him once I moved out. I had only seen him three times the year before it happened."

The blonde makes a sympathetic face, but sits quietly, waiting.

"Then it was my turn. They untied me, other than my hands behind my back, and they took me out into the garage. And I saw his skinny little body, in his favorite t-shirt, with his pants and underwear ripped off, hung upside down from the rafters, bleeding out into a bucket. He was twenty-four years old." Clint makes a face like he might vomit, but continues. "I head butted one of the assholes, managed to run off, cut the rope on some sharp metal in a backyard. I was just running at first, ducking into houses, and then I found her. Cecilia."

His face hardens, his tears stop. "And then I was hiding, but not because I was afraid. I laid in wait, and I got them. One by one I got them and strung them up for their friends to find, until there were so many they stopped even taking the bodies down. Until there were none left to take them down. So that's me. That's the waste product I am."

They all just stare, quiet. Steve puts his head on the bigger man's shoulder.

"I killed fifty-seven people when I was in the field," Jasper says, cutting the silence. "Headshots mostly."

They all turn to look at him.

"Then one day I was given a dossier that just didn't sit right with me. You don't question the chain of command, you don't question orders, but something was off and I just couldn't place it. So I did some research, surveillance, and it turned out that the woman wasn't a terrorist. She was a school teacher and the only thing that she had done was speak out against her oppressive government. She was getting so much coverage on social media, they were afraid to do anything about it themselves, so they called my boss, greased his palm, got her added to my list."

Sitwell takes a big hit off the joint, holds it, blows the smoke out slowly through his nose.

"So I killed him instead. I made it look like an accident, an air bubble from a syringe injected into the bloodstream. Then I took his job so I got to pick the names. When I went through his files, I realized nearly a third of the people that he had sent me after had never done anything wrong except piss off a rich and powerful person."

"I never liked you, but I always respected you. You never told me to kill anyone that didn't deserve it," Nat offers. It's her turn to get everyone's attention. "My other handlers, especially overseas, were less...scrupulous."

"I have killed many undeserving people," Buck nearly whispers.

"You didn't have a choice though," the blonde says in rebuttal, then offers to the rest, "I built a suitcase bomb and blew up a former military operative and his entire war council. He had his own little army, did whatever the fuck he wanted to whoever he wanted. I blew most of them them up too, with a truck full of explosives. I got some people killed in the process that arguably didn't deserve it," Steve states directly.

"When Fury told me you blew up the guy that held you hostage, I think I loved you a little bit right then," Jasper says calmly, shocking everyone. Steve's cheeks redden and it isn't from the alcohol, his eyes going wide. "I'm sorry. I'm really stoned. I shouldn't have said that." He leans back far into the plush chair he's sitting in, like he's trying to hide, then suddenly snaps forward again. "You weren't right before. I didn't talk to you about overhearing you because I got a thrill out of it. I did it because I hoped you would be embarrassed or uncomfortable and stop, or at least attempt to hide it. Very selfish and stupid to be jealous over someone you couldn't admit to liking, even to yourself, being happy with someone else. And... I'm sorry, Buck. About what I said this morning. That was hypocritical of me. Steven is right. You had no choice. I did." His brow furrows.

"I accept your apology. But also, if you touch Steve, I will rip your arms off," the Soldier says calmly.

Jasper actually laughs at that, soft at first and then long and loud. "You don't have to worry about that. Look, I know how I seem to people. Odd. Creepy. I'm...on the autism spectrum. I have a hard time pretending to be like everyone else. Constantly thinking about how my actions seem to others is exhausting and while I get what feelings are, I have a hard time reading them from other people. After being in charge for so long, I guess I stopped bothering to try at all. I just did whatever I wanted, even if I had some idea it was unsettling." He passes the joint to the archer.

"I have ADHD," Clint offers, tokes, passes it to Steve.

"Depending on which childhood therapist you ask, oppositional-defiant disorder, anti-social personality disorder, blind rage syndrome or - my personal favorite - intermittent explosive disorder. Very foreshadowing, that one. And now, post-traumatic stress disorder including symptoms of depression and mild to moderate panic attacks." Clint grins and gives him a clap. Some of the others join in. "Thank you, thank you," the mechanic says, doing a little bow. He takes a light drag, passes it to Greta.

"I didn't deal with my social anxiety for years," Greta chimes in. "Cut myself off from everyone. Then I found weed. And you kids." She inhales deep, hands it off to Phil.

"PTSD, too. Three tours overseas before I joined Fury's team as a mission coordinator," Coulson says, hits it, offers it to Win.

She looks at the lit tip, blows on it softly. "I had severe depression, after my miscarriage. I did not leave the bed almost at all, for weeks. I...tried to kill myself, with pills. That's why we came to America. My...husband wanted to get me away from all the questions, the gossip and the judgment." The welder pulls a long drag and hands the joint to Luis.

"I don't...I don't really have anything to offer like you all did. I just have...regret. A lot of it. Guilt. People I took for granted, lied to, blew off. People I hurt. People I let others hurt. I wish they could all know how sorry I am." The young man takes a few short puffs, passes it to Nat.

"I was taught to be a sociopath. It makes for a better killer. That was the thinking in the program they put me in after I was orphaned. Sometimes, it's like everything turns off inside, goes cold. I don't even know what's me and what's the training. Then I see that fucking idiot," she gestures at Clint, "and I...feel."

The archer smiles, eyes glistening. It's the nicest thing she'll ever say to him in front of the others. She takes a huge hit, holds it an unbelievably long time before blowing a series of smoke rings. Maria reaches over from the chaise, takes the tiny stump that's left.

"I'm a nymphomanic," Hill says flatly. They all go silent and stare as she finishes the joint. She turns slowly towards them and then laughs - it's the first time any of them have heard her do it. After another moment of shock, they join in. That night, they all sleep like babies, wrapped up in comfortable beds in the whitest sheets.

Chapter Text

When Steve wakes it's almost completely dark outside. Before the world's weather was altered by man's behavior, a hurricane would have only affected the coast a few hours right before and after it made landfall. With the super storms, they were affecting the shore and miles inland far before they reached it with much more intensity than in the past. This one had not yet even hit the shore and yet the sky - only dimly lit on the horizon with the beginnings of sun up - was still raging. There's debris thudding off the windows and he presumed that's what woke him, but it could be the archer's snoring. He leans up a bit - in the faint glow from outside he can see Clint on the opposite edge, then Nat, Win and finally Luis piled into the giant bed with Buck and himself.

He only vaguely recalls getting there, the bigger man carrying him and laying him out on his left side by one edge, facing towards the center of the mattress, tucking him in, stroking his face until he drifted off. Buck had settled in beside him to form a barrier between the others, knowing how much the blonde does not like to be touched unexpectedly, especially from the back. Luis' arm is draped over the brunette's waist and the mechanic has a tiny stab of jealousy. He reminds himself they were all high, and some of them drunk, when they climbed in here. Their bond already makes them touchy and, as much as it makes him insecure sometimes, it's something he'll have to learn to live with. He actually really likes Luis and thinks he's good for Win, plus it's nice to see the Soldier so comfortable with someone else.

Buck looks beautiful asleep - lavender tinted pouty lips hanging open, dark lashes against his cheeks. His robe is just covering his crotch and not much else, twisted and pulled partially open. The blankets are tangled around his knees. The metal hand is near his face, palm down, the flesh one a fraction of an inch from Steve's lower belly, curled lightly. He can't help but think if he angled his hips up just so... The blonde shakes his head a bit, realizes he has the ghost of a hangover, but it isn't so bad. He's incredibly thirsty though.

The former residents had thought of everything - knowing they couldn't drink the recycled water from the taps without boiling it, they had put a water dispenser - the kind with a massive, replaceable bottle and the little flip tap - next to the bathroom sink. The blonde slips away as quiet as he can. After drinking four cups full, resting on the edge of the sink, he sees the massage oil. He gets another refill, drinks it slow, eyeing the bottle, debating. Thinking about the Soldier's pecs, abs, thighs, about Buck's flesh hand so near leads to thinking about the smooth ridges on his metal fingers and how much the bigger man liked them inside himself.

Fuck.

Had he been this much of a hornball when he was younger? Before Brock, before the road, the collapse, the bug, had sweet, quiet, nerdy, intensely angry Steven Grant Rogers had a big sex drive? It was hard to remember really. Maybe his current relationship is spurring him to discover things in himself that were buried when he was a teen, when he loathed his body so much, felt invisible to most other people. Maybe Buck wanting him so much made it easier to want himself.

He sets the little cup down, eyes the door across the large room. It's closed, but not locked. Good enough. Steve just rubs himself with the oil first, then enters himself careful and slow. It's easier this time, mentally and physically, since he knows what's coming (no pun intended). He does more than work his finger inside - he slowly eases it in and out, lightly dragging the curled tip over the sensitive spot both ways. That had scared him before, to actually thrust, afraid to do anything that would remind him of... He feels himself start to tense inside, pushes the thought away.

Deep breaths.

Steve closes his eyes, focuses on the sensation, thinks about how much Buck loves this being done to him. Remembering his fingers inside the Soldier, the big man's breathy sounds, how he asks (pleads) to be fucked, turns him on even more. Slowly, so carefully, he eases a second finger in. That feeling - being pleasantly stretched, filled in a way Buck's soft tongue couldn't do - is utterly different to anything, and not at all like being taken violently as he feared it would be. Now there's two calloused pads rubbing his prostate as he gently penetrates himself over and over and it's so, so good. He can't help the little sounds that come out of him and he's sweating, even with his robe completely open to the cool morning air.

The soft click of the latch a few minutes later makes his eyes fly open. He doesn't have the presence of mind to pull his hand away or cover himself, just stares into the semi-darkness in shock. Buck is there, door already shut behind him. His eyes glow softly in the dim, his mouth a bit open, expression going from a mixture of concern and fear to surprise and arousal.

"Should I...leave?" the Soldier questions softly as Steve finally removes his fingers, curling the outside of his hand lightly against his thigh.

The blonde shakes his head. For a long moment they just stare at each other.

"Would you...like assistance?" Buck asks, equal parts eager and wary.

Do you...want some help with that? Steve hears Jack say. Fear had stopped him then, even though he'd wanted to. Later - after having a positive, long-term physical relationship and seeing how much it could strengthen an emotional bond with the right person - he regretted not going there with the big man, not trusting him to not take it farther, not giving Jack at least that before Steve's revenge took everything from him.

