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Someone to Stay

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His heart is beating quickly as he makes his way through the Brooklyn sidewalk traffic that afternoon, glancing over his shoulder every few moments to see if he’s still being followed. Each time, he can still see the man even though he’s kept a respectful distance between them so far. Except for the fact that the guy is still fucking following him to begin with.

Raking a hand through his short hair, Bucky exhales, trying to pull his rattled nerves into some semblance of order. It’s been harder to do that the last few months than ever before, and he doubts anyone can really blame him for being on constant edge, all things considered. He decides to take a new route, turning a corner and making his way down Decatur Street toward the market.

The guy won’t touch him in public, he knows. He also knows the police won’t do a goddamn thing if he tries calling them. His ex isn’t a cop, but he might as well be.

Glancing behind him once more, he groans with frustration to see that he still hasn’t managed to shake the guy. Maybe he could catch a taxi…

Just as he starts to seriously consider that -- even if he can’t really afford it, it’ll at least be easier to lose him in the streets if he’s not on foot -- he spots a tall blond man on the corner, frowning down at the phone in his hand. He’s not sure what makes him do it, but he calls out. “There you are!”

Steve is still not really used to reading directions off his phone. The thing is, he’s not used to needing directions at all, because this is Brooklyn and he grew up here -- but the thing also is, it’s like living in a weird funhouse Brooklyn, where everything is almost the same but not quite, and he actually ends up needing directions more than he’d like to admit.

(Then again, when your eyesight is as crappy as his was growing up, you tend to learn your way around by landmarks; and admittedly, nearly all of those landmarks are gone.)

But it’s a nice day, and it hadn’t seemed like navigating by phone would be all that hard. Except it is, and he’s standing there frowning at the little blinking dot in its colorful, cartoon street map like it can tell him why he isn’t where he expected to be, when he hears a voice that makes him look up, despite not being the only person out on the street.

But it seems like his instinct was right, because there’s a man making his way toward Steve with a single-minded determination that says he knows what he’s doing and he’s intending to do it. Steve can’t help the way his gaze fixes on the man, the hand with the phone dropping a little and his mouth opening a bit as he says, now that the guy is in range, “Uh -- yeah, here I am.”

Is it because the guy recognizes Steve? That does happen -- not as often as you’d think it might, but that’s because people don’t expect Captain America to be walking around on the street. (Well. People don’t expect Captain America to be alive; it’s only been two years, they still forget.) And even if they do, they seem to expect him to be wearing the red, white, and blue getup from the forties, or some form of forties fashion, and not the regular jeans and t-shirts and hoodies that people all seem to wear these days. People, including Steve, because he’s not stupid. Standing out is honestly the last thing he wants to do -- at least, on his days off.

Bucky can’t help casting a wary glance behind him once more, and sure enough -- the man’s still there even if he’s slowed down. He looks back at the tall blond, whose attention is now definitely focused on him, and Jesus, he’s actually gorgeous. His heart is beating impossibly fast and he wonders if he’s really about to do this -- it’s crazy, he knows that, but he doesn’t know any other ways to get the man following him to back off and leave him alone.

He grins at the man as he makes his way toward him, licking his lips nervously. “Please just go with it for a few minutes,” he says, voice just loud enough for the blond to hear. He hesitates a moment before moving closer and resting a hand at the back of his head, tugging him down for a soft kiss, eyes drifting shut.

This… was not how Steve was expecting today to go at all. Even accounting for being recognized, which he does have to work into most of his plans for going out, he hasn’t been pulled into a kiss by a stranger in, oh, about seventy years.

He actually hasn’t been pulled into a kiss by someone who’s not a stranger for roughly the same amount of time, which probably shows in the fact that even when ‘going along with it,’ Steve is not an experienced kisser.

But he is going along with it. Because everything else aside, the guy has this look in his eyes, like not-quite-perfectly concealed anxiety, and he’s giving off the same scent. It’s nothing anyone else would’ve probably picked up, but Steve’s stupid, oversensitive (alpha) nose definitely has; and that, coupled with the look on the guy’s face and the actual spoken plea, is enough to have Steve’s hand curling around the man’s lower back, palm resting flat there in a way that he hopes conveys I’ve got you while at the same time saying, I’m not trapping you here.

Sometimes, Steve still feels like he’s learning how to use this big, strong, alpha body. But sometimes -- a lot of the time, including now -- it’s worth it, because if something is wrong, and he can help, his instincts (alpha or omega, it never mattered) say he’d better jump to it.

His eyes do scan the crowd, though, around the curve of the brunette’s head. If there’s a threat, he wants to be ready to meet it.

It feels like Bucky’s brain shorts out the moment their lips meet, and all thoughts of his douchebag-of-an-ex-boyfriend following him are briefly obliterated. Something he can’t identify makes a bit of his anxiety ease, and he’s not sure if it’s the easy way that the blond has gone along with this farce or if it’s because of his sheer size. Either way, it signals to something in his brain that he’s safe, and he knows his ex well enough to know that he won’t make a scene in public even if he clearly gets off on intimidating Bucky every chance he gets.

The blond’s hand is warm against his back, even through the dark blue cotton henley he’s wearing. He pulls away slowly, not really in a hurry because despite his anxiety, despite not wanting to rope someone else into his troubles, it’s nice to be touched. Kissed. And the man’s lips are softer than he’d thought they would be, and he’s wearing just a touch of cologne that smells really good.

Bucky is holding his breath when the kiss ends, and he’s relieved to realize that no one is really paying them any attention. Points for New York, one of the best places to be if you need to hide in plain sight and not draw any attention to yourself regardless of whether you’ve just laid one on the most attractive man in the city or not. His hand moves to rest against the man’s shoulder and he glances over his own, eyes searching the crowd.

He’s gone. A rush of air escapes him as relief washes over him. Thank God. Except now he’s gotta deal with the fallout of his own impulsive actions. He chews his lower lip and glances up at the blond through his eyelashes, feeling uncharacteristically shy all of a sudden. “Thank you. I’m sorry,” he begins.

It’s a lot to process at once -- fortunately, processing a lot at once is exactly what Steve’s designed to do, and he was actually not bad at it before the serum, either. Right now, though, his attention feels pulled in several different directions: whatever possible threat is coming, the -- frankly amazing -- taste of this guy’s lips (should he be noticing or thinking that?), the way the body pressed up close feels solid and warm, the way the nervousness that was bubbling up from the guy seems to start to fade, the longer the kiss goes on.

Steve doesn’t see anyone headed for them, and the search admittedly stops as soon as the man in his arms shifts and starts to pull away. Steve follows suit, pulling back immediately even if his hand slips over a little, to rest at the guy’s hip, like he’s still trying to hold him close, protect him. That instinct is still blaring at the back of his brain, and for a moment that’s all Steve can really focus on, until the other actually speaks.

And Steve frowns. “What? No, I --” He stops himself before he can say he smelled the guy’s panic; firstly, it’s rude to just say that, and secondly, most people wouldn’t be able to, without being bonded or soulmates or maybe family. Steve’s just the one with the super-sensitive nose, and it feels way too invasive to admit, so he bites it back and instead finishes with, “Don’t apologize. I mean, it seemed important.”

Which is what also makes him ask, “Should I walk you home? Or -- somewhere safe?”

He’s not about to pretend he’s okay with random strangers just kissing him, but this seems like extenuating circumstances. He’s suddenly not even sure if the guy’s clocked him as Cap. And either way, it doesn’t matter -- if he was running from someone or something, then Steve’s going to help him see this through. Omegas shouldn’t need big, strong alphas to walk them home. But maybe for once, playing into the stereotype might be for the best, dirty and conflicted though it might make Steve feel.

Part of Bucky is expecting the other man to demand an explanation; after all, it’s not often that a stranger marches up and kisses you out of the blue. He’s braced himself for anger, maybe even a punch to the face, but he hasn’t prepared himself for the possibility of concern, which is what he’s actually faced with. His lips part and he hesitantly looks at the other guy -- an alpha, he’s certain, even though there’s not really a way of telling by looking at someone; his gut tells him he’s right. Or maybe he’s just subconsciously picked up on pheromones.

He’s annoyed with himself for letting Brock get to him like this, for allowing himself to be intimidated by anyone, really. He’d been a soldier, dammit. And a good one. But months of physical therapy still haven’t recovered the full use of his left arm and by now he’s accepted that it might not happen at all, and he knows that it makes him more vulnerable than he used to be. He hates it, but he’s also not stupid by any means. Chances are Brock has fucked off for the time being, but there’s a tiny part of him that’s worried he’ll turn up waiting for Bucky outside the shop, and he knows if that’s true, Brock will be really pissed.

“I’m -- “ Bucky hesitates, wondering again about the wisdom of dragging some unknown stranger into his drama. It isn’t fair, and for all he knows this guy’s even worse than Brock ever thought about being. But no. His mind shuts that thought down as soon as he thinks about it. He’s always been a good judge of character when he’s in his right mind. The blond isn’t a threat, even if he is an alpha. There’s far too much sincerity clouding his blue eyes. “I need to head back to work,” he admits, scratching the back of his neck absently. “I’m sure you have more important things to do -- it looked like you were doing something important.” He motions toward the phone in Steve’s hand.

Since the serum, Steve’s had a better intuition for alpha and omega than he used to. Doctors have blamed it on his heightened sense of, well, everything. Still, he’s never felt quite like this before, even toward other people he’s been sure were omegas. And whatever he is feeling now, it makes it easy for him to make a soft, dismissive sound, and pull the hand with the phone around to show the other guy the little blinking dot. “Nah. I was just getting lost.”

And besides, “It’s my day off,” he adds. “I don’t have anywhere to be. But --” He frowns again, because he realizes that what he’s doing, right here and now, is exactly the kind of thing he used to hate. “If you say you’re okay, then you’re okay. I just wanted to offer. In case it might help.”

Everything about the guy’s body language says he’s torn. That makes Steve feel a little less bad for offering, but he isn’t about to insist. People can make decisions for themselves. He’s got no right to decide for them, and he wouldn’t blame this complete and total stranger, who was obviously looking to get away from some kind of bad situation, for not wanting Steve -- also a complete and total stranger -- to know where he works, let alone lives.

Even if he’s got to give the guy props for creativity in getting out of said bad situation. His lips still feel a little warm and tingly, and the part of him that feels like it should lecture the guy on why you shouldn’t just kiss random strangers is not loud enough to bother listening to.

The man’s voice is earnest in a way that Bucky is so unfamiliar with at this point, he feels a little like he’s stepped onto a merry-go-round. The fact that the expression on his face matches that earnestness makes something in chest feel tight and warm and God -- he shouldn’t do this. He’ll probably end up regretting it later, but he’s so tired that his shoulders drop almost involuntarily as he exhales.

“If you’re sure,” he says, voice quieter than before. “It’s a few blocks in the opposite direction.” Because Brock had, of course, chosen his lunch hour to show up. Maybe he should have just ordered something in and locked the doors while he ate. But it’s such a nice day that all morning he’d been looking forward to going outside, getting some fresh air. He spends so much time at the shop already that once in awhile he can’t stop himself when he gets the urge to go out.

The guy honestly looks a little shell shocked by the offer; it makes Steve frown a little without realizing, wondering just what kind of situation he’s coming from -- and whether it’s really that weird to offer to walk someone somewhere these days. That… might be it, he reasons. People don’t do things they way they used to, and he’ll still say or do something that seems perfectly normal, and end up getting a lot of very strange looks for it. He’s doing his best to fit in, but seventy years of societal change is apparently a lot more than a person might bank on.

“I’m sure. It’s nice out. Gotta get my exercise, right?” That’s a thing people do seem to say these days; Steve laughs maybe a little awkwardly, but then he finally pockets his phone and sticks out his hand -- either for shaking or for grabbing, if the guy thinks they might still be being watched. Steve isn’t so naive to think that just because he doesn’t see a threat means it’s not there. “I’m Steve,” he says, quietly. “You don’t have to tell me your name if you don’t want to.” But it’s not like he’s not used to people knowing his already. In fact, half of him expects this guy to just say, I know.

Bucky watches him for a moment, glancing down at his hand when he offers it, and finds himself relaxing even more at the introduction and the reassurance. He sticks his own hand out, shaking Steve’s. “Bucky,” he tells him. “It’s - a nickname.” It’s his preference over his real name, anyway. “Nice to meet you, Steve.” His eyes meet the blond’s and he manages a real smile this time, not the forced please play along kind that he’d displayed moments before.
Steve’s smile goes from a little awkward to genuinely pleased; nickname or not, it feels like he’s being trusted with something important, and his grip is sure as they shake hands. “Well. It’s nice to meet you, Bucky. You’re the best kiss I’ve had in longer than I should probably admit.”

Which… maybe just makes it awkward all over again, as Steve’s smile turns a little helpless and he takes his hand back, indicating the sidewalk. “Lead on.”

Of course, he doesn’t plan to just trail after Bucky; as they get moving, he falls into step with him like they are friends, keeping his hands to himself but in a loose, carefree way that won’t say he’s trying not to touch the other, only that he’s choosing not to at the moment. “Has this happened before?” he asks, as quietly and casually as he can, not in any way insinuating that Bucky hasn’t been able to handle an ongoing situation, but wondering whether he should be offering more than a short walk. “Or -- should I just shut up and look pretty?”

Not that Steve has ever been good at the latter.

The comment about being the best kiss Steve’s had in while catches him off guard entirely and a short bark of laughter escapes him. “Yeah, well. Likewise.” And it’s not a lie. Brock might be a decent kisser, but there’s never really been anything resembling warmth in his affections. He can see that the other feels a little awkward with his own words so he nods and turns the other way, relieved when Steve falls into step with him.

He considers, figuring Steve has the right to ask, considering he’d just unwittingly saved his ass. Plus, alphas tend to expect answers when they ask questions. “A couple times. Just -- an ex that doesn’t like to take no for an answer.” He says it casually when it feels anything but. He blinks, though, at the wording, casting a sidelong glance at Steve and momentarily doubting if he really is an alpha. He decides to play that off lightly, too. “Well, you don’t have anything to worry about with the pretty part, Steve.” He shoots him a playful grin.

Honestly, being told he’s Bucky’s best kiss in a while catches Steve just as much off guard. “Oh, God -- I’m sorry?” he offers, laughing a little, before the (somewhat) deeper explanation of Bucky’s situation steals all the laughter out of him. “Well, good on you for making him an ex,” feels like all he can say to that -- and it definitely doesn’t feel like enough.

People like that -- people who think they’re entitled to someone else -- are pretty high on Steve’s list of people he doesn’t like. Nobody owns anybody else, not even when they’re bonded, not in his book. But he knows that a lot of people -- a lot of alphas -- don’t see it that way, and that is not how it’s supposed to work. Relationships, any relationships, are supposed to be partnerships. Give and take. Not just one or the other.

But it seems like that’s all Bucky wants to say about that, and Steve has no right to pry deeper. He knows he wouldn’t want someone to do that to him, and he wants to extend that courtesy to Bucky. Even though what that means is turning the focus back on himself, in a manner of speaking, as he laughs self-consciously and runs a hand through his short hair, making it stand up a little in disarray. “I guess that’s something,” he offers, though it’s hard to joke about things like that when he’s spent so much of his life adamantly against them. But this isn’t a rally, or a protest, or a speech, or anything. This is just him trying to do the right thing and walk a guy to work.

And yet somehow, he already feels like a mess, trying to make conversation and good God, this is why he doesn’t date.

He clears his throat and buries his hand back in his pocket before asking, “Where do you work?” like he’s not going to see it for himself when they get there.

Bucky smiles more fleetingly at that, knowing he should have ended things with Brock a lot sooner than he had, but it is what it is. He can’t help but marvel over Steve’s self-consciousness, though. The guy is built like a brick shithouse and he’s gorgeous to boot. And polite enough to walk him home, which is an actual first.

“Book Barnes’,” he answers with a tiny, wistful smile. “Heard of it?” It’s been around for awhile, since his grandpa was in his late sixties and decided that instead of retirement, he’d wanted to own a bookstore. His grandma had passed by then already, and his gramps had never been one to “sit around on his laurels.”

Steve tilts his head, giving the name some consideration, but -- “I haven’t,” he has to admit; though this time his embarrassment is good-natured. “But I’ve been gone for a while. The landscape’s changed, and I’m not, uh, up on most of the new additions.” That is the right use of the term. He thinks.

But even without having heard of it, he grins a little. “Let me guess. Bookstore?” He might even look a little excited at the prospect, because he might not know all the places that have changed and cropped up since he enlisted and left, but he does know that bookstores seem to be going out of fashion -- and he likes to read. Real books, not just something on a screen. So, if the place really is a bookstore, it kind of feels like Steve’s lucky day, despite it all.

Or maybe despite isn’t really the right word. Even given the circumstances.

Bucky’s not sure whether to laugh or wince, really. The store doesn’t do near the kind of business it did back when his gramps was running it, but he’s determined to do what he can turn that around. Hopefully. “Yeah.” He smiles, too, glancing sideways at Steve as they walk.

“It’s kinda tucked away in a weird spot but when it was first built it was right next door to a Ma and Pa’s grocery store. Course that’s been gone for ages now. You like to read?” There’s a hint of hopefulness in his voice. He already has an idea nestled in his head.

“Yeah, I do,” Steve says, with maybe a little undercurrent of a laugh. “Everything I can get my hands on.” He shrugs a little. “I still prefer books to a screen. I guess I’m old-fashioned like that.” Not that it feels old-fashioned -- but then, there’s a lot in his life that feels that way. Completely normal for him -- and completely out of step with the rest of the world.

“I still prefer the little ma and pa grocery stores, too,” he says, lips tugging into a crooked half-smile. “But like you said -- they’re even harder to find than bookstores, these days. What kind of books do you sell?” Some of the places he’s found that are still open are mostly specialty shops, low on books and longer on gifts and novelties. But Bucky asked if he liked to read, so maybe the store he works in has more of a selection. Steve’s already wondering if it would be weird to browse around after walking him back. Or to stop by later -- would that make it more weird, or less?

Bucky’s face brightens at that. “Yeah. Yeah, me too. There’s something about having an actual book in your hands -- the electronic kind doesn’t do it justice. And I’m not just saying that because of personal gain.” He laughs quietly. “I like the way they smell. The texture of the pages. Plus it’s easier on your eyes than a screen anyway, and who can afford bad eyes, really?” Especially when you've already got a bum arm.

“Sell a little of everything, but we specialize in stuff that’s hard to get print copies of these days,” he admits. “Spend a lot of time searching ebay and other websites looking for treasures.” He smiles. “Do a lot of business with other shops across the country, too, especially if someone puts in a request for something specific.”

“Bad eyes are not a thing you want to live with,” Steve agrees, tone teasing enough, but there’s some undercurrent of truth, of deeper understanding, there as well. But really, most of his attention is on the way Bucky looks, having perked up a little, lips curved upward in a smile instead of flat and thin with tension. It’s a good look on him -- and, Steve tells himself, of course it is, because nobody wants to see another person looking tense and unhappy. That’s just reasonable.

He has noticed that Bucky holds his left arm differently than his right. He has also, by sheer force of will, not asked whether the alleged ex had anything to do with it, or whether Bucky wants someone to take a look at it. If there’s anything Steve actually can be tactful about, it’s people’s abilities to manage their own hurts.

But he can still worry, even if he doesn’t say anything.

Still, “It sounds real nice,” he’s got to admit, looking impressed and not trying to hide it. And, finally, he decides that -- being weird be damned. At least, not without asking: “Can I come in and look, or would that just be weird?”

Bucky’s too caught up in his own love for books, and thoughts of the store, to notice the way Steve’s looking at him, but the interest in his voice doesn’t escape his stellar observational skills. The question gives him pause, though, and he glances at him sideways, offering him a small, wry grin. “I think considering the way I basically jumped on you back there, it’s probably the least weird outcome of the day, Steve.”

There’s a hint of self-deprecation in his voice. He can just imagine what his next encounter with Brock is going to be like. He’d lied to him weeks ago and told him he’d moved on, that he’d found someone else, but Brock had simply scoffed. Rightly so, considering how very single Bucky still was. Either seeing Bucky kissing another guy is going to finally make him back off, or really piss him off. Brock wasn’t the most predictable at the best of circumstances.

“Seriously, though. You should definitely come in and look around. It’s not like other bookstores. I mean, not really.” He rakes his right hand through his hair absently. “I used to just go and hang out there when I was growing up. There’s these really comfy chairs and we do free tea or coffee for whoever wants it.” It’s something his gramps had always insisted on -- giving people something to sip while they browsed or just hunkered down in one of the chairs and read for awhile.

“I’ve gotta be honest, my rubric for ‘weird’ is kind of skewed,” Steve says, but that grin of Bucky’s -- that really, really nice-looking wry grin of Bucky’s -- basically tells him that Bucky means what he says. It won’t be too weird, and Steve’s going to do it, then. Because he really would like to look around, just as much as he really would like to make sure Bucky gets safely to where he’s going with no more run-ins with the ex.

“For example, you aren’t the first stranger who’s ever grabbed me and kissed me? I mean, it doesn’t happen a lot, but… it’s happened before. Once. Under different circumstances, I don’t think she was trying to throw somebody off the chase so much as trying to have some fun, but -- I should probably stop talking about that and more about books,” Steve decides mid-sentence, and yeah, when did he become absolute shit at talking to people? Maybe, he thinks, when he got pulled out of a block of ice and into an era where he has exactly zero friends, and exactly all the work acquaintances. All of whom are… intense. And not the kind of people he thinks a person can just spend time with.

Not that he’s given too much thought to a person just to spend time with, in a long time.

“It sounds like this place has been around a while, though,” he says -- because okay, it’s not talking books, exactly, but it’s tangential enough. “Did you want to work there when you were a kid, too?”

Bucky can’t help the way his eyebrows raise, restraining himself from making a comment about how he’s not all that surprised that he isn’t the first who’s grabbed and kissed him. He’s surprised it’s only happened one other time, frankly. Not that it’s polite to go around kissing complete strangers, but if you have to do it, apparently Steve’s the best person to do it with. He’s known him all of ten minutes, and he already likes him. He’s always been a people person, even if the last few months have made things complicated.

“No, feel free. Sounds like you’ve lived an interesting life.” His voice is light, a hint of teasing there. He tries not to focus too much on the thought that Steve might very well be bonded with someone. Not that it matters, really. After today it’s unlikely he’ll see him again, anyway. He tries to ignore the tug of sadness that thought brings with it. “I have to say, though, it was a first for me. I don’t generally go around kissing strange guys, no matter how attractive they are.” His cheeks grow warm and he shakes his head.

“Oh. Yeah. God, yeah. It’s - it was my grandpa’s shop,” he confesses. “I loved spending time there. Especially in the summers.”

Steve just snorts a little, leaning in and bumping Bucky gently on the shoulder for that. “Yeah, like I said -- my rubric for weird is definitely skewed.” Calling his life interesting is like calling the Mona Lisa a well-known painting. It’s not untrue, it’s just definitely lowballing things.

Although, “It’s probably not the best thing to do a whole lot, in polite society,” he says, with a laugh this time. “But under extenuating circumstances… well. I hope you don’t need to use it as an out again.”

He actually opens his mouth, about to add, “Maybe I should give you my number, so you could just text next time.” But that seems… back to weird. So he shuts it again, honestly not sure where the hell all of this is coming from. Steve can make himself act like a people person. But he isn’t much of one, naturally. He’s usually too prickly or too fixated on something else. With Bucky, though, it’s easy. It feels like he’s known him a lot longer than a handful of minutes. It -- might be the pheromones, he tries to reason. He’s on suppressants, of course, and even ones specifically tailored to his super soldier physiology. But the problem is, he keeps developing a resistance to them over time, and that means if no one’s upped his dose in a while, he starts to notice.

Maybe that’s what this is. Urges and instincts leaking through. He’d probably better talk to somebody about it on Monday, unsavory though those conversations always are.

Steve does his best to focus instead just on the conversation. “That sounds nice,” he says, and it’s not just an empty statement. It does sound nice. “All the books you can read, and your family right there? Now I think I’m jealous.” Although he hadn’t missed the was in that sentence. “He doesn’t own it anymore?”

He chuckles quietly at the playful shoulder bump, shaking his head ruefully. “Yeah. I hope I don’t either. No offense to you, by any means.” His voice goes more sincere and they pause at a stop light. “Honestly...I half expected to get punched in the face.” He wouldn’t have even blamed Steve for it. If someone grabbed and kissed him, he’d definitely have thrown a punch. Fortunately for his face, Steve hadn’t reacted that way. Because given his size, he’s sure it would have hurt. A lot.

Bucky draws in a slow breath and then exhales. “No, he passed a couple years ago. 86 years old. Lived a nice long life.” He doesn’t mention that he’d missed the funeral because of his second tour of duty in Afghanistan. Doesn’t mention that he still hasn’t brought himself to go and visit his grave even though he knows he should. Knows he needs to. “He was a great guy. Always wanted to be just like him, you know?” His voice is wistful.

Steve hums; “Once upon a time, I might’ve,” he says, which is not untrue. He’d had plenty of alphas give him a hard time when he was growing up, either heckling him for being useless, or heckling him because he wouldn’t make time with them, which was the only use they figured he had. That kind of thing had definitely warranted a punch in the face.

But Bucky? Bucky had looked at him with tension in every line of his body, and anxiety and pleading in his scent, and Steve can’t tell him that, but it had counted for more than anything. “Lucky for you, I’ve grown as a person.”

And isn’t that just the most hilarious pun Steve has ever delivered in his life, and -- he really doesn’t think Bucky realizes who he is, so it’s going to fall on deaf ears.

“Yeah -- that is a long life.” It is -- and Steve can’t help but think of how old the guy would’ve been, when he’d been growing up, and that just serves to make him feel old all over again, and he manages to shove that down pretty quick. “Well, you must have succeeded at least a little bit, if you’re working his store now.” He almost says more, but he doesn’t want to presume anything about Bucky’s family and end up putting his foot in his mouth. He’s flexible, but that’s never any fun. “I spent a lot of time as a kid reading, too, but it was all library books.”

“Lucky for me,” Bucky agrees quietly. There had been an ample amount of people on the sidewalk and he could have picked any of them, but in the moment it felt like he’d had tunnel vision. His gaze had landed on Steve, and it had been like there weren’t any other options at all. Strange, probably. Fortunately for him it had worked out all right, for once. There’s a hint of humor in Steve’s voice, though, and he glances at him, curious, feeling like he’s missed out on a joke he should have understood.

But he also doesn’t question him about it.

Nor does he correct him by telling him that he’s now the owner of Book Barnes’. He’s not entirely sure but he can’t shake the feeling that Steve’s either assumed he’s an omega, or he’s just a very protective kind of guy if someone seems like they’re in trouble, and if on the off chance he’s pegged him wrong, he can’t risk losing the store. So he simply hums in his throat, crossing the street when the light changes and leading him down another city block toward the store, anxiety spiking momentarily as he scans the area for any sign of Brock.

Thankfully, he doesn’t see him anywhere around. It doesn’t mean he’s not lurking nearby, because he seems to do that a lot, but he thinks he might be out of the woods for the time being. “Always loved libraries, too,” he tells Steve, glancing at him with a small, warm smile as he pulls the keys to the shop out of his jeans pocket, pausing in front of the door and unlocking it, stepping inside and flipping the lights on, and flipping the sign to “open” once more. “Come on in. Make yourself comfy.”

Steve maybe doesn’t miss the way Bucky starts getting tenser as they approach what must be the bookstore. He definitely doesn’t miss the way Bucky starts looking around, like he’s scanning for active threats -- does he think his ex will show up here? That admittedly gets Steve’s hackles up a little, but a moment later Bucky relaxes, and Steve slowly starts to do the same.

They amble up to the front door of, from Steve’s very first impression, a comfortable, inviting bookshop nestled, between two other storefronts. The keys jingle in the lock as Bucky turns them, and then the scent of well-worn paper hits him square in the face, and Steve kind of can’t help the way he inhales deeply. It is a good smell.

Maybe especially with that subtle smell of Bucky laced through it -- and that feels pretty damn invasive, so Steve cuts that thought right off and starts breathing like a normal human being again.

“Thanks,” he says, grabbing the door over Bucky’s head as the other precedes him in, stepping into the store behind him and letting the door swing shut behind them. “I’ll just -- I’d like to take a look around. Just pretend I’m not here.”

He offers a smile that he hopes is stupid and reassuring, but which might be bordering on shy, and starts off down the first row of shelves, because he means it. He wants to take a look around.

Bucky can’t quite shake the warm feeling in his chest at the smile that Steve gives him before disappearing in between a row of bookshelves, and a soft smile touches his mouth, too. He moves toward the table by the counter, picking up the empty pot of coffee and then heading toward the bathroom tucked into the back of the store, washing it out thoroughly before filling it with cold water and replacing it in the coffee pot, starting a fresh pot of coffee. He doesn’t know if Steve likes coffee, but he spends a few minutes straightening things up -- including the little single packs of tea and the mugs that are set there.

He keeps an eye on the door as he works, just in case a customer decides to wander in, or god forbid, Brock.
Then he settles himself behind the counter, curling up in his comfortable chair and picking up the book he’s currently reading, “The Taking” by Dean Koontz. It had come out when he was still in high school, but it’s one of his favorites, and within moments he’s completely absorbed into the story, the smell of coffee wafting through the air.

It’s easy to get lost among the books -- the smell, the feel, the (admittedly strong) nostalgia. But it’s also a little tempting to stay lost, as Steve hears the sounds of Bucky shuffling around the front of the store, then the sound of running water and, not long after, the unmistakable smell of percolating coffee.