After a few seconds, the mechanic nods. The brunette locks the door, approaches slowly, as if he'll spook him. The rain beats against the big window behind the tub, muffling his quiet foot steps, the growing dawn light hazy and gray through the heavy clouds. When Buck's a few feet from the mechanic he stops, eyes cautiously - reverently - running down his petite body and then back to meet his own.

"Tell me what you want," the Soldier whispers.

Steve takes his metal hand, pulls him closer. "Is oil okay on this?"

Buck nods. "I have not found a non-corrosive substance that can damage it."

"Will you...use this one, in me?" The blonde doesn't mean to be so quiet, as he has so many other times, but his voice isn't even a whisper.

The bigger man's eyes widen a bit, his throat working, jaw muscles twitching. "Whatever you want," he rasps.

"Just...one finger, and really slow. And I don't like it very hard and..." he drifts off.

Maybe giving some big list of instructions is ridiculous, killing the mood, but he knows this is different than the other things they've done. If Buck does something he doesn't like or that makes him uncomfortable, it could cause him to panic, ruin the whole thing. The Soldier has always been so good at taking instruction. Maybe if it's too difficult to tell him what to do, he can show him.

"I have an idea," Steve says.

Oh, you're welcome. My day's going great, thanks. Yours? he hears Jack quip, as he had when the blonde had greeted him with the same words years ago. It's comforting somehow.

Chewing his lip he brings the bigger man even closer, undoes the belt on his robe, eases it from his shoulders and lets it drop to the ground. The brunette's eyes get big, and it occurs to the smaller man that he may misunderstand his intention, him now naked and Steve splayed out on the edge of the sink's marble counter, entrance glistening. But Buck doesn't move to touch the mechanic, just stands waiting to be given permission or advisement. Steve puts more oil in his hands, rubs some of it on the Soldier's silver digits before doing the same with his own.

"Why don't I do to you what I want done to me and you can copy it?"

Steve is surprised at the confidence in his voice when he feels so nervous, but there is something about the soft, needy, anxious way that the bigger man is looking at him that makes him feel utterly in control. Buck nods, edges closer, spreads his legs a bit more, letting Steve reach between them as he slowly does the same to the blonde. The mechanic demonstrates exactly how he likes to be rubbed, to have his entrance teased, the big man eagerly following suit on Steve's body. When they're both breathing hard into each other's faces, the blonde ever so slowly eases his middle finger into Buck, who does the same in return, both of them groaning softly. He can feel every rib of the ultra smooth, warm metal as it pushes into him.

"Fuck!" Steve exclaims quietly when it's fully inside him, going still - Buck freezes, eyes him with worry. "I totally understand why you use this one now," the blonde quickly follows up. "It feels so different, so good."

The mechanic starts to move again, stroking ever so lightly over Buck's prostate at first, far more gently than the big man usually likes it. He curls the finger slow, pad pointed up, leaving long pauses between the fingertip's contact with the sensitive area. The Soldier copies it exactly, looks entranced as he watches Steve's face, see his cheeks flush, eyebrows pull in, lids close slightly, mouth open a bit wider again and again as he makes sweet little stuttering gasps. Steve starts to very slowly, gently thrust, curling the finger forward a bit more firmly on the way out and back on the way in, grazing his prostate in both directions. Buck does the same inside the blonde as he rumbles deep in his chest. After a few minutes of working up the courage, Steve puts a second one in.

The Soldier's fingers are thicker than his, unyielding. Steve moves very, very slow at first, the memory of being forced to take too much too fast and the awful pain making him clench slightly. He stops, leans his head back to look at the Soldier, at the naked affection in his eyes.

"Kiss me," he whispers and Buck does, soft at first and then like his life depends on it

He starts fucking Buck, slow and steady, with his hand - after a second the bigger man returns the gesture. It isn't long before Steve feels tingly everywhere, his cock getting so hard, his balls drawing up tight. He feels like his bones are rubber, his insides white hot radiation. The most decadent, needy sounds come out of him and he scrambles to spread his legs farther, let Buck into him deeper. When he opens his eyes the Soldier is watching him, unblinking, with rapt attention. It's obvious he very badly wants to make Steve cum like this. It's also obvious, after the blonde goes right up to the edge, dangles forward over the yawning chasm of his impending orgasm but can't drop in, that he still needs more.

He grips Buck's shaft, works him the way Steve likes, and the big man follows suit. It takes seconds before the blonde is shoving his face against the Soldier's chest to muffle the cries of his intense release. He's panting, twitching, his cock and hole suddenly too sensitive. The blonde removes his hands from Buck, giving him the cue to do the same. The bigger man quickly obliges. Steve leans back against the mirror breathing hard, head swimming. It takes him a long time to notice the Soldier is staring at him with awe, longer still to realize the big man is still hard.

Steve slides back to the edge of the counter, thighs and cheeks and sack a slick mess of oil and cum beneath him. The blonde comes forward enough that he's just resting on the back of his cheeks and his tailbone, pulls out the bottom drawer of the vanity beneath him a bit with his toes and rests the balls of both feet on its edge. He grips Buck's hips and urges him forward. Steve takes the brunette's length in his hand and slides it between his wet thighs, under his balls, head rubbing light over the pucker of his hole. He tightens his legs, using his position on the drawer and hands on the ledge of the sink top as leverage to arc his body up.

"Fuck me like this, but don't enter me," he says softly.

The Soldier stares at him in wonder for a long minute, searching his face for any hint of uncertainty, then he smashes their mouths together and starts to rock his hips. Even so spent, it feels good for Steve, Buck's hard, smooth length sliding against all his most sensitive areas. For the first time he can actually picture letting the Soldier take him. The brunette groans into his mouth again and again, tongue moving perfectly against the blonde's. There's a second where Buck's head almost slips just a bit into his entrance and he almost, almost tells him to just do it, just penetrate him. The bigger man carefully adjusts his angle so it doesn't happen again, goes back to fluidly thrusting between Steve's thighs, along the underside of his balls, against his perineum, his crack.

Suddenly with a bellow quieted against Steve's neck, Buck finishes hard all over him. The hot splash of it on his hole and sack is strangely good too, different than feeling it uncomfortably seep out hours after. The Soldier impulsively slides his arms around Steve's waist to lift him high, one moving around his upper back. The blonde's chin rests on his shoulder as they cling together.

"Thank you," Buck whispers in his ear, "for having so much trust in me. I love you."

"I love you too," Steve murmurs, "but I think a shower is in order."

Chapter Text

There's a sports complex along the west side of the penthouse with all manner of equipment and a pool. Clint and Nat work out, like they do together a lot of days at home, egging each other on and flirt-bickering. The archer makes the mistake of offering to spar with her in the boxing ring, and she kicks his ass with ruthless efficiency. Flipping him over she straddles him, pinning his arms down with her knees as she lightly grips his throat.

"Oooh baby, I love it when you get rough," the archer manages to choke out, pressing up into her hand even harder.

"You want an actual challenge?" Hill asks from outside the ropes. The red head grins, nods.

"Chick fight!" Clint yells, bringing the others.

They're fairly well matched, despite Maria having five inches on Nat. What Hill has on her opponent in strength and reach, the other woman makes up for with speed and flexibility, bending her body in seemingly impossible ways to dodge blows.

After twenty minutes of the two of them going at it with no clear progress, Win yawns and announces, "Boring!"

She challenges Steve and Buck to a game of ping pong against herself and Luis.

"Winter doesn't get a partner! He destroys at this game already. Seriously," the green-eyed man laughs. "After I taught him how to play, he never lost against me even once."

"Two on one and you get one paddle!" Win insists, pointing up at the Soldier.

He's still easily besting them, hitting every ball, not letting them score, making several points. Steve has to laugh at how nonchalant he seems, like it takes no effort at all, while Win and Luis - yelling and swearing in Cantonese and Spanish respectively - are sweating and panting trying to match his speed and impossible angles. The blonde stands behind the bigger man's opponents, coyly slides a finger into his mouth while giving a seductive look. Buck misses the ball. The others scream in victory and jump into an intense hug. The Soldier scowls at the mechanic, who grins ear to ear.

The brunette isn't distracted by Steve's gestures, even as they become increasingly obscene, until he bites his lower lip flirtily and slips his fingers into his waistband up to the second knuckle. The calloused tips are dangerously close to his crotch. Another shot flies past Buck.

"Oooooh getting slow in your old age!" Luis mocks him.

The Soldier growls, furrows his brows, locks his focus on the table. He's letting nothing past him, but the other two are also playing excellent defense and the score is now tied. Buck blocks out the blonde, now obviously cupping himself inside the sweats he'd pilfered from the walk in. Steve - always up for a challenge - turns, looks over his shoulder and eases his pants down enough to show half of his ass. Buck misses again, losing the game. He throws the paddle down hard enough the sound echoes through the big room.

"Cheating!" he yells, pointing a (thoroughly cleaned) metal finger between the two of them.

They turn around to see Steve standing there, arms crossed, surveying the table.

"What?" the mechanic asks innocently.

Buck stalks up to him, eyes glowing, lords over the smaller man. "I believe I am owed compensation for your interference."

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Steve says, feigning offense as he rolls his eyes dramatically.

The big man stoops down low. "Apologize." He looks very intense, but there's an unusual hint of playfulness in his tone.

The blonde chuckles through his nose. "I can't say I'm sorry when I don't know what I did."

"If you will not make reparations for your wrong doing, I will be forced to seek justice through other avenues." The Soldier stands up straight.

Steve pops up on his tip toes, gets his lips tantalizingly close to Buck's. "What're ya gonna do, biggin? Spank me?"

The brunette's hands are out with lightning speed, fingers working under the smaller man's arms, making him squirm and laugh uncontrollably.

"Hahaha! Not fair! HahahaBuckhahaha!" The blonde walks backwards but the bigger man advances with him, continues his movements as the smaller man slaps at him. After a long few moments, Steve is red-faced and almost hyperventilating. "Hahahahastophahahahastop stop!!!"

The Soldier obliges him and the mechanic stands there trying to catch his breath. "You..." he huffs a few times, "bastard!" Steve finally gets out, grinning.

"Have you been trained to swim?" Buck asks, cocking an eyebrow.

"Uhh yeah wh-"

The mechanic is cut off when the Soldier shoves him lightly in the middle of his chest. He falls backwards into the deep end of the pool. Steve surfaces screaming.

"IT'S SO FUCKING COLD!!! SHIT IT'S SO COLD!"

Buck strips out of his sweats and jumps in, naked, diving smooth and perfect to the bottom, his body barely making a sound as it cuts the water. He surfaces in front of the blonde, smiles broadly.

"Now we are, as they say, even Steven."

The blonde dog paddles up to him, wry smile on his face as he squints his eyes. "I think the punishment was too big for the crime." He splashes Buck.

Buck leans close to his ear. "Perhaps I only sought an excuse to see you wet again. You are very enticing like this." When he pulls back, the smaller man is blushing.

"Well, if he's got his dick out again, I might as well get out mine," Clint says from the side of the pool as he strips out of his t-shirt and workout pants.

"It's actually not a bad temperature once you get used to it," Steve offers.

The sports complex featured a small locker room filled with workout clothes, further evidence that the owner had expected guests as they were of all different shapes and sizes. A few minutes later Nat, Win and Luis come out in actual swim attire.

"There's no universe where you don't all get some sort of horrible bacterial infection from swimming in that pool. You know that rain water runoff is uncleaned and untreated?" Hill, in workout leggings and a sports bra, is toweling sweat from her forehead.

"It is no less safe than swimming in any relatively clean body of open water, but I do advise against drinking it. A mouthful or two should be safe, but do not swallow large quantities," Buck responds.

"That's what she said," the archer chimes in. Maria rolls her eyes and walks off.

"Speaking of bodies of water, why aren't you guys set up next to one of those rivers that we passed?" Luis asks, treading water. "Why isn't anyone?"

"The storms all along the coast created heavy rainfall which run into rivers and streams to the south. Much of this water starts out on the ground and then drains off, and it is heavily contaminated when it reaches the waterways. Many of the waterways themselves run through areas with heavy toxic runoff from damaged sewer facilities, factories, powerplants and debris from damaged cities. The water is not safe, even when boiled. It is far too contaminated with chemicals and in some instances radioactive leakage. It would require a complex water treatment facility with the appropriate equipment and chemicals to make the water safe for consumption or crop usage."

"Why do I ask you things?" the green-eyed man says in mild exasperation.

"Because I am very intelligent," Buck calmly responds. That makes Luis laugh loud and the Soldier smiles.

"We should play chicken!" Clint demands.

"Absolutely not," Nat says flatly.

"Ba gawk! Ba gawk!" Win flaps her bent arms.

"Ooooh, she's callin' you out!" Luis chuckles.

"I think you've gotta accept her challenge," Steve adds, "or your honor will forever be besmirched."

The others head to the shallow end of the pool. The competition is brutal and the welder isn't above pulling the redhead's long hair or pinching her full breasts. Steve and Buck stay in the deep end, paddling around each other.

"Where are Phil and Greta?" the Soldier asks.

"She said they were going to trip balls and watch movies on the holodeck in their bedroom," the mechanic responds. "She found a lot of drugs in the master."

"And...Sitwell?"

"Who knows? Haven't seen him since breakfast."

"He said that he...loves you." Buck looks down into the water.

"I don't think he meant it like it came out," Steve says, "I think he just has a crush on me. He'll get over it."

Buck's long arms swish silently, his strong legs bicycling slowly beneath the surface. The blonde watches him in silence as swirling reflections of light play across his face. His eyes have been periwinkle almost constantly since this morning, but they shift to a bit more icy hue.

"When you love someone, you will do anything for them, do anything to be with them," the Soldier says quietly. "I know this to be true from experience."

The blonde blushes. "And you're...worried he'll win me over with his incredible wit and charm and sharpshooting skills?"

"I... question his intentions, what he may do. I do not question your feelings towards me."

Steve gives him a warm smile, swims in close, puts his slender arms around the bigger man's neck. Buck effortlessly keeps both of them afloat in the water as the smaller man's legs wrap around his waist. They kiss for a long time.

Eventually they all meet up with a slowly-coming-down Coulson and Greta, as well as Jasper and Hill, to have lunch. They spend hours playing video and board games and just generally screwing off. The penthouse's rec room has everything that you could want to entertain yourself - a pool table, darts, a hatchet throwing area, even a single lane for bowling. Long after dinner, and a brutal game of Monopoly that almost ended with a fist fight, the three younger couples head back to the master suite while the others retire to their separate rooms. There were just enough for Coulson and Greta to use one and Sitwell and Hill to each have their own, leaving the rest to share.

Steve, Buck and the others are on the floor on piles of blankets, having a late night snack and chatting. The electric fireplace - mimicking the real thing on one wall - is the only light in the room, bathing them in a soft red-orange glow. The Soldier sits with his back to the end of the bed, long legs spread out with the mechanic sitting to his left, turned a bit sideways and leaning into him. He cannot help but notice, even through the thick fabric of their robes, how warm the smaller man feels. His scent is so tantalizing. The brunette swallows hard, is certain he can taste him in the air.

Buck had fed gluttonously on their attackers but he had also injured himself severely falling from the building - using up reserves to heal his shattered bones, punctured skin and crushed organs - and then exerted a massive amount of effort climbing, repairing shutters and opening the huge door, plus closing it again. The need is not overpowering, but it is awake, speaking wordlessly. The want whispers even louder in the back of his mind, tells him to carry Steve off where they can be alone, where he can be free to put his teeth in him, bury his pulse in him. He cannot think of anything but his sweet taste and the helpless sounds he had made.

"Winter, buddy? You okay?" Luis' voice pulls him from his thoughts.

The smaller man approaches him across the layer of comforters, sits close. He also smells delicious and his scent is so familiar - so ripe with the promise of blood, strength, bonding, comfort - that it gets the want chattering even louder. His friend gently rests a hand on the bigger man's flesh arm; his skin is so warm, his pulse lightly thrumming in his fingertips, and it makes the need spike in Buck. He feels his teeth extend farther.

"You need to drink?" the green eyed man asks softly. "You look hungry."

Steve leans back so he can see the bigger man's face. His eyes are glowing the familiar pale blue that means so many things and he can faintly see the shadow on his lower lip of his biggest teeth pressing there. He looks at Luis and his big eyes are already fixed on him.

"Is it okay if he bites me? Just my wrist for a bit, so he doesn't get too nesty."

Buck makes a tiny sound in his chest at that, which Steve feels more than hears. The bigger man's body is tense with anticipation, and the blonde can feel his incredibly slow pulse pick up the littlest bit inside his rib cage.

"Sure," Steve says, trying to sound like it's no big deal. "You don't have to hold back on my account either, if you want to make it better for him," he says softly to the Soldier.

"Would you prefer we leave the room?" Buck says as much to the others as Luis.

There's a chorus of no and some headshakes, including from Luis and Steve. The smaller man draws near to the brunette's right side, his legs curled up under him, and offers his wrist to the bigger man as the others watch with rapt interest. The Soldier looks to Steve, who nods, then grips Luis' forearm - firm but careful - and buries his teeth hard and fast into the pulse point there. Luis tenses ever so slightly, though the blonde is surprised by how little given the awful sound it had made. It must hurt like hell.

Buck groans softly, eyes glowing brighter as they go half closed - Steve can't deny that this time he likes seeing and hearing how much he enjoys it, much as he had watching him drink the duck blood months ago. The blonde can't help but turn his attention to Luis and blatantly stare, utterly fascinated by the effect it's having on him. It's only brief moments before the young man's face softens, his big green eyes going partially shut, his lips parting. He only sighs at first, his shoulders sloping back and down, his entire body seeming to relax. Then he makes this little whimper, lids fluttering down. It isn't long before he leans forward, pushes his face into the thick fabric of Buck's robe, muffling his increasingly loud, drugged moans.

After what seems like a long time, but is probably only minutes, the Soldier releases him. The wound is gone. Luis slumps down against his side, arm going over Buck's belly. After a bit he notices Steve watching him.

"Sorry, do you want me to move?" he asks quietly, obviously dazed. The blonde gives him a little smile and shakes his head.

One by one the others offer, first Win - who is quickly slumped across Luis - then Nat, who returns to sprawl on the floor near their feet, then Clint, who just drapes himself over Buck's legs after. With them all settled in a warm cuddle puddle it feels totally acceptable for Steve to offer his wrist, the bigger man to take it, to push his pulse into him hard, clutch him close as the little mechanic wails helplessly with enjoyment, Buck groaning and whimpering again and again at how incredible it is.

When someone peeks in, they're all asleep.

Chapter Text

They're all loopy when they wake up after the feeding, giggly and touchy, finding it hard to stay too far apart. Nat and Win sit in front of the fire with their respective significant others almost across from them, legs all tangled together, all of them talking about nonsense. Steve has full on climbed into Buck's lap, something he's only done a few times - in this moment he can't remember why that is. He just knows it feels nice, his side against the bigger man's chest and belly, legs curled up with his feet next to the brunette's outer thigh. The big man is still in the same spot, shoulders against the mattress. It's obvious he's pleasantly drugged after biting so many of them, his eyelids partially closed.

"You're so cute," Steve hears Clint say. "Way cuter than me."

The blonde looks over and realizes he's talking to Luis, who is guffawing and blushing a bit. "I mean, you're a good lookin' dude. You're definitely way more built than me."

"Yeah but you're like," the archer leans closer, eyes his face thoughtfully, "you're so pretty."

The green eyed man laughs. "Wow, uhhh... Thanks, I guess."

"What?!" Clint looks almost drunk. They all do. Buck had fed on them so much deeper than before, and the after effect was so much stronger. "Is pretty like, offensive, because you're a dude? It's just...I don't know. It's the best word for you. You're really fit and everything but you've got that hair and those eyes and you look all...smooth and soft. I think..." He pauses, looks up like he's had an epiphany, then looks back at the smaller man. "I think it finally happened. I think I'm a little gay for you. Can I...kiss you?"

Luis rolls his eyes and barks out a laugh. He shoves Clint's face. "She put you up to this?" He points at Nat.

"No! Like...I saw you were a dish right away, but that's not new. I can always admit another guy is hot and that doesn't usually mean anything. But, like, I saw you wet twice and that was...distracting. Then...a bit ago, you were moaning... And that was pretty...I guess arousing is the word."

"The noises aren't a sex thing. He bit you too. You know." Luis doesn't sound offended, more amused at rationalizing with someone who's clearly, to him at least, being irrational. "Help me out here, ladies."

"I mean maybe the feeding itself is not a sex thing, with us anyway, but the afterglow isn't not a sex thing," Nat offers. "I think it can kind of... lead wherever. Like, I just felt high and relaxed in the best possible way and not at all horny, until my husband confessed he wants to bone you, and now I need a mop and a bucket."