Steve does like coffee -- and tea, which he learned to drink in England -- and his lips tick up at Bucky’s thoughtfulness, despite the fact that the other had clearly said he offers free tea and coffee to anyone who comes in the shop. Right now, that’s just Steve, and it feels private and quiet and he isn’t quite sure what he’s going to do when he has to come back to the front of the shop and face Bucky again. Not that it’s hard, but that’s actually why it’s hard -- it’s easy to talk to Bucky already, and that isn’t something he’s used to.

So Steve maybe lets himself get a little lost, just for a few minutes; although when he does reappear at the front, it’s with a couple of books carefully tucked into the crook of his elbow, to find Bucky lost in a book of his own. “See, that’s the real perk of working someplace like this,” he says, coming back up to the counter. “You just get to read all day when you don’t have any customers.”

Bucky is vaguely aware of Steve moving through the stacks as he reads, but it doesn’t set his nerves on edge the way it might have if it were anyone else. If anything, knowing he’s around eases his mind in a way he can’t really explain. He chalks it up to the fact that Steve helped him out when he didn’t have to, that he actually walked him back to work to make sure he was safe, and that he actually seems to be a genuinely good person. It’s strange, because Steve is definitely a lot bigger than he is, and these days that usually makes him uneasy, but -- it’s somehow different. Like it wouldn’t cross his mind to use his sheer size as a reason to intimidate someone.

He grins involuntarily as he hears footsteps approaching the counter. “You’re not wrong,” he says easily, marking his page with a bookmark of the aurora borealis and setting it to the side. He rises to his feet, curious to see what Steve had found in his perusal of the store. “Please help yourself to a cup of coffee. Or tea if you want.” He leans his arms on the counter. “Or if you’d prefer hot chocolate, I have that, too, but that’s a secret that you’re now under obligation to keep. I won’t make it for just anyone.”

At that moment, a six pound ball of white fur leaped down from the top of the bookshelf behind Bucky and onto the counter, tail swishing back and forth.

“Uh, you’re not allergic to cats, right?” Bucky asks, reaching out to collect her just in case.

Steve’s got a couple of classics -- well, classics by most people’s definitions, but in truth, they’re on his list because he’s never read them: Fahrenheit 451, Catch-22, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. But he’s also got two straight-out history books (funny enough, both on “his” war, but he’s maybe been trying to get as many perspectives on it as he can, see what people think about it after the fact, for all the righteous anger that sometimes causes) and one art history book, because its pages were large and colorful and he’s already flipped through at least half of it, and it seems only fair to actually pay for the thing at that point. Plus, his apartment is pretty bare on color; maybe he can find some pieces in here to copy for some practice before he dives into doing anything more on his own. He hasn’t really done a lot of drawing, let alone painting, since 1941. And that was before he could even see the color red.

He sets the stack down and is just humming, trying to figure out how to say that hot chocolate sounds pretty amazing without feeling guilty over making Bucky put in any extra work to get it for him, when a cat appears almost as if by magic (but really just from a nearby bookshelf). Steve blinks -- but then he shakes his head, laughing a little. “I don’t think so,” he admits, because he’s never exactly tested it after the serum, but it would be pretty ridiculous to be immune to every pathogen and chemical toxin known to man, only to be felled by a cat. “D’you pay her in tuna fish?”

Bucky strokes his hand down the cat’s spine gently, smiling when she headbutts his forehead. He laughs at the insinuation that she’s an employee. “Tuna fish, chicken, Purina. Pretty much whatever she wants as long as it’s okay for her to eat it without hurting her.” The cat turns to look at Steve, eying him curiously and letting out a meow that sounds far too big to come from her little body. “Her name’s Alpine.”

He glances at the books that Steve’s set on the counter, eager to see what he’d found and a little surprised that there are so many in the stack. He makes a quiet, pleased sound, though. “You like art?” he asks, nodding toward the books and then shifting his gaze back to Steve’s face.

Steve doesn’t have a lot of experience with cats, but this one seems all right. He leans a little closer, keeping his hands to himself, not sure whether she’s only friendly with Bucky or whether she might be amenable to a stranger, too -- although he can’t imagine letting her run freely around the store if she’s got too big a problem with new people. “Hi, Alpine. It’s nice to meet you.”

At the question, Steve smiles sheepishly. “Yeah. I -- used to be an artist. If taking one year of art school and painting signs on the side for half a living counts.” He realizes too late that nobody probably paints signs anymore, but it’s out and he can’t take it back. And it is the truth. “I haven’t picked up a pencil in a while, though. I thought maybe this’d inspire me, you know?”

Alpine walks closer to Steve, leaning down and sniffing at his hands on the counter before lying down on his stack of books and stretching out as though claiming them for herself.

Bucky studies him curiously but without any traces of judgement in his eyes. For an alpha -- which is still an assumption on his part -- to admit that he’s interested in art is uncommon, to say the least. But maybe he’s just that secure in who he is, in which case, is pretty incredible if you ask Bucky. The overwhelming majority of alphas he’s met have been the exact opposite.

“Yeah?” His eyes widen a little at that, gaze immediately flickering to the welcome sign at the front of the store that’s in dire need of being redone. “What do you do for a living the rest of the time?” He can’t help but ask.

Steve ends up laughing a little as the cat claims his books, mostly because, “You know, if your cat claims all the books back, it’s gotta be hard to sell ‘em.”

He’s still grinning at Bucky when -- of course -- he asks what else Steve does for a living. Which is, of course, pretty much all Steve does for a living these days. He barely keeps the grimace at bay, and if anything, he seems almost more embarrassed about explaining this than the art, when maybe it should be the other way around: “Uh -- special ops. I’m sort of…”

What, he thinks, sort of Captain America?

Bucky definitely doesn’t know. He can’t know, because pretending not to know at this point would be cruel, and Steve’s only known the guy about half an hour, but he knows already that Bucky isn’t cruel. And he can’t say why he doesn’t want to just tell him, except that when most people realize, they suddenly don’t seem to know how to act around him anymore and there are a hundred ways to make it awkward and Steve just doesn’t want to do that. He doesn’t want things to actually get awkward. Not now, not this time, if he can help it.

“They call me in when they need me, and the rest of the time, my time is mostly my own, if I’m not training or doing paperwork.” And Steve hates paperwork.

He chuckles at Alpine’s antics, too, because she’s ridiculously full of personality and has no problem showing it. He reaches out and pets her absently, prickle of nervousness spiking through him at the mention of special ops, but the wariness doesn’t show on his face. “Yeah? You army?” he asks casually as he leans his elbows on the counter once more, studying Steve from beneath his eyelashes.

On one hand, hearing that Steve’s special ops definitely confirms that he’s either an alpha or a beta. On the other hand, Brock is also special ops and the idea that maybe they actually know each other makes him unsettled at best. He refuses to believe that Steve would be friends with someone like that, but it’s not like he could judge him if he was. Not when he’d dated Brock for months.

“Got it in one,” Steve says, lips twitching into a little half-smile. “Now my orders come from a different place, but they never actually technically discharged me, so… I guess I’m on loan?” It’s sort of a weird kind of limbo. The Army hadn’t wanted to give up its claim on Captain America to an organization most people don’t even know exists, so limbo it is. He sometimes feels a little bit like a ragdoll that two children are fighting over.

“What, I don’t seem like I could be a pilot?” he asks, spreading his arms a little, maybe trying to make the situation seem a little lighter because… well, it’s not anything Bucky did or said, exactly. But somehow, Steve gets the idea that something changed, when he said that -- or maybe Bucky’s putting together who he is, and is about to tear into him for it. It’s not like some big state secret, anyway -- Steve Rogers is Captain America, and it hasn’t been classified for a long time. Longer than Steve had been in the ice, even. But it’s still nice to not be on display, or to have people treat him like he’s ninety, or put on the kid gloves.

So he maybe looks a little unsure, like he might have just stepped in it.

Bucky listens intently, pretty sure he knows what Steve means. There are any number of covert organizations in the United States that pull active service men and women from duty all the time in order to utilize their skills. Most people don’t happen to know how often it happens. Steve just doesn’t seem the type to be in that kind of operation, but it wouldn’t be the first time Bucky’s been wrong about something like that, either.

He smiles at the idea of Steve being a pilot, though. “You don’t strike me as the glory hound type,” he says honestly. “Not that all pilots are, but the handful I’ve met...well.” He shrugs and Alpine bites lightly at his fingers. “They were thrill seekers. You seem pretty down to earth. Seems more like a fellow army man to me.” He’s not sure what to make of the sudden uncertainty on his face, but he meets Steve’s eyes and gives him a faint grin. He stands up a little straighter and tugs the dogtags out from beneath his shirt to show him momentarily before tucking them back into place.

Steve hums, though it’s maybe not clear whether he’s conceding the point or begging to differ. Not that he’d consider himself a thrill seeker, per se -- he does what needs to get done, and if it gets his adrenaline pumping, well, that’s part and parcel of the serum. It keeps his adrenaline high because he needs it to keep going. Helps him ignore pain and fatigue, when they do try to catch up with him.

If he maybe likes it sometimes… well, that’s nobody’s business but his own.

Besides, what really gets his attention is what Bucky says next. Steve’s face lights up just a little, when Bucky pulls out his dog tags -- except at the same time, there’s this weird twisting in his gut, because he knows omegas still aren’t allowed to serve, and something in him has pegged Bucky as an omega.

Which must be wrong. Just because he thought he’d smelled omega panic doesn’t mean he did, he reasons. Or it could have been someone else on the street (which isn’t the better option, actually, so he shuts down that line of thought real quick). Maybe his brain has just wanted Bucky to be an omega because he’s so easy to get along with, because they feel compatible somehow, even just as friends -- and friends is fine, Steve tells his twisting gut and now his brain, which is unhelpfully supplying him with pictures of Peggy. Peggy, the beautiful, amazing, alpha. Peggy, who was probably always out of reach, but who became the ultimate taboo the second he’d stepped out of the Rebirth pod.

And now he has no idea how long he’s been quiet or what his face is doing, so he schools it back into interest (not feigned at all) and asks, “How long did you serve? Or are you between tours?” He doesn’t think that even these days, the Army lets people work in bookstores in their downtime, but he has to admit, he hasn’t asked.

Bucky watches the faint surprise that flickers over Steve’s face -- yep, he’d definitely thought Bucky was an omega, he thinks -- that quickly changes to a brightening of his expression. And why wouldn’t it? It’s not like male omegas have anything to offer to the world. Just ask anyone. He shoves that bitterness aside quickly because it’s not Steve he’s angry with by any means; he’s angry with the world.

“Did two tours in Afghanistan with the 107th,” he tells him. “Got an honorable discharge about ten months ago. Little earlier than I planned, but.” He moves to indicate his left arm, though not a lot. “Didn’t get much choice in the matter.” Which is an understatement. He definitely wouldn’t have chosen to become a POW. Or to be one of the only men from his unit who’d made it out alive. He had no right to complain, no matter how shitty his own circumstances were. Even if there had been a multitude of times in the last few months where he’d been to the point where he’d wished he hadn’t survived, either.

He draws in a breath and manages a small smile. “Guess we never know what life has in store for us, do we?”

“No, we sure don’t,” Steve has to admit, on an exhale that’s almost a laugh. Isn’t that the truth. His eyes maybe do go to Bucky’s arm, with the unspoken permission to at least acknowledge it, and that makes sense -- he’d been moving it like it was stiff earlier, and now Steve has an explanation of sorts. Or, at least, an explanation that’s more than good enough for him.

But, “The 107th, that was my -- dad’s company, actually,” he says, fumbling only a little not because it’s a lie, but because he realizes mid-sentence that he can’t say it was his, because then there’s no explanation for why he and Bucky haven’t met before now. It honestly just drives another spike in him to feel like he’s willfully misdirecting Bucky on this, but chances are he’ll never see the guy again, so what can it hurt? Especially if he’s an alpha -- although, Steve’s brain now (actually) helpfully supplies, he could be a beta. Those relationships are fine, after all.

But he’s definitely getting way, way too ahead of himself -- despite the fact that this feels a lot like meeting Peggy for the first time, for all that it’s completely different. With Peggy, he’d kind of been head over heels immediately, drawn to her attitude as much as her looks. With Bucky, it’s… different, somehow, because things started out so very weird, but if he stops and takes a second to take stock of himself, he realizes it’s the same feeling.

It’s as terrifying as it is exhilarating, and he’s definitely not about to say anything right here and now.

“I’m sorry, though. It’s never what you want, to have the choice taken away from you,” he says.

Bucky’s not bothered by the quick glance at his arm that Steve gives him -- mainly because he’s invited it to happen by way of explanation, but also because at least it’s covered up and he can’t see the actual scarring. The handful of times that Brock had seen it, there’d been no disguising the disgust on his face or in his eyes and after that he’d taken to wearing long-sleeved shirts year-round, regardless of the temperatures.

But he’s caught off guard by the fact that Steve’s dad was in the 107th, too. “Seriously?” That’s kind of nuts to think about. He knows it’s a weirdly small world in the way that people connect with one another, and if he and Steve are both Brooklyn boys, he supposes that makes a little bit of sense, that he and Steve’s dad would have both been in the same company.

“Thanks.” His voice grows a little more quiet at that, because being discharged from the army isn’t the only choice that had been ripped right out of his grasp in recent history, and it’s definitely not what he wanted. “It’s okay. Gotta roll with the punches, right?” It’s not like there’s another option. At least not yet. Maybe one day, if he has anything to say about it, ultimately.

Alpine stretches and meows before getting up and scampering off the counter and heading toward the back of the store when the front door of the shop opens, the bell above the door jingling as a couple of young women come in, giggling and whispering to one another as they look at their cell phones.

Bucky glances at them briefly. “Welcome to Book Barnes’,” he greets them with a warm smile.

“I guess that is the best option,” Steve’s starting to say -- well, it’s what he’s always done, too, even if he does his damnedest to get back up after he rolls -- when the door opens and he doesn’t quite freeze, but he definitely tenses. Bucky hasn’t recognized him, which is kind of sheer dumb luck given that Steve had left the house today without his usual baseball cap and only a scarf to tuck his nose into if he needed to. But girls with cell phones are kind of his worst enemy (you know, after Nazis) because they’re always asking for selfies and making a big deal and that is exactly what he doesn’t want right now. That will most definitely leave Bucky with a bad impression.

Not that what he’s about to do is probably any better. Steve turns a little more toward Bucky, away from the door, and offers him a smile that he hopes is more sheepish than tight. “I guess I shouldn’t stand here and take up all your time. Could you ring me up for these, please, and I’ll get out of your hair?”

Bucky’s a little surprised by the abruptness, but he reminds himself that Steve had helped him out to be nice. They’re still complete strangers, even if they’d discovered they had some things in common. So he simply nods, pushing aside his disappointment and he reaches for the stack of books, jotting down their titles and purchase dates on his clipboard and making out a handwritten receipt for him. “It’ll be thirty dollars even,” he tells him, holding the receipt out to him with a soft smile.

Steve smiles gratefully, trying to turn on the charm (as if he ever knew how) as he pulls his wallet out and trades cash for the receipt. “Thanks,” he says, meaning it for so much more than just the transaction, wishing he could explain but realizing that it would just make things even more awkward.

He hefts the books back into the crook of his elbow, pulls up his scarf a little, and offers Bucky a last smile that he hopes conveys how sorry he is to run out like this. Steve Rogers fucking hates running away, but this isn’t a fight, and it’s not running so much as a strategic retreat, he tells himself, to avoid making a big fuss in Bucky’s bookstore.

He still tucks his head down a little, posture changing from tall and confident to slouching and insignificant before he slips past the giggling women and out the door with his books, feeling like he’s let Bucky down somehow, and not really knowing why.

He ends up heading straight home -- after a bit of fumbling with his phone -- and it isn’t until later that evening, when he goes to put the receipt in the little folder he keeps of them (mostly out of habit, it isn’t like he spends beyond his means these days, when his means are absolutely ridiculous compared with what he’s used to) that he realizes Bucky didn’t charge him for the art book.

Well, damn. He’s going to have to go back and set that right, he thinks, with something that might be a smile.

Chapter Text

Brock Rumlow has been pissed off since the previous afternoon when he’d spotted his boyfriend making out with fucking Captain America. And really, he’s got nothing against Cap in general, even if their theologies are vastly different. Overall he seems like a solid guy. Frankly if he wasn’t an alpha, Brock wouldn’t hesitate making a move on him. But it’s not right, not natural for two alphas to be together. Goes against nature and biology and God himself as far as he can see it. He knows it happens from time to time, but that doesn’t make it right.

No, the natural order is the way it should be -- always. Which is why he keeps his focus on Barnes. That and Barnes is part of his mission. Maybe he hadn’t intended to get quite as entangled with him as he’s gotten, but biology happens and instincts take over. He knows Barnes feels it, too, no matter how many times he tells Brock they’re done. Frankly, he’s certain that Barnes is just playing hard to get. He can’t help it, really. He’s an omega. They’re hardwired to be teases. Besides, they’re not done until Brock says so, because he’s the alpha, goddammit. It’s just a matter of making Barnes see that he doesn’t have a choice in the matter. And one way or another, he’ll make sure he understands it.

His temper has simmered into a cold current of anger by the time he’s at work the next day. There’s nothing particularly interesting happening at the moment, but he spots Cap at a desk in a side office that the man regularly uses to do his paperwork. He squares his shoulders and puts on his best, most charming smile as he knocks lightly on the frame. “Hey, Cap. You ‘bout finished up?” he asks, nodding at the tablet he’s working on.

Steve’s impression of Brock is that he’s one of those alphas who is wholly and unapologetically alpha -- the kind he didn’t appreciate, growing up, telling him he was useless and weak. Steve’s never really seen what Brock is like outside of work, past a few post-mission drinks or showers in the locker room, so he can’t say for sure whether the guy treats omegas well or badly. But, based on the kinds of jokes he’s made in the past, he can maybe sort of hazard a guess.

Steve doesn’t have to like it, but they’re teammates, and Brock is a damned good agent. Brutal and efficient, maybe, where Steve might have trouble with those things -- admittedly more the former than the latter -- but Steve’s rarely had complaints about Brock’s performance in the field, and that’s what he’s here to care about. Sure, he can care about the guy’s off-the-clock performance, but he can’t do more than comment as a friend (well, more like an acquaintance or coworker, really) than a commanding officer. He shuts down the offensive jokes on the job and keeps a weather eye on the guy when civilians are involved.

But Brock has always been civil, if a bit prickly now and then, to him; when Steve’s stuck at a desk the next day doing dreaded paperwork, he pauses and glances up just as Brock comes into view with a soft knock at the door frame. He offers his colleague a smile, nodding and blowing out a breath. “Just about. Nothing more tedious. I’d rather spend a week in a foxhole. You need something?”
Brock chuckles at that. “You and me both, Pal. Pretty sure if I wasn’t good at what I do, they’d toss me out on my ass for my lack of decent writing skills.” He rolls his eyes, but he’s still grinning. “Thought maybe we could grab lunch. Need to get outta the office for a while,” he explains, leaning against the doorframe. He studies Rogers with a friendly expression. “What do you say?”

Steve does have to chuckle at that -- well, he can’t confirm or deny that, but he definitely understands the sentiment -- as he considers the question. It’s sort of a moot point, because Steve is pretty much always hungry, and he’s also more than happy to get out from behind the desk for a bit. “Sure,” he decides, because why not? It’s a reasonable offer, and he doesn’t spend much time with Brock. Sure, sometimes that’s by choice, but giving the guy a chance isn’t the wrong thing to do.

He glances down long enough to finish filling out the section he was working on before dropping the pen on the desk and pushing back. “Got anything in mind?”

Brock simply grins.

***

A half-hour later finds them sitting across from one another in a booth at a nearby Mexican restaurant, stuffing their faces with chips and salsa. If there is one thing Steve likes about the future, it’s the endless chips you get at places like this. Not that he tries to put anybody out of business by actually eating his weight in chips, but it’s nice not to have to ration sometimes.

Brock eyes the waitress with interest, giving her a charming smile as she refills their drinks and heads away once more. “So, how ya feeling about things with the team?” he asks, leaning back in the chair and taking a long drink of his coke.

Steve hums thoughtfully, genuinely considering the question as he watches Brock watching the waitress. “Honestly, I’m feeling pretty good,” he admits, leaning forward where Brock leans back. “I know it’s taken some time to get comfortable with each other, but I think we’re finally getting there.” It is different, working with men and women in a setting that isn’t war -- it takes longer to get comfortable because they have the luxury of taking longer, he figures. It’s a new concept to Steve; he thinks it might be new to some of the people on the team, too. “I should be asking how you feel, right back.”

Brock nods at that, grabbing another chip and munching on it before answering. “Pretty good. You’re a good leader. The team has a lot of respect for you,” he tells him, studying him. “I’m glad you’re starting to feel more comfortable, though. Was worried about ya for a while, Cap.” He takes another drink of his soda. “Feels like you’re starting to relax a little around us, and I think we’re all happy about that. Good for the team’s spirit.”

Steve’s smile is modest, if still pleased -- it’s good to hear that the team accepts him as a leader, given the givens. His name and reputation obviously carry a lot of weight, but Steve’s never been someone who’s wanted to lean on name and reputation unless it was absolutely necessary (and, admittedly, sometimes it is). But not with his team, who need to know him and trust him.

But it has been hard to let himself get to know people, here on the other side of things. It’s hard, because everything seems so different, and yet not different at all, and it’s hard to reconcile the two. It’s hard to want friends again, after knowing that nearly all of his are gone. Peggy isn’t, but she’s… not quite the same, some days, and of course it’s not her fault, but it’s still the truth. Some days she feels much more gone than others, and he doesn’t even actually get to see her very much at all, in person or otherwise.

So yeah, maybe he’s been a little reticent to get to know his team, outside of the necessary. But he’s been trying, and it sounds like at least it’s paying off. “I guess I am starting to relax a little,” he admits. “My experiences with a team, before, were very different. This was all kinda new to me. On top of everything else.”

But he’s still a soldier. He can still do his job. And he wants to do that job. He was literally made to do it. “So you definitely don’t need to worry about me.”

Brock hums, looking thoughtful as he snags a couple more chips and watches as the waitress brings out their lunch. Steve smiles politely at the waitress, offering a, “Thank you,” before turning to his plate.

“Thanks, Sweetheart,” Brock tells her, and she smiles, blushing a little before heading away. He turns his attention back to Steve.

And, Steve thinks, that’s Brock all over -- the kind of alpha who feels confident enough in public to call someone Sweetheart like that -- but it’s not a problem so much as just a thing that Steve definitely doesn’t do. It wasn’t polite, his ma had told him, to assume you know anything about how a person might like to be treated. If you took them out on a date -- well, if they took you out on a date, as an omega, which he’d been at the time -- then you could have that discussion.

But while it’s a difference of opinion, it isn’t outright rude, and probably less so than Steve thinks, because things have changed a lot between then and now. He’s doing his best to remember that, and it’s not like the conversation at hand isn’t highlighting that very fact.

“Good to know. I’m sure it’s a lot different from before and I’m sure that’s taken a lot of getting used to on your part. Kudos to you for that one.” Brock picks up his fork, digging into his burrito. “Everything else going okay for you, aside from work?” His voice is casual, but curious.

 

Steve picks up his fork at the same time, but he pauses, raising one eyebrow at Brock at that question. “Yeah,” he decides on, digging into his refried beans. “It’s going all right. Still catching up, which is probably gonna be true the rest of my life,” he laughs. It’s not really an answer, but it might satisfy Brock. Or it might not. It’s hard to tell. “Thought I might look at some of the community colleges. Maybe take a course or two. I never got the chance.”

That feels like baring more than he wants to, but it’s the safest subject he can offer to Brock without inviting questions he doesn’t want to answer. He hopes.

Brock listens closely, nodding along as Steve says he’s still catching up. He gives him a wry smile. “I’m sure it takes quite a bit of time to catch up on seventy some years of history.” It sounds far too daunting for Brock, frankly.

“Just a little bit,” Steve agrees, all dry humor as he digs into his food.

“Anybody still been helping you out with some of that? Helping you play catch up on major events?” Brock knows SHIELD had someone who’d been assigned to him for that purpose, right after he’d come out of the ice, but he’s pretty sure that only lasted a couple weeks before they’d tossed him into Avengers shit.

“Hm?” Steve hums, but, “Oh, no -- that was only for a couple of weeks. I guess I seemed underwhelmed enough that SHIELD finally figured out I wasn’t gonna have a heart attack if I fell down a YouTube hole.”

That’s the funny thing -- Steve can talk the talk, but it’s a conscious effort. One that was well worth it, though, to get SHIELD off his back. Not that the help hadn’t been all right, at first, because he had been overwhelmed. Hell, he still was, sometimes. But Steve’s never liked letting his weaknesses out on display, except for a select few, and even then it’s usually with great reluctance. The entirety of SHIELD and most of the world do not fall in that category.

So, he’s fine, and he can figure it out on his own. Eventually.

Brock picks up his coke and sips it. “What do you do for fun, Cap? I get the interest in schooling you missed out on,” he tells him, shoveling another bite of food in his mouth. “But do you ever get a chance to let your hair down? Kick back at all?”

That raised eyebrow is back now, because Steve’s still not sure why Brock is asking. Yeah, he could genuinely be curious, but something about this feels more like an interrogation than a friendly conversation. And he doesn’t think he’s that out of practice at friendly conversation. Things went okay… ish with Bucky yesterday.

“It depends,” he finally says, not wanting to stay silent too long. But the truth is… nothing, really. Fun hasn’t entered the equation for years, not even counting the ice. “I do a lot of kicking at the gym.”

His smile says he knows that’s not what Brock meant, but it’s the answer he’s getting.

Brock isn’t stupid, and he knows Steve isn’t, either. Maybe he’s underestimated him a little, though, when it comes to this. His lips curve upwards in a smile and he gives a slight nod, holding a hand up as if in surrender. “Sorry. Wasn’t trying to cross any boundaries, Cap. Honest. It’s just...we’ve worked together a while now and I guess I realized that I don’t know much about you outside of that.” He picks up his glass and takes a drink before leaning back in the booth again. “Rollins, Gibbs, May, Khan...know all about their spouses and kids and hell, most days of the week I could tell you what Rollins had for breakfast.” He rolls his eyes but he’s still smiling. “But I won’t take offense if you’d prefer to keep things strictly professional.”

Now it’s Steve’s turn to make a soft noise, leaning back himself for a moment. “Well, I’m not married and I don’t have kids. And I thought anyone who’d been through third grade history knew plenty about me.”

His tone isn’t condescending so much as wry -- it’s all true, anyway. He’s this weird kind of pseudo-celebrity, and he’s met a lot of people who think they know him. He knows his team had come in with their own preconceptions and been briefed on plenty of updated information to boot, because to think otherwise would definitely be stupid.

He shrugs one shoulder, softening a little, though there’s still something wary running under his skin. “Truth is, you probably know everything worth knowing. I don’t do well with downtime, so I don’t take a lot of it. But, if you really wanna know, I had six eggs and two bagels and three cups of coffee this morning. For first breakfast.”

It’s as much a peace offering as a placation. He doesn’t want to alienate Brock. That would also be stupid.

Brock laughs at that, nodding in acquiescence. Of course he knows Cap isn’t married and he doesn’t have kids. And while he hasn’t come right out and asked the question that’s burning in his mind, he feels confident enough that he knows the truth now that he doesn’t need to. “Six eggs and two bagels. Got it.” There’s amusement in his tone, and he’s relieved he doesn’t have to deal with Captain America stealing his omega. It had all been for show.

Too bad for Barnes that he’d happened to pick the one alpha on the planet he’d never have a shot with.

---

Steve doesn’t end up getting out of work until later than he’d meant, that evening. Honestly, he isn’t even sure how late Book Barnes is open, but it’s not like he can really wear himself out with a detour there on his way home from work. And it’s also not like he’s got anything better to do.

He feels a little guilty as he parks his bike a block away in a lucky parking spot he’d found and walks the rest of the way -- he feels like a stalker, but he’s not being a stalker. He’s just going to pay for the book Bucky hadn’t charged him for. It’s a very convenient excuse to come back, and that’s what he keeps telling himself, as he gets to the storefront and sees it’s still open, pushing on the door and looking around for the brunette.

Bucky’s rearranging books in the back of the store, alphabetizing by the author names in each section, when he hears the bell above the door jingle and he blinks a couple of times, glancing at his watch. 8:08 p.m. Crap. He’d meant to lock up a couple hours ago, but he’d gotten lost in what he was doing and, apparently, also lost complete track of time. Still. It’s not like the store makes a lot in sales and he’s invested a lot of his savings in keeping this place up and running. A customer’s a customer, and besides. It’s his own fault he hadn’t closed when he was supposed to.

“Hey, welcome to Book Barnes,” he calls out as he finished the row he’s working on and starts toward the front. The last person he’s expecting to see there is his blond knight-in-shining-armor from the previous day, but there he is. He can’t quite help the way his eyes light up at the sight of the other man, nor can he suppress the flicker of delight he feels. “Steve. You’re back. Hey,” he greets.

It’s got to be so, so selfish, but the way Bucky lights up at the sight of him -- him, and not Cap -- makes something warm kindle in Steve that he isn’t sure what to do with. He smiles, almost a little breathlessly, looking happy and sheepish all at once as he says, “Hey. I’m back. I, uh, got home last night and I realized you didn’t charge me for that art book.”