"I did not say I want to bone him!" Clint corrects.

"Thank you! He's just talking out his ass. It's nothing," Luis plays it off.

"I'd like him to bone me. But, like, we could start with a kiss today though," the archer follows up. "If that's okay with all interested parties."

He gestures to the women. They both give a double thumbs up.

"I already told you, I'm not making out with you to entertain your wife. So you can stop with the joke."

"Not for her. For me."

Luis looks at Clint, laughs, goes serious, laughs again, goes serious. "Wait, are you for real? But everything you said before..."

The archer nods. "I totally meant. I've always been open to liking dudes, I just...was never actually attracted to one until now. You're just...really kissable. So, can we?"

"Ahhhhhhhhh...I don't know, dude," the green eyed man blushes harder. "It's just the feedbuzz. You're not really into me."

"It's cool if you don't want to," the bigger man insists. "I won't be offended. But I felt this way before he bit me. Now I just...have the balls to say it."

"It's easy. Watch," Win offers. She leans over and kisses Nat on the lips. The redhead responds with a pleasant hum and presses back.

The guys mouths both hang open and so does Steve's. Win gestures between Luis and Clint. The archer leans in close, gives the green eyed man the look he'd taught Buck and, when the smaller man tilts his face up towards him, the bigger man kisses him slow and sweet.

"See? Not so scary," he breathes, bringing a hand up to run through Luis' glossy ringlets.

When the green eyed man shakes his head lightly in agreement, Clint moves his fingers to cup the side of his face. He eases in slow, looking for any sign he should stop. When there's none he kisses him gently again, slowly intensifies it. Soon Luis' mouth is moving with equal vigor against his. The smaller man pulls back a bit, panting.

"You're a really good kisser," he whispers.

"You too," Clint agrees.

They look to the women.

"Do not stop on our account," Win insists.

"I mean, I'm enjoying the show, but you can go in the other room for all I care if you don't want an audience," Nat adds.

"I'm comfy," Luis grins, stretches his arms up and back, making his robe come open more at the top, showing off his hairless pecs and the top of his flat belly.

He gets a surprised expression on his face as he watches Clint swallow hard looking at his body - realization dawns there this isn't a joke or just an amusement. The archer leans back in to claim his mouth and their kissing turns passionate quickly. After a bit their tongues are occasionally visible working against each other in the space where their mouths meet. It's clear they've forgotten everyone else as Luis whimpers into it, clutches at the archer. Clint groans in response. The bigger man breaks their kiss to mouth along his jaw, down his neck. The smaller man is breathing hard and flushed, hands gripping at Clint's shoulders as the archer's big arms slide inside his robe and around him.

One of the bigger man's large hands comes up out the collar opening, lightly grips the back of Luis' neck just below the base of his skull. His other hand returns the way it came, grabs the top of the smaller man's robe and pulls it down. He's bare to the waist other than the sleeves pooled at his elbows, his fit body and half-sleeve tattoos accented beautifully in the fire light. Clint tightens his grip on the smaller man's neck, easing his head a bit farther back. He sucks hard along his smooth throat, his clavicle, moves to bite softly where his shoulder meets his neck.

Steve suddenly feels Buck's mouth and tongue on his own sensitive skin, lips sucking at his earlobe. It shouldn't surprise him the Soldier, who loves to watch and be watched, is enjoying this. He'd be lying if he said he wasn't a bit too. Luis is really hot and while the blonde is obviously not attracted to Clint he is attractive. The archer runs his free hand over the smaller man's exposed chest, lightly rubs his thumb over the pert nipple. The mechanic feels the brunette's hand slip into his robe, pinch his with just the right amount of pressure. He closes his eyes and sinks into the sensation, their lingering feed-bond making it even more intense, just like when they'd fooled around after he blew up the water pump.

Luis' chest is rising and falling fast, little sounds coming out of him repeatedly.

"Can I... Can I stroke you off?" Clint asks, not even trying to be quiet. "I wanna make you moan."

The green eyes get bigger and he freezes. Win whispers something to Nat who nods, then she slides forward. The welder kisses Luis first, then kisses Clint to his surprise. She eases them back together - their mouths move hungrily against each other as she undoes the smaller man's belt, pushes his robe open. Win licks her hand generously and starts to jerk him slow in plain view. He whimpers into Clint's mouth. She moves to kiss his neck, eventually pulling her hand away, gripping the archer's wrist and bringing his near Luis' length.

"Is it okay?" Clint asks him, hesitating.

Luis swallows hard, nods. The archer takes him in hand and starts to stroke him slow and careful, literally feeling out the process. The smaller man moans soft and breathy against Clint's lips as Win sucks at his earlobe, pulls his hand to her breast. Buck's fingers trail up Steve's leg to his inner thigh, pause. The blonde pushes his hand farther up, to his cock. He groans softly; a few moments later the Soldier's hand withdraws, returns slick, pulling a moan from the mechanic when he starts to work him again.

Nat leaves the blankets, comes back wearing nothing but a harness that goes around her hips, ass and thighs with a five inch strap on attached. She's holding a box of condoms in one hand and a bottle of lube in the other. The redhead settles behind Clint, eases up the back of his robe, starts to touch his entrance with two slick fingers. It isn't long before she has them in him. He moans against Luis' neck, his own hand working a little faster on the smaller man as he kisses Win. Nat puts a condom on the fake cock, lubes it up, eases it into her husband. His whole body goes tight, shudders lightly, as he bellows low.

He pants against Luis' shoulder, stroking him faster, twisting his grip a little, groaning as Nat rocks the toy into him. The smaller man is moaning louder now, cock leaking. Steve can relate - Buck is working him just the way he likes under his robe. Win grips Luis' sack, licks her lips as she watches his face contort in pleasure. Suddenly she pushes Clint's hand away and climbs on, eases the smaller man's cock inside her and rides him. The blonde can relate to that too and the flashback of her doing it to him hits him like a brick to the face in his current state. He moans loud.

The archer is leaned up on one arm as his wife fucks him harder from behind. The mechanic has a view of her perfect, shapely porcelain ass. Her back is ripped, muscle moving under flesh as she thrusts.The women look at each other and something wordless is exchanged. Nat whispers in Clint's ear and he groans loud. Win lifts off Luis as the redhead pulls out of the archer. The men look at each other, panting, as the women move a bit away, Nat removing the condom.

"Will you...I mean if you want to... It's okay if you don't. I'd like to, with you," Clint stammers to Luis. Finally he gets to the point. "Will you fuck me?"

The big green eyes go wide, teacup saucer wide. He looks over to the women, who are already cuddling, playfully groping each other. Win shrugs, hands him a condom and the lube. There's only a brief moment of hesitation as the archer takes his robe off and then Luis is letting Clint help him roll it on, slick it up. The bigger man lays on his back on the blankets, spreads his legs, urging the smaller man on top of him. Luis eases into him cautiously and they both groan. The small man goes slow at first, watching Clint's face, finding a good rhythm and angle. When he has it, he starts to fill him faster and harder, making the bigger man's thick frame slide up and down on the comforter as the archer brokenly moans.

Buck makes almost the same sound next to Steve's ear, stills his hand, slides it down where his fingers are grazing the blonde's ass cheek an inch from his hole.

"May I?" he whispers.

The mechanic nods and then feels the light rub of fingertips in slow circles around his entrance, punctuated by firm, quick strokes over the center. Buck pulls his hand away, returns it even wetter, eases a finger carefully into Steve. The smaller man gasps and after a moment starts to rock his hips forward, fucking himself with it. Win and Nat just watch the boys for a bit, before Win straddles Nat. Win says something in Cantonese and they both laugh, then she guides the toy into herself and starts moving up and down. The redhead giggles, rubs her tits. The archer is groaning high and loud now. Luis fucks him harder and Clint breaks out in a light sweat everywhere. The big muscles in his shoulders and thighs cord up as he pulls his legs up and back, taking the smaller man deeper, panting loud in time with the thrusts.

Buck eases a second finger into Steve, works his prostate gently for a bit before starting to push in and out of him. Soon, the Soldier is rock hard against his ass, finger fucking him perfectly. Steve leans back and looks up at Buck. The mechanic expects to see the big man watching the show, but he's staring down at him. His expression makes the smaller man shudder and he's hit with a hot bolt of lust, of need.

"Can we go somewhere else? I want you to...do that to me," Steve whispers so quiet only the brunette can hear him.

Maybe it's too soon, but he knows this is the last chance they may have for a long time and he's brave right now, relaxed, his usual anxiety shaved away. They have no idea what's waiting for them on the road - it could be their last chance ever. Buck's eyes go wide. His hand stills and then pulls away. He scoops up Steve with one arm and a pile of blankets with the other, carries him into the common room and up the winding stairs to the glass dome on the roof, then closes the door behind them.

Chapter Text

It's pitch black in the big glass dome until lightning flashes, filling the space briefly with white light, revealing the battered remnants of the once beautiful small city stretched out below. The Soldier sets Steve gently on his feet, then pads over almost soundlessly to turn on the round, electric fireplace in the middle of the room. The orangey glow illuminates about ten feet out in all directions, leaving most of the room in darkness. While Buck can see the blonde just fine through the shadows - and busies himself taking cushions off the furniture scattered in clusters around the outside of the room - he appears as two floating orbs to the blonde, who can only see the Soldier's glowing eyes when he ventures into the blackness. The brunette makes a wide, cozy nest for them on the floor, adding the blankets. He pulls a small bottle of something out of his robe pocket and sets it next to the makeshift bed.

The blonde walks over, suddenly nervous despite the afterglow. He reminds himself that Buck won't do anything he doesn't approve of, that he'll stop whenever he wants, that he's utterly and totally safe here. Despite that, there's a long moment he just clings to the bigger man, hands curling tight on his waist over his robe, staring at the scars on his chest where they peek out its top. The brunette puts a finger under his chin and tilts it up, looks searchingly into his eyes. When Steve smiles, fear visibly melting, he leans down to kiss him gently. The warmth that floods them both is incredible, their feed-bond amping up the sensation when they touch again skin to skin, surprisingly even stronger now than before. Slowly, as their mouths press more furtively, they drop down on the blankets.

"Show me what you want," Buck humbly requests, moving back farther on the cushions, sitting down fully, legs stretching out on either side of Steve's.

The blonde is up on his knees to account for their height difference. He kisses the Soldier slow and it's bliss, his body tingling everywhere Buck's fingers edge under the robe. Perhaps they had been too rushed downstairs or not in the right headspace to let things unspool properly, because everything feels more intense now that they're alone together. He spreads his thighs apart, pulls the Soldier's metal hand under his robe. Buck rubs his entrance for a long time despite him already being wet from his earlier ministrations, their mouths working together. Even the sensation of their tongues touching makes them moan in their heightened state. When Buck presses in a finger it enters Steve easily and the small man hums his approval, a wave of feeling spreading through his insides. The Soldier works him slow and careful.

"Put in another one, please," the blonde requests softly after a few moments, pulling back from their kiss.

He suddenly feels almost empty without it, remembering the bigger man filling him so well when they were downstairs. The ghost of his earlier hesitation evaporates entirely and he's lost in the sensation of Buck's mouth as it moves to his neck, the firm pressure and texture of the smooth ribbed metal as another finger slides inside him, stretches him. The slim thighs part further, inviting, offering, demanding.

"Another," he gasps out after a bit.

The Soldier is so cautious, so gentle and slow, as he heeds his wishes. It is still too much, too soon - there's a sudden moment of discomfort. Buck, eye to eye with him again, sees it on his face immediately, pulls out of him.

"No, no don't stop," the mechanic almost whines.

"I was hurting you," the big man insists.

"You weren't. It was just...uncomfortable." He smiles, grips Buck's wrist, brings his hand back. "I can take it."

"Unacceptable. I only want you to feel good," the Soldier whispers, carefully easing one finger in, curling it, finding his prostate. As Steve gasps, he leans close to his ear. "I know you like a little pain, and I am happy to oblige you in any other way," he pinches Steve's nipple fairly hard and that sends a brushfire of pleasure through the smaller man, "but not this way. I will not knowingly hurt you like this, ever, even if you ask. We will go very slow. As you said before, there is no rush."

Buck presses his face to the blonde's neck, and with his free arm eases him slowly onto his back, then slips a second finger into him again. He bends low, kissing Steve's thighs where his robe is pushed up.

"May I use my mouth on you?"

"Y-yes," the blonde responds, making room between his legs for the bigger man, sliding the fabric higher.

Buck works him for a long time with his hand and mouth, opening his fingers apart as Steve had done for him the first time but sliding his tongue in between them to lap at the sensitive spot there. The mechanic comes apart, whimpering and moaning, grabbing the Soldier's hair. When the fingers are coming in and out of the blonde incredibly easily the bigger man very gingerly slides a third in, leaning up to watch the smaller man's face intently as he does. There's no hint of pain this time and after a bit he starts to thrust deeper.

"Please, I'm ready," Steve insists.

Buck smiles. "Not yet," he whispers, a bit mischievously, carefully opening the fingers inside the blonde a bit apart again and again.

Soon Steve is panting, writhing, rocking his hips.

"Now, I think?" the Soldier asks, grinning.

Steve nods, spreads his legs further. Buck maneuvers himself on his knees, hand on one side of Steve's head to support his much greater weight, other hand guiding himself to the smaller man's entrance. Suddenly it's too much for the mechanic - he feels trapped, boxed in, with the large body looming over him, pressing against him there.

"Stop! Stop!" He flails up against the bigger man, trying to close his legs. Buck is off him so quick it's a blur. Steve breathes hard, feeling damp with cold sweat. He sits up as he draws his knees to his chest protectively. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I don't think I can do it like that. Or any way that you're on top of me. Or from behind. I'm just.... I'm sorry."

"We do not have to do this at all if you are not ready," the Soldier assures him, cautiously touching his arm.

"I'm ready! I am, I just...I don't...I don't know how we can do it where I won't...freak out."

Buck considers and the smaller man sees the precise moment the idea dawns on him. He eases Steve to turn, feet pointing to the top right of the cushions and back to the bottom left. The Soldier lays in the opposite direction - head at top left and feet at bottom right - on his right side, leaned up on his elbow and forearm. He lifts Steve's legs one at a time, positions the back of his left calf on Buck's waist and his right mid way down the big man's outer thigh, then - with a big hand on his narrow chest - gently eases the blonde to lean back on his elbows. Their bodies are perpendicular, Steve effectively spread open a foot from the Soldier's erection. He carefully slides a finger into the blonde, then two, then after a bit three, ensuring he is still relaxed enough.

"Better?" he asks, alternating stroking the sensitive spot inside him and stretching his fingers apart.

Steve sighs beautifully, nodding, lays back fully, tilts his hips up a bit using his legs on Buck as leverage. He basks in it for a while, letting all the tension drain out of him, before offering, "I'm ready."

Buck lubes himself up with whatever is in the little bottle, slides his hips forward, gripping himself and guiding his length to slowly enter Steve. When just the head is inside, the Soldier reaches over, turns the smaller man's face using two fingers on his chin.

"Look at me," the bigger man whispers, getting the blonde to open his eyes, easing slowly in when he doesn't see any sign of discomfort.

Buck reaches to run his silver fingers lightly down the exposed sliver of the blonde's chest and abdomen, then back before beginning to rock his hips leisurely. Perhaps the moment should feel like something monumental to the mechanic, like he should have a speech prepared, a list of thank yous to read. Maybe he should cry tears of joy for puttying over another crack in the plaster of his emotions. Perhaps he should confess his undying devotion to his partner, tell him how amazing he is, how there's probably no one else on Earth he would have ever allowed this with. Maybe this could be the beginning of a whole new chapter in his life, more in possession of his own body, his own mind.

He's enjoying himself far too much to be bothered with any of that right now. Every slow drag of the Soldier inside him is incredible and his every nerve lights up like an ancient switchboard he'd seen on a movie. His body is slack, delightfully too warm - he pushes his robe to splay fully open, all other thoughts boiling away but one thing.

"You feel good, Buck. So good."

Buck lowers his right side fully down, head resting on his bicep so they are near the same eye level. The blonde's deep pink lips are even more vivid in the firelight, slightly parted, wide pupils glowing softly. The Soldier's right hand is free to touch Steve's face and card through his hair as the silver fingers run over his fully exposed flat belly, narrow hips and slim thighs. He wants the little mechanic to stay relaxed, to feel nothing but peace, pleasure. The brunette tries his best to ignore his own. His stamina is not usually a concern when they are sexual and he is surprised at how quickly his impending release builds. The blonde feels amazing - tight and hot and slick - and seeing him spread out like this, the obvious ecstasy on his face, his little sounds, only pushes Buck farther along.

The blonde uses the position of his legs to move his body in time with Buck's, urging him in deeper. The big man groans, his composure crumbling like his facial expression. He grips Steve's hip with his metal hand, lifts him slightly so his lower back is off the bedding, letting them fit together tighter, move faster. He takes cues from the blonde's movements to set the pace. They watch each other's faces as they both fall apart. The mechanic feels Buck's hips stutter, knows he's close to spilling.

"Don't finish inside me," he whispers pleasantly enough, fingertips whispering over Buck's cheek bone as both their hips move with more force. "Do it where I do."

Steve reaches down, puts fingers against his hole around either side of Buck's thick, wet cock, feels himself stretched around it as it slides in and out of him. He gathers some of the slick there, moves to stroke himself with purpose.

"I'm close, Buck, I'm so close," he whimpers.

The Soldier's periwinkle eyes glow bright, his face awestruck, overpowered. He nods quick, slides his hand from the smaller man's hip to his thigh, closer to where they are joined. Steve stares deep into his eyes, unblinking, as he tips over the edge.

"Oh...ooh...ohhhhhhhh!" the blonde wails loud, shoulders coming off the blankets and legs pulling a bit forward as he finishes hard onto his stomach, a few runners hitting his chest and even throat.

Buck pounds him through it for a few glorious moments, then his upper body and knees curl forward, hips rolling back as he pulls out. He quickly rocks up and forward to direct his pulsing cock and shoots onto the mechanic's abs. They both collapse, still tangled together, breathing hard. It's difficult for either of them to tell where their body ends and the other's begins. Later, they're asleep chest to chest, burrowed together in the heavy blankets, knees between each other's legs and arms around each other's waists, lips so close they are breathing each other's air, like one organism.

Chapter Text

Greta, who for the moment has had her fill of Phil (and psychedelics), decides to make a big breakfast for everyone when she wakes up. There's powdered milk and egg substitute and a variety of preserved vegetables - peppers, olives, onions, mushrooms, artichoke hearts - and cheeses of course, as well as canned fruit. When she gets everything set up and ready, omelettes just needing to go into the frying pans after people pick their fillings, she heads to wake the others. Jasper and Hill both respond from their respective rooms when she knocks, and Coulson - sleep rumpled but no worse for wear - gives her a little wave from their bed. She's impressed he's even awake.

She'd popped in the master after she'd worn out Phil (he finally fell asleep after the third round) to see if they were up for cards. The kids were all in a cozy pile on or around Buck, out cold. It didn't take a genius to figure out what they had been doing after she'd seen Steve all loopy in the messhall. The older woman had gotten a small taste of what the Soldier could do with his pulse and could only imagine how much stronger he was able to make it. She smiles watching them so peaceful. Lord knows they deserved it, especially the stubborn little pipsqueak. That boy had it so tough before he came to the junktown and seemed to keep needing to make it tough for himself in a variety of ways. She knows first hand abuse will do that to you, make you so used to the bad that you don't know how to recognize or appreciate the good (or you chase it away when you do).

That scene had not prepared her for what she'd witness the next morning. The redhead is on her back, tits out. Greta's haven't looked like that since her early twenties and her waistline was never close to that size - good for the ginger, keeping up her figure in her mid thirties, but the older woman just can't be bothered with that shit and never could. Win has her head on Nat's stomach, snoring with her mouth open. She's a tiny little thing and the survivalist muses she was probably bigger than her at twelve or so, the older woman being above average height with a sturdy frame. Greta has absolute respect for the welder though, has seen her take on people twice her size in the same sort of blind, animal frenzy the mechanic gets in. The little cute one with the pretty eyes is asleep against the dumb one with the good arms, leg tossed over him. She can't help but notice they're pressed tight together. All four are naked as far as she can tell, blankets haphazardly thrown over their midsections, legs sticking out at crazy angles, robes abandoned nearby.