It’s true, but it suddenly feels like an excuse, here and now, and yet like Bucky won’t take it as an excuse at all (because it’s not -- why is this so hard) and some part of Steve doesn’t want Bucky to think he only came back for business, even though it’s the thing that made it so easy to come back in the first place.

There’s no mistaking the way something seems to soften in Steve’s posture as he talks, and Bucky finds himself a bit mesmerized by that happy smile, because he’s the one on the receiving end of it and it feels -- warm. Like slipping into a bubble bath on a cold, dreary day. It’s a pleasant surprise after the abrupt way their conversation had ended yesterday. He’d been half afraid he’d made things awkward by bringing up his injury and army discharge. It had left him feeling guilty and unsettled, but he’d done his best to push it aside, assuming he’d probably never see the guy again.

But there he is, standing in front of Bucky in the store.

Bucky’s expression softens a little when Steve mentions the reason he’d come back and he offers him a smile. “Yeah, I --” He rubs the back of his neck, shaking his head. “I didn’t charge you because I just wanted you to have the book. You helped me out yesterday, and honestly, there aren’t enough people in the world willing to do that sort of thing for a complete stranger. It was sort of a thank you.”

“Oh,” Steve says, and then he ends up laughing -- at himself, really. “I didn’t -- I’m sorry. If you wanna see something spectacular, give me a minute and I promise I can actually get my foot in my mouth.”

Bucky’s lips quirk upward more at the sound of Steve’s laughter and he finds himself wanting to hear more of it.

Meanwhile, Steve’s smile has gone a little helpless -- but a little grateful, too. “You didn’t have to do that. But thank you.” Because he did, and Steve isn’t going to belittle the act by insisting that he pay for it now. “And you’re welcome, I mean, but --” He shakes his head a little. “People should be willing to help each other out. I guess I just see the way I want the world to be, and I try to live like it is, you know?”

Bucky’s chest tightens at those words, because they’re so fucking earnest it’s almost painful. “I think that’s a really great way to look at things,” he says quietly. The fact that he means it is more than Bucky’s witnessed out of most alphas.

“But I should maybe look around a little more, too,” Steve suddenly finds himself saying, feeling his cheeks threaten to go a little red and God, when is the last time he blushed? “I mean -- I’m a fast reader.” Yeah, that sounds more lame and definitely more like an excuse.

Bucky’s smile perks up more when Steve mentions wanting to look around some more. “Yeah, of course. And I think I still owe you a hot beverage. You never did end up picking one.”

“Sorry about that,” Steve admits, knowing he’s still being a little obtuse about it, knowing that that’s wrong, but it’s not like he’s trying to hide who he is. He just doesn’t want to actively advertise it, not right now. “I would like some of that hot chocolate. Unless that offer’s off the table, in which case coffee is fine. But it’s late -- if you’re closing soon, you don’t have to make anything fresh for me.” He doesn’t smell any coffee, at any rate, so he’s sort of assuming.

“The offer’s still on the table,” Bucky assures Steve. The coffee had gone cold a few hours ago, probably, and even if not, he wouldn’t dare to drink it at this hour. Not if he wants any shot at sleeping tonight, and he does, because he needs it and because it’s something that’s already a struggle most nights.

“And uh -- well. I should’ve closed up a couple hours ago but I guess I lost track of time in the stacks.” It’s Bucky’s turn to look sheepish. “But it’s really no trouble at all.” Because the last thing he wants is Steve to insist on leaving so he can close up. “I’ll just flip the sign over and lock the door.” He heads toward the door to do just that, glancing around looking for Alpine, who’d been hiding for a few hours now. He’s sure she’ll turn up any minute.

Bucky flips the sign to closed and turns the lock. “Now the question is, do you want plain hot chocolate or the flavored kind? I got raspberry, mint, caramel and French vanilla.”

“Oh -- oh, no, I just walked right in without looking at the hours, I’m sorry,” Steve ends up saying all in a rush, coming right back around to embarrassed. “Do you want help closing up? I mean, I can make sure everything’s clean and tidy.” Bucky says it’s no trouble, and Steve wants to believe him. The earnestness in his face doesn’t seem like a front he’s putting on to be polite, not when he’s already turned the lock and Steve is still in here, and the rest of the world is now decidedly not.

Steve, though, isn’t going to be dissuaded from helping if he can. “Let me do something to help if you’re going to do that for me, and I’ll take…” Frankly, he hadn’t really known flavored hot chocolate was really an option. “Raspberry?” That sounds like it would pair pretty well with chocolate -- not that any of the other options don’t.

There’s a flutter of something in Bucky’s chest when Steve settles on his favorite flavored hot chocolate. He tilts his head to the side, considering. He’d swept up earlier already. “Really I just want to make sure Alpine is still in here so if you wanted to look around for her while you look through the stacks, that’d be great.”

Truthfully, Bucky’s almost certain she’s inside, but on occasion she’s been known to dart outside when the door’s open too long. Having Steve look for her is partially just for Steve, though -- he doesn’t want the other to leave so quickly and he’d been worried that if he didn’t give him some kind of job, he might assume he’s intruding or taking up Bucky’s time and insist on leaving.

“And great choice, by the way. I usually stick to mint if I’m not feeling well, but raspberry’s my favorite for any other time.” Bucky smiles, ducking his head a little as he heads toward the back of the store, pulling out his keys and sliding one into the lock there, opening up the door to his efficiency apartment. “I’ll be back in a few. Holler if you need anything or have any questions.”

“Sure,” Steve’s already saying, not entirely sure how to track down a cat, but he guesses it probably means looking everywhere one could possibly hide, high or low. There are definitely a few twists and turns and corners around here, thanks to all the bookshelves, so he simply gets to it, cataloging each corner and case as he goes, looking for that telltale white fluff. He does glance in Bucky’s direction when he hears the telltale jingle of keys in a lock, and -- well, living above or adjacent to a place isn’t entirely a new idea to him. In fact, it’s a pretty old one, because most people growing up had.

But that means Bucky doesn’t just work here, but he might actually run the place. Which, now that Steve’s thinking about it, makes a lot of sense. His grandfather must have given it to him, or at least to someone that’s comfortable with Bucky in charge. “I think my training can cover claws to the face, but I’m sure you will hear me hollering if it doesn’t,” he calls, and gets back to searching.

Bucky laughs when Steve calls out. “She’s a sweetheart of a cat. She would never.” He’s already measuring out milk and putting it to boil on the stove. Alpine’s actually kind of shy with people in general. Wanda’s an exception, and him of course, and it hadn’t escaped him how easily she’d come off the bookshelf the day before to inspect Steve -- and proceeded to flop on his books, which isn’t something she does normally. But he’s always heard that animals can sense good people from bad people, and considering the fact she’d never warmed up to Brock, he’s inclined to believe that’s true.

“Well, that’s reassuring,” Steve laughs, making his way down the aisles of bookshelves until he pauses, cocking his head to one side, trying to figure out… what that strange, soft rumbling sound is. He frowns, following the sound down another row, until he realizes it’s the cat, curled up on top of one of the shelves and purring, her tail lazily twitching as she watches him with a few slow blinks.

“I don’t think I want to take my chances, all the same, if you’re comfortable where you are,” he says to the cat -- although of course, he tentatively reaches one hand up, giving her a chance to sniff it if she wants. (And if that’s even a thing cats do -- he’s a lot more familiar with dogs, given there were a couple of those that served as working dogs with a few of the companies the Howlies worked with in the war.)

“Do you want whipped cream or marshmallows? I have both,” Bucky calls.

Alpine does sniff Steve’s fingers, and then a rough little pink tongue scratches up the pads of the two nearest her nose, and Steve laughs again just as Bucky calls out again. Both his head and Alpine’s turn in the direction of the sound, and she starts to uncurl, stretching slowly, then jumps down and trots off, this time with Steve following her back toward Bucky’s voice.

“That sounds pretty decadent,” Steve calls as he gets closer. “Just -- however you take it, I guess. Alpine seems interested, at any rate. She’s on her way over.”

Bucky glances down and spots Alpine slipping into the apartment just as Steve warns him about the approaching cat and he grins. “You found her. Thanks,” he says, listening to the sound of Steve’s approaching footsteps. He lets the milk simmer on the stove and moves to the fridge to get out the soymilk, putting just a little of it in a small bowl on the floor. “Here you go, sweetheart,” he whispers as she makes a beeline for the bowl and starts lapping it up. He rubs behind her ears softly. “Good girl.”

He places the soymilk back in the fridge and returns to the stove, glancing toward the door. “You can come in, if you want,” he tells Steve, voice only a little louder than usual. He can’t actually see him from where he’s standing, but he can practically sense that he’s there, hovering just outside the door. “Or if you want to keep looking at books, that’s okay, too.” He stirs the milk and then starts adding in the hot chocolate package a little at a time, letting the powder dissolve as he stirs so it doesn’t clump together.

Steve is, admittedly, hovering just outside the door; it seems rude to assume he can just go in, that he’s got permission or an invitation, but then Bucky actually issues an invitation, so Steve slips in through the half-open door, hands in his pockets and sheepish smile back on his face. “I didn’t want to just assume,” he explains -- and then, “That smells really good.”

Because Bucky’s making actual hot chocolate with actual milk on the actual stove, and it tugs at something in Steve for a second, making him feel weirdly homesick. It’s not like the technique has gone completely out of fashion, but the last time he saw anyone drink hot chocolate, it had been Natasha dumping a little packet into a mug of water she’d warmed up in the microwave, and it had just struck something dissonant in him -- or maybe that had been the weirdly sugary, watered-down powder puffing out from the packet, that had hit him with a face full of wrong. A lot of things did that these days -- pre-prepared, packaged things that were just a little off, and to his, well, over-sensitive senses, it can be an assault.

“Is this your place?” he asks -- just to confirm, given that maybe Bucky just has the keys for whoever stays back here, or maybe no one lives here at all… but that doesn’t look like the case, looking around. It definitely looks like someone lives here, with all the little touches and tells.

There’s something both startling and yet completely natural about seeing Steve step into his apartment, looking sheepish and smiling and whatever it is makes Bucky’s chest feel warm. Foolishly (and he knows it’s foolish), he can’t help but think it would be nice to end a lot more days just like this -- with making hot chocolate for Steve and maybe the two of them curling up together on his small sofa, watching movies or even just reading side-by-side. It’s a mental image that takes him a moment to let go of, because there’s no use dreaming about things like that.

“Yeah,” he admits after a moment, stirring the hot chocolate in the pan, tiny smile on his face. “It’s cheaper than paying rent for a place separate from the store.” Bucky looks over at him again, imagining the two of them holing up in here during a cold winter night and he wonders briefly if he’s losing his mind. He’s not some starry-eyed teenager, dammit. “Plus I don’t have to get up extra early for a commute.” There’s a hint of joking in his voice now, even if that actually is a perk. He’d been in the army for years and did the early morning routine, but he’d never really cared for that part of it. He likes his sleep.

For Steve’s part, now that he knows it’s Bucky’s place… it gives him a little window into his life, one he feels strangely pleased and privileged to witness. It’s stupid -- Bucky must have friends, have family, have plenty of other people who know where he lives and what his place looks like. It’s Steve who’s strange, for not having those things. But still, he likes the little look he gets; could see himself spending time here, with Bucky -- and that’s where he tries to put a stop to that thought, because if Bucky’s an alpha, they can certainly be friends. And Steve can certainly feel… how he’s feeling about him, which he can’t really pretend he’s not. But he doubts Bucky feels the same way, and he definitely doubts Bucky would be willing to throw convention to the wind, the same way Steve might. With Peggy… with Peggy, it had been different. There’d been a war on, and they’d been soulmates, and… well, they’d thrown convention to the wind as quietly as possible, and it hadn’t been easy, and neither of them had liked hiding, for as much as they’d known they had to. Fucking Captain America couldn’t be in a relationship with another alpha who was essentially in his unit.

And it’s probably the same now, minus the working together. So Steve does his best to wipe any of those thoughts from his head, and just… take it in, and take Bucky in, and focus on him as a friend. Friends are great. Friends are important, and he would much rather have a friend than nothing at all. God knows he has precious few of them now… as in, possibly none.

Of course, if Bucky had any idea what Steve was thinking about, he’d likely admit that no, he doesn’t really have family or friends anywhere around. His family knows where he is, but his parents are in Indiana, and he rarely hears from them anymore. He talks to his little sister a couple times a week, but Becca’s in California now that Bucky’s recovered enough from his injuries to be on his own and run the store without her help. Mostly, he keeps to himself these days, spends his evenings in the apartment with Alpine, curled up beneath heavy blankets because whatever had been done to him during his captivity had left him feeling cold most of the time. It’s probably a blessing in disguise -- it makes it a lot less tempting to wear things like short-sleeved shirts.

“Sounds like a pretty good deal,” Steve says, after what was probably too long spent staring at nothing with a dumb look on his face. He rallies, coming closer to the stove, before asking, “Where do you keep your mugs?”

Bucky feels an odd sense of awareness of Steve’s presence as he approaches almost soundlessly, glancing at him with a soft smile and motioning to the cabinet beside the microwave. “Up there,” he tells him, wondering how it is that someone with Steve’s stature and sheer size makes him feel the exact opposite of intimidated. These days he seems to be jumpy and uneasy around anyone much bigger than him, and he’s not sure if it’s just a PTSD thing or if it’s because he’s an omega now. Neither option is a great choice under the circumstances. But the point is, he doesn’t feel wary or nervous around Steve despite his size and it has him questioning a whole lot about himself, even while solidifying in his mind the fact that Steve is simply one of the good guys.

Bucky turns the flame on the stove down a little, unable to keep himself from sneaking a peek at the other man as he reaches up for the mugs, the muscles in his back rippling through his t-shirt. He draws in a slow breath, licking his lips almost involuntarily, looking away just in time before Steve can catch him looking. “How was your day, anyway?” he asks suddenly, realizing he hadn’t asked before. And he knows that there’s probably not a lot that Steve can or will tell him considering he’s special ops, but he can’t stop himself from asking anyway.

Alpine leaps up onto the counter beside him and then up to perch on his shoulder, nuzzling against his neck affectionately and making him smile as she purrs right in his ear.

Steve laughs a little as he sets the mugs down on the counter. It’s stupid, but the question is… weirdly nice. Domestic. And so much more sincere, somehow, coming from a person that he’s only met twice than coming from a member of his own team, like Brock’s questions had been earlier.

“Full of paperwork,” he says, sounding as put upon as he can. “Honestly, pretty boring, and don’t I feel awful for saying the world is a reasonable enough place at the moment that sitting behind a desk is all I had to do today.”

It’s true, anyway -- he’s grateful things are quiet for the moment, because that can change at the drop of a hat. But he always feels antsy and useless when he’s relegated to administration rather than active duty.

Bucky glances at him sideways as he sets the mugs down on the counter, wrinkling his nose at the mention of paperwork, but chuckling quietly anyway. “Hey, been there, done that. Paperwork’s never been my favorite thing either. Doesn’t mean you can’t wish for some kind of nice balance. Not necessarily death and destruction level interesting, but more interesting than filling out forms for the higher-ups.”

He picks up the pan and moves over to the sink, carefully pouring the hot chocolate into the two mugs that Steve had pulled down.

“Balance, yeah,” Steve echoes, but there’s something a little wry and thoughtful under his voice -- mostly the fact that he doesn’t get called in unless there’s some serious imbalance, so while he wishes maybe that were true, it really can’t ever be. He knows he’s not a normal soldier, and not even a “normal” special operative. But he can’t really be sorry, in the end. He would’ve settled for just serving, when the war hit. But this is what he got, how he got to serve, and he wouldn’t give it back for the world.

Bucky hears that undercurrent in Steve’s voice, but he’s not sure what it means or what to make of it. He glances at him curiously but doesn’t ask, mostly because it seems impolite. If Steve wants to share with him, he will. He also knows he probably won’t, just from the nature of his job. It’s okay; Bucky gets it. It’s part of military life.

“So, what had you so busy that you forgot to close up?” Steve finally asks. “And -- what time do you normally close, so I don’t just walk in after hours like that again?” Because… okay, he can’t help it. He’d really like to come back again, and he hasn’t even left yet.

“Uh. Well. Nothing specific, really?” Bucky answers. “Sometimes I just get kinda anxious and so I was choosing to cope by alphabetizing the shelves.” Bucky laughs at himself, shaking his head. “My life isn’t really that interesting these days, admittedly.” The question about what time the store closes does catch his attention, though and he swears his heart skips a beat. Maybe even two. If he’s asking, it’s sort of an insinuation that he’s planning to come back and -- God, Bucky wants him to.

Maybe more than he’s even ready to admit to himself.

“Normally we close down at 5, but honestly -- you’re welcome to come after hours.” He freezes at what that is possibly insinuating and his cheeks grow warm with heat. “I mean, if you want to browse privately or have hot chocolate with me. I’m usually always around.”

Steve feels a burst of warmth in his chest that starts to leak out into his smile — and then tells himself he should crush what he’s feeling every time he looks at Bucky into a little ball and hide it away, keeping his smiles just friendly -- which is suddenly hard, when it looks like Bucky might actually be blushing. It’s… a really damned good look on him, the color just tingeing his cheeks.

“Five? You must’ve been pretty -- distracted,” he says, gentling his voice when he realizes that it’s definitely rude to tease about something when Bucky had admitted to feeling anxious. Steve gets that. He does. He has days like that, when he can’t sleep because everything is too loud, too wrong, when every little sound his neighbors make through the walls reminds him of the war, when he walks into a restaurant or store and has to stick to the areas where he’s got a good sight line on the entrances and exits. He gets it.

“Yeah, I guess I was,” Bucky admits, looking a bit sheepish. He hands Steve one of the mugs of raspberry hot chocolate and then moves to grab the bag of marshmallows, opening it and dropping a few into his own mug before offering it to Steve. “Honestly -- have you ever had one of those days where your head feels like it’s full of cotton?”

Steve watches how many marshmallows Bucky takes, then reaches into the bag and getting the same number for himself. He blows out a breath, even as the steaming mug in his hands, which smells amazing, feels like comfort and warmth washing over him. “Yeah, once or twice,” he agrees -- although really, it’s definitely been more than once or twice. He’d kind of had a lot of days like that, after first waking up. They’ve mostly faded, and he can push through the ones that haven’t, but he does know the feeling. The look he gives Bucky is as understanding as it is sympathetic, given how little he likes feeling that way, and can’t imagine anyone else does, either.

“Well -- I’ll try to call ahead, if I’m going to…” Except that’s where Steve leaves off. He doesn’t have Bucky’s number. And he feels his heart trip in his chest, like it’s some big deal, when he asks, “I mean, if I could -- we could trade numbers?”

It seems awfully personal… and that also seems awfully ridiculous, since he’s standing in the guy’s kitchen, with what seems to be an invitation to show up after hours again. Fuck, it’s a good thing they can only be friends. He’s so bad at flirting.

Not that this is flirting. It isn’t. He’s making a friend. Apparently he’s really out of practice at that one, too.

Alpine meows and jumps down onto the counter once more, giving Bucky a moment to absorb the fact that Steve’s asking for his phone number. His mouth suddenly feels very dry, but he can’t quite stop the smile that spreads across his face. “Yeah, that’s a good idea.” He pulls his phone out of his pocket and unlocks it. “What’s your number? I’ll send you a text and you’ll have mine then, too.”

And just like that, all of Steve’s worry about being out of practice gets a bit wiped out by overwhelming relief when Bucky agrees to trade numbers. Steve’s pulling out his phone, too, even as he rattles off his number easily for the other, unlocking it and waiting for the promised text. “I hope that’s not her way of protesting,” he says, watching the cat with too bemused a smile for him to really think that. “She looked comfortable up there.”

Bucky plugs the number into his phone, sending Steve a smiley face via text along with It’s Bucky. Then he tucks his phone back into his pocket, laughing. “She likes you, don’t worry. If she didn’t, she’d be hiding and not out in the open. She’s usually pretty shy,” he tells him honestly.

Steve can’t help but smile when he gets the text, saving the number deftly before glancing back up. “Well, I’m glad she does. It would be a little awkward if she decided she didn’t want me calling.” And okay, maybe now he’s picturing the cat hanging up Bucky’s phone for him or something, which is a little ridiculous, but he’s still glad all the same that she doesn’t seem to mind his presence. “I have heard animals can be good judges of character,” he says, teasing again, but also a little hopeful.

Bucky moves away from the sink, picking up his cup of hot chocolate and taking a sip. “You wanna come sit down?” he offers, stepping around Steve and doing his best to ignore the warmth radiating from his body as he heads into the small living room area. His heart is beating quickly again, his fingers itching to reach out and touch him, but he resists because it’s not exactly polite to go around touching people you barely know, even if you kissed them the first time you met. He doesn’t want Steve to think he’s in the habit of putting his hands or his lips on people without asking permission.

Steve’s sudden burst of hope only burns brighter when Bucky asks if he wants to sit down. “Sure, yeah. Thank you.” The furniture looks well worn, but not in disrepair, and it certainly looks comfortable as Steve trails Bucky the few feet into the living room space, waiting for him to sit down so he can judge where he should sit with his own mug. “I like your place,” he says. “It’s a good design.” It seems like a silly thing to say, but it’s true -- every inch of space seems used efficiently, but nothing feels cramped or uncomfortable. “I’ve lived in plenty of places this size or smaller that didn’t feel half as roomy.”

Bucky’s face lights up at the compliment. “Thanks. Gramps actually built this apartment himself,” he explains, sitting down on one end of the small sofa, leaving plenty of room for Steve. “It was originally just gonna be a storeroom, but he wound up using the second floor for that and just living here to save money.” He glances around, oddly pleased that Steve’s so appreciative of the place.

“It’s a good strategy,” Steve agrees, picking the other end of the couch to sit on -- not trying to put every inch of space between them, but certainly keeping a polite, friendly distance, and trying to make it look as casual as he can.

“Have you always lived in Brooklyn? Well, aside from any military service,” Bucky amends, leaning back against the cushions.

That question is easy for Steve to answer, at least: “Yeah. Well -- I stayed in a place in Midtown for a couple weeks, after the Chitauri attack.” That’s something pretty much everyone remembers and isn’t likely to forget soon. “My unit was helping with the cleanup. That was my first assignment on, uh, home soil after I got back.” And if you counted the Avengers as his unit, which he guesses it kind of was, at the time.

Bucky watches Steve as he makes himself comfortable on the couch and sips his drink, listening as he mentions the Chitauri attack and grimacing. “Yeah, can’t say I thought alien invasion was a real possibility. No matter how many sci-fi books I read growing up.” And the movies he’d watched, of course. “Missed out on all of that, though I have a feeling if it hadn’t gotten wrapped up as quickly as it did, they probably would have pulled my unit outta Afghanistan to help out. Guess the Avengers handled it pretty fast.” It’s just the cleanup and recovery efforts that had taken months and months.

He wonders how different his life would have been if it had gone on longer and his unit had been pulled out of Afghanistan. He might not ever have been taken prisoner, would never have been experimented on like a lab rat, might never have become an omega at all. But he doesn’t dwell on it for long. There’s no point. And he’s never been the kind of guy to indulge in self-pity for long, whether as a beta or an omega.

“We -- all, uh, did our best to clean up after,” Steve says, feeling stupid and, again, shameful and a little deceitful for not just coming out and explaining that he’s an Avenger, that he was there during, not just after. But he bites the inside of his cheek and nods, because at least he can say -- and feel better about it -- that, “Yeah, me either. Aliens were not really ever an enemy I thought we’d have to worry about.” He worries it won’t be the last of it, either -- if it can happen once, it can happen again, after all. But that’s why he’s still an Avenger, sticking close to the rest of the team in New York, even if he’s currently taking orders and paychecks from SHIELD.

“Oh - yeah, of course. Sorry. I wasn’t trying to insinuate the Avengers are the only ones who did anything,” Bucky says, grimacing a little. Truthfully, he doesn’t follow much of the news regarding the Avengers, at all. He’s heard enough to know he’s glad they exist, because obviously they’re needed, but superheroes and superpowers are all very much out of his wheelhouse. It almost doesn’t feel like reality. But Steve doesn’t really seem like he’s taken offense to his off-handed commentary about the Avengers so he lets it go at the apology.

“No -- no, I know. They kinda got all the press. Trust me. I know,” Steve says, smiling because it’s definitely true. He hadn’t loved it, but at least he’s had enough experience dealing with the press that he’d gotten through it all right, even if he’d still been feeling even more like a fish out of water, like a person who just didn’t belong. That feeling is still there, sometimes, but it’s at least mostly faded into the background, and it’s easier to ignore it even when it doesn’t if he focuses on keeping busy.

“But after that, yeah,” Steve goes on. “I found a place that wasn’t too astronomically high in rent, which is good since I guess I’m not actually there a whole lot,” he ends with a laugh. Yeah, he can definitely see the benefits of living in a place with little to no rent.

He hadn’t paid rent in Stark Tower, admittedly, but he hadn’t felt comfortable staying there indefinitely. It was too busy in the wrong ways, and so he’d wanted to go home to Brooklyn -- even if it didn’t always feel like home anymore. Places like this, though? They did still feel like home. And so does the tiny studio apartment Steve’s got, too, even if it’s still in a far nicer building, in a far better area of Brooklyn than he grew up in.

“So, yeah -- I grew up here. I don’t think anywhere else would ever feel like home.” Steve takes a sip of his drink and has to stop for a moment, just savoring the rich, real, novel taste before he finally remembers to pick back up the thread of conversation. “You?”

Bucky finds himself relaxing the more he listens, and he realizes how much he likes hearing Steve talk. There’s something about his voice that’s soothing, makes him feel warm and cozy, like the hot chocolate. He’s self-aware enough to recognize the budding crush he has on the other man, and his cheeks feel warm as he ducks his head.

“Yeah, it’s always been Brooklyn for me, too. Other than when I was overseas. Got family in Indiana, but I’ve never lived there myself.” Bucky smiles, faint and soft.

Steve hums, impressed and curious, when Bucky mentions Indiana. “When you’re a city boy, it’s hard to imagine living anywhere else. Indiana seems almost like a foreign country,” he laughs. “Have you visited them?”

“Yeah, no. Actually.” He shakes his head, exhaling, gut twisting with sadness that he does his best every day to completely ignore. “We’re not close anymore. Typical dysfunctional family, I guess.” He tries to smile but it’s more pained than anything. “Except my sister. She’s out in California, going to school at Stanford. Super smart. Those genes skipped right over me,” he jokes.

“Oh -- Buck. I’m sorry.” Steve offers a genuinely sympathetic smile, before glancing down at his mug. “I don’t have a lot of experience with families. Mine was small to start with, and I’m the only one left. But that’s great, about your sister. She must love it out there. And that sounds like a place you should definitely visit. I hear they have palm trees and everything.” His grin turns a little more hopeful. “Besides -- Army ain’t bad, right? It’s all I ever wanted to do.”

The nickname doesn’t escape Bucky and his breath catches for just a second, his own chest growing warm with sympathy. He feels the sudden urge to wrap Steve into a hug just to reassure him he’s not alone. His gaze is soft as he looks at the other man. “Yeah, she likes it pretty well. I think she misses Brooklyn, too, though. She was actually running this place while I was in the Army. And no. It’s not bad at all,” he says honestly. There are definitely things he thinks should change about the institution as a whole, especially regarding its stance on omegas and service, but no one’s asking him for his opinion.

“Good business sense must run in the family,” Steve says softly, and he definitely means it a compliment to Bucky as much to everyone else who’s run the place as well. It’s still here, after all, after decades, and that’s a testament to its owners as much to its service for the community.

Bucky rests his left arm atop the couch, angling his body so he’s facing Steve better, mug of cocoa resting against his thigh as he cradles it in his right hand. “I’m glad you came by tonight,” he admits. “For the record.”

Steve’s smile turns that little bit pleased and embarrassed at what Bucky says; he glances at his own drink again, but only briefly, not wanting to look anywhere but at Bucky. “I’m glad I did, too,” he says, with maybe just the tiniest hint of relief under his voice. It had seemed like the best idea and the worst idea, all rolled into one, but Steve’s always followed his hunches, and this one seems to have paid off. Especially after the strange, uncomfortable day he’d had. Spending time with Brock felt nothing like this; Bucky might be another alpha, but he’s genuine and heartfelt in a way that Steve isn’t sure Brock could ever be. It reminds Steve -- again -- of spending time with Peggy. Of spending time with someone for the sake of spending time together, and not for the sake of getting something out of it.

So Steve takes a chance, because… because this feels precious, and something worth going after, and because every little step he’s taken so far has been the right one. “I’m free most nights. If I’m not on a mission. If you ever wanted help cleaning up the shop, or making signs, or lis-- watching a game or something.”

It feels like the first genuine offer of something that Bucky not only craves, but needs. It’s everything that all of his time with Brock never was, with his casual insults and snide condescension that had crept up shortly after they’d gotten together. Looking back now, he can pinpoint so many red flags that he’d missed in his haze of pain and recovery and all the drugs they’d given him to get him through all of it in the hospital. He could see so easily now how Brock had preyed on him when he’d been vulnerable and weak, how he’d slithered into Bucky’s life and Bucky had just let him.

Everything about Steve is different. There’s a kindness in his eyes that he’s drawn to, that he thinks he’d still would have been drawn to even as a beta.

“I’d like that a lot,” Bucky says softly, eyes bright as he gazes at him.

Steve looks more like Bucky had just accepted a marriage proposal than told him he could come over sometimes; there’s something in his face that lights up, that goes relieved, that’s even a little disbelieving, like it’s hard to accept that Bucky gave him the answer he wanted. Deep down, that warm feeling rekindles, and he grins stupidly, trying to hide it in his mug. “Okay,” he agrees. “I could even bring dinner next time. If you don’t mind takeout -- I’m not much of a cook.”

That makes it sound a lot more like a date. But it doesn’t have to be a date, and Bucky can interpret it however he wants. Maybe it’s overreaching his grasp, but Steve wants to tumble into this headfirst, and it’s always been a little hard to hold himself back, even when that might have been the prudent thing to do. It’s not like he has experience with taking things slowly -- not friendships, not whatever he had with Peggy, not even getting to know the Avengers. Steve’s lived his life under the clock, from just trying to survive to fighting a world war to trying to stop aliens from pouring through a hole in the sky. Taking his time is just something he’s never learned how to do.

Bucky’s pretty sure that if his heart starts beating any faster than it already is, he’s going to have a heart attack. Steve might not have called it a date, but by all conventional standards, it sure sounds like that’s what he’s offering. Between that and the way that Steve’s expression floods with what looks like hope -- he can’t quite help but get his own hopes up a little. He scrapes his teeth over his lower lip absently.

He takes a slow, deep breath. No one’s ever accused him of beating around the bush, and he’s not about to start now, even if he’s a little afraid his words are about to wreck this fragile thing between them. “Just…to clarify. Are we talking about a date?” His voice is hushed. “If not, that’s fine, but for what it’s worth, if that is what you’re asking, hypothetically...I’d say yes.”

Honestly, if anything, the way Bucky just comes out and asks, it’s like -- God, it’s just like Peggy, like how she never minced words or went for politeness when she could get straight to the point. Steve feels this crazy, huge, unbidden throb of affection come bubbling up inside him, even as he makes himself take a breath, leaning over to set his mug on the nearest flat surface, not taking his eyes off Bucky as he sits back up straight.

“It -- is, if you want it to be,” Steve says, just as quietly, like it’s 1943 and it’s just him and Peggy in an infirmary room at the SSR, both of them alphas and knowing what both of them want, either way. “It’s what I want it to be,” he adds, because he’s not second-guessing himself on this, and he’s not doing it just because Bucky might want to. He wants this. He can’t explain how or why, but he’s wanted it for the majority of the past two days, which is exactly how long he’s known the man sitting here with him.

Bucky tracks Steve’s movement with his eyes, watching intently, hyper-aware of his presence as he sets his mug down, as he seems to shift just a little closer on the couch. And when Steve admits he wants it to be a date -- his cheeks grow warm all over again, smile spreading across his face. “I want it to be, too,” he agrees without hesitation, relief washing over him. “I know we just met yesterday, but I feel --” He searches for the words to try and describe it. “Like we have a connection. Like I’ve known you a lot longer. Which I realize sounds like a really cheesy movie line, but...it’s also true.”

“It’s not -- I mean, I feel that way, too,” Steve says, quickly, his whole posture going a little more relaxed, a little more relieved. “It doesn’t sound cheesy to me at all.”

It sounds -- it feels -- like the only other relationship Steve has had. Which means that it’s right, he figures, because hadn’t his ma always said that when he’d know, he’d know? Well -- he knows. Just like he knows it’s probably a bad idea to go talking about said previous relationship, but it at least gives him some comfort, knowing Bucky feels the same way.

“I know it might not be -- I’m an alpha,” he says then, all in a rush, because of course he’s never outright said, and of course Bucky’d never outright asked. But suddenly, if that’s going to be a problem, if Bucky hadn’t guessed… then he needs to go into this with that knowledge.

As soon as Steve admits he’s an alpha, it occurs to Bucky that now Steve’s probably thinking he is, too, simply because he owns the bookstore. “I’m not. An alpha,” he says, a stab of guilt going through him at the lie he utters next. “I’m a beta. But -- even if I was an alpha...I don’t think I’d care that much,” Bucky tells him honestly. And it can be dangerous to say such a thing, but there’s nothing about Steve that screams danger to him, even if he’s not ready to admit to him that he’s an omega.

Bucky says he wouldn’t even care if they were both alphas, and that crazy warm, bubbly feeling is back. “I don’t think I would, either,” tumbles out of Steve’s mouth, knowing that’s a little bit of a lie, if only because he knows he wouldn’t mind. But it’s hypothetical, now, because Bucky’s a beta, even if something about that knowledge doesn’t soothe Steve the way maybe it should. But that’s stupid, and unimportant, because what’s important is the guy sitting across the couch from him, and Steve suddenly feels like he can’t stop smiling, even though it might split his face. “Then it’s definitely, definitely a date, even if I should warn you that I haven’t… uh, had a lot of experience?”

He laughs, rubbing his neck for a second. “I mean -- I’m not -- I have had. Dates. It’s just been a while. That’s what I’m trying to say. But it’s probably like riding a bike, right?”

There’s something that’s kind of incredible about watching Steve relax, watching his eyes light up, and his smile is so damned bright, Bucky feels like he’s looking directly into the sun without going blind. And in a flash, he can see so many good things ahead, all of them revolving around the beautiful man sitting beside him on the couch, and he wants that desperately.
And when Steve immediately agrees that he didn’t think he’d care if they were both alphas, everything inside of Bucky feels warm and reassured because there aren’t too many that would openly agree with the idea of two alphas being together, especially not to someone they’d just met.

“It’s okay,” Bucky assures him, and this time he doesn’t stop himself from reaching out and resting his hand on Steve’s shoulder. “I’ve only been in a couple relationships myself. Military life makes things pretty complicated,” he points out with a soft smile.

“But yeah. Like riding a bike,” Bucky agrees with a grin. And honestly, he’s never considered himself to be a high maintenance kind of person. He tends to go with the flow of things. “We’ll be fine.”

“There’s probably a really, really bad raunchy joke in there somewhere,” Steve says, but the laughter is as nervous as it is hopeful. He feels warm, where Bucky’s hand is resting on his shoulder, even through his t-shirt. And besides, he does get it. “It does,” he agrees. “Make things complicated, yeah. But sometimes complicated is worth it.”

Even so… somehow, this seems so uncomplicated -- except for the fact that Steve’s still withholding information. But it’s just not that important, right? It’s just his job. It’s just where he’s from. It doesn’t matter right here and now, when he suddenly feels like he could fly, with Bucky touching him and looking at him like that. He… actually can’t remember the last time someone touched him like that, just to touch him. It might’ve been 1945, but that would be ridiculous.

Bucky laughs, too, because he can’t honestly say his mind hasn’t gone in that same direction, however momentarily. It’s hard to look at Steve and not think about those possibilities. He’s not sure how anyone with eyes can do any differently. He knows that as easy as this feels, it’s complicated in other ways and not just because Steve is special ops. He has a very persistent ex-boyfriend with stalker tendencies, and he’s already uttered his first lie by telling Steve he’s a beta.

As much as every instinct he has screams at him that he can trust this man completely, he can’t risk the chance of being reported for owning a business when he’s really just an omega. It’s a stupid law, but he also knows he doesn’t have the kind of power it takes to overturn it by himself. He’ll tell him, when he can convince himself that there’s no chance it’ll be used against him.

“I might still get called away for missions,” Steve says, even as he’s maybe scooting a little closer, trying to both make it more comfortable for Bucky to touch him, and maybe to get their knees touching, to start reaching out right back. But he’s an alpha -- the alpha in this relationship -- and he doesn’t want to assert dominance without knowing for a fact that Bucky’s inviting what he’s got to give. So he holds off, just for a few seconds more, starts small, because while he’s not really a “starts small” kind of guy, he still wants to do his best. “But otherwise… I’m here as often as you want me.”

That’s… maybe not starting small, in the non-touching department, at least.

Steve’s closer and their knees are touching, light, but still touching and Bucky wants to get even closer. His nerves are practically screaming for the contact and so he, too, shifts closer to Steve so they’re pressed together a little more firmly.

This isn’t like Brock informing him he’d be over every night, it’s Steve making the offer to be around if Bucky wants him to be around. “Then it sounds like you’re going to be spending a lot of time here, Steve,” he murmurs.

When Bucky moves closer, it’s like something lights up inside Steve as their thighs touch, their hips. He lets out a breath like he’s finally gotten relief from an ache he’s had for so long that it’s become a part of him, and he can’t help it -- he reaches out, resting a hand on Bucky’s knee, trying to increase the contact a little more without touching somewhere he shouldn’t. His eyes flutter as his smile just keeps on going like he won’t remember how to stop.

“That’d be nice, actually,” he says, fixing his gaze on Bucky again. “I mean, it sounds nice, having someone to eat dinner with.” And a lot of other things besides, but he offered dinner first, so that’s what it’s going to be. “Should I bring something for Alpine, too?” He guesses the more time he’s likely to spend here, the more he ought to endear himself to the cat.

Because maybe if he can just wait a little longer, get to know Bucky a little better, let Bucky get to know him a little better, then explaining about his job and his past and the whole mess of it might go over better. Because it’s never worked well the other way around, and he desperately wants this to work.

It’s not bare skin contact, but Bucky can feel the heat from Steve’s hand against his jean-clad knee and it settles something in his bones that’s been itching beneath his skin since yesterday. He casually leans over and sets his mug on the coffee table beside Steve’s before shifting back into place beside him once more and moving to cover Steve’s hand with his own.

Steve’s admittedly more than a little distracted when Bucky reaches out to cover his fingers, the touch feeling calm and cool and soothing and both like a perfect counterbalance to the heat inside him and like it only makes the way he wants to pull Bucky closer even stronger.

But Bucky doesn’t even get a chance to respond to the offer to bring something for his cat before Alpine jumps up onto the arm of the sofa to see why her name has been mentioned. He laughs quietly, something dangerously like joy flickering through him. “I think she likes that idea.”

Steve can’t help but laugh, the spell a little broken, but not in a bad way. Without thinking, he twists the hand on Bucky’s leg, turning it so that it goes palm up, fingers threading through Bucky’s and squeezing carefully, gently, even as he turns toward the cat, reaching out with his other hand, carefully, hoping she might let him touch her, too. “I’ll take that as a yes. You can let me know your order before I leave,” he says, feeling stupid and silly and like a teenager again except actually, not at all. Because when he was a teenager, he was a sickly, unpopular omega, who couldn’t bear being touched because it would have been out of pity or out of malice. He hadn’t wanted any of it, not after so many people had taken one look at him and thought they knew exactly how little he was worth, and none of them had mattered at all.

Now, being here with Bucky matters, and maybe if Steve had been a healthy teenager, this is what he would have felt? Giddy and overeager and at war with himself -- but it doesn’t matter what it could have been like. This is how it is now, and it’s a feeling he wants to grab onto and hold with both hands.

Bucky looks down at their joined hands marveling a little at how they fit together just right, and he can’t help but think there’s something symbolic about that. He curls his fingers around Steve’s, drawing in a slow breath when Steve squeezes gently. He watches as Alpine sniffs at Steve’s hand and then leans into him a little, ducking her head to accept any offers of petting he might have to give.

And he knows there’s a big, stupid smile stretched across his face, and he remembers this giddy feeling from when he’d been in eleventh grade and Michael Sanchez had been the love of his life. That had been a million years ago, and he feels like an entirely different person from the boy he’d been then.

Steve loves the look on Bucky’s face -- he loves everything about it, and he wants to see it as often as he can get it there. “I think I’m really glad you got distracted today… and I hope it’s gotten at least a little better, since then.”

He’s not even fishing, really. He genuinely hopes Bucky’s feeling better now, and not putting on a front. And if there’s anything he can do to help, he wants to know.

“It has,” Bucky says honestly, not sure why he’d felt so distracted and muddle-headed all day, but that sensation is gone now entirely. He feels more grounded, more centered than he’s felt in years. “It really has.”

Chapter Text

Steve feels more stupid than anything, sitting in the back of the quinjet in his singed uniform, helmet and shield rattling a bit on the empty seat on one side of him while Natasha and the medical kit take up the seat on the other. He’s leaning his head back, eyes closed, listening to the quiet chatter of the team in the aftermath of a mission that didn’t quite go bad, but definitely could have gone better. It was supposed to be simple, just a few days to get in and out, get the information they needed and neutralize any threats. But instead, Steve had gotten distracted -- hell, he’s been distracted for days, ever since they had to leave New York for this mission and he’d had to cancel his dinner date with Bucky.

Which is why he feels stupid. Because it’s stupid to let that distract him, but it’s been on his mind and even when it’s not, even when he’s tried to focus, he hasn’t been feeling razor-sharp. So now Steve’s nursing a wrist that is either badly sprained or lightly broken, and Natasha’s deft fingers are working to wrap it up and splint it, and he doesn’t quite want to look her in the face while the team grumbles quietly, even if most of those grumbles are grateful that Steve’s is the worst injury they sustained.

Natasha, for her part, completely ignores the rest of the team, her red hair tied back in a loose ponytail to keep the hair out of her face while she works, her eyes focused on wrapping Steve’s wrist. “You’ll need to get this looked at by a professional when we land,” she informs him, well aware that he’s not looking at her. She’s missing something here, but she’s not sure what it is. Not yet, anyway.

“Yeah, sure,” Steve says -- in that way that means he’s going to see how it feels by the time they get back, and probably ignore that advice and just carry on until it heals. Most things do, honestly. He flexes his fingers a little, making a bit of a face because it’s not exactly comfortable, but he can do it, so even if something’s broken, it’s probably just hairline. That means it’ll heal just fine on its own, without the need for anyone to properly set it.

Mostly he just wants to get back and actually make things up to Bucky, because he’d felt like an ass, having to call him the very next morning and explain he was going to be gone for a week, and couldn’t say why or where.

Natasha gave him a knowing look, fully aware that he’s not going to seek actual medical attention unless it’s a much more dire circumstance than a wrist fracture. “How’s it feel?”

“It’s all right,” Steve says, and then, “Thanks. Better than trying to wrap it up one-handed.” His crooked smile says he may have had to do that once or twice, in his life. And then, to deflect: “You sure you’re all right?”

Natasha’s known Steve long enough by now that she knows exactly how he operates down to a science. Except those odd times when she doesn’t. She studies him, eyes intent.

“You’ve been a million miles away all week. Anything you need to talk about?” She keeps her voice quiet so the others don’t overhear, though she’s sure at least a few of them noticed, too. Rumlow, for certain, who always seems to pay particular attention to Steve when the two of them are in the same general vicinity. If she hadn’t known he was dating someone, she’d be wondering if he was interested in their captain.

Steve makes a different face now -- the kind he always makes when Natasha hits the nail on the head. He has been a million miles away, but, “Nah. It’s just -- nothing I can put my finger on, you know?” Which, honestly, is almost more disturbing than if he could. If he knew why he was distracted, he could deal with it. And yes, some of it has been anticipation over how Bucky is going to take the guy he just agreed to date having to duck out on the very first one, even if it had just been plans for Steve to bring over takeout.

But somehow, it feels deeper than that. Deeper, and harder to pinpoint. Just… distraction, muddle-headedness, and he’d blame it on something like lack of sleep or working too hard, but neither of those are actually problems for him. “I won’t let it affect things again,” he says -- again, just a bluff when he doesn’t even know what it is, but it’s the best he can do. Maybe he does just need to clear his head for a bit. This mission had felt weird from the start. Their unit isn’t usually called in for information gathering, unless it’s something absolutely time sensitive. “At least I’m the only poor bastard who got hurt because of it,” he says, finally opening his eyes with a wry, self-deprecating grin.

If anything, those words make Natasha feel more concerned, and it shows in her green eyes. “You know I’m asking as a friend and not as a teammate, right?” She’s well-aware of how guarded Steve tends to be with people, even with her after all this time, but she’d like to think they’ve grown closer over the last couple years. There’s still a lot they don’t know about one another, and she knows there will always be things they can’t or won’t say, and that’s just a fact. There are things she’d never ask of him, and vice versa, and it’s probably why they get along as well as they do.

“It’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it, as long as you know you can if you want.” She leans back to give him a bit more space, resting her hands on her knees.

Steve sighs, but there’s something in him that relaxes a little bit, despite everything. They are friends -- Natasha is the only person on this team he would consider a friend -- but that doesn’t make it any easier to explain something that he can’t. “I know,” he says, tilting his head now to look at her sideways. “But I’m really not sure what it is. And the only thing it could be is… stupid,” he points out, maybe even more quietly than before.

Natasha isn’t really a person he thinks he should ask for relationship advice. He can think of a hundred reasons it just wouldn’t be a good idea, but she is sitting here, concerned, asking as a friend. “Just got someone on my mind, I guess,” he temporizes. “It’s new. It won’t be next time.” That’s the best he can offer.

It’s difficult not to let the shock she feels reflect on her face, but a smile does tug at her mouth that she allows. “Well. I guess I can stop trying to find you a date now. Seems you’ve already found your own.” And if the person was on his mind to the point that Steve’s being distracted in the field -- that sounds a lot more serious than just a date, anyway. Interesting. Admittedly she didn’t know how he spent the majority of his time outside of work, but she hadn’t assumed it was anything to do with romance either.

Natasha gives him a genuine smile and rests a hand on his arm momentarily. “Good for you.”

“Kinda found me,” Steve says, and now his smile is softer, definitely fond, as he cradles his bandaged wrist in his lap. “Two days before we left. So -- I kind of left things hanging.” Which does explain the way he’s been distracted, feeling like things are in limbo, left undone, when that’s not a thing Steve is wont to do. “I thought I’d have a little more time to get used to the idea before I had to leave for a days-long mission, but I guess that sure was silly.”

He smiles again at Natasha. “And no, you don’t get to meet him until I’m sure it won’t send him packing.” He couches it in teasing but… well, that is another complication, honestly. Bucky doesn’t know he’s Cap. So Bucky doesn’t know that Steve’s friends are, well, the Avengers.

Natasha gives him a mock pout when he tells her she can’t meet the guy who’s caught his attention. At least not yet. But the way he worded it sounds like he’s hoping it’s not just a date or two, but something more long-term, and -- well. Good for him. He may act like he doesn’t need anyone sometimes, but she knows that’s bullshit.

“Besides, this way, it’s not your fault I nearly messed this up. Even if I still feel like we’re missing something, here.” Steve’s voice is low, too -- Natasha doesn’t have super hearing, but she’s canny and she’s close and the rest of the team isn’t paying them much attention, anyway. “Things seem that way to you?” Maybe he’s just got a bad feeling. Natasha’s instinct, he trusts.

Natasha grows serious the moment Steve changes gears, turning his focus back to their now-completed mission. She casts a glance at the rest of the team, all of whom seem to be wrapped up in their own quietly held conversations, or in Rollins’ case, passed out and snoring. She turns her attention back to Steve, expression grim. “I got a look at some of the info as it downloaded. Apparently HYDRA’s latest venture is experimenting on people to try and force a biological change in designations.

That gets Steve’s attention, and his expression goes just as grim and serious. “What?” he hisses quietly, feeling something twist in his stomach at the idea. It hits particularly close to home, he knows, given his own… transition. But he’d gone into it willingly, knowing that the serum would not only give him the chance to serve in the military, but give him the authority he’d needed to do it. As far as the world knows, Captain America has always been an alpha, and obviously Steve Rogers, whom the world knows significantly less about, has, too.

But forcing it on people, or even giving them the choice… something about it doesn’t sit well with Steve. He knows he did it, and out of desperation, but there’s a part of him that feels, even now, that he’s something unnatural. Which, granted, he is. When Schmidt had told him they were no longer human -- part of Steve had felt it was true, in some senses. No human could change who they were. And Steve had let that exact thing be done to him.

Which is another reason, honestly, for concern. Because if HYDRA is looking into that, it’s likely related to research about the serum. And that is just as dangerous. “There are about fifty ways I can name off the top of my head that could go wrong,” Steve says. “Now I’m gonna be worried if we aren’t back out here on active duty in a couple of days.”

Which is its own set of problems, really. “I don’t like this at all.”

Natasha quietly hums her agreement with his assessment of the situation. “I didn’t see enough of the research to know if they’ve had any successful trials, but hopefully not. Can you imagine a world where HYDRA can change people’s designations at will?” A little shudder passes through her. “And I can’t imagine whatever ways they’re attempting this are pleasant.

“Yeah, and I’d rather not.” No, a world where HYDRA controlled not only what people did and thought, but their designations... that is a world Steve never wants to come to pass. And in fact, Steve’s body feels like it’s ramping up all over again, ready to get up and fight whoever he needs to, to make sure it can’t happen. Because, “No. No, I can’t imagine it’s pleasant.”

Getting the serum hadn’t been, even if it had been worth the price he’d paid. But for an unwilling party to go though that -- and he can’t pretend HYDRA’s methods are probably even worse, more painful -- is unthinkable. Unacceptable.

Natasha doesn’t know HYDRA and their methods nearly as well as Steve does, but she knows more than enough to know that they’re not necessarily asking for volunteers. It’s hard telling how they’re picking people for this fucked up science experiment. She presses her lips together, looking troubled. “With any luck there’s something in the data that gives locations where this is taking place and we can shut them down.”

She doubts they’ll be that lucky. Another thing she knows about this organization is that it rarely ever stores all the necessary info in one location. But she can still hope.

But Steve, too, knows that HYDRA is good at keeping things buried deep. “Stay on this,” he says, eyes searching Natasha’s. “Please. I trust you. Even if SHIELD doesn’t make it a priority,” which they damn well should, and Steve will argue for it, “I want you to keep an eye on it.” Because Steve will put a stop to this with or without SHIELD’s permission. Because he can’t let that be a world he lives in, no matter the cost.

It’s not a world that Natasha wants to be a part of, either. She knows as well as Steve does the kind of actual evil that exists in the world already, and that their worries aren’t even limited only to threats on earth and from earth, but from up above, galaxies away. But this is more than enough to have her worried and focused on HYDRA, too.

She holds his gaze, something in her eyes softening at his words. I trust you. They’re simple, but they’re words she’s not used to hearing from many people. She can count on one hand the number of people who’ve said that to her in her entire life and it means more than he probably realizes. “I will. You have my word,” she tells him just as quietly, squeezing his arm. “We’ll figure out where they’re operating, and we’ll stop them.” One way or another.

--

Steve’s distracted all through the rest of the return flight, but now for a different reason. He’s too busy running scenarios in his head, seeing all the ways that what HYDRA’s doing -- or, he hopes, only just starting to plan how to do -- can go wrong. Can hurt people. He knows the way things are now isn’t fair. He’s known that his whole life, from the moment he first presented as omega and was told he was useless, worse than that, because he couldn’t even carry a child. But the way to fix that is to change the rules, to change how people see each other. Not to change people.

He broods over it until they land; then he’s got something else on his mind, as they file out for debriefing and the showers. It’s awkward, showering without getting his bandages wet, but he’s done it before and he waits until the team is done and filing out before taking his own shower in the empty locker room. That’s nothing unusual, really -- most of them have things to get back to, and he usually doesn’t. Today, he does -- he hopes -- but he can’t act any stranger than he already has been. So he waits his turn for the showers, and then sits down in the empty locker room in a towel and pulls his phone out of his locker left-handed, and awkwardly types out to Bucky:

I’m back, could I take that rain check tonight, or are you busy?

Bucky’s lying in bed in his loft, staring blankly up at the ceiling. It’s Sunday night again, and he thinks about how just under a week ago, he and Steve had hot chocolate downstairs, holding hands and talking until nearly two in the morning when they both finally realized how late it was. All week he’s felt off-kilter, more so than usual, to the point that Wanda has asked him repeatedly if he’s okay. And he is. Really.

He has no idea why he’s been so anxious when there’s been a blissful week of radio silence from Brock for a change -- maybe he really had gotten the message this time, and wouldn’t that be nice? But there’s also been mostly radio silence from Steve, who’d been called out on some kind of secret ops mission. And he gets it; duty calls. But he hasn’t been able to shake the feeling that he’s, at any given moment, a few seconds away from climbing out of his own skin. His chest feels tight constantly, and he finds himself taking a lot of slow, deep breaths but the pressure never eases.

He’s probably just worried about Steve, not knowing where he is or if he’s okay, and as blissful as the silence has been from Brock, there’s part of him that’s on edge, waiting for the other shoe to drop. At least when he’s texting or calling or harassing him, he has an idea of what’s going on in his head, but the silence just leaves him wondering. Alpine has spent an inordinate amount of time curled up with him, whether he’s lounging on the sofa after he closes the store down at night, or curled up on his chest when he’s in bed...not sleeping. Because sleep isn’t something he’s had a lot of in the past few days. He can’t seem to shut off his mind.

It’s only 5 PM when his phone suddenly alerts him to a text and he grabs it quickly, holding his breath when he sees Steve’s name on the screen. He exhales in a rush of air, closing his eyes for the briefest of moments before quickly typing back a response:

Not busy at all. Come on over.

Some ball of tight, nervous energy relaxes in Steve’s chest when the message from Bucky pops up on his phone, with barely any time to wait at all. He lets out an exhale that’s almost a quiet laugh, slumping and feeling his face stretch into a grin. Sure. Just going to pick up the dinner I promised, he replies, before tossing the phone down onto the bench and rifling through his locker for clean clothes. It doesn’t take long to get dressed, even with the need to watch his hand, and then Steve is heading for his bike, already planning out his route so he can stop at the Thai place he likes on the way to the bookstore. They’re good, and fast -- and that means he can stop and scarf down at least one normal human’s worth of food before he ever walks in Bucky’s door, because he’s starving and he doesn’t want to eat like a bottomless pit on his first date.

As soon as Bucky gets the message about Steve stopping to grab dinner, he texts back a smiley face and scrambles out of bed. He takes a shower, scrubbing his hair with shampoo and conditioner, heart beating hard and fast the entire time. And he stands in front of his wardrobe for nearly ten minutes, towel wrapped around his waist as he debates what to wear. They’re not going out, so he’s not going to dress up, but he still wants to look nice. He settles on a red henley that’s just a little tighter than it needs to be, tugging it on over his head before yanking on a pair of black skinny jeans.

He’s not dressed up, but he does know to help accentuate his better features.

Steve’s small “detour” to devour at least some of his meal early means it’s maybe ten minutes later than he would have liked, but not more than an hour before he knocks on the door to Book Barnes, good hand full of bags with takeout containers and bandaged hand tucked into his pocket.

Bucky’s hair is still a damp mop on his head when he hears the knocking from the outside door to the shop, and he realizes he’d neglected to show Steve the back door that led directly to his apartment. Dumbass, he thinks, shaking his head and raking his right hand through his hair as he makes his way out of the apartment and into the shop, flipping on the lights and moving toward the door, chest still feeling too tight as he unlocks it and steps aside so Steve can come in.

Steve sees the lights go on in the store and grins -- right before he realizes he’d forgotten to comb out his hair after his shower and now it probably looks ridiculous and windswept from the ride over. Well, he can’t do anything about it now, especially not as Bucky pulls the door open and Steve feels suddenly breathless, like he’s just stepped off a ledge he didn’t quite know was there.

“Welcome back,” Bucky says, with a grin that doesn’t give away any of the anxiety he’s been struggling with. He hopes the dark circles beneath his eyes don’t give too much away.

“Hi,” Steve says, taking in the way Bucky looks, the way the colors and the fit of what he’s wearing look good on him. He’s glad he leaves clean clothes in his locker, even if it’s just dark jeans and a t-shirt. He feels a little half-naked, but t-shirts are acceptable outer layers these days and he’s working on getting used to it. Still, it makes him feel a little underdressed, so he hefts the bags in his left hand and says, “Is Thai okay? I got a little of everything, so if you don’t like spicy, it’s okay.”

“Thai’s great.” There’s genuine enthusiasm in Bucky’s voice. He’s not that picky when it comes to food; years in the army taught him to make do with whatever’s available even if it doesn’t taste great. And he’s so hungry right now that he’s pretty sure he’d eat an MRE if that’s what Steve had brought. It occurs to him distantly that he can’t actually remember the last time he ate. Yesterday, maybe?

But more than food, what he realizes he really wants is to wrap his arms around Steve in a hug, and he wonders if that would be too weird. “Spicy’s good too.” He reaches out to help take some of the bags from Steve, because he’s definitely brought a lot of food.

“Oh, good.” There’s definite relief in Steve’s voice, and he lets Bucky take some -- but not all -- of the bags, eyes lingering on his face for a moment too long, half wanting to kiss him hello, half feeling like that’s not the right response. He knows they’ve technically already kissed, but that was different, even if he finds himself minding less and less every time he thinks about it. But still, he keeps himself in check, just grinning at Bucky instead. “I might’ve gotten a little carried away,” he says, but the truth is… there won’t be any leftovers, regardless of how much Bucky eats.

For a split second, Bucky’s certain Steve’s going to kiss him, but he doesn’t and he’s not sure if he’s disappointed or pleased at the fact that he’s not pressing for that right away. It’s probably a little of both. “Hey, always better to have more than enough than be hungry, right?” He returns the smile easily, locking the door with deft fingers and then guiding him back to the apartment.

“Sorry for the delay,” Steve adds, as they both duck into the shop so Bucky can lock the door again and lead the way back to his apartment. “I feel like my life is one big mess of lousy timing, sometimes. Except for when it’s not.” Like that day on the street, when Bucky had looked for help and he’d found Steve. That had seemed like pretty damn good timing, in retrospect.

“Hey, no. No apologies necessary,” Bucky says sincerely as they step inside. He waits for Steve to come in, then closes and locks that door, too. Better safe than sorry, and frankly he’s felt safer knowing there are two locked doors between him and the outside world these days.