She shakes her head, grinning. Crazy kids. If she were younger (or they were older) she would have been first in line for that party, but now she can't help but look on them in a maternal way. Lord knows she'd fucked things up with her own kids for so long, avoided phone calls, pushed her beliefs down their throats, and now they were gone along with the bastard she'd bore them for. That last bit was some small comfort at least. She clears her throat loud, waking the girls. Win stretches and yawns, grins up at her. The redhead gets up stiffly and heads to the bathroom with a little wave - she's wearing a harness over her bear ass and she can just see the strap on bobbing as she closes the door. It makes Greta chuckle as she kicks Clint. The muscly buffoon jerks, waking the kid. Luis turns sheepish instantly and scrambles away.

"Go find your brother! Breakfast in ten," Greta barks at the archer; he was never her favorite person, but he had a sort of blind devotion for Steve and the others and that was enough.

Clint isn't surprised to find the mechanic and the Soldier laid out in a big, comfy nest in the dome. Buck growls threateningly when he opens the door, leaning up over Steve protectively.

"It's just me, Bucky. Greta's makin' breakfast, wanted me to get you two."

The bigger man relaxes back down against Steve's side, snuggles in, waves Clint away.

"Why don't you go save us a shower before the rush starts," the petite man tells the brunette.

Buck pushes his face tight into the side of the blonde's neck. "Bath," he pouts.

"No, we need to be quick. Bath when we come back here."

The Soldier groans and the smaller man chuckles, turns to lightly headbutt him. They kiss slow and soft before Buck gets up. He swipes his robe up and puts it on as he strides past Clint, who is only in a pair of haphazardly thrown on sweats, hair messier than usual. Buck stops abruptly, sniffs him, makes a curious face.

"Why do you smell so much like Luis?"

"A gentleman never asks and a lady never tells," the archer responds, splaying his hand on his chest like a Southern belle in an old film.

"Oh... I recall. You had sexual intercourse."

"Yep," he enunciates hard, making a little pop on the P.

"Hmpf," Buck grunts, tone indecipherable, and keeps walking.

"So, this is pretty romantic," Clint says in his best wedding planner voice, gesturing to the makeshift bed and the view. It's much lighter outside than the previous day, but still raining. Steve is sitting up and easing his robe on with as much of himself covered by the blankets as possible.

"Yeah." The blonde stands, a mysterious smile creeping over his face. "So, I took your advice."

"Ooooooh! Did you two get to butt second base last night?"

"That was yesterday morning. Last night we..." Steve bites his lip. "Had a homerun."

"Me too bro! I'm so proud of us, letting people put things in our asses!" The archer holds up a hand for a high five. The mechanic rolls his eyes but slaps it.

"That's gonna be a thing," the blonde insists. "Luis," he adds to clarify.

"Why would it be a thing?" The archer pulls his eyebrows together, turns up one side of his mouth.

"Oh, Clint, you made such a terrible straight man." Steve pats him on the shoulder.

A half hour later they're all gathered around the breakfast table shooting the shit and starting to discuss moving on as the storm is breaking. Jasper and Hill are both eager to go, not wanting to lose any daylight; Phil and Greta grudgingly agree. The others are lamenting their luxury vacation coming to an end, stuffing their faces, joking around. The older woman notices Luis is silent, leaning on his fist, pushing his food around with a fork. He's barely eaten.

"Omelette not good, Luis?" Greta asks him.

"Oh no, it's fine." He gives her a weak smile. "I'm just not very hungry."

"You gotta eat, kiddo. A blood orgy'll really take it out of you." She grins.

Jasper does a spit-take onto Coulson with his coffee and most of the gang laugh. Luis' chair legs scrape on the floor as he pushes away from the table fast and stalks off, everyone quickly going silent.

"Ahh, fuck," Win grunts, looking after him. She whips around to Clint. "You go. Talk."

The archer looks to Nat who just raises an eyebrow and cocks her head in the direction the younger man went. As he gets up he hears the welder chastising Greta. "Nosey! Nosey!"

It doesn't take much searching to find the green-eyed man, even in the huge penthouse. The thump of the basketball on the hardwood court echoes as Clint approaches the side of the common room with the sports complex door. Luis pretends like the archer isn't even there as he enters, ignoring him completely as he walks over and settles on a bench fifteen away.

"Hey."

Luis doesn't respond.

"Greta's just being Greta. She doesn't mean anything."

The smaller man arcs up, makes a perfect shot, goes to fetch his ball, all in silence.

Clint sighs loud. "Come on, dude, talk to me."

Luis makes a jump shot. It rolls around the hoop and then goes in. He moves to retrieve it despite there being a rolling rack almost full half way between him and the archer.

"I really want to know what you're thinking. I'm even resisting making rim jokes," Clint says, grinning. When he still doesn't get a response he adds, "You fucked me for a half hour last night - kudos on the stamina by the way - so you can at least speak to me the morning after."

The smile doesn't leave his face as the smaller man turns to glare at him. Luis whips the ball hard with both hands, narrowly missing the archer's head as he dodges.

"Good aim, good aim. Care to throw some words my way next?"

Luis speed walks over to him, points a finger at his face from five feet away. "How are you so fucking calm, Clint?! What the hell?! I mean, was everything you said before bullshit? Was this your plan all along?! Is this, like, a thing you do?"

"Anyone who knows me realizes I'm utterly incapable of making a plan and actually sticking to it." Clint shrugs. "It just happened and I'm not upset about it."

"It didn't just happen. You...seduced me!"

"Ha!" Clint barks out. "That's super unlikely. I have nice biceps and gravity defying hair but that's pretty much the extent of my appeal. I only ever got a lot of action because I was famous and rich. I wanted to do stuff with you, I asked, you said yes. Well, with actions more than words, but....there was no trickery involved."

"What Buck did to us must have made it happen. I mean...everyone was acting crazy."

"Steve and Buck fooling around, normal. Nat, pansexual and really into girls with small boobs for some reason...and pegging me of course, so normal. Can't speak for Win's preferences but she seemed totally fine this morning so...I don't think anyone did anything they wouldn't want to do alone and sober with their person. We were just less inhibited."

"Bullshit! I would have never done that with you and you are not and never will be my person."

"Hasn't Buck bit you, like, dozens of times? Have you ever done anything like that after? Even wanted to do anything like that?"

Luis rubs his hands over his face. "No. So what does that mean? Straight adult men don't magically discover they like doing shit with guys out of the blue. It's one thing to be a closet case and, like, be aware you want to but you don't never want to and then suddenly want to!"

Clint shrugs, expression unfazed by the younger man's rambling. "Maybe they do. I did. It's whatever."

"Yeah, this is great for you! Stories to swap with blondey and you can have random hookups to entertain red. Perfect."

"Yeeeeeah, I don't need to talk about guys, or like them, to impress Steve, and I don't do randoms anymore. Nat and I have been totally monogamous up to this point and she's never asked me to do anything with anyone outside of the whopping two guys I've kissed before you. It would be pretty cool if you didn't act like my best friend and my wife are bad people."

"Well you know fucking Steve is never gonna let me near Winter again now. And I told Buck that I wasn't into guys, so now he's gonna think that I'm a liar and just bullshitted him, like he's not good enough for me or something. So he's gonna be pissed at me too. And Win probably thinks I'm gay..."

"Win was all over you this morning, until she got sick of your pouting. She's not mad. Fuck, she was encouraging us the most. And Stevie knows liking some guys doesn't mean liking every guy. And Buck-"

"I don't like guys!" Luis interupts.

"Ohhhhhh so this is an internalized queerphobia thing?" Clint nods knowingly.

"No! I'm not like that." The younger man's brow furrows.

"Queer or queerphobic?"

"Either!"

"Okay," Clint says agreeably. "You don't like guys and you can just pretend like last night never happened." He shrugs.

"I don't! I just..." Luis' face falls. "I just.........like you." His voice drops low as his expression scrunches. He covers his face with his hands. "Shit I...I really liked it, Clint. All of it. What the fuck does that mean? What does that make me?" He starts to cry, sobs audibly through his fingers, shoulders moving up and down.

The bigger man frowns sympathetically. "It doesn't have to mean anything. It doesn't have to make you or not make you anything," Clint says gently, getting up and going over to him. "Look, I'm in the same boat. I'm into you, but I've never been into another dude. And I mean, I love Stevie to death and I kissed him and still not a hint of feeling anything like that, even after years of being around each other. So I get why its confusing, especially with you testing the waters with Buck, who you care about so much, and not being into him like that. So yeah, I thought I was straight. But that label never really mattered all that much to me. I don't, like, need it to tell me who I am. You don't either."

Luis pulls his hands away, his eyes and cheeks red. He looks furious. "That's because you're white and grew up in the suburbs. Fuck, your school probably had an army of therapists ready to pounce on anyone who wasn't perfectly tolerant of everyone else and your parents probably told you what a special snowflake you were on a daily basis."

"Actually we lived in a blue collar neighborhood and my dad was a factory worker. My mom was an English teacher before the Downsizing, if you can believe that, since I'm dumb as a stone." He grins, self-deprecation always a ready weapon in his arsenal. "My talent with a bow made me rich. But I grew up two steps away from white trash."

"You didn't come from where I come from! Or have my family!" Luis yells. "This is something... It's okay for other people to be that way, but not me. They'd roll over in their graves. And fuck, every guy on the block that ever called me a maricón, this makes them sort of right."

"No, it makes them assholes."

"You can't understand what it's like to be thought of as something you're so sure you're not your whole life and then find out that you kind of are. Even a little bit. No one probably ever looked at you and thought this about you, accused you of this!"

"Trust me, I had relatives and neighbors that were plenty homophobic. I had guys fuck with me because I was small when I was younger and, shit, I'm not exactly the biggest guy now. I've got all of two inches on you. People used to call me shit because I had queer friends too. Half of Claptrap probably thinks I fuck Steve. But it's the end of the fucking world, Luis. It's all gone. I don't think we need to worry about shit like that anymore." Clint reaches out cautiously, puts his hands on the smaller man's upper arms lightly. "Look, at the least I still wanna be friends, but if you don't want that, I'll respect it. And if you want...more than that, whatever way, the four of us will figure it out."

Luis looks up slowly, anger spent, face wet. The archer gently wipes the tears away with his thumbs. When they come back to the table, the younger man doesn't say much, but he eats all of his breakfast. When they leave the hotel a few hours later, headed towards an uncertain fate, he begrudgingly admits to himself he's sad to see it shrink into the rearview.

Chapter Text

They have to drive carefully through the tough terrain of the destroyed city, the newest hurricane spreading the already shattered buildings in an even more haphazard array over the roads. Steve is the best driver, so he handles the truck, Buck slipping out repeatedly to remove things from their path that they can't drive around or over. Once they head further in land, find some clear black top, they make good time heading to their destination - a relatively isolated factory in a rural town.

Eventually, Win is driving and Luis riding shotgun. The young man has had very little to say all morning, and after he sighs to himself for the twentieth time she reaches over and slaps him upside the head.

"Ow! What was that for?" It wasn't actually that hard, and he does laugh a bit out of shock if nothing else.

"Being very boring. Pouting?" She turns her face to him long enough to cock an eyebrow and smirk.

"Maybe we should talk," he says, suddenly even more serious.

She rolls her eyes comically hard, let's out a long exaggerated groan.

"Look, you are a nice boy. Very good looking, lots of fun...usually. But if I wanted doting husband, I would have one." She gestures to the roof, clearly indicating Steve in the crow's nest. "Don't care if you call me your girlfriend, but don't care if you have another one either. Or a boyfriend, or whatever. Life is very short, maybe going to get even shorter soon. I did the traditional thing. He was a good man, so mostly worth it. But...not looking to do it again."

Luis just stares at her with a shocked face, silent.

"If you need children, commitment, control, not the woman for you. We can be anything we want now. End of the fucking world."

"So I keep hearing." Luis grins a bit thinking about the conversation on the basketball court, despite himself.

She flashes him a huge smile, as if the apocalypse is some sort of exciting challenge, a game that can be bested, a mystery just waiting to reveal all of its glorious secrets to her. Much like the mechanic before him, the green-eyed man realizes he is seriously out of his depth. With the exception of Winter, he's sure she'll outlive them all.

Steve has never seen Win lack self-confidence or back down from anything, but he is filled with sympathy and concern as he watches her face twist when they approach the doors of the factory. It's unimaginable what she must have went through alone in her own former workplace, all of those bodies so near for so long, only the faintest hint of daylight coming through the small windows up high off the floor near the ceiling. There was not a soft, comfortable thing anywhere in the place, not even an ounce of base comfort, no one to talk to. Somehow his experiences had left him shattered - very slowly gluing little shards back into place like reassembling a ceramic serving bowl dropped on a tiled floor, some pieces never to be found again - but Win's had forged her into steel. She only lets the sadness wash over her for a brief few seconds and then he sees her take a deep breath, close her eyes, and exhale it all out. Her tiny shoulders square up, and she's the second one inside after Buck, rifle ready.

Brock and his men had already broken into the place, stolen anything of immediate value, but the pumps are large and completely useless to someone without a settlement, a water supply, the appropriate tools and knowledge to hook them up properly. The factory had pumped constantly through pipes from the river at the edge of the property when it was operational. Paper manufacturing required massive quantities of water - the pumps were state-of-the-art, high-end green technology, designed to be energy efficient, leak-proof, and run with virtually no maintenance or observation.

They are able to take the majority of the pumps apart manually, very little torching required, though they do cut a few additional lengths of pipe. Clint of course repeatedly says pump and pipe punctuated with a lot of chuckling. Luis, helping him carry the latter to the truck over and over, can't help but laugh at his immature humor and the variety of other ludicrous comments that constantly stream out of him. Nat, painfully out of her element and already bored of searching through the picked over building, is leaning up against the side of the cargo box. She's been eyeing their interactions with obvious interest.

"Wait!" she orders them after they finish another deposit in the truck. She takes a quick look around, ensuring they are alone.

"I'm only going to say this once, so listen up doublefucks. As long as Clint doesn't screw around with anyone besides you, you can do whatever the hell you want with or without me around." The redhead fixes the younger man with a terrifying stare. Luis - as has become his usual - goes wide-eyed. "Exception being of course that I'm directly involved, a la our previous activities. In return, if Win and I feel like doing things without the two of you, then that's going to happen. It's only fair. Quid pro quo. Also, I expect my wifely needs to continue being serviced at the same quality and quantity that they are now."

Clint grins wide and reaches for her. "Awww baby, you're the be-"

She puts a hand up abruptly, stopping him and fixing him with a look. "If you get any ideas about replacing me, or any of my very simple rules are violated, I will cut your balls off. Both of your balls off if you're both guilty. And that isn't a metaphor, boys. I will literally remove your testicles from your body. Do we have an understanding?"

The archer, smiling broadly, moves his head up and down vigorously. Luis, his green eyes still massive, gives her a very slow, small nod.

"Okay, back to work, goons. This box isn't gonna stuff itself with pipe."

"Heheheheh," her husband responds.

"No offense, but your wife scares the shit out of me, dude," Luis says when they have a moment alone in the factory office. He's sitting on the floor rustling through random papers and junk while the others cut more pipe, Clint digging through cabinets a few feet away.

Clint sighs almost nostalgically. "I know. That's why I fell in love with her."

"So, did you... ask her...about that.. about me...or...?" The green eyes flit to the taller man shyly then focus on the floor, refusing to look at the archer as he slides down next to him.

"No! No. I was gonna let things settle down first, and then if I was sure you weren't super pissed at me anymore, I was gonna talk to you and then her."

"I got a do whatever you want with whoever you want because I'm nobody's wifey speech from Win this morning." He finally looks at Clint. "I think we've been conspired against."

"Or conspired for." The archer flashes him a gorgeous smile, staring into his eyes. He turns uncharacteristically serious. "Look, regardless of what they say, you don't have to feel pressured to do anything that you don't want to -"

Luis cuts him off with a sudden kiss, and after a few seconds of shock, the archer returns it. Their lips move slow and soft. When the younger man pulls away, he's blushing. He's up like a shot and out of the room, leaving the bigger man sitting alone on the ground wearing a stupid grin.

Loading the pumps goes fast with Buck able to carry each of the large, several-hundred-pounds apparatus by himself to the truck. They use comforters pilfered from the hotel to wrap them in, to keep them from banging together, and then strap them in securely along the front of the box. Even though Steve feels a bit guilty for blowing up the old pump - and going through this entire ruse, possibly putting them all in danger with the remainder of his plan - he has to admit that they would have never ventured this far for these without his actions. The pumps will completely change life at the junktown, making access to water for both necessities and luxuries far easier and less wasteful than their current leaky, outdated, inefficient equipment.

After they finish loading the truck, they all settle down for some lunch in a loose circle on and around the rear of the vehicle. They are suspiciously silent, none of them quite sure how to broach the subject of what comes next with those who don't know. Finally, Hill shatters the quiet.

"What the hell are you all up to?" She juts her chin at Clint. "He doesn't even shut up in his sleep and he hasn't said a word in an hour."

Jasper sighs and takes the apparatus out of his shoulder bag that he had used to open the penthouse door and lock it again when they left.

"You may have already guessed this, Steven, but I brought this because I know exactly where we're going and we'll need it to get in. So you can all stop with the charade."

The blonde shrugs nonchalantly from his seat on the back of the cargo box. It had occurred to him after Buck mentioned the device, but he'd hoped and prayed he was wrong. They couldn't have Fury swooping in to meddle. All the ex-ops had transmitters that would reach him (or anyone on the east coast). The Soldier stands up straighter, mouth pressing into a grimace.

"What does he mean? Where else are we going?" Maria demands.

"The main facility where they...trained Buck."

The Soldier takes a decidedly unfriendly step towards the bespectacled man from where he had been against the truck, eyes lighting up like two halogen bulbs.

"Oh, what the hell?!" Hill exclaims, rising quickly. "Fuck you goddamn idiots for getting me involved in this."

"How do you know about the facility, Jasper?" Steve asks warily. "Buck would remember if you worked there. Were you...over the people who did?"

"I was important, but never that important. I was called in to discuss their viability for an operation coordinated through my office."

"I do not recall seeing you visit, as I did Fury," Buck says in a blatantly accusatory tone.

"You... they...were in stasis. I only reviewed footage and discussed the Soldiers' applicability to the task at hand. Look, I didn't say anything to Nick about what we're doing and I won't."

"Thank you. I really appreciate that." The mechanic gives him a little smile and nod, which makes Buck scowl even harder.

"Of course. Anything you need." Sitwell swallows. "For the mission," he adds. "Fury has no idea where the facility is. He seems unaware of your intentions. He has a tell sometimes, when he's lying to someone he knows well. I didn't see it."

"I did not even know its location when I was housed there. They would not have permitted you to see the route you were taken on, the same as Fury. If you were not in charge, how did you ascertain our destination was the facility based on the direction of our travel? Why did you not believe we were only travelling to obtain the pumps?" the Soldier demands, eyes narrowing.

Jasper looks back to the mechanic. "I...may have...watched you a bit after we argued. You obviously sabotaged the pump, which meant this is all a diversion from your real goal. A means to an end to get supplies, transportation. I didn't know the exact location, but I was able to deduce the region. It's something they teach you, as a spy, learning how to keep track of what direction you're going in on foot or in transportation, even in an aircraft, were you to be blindfolded or otherwise incapacitated. I put two and two together."

Buck crosses the distance to Jasper in a flash, hoists him off the ground by the front of his jacket. "Liar!"

"Eh, Winter, come on man! You don't know that!" Luis starts to approach. The brunette turns, bares his teeth and growls at him, stopping him in his tracks.

Steve jumps to his feet. "Buck!"

The Soldier gives Sitwell a hard shake. "He was spying on you! He is obsessed with you! He will say or do anything to gain your trust!"

"The only person obsessed here is you!" Jasper counters, clutching the big man's wrist with both hands. To his credit, or in a testament to his arrogance, he doesn't look afraid. "I was just trying to work up the nerve to apologize to him, to admit the truth. That I can't stand seeing him, hearing him, with something like you."

"I'd love to watch you shake him like a PTA mom hopped up on her kid's Ritalin," Clint says to the bigger man, "but we also need him to not be a quadriplegic if he's going to get us in to the facility."

"I will rip the doors down!" Buck insists, his teeth out, as he brings his captive closer to his face.

"Yeah, like you'll carry a cargo truck across a river." Greta shoots a look at Clint that says thanks for swelling his head, fucking dumbass. "You told me the place has blast doors, kiddo. It was designed to keep twenty-four of you in, it will definitely keep one of you out. Put the little rodent down."

"I do not take orders anymore. Not from you," he spits at the older woman before turning back to Sitwell, "not from men like him! Men who only wish to own, subjugate, use."

"He's not a threat to us. He wants to help!" Steve insists from beside him.

"People like him are the worst kind of threat. They engender loyalty to gain control."