“Work happens and things come up. Believe me, I get it.” He sets the bags he’s carrying down on his coffee table, cheeks feeling warm at the vague reference to the day they’d met.

Steve follows suit, setting the bags down with Bucky’s. “Things been okay here?”

Bucky turns to face Steve, trying his best not to stare at how good he looks in a simple t-shirt and jeans. “Things have been okay. A little slow, but that’s pretty normal.” And probably for the best considering how out of it he’s been.

He can’t help but glance down at the hand Steve’s still got in his jeans pocket, eyes curious though he doesn’t ask. “What do you want to drink with dinner? I’ve got all the usuals -- water, beer, milk, and tea.” He’d had a container of orange juice but he’d thrown it out a couple days ago because it was way past expiration and smelled terrible. Not that orange juice would have gone good with Thai, anyway.

Steve pauses, considering the offer. “A -- beer, if you don’t mind,” he says, because he can’t get drunk, of course, but the taste is still somehow familiar and comforting after a rough day. “And a water.” Just in case Bucky’s thinking he wants to get drunk, which he doesn’t.

“Of course,” Bucky says easily. He doesn’t drink much himself, but once in a while it’s nice to have a beer or two, and it sounds like Steve’s probably had a long week.

“Let me help -- I can get plates. They gave me chopsticks.” Steve’s already moving toward the kitchen, given that it isn’t more than a few feet away, but he still waits for directions before just digging through Bucky’s cabinets.

Bucky can’t help but smile, warm and pleased at the offer of help, even if it’s just to grab plates. Brock always expected to be served. Even right at the beginning of their relationship -- another red flag he’d missed, or ignored or just been too shaken to think about. “They’re in the cabinet beside the mugs,” he tells Steve.

Steve still can’t take his eyes off Bucky, feeling like this room, right here, is full of more oxygen than the whole world had been, the past week. Something about it niggles at the back of his mind, but he figures it’s just the old memory of how asthma used to feel. Because he’d definitely spent the whole last week feeling like he couldn’t take a deep breath, and now, suddenly, it’s gone. He feels relaxed and clear-headed and maybe that’s why he ends up saying, “Gosh, I wish you could’ve come with me.”

Except that’s ridiculous, and he tries to backtrack without it sounding too weird: “I mean -- not really, but… it’s good to see you. I guess maybe I was a little distracted all week, thinking about having to run off on you like that.”

Bucky’s just reached into the fridge to grab the beer when Steve says he wishes Bucky had been with him and he finds himself holding his breath momentarily, turning slowly to look at him. He’s never had the best poker face, and he’s sure that Steve can read the vulnerability that’s there as he gazes at him. “It’s good to see you, too, Steve.” His voice doesn’t waver, but it’s maybe thicker with emotion that he wants it to be. He’s already so, so damned attached to this man, and it should scare him, but it doesn’t. Not really.

He takes a hesitant step closer. “Feel free to say no, but -- can I hug you?”

Steve blinks, looking a little blindsided, but in truth, it’s only because he hadn’t thought of that, and the second Bucky asks, it’s like every atom in his body wants to touch him and hold him. It almost takes him by surprise, and maybe it sounds a little that way, as he laughs and says, “Yeah -- yeah, of course you can. I’d really like to hug you, too.”

It’s not hard, then, to lift his arms and step closer, invite Bucky in close so Steve can wrap his arms around him, secure but not stifling, a little awkward with the bandaged right but it doesn’t matter, he doesn’t care.

Relief floods Bucky at the easy agreement and he doesn’t hesitate to step into the embrace, wrapping his arms around Steve’s waist and shivering involuntarily as the other’s arms wind around him, wrapping him up tightly but not so tight he can’t pull away -- and he’s sure that’s intentional on Steve’s part. His own arms tighten around Steve a little, feeling the warmth of his body, strong and solid against his own. And Steve smells good, like he’s just showered recently and it’s all he can do not to bury his face in his throat.

There’s something about the solidity of Bucky stepping up against him, into Steve’s arms, the scent of his damp hair and his skin and clothes that feels like coming home in the same way walking into the bookstore or this apartment had, in a way that doesn’t make sense but that Steve can’t really fight, and doesn’t really want to, either.

“I was gonna ask if I could kiss you -- later,” Steve says, maybe a little awkwardly. “But this is actually nicer.” There’s something about holding someone, about being held, that feels so much better. That feels like something he didn’t know he missed, until he had it again.

They’re almost the same height, even if Steve’s got a few inches on him. And Bucky feels safe, for the first time since he was old enough to understand that the world isn’t, inherently, a safe place. He hums his agreement at the words, and his heart jumps a little at the idea of Steve kissing him again, this time because he wants to and not because Bucky needs help. But right now, he kind of just wants to stay like this, relish the feeling of being held like he’s someone that matters. And he wants Steve to know that’s reciprocal, so he rubs a hand lightly over his back, the rest of his anxiety bleeding out of him.

“Yeah,” he murmurs. “This is really nice.”

It’s as strange as it is nice, to feel Bucky’s hand running over his back, to realize that Bucky doesn’t want to just be held, but he wants to hold Steve, too. It’s amazing, really, feeling like it energizes him as much as it relaxes him, and Steve hums agreement and maybe does, unintentionally, press his nose against the side of Bucky’s head for a minute, leaning into him a little, like they’re two sides of an arch, offering and taking support in equal measure.

It feels strange, but right. And God -- Steve laughs then, because, “It might be better we never even got around to this date before I had to leave. I would’ve been even more distracted all week if I had this to think about.” Which is, really, his way of saying how good this feels, and how much he’s getting for it -- and how grateful he is. He suddenly wonders if he’s been missing out, if this is what everyone feels, when they start something new. He… isn’t sure, though. This feels too deep, too special, even if maybe he’s just got nothing else to compare it to.

Bucky laughs quietly, too, because he’s not wrong. “You’re not the only one,” he admits. “Kinda feel like the whole week’s been a blur.” And there’s no mistaking it for him; he’s never felt like this before, even at the start of a new relationship. This is something different and as much as he’s loathe to admit it, he can’t help but think there’s something biological at play. Except he hadn’t felt like this with Brock, at all. Not that Brock ever wanted to hug him. And Bucky definitely hadn’t felt comfortable asking for that kind of affection from the other man.

Eventually, though Steve says -- teasing -- “Although I can’t set the table like this.” But that isn’t really him saying he wants to pull away, just… a reminder that they maybe shouldn’t stay here like this all night. Right? He feels like it could get addictive, and that’s as frightening as it is exhilarating.

“Right. Food. Don’t want that getting cold.” Cold Thai food isn’t nearly as good as hot Thai food, so Bucky squeezes Steve once more, ignoring the ache in his left arm and reluctantly pulls away. They can always hug again later, after they’ve eaten. Hopefully. He’s smiling when he pulls back to look at Steve, his eyes brighter than they had been. “You look great, by the way.” Bucky can’t help but wink at him as he moves to pick up the beers off the counter before heading toward the living room, Alpine darting around his feet and beating him to the couch.

Even knowing it’s coming, it’s a little jarring when Bucky pulls away, but not in a bad way. He’s still here, still close, and they’re going to spend the evening together, and that’s all Steve needs. He is caught off guard when Bucky winks at him, though -- he glances down, as though to check that he’s not still in his dirty, singed uniform, or that he hasn’t miraculously been changed into proper slacks and a button-down, either. He laughs a little, glancing back up at Bucky, feeling both silly and totally justified at the same time when he says, “Not as great as you.”

Steve gathers the plates and brings them over to the couch in the crook of his arm, some part of him warm and glad that they’re going to sit like this, side by side, to eat. Of course, before they start loading up plates, he roots through the bags until he comes up with a little container marked “A”, and opens it to set it on the table, a little ways away from the other containers. “That’s for you -- some plain chicken, still hot,” he tells Alpine.

Bucky watches with something akin to adoration on his face as Steve pulls out a container of chicken and sets it out for Alpine. The cat meows and jumps up onto the table, recognizing the invitation as though she actually understood Steve. It wouldn’t surprise him too much if she had. She’s a smart cat.

After that, Steve goes about starting to pull the rest of the containers out of the bags, opening them up one by one so Bucky can see what he got -- truly, a little bit of everything, with rice, noodles, chicken, tofu, vegetables, spring rolls, and more -- and holds out one plate. “You first.”

Truthfully, Bucky looks a little pale, like maybe he hasn’t been eating or sleeping well for a few days. Steve kind of knows the feeling, even if it doesn’t show on him. But it does mean he wants Bucky to tuck in first; after all, Steve’s had part of his dinner early.

Bucky turns his attention to the amazing spread of food Steve had ordered. “This must have cost a small fortune.” He doesn’t eat out all that much for that very reason, and some days he finds himself living off of cereal and ramen noodles if he doesn’t feel like cooking something more. “Everything looks incredible. Thank you,” he says sincerely, glancing at Steve and chewing his lower lip as Steve tells him to fill his plate first. It’s not something he’s accustomed to by any means, but he doesn’t hesitate, taking the plate from Steve and filling it half full of vegetables and then a couple spring rolls and adding some chicken and rice to fill the rest of it.

His stomach makes an embarrassing growling noise and he laughs at himself even as his cheeks turn pink. The smells from the food were incredible, rich and spicy, filling the apartment with the scent and a soft, contented sigh escapes him. It’s been ages since he had Thai food.

Steve just shrugs a little -- he’s got little else to spend money on, and he’d wanted to treat Bucky, besides. Just because this isn’t a dinner out doesn’t mean he was about to skimp on a thing. “I promised you dinner,” he says, “but you’re welcome. Thanks for having me over.” Because, after all, Bucky could have changed his mind, and Steve knows it. He had proven, before they even got the chance to have a first date, that sometimes he has to disappear without much warning.

But now he’s back, and everything feels so, so much better. He waits until Bucky’s filled his plate before piling a little bit of everything on his own, then going for chopsticks and realizing… he’s going to have to use them left-handed. And while he’s virtually ambidextrous in most things, he has genuinely never tried to use chopsticks with his left. This… might get interesting.

But it doesn’t mean he’s going to admit defeat; he balances his plate carefully on his lap and does his best to arrange the chopsticks in his left hand and pick up a piece of meat. It works… albeit awkwardly, and he ends up glancing at Bucky with a sheepish grin. “I promise, I don’t always eat like a toddler with no motor control.”

Bucky’s attention shifts to look at Steve’s right hand, only now realizing that it’s bandaged. His eyes go wide and he sets his plate down. “What happened? Are you okay?” He wants to reach out, unbandage it and see what kind of damage has been done, but he controls himself that much.

“It’s fine,” Steve says, ducking his head at the tone of Bucky’s voice. “It’s fine, probably just sprained. It’ll be better in a couple of days.” If not sooner, depending; and he can’t fault Bucky for not noticing, considering Steve had been doing his damnedest to downplay it since he walked in. “It was just -- it was stupid, really. My own fault. Shit happens, you know?”

Bucky can’t help but wince at the mention that it might be sprained. He knows how painful sprains can be. On top of that, he feels guilty that he hadn’t noticed until just now, even though he reminds himself that Steve had that hand in his jeans pocket, hidden away. He should have known something wasn’t quite right. He searches Steve’s face, looking for any signs that he’s in pain, but if he is, he’s good at hiding it. “Do you need Advil or anything? For pain?” he offers.

When Bucky asks if he needs anything for pain, something in Steve’s chest throbs, hard, at the offer. “No, it’s okay,” he says, throat suddenly a little tight. The truth is, it’s not comfortable, but nothing Bucky has -- hell, nothing anyone has that isn’t fit to tranquilize an elephant -- will have any effect on it. Steve’s good at handling pain, and this might hurt, but it isn’t nearly as bad as most other injuries he’s had. “But thanks. For offering. I mean it.”

He doesn’t know why that gets him like the best kind of gut punch, but… maybe it’s just that Bucky doesn’t care if Steve looks like he’s in pain or not. He offers, all the same, as soon as he realizes he might be. “Sorry, it’s not a big deal,” he says quickly, feeling embarrassed for whatever overreaction he’s having. “I just don’t want to drop anything all over your floor, that’s all.”

Without really thinking about it, Bucky rests his left hand on Steve’s back for a moment as if somehow touching him will help. “Okay,” he says, looking worried and uncertain. “If you want a fork, I have those, too. Might be easier if you’re right hand dominant?”

Alpine has lifted her head from where she’s scarfed down most of her meal already and meows quietly before leaping onto the couch to sit down beside Steve.

“And if you change your mind on the painkillers, that’s no problem. I got an assortment.” Most of the heavy stuff was left over from his time at the hospital, and technically sharing it would be illegal, but it’s not like he’s not broken a dozen or so laws in the last month alone, even if no one has any idea. “Oh!” He says suddenly. “Or I could make you an ice pack. Might help with any swelling.”

“It’ll be fine. I promise,” Steve says, voice soft and warm because he doesn’t want Bucky to worry, but it’s clear he’s going to. The touch to his back feels grounding, warm, and Steve grins over at Bucky, unable to help himself, as the other goes on, and he probably shouldn’t laugh, but he does, because it’s so… crazy. It’s so crazy, to have someone like this, who cares so much and only just met him a week ago. Less than that, if you don’t count the time Steve was away.

Bucky ducks his head a little when Steve laughs, and realizes he’s probably going overboard considering the short amount of time they’ve known each other. It’s just that he’s been on the other side of enough injuries related to his service that it makes him uneasy to think about how fragile people are, and he especially doesn’t want Steve to be in pain.

Although, “I’ll take you up on the fork -- and maybe the ice pack, but after we eat,” Steve says, shifting to set the plate aside and then just -- he doesn’t know what happened, he didn’t even think about it, but he’s leaning in then, touching his lips to Bucky, in this chaste, grateful kiss before he even knows what he’s doing.

Bucky’s just starting to smile when Steve tells him he can fix him an ice pack after dinner. And then he glances up just as Steve leans in and presses a soft, barely-there kiss against his mouth that catches him off guard momentarily, but he can feel the dopey grin on his face in response, and he’s already looking forward to more of that later. He hopes, anyway.

Steve looks sheepish when he pulls back, because he didn’t ask, and he moves to get himself up off the couch so he can go get the fork. “Please eat something first. I can find a fork myself, I promise.”

But that grin of Bucky’s goes a long way to smoothing over Steve’s sudden nerves; it doesn’t seem like Bucky was offended, which is definitely a relief, given that Steve kind of… did that on instinct. And while he does a lot of things on instinct, he’s always done his best to be deliberate -- and polite, and respectful -- when it comes to other people and what they want. The only time he wasn’t… well, it had been a little hard to keep away from Peggy, too. He knows he’s lucky she felt the same way, and made it abundantly clear.

“Okay,” Bucky agrees, nodding and watching as Steve heads toward the kitchen area. He picks up his own set of chopsticks and takes a bite of chicken, groaning at the flavor. So much better than ramen noodles, he thinks, closing his eyes momentarily. He draws in a breath and opens them again in time to see Steve returning with a fork. “You’re now almost entirely familiar with the layout of my kitchen,” Bucky teases.

“Should I be prepared for a test later?” Steve asks, sitting back down with a grin that’s as amused as it is relieved, pulling his plate back over and definitely holding the fork a little more confidently. “I mean, I guess if you’d like me to help wash and put them away, it helps if I know where they go.”

Because he’s also not sticking Bucky with all the mess at the end of the night. His ma definitely taught him better than that.

Bucky chuckles. “Yeah, there’s a pop quiz after dinner. Hope you remember where the mugs are,” he jokes. He watches Steve sit back down and they eat together in comfortable silence for a few minutes, enjoying the food.

“That one,” Steve says, chucking a thumb back over his shoulder -- toward the cupboard he’d gotten the mugs out of, the first time Bucky had let him back here. He grins, then goes back to his food. He does his best not to eat like a ravenous, starving thing, and leave enough so that Bucky can have seconds if he wants before going in to pile his own plate with more. “So, Thai was a good idea. What else should I keep in rotation?”

Thai had definitely been a good idea. A great one, even. “Honestly, I’m not that picky. After MRE’s, everything else tastes incredible.” Bucky grins, glancing at him sideways and going for a second helping of spring rolls, because they’re his favorite by far.

Steve makes a definite noise of agreement when Bucky points out that MREs can really turn anybody into a less picky eater. “I guess that’s true, but if I only went for better than MREs, that’s a low bar to meet,” he teases, shifting to tap the side of Bucky’s foot playfully with his own.

“But you don’t have to bring food every time you come over. I could cook something, sometime,” Bucky offers, glancing at him as he takes a bite of the spring roll. He chews and swallows. “I’m not half bad in the kitchen.” He’s just loathe to cook for himself. It’s easier to just heat something up when it’s just him. “Oh, and -- I wanna show you something.” He sets his plate down and rises to his feet, moving toward the opposite wall from where the kitchen is. He glances over his shoulder at Steve as he rests his right hand on the large bookcase there.

“I wouldn’t turn that down, either,” Steve’s saying, picturing the scene and something about the domesticity of it making his heart squeeze even as Bucky’s getting up to show him --

Bucky tugs on the bookcase gently and it swings open, revealing a door. “Goes to the back alley,” he explains. It was something he’d never revealed to Brock, something that felt too private, and he wonders for a moment how bad off that relationship had been when they’d been together for months and he’s only known Steve for a few days total.

“Oh. Oh, well, that’s handy,” Steve says, as the bookcase swings in, and doesn’t that just remind him --

Of a lot of houses they’d found in Europe, with secret rooms and tunnels and panels meant to keep people safe from the Nazis.

A moment later, he blinks a few times, realizing he’s been staring at nothing, remembering a time that’s long, long gone but only feels like a few years ago to him now, if that, and he shakes his head and takes a steadying breath, fixing a smile back on his face. “Is that the door you want me to use? I guess it makes more sense than coming through a closed bookshop,” he has to admit.

The thing is, Bucky’s a fairly observant person, which is why he’d been so good at being a sniper during his military days. He gazes at Steve, watches as he zones out for a moment, looking like he’s a million miles away, and concern threads through him once more. “You can use whichever you want,” he says honestly. “But -- you kinda looked like you were somewhere else for a minute. Like it reminded you of something or triggered you somehow?” He carefully swings the bookcase closed once more after making sure that the locks are still in place. “You all right?”

Steve makes a face, feeling a little like he’s been caught out, and certainly embarrassed. That word -- triggered -- is something people in the future use a lot. It’s something he’s heard a lot at SHIELD, during the brief time they tried to mandate that he “see someone,” only it didn’t go over well because he knows he’s been through a lot, but he’s fine and he can handle himself. Life is just full of weird shit, and you deal with it and get on with it, because if you don’t… he’s seen guys with shell shock. With what they call PTSD, these days. He’s not like that. He just… sometimes, it’s hard to live in a time when nobody really gets your point of reference, that’s all.

They’re both military guys, but that aside, Bucky realizes he doesn’t know too much about Steve’s time in the service, and he doesn’t know what he might have been through. He’s not sure what a secret door might have triggered in him, but he knows enough about PTSD to recognize that expression when Steve got lost. He moves back over to sit down beside him, reaching out and resting a hand on his knee.

Steve squirms a little when Bucky sits down again, but he doesn’t push him away or even try to pull away. He just frowns a little, shaking his head and finally answering the question. “It just reminded me of something,” he says -- maybe the tiniest bit insistent, because that just… it sounds better than “triggered.” “It’s not bad,” he says, still insistent, offering up that smile again. “It’s not. I’m fine.” He can’t very well say it reminds him of the war. And besides -- if he let every little thing that reminds him of the war get in the way of his life, he’d never live it.

He leans in close, putting his hand carefully over Bucky’s. “It’s ingenious. Your grandpa had a real thing for books, huh?” It’s definitely changing the subject, and he knows it. But it’s the only defense he’s got.

Bucky’s not a big fan of the word “triggered,” himself but his therapist uses it regularly and apparently once you go for so many sessions, you start adopting the lingo. But Steve’s insistence that it’s nothing like that makes the words, ”thy doth protest too much” float through his mind. He doesn’t press the issue, because whatever it is that Steve remembers is obviously something he doesn’t want to talk about. People are entitled to their secrets. God knows Bucky has enough of his own to worry about without dragging other people’s skeletons out of their closets.

“Okay,” he says simply, voice quiet as he searches Steve’s face, and then lets it go. Lets him change the subject. “Yeah, he really did.”

Steve doesn’t say thank you… but it’s written all over his face, anyway, in his expression, the way Bucky doesn’t press past that, just accepts his explanation and goes on. Whether Bucky really thinks he’s fine is another matter, but he doesn’t push like most people would, and it means the world. The few people that have always meant the world to him are the ones that let him have his dignity when he says he can carry what he needs to.

Bucky laughs and glances over at the bookshelf once more. “And, aside from you and Becca -- that’s my sister -- and my parents -- no one really knows about it.” Bucky feels like it’s important that he admit that, that he lay it out there that he already has a level of trust in Steve that he never had with his ex. And he knows Steve’s smart enough to pick up on that without him having to say the words. He turns his hand over so that their hands are pressing together.

Steve doesn’t need Bucky to explicitly say what he means, showing Steve the back door. “Okay,” he echoes, softly, his lips curved up in a way that says, I understand even as his fingers thread through Bucky’s so their palms can press just that little bit closer. “If anyone’s around when I stop by, I’ll use the shop door.” Because Steve knows that secret entrances only do you so much good when they’re kept a secret. And he can certainly keep Bucky’s secret, if he’s being trusted with it now.

“It’s always good to have another way out,” he murmurs, knowing that this time, when he admits to the need to want to know all his exits, Bucky will probably get it, too.

Bucky gives him a grateful smile at the promise of his discretion, warmth blooming in his chest, because yes. He absolutely gets it. It’s something that not a lot of the population understands, and he’s sort of glad about that. He doesn’t want the general populous having to worry about the best ways to escape quickly. That’s why he’d enlisted in the military to begin with. He bets it factored in for Steve, too.

Wordlessly, he leans in, pressing a soft kiss to Steve’s cheek and letting his lips linger for a moment, then resting his head against the other’s temple for a few seconds before drawing back. “How about that ice pack?” he asks, realizing they’ve pretty much finished most of the food now.

It had definitely factored in for Steve, if a little differently. But he’d seen the Axis marching across Europe, looming over the horizon, and he had been willing to do whatever it took to keep them from tearing freedom and life and love away from one person more. Right now… whatever it took doesn’t seem as bad, either, as Bucky leans in, pressing lips to his cheek and oh, God, it’s the sweetest, softest feeling in the world.

Steve’s fingers squeeze Bucky’s again, and he turns his head to glance over as Bucky suggests the ice pack. His hand certainly isn’t any worse; in fact, it’s starting to itch a little, in that way that tells him it probably was broken and is busily knitting itself back together. He has to laugh, softly, feeling a little dazed as he nods, saying, “Yeah. I mean -- yeah. That would be really nice, if you promise to come right back?”

Sitting here on the couch with Bucky, pressed up together, seems like far better medicine than an ice pack, or anything else. Steve feels almost sleepy -- not just worn out but too wired to sleep -- in a long time, and while he definitely doesn’t want to just pass out on Bucky’s couch because it would be extremely rude… sitting here together in the warmth and quiet sounds like a little piece of heaven.

“Cross my heart,” Bucky answers solemnly before breaking into a grin that feels like his face might split in half. He reluctantly lets go of Steve’s hand before rising to his feet, grabbing a couple of the empty containers to the trash on the way. He sets about fixing up an ice pack, made of a Ziplock bag and several ice cubes, wrapping a towel around it because ice on skin doesn’t feel good, either.

He returns to the sofa as promised, carefully sitting down on Steve’s right side this time and gently placing the pack over it. “There we go,” he murmurs, grabbing their beers in one hand and breaking them open, holding Steve’s out to him and taking a sip of his own.

There’s something about the way that Bucky brings over the ice pack, settling in next to him and handing over a beer that feels comfortable, friendly, caring rather than coddling. Steve can’t put his finger on it, but it feels good, and not like Bucky’s trying to do things because Steve can’t, but because he genuinely wants to do them for Steve.

And that makes it easier to accept the help, to accept the towel-wrapped ice with a soft, “Thanks, Buck,” and get it settled against his injury.

“You up for a movie?” Bucky suggests, glancing at the small flat screen on the wall. “I have Netflix, but I don’t really spend a lot of time watching it, so there’s a lot I haven’t seen.”

At that, Steve grins a little and says, “Well, anything you haven’t seen, I can almost promise I haven’t seen. So, sure. I like movies. Whatever you’re in the mood for, I’m not picky.”

He just wants to… be here. He doesn’t want to think about going home to a dark, empty apartment just yet, and Steve’s never been big on putting off the inevitable, but he’s also never been one to pass up the present when it’s good. And right now is good, as he settles his right side carefully against Bucky’s left, because, “Don’t let me squish your arm if it’s not comfortable.” He doesn’t know how much that arm does or doesn’t hurt Bucky, and it’s up to Bucky what he wants to tell Steve, but he does want Bucky to tell him if he’s not being cognizant of an injury.

Bucky picks up the TV remote, watching as Alpine finishes off her chicken dinner and then drapes herself over their laps, her head resting on Bucky’s thigh. With Steve settled in beside him, it feels like all the anxiousness from the week has faded into oblivion, feels like this could truly be the start of something incredible. “It’s okay,” he tells him. “It’s numb a lot. Limited range of motion. Not a lot of pain anymore usually. I’m comfy.”

He gives Steve a soft smile and turns on the TV and the Netflix app until he finds something that looks decent and he reaches up to pet Alpine behind the ears before slouching down and propping his feet up on the coffee table, nudging Steve with his foot gently to indicate the same. And a few minutes into the movie, he finds himself bold enough to rest his head against Steve’s shoulder, feeling warm and cozy in a way that’s almost foreign to him. Alpine purrs a few times before she closes her eyes and falls asleep, apparently agreeing with his unspoken sentiment.

Chapter Text

The week flies by much faster than the previous, with Steve spending most of the evenings and even the nights at Bucky’s. They haven’t done anything, really, aside from some kissing and cuddling, which frankly, has been nice. It’s not that Bucky doesn’t want to have sex with Steve -- he definitely does. But he’ll be the first to admit he jumped into that far too fast with Brock, and maybe if he hadn’t, things wouldn’t have gone as sideways as they had. He doesn’t regret that they’d gone badly, overall, because it’s what led him to Steve, but he also doesn’t want to make the same mistake twice.

Especially not with Steve.

Bucky’s been in a perpetually good mood, almost like he’s floating on Cloud Nine, and his interactions with people are even more upbeat and positive than usual as he writes out receipts for his customers, Alpine perched on the bookcase above his head, as though keeping watch. He glances at the clock that afternoon, realizing he needs to lock up and head out if he’s going to make his 1 o’clock appointment with his therapist and not be late. He puts a note on the door that they’ll be closed for a little longer than normal for lunch, and closes it behind him, locking it up and heading down the sidewalk. He makes it less than half a block when he finds himself face to face with Brock Rumlow, who’s heading in the direction of the store.

Because of course. He presses his lips together and decides to just ignore him entirely, planning to walk right past without a word.

Brock is not a guy who likes being ignored. Especially not by someone who should know better. So Bucky might think he’s going to walk on past, but what happens is Brock steps up into Bucky’s path at the last second, bumping his shoulder and shooting an arm out to lean against the building on his right, completely blocking Bucky’s path and forcing him to stop.

Bucky’s chest tightens at the man’s close proximity. Brock’s never been one for respecting boundaries of any kind and apparently the last couple months haven’t changed that any. He wishes he was surprised, but he’s not. Still, he takes a slight step backwards just to put a bit more distance between them, consciously aware of the people milling around on the sidewalk, going about their day and not paying either of them any attention.

There’s something about the way that Bucky takes a step back that has Brock’s smile widening just a little, making him look that much worse. And when Bucky tries to move around him, he absolutely doesn’t let him, instead stepping right up into his space, toe to toe, practically radiating alpha authority. He didn’t say James could go. So, James can’t go.

“Hey, James,” Brock says, low and quiet and not unlike a sneer. “Just the man I wanted to see. Today’s your lucky day.” He holds up two tickets to the Stark Fundraiser Gala tonight in midtown, the red and gold foil flashing in the sunlight, just as he flashes his own grin that’s just barely this side of predatory. “You’re comin’ with me to the Gala tonight. Hottest ticket in town.”

“Not interested,” Bucky says flatly. “Thanks for the offer, but I’m going to have to politely decline.” The back of his neck suddenly throbs, even if it’s just in his head, a dull reminder of their last night together, the night Bucky had broken up with him. “I’m sure you won’t have any trouble finding another date.” He starts to move around him.

“That’s too bad,” Brock says, eyes locked on Bucky’s, not wavering an inch. “Because sometimes you’ve just gotta do things you don’t like. And this is one of ‘em.” Sure, Brock could find another date, easy. There are plenty of omegas and hell, even betas, who’d kill for a chance to be seen with someone like him. A soldier, a competent alpha, someone who’s in charge and knows it, just like an alpha should be.

But he hasn’t told the team what happened with James, because it doesn’t even really count. Hell, he’s not actually into the guy, except that sure, he’s good in the sack, even if he doesn’t know how to submit properly like an omega yet. Brock idly wonders what Cap thinks of that, or if he’s managed to cow the brunette into behaving like he should. That’s an interesting little fantasy he might revisit later, but right now, it’s not about wanting Bucky. It’s about his mission to keep tabs on HYDRA’s first successful designation-change experiment, and it’s about the fact that the team is also expecting him to bring James to the gala tonight. So, he’s bringing James.

The urge to flee is strong, but Bucky also doesn’t want to keep running for the rest of his life. And he shouldn’t have to. He forces himself to take a deep breath, to keep his gaze locked on Brock’s without wavering even if part of him wants to drop his gaze instinctively. Screw that. He lifts his chin, jaw tightening when Brock informs him this is something he had to do whether he wanted to or not.

“I don’t know what part of we’re over you still don’t understand, but I’m done, Brock.” His voice is quiet but firm.

Brock’s eyebrow rises, like he’s not buying what Bucky is selling. “Oh, we’re not done. Otherwise I might have to do something I don’t like. Like reporting the fact that Book Barnes is owned and operated by an omega to the proper authorities. I’d hate to see what they’d do, with no one else in the family around to hand it over to. And I’d hate to see your family have to come pick up their omega son, when they didn’t even know they had one.”

It feels like the ground drops out from beneath Bucky, face draining of color. He’d known that Brock was aware of his designation change -- he’d been pretty in and out of it at the hospital for awhile in D.C. He just hadn’t really thought Brock would use it against him for something as petty as blackmail.

“Wow,” he mutters. “You’re an even lower life form than I thought.” His right hand is clenched into a fist, but his left dangles at his side, currently refusing to do much even as he wills it to do the same. Goddammit. He won’t dignify the comment about his family. Let Brock believe he has that extra piece of leverage over him when he doesn’t. His dad had been so stunned and ashamed by the news that he’d split town with his mom and hightailed it back to Indiana, putting as much distance between himself and Bucky as he could.

He wants to punch Brock right in his smug face, but he can’t. “You expect me to believe you’re not going to just find another excuse to use this against me after today?”

The omega’s all riled up, and Brock has to admit, it’s an adorable look on him. He’d been a competent sniper, before he’d been captured, but now, with that arm and that designation… well. There’s not much soldier-like about him that Brock can see, and that means he doesn’t take shit from should-be submissive omegas like this.

Brock’s foot comes between Bucky’s, kicking at one instep a bit to get him off balance as Brock looms even closer.

Bucky barely resists the urge to snarl at him, and before he has a chance to contemplate his next move, Brock kicks him, throws him off balance just enough that he involuntarily grabs onto his shoulder to keep from falling over.

“Well, that’s the beauty of not being able to tell the future. Maybe I will. Maybe I won’t. It doesn’t matter.” Brock grins, like he just said something hilarious. “What matters is that it’s funny you think you’re really over me, and it’s funny that you think you can really say no to me. I’ll blackmail you if I have to, but it’s only temporary, honey, until you realize you just need to say yes to your alpha, because that’s how it works.”

And that’s how it needs to work, if HYDRA’s designation-change formula is going to be implemented successfully on a larger scale. Of course, there will always be willing volunteers. But it’s teaching the unwilling how to accept their new lot in life that’s Brock’s job here, in addition to monitoring Bucky for any additional changes, thanks to the serum he received.

Brock glances the omega over, and easily spots the left arm dangling uselessly at his side. He clucks his tongue softly, “I see you’re having a bad day.”

“Fuck you,” Bucky hisses, hatred flashing in his eyes. “I don’t know what I ever saw in you to begin with.” Brock calling him honey sends a wave of nausea washing over him and he yanks his hand away once more, reaching up and snatching one of the tickets from his hand.

“You’re not my alpha. You’ll never be my alpha.” His words drip with disgust, and he knows he’s walking a fine line pushing the other man like this, but he wants it to really register that the only reason he’s agreeing to this is the blackmail.

Brock’s eyes watch as Bucky takes the ticket, his smile widening as he laughs softly, lowly. “Is that what you think?” he asks. “Do you think he’s your alpha? Do you bend over for him instead? Because there’s plenty about you I could tell him, too, if you want to play hard to get.”

Brock has what he wants, though, and it’s enough for now. “I’ll pick you up at six,” he says. “Wear something nice.”

Bucky feels his insides grow cold, like Brock had dumped ice into his veins with the vague reference to Steve. “Eat shit and die,” he mutters before shoving the ticket into his jeans pocket and maneuvering around Brock, head spinning at how quickly his life had just been turned upside once more -- and not in a good way.

He makes it a block and a half before he ducks into an alley and throws up all over the ground, eyes blurry with tears.

***

Steve, for his part, doesn’t realize anything is wrong. Not exactly. Sure, it’s odd for Bucky to message him and call off their mostly standing dinner-and-a-movie thing, but it’s not like Steve owns him or his time, and it’s not like Steve hasn’t had other commitments, either. If something came up, then something came up, and after being told Bucky didn’t need help, Steve had simply accepted it.

But there’s this weird, twisting feeling in his stomach all day, like he was nervous, like he’d had too much caffeine, except caffeine doesn’t affect him and he’s got nothing to be nervous about. At least, not until Pepper Potts calls him a few hours later and asks him to attend the Stark Fundraising Gala after one of their big names dropped out. Steve can’t exactly say no -- he doesn’t have anything else to do and it’s for a good cause, and it’s not like Natasha could really do it in his stead. He does maybe wish Bucky were free, so he could ask him to come with, but attending solo isn’t really any different than he would have done, a couple of weeks ago.

Except that everything feels different than a couple of weeks ago. He’s been spending most of his free time with Bucky, sleeping over most nights a week, but it’s just that -- sleeping, together, and he doesn’t think he’s ever slept so well in his life. He’d been worried his propensity toward insomnia might keep Bucky awake, but instead, that first night, he’d passed out on Bucky’s couch after the mission (to be fair, healing took a lot out of him) and just about every night since, had fallen asleep and stayed asleep. It was quickly becoming a routine he liked, and tonight was one of the first nights in a while that things were going to go different.

But different was okay, he figured -- except for the part where it meant pulling out the revamped red, white, and blue getup SHIELD had given him for the Battle of New York, which was way more form-fitting than he liked. It was for charity, yes, and Pepper had said he didn’t need to wear the cowl, so it could probably be worse. Maybe it wasn’t the worst luck that Bucky hadn’t been able to make it.

So, Steve has been spending most of the night trapped in one corner of the room, talking up senators and business owners and real estate moguls and anyone he could into donating to one of the several the charities they were sponsoring. It isn’t hard, but repeating the same pitch does get old, and he has to admit, his attention starts wandering after a while.

Bucky hasn’t uttered more than two words to Brock the entire way to the gala, and he doesn’t plan to. His stomach has been in knots all day, and while he considered telling his therapist what was going on, when it came right down to it, he doesn’t trust her enough to reveal anything about his being threatened and blackmailed by his ex. She’s too connected to the military, and he’s considered changing therapists on more than one occasion, but he hasn’t gotten around to it yet.

The venue is every bit as crowded as he’d anticipated it was going to be, and he’d been greeted cheerfully by a handful of Brock’s friends. Forcing himself to smile and shake hands and play nice is the last thing he felt like doing, but with Brock’s warning hanging over his head, he does what he has to do. His skin is crawling under the navy blue suit he’s wearing and he reaches up to tug at his tie, feeling too warm for once. The fact that Brock’s had his arm around him all evening isn’t helping with that.

Bucky politely refuses a waiter when they’re offered hors’ d'oeuvres because if he eats anything, it’s going to come right back up anyway. He’d give just about anything to be out of there, curled up on his couch with Steve under a couple blankets as they eat popcorn and watch some lame movie he won’t be able to recount the plot of later because he’s too busy soaking in the warmth of Steve’s attention.

He just has to get through tonight, and then come up with some kind of a plan to keep from losing the shop if Brock decides to turn him in or try to use it against him as leverage once more.

Brock’s evening is going much better than Bucky’s. The omega is a good-looking catch, the fact that he’s a mission notwithstanding, and he behaves himself as he should, cowed properly by the knowledge that Brock is not going to take any shit from him. STRIKE mostly keep to the shadows and the corners of the room, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t still there as guests, pulling double duty as security, which also means canvassing the other guests to make sure nothing seems out of place.

And nothing does, until his earpiece crackles and Rollins reports, “Cap’s here. Over by the bar,” and Brock turns to spot the famous red, white, and blue blond right where Rollins clocked him. Something in him seethes for a moment, when he thinks about the day he saw Bucky fling his arms around Cap’s neck in an effort to throw Brock off his trail… and then he turns that seething anger into an excellent idea.

He tugs at Bucky’s hand, pulling him toward the crowd standing around Cap at the bar. “Hey, honey, there’s someone we’ve just got to say hello to.” And prove that Brock knows exactly what’s going on with Bucky, and how easily he can ruin him.

The last thing Bucky wants to do is meet anymore of Brock’s shithead friends. Really, the others have been courteous and friendly anytime he’s been around them but there’s a bitterness twisting inside him telling him that anyone who wants to be friends with someone like Brock has shitty taste in friends and he’d rather not interact with them. But it’s not like he has a choice anymore than he’s had a choice in coming here at all, so he reluctantly walks with him toward the bar where there’s a small crowd. Probably some CO that Brock thinks he can impress by showing off his omega.

He says nothing in response and he knows in a way that’s giving Brock exactly what he wants -- a submissive little omega to look pretty and keep his mouth shut. But it’s still better than actually talking to him. He looks around, bored and anxious and looking forward to the night being over so he can go home and curl up with Alpine.

There’s a moment when the crowd parts and he catches a vaguely familiar glimpse of red, white and blue and Bucky groans, because really? Brock is friends with Captain America? Somehow that’s almost as disappointing as finding out that he’d been rejected from MIT when he’d applied during his senior year.

But then he feels the ground beneath him shattering for the second time that day as he zeroes in on Cap’s face...and sees Steve. His Steve. Shock freezes him in place, mouth dropped open.

Steve’s noticed that it looks like STRIKE is running security tonight; it’s maybe a little strange he and Natasha weren’t included, but it’s sort of like he’d told Bucky -- he (and Nat) are the big guns, and with multiple Avengers here (okay, just the two, him and Tony), there had already been some pretty big guns.

So he doesn’t think anything of it, and maybe doesn’t even think much when he sees Brock Rumlow start to approach him out of the corner of his eye -- but then he turns all the way around to make sure there isn’t actually a problem when he sees that Brock isn’t alone, and that he’s toting along a -- someone --

Bucky.

Steve feels like someone’s just thrown cold water in his face, even as Brock gives Bucky a bodily tug and gets them both up closer into Steve’s space, glancing between the two of them with this odd look on his face that Steve could almost swear was… satisfaction?

“Cap, I didn’t know you’d be here,” Brock’s saying, from what feels like very far away. Steve’s heart is suddenly tap-dancing at the way Bucky’s staring at him, because of course, of course he is, he’s realizing Steve lied to him -- or at least hid the truth -- and Steve’s insides feel like they’re being stretched and squeezed in a vice all at the same time. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”

“This is my boyfriend, James Barnes,” Brock tells Steve, a sly smile on his face. “James, this is Steve. Or...well. Captain America. Sir also works.”

Steve Rogers is supposed to be the best tactical mind the human race has to offer. The thing is, somehow, when faced with this situation… he has absolutely no idea what to do. Brock essentially muscles Bucky up in front of him, calls him his boyfriend, and introduces a Bucky who’s staring at Steve like he’s the worst thing he’s ever seen.

Bucky doesn’t even hear Brock’s words because he’s staring so intently at Steve, taking in the sight of Steve decked out in the Captain America uniform...because Steve...is Captain America. Several things hit him at once the moment that sinks in: that Brock definitely knows Steve, which means Steve knows Brock, and -- Jesus, they’re on the same special ops team. They don’t just know each other. They work together regularly. He feels the color drain from his face as his mind spins rapidly, realizing exactly why Brock’s introducing him to Steve: to point out just how much access he has, how much he can and would be willing to tell him.

Distantly he registers that his left arm aches where Brock’s gripping onto it none-too-gently, yet another subtle warning and it feels like he can’t breathe at all. He doesn’t try and speak because he wouldn’t even begin to know what to say. He knows exactly what Brock’s doing, and he’s helpless to stop him from wrecking the best thing in his life because he knows what this looks like to Steve. What it has to look like.

Bucky swallows hard, a cold sweat breaking out across his forehead.

Steve’s eyes dart from Brock’s face to Bucky’s; they’re both faces he knows well by this point -- or, at least, thought he knew well -- and he can see the smug satisfaction still written on Brock’s, the same as he can see the dawning horror on Bucky’s. It’s a look that makes him feel sick to his steel trap of a stomach.

But then his eyes fall between them, on the grip Brock has on Bucky’s arm. And his mind kicks into gear, and he thinks back to that first day they met, to the look in Bucky’s eyes then, to the feel of the air and the acrid smell of fear and panic, and --

Something’s not right here. Something’s really not right here, and he doesn’t know what it is, but he can’t stand here like an idiot, either. Steve takes a step forward, aware that he’s looming a little but he goes with it. “We’ve met,” he says, in this way that might sound pleasant to anyone around them, but the look on his face is anything but. It’s serious, it’s assessing, and it’s locked onto the two people in front of him like there’s no one else in the room. “It must be a small world.”

A very small world, with exes who won’t take no for an answer, he thinks, and takes another step forward.

Bucky feels like his throat has closed up. His heart is hammering in his chest so loud he’s sure everyone around them can hear it. The tone of Steve’s voice doesn’t match the look on his face at all and he looks like he’s two seconds away from punching one or both of them and he’s not sure he’d even blame him. He’d bailed on Steve to be here tonight, and sure, maybe it’s because he’s being blackmailed, but he knows Steve has no way of knowing that. And he’s never seen that look on Steve’s face before, that serious, disappointed expression that makes Bucky’s cheeks burn with shame and guilt.

He’s never been the kind of guy to break down in tears during a confrontation but right then that’s exactly what he feels like is about to happen and he won’t give Brock that satisfaction. He reaches up without really thinking about the consequences of humiliating the alpha in public and pries his fingers off his left arm, yanking it away and stumbling backwards a few steps, bumping into people he doesn’t know.

He can’t breathe. There’s too many people around, too many people watching, and God, Steve --

Bucky turns abruptly and pushes his way through the crowd as fast as he can, scrambling away toward the nearest exit without looking back.

Steve’s ashamed to say that Bucky turning and running takes him by surprise. So does the way Brock’s face transforms, going from smug to furious in seconds as he twists to see what Steve can see -- Bucky disappearing through the closest door leading to the outside.

He feels rooted to the spot still when, a second later, Brock turns back to him, and every trace of the anger is gone, his face a neutral mask -- the expression he gets before they’re deployed in the field. Even the way he tries to cock a playful grin a second later doesn’t really do him any favors, as he tosses Steve a lazy salute and a, “Well, I guess that’s my cue to go after my date,” before he starts striding toward the same door Bucky disappeared through.

Steve’s arm shoots out but it’s too late; Brock’s already walking away, and at that exact moment, someone else grabs his wrist and he turns, anger flaring because he doesn’t know what just happened, but he does know he has to go after them, go after Bucky, after Brock --

And there’s Pepper Potts, smiling at him, with two of the wealthiest patrons in the place right beside her, looking starry eyed. Steve’s stomach plummets through the floor, like he can feel Bucky getting more distant with every frantic heartbeat, and something about the way Brock was acting… He can’t just let them both walk away. He needs to go after them. He needs to know what’s going on, and why.

But he needs to talk to these patrons, too, and it takes everything in him to turn on a smile and shake hands and rush through a conversation as best he can, trying to give these people an experience that feels personal while internally counting every single second of head start Bucky and Brock got on him. It feels like an eternity, the reality of which is maybe only five, ten minutes, before he can extricate himself from the conversation, point them toward Tony Stark, and take off for the door, walking at first but, by the time he’s through the heavy fire door and into the hallway that must lead outside, he’s running full tilt.

***

Bucky barely makes it outside before he’s gasping for breath. He doesn’t stop and look behind him. It doesn’t even occur to him to try and hail a cab as he reaches up to loosen his tie, feeling like it’s choking him as he moves away from the building, down the sidewalk as quickly as he can, feeling shaky and light-headed. Did that really just happen?

He knows it did, but it all feels surreal. Every second of that encounter replays in his head: catching sight of the Captain America uniform and realizing Steve was the one wearing it, Brock gripping onto him hard enough to leave a bruise as he dragged him over and introduced him to Steve as his boyfriend. He needs to get home, needs to take a hot shower and maybe cry himself to sleep because he knows that last night will have been the last night that Steve spends at his place. Brock had made sure of that, and he knew that had been his intention.

Just another way that Brock is reinforcing that Bucky’s life is his to mess with and ruin at any and all opportunities. He makes it halfway to the safety of the store and his apartment before he hears the footsteps approaching from behind and he braces himself the best that he can, not turning around because he doesn’t know which one of them is going to be there and he’s not even sure which one would be easier to deal with at this point.

Brock is livid, but he’s also grateful -- he’d known that “introducing” James to Cap was going to be interesting, but he couldn’t have predicted just how interesting it was going to get. He’s pretty sure Cap scared the shit out of Barnes, just the same as Barnes knows, now, that his little fling with the good Captain was never going to last. He was always Brock’s, and Brock can feel his blood rising the closer he gets to the store, the closer he gets to the omega that HYDRA put in his charge.

It’s going to be just the two of them, tonight, and he’s going to make sure Barnes can ever run out on him again. With his spirit broken, the bite will definitely work this time, it’ll take that much easier without James fighting him on it. Because why would he fight, when he’s seen just what happens when he does?

He catches up to the other a couple blocks from the store. He comes up on Barnes like a freight train, grabbing him by the shoulder and twisting him up against the brick facade of the nearest building.

A faint, pained cry escapes Bucky involuntarily when Brock twists his arm up behind his back, shoving him face-first into the wall, cold faux brick scraping against his skin. “Get your hands off me,” he snaps, struggling to get free of the other’s grip, but Brock’s bigger than he is and he has no problem using that to his advantage. Never has.

“James, James -- that wasn’t very polite, was it? Cap might think you don’t like him,” Brock says, low into Bucky’s ear, not far from the place where he wants to sink his teeth in, where a bonding bite should go. “You’re still not very good at being a submissive omega, are you… well. I think we should give it another try.”

But real fear shoots through Bucky at the implications of Brock’s words, at their positioning, at how close the other is to his neck and a shudder passes through him. “Brock, don’t,” he says thickly, voice wavering this time. He doesn’t want to be bonded to him anymore now than he wanted to be two months ago. “Please. You can’t even stand me, why would you wanna be stuck with me?”

Brock snorts into the skin just behind Bucky’s ear; “You think bonding is about wanting to be together? It’s about being shown your place, which you can’t seem to figure out any other way.” He leans in closer, nuzzling at Bucky’s neck with his nose, savoring the smell of scared omega, the faintest tinge he can just barely taste, and knows will get stronger if he can bond the man in his arms. With a real bond, one that takes, he’ll know better what Bucky is feeling, and be able to take advantage of it -- or head it off -- in whatever way he needs.

Besides, the fight Bucky’s putting up? It’s like he’s just begging for Brock to do it, his voice wavering like that, his body shuddering in his grip. This time, the bite will take, the omega wants it, and Brock’s teeth are just starting to scrape at the skin of Bucky’s neck when he registers something at the edge of his own senses. He’s only human, but he’s still a battle-trained soldier, and he can hear feet pounding the pavement as he sighs and gives Bucky an extra shove, as if telling him to stay quiet and up against the wall until whatever or whoever it is passes them by, which seems like it’ll happen quick enough.

Bucky struggles harder as he feels the telltale scrape of teeth against his skin, fear and desperation twisting in his gut when Brock gives him another shove against the wall. He winces, squeezes his eyes shut tightly, and then --

When he stepped out of the Rebirth pod, one of the first things Steve noticed -- and there were a lot -- was all the color. The world was full of it, and so much more of it than he could have ever imagined, being a colorblind kid who saw most things in shades of blue, green, and gray. Red had immediately become his favorite, and tonight, right now, he is seeing a lot of it, feeling his blood boil and his skin tingle all over at what he just came upon on the street: Brock Rumlow, trying to force a bonding bite on Bucky Barnes.

Because that? That is definitely force. Steve doesn’t even need the enhanced sense of smell, the fear and panic still flooding his senses, to know that.

So he picks up speed and smacks Brock away from Bucky, maybe harder than was necessary but, in the end, not nearly hard enough to satisfy the fury inside him.

Brock’s just turning his head to find out what the interruption is when something clocks him in the jaw hard enough to snap his neck around and send him flying away from Bucky, completely caught off guard.

The hand twisting his arm into place is gone entirely and Bucky drops to the ground instinctively, hearing the sound of flesh hitting flesh and momentarily he wonders if some mugger’s just interrupted one of the worst nights of his life. When he dares to look up, he’s expecting to see a gun in his face, or maybe a knife, but what he actually sees is a red, white and blue suit, and when he manages to force his gaze up higher, it’s Steve’s face that he sees.

And Brock is sprawled a few feet away on the ground, moaning in pain.

Bucky’s dropped to the ground, and Steve steps protectively in front of him, both hands curled into fists, practically blazing at Brock as he’s only now starting to sit up, one hand to his jaw, which… might be broken. Steve hopes it is. Because if it is, maybe it’ll be enough to keep him from taking another swing and trying to break it. Or something else.

“Stay down, Rumlow,” he says, voice quiet and commanding and full of anger. “Stay down, or I will make sure you stay there. I don’t think he wants you to walk him home.” Or do anything else to him, now or ever again.

Bucky doesn’t get up off the ground, either, feeling far too shaky and shocked to attempt something like standing. He swallows heavily, gaze darting briefly to Brock, who apparently has at least one functional brain cell in his head, because he holds up one hand and doesn’t try to get up after Steve’s order.

He draws in a breath, reaching up to rub a hand over his face, and it comes back with a faint smear of blood from where the wall had dug into his cheek. It stings, but it’s his arm that’s throbbing painfully and he thinks Brock may have managed to dislocate his shoulder. He closes his eyes, leaning back against the wall of the building in an attempt to stop himself from trembling the way that he is.

He wipes at his eyes with the back of his hand, reminding himself that this could have been so much worse if Brock had managed to sink his teeth into him again. The thought makes him want to vomit and his stomach does a violent little flip that signals that might not be too far away from happening anyway. His breathing is still heavy and ragged, but he finds himself staring up at Steve, at the protective stance he’s taken in front of Bucky.

Steve watches Brock for a long, long moment, knowing better than to take his eyes off the man. Brock is just as deadly as Steve is, if in different ways, and Steve also knows better than to treat this like anything other than an active battlefield until he knows for sure that it’s not.

There’s still a roil of hot anger inside him, the need to crush something underneath his fists. But Brock is staying down -- has one hand up, like he’s trying to calm Steve, prove he’s no threat -- and after a long, long moment, Steve turns to crouch down next to Bucky, who hasn’t moved from where he’d dropped to the sidewalk and whose breathing sounds pained and ragged and, frankly, has Steve more than a little worried.

“Can you stand?” he asks, one hand hovering just shy of touching Bucky’s arm. “Do you need me to take you to the hospital, or home?”

Steve hears the scrape of boots on the sidewalk behind him and turns to see that Brock’s got himself standing now, and there’s something hard and cold behind his gaze. “Did you not understand what I asked?” Steve says flatly, not moving from in front of Bucky. Every nerve in Steve’s body is still buzzing, high on adrenaline and anger. He isn’t sure whether Brock is going to walk away or do something stupid; alphas can lose their minds over potential mates sometimes, but it’s mostly just an excuse to act stupid, more than an actual need.

Besides. Bucky is a beta… he said he was a beta, and alphas only get really stupid over omegas. Usually female omegas. So, Steve’s hoping Brock will walk away.

Although… part of him wants Brock to come at him -- the old part of him that’s always spoiling for a fight, the part that he’s had to bury under Captain America a little, the same way he had to stay at that damned party while Brock was chasing Bucky down and…

He clamps down on the anger that bubbles up at that, and maybe Brock sees it flash through his eyes, or maybe he was never going to give it another go. Brock spits blood onto the sidewalk, glaring at Steve momentarily before letting his gaze move to Bucky. Or trying to, anyway. Steve’s blocking him from his sight. He looks like he wants to say something, but he’s pretty sure his jaw is cracked, so he keeps his mouth shut before turning and heading away from the pair. One thing is for sure: this isn’t over. Not by a long shot.

Bucky can see just enough to know that Brock has done the smart thing, that he’s walking away, at least for the time being. He’s not stupid enough to think this is the end of it. He closes his eyes, trying to get his breathing and heart rate under control. Because now he has to face Steve. Steve, who’d just saved his ass again.

Steve, who he’d lied to about being a beta. Who he’d lied to about why he had to bail on their plans for tonight. It’s not like he’s been telling you everything, either, he thinks idly, opening his eyes again to look at him, staring absently at the suit he’s wearing. He remembers seeing framed pictures of Captain America at Fort Drum during his training. He’d also been in the 107th -- except Steve had told him that had been his dad’s troop, not his own. But in those pictures, he’d always had on the mask. It never once registered to Bucky that that Steve and his Steve were one and the same.

He feels overwhelmed by everything that’s happened tonight, all the things that came to light, and he’s sure Steve is, too. But he’s probably also pissed. Bucky can’t blame him there, but the idea of handling another pissed off alpha right then doesn’t do anything to help calm his nerves.

Steve turns back to Bucky, who’s staring at him with wide eyes and who still hasn’t answered his question. He hasn’t said anything, just sat there and shit, shit, he must be in shock.

“Buck,” he says, quietly, trying to gentle his voice, knowing it probably doesn’t come out as reassuring or soft as he wants but he’s trying. “Buck, I’m going to touch you now. I’m going to help you stand up, and we’re going to walk back to your place. Through the store.” Because Steve can’t fully trust that Brock won’t follow them, or won’t send someone else from STRIKE after them, and he will not risk Bucky’s secret back entrance.

But he does have to risk touching Bucky; the way that he’s hunched tells Steve he’s favoring his left side -- the side he saw Brock gripping like a vice at the party. His hackles practically rise again at that, but there’s no one to be mad at right now over it except himself. He should have said something, instead of standing there like an idiot, instead of staring and trying to figure out Brock’s game and trying to cow him out of it far, far too late.

He gently reaches out to grasp Bucky’s upper arm on the right, gives him a careful little tug upward, trying to get him on his own two feet. This is Plan A; Plan B is to just pick him up and carry him, if he can’t actually find his feet, but Steve will always, always give someone the chance to try.

Bucky watches as Steve moves closer, as he does what he says and touches his arm, gently grasping onto it and Bucky does not flinch; it’s a far cry from the way Brock had grabbed onto him at any point today -- and he forces his body to cooperate and work with Steve to help him get up. He’s on his feet a moment later and his breath catches for a second, eyes still a little wilder than usual. “Okay,” he mumbles, not quite able to meet Steve’s gaze.

He can do this. He can let Steve walk him back to Book Barnes and his apartment. Steve’s never hurt him, never even uttered a mean or derogatory word to him, even if he deserves it. And he’s Captain America. He’s pretty sure that if anything else can solidify his mental image of Steve as a good man, that’s it.

“I’m okay.” It’s another lie, and probably one that Steve can see right through, but he needs to say it for his own sake. Needs to believe it. His shoulder’s out of place, and his cheek hurts from getting face smashed up against a wall, and he can still feel the scrape of Brock’s teeth over the same scarred over mark he’d left the last time. But he’s alive. He’s not bonded to anyone against his will. This is nothing compared to what he’d gone through in captivity overseas.

And if Steve is pissed at him -- and he’s sure he is -- he still won’t hurt him physically, won’t berate him. He might never see Steve again after tonight but if that’s the case, he’ll deal with that the same way he did when his dad wrote him off all those months ago. He hadn’t been lying when he’d told Steve he rolled with the punches. He’s not the type to lie down and let himself die because he’s hurting or heartbroken. Sometimes he wishes he was.

It’s a lie, but it’s a lie Steve understands -- intimately -- the need to tell. He simply nods and, when Bucky manages to get to his feet, does nothing more than loop an arm carefully around his waist and get them moving in the direction of the bookstore. It feels like it takes them a long, silent eternity to get back, before they reach the door and Steve asks, carefully, holding out his hand for the keys, “Will you let me get the door so I can get you inside? Or do you want me to get lost?”

He doesn’t want to get lost. He doesn’t want to leave Bucky alone with this, and he doesn’t want to leave him without checking him over, making sure his arm isn’t broken -- Bucky said it was numb a lot, what if he can’t tell how badly it’s hurt? -- but he can’t pretend that he can just expect Bucky to want Steve to see him inside, to stick around. Not after Steve lied to him, because no matter how he tries to justify it now… nothing can take away the look on Bucky’s face when Steve had turned around and there he’d been, in Brock Rumlow’s grasp, staring at Steve with utter shock.

He doesn’t want to leave, but -- if Bucky wants him to, he will. He will, and he’ll feel fucking awful about it, but he will. At least -- he’ll disappear enough that Bucky won’t see him patrolling the block to make sure no one else from STRIKE is going to show up and ruin his already-ruined evening. Because that’s something else that Steve is going to have to deal with, and he will, but he needs to know how this is going to go, first.

Some part of Bucky feels like he’s gone into auto-pilot and as soon as Steve asks for his keys, he digs into the pocket of his suit pants -- now dirty from sitting on the ground -- and drops them into his hand without reservation. His hands are still shaking and it’s all he can do not to slide his hand into Steve’s along with the keys he places there, but he doesn’t.

“You can stay.” His voice sounds distant even to his own ears, and mentally he takes stock of the signs and symptoms. He’s in a state of shock. He’s with it enough to recognize that, at least. “If you want.” He doesn’t want Steve to stay out of pity or some kind of misplaced guilt because this isn’t Steve’s fault in the least. As much as he wants him to want to stay, he’ll give him an out because he deserves that much from Bucky. If he wants to get the hell out of dodge after the evening’s disaster, he won’t blame him. Won’t hold it against him.

Bucky leans tiredly against the wall as he waits for Steve to unlock the door, eyes closing momentarily.

There’s plenty of guilt there, at least, but not so much pity as bone-deep worry. Bucky’s voice is flat and distant, and it makes Steve’s stomach twist up into knots even as he unlocks the door and ushers Bucky inside, locking it securely behind them before guiding Bucky through the rows of shelves toward the door to his apartment, out of the way at the back of the store. “I want to,” Steve insists quietly, unlocking the second door and getting them inside, locking that behind them, too, before dropping Bucky’s keys on the nearest horizontal surface and trying to get him into the small living room to sit on the couch.

Every second that passes makes him feel worse, but he also feels like he does in the field -- he’s got a mission, to make sure Bucky is okay and doesn’t need medical care Steve can’t give -- and he’s got to get that done. He’s got to complete that mission and then he can move on to the next, whatever it is, whether it’s apologizing or wallowing or… whatever. “Sit down, Buck; can I take your suit jacket off? I need to see if he hurt you.” He has a feeling that if Bucky’s in bad enough shock, he won’t protest. But Steve’s also prepared to be fought on this, and every other step along the way, if that’s what it comes to.

Bucky sits down on the couch almost mechanically, because he’s been told to sit, because his legs still feel like Jell-O. He blinks a couple of times, processing the question and knowing Steve probably wants to make sure Brock didn’t complete his mission in bonding with him. He thinks if their situations were reversed, he’d want to do the same. He draws in a slow breath and then nods, shrugging his right shoulder out of the jacket easily enough, and biting down hard on his lip, bracing himself for the sharp pain of getting the other sleeve off. There’s irony in the fact that most of the time his left arm is numb, but his shoulder he can feel just fine.

Steve pulls his hands back as Bucky starts to take off the jacket himself -- that’s fine, that’s good, it means he’s at least thinking a little, despite the fact that he doesn’t appear to be paying attention to much that’s going on around him.

But then Alpine suddenly appears like a shooting star, streaking across the floor and jumping into Bucky’s lap, pressing her soft little head up beneath his chin. Steve’s nerves are strung so tight that he has to bite back on a yelp as she hurtles into Bucky’s lap.

But Bucky’s right hand moves to stroke her fur and he finally glances at Steve, hesitant. “I don’t think I can get the rest of it off without help,” he admits, pressing his lips together.

For a moment, Steve’s too busy being relieved that the way Bucky touches the cat isn’t mechanical like all his other motions have been; neither is the way he looks at Steve a moment later and says he can’t get out of the jacket without a hand.

But that’s concerning right there. Steve nods, letting out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding, and goes to push the jacket off Bucky’s left arm, hand coming up to take his forearm as gently as possible and maneuver his shoulder to get the jacket off. “Where does it hurt?” he asks, wishing he had X-ray vision to go with the rest of the heightened senses, wishing he could see through the sleeve of Bucky’s shirt even as he pulls the jacket off and tosses it over the back of the couch, so that he could tell without asking what Bucky needs. He starts going after the buttons on Bucky’s cuff, but the stupid uniform gloves are meant for heavy duty battle, and they aren’t like the fingerless ones he’s got with the suit he usually wears these days for SHIELD. He pauses long enough to pull his gloves off and drop them on the floor, searching Bucky’s face as if to silently prompt him to tell Steve where he’s injured, so Steve can do something about it.

Some part of Bucky wants to protest even as Steve tries to maneuver the buttons on his left cuff, presumably to roll the sleeve up. He just doesn’t have it in him to stop him, even if Steve struggles because of the thick gloves on his hands and idly he realizes that Steve’s sprained hand had healed so fast because he’s enhanced. He doesn’t take his eyes off those hands as he strips the gloves off and lets them fall to the floor.

After a few seconds, his gaze momentarily darts up to look at Steve, to meet his eyes, even if it’s only brief because he doesn’t want Steve to see the shame that’s burning there. “Shoulder,” he tells him honestly. “It’s out of the socket.” He knows, because he’s had medical field training himself, and he knows what a dislocated shoulder feels like anyway. He’s sure there’s a bruise on his arm where Brock gripped onto him so tightly, but it doesn’t hurt now because the pain isn’t intense enough there for him to feel it.

The last thing Bucky wants is to go to the hospital. He’s more than had his fill of those for the rest of his life. And if he had enough feeling in general in his left arm, he’s sure he could do it himself, but he doesn’t. And he’s not above asking for help. “Do you know how to pop it back into place?”

Honestly, the fact that Bucky will even meet his eyes makes something in Steve briefly relax -- at least, until Bucky explains that his shoulder is dislocated, and Steve’s jaw practically jumps with the way he’s got to clench it, so angry at himself for missing that.

He nods tightly, letting out a breath and saying, “Yeah. Yeah, I do.” Honestly, he’s known how to fix a dislocated shoulder since long before his basic field medic training with the Army.

Relief washes over Bucky at Steve’s affirmative. He’d much rather have Steve set his shoulder than someone else at this point. He not only wants to avoid the hospital, he doesn’t relish the thought of a stranger touching him right now.

Steve, though, knows exactly what fixing a dislocated shoulder feels like, and that it isn’t going to be a picnic. And dammit, he’s got his actual utility belt on but anything in it is designed specifically for him, which means that all the medication is far, far too high a dose for Bucky. Hell, drugs barely work on Steve, but SHIELD’s found a few things that, if applied in high enough doses and fast enough, can at least get Steve to stop squirming long enough to set whatever needs setting -- or just keep him going until he can be immobilized so the doctors can do whatever needs doing. But he can’t give any of that to Bucky.

“I want to take off your shirt, make sure that’s the only problem, so I don’t make it worse,” he says softly, eyes flicking up to Bucky’s face. “Can you trust me to do that?” Bucky was just assaulted by an alpha and Steve is not going to pretend that everything’s automatically okay if he does it, because he knows what it’s like when you can’t stand for anyone to touch you, but he’s worried that if he doesn’t get a look at Bucky’s shoulder, can’t see what he’s doing when he fixes it, it’ll only make things worse.

Well, that and he knows he’s got no real right to ask Bucky to trust him on anything, right now.

Bucky scrapes his teeth over his lower lip. He still doesn’t love the idea of Steve seeing how disfigured and fucked up his left arm is, but at this point he’s not sure he’ll even see him again after tonight, which is -- too much to try and think about right now. It’s too painful, too breath-stealing, to contemplate.

He holds his breath, though, at the question of whether he can trust Steve, and he drags his eyes back up to meet Steve’s gaze. “I trust you,” he says quietly, and he means it, regardless of the fact that Steve hadn’t told him about the whole Captain America thing. He presses a kiss to Alpine’s head, gently pulling her away from his chest where he’s been cradling her and he sets her on the couch beside him, reaching up with his right hand to start undoing the buttons.

There’s something about the way Bucky says I trust you that makes Steve feel worse, and not better. He knows Bucky means it, and maybe that’s what it is -- Bucky means it, trusts Steve, even after finding out there have been things Steve has kept from him. But the thing is… Steve trusts Bucky, too. He has no idea that Bucky thinks he must still be mad over Rumlow; Steve doesn’t know what happened between the two of them today, but he does know, without a doubt, that Bucky wasn’t happy about it, didn’t do it for anything other than an important reason, and that when Rumlow had introduced Bucky as his boyfriend, he’d been lying through his teeth. Steve still doesn’t know why, but that’s something he can deal with later, when Bucky doesn’t need medical attention and isn’t suffering the pain of a dislocated shoulder.

So Steve pushes everything he’s feeling down and takes a breath, letting Bucky undo the buttons on his shirt, wanting to give him as much control as he can until Bucky makes it clear he needs Steve’s help.

Bucky’d never been ashamed of his body growing up. He isn’t muscled the way Steve is by any means; his body is far more lean than that, more like a swimmer’s than a body-builder’s. And he’s managed to stay in shape thanks to physical therapy that he’s kept up even after his actual appointments had finished. He just does the exercises on his own now. But the arm --

It’s another story. He doesn’t even like to look at it himself, does his best not to, even when he’s drying off after a shower. It’s not a pretty sight. It’s a stark reminder of things he’s tried to deal with in therapy but knows he still has a long way to go on. He draws in a breath as he undoes the last button and then he glances up at Steve, shrugging off the right sleeve easily enough.

It’s then that Steve reaches up, carefully, and slides the fabric down Bucky’s left arm and off, draping the shirt with his suit jacket over the back of the couch. And then he gets his first look at Bucky’s arm.

And it’s… Steve’s reminded, viscerally, of some of the men he saw who’d suffered blasts, shrapnel, flamethrowers. But at the same time, this is completely different, because all of those injuries were accidental, random, just really shitty luck. The skin on Bucky’s arm… it’s disfigured in a way that looks almost methodical. Steve can see the pattern under the chaos, and he realizes this isn’t so much a battlefield injury as something much more deliberate. Something much, much worse.

But he can’t focus on that right now; he isn’t squeamish and he won’t pretend that something that wasn’t Bucky’s fault disgusts him. The action and intent behind the arm disgusts him, but not the arm itself, which is why he doesn’t hesitate to lean in close, to put one steadying hand on Bucky’s knee while he checks the shoulder with fingertips that are as light as he can manage.

Bucky braces himself the best he can, waits for what feels like the inevitable disgust, remembering so, so vividly the look on Brock’s face when he’d seen it for the first time. And then the time after that. He doesn’t want to see it on Steve’s face, but he forces himself to look at his face as the other takes it in. And there’s nothing there -- no expression that he can read, no disgust or disdain. He simply looks like he’s trying to figure out the best way to set his shoulder back into place.

He can feel Steve’s fingertips dancing lightly over his shoulder, touch soft enough that it doesn’t cause pain, but still registers as sensation. And he knows this isn’t going to be pleasant. He has a high threshold for pain even if he doesn’t like that he has it. It’s come in handy more than once.

Steve finally leans back a little and nods, saying, “Yeah, it’s dislocated. I think that’s all, though. We just need to pop it back.”

Which means, “Tell me to stop if you need me to stop,” he says, and gets up only to crawl onto the couch, straddling Bucky’s hips with a knee on either side of his legs, weight balanced easily so that no part of him is actually touching Bucky. Then he carefully bends Bucky’s left elbow, tucks the arm in against his side, and reaches back to slide one hand between Bucky’s shoulder and the couch for support, gently lifting and rotating his elbow and arm with the other.

Suddenly Steve’s body is straddling his own and Bucky loses his focus. The only place they’re actually touching is his arm, and shoulder and Steve’s hands. He bites down on his lip hard enough to draw blood as Steve manipulates his shoulder and there’s that familiar, sickening pop of a shoulder going back into its socket.

It takes everything in Bucky, but he doesn’t cry out. Doesn’t want Steve to feel guilty for hurting him in order to help him, and Steve is just that way. He closes his eyes, stomach turning at the momentary blinding pain, but he stays conscious. Needs to stay conscious more than he needs the sweet bliss of pain-free sleep right now. “Thanks,” he says, breathing hard as the pain fades into a dull, more manageable ache. His head is resting back on the couch, angled in such a way that now he’s looking directly up at Steve, half-naked even if the reasons aren’t fun ones.

Bucky’s all too aware of Steve’s body pressed close to his own and he swallows heavily.

“Yeah, of course, Buck,” Steve says softly, sinking down a little on his knees, but still carefully, deliberately not touching Bucky. He should move -- he should really move -- but it’s amazingly hard to get up the wherewithal to slide off the couch when he can feel Bucky there, right in front of him, solid and real and in one piece, even if things aren’t great right now. He rests one hand lightly on Bucky’s right shoulder, figuring the left has got to still be painful, and will be for a while.

“Is there anything else?” he asks, eyes trying to scan Bucky’s head, neck, and torso, now that he’s got an unhindered view. “Well -- besides this --” he frowns, brushing a thumb just under the nasty, bloody scrape on Bucky’s cheek; he should get that cleaned out, even if it looks like it’s mostly scabbing over now.

A quiet, almost inaudible sound escapes Bucky at Steve’s thumb against his cheek. There’s something about the soft sound Bucky makes that makes Steve want to lean in and kiss him, to touch his lips to his mouth and nose and cheek and… everywhere, until he can make this go away. But he can’t -- he can’t make it go away, especially not when he knows he’s part of the problem.

So instead Steve starts to push back, finally, so he can stand and get a damp towel, and maybe put together an ice pack for Bucky’s shoulder, the same way Bucky did for him, what feels like so long ago now, even though it’s really, really not. “I’m gonna get something to clean that up. And some ice.”

Bucky nods when Steve says he’s going to get ice and whatever else to clean the wound on his face. He hasn’t seen it yet, doesn’t know how bad it is, but the pain there’s basically gone, so he assumes it’s just an artificial wound. He reaches up instinctively to the back of his neck, touches the skin where Brock’s teeth had been, however briefly, and he’s relieved they don’t come back with blood. If he bit hard enough to break the skin, the blood’s already dried there and he can’t tell.

“Want some blankets? Or I can help you up to bed.” God, Steve’s supposed to be good at this, good at taking control of situations, and here he is, second-guessing everything. That must be what happens when you keep something from someone you shouldn’t. It’s best, for now, to just focus on how to help Bucky, and not on how he’s going to have to explain himself. That will definitely come soon enough.

“I think I just...wanna take a shower.” Bucky’s voice is rough sounding, but it’s lost the hollow quality from before. “Maybe the ice after?” That would make more sense. He rubs his hand over his eyes wearily. “Can you stay? At least -- til I’m back out?” He’s hesitant, but he doesn’t want to think about dropping his guard long enough to shower if Steve needs to leave soon. The gala hadn’t been over, he’d just made an abrupt exit. For all he knows Steve might need to get back. But he can shower quickly and get out, be dressed and ready just in case Brock decides to show back up.

He thinks of the loaded gun hidden beneath the floorboards under the rug, thinks of the laptop and information stored safely out of sight. If Brock comes back tonight, Bucky will be ready for him, even if it lands him in prison.

Something in Steve’s stomach starts to twist when Bucky says he wants to take a shower, like maybe this is the part where he says Thanks, but you can go now, and don’t ever come back.

Except that’s not what he says. Steve is braced for it, standing in front of him in the small space between the couch and the coffee table, but those words never come. Instead, Bucky says after and stay and Steve’s nodding like an idiot before Bucky even finishes the second question. “Yeah -- yeah, of course. I can stay as long as you want me to.” Because, quite frankly, fuck the gala. Yes, he ran out in the middle of it, but this is more important and he isn’t going to feel one ounce of regret over leaving. Tony can probably work the room all on his own. And STRIKE…

STRIKE is something he’s going to have to deal with later. Or at least Rumlow, because Steve isn’t foolish enough to think that one man’s actions really do reflect a whole company’s feelings. But he also isn’t foolish enough to think that a whole company can be oblivious to one man’s actions. The fact that he was is bad enough. But now he’s going to have to deal with it, because he’s the CO, and that’s what COs do.

Bucky lets out a shuddering breath at how easily Steve says he’ll stay as long as Bucky wants him to, nodding and letting his head drop forward, giving him a minute to collect himself.

“Come on,” Steve says, softly, reaching out a hand to help Bucky up, if he’ll take it. “Take the longest, hottest shower you can imagine. I’ll be here.” It’s like a promise and an apology all rolled up into one, as he’s already planning to clean up a little in here and make sure Alpine’s been fed and find anything else he needs to do to occupy his mind while Bucky’s in the shower. “Need me to grab you some clean clothes?”

Bucky takes Steve’s offered hand, grasping onto it tightly as he rises to his feet, cheeks ruddy from the rush of emotions and everything that’s happened today. “Thank you,” he says, quiet. Sincere. Steve doesn’t have to go to this length to make sure he’s okay. He doesn’t owe Bucky anything. He can’t stop himself from squeezing his hand before letting go and heading toward the small bathroom. “Clothes would be great. Just...anything is fine. Doesn’t matter.” He motions vaguely to the wardrobe near the bookcase. “Um.” He rubs a hand over his face again, gathering up every ounce of courage he has before saying one more thing. “Maybe make a pot of coffee? If you’re up for talking. I think we’ve got some stuff to talk about. If I didn’t fuck things up bad enough already.”

Bucky’s eyes are burning with tears and he sniffs involuntarily before continuing on his way to the bathroom.

Steve’s slept over here often enough to know that Bucky’s got plenty of clothes he can choose from; he’s already planning to grab sweatpants and a soft shirt when Bucky mentions coffee, and for a split second Steve’s heart soars -- until Bucky keeps talking. And --

Buck,” Steve says, and it doesn’t take much effort at all to cross the short distance to where Bucky’s shuffling off, and maybe he shouldn’t, but Steve’s fingers grab for Bucky’s right arm before he can really stop himself -- not grasping or confining, just trying to catch at him before he can get any further, get him to turn around. “Bucky, you didn’t fuck anything up. You -- you told me, the day we met. That you had an ex who wouldn’t take no for an answer. I just… I assume that’s who you meant,” he finishes, quiet and a little ashamed, both because he somehow hadn’t caught on (not that he could have known, Bucky hadn’t talked a lot about his ex and Steve hadn’t pushed), and because Bucky’s not the one who fucked up, here. Steve is. They do have a lot to talk about, Steve just… figured it would be him, doing all the explaining. The apologizing.

Bucky doesn’t try to pull away when Steve catches his arm, and he ignores the way a tear trickles down his cheek even as he turns to face Steve again. He wishes it was as simple as Steve believes it, but there’s too much he doesn’t know yet and he’s not foolish enough to think it won’t change things when he finds out. And he’s going to tell him. He has to.

Steve drops his hand away from Bucky’s arm abruptly, taking a step back. “Take your shower, I’ll make some coffee,” he confirms. “But don’t go in there thinking anything that happened today is on you. Whatever happened… it’s on Brock. And me. I know that.”

Bucky’s eyebrows furrow when Steve blames today on himself, genuine confusion flickering across his face. “Steve...we’ll talk when I’m done, but...I’m not mad at you,” he says simply, letting his gaze drop to the giant white star emblazoned across his chest. He reaches out for a moment, lays his hand there and meets his eyes, trying to muster up a smile that doesn’t quite make it. “It wasn’t your fault.” Steve being at fault couldn’t be farther from the truth, even if the truth is somewhat in question on both their parts at the moment.

Steve doesn’t necessarily feel relieved, even when Bucky says he’s not mad. It feels like he should be, like it would almost be easier to deal with this if he were, and Steve wants to say something else but if he does, Bucky’s never going to get into the shower and he needs that, Steve knows. He needs some time to decompress and if that’s time Steve has to spend worried and uncomfortable, it’s nothing less than what he deserves. He just wants to make sure that Bucky doesn’t go in there thinking he’s to blame.

Which is why seeing that tear track down his face hurts just as much as anything has in a long time, and why Steve has to clench his fingers into a fist at his side to keep from reaching out for Bucky again, because he has to let Bucky go and actually get in the shower.

Bucky lets his hand drop again, and heads into the bathroom, shutting the door behind him but not locking it, knowing Steve will need to bring his clothes inside when he finds them. He strips out of his suit pants and boxers, his socks. He lays his towel on the sink and then climbs into the shower, turning the water on as hot as he can stand it and willing it to calm the noise in his head, even if it’s just for a few minutes.

Just a few minutes.

Once the door clicks shut behind Bucky, Steve starts moving again, almost like someone’s flipped a switch. He grabs some clothes for Bucky once the water is already running, tapping on the door and dropping them off in the bathroom before retreating again. Then he hangs Bucky’s shirt and suit jacket carefully on a hanger, knowing they’re going to need to be cleaned but at least neither actually seems ripped or stained past saving, which is a relief. He picks up his gloves -- and then takes off his boots, setting both in a neat pile by the door. He hesitates, then shrugs out of the uniform’s top, which leaves him in an athletic shirt and too-tight blue pants, but it seems better than walking around wearing the whole uniform like he’s trying to make some kind of stupid statement, or remind Bucky of who he is. He’s not. He’s just -- he’s still just Steve, and he just hopes Bucky will see that. He hasn’t really seemed too overwhelmed by the whole Cap thing, but he’s sort of had other things to worry about tonight. Steve’s maybe a little worried that when all the dust settles, that might be when it sinks in that he hid it from Bucky.

But if that’s what happens, then that’s what happens, and he’ll face it.

After that, he putters around, not quite wearing a hole in the floor between the living room and the kitchen as he waits for the coffee to brew, as he pulls out a towel and a plastic bag for ice, as he pulls down mugs so he can pour out the coffee and have at least one cup of it ready to go for Bucky, just how he likes it, when he comes out.

And after that, all he can really do is sit on the couch with the mugs in front of him on the coffee table and try not to grab at his hair or crack the floorboard beneath his feet with the way his foot keeps jiggling for lack of anywhere else for his energy to go.

Bucky doesn’t rush through his shower the way he thought he might need to. He knows Steve will still be there waiting for him when he’s done, and as much as he doesn’t want to keep him waiting, he needs the time to himself just to decompress, going over every single thing he’d done wrong today, starting with his initial conversation with Brock. He still doesn’t know what he could have said or done to change the outcome, but it feels like there should have been something.

He knows he shouldn’t have lied to Steve about why he was bailing, feels guilty for that split second where he’d thought that Steve might just take Brock’s side because they worked together. He knows better. He knows he handled the moment at the gala horribly by running off and making a scene, and Brock is probably already plotting some kind of retaliation for all of it. He pushes that thought out of his mind for the time being, though, because he can’t deal with that yet.

His left shoulder aches terribly and the hot water does little to soothe it, and he hopes that the ice will help. That and maybe a couple of the harder-hitting painkillers they’d prescribed to him at the hospital. He’d stopped taking them as soon as he could bear the pain without them, because he hated what they did to his head. He needed to be clear-minded. On top of things.

Unbidden, three words came to mind, whispering across his consciousness: Order through pain. His head aches suddenly and he squeezes his eyes shut, wondering where the hell that had come from. If it had been something from a movie or a book, it wouldn’t give him a headache to think about. No, it’s something he’s heard...from somewhere. He’s just not sure where.

Bucky steps out of the shower and dries off, tugging on the clothes that Steve had left out for him, grateful that he’d chosen something soft, warm. He catches sight of his face in the mirror and grimaces a little at the marks, but they don’t look too awful. There’s that at least. He still can’t tell if Brock had broken the skin on his neck, can’t crane that far to look in the mirror. He doesn’t feel any unusual kind of connection to the guy though, so he takes that as a good sign. He exhales and steps out of the bathroom, pausing in his tracks at the sight of Steve, stripped down to a thin t-shirt and the pants from his Captain America uniform, sitting on his couch and looking as anxious as Bucky’s felt all day.

“You uh -- you can wear a pair of my sweatpants if you want,” he offers. “You’d never fit in one of my shirts but the pants should be okay.” If a little short. For as broad as Steve’s shoulders are, his hips are as narrow as Bucky’s.

Steve’s head comes up as soon as he hears the bathroom door open; he offers Bucky a smile that’s probably shakier than he wants it to be, but he’s already starting to get up to give Bucky the closest spot on the couch when Bucky says he can grab a pair of sweatpants and that shaky smile turns into more of a relieved one. That means Bucky’s definitely okay with him staying, and… it gives him the chance to get out of the rest of the uniform, which feels like it puts them on more even footing.

“Yeah, I -- okay. Thanks,” he says, but he’s already headed for Bucky, giving him a once-over to check that the scratches on his cheek haven’t started bleeding again, and that there isn’t anything else obvious he missed. He does want to take a look at the back of Bucky’s neck, but -- he hasn’t been able to bring himself to ask about that yet. There hadn’t been any blood on Bucky’s shirt or jacket, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be a bruise. Just thinking about Brock trying to force a bond on Bucky -- on anyone -- makes his skin crawl and his instincts scream, but he takes a breath to steady himself and brushes carefully past Bucky to grab some ice out of the freezer, now that he’s out of the shower. “You go sit down. Let me get you some ice, and then I’ll get changed.”

“Okay,” Bucky agrees quietly, mostly because he’s been standing up for over a half hour and he feels drained and shaky. He moves over to the couch, sinking down onto the cushions and exhaling slowly.

He's glad that Steve agreed so easily about changing clothes. He just doesn’t look like he can possibly be that comfortable in pants that are as tight as his uniform pants are. And as much as Bucky hates to admit it, those pants are entirely too distracting when they need to have a conversation as serious as the one that they need to have.

With something to do, a mission to follow again, Steve feels better, putting together the ice and towel and bringing it over to Bucky before heading back to the wardrobe, rifling through for a moment to get another pair of pants and retreat into the bathroom to change.

When Steve disappears, Bucky leans forward and picks up the cup of coffee that Steve had poured for him, taking a long drink. It’s the first thing he’s had to drink or eat in hours. It’s gone in seconds, and he refills it while Steve’s changing clothes, then moves back to the sofa once more, pressing the ice pack to his shoulder.

He’s not even surprised when Alpine jumps up onto his lap, because she always seems to stay close when he’s anxious or upset.

The bathroom is warm and steamy and it smells like Bucky in here, and so do the pants as Steve puts them to his face and inhales -- and then immediately feels like a creep, stripping off the rest of the uniform and pulling on the sweatpants before heading out of the bathroom and back to the couch, tossing his uniform pants over the same chair he’d draped the top. The cuffs are only a little higher than they should be; he’s taller than Bucky, but only by an inch or few.

“D’you still want to talk?” he asks, carefully, pretty sure the answer is yes, but willing to accept it if it’s changed.

Bucky lets out the breath he’d been holding, watching Steve reappear in the main room wearing a pair of his sweatpants. “Yes,” he says softly, worrying his lower lip. “Do you?”

Steve laughs softly, even though there’s pretty much nothing funny about the situation or the question. It disappears from his voice quickly enough, but his tone stays soft, gentle. “We should,” he says, settling down next to Bucky on the couch, not quite touching but close enough that they could be -- but only if Bucky wants to. He isn’t sure how any of this is going to go, but he does have to admit that talking is better than being thrown out.

He runs a hand through his hair, which already distinctly looks like he’s been doing that a lot. “I guess you know what I’m going to say, though. I’m, uh, that Steve Rogers. And I know I kept it from you, I chose not to tell you, and I could tell you why but I’m not sure it’s a very good reason, anymore.” He swallows, reaching for his mug, though it’s mostly for something to hold, rather than something to drink. “I’m sorry. I never -- lied, exactly. But I wasn’t completely honest, and I never meant for you to find out the way you did.”

Bucky watches him as he talks, his voice quiet and open, and he questions himself -- on whether he’s accepted Steve’s secret so easily because he has so many of his own that he wants Steve to forgive him for keeping. He sets his mug down on the table, aching to reach out and touch him but not feeling like he’s earned that right back yet.

“Steve, it’s…” He searches for the right words, needing to tell him that it’s okay. “I’m not upset with you for not telling me. We uh -- we haven’t really known each other that long and that’s a pretty big thing. It shocked me, yeah. But not...in a bad way?” He looks at him intently, searches his eyes. “I get wanting to connect with someone without worrying about if they’re into you because of who you are and not because of your fame or your past or…” His voice trails off momentarily, and he closes his eyes, swallowing. “Or because of your designation.

Steve isn’t sure he deserves forgiveness so easily, but he also can’t help but care even more for Bucky, who pretty much volunteers the exact reason Steve hadn’t wanted to tell him all on his own, like he gets it. Like it’s just that easy, and Steve glances down at his coffee before he looks back up at Bucky because, “So many people… it makes things weird. Right away, they think they don’t know how to talk to me, or worse, they think they do think they know how to talk to me, how to treat me, and I just -- I didn’t want that to happen to you. I kinda like you too much for that,” he says, and now he does risk reaching out, resting one hand over Bucky’s, squeezing gently.

Even if he has a weird, bad feeling about how Bucky ended that sentence, because… designation is an odd thing to bring up. Unless it’s just the fact that it’s harder for an alpha to bond a beta than an omega, and maybe Brock gave him shit about it. Steve wouldn’t put it past him.

Bucky’s breathing hitches when Steve reaches out and takes his hand, squeezing so light and gentle, like he might break. And he might. He’s broken before. But he’s put himself back together, too. And maybe he doesn’t have everything figured out, but he’s working on it.

Bucky finally opens his eyes once more, steeling his nerves. “I haven’t exactly been honest with you, either,” he admits, voice barely a whisper.

Steve frowns, because Bucky still seems to think that he’s got to explain things to Steve, but he doesn’t. “Whatever Rumlow used to talk you into tonight… it’s not your fault. I know what kind of training he’s had. You don’t have to explain it to me if you don’t want to,” Steve says, squeezing Bucky’s hand carefully again. “I trust you. If you can trust me to be here, with you, after what happened -- I trust you.”

Steve’s giving him an out, and as much as part of Bucky would like to take it, he can’t. Not if he wants this thing between them to have any real chance of working out. And God, he does. He wants that more than anything he’s ever wanted before, because God help him, two weeks into this relationship and he’s pretty sure he’s already in love with this man.

It takes Bucky a few seconds to gather up the courage to say what he needs to say to Steve. “It’s not -- about Brock. Not exactly. It all correlates, but it’s not...so much about him. It’s about me. About who I am. What I am.” As much as he doesn’t want to look at him, he owes him that respect, and so he lifts his gaze to meet Steve’s.

“I lied to you, when I told you I was a beta. I’m not.” Not anymore, he thinks distantly. “I’m an omega, Steve.”

Chapter Text

Steve’s caught off guard by the admission, sure. It’s not what he’d expected Bucky to say. But while half of him is confused, to be sure, half of him… really isn’t. He knows he’d assumed, at first, the first time they’d met -- and he tries very hard not to assume things about people. He also knows that a lot of times his assumptions and hunches are just his body (more to the point, his senses) picking up on things subconsciously, filtering them through to his brain behind the scenes. So honestly, the fact that he’d thought Bucky smelled like desperate omega the first time they’d met, just for a moment, does suddenly make sense.

But while that makes sense… the rest of it doesn’t. Because, “You -- didn’t want to tell me, because… you thought I’d act like Brock?” he finally hazards, brows furrowed and clearly not so much angry as confused. Although in the end, he’s not really confused by that, either -- a lot of alphas treat a lot of omegas like absolute shit, and if Bucky was coming off a relationship with Brock Rumlow, then -- “I mean, that does make sense,” he adds, with a little laugh that doesn’t sound so much like he thinks this whole thing is funny as much as he thinks it’s sad. “You didn’t know I wouldn’t treat you like shit.”

You’re kind of a genius, and I wish I could’ve used that trick, he doesn’t say, but he definitely thinks it. Unfortunately, people used to assume all the time, and little scrawny Steve Rogers definitely looked like a helpless omega.

“But I won’t,” he says, suddenly, insistent -- and realizes he’s touching Bucky, and pulls his hand away, like he needs permission to do it all over again. “I won’t, Buck, I swear. When I said I didn’t care if you were an alpha… hell, that goes for omega, too. It doesn’t matter to me. You are who you are. You’re not just your designation.”

“It wasn’t that.” Bucky’s voice is hushed. “Steve, the store is in my name. Not my sister’s or my parents’. Gramps left it to me.” He swallows hard and looks up at him. “If the wrong person finds out…” He doesn’t have to finish that thought, because he knows Steve knows that omegas aren’t allowed to own businesses. Not unless the alpha they’re bonded with allows it. Tony Stark hadn’t just made headlines with his debut as Iron Man, but also because he’d signed his company over to his girlfriend Pepper, an omega. It had brought down hard scrutiny, caused a ripple effect that he’s not even sure Stark’s aware of.

“I fuckin’ hate that that's still the case,” Steve all but growls, right before realizing he's starting to squeeze his coffee cup a little too hard, and he's about to break it all over himself. He reaches over, setting it down on the coffee table with a slow breath in, a quiet sigh. “I really thought… with all the things that have changed in the past seventy years, maybe that could’ve been one of them. Omegas aren’t any less than anybody else, and they shouldn’t need anybody’s permission to own anything or do whatever they want.”

“The last ten months of my life have been…” Bucky shakes his head a little. “Some of the worst I could have imagined.” There’s no hint of kidding in his voice. “The store is all I’ve had,” he admits, voice dropping more. “It’s the last piece of my grandpa that I still have.” Alpine meows in indignant protest and he pets her gently. “And Alpine.” Bucky exhales and looks at Steve. “Brock’s known from the time we met that I’m an omega. I never thought he’d actually use it against me. Now I’m just surprised he didn’t do it sooner.”

So of course, Bucky couldn’t have known Steve would never hold it against him. He couldn’t have guessed that Steve, as an alpha, even one who seemed nice, wouldn't turn him in for owning a store, for managing it. Wouldn’t blackmail him for it. Like Brock had. It makes Steve feel sick, sort of in the same way that he used to feel twisted up and wrong and vaguely nauseous at how differently everyone treated him as Cap, not just for the looks or the strength, but because he was an alpha. A born leader, they thought. A natural hero.

Like omegas couldn’t do heroic things, put their lives on the line, want to serve their country.

Which -- “But omegas still can’t serve in the military, either,” Steve says quietly, curiously. “Did you lie to them, too?”

There is something in his gaze that is, strangely, vaguely reminiscent of jealousy.

At that, Bucky closes his eyes, drawing in a slow, deep breath. “That’s where things get a little complicated,” he says honestly. “I was born a beta, Steve. I was a beta right up until ten months ago, when I was overseas.” He buries his face in Alpine’s fur for a moment and feels her purring against his chest, soothing him. “My unit was ambushed. We were taken prisoner. Most of them didn’t live through the shit they did to us.”

He shudders involuntarily. “But I did. I don’t know how, or why, but somehow I lived and when I was rescued, I was out of it for a few days...but when I woke up, everything was different. I was different. Whatever those bastards did to me changed me.” He rubs a hand over his face, his words strained because reliving that, talking about it in even in the most generalized terms without a lot of horrific details, is something he’s barely even managed in therapy so far. “One day I was a beta, and then...I wasn’t. And I still can’t make sense of it. I didn’t even know it was something that was possible.”

Steve takes that all in; and if Bucky was expecting him to look surprised, he’s going to be sorely disappointed. Because none of what Bucky’s saying should make sense, and it wouldn’t, not to a normal person. But Steve is anything but. And what he hears both endears him all the more to this man, and also drives a cold spike of fear right into his gut, when he thinks of that mission and what Natasha told him on the quinjet. When he thinks of someone like Bucky in the hands of someone like HYDRA. That is what twists that spike inside him -- that, and hearing exactly what happened, at least as far as Bucky knows.

Because at least Steve had gone into it with open eyes. He’d agreed to it. He’d begged for it.

And if Bucky has told that secret, then there’s no reason for Steve not to reciprocate. “Well, I was born an omega, so if you need any… I don’t know, perspective,” because he doesn’t want to say help, that implies Bucky can’t handle being an omega on his own, and he surely can, “I was one for a lot more of my life than I’ve been an alpha,” he finishes, quietly, but steadily, watching Bucky because if Bucky can look him in the face and tell him this, then Steve can do the same.

Steve might not have been surprised by Bucky’s revelation, but Bucky’s sure as hell surprised by Steve’s. He looks at him, shakes his head a little. “I remember seeing pictures of you before, but no one ever said anything about your designation changing,” he tells him, eyebrows furrowing. “Did you know that part, going in?” He would understand if he’d known, if he’d wanted it because of that. The treatment of omegas over the decades has gotten better, but they obviously still had a hell of a long way to go as far as Bucky’s concerned.

Honestly, it’s maybe a little nice to see the shock on Bucky’s face, if only because it’s replaced the hollowed-out look he’d gotten, describing what had happened to him. Steve knows it’s not going to make anything better, but taking his mind off of it, even for just a few moments, seems like the tiniest victory.

“It was part and parcel of the serum,” Steve explains. “Omegas couldn’t serve in the military, and anyone worth their salt knew that a super soldier would have to be an alpha.”

Some people -- a lot of people -- had thought that meant only giving the serum to alphas. But Dr. Erskine, God rest his soul, had thought differently. Had known differently. It was one of the many, many reasons Steve had looked up to the man, respected him. “The reason you haven’t heard that I wasn’t already an alpha and that there was a substance in this world capable of changing someone’s designation at all is because it’s very, very classified,” Steve says, voice a little wry, even self-effacing. “They couldn’t completely hide who I was before, but… a lot of it got erased. ‘Lost,’ even in 1943. I agreed to that, too. They said I was just a late bloomer. Skewed some of the dates on the pictures.” Steve had always looked a couple years younger than he really was, simply because he was so small and skinny.

“So yeah. I knew. I -- wasn’t overly broken up about it,” Steve admits, too, because if he’s going for honesty, might as well go all the way. But, “I let them change me, so it’s not the same,” he adds quickly. “I agreed and I knew it was coming, but -- I guess I know a little of how you felt, and to feel that way without knowing what’s going on… Buck, I’m so sorry. That’s awful. That’s not something that should be taken away from anyone.”

“And after… things were different than I expected. Harder, in some ways. Sometimes they still are.” And when he’d told Bucky he wouldn’t have cared if they were both alphas, well -- he was speaking from experience.

Bucky listens intently, then slowly leans back against the couch cushions, trying to absorb all of that. Steve had been an omega, like him. And whatever serum he’d been injected with back in the forties had turned him into an alpha. “It’s like we got opposite serums,” he murmurs, trying to work it out in his head. Except that when some people got the serum Bucky had, they’d died instead of just having their designations swapped. Why hadn’t he? It still doesn’t make any sense to him. He pets Alpine absently, shifting on the couch enough to angle his body toward Steve a little more, most of his fears about Steve being pissed off for being lied to drained away now.

“Yeah,” Steve muses, and while that’s all he says on the matter… it’s certainly not all he thinks. Because he is definitely thinking about that mission now, and about how badly he needs to get in touch with Natasha.

But it can wait. It can, just a little longer, because Bucky is more important right now. That mission was weeks ago, and nothing’s come of it yet. A few hours won’t change anything. But the next few hours are really important for Bucky, who’s still hurt and --

“Maybe that’s why it didn’t work when Brock tried to bond me before,” Bucky pipes up, softly. “Maybe whatever’s running through my veins wouldn’t let it take.” And if that’s the case, well. At least it did something useful for him. It doesn’t occur to him that Steve didn’t even know that tonight isn’t the first time Brock had tried to force a bond on him.

That certainly gets Steve’s attention, gets every single one of his not-so-new-anymore alpha instincts raging, because, “He’s tried that shit before? Buck --” Well holy hell, Rumlow has really got it coming. Steve’s more than a little disappointed now that he didn’t break more than the guy’s jaw.

And this time, those instincts overcome the way he’s been trying to be careful, and his hand reaches out again for Bucky’s. “Bucky. That is the shittiest thing a person can do to another person, omega or not. And if whatever you do have in you that changed you staved it off… then I don’t want to be glad for it, but maybe I am, just a little.”

It’s probably an awful thing to say, but Steve’s always been just a little bad (okay, a lot) at comfort. He tends to, well, speak his mind a little too plainly, when maybe he should just be murmuring sweet nothings. But he’s definitely not in a sweet nothings mood, hearing that.

When Steve reaches out, Bucky doesn’t hesitate to slide his hand into his, curling his fingers around Steve’s. “Me too,” he admits, voice quiet. “He was nice in the beginning. Hell, he was one of the people who helped rescue me from whoever had me. But once I was out of the hospital, it was like he was a different person entirely.” He feels a little weird, telling Steve about his ex-boyfriend, but in another way, it feels like it’s still part of the conversation they need to have.

Because he’s not stupid. Steve is Captain America. And he’s pretty sure that in whatever capacity he and Brock work together, Steve is his CO. He knows what happened tonight is going to have consequences for Brock that he probably hadn’t seen coming. Probably still doesn’t.

“Most of the time it felt like he hated me. He was in rut when he bit me. Tried to say it wasn’t his fault. That he couldn’t control himself. I told him he was full of shit. It’s not that hard to keep your damned teeth to yourself. Tonight he said it wasn’t about wanting to be with someone long-term, it was about him putting me in my place.” There’s bitterness in Bucky’s voice.

There’s definitely something in Steve, ruffled the wrong way, that calms a little when Bucky takes his hand, even if nothing Bucky really says next does the person Steve’s livid with any favors. “Your place is wherever you want it to be, and no one gets to decide that but you,” he says, lowly, but it’s clear the anger is directed at Brock, and maybe every other alpha who’s ever thought that way, said something like that to Steve or any omega at all, and not at Bucky. Steve’s never had a real, full rut, but even having had the strange half-rut he’d fallen into one time on the front lines, because the SSR doctors had been playing with his suppressant dosage ever since he’d emerged from that capsule a super soldier alpha, he’d felt the need to claim but not… like that. It was more like a need to tie someone to you, so they could never leave you, because you simply didn’t know who you were without them. But Peggy had laughed at him -- gently -- and told him that was probably as much because of the soul bond as his budding alpha hormones, so really, the whole situation was sort of a muddled blur in his head.

The whole point being, though, that it had never been about control or about putting someone in their place. It had been about making his place the place next to the person he loved.

Something about how fired up Steve is over the way omegas are treated goes a long, long way toward soothing away the anger and bitterness that Bucky’s felt building inside of him for months. He wants to crawl into his lap, wrap his arms around Steve’s neck and just hold on for hours. He’s not sure the attitude Steve has is a common one for alphas -- in fact he’s pretty sure it isn’t. “If there were more alphas like you, the world would be a hell of a lot better place, Rogers,” he says, voice rough. “For the record.”

“I went my whole life with people telling me what to do and how to do it, and mostly to do less of it,” Steve murmurs softly. “I just want to be the kind of alpha -- the kind of person -- who doesn’t do that, because it’s bullshit.”

Although speaking of that kind of person, “Brock’s never been a… forward-thinking kinda guy,” Steve finally settles on. “But there’s a difference between just being a jerk, and worming your way into someone’s life by pretending you’re not a jerk, and to me, the latter says that you know what you’re doing is wrong, and you’re choosing to do it anyway, because you know enough to play a different part.” He doesn’t know if that makes sense to anyone but him, but all that matters is that he is maybe going to enjoy dealing with Brock the next chance he gets, even if he’s also really not.

Bucky considers Steve’s words about Brock, pressing his lips together. “I missed a lot of signs,” he admits quietly. “Maybe I saw them and just ignored them because I was scared of bein’ alone or...maybe I just didn’t care, I don’t know. Guess what they say about hindsight’s cliche for a reason.” Because it’s true.

“It wasn’t on you to see all the signs,” Steve insists. “Hindsight is perfect, but… that’s not the way the world should work, y’know? And what matters is you did see them. You did get out. Just because he’s an idiot with no respect for anybody else… that’s something he’s gonna be learning, very soon.” Because that, at least, he can promise.

But then Steve frowns, leaning forward a little. “I didn’t see any blood on your shirt. He didn’t break skin, I don’t think. This time?”

Bucky rubs the back of his neck absently. “I don’t think he did, either. But…” He looks at him nervously. “Can you check? Just in case? Please.” His voice drops again.

Something in Steve’s stomach swoops weirdly, that same stepped-off-a-cliff feeling he’s gotten around Bucky before, simply to know that he trusts Steve, feels comfortable enough around him, to turn around and bare his neck to someone he knows is an alpha, when he’s feeling so very vulnerable. Steve’s pretty sure his face is doing something sappy and complicated, but he ignores it and nods, squeezing Bucky’s fingers before sliding his hand away and resting it on his good shoulder instead, not grabbing or turning him, just letting him know that Steve’s ready when he is. “Yeah. Yeah, of course I’ll check. But if it didn’t take before… it won’t take now, Buck. I promise.”

Not that it’s a promise he can make or keep, but there it is, anyway.

Bucky sees the complicated emotions flickering over Steve’s face when he asks him to look at his neck, though, and he reaches up, cupping his cheek in his hand momentarily, leaning in and pressing a kiss against his forehead before drawing in a breath and shifting positions on the couch so that Steve can see his neck. He ducks his head to make it easier, chewing his lower lip anxiously. Not because he’s nervous about having his back to Steve, but because he doesn’t want any chance of being stuck with a bond to Brock Rumlow. Not in a million years.

Steve’s prepared to just get on with it, to not make it a big deal. But then Bucky seems to notice the expression on his big dumb face and the way he draws Steve in, the way his warm, soft lips touch his forehead… it’s not absolution, exactly, but it feels a little like it. And it makes Steve breathe out a slow, shaky breath, before he nods and shifts to let Bucky turn, reaching up carefully to push the neckline of his t-shirt out of the way, seeing clearly the older, healed-over bite where Brock must have tried to make it take before, but that’s all he can see. It doesn’t look like Brock got very far at all this time.

Bucky knows they need to discuss what’s going to happen with Brock, but right now he just wants to make absolute certain that he’s not stuck with him for the rest of his life, however long or short that might turn out to be. He closes his eyes as Steve moves closer behind him, checking for him because he can’t do it for himself. He feels the other man’s warm breath against his neck, and the sensation it produces is entirely different from how he’d felt earlier this evening, feeling Brock’s breath against his skin.

Steve’s about to give Bucky the all clear when he frowns and leans in a little more. He moves slowly, cautiously, trying to determine if the redness he’s seeing is bruising or flushing or even just discoloration of the skin from before, and that’s when he sees the small, pointed mark at the edge of Bucky’s hairline, where you could maybe miss it or mistake it for a birthmark if you didn’t know better.

But oh, God. Steve knows better. Steve knows the exact shape, the exact size, the exact not-quite-raised, not-quite-smooth feel of that mark under his fingertips. Under his lips.

It’s exactly the same mark Peggy had, in exactly the same place along her hairline. The one she’d showed Steve only after he’d gone through a top-to-toes exam before being accepted into the pool of candidates for Rebirth, because she’d seen exactly the same mark noted on him. The mark that had tied them together, even after he’d gone through the transformation, the reason they had to hide what they were to each other, never had the chance to really do more than try, desperately, to catch a few moments alone with each other, where no one could see or hear.

A little shiver runs through Bucky involuntarily as he feels Steve’s fingers trail lightly over his skin. His heart is beating quickly in his chest, and Steve’s not saying anything and oh god, what if they’d both been wrong? What if Brock had broken skin and it had simply taken this time? He’s doing his best to control his nerves, to sit perfectly still on the couch, right hand gripping tightly on his knee even while his left dangles.

Steve realizes he’s been quiet for far, far too long. “Buck,” he breathes, realizing he’s probably making things worse, sitting there and staring. He swallows, his throat suddenly dry, before he at least has the decency to lead with, “He didn’t break skin. Everything’s fine.”

But then, “You --” Steve pauses, then tries again. “You, uh, you know you’ve got a star back here?”

Bucky’s two seconds away from pleading with Steve to say something when he utters the nickname that Bucky loves hearing, because it’s Steve saying it. He shudders again, this time with relief, dropping his head forward and exhaling a breath he hadn’t even realized he’d been holding.

His eyebrows furrow a bit at the next question, though. “Yeah. It’s -- a weird birthmark,” he explains. Most of the time he forgets it’s even there. He can’t see it even if he can kind of feel it, if he’s trying. His mom and Becca used to tease him, telling him it was a soulmate mark. But those only exist in movies and fairytales. It’s not real life.

Steve laughs, but it’s a faint, sort of weak, sort of bowled-over sound. “It’s not a birthmark,” he says, realizing he’s already started to reach out to touch it and pulling his hand back, fingers curling into his palm so he won’t do it again without permission. He shifts back a little, because saying this to the back of Bucky’s neck, as appealing as that might be for Steve’s nerves, is not the right thing to do.

He feels like he’s already asked a lot of Bucky tonight -- asked him to accept that he’s not exactly the guy Bucky thought he was, asked him to accept that he wasn’t always an alpha, but an omega. Bucky’s taken all of it pretty well, considering, and Steve lo--

Yeah. Steve loves him for it. That’s the feeling. He knows it has been, for a while, and now he knows why.

Part of him is a little furious, because it feels like the soul mark has already decided things for them. It’s reeled him in, knocked him head over heels, before he even knew what was going on. And that’s the way it was with Peggy, too. But part of him isn’t sure whether it’s the mark, the bond, or just the fact that Peggy -- and now Bucky -- simply are the right match for him. Because it didn’t take anything to love them. It just was, from the moment they met, because the more he learned about them, the more he found to love.

It doesn’t matter, just now; the outcome is the same, and he pushes at Bucky’s shoulder gently, coaxing him to turn around. This, suddenly feels terrifying to him. Bucky hadn’t wanted to be tied to anyone. Now Steve has to explain that he… sort of is.

Soulmate bonds aren’t like mating bonds. Everyone knows that -- people without them, and most people don’t have them, can form a mating bond with anyone, and it doesn’t necessarily need to be mutual. But soulmates… soulmates can only bond with each other. A mating bond is something that has to be done. A soulmate bond is something that happens to you, and you can ignore it, sure. But it will always be there.

Bucky shifts carefully on the sofa when he feels Steve touch his shoulder, feels the light squeeze and he’s pretty sure Steve is urging him to turn around. He does, eyebrows still furrowed, trying to work out what the hell he’s talking about. Of course it’s a birthmark. He’s had it since he was born, it’s not like someone branded him with it at some point. What else could it be?

He sees that Steve is struggling with whatever it is he’s trying to say and he reaches out, lays a hand on his knee, a gesture meant to comfort and reassure. It doesn’t occur to him that he should ask first, this time, it just feels like the right thing to do.

“Brock can bite you as many times as he wants -- not that he’s ever going to get the chance again -- and it won’t take, Buck. That’s a soulmark.” Steve’s lips flicker up into a nervous smile.

Bucky almost laughs at Steve’s words. He’s surprised that Steve has fallen for the whole soulmark/soulmates myth. He just doesn’t seem like the kind of person to invest in that kind of thing. Then again, maybe he has more of a reason to than most. He is, after all, Captain America. Someone who has actual superpowers, which also aren’t technically supposed to be real.

But there’s something in that nervous little smile of Steve’s that makes Bucky’s heartbeat a little bit faster, because Steve definitely looks like he believes what he’s saying. “Steve...come on,” he says softly. “That’s - it’s not a real thing. Right?” No one he’s ever known has had a soulmark. “It’s just a legend. A myth?” But Bucky’s suddenly not feeling nearly as sure about that as he was just a few minutes ago.

“It’s not,” Steve says, maybe a little weakly, when Bucky says it has to be just a legend, a myth. Yeah, that’s what he’d always thought, too, until the day he’d met Peggy Carter. And now, he’s wondering how on Earth he could have missed the signs, himself, the day he’d met Bucky Barnes. It had felt so similar -- but most people didn’t have soulmarks, and the chances of matching with not one, but two is beyond astronomical. It’s inconceivable. And Steve, as he’s admitted before, has a really strange rubric for that kind of thing.

Which is why maybe he shouldn’t be surprised. “I -- have one. The same one. If you want to see.”

Bucky’s eyes are wide as he stares at Steve, trying to figure out if he’s just messing with him. But he’s not joking. Especially when Steve tells him that he has the same mark and offers to show it to him.

“Show me?” Bucky’s voice is barely a whisper.

Steve just nods, taking his turn shifting on the couch, turning his back to Bucky and hunching over before reaching up with one hand and pointing to the spot just along his hairline, behind his ear, where the mark is marginally easier to see than Bucky’s, but you still have to know what you’re looking for. He’s had his hair cut to hide it -- never had to worry about it in the forties, because the cuts naturally hid it, but now with the short sides and back, it’s a bit easier to see, peeking out from the blonde.

“See? It’s the same.” And here’s where Steve really needs to be completely honest, divulge his very last secret, which isn’t so much a secret as something he’d just deemed not really important, anymore: “There’s someone else with it, too, but there’s no way you’d ever meet her.” He doesn’t even know if Peggy and Bucky would be soulmates, too -- he guesses they would, with the same compatible mark, somehow.

Bucky’s mind reels as he stares at the mark behind Steve’s ear, holding his breath and reaching up to touch the mark on his own neck. He wonders if he’s asleep and dreaming all of this because it’s insane. It makes zero sense. Zero. And when Steve says there’s one more person on the planet with the same exact mark, something tugs at the back of his mind. He has to close his eyes to remember the name he’d learned so long ago.

“Peggy Carter,” he whispers, shock flooding him. Peggy Carter, with the SSR, who’d helped form the agency called SHIELD. There’d been rumors that she’d named it that because of Captain America’s prominent, most used weapon: his shield. “But --” But Peggy had been an alpha, too. All the history books said so.

He remembers Steve’s comment, that he wouldn’t care if he and Bucky were both alphas, regardless of how society felt about that. His mouth goes dry. “It’s her, right?”

Steve’s stomach turns a little cold when Bucky gets it right on the nose; “Yeah,” he says, voice a hoarse whisper, like saying it too loudly will let the information pass out of this room, get into the wrong hands, hurt Peggy. They had been so careful, but he’d lived life under a microscope (a bit figuratively and literally) after the serum, and there had been rumors even back then. It’s a big part of why they’d never bonded -- a mating bite would have told the world, and it wasn’t something they could do, or risk. Not when Peggy had worked so hard to get where she was. Steve wasn’t going to invalidate all of that after everything she’d done for him. He loved her far too much to do that. He respected her far too much.

As though sensing Steve’s worry, Bucky lays a hand on his shoulder, gentle but firm. “I don’t think the general public had any idea, if that helps,” he whispers, mind swirling with so many thoughts it’s hard to grab onto any single one. He knows Peggy Carter is still alive, even if she’s in her late nineties by now. Bucky forces himself to draw in a slow, deep breath, trying not to get stuck on the fact that if they all have the same mark, it means that Peggy is his soulmate, too. It’s too much to wrap his brain around right now, so he pushes it aside quickly, focusing on Steve.

“She’s -- she got married, after. She mated with someone else,” Steve goes on. Because of course she did, Steve had been dead, it’s not like he can blame her. He’s happy for her. She’s had an amazing life, has an amazing family, even if he’s never really met them.

A soft, sad noise escapes Bucky when Steve admits she’d moved on, married someone else. She’d believed he was dead. And no one really wants to be alone forever, do they? Still, his heart hurts for Steve and he rests his forehead against his shoulder blade for a moment, listening to the sound of his breathing.

The press of Bucky’s forehead against Steve’s shoulder feels good; it feels grounding, comforting, thawing the cold lump in the pit of his stomach, like maybe Bucky understands, just a little. Even if it’s a lot to wrap your head around.

“So I figured… she found a way to move on. I should, too, right?” Steve ends up laughing again, because, “I’m not actually sure this counts.” It’s all so ridiculous, if he thinks about it too hard. And it has already been a long, strange night. “Is it moving on if you’re my soulmate, too?”

“I don’t know,” Bucky admits. “I don’t know if it counts or what it means or...anything. I’ve never known anyone with a soulmark before. My mom and Becca -- they used to tease me that that’s what it was. That I’d be the equivalent of a fucking Disney prince or something.” He huffs out a laugh that’s strained at best. “I never thought any of it was real.”

This time, when Steve laughs, there is actual bemusement behind it. “They should’ve named you Charming, then,” he points out, reaching back and around to rest his hand on Bucky’s thigh, just to touch, to ground Bucky the same way Bucky is grounding him, hopefully offer a little comfort right back.

“I thought it was real,” he admits, because his ma had been plenty superstitious, before she’d died, and she’d of course spotted the mark the second he was born, and he’d grown up hearing stories from her, most of which probably were myth and legend. “But I thought… I didn’t think it was for me, anyway. I was gonna die before I hit thirty, probably. I told myself if I found my soulmate, I wouldn’t saddle them with that.”

Bucky relaxes beneath the weight of Steve’s hand on his leg, and he rests his own hand over it, keeping his forehead pressed against Steve’s back. “Because you were sick a lot growing up. Right?” His voice is hushed. History has never been his best subject, and he can’t say he’d ever had a particular interest in Captain America or his background before becoming Captain America, but sometimes certain details stick out in his mind.

“That’s part of why you wanted to undergo Project Rebirth?” he guesses, because it makes sense. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance of being healed, at being whole if they had that kind of opportunity staring them in the face?

“Yeah, I was sick a lot. I guess that was part of it,” Steve admits, but… “Honestly? I just thought, if I was gonna die young, I wanted to die for something. But I couldn’t enlist because I was an omega. I tried anyway, but it didn’t work, even when they were taking nearly anybody and weren’t looking too closely at your paperwork.” Maybe if he’d been a healthy omega, it might have worked. He can imagine that no few omegas slipped in that way, because they’d needed bodies, the longer the war went on.

But not Steve’s. “Part of me didn’t think the serum would work, but if it was gonna kill someone, I was a better guinea pig than someone who could’ve served, anyway. And if it worked… well, yeah. Being healthy is kinda great.”

“But then I actually met Peggy.” He laughs again. “She was amazing, and I knew it within five minutes. I felt the same with you.” That seems important to say. “I was probably stupid not to realize why.”

Bucky closes his eyes when Steve talks about how he’d basically volunteered to sacrifice himself and he exhales, moving his hand away from Steve’s and winding his right arm around his torso instead. He wants to slide his left arm around him, too, but his shoulder’s still aching too much to attempt it. “I’m glad you lived,” he murmurs. It doesn’t even adequately describe his feelings, that simple statement. “I’m sorry it didn’t go the way you wanted with everything...but, Steve. I’m so, so glad you’re alive.” He tightens his arm around him a fraction.

But he can’t ignore the way Steve’s voice goes a little softer each time he says Peggy’s name, reverent, and he chews his lower lip, because Peggy sounds amazing, and Bucky’s not sure how he’s possibly going to stack up against her. Though, Steve’s words that he’d felt the same when he’d met Bucky help some. “Probably weren’t expecting to find another soulmate,” he remarks. “That’s not something that happens much, even in fiction.”

“You lived, too,” Steve points out, softly, fingers, curling gently into the soft fabric of Bucky’s sweatpants. “You went through… God, I didn’t even know what you went through. But I’m glad you came out on the other end. I’m glad you were there that day, and I’m really, really glad my stupid phone got me lost.” They could have just as easily never met, and suddenly, that thought feels jagged, like having his whole world ripped away again. He hasn’t always been glad he survived. Acclimating to the future is weird and hard and lonely. Or, it had been. He hasn’t actually felt unhappy that he survived or lonely at all, since Bucky had singled him out on the street and laid one on him.

That’s the thing, though -- it’s not a comparison, there’s simply no way to compare. Steve feels the same way about Bucky that he did -- does -- for Peggy, and he can’t pretend that he hadn’t been worried about mentioning her at all, even before finding Bucky’s soulmark, because admitting to someone that you had, technically