"You do feel threatened by me, but it isn't because of who you think I used to be," Jasper sneers. "Steven gives me even the faintest praise, the littlest attention, and your hackles are up. Why is that?"

"He is a kind person. He pities you. He could befriend you. You will use that against him. That is what your kind do."

"And what do your kind do? I saw the footage, before you had limiters, long before they could tell you what to do and you had to comply without question. I've seen your kind rip people apart, even children."

"Do you want him to fucking kill you?" Greta barks. "Shut your goddamn mouth."

"You're afraid, because I'm something you'll never be, Buck. A person. And every day that will only become more obvious to Steven, as you kill in front of him, as you thirst for him, as you throw one too many tantrums and finally kill someone who matters to him. Eventually he'll see what you are, especially as you go on, ageless, while he gets gray and feeble. I may not be big and buff and supercharged, but I can grow old with him. I can love him without wanting to devour him. I can understand what it is to be human."

"I'm not sure that you can," Steve half-whispers, face twisting, as he steps closer.

"Do you know the words?!" Buck demands of Sitwell.

"Words?"

"To control the others!" Buck shakes him hard again.

"I declined to use the Soldiers and even if I had agreed, I would've never been granted access to their command sequences. I would have given the mission parameters to the facility staff and they would have done the programming."

"Programming. We are not machines! We are not things! I will not allow you to control the others!" His irises go nearly white, mouth opening wide, teeth as long as any of them have ever seen.

A gunshot cracks loud, making them all jump or freeze. When they turn towards the sound, Hill has her smoking sidearm pointed at the sky.

"Enough!!!" Maria yells. "We'll tie him up in the truck just to be safe and I'll run the code finder for the door."

"You shouldn't let her do that!" Jasper finally sounds like he's losing his cool.

"Put him down, please." The blonde rests a hand lightly on his arm, looks up at him with his sea-blue eyes filled with concern, sadness, affection; the Soldier realizes he may as well be chipped - he cannot refuse the little mechanic almost anything.

Buck eases Sitwell to the ground, lets Clint and Luis take him.

"This is a big mistake. You can't trust he-" Jasper is cut off when Nat slugs him in the jaw, knocking him cold.

"God, I thought he'd never stop talking." The redhead rolls her eyes.

Hill turns to Coulson as she holsters her weapon. "You could have been a bit more specific when you said you needed me to cover for you, Phil. Jesus Christ. Fury will shit a brick when we show up with the Soldiers! A lot of people are already scared of Buck after the reavertown. It'll be pandemonium when there's a small army of them."

"I'm sorry, okay. I got...carried away in the group zeitgeist." Coulson shrugs. "But think of it, the safety and prosperity they could provide Claptrap! Especially with the crate -"

"No," Buck interjects sternly. "I will not take them to the junktown, to remain slaves. To live in the shadow of people like Sitwell and Fury."

He turns to stalk off into the woods nearby. Moments later they can hear the unmistakable sound of his metal fist thudding against a tree trunk. A pine topples over with a loud crash, then a bit later another.

Steve's heart sinks into his stomach.

Chapter Text

The little mechanic presses close to him, arms wrapping around his waist from behind, a gesture of comfort. He slowly lets the tension drain from his body, leans back as much as he can being so much heavier than the petite man. Steve climbs around into his lap. The slender legs straddle his hips. The clever fingers undo the top of his own shirt and jacket, pull the collars to the side. He is offering his soft little neck to be drank from.

So many days he could think of nothing else but his heartbeat deep inside the little mechanic, flooding him with ecstasy, bonding them together. He knows it isn't safe here, isn't practical, isn't appropriate, but all of his senses are on fire. All he can see is the flicker of the blonde's pulse under his creamy skin. All he can smell is Steve's incredible aroma, so thick in his nostrils he can taste him. All he can feel is the warmth of him. All he can hear is the want, whispering a thousand promises about forgetting - what he has done, what he is, the threat that the blonde can never really love him, accept him.

He buries his teeth in the smaller man, groaning as hot blood sprays into his mouth. The little mechanic is so sweet, unlike anything else he has tasted. His arms tighten around him, lift him effortlessly. He forces his pulse into him easily, making Steve go limp in his grasp and moan helplessly. He's drugged so quickly, lost in a red haze of pleasure as he sucks gluttonously.

Suddenly he realizes the smaller man is silent.

He pulls away and the sea-blue eyes are glazed and vacant, staring but seeing nothing. His skin no longer glows with vitality but is wan and graying. The wound in his neck is massive - he can see artery, muscle, tendon through the ragged hole - and his shirt is soaked with blood down to his narrow waist.

Buck is screaming and flailing, metal arm smashing into the wall of the cargo box so hard he dents it severely. His heart is hammering inside his chest, breath so labored he feels like he is drowning. Tears fall hot down his cheeks as he bellows, his noises deafening in the confined space. There are pale faces in the dark, looking at him with horror, whispering.

Monster. Abomination. Creature. Parasite. Devourer.

"Winter. Winter, buddy it's okay. You're safe. You're here with us."

Luis. Crawling slowly closer. The dim of the cargo box is empty save the two of them, Sitwell and Maria.

"Steve, Steve!" Buck sobs, looking around frantically. "Steve!"

"He's just up in the nest getting some air. It's so warm in here. You were zonked after playing lumberjack and he didn't want to wake you." The green eyed man offers him a little smile, reaches out hesitantly.

"Maybe that's not such a good idea. It doesn't seem stable," Hill warns, pressed back in the far corner.

The younger man whirls on her. "Don't fucking call him it, lady."

"He looked ready to take your head off earlier is all I'm saying."

"He'd never hurt me. Never." Luis turns back to Buck, puts his hand gently on the bigger man's arm.

"I could. I could. I could," the Soldier whispers frantically, shaking his head.

Steve comes down through the ceiling hatch, dangles off the end of the mini ladder welded to the ceiling and drops gracelessly to the floor. "What was that noise?"

He's barely said the words and the Soldier is on him, arms around his waist as he sobs into his shirt, face pressed against his sternum.

"Steve, Steve, Steve..." he says again and again like a rosary prayer.

The mechanic raises his eyebrows at Luis.

"I think he had a nightmare," the green eyed man says sympathetically. He turns to Maria. "Let's get some air."

"It's crowded up there."

"Your ass is narrow. It'll be fine." He gestures to the hatch with a quick jerk of his head.

It had become apparent several days ago that the two did not really get along. He had told a few of the others that something about the woman just rubbed him the wrong way. Hill for her part felt like he was a useless tag along and didn't understand why they brought him instead of another solid fighter. She rolls her eyes, but squeezes out on the nest with him and the others, Luis closing the hatch after them.

When the blonde tries to ease Buck back enough to look at him, the bigger man resists, grip tightening like a boa constrictor. He's crying hard now - something his partner has never seen him do - the broad shoulders heaving.

"It's okay, it's okay," Steve assures him, rubbing circles on his upper back with one hand while he gently strokes his hair with the other. The Soldier only clings harder. "Sweetheart," the petite man gasps, "you're crushing me."

The grip immediately loosens.

"Were you dreaming...about the facility? You don't have to be afraid of that place. I'll be with you."

The brunette is trembling as he sits up straight, as he runs his big hands over Steve's chest, neck and face.

"You are safe. You are safe."

"Of course I am." Steve smiles, slowly leans down to kiss his forehead. "Nothing's gonna happen to me. I know you won't let it. You'll have my back and I'll have yours."

Buck suddenly buries his face against the other man and sobs loud, arms going back around him. The mechanic eyes the indentation in the wall of the truck. That swing would have collapsed someone's ribcage. If he'd been sitting next to him, his head could have been dented in. The Soldier had been living with him nearly a year, truly awake over another year before that, in therapy for months, and yet this episode was his worst ever. The blonde realizes, not for the first time, they're painfully out of their depth waking the others.

The Soldier is like glue on Steve the entire afternoon and Nat and Clint cover their rotation in the nest. He refuses to speak, just leans his head against the smaller man's chest listening to his heart with his arms looped around him. The mechanic gets increasingly worried the longer he stays so upset. Nothing he says to him seems to make a difference.

They run into a small band of cannibals just before dark but easily best them, even with Buck noticeably hanging back. It takes the mechanic nearly twenty minutes of insisting then cajoling, and eventually begging, to get Buck to drink from their corpses. Even then he won't do it anywhere nearby, dragging two of them far off into the scrub as the daylight fades, leaving the others to nervously wait with the truck. He's meticulously clean when he returns, quiet and somber. Where he couldn't stop touching the mechanic before, now he avoids being close to him.

When they finally set up for the night, Greta, Clint, Hill, Coulson and Nat take Steve away from the campsite, far enough that they hope the Soldier can't hear them. Luis and Win stay back to babysit Buck and Sitwell, who has finally woken up after being out cold for hours.

"I don't know about this, kiddo. He seems like he's coming more unglued the closer we get," Greta offers.

"We can't rein in one of them. What are we supposed to do with two dozen?" Nat adds.

"They won't all be really awake at once. And he'll have total control of the others," Steve argues, even though several of his internal voices are vigorously agreeing with the women.

"He doesn't have control of himself!" the older woman counters.

"I was all for this when I thought they were coming back to protect Claptrap. But now we're risking our lives and Nick's wrath for what? For him to wander off into the sunset with them?" Phil questions. "Don't get me wrong. He was royally and epically fucked over. I would love to think that having the others in his life, helping them re-acclimate, will bring him some kind of peace. But we don't know the outcome."

"Maybe facing his fear is exactly what he needs," Hill counters. "Unimaginable things were done to him in that place. Maybe he needs to see that it's just another empty building gathering dust. Even if we don't free the Soldiers, or they're dead, I think it's important for him to go. To know."

"What she said!" Clint points at Maria. "Come on, folks. The big guy really needs this. We're already so close! Another day and a half and we're there."

"I think they're right. I think this is what he needs to make himself whole again," Steve agrees. "Or as whole as he can be made after everything. If you were taking me someplace I really needed to go and I had a nightmare, woke up screaming and freaking out, you wouldn't be having this conversation. Shit, I punched Clint so many times just for putting his hand on my arm. You guys put up with a lot of shit from me because my head wasn't on straight. Buck shouldn't be judged by a different standard because of what he is."

"Sweet pea, you know I love Bucky," Greta offers. "You know I'd do anything for my kids. But we can't deny that he is different. He could really hurt someone. Not on purpose! But he still could."

"And he could just as easily back in Claptrap too! Or do you think he doesn't belong there either?" Steve grits out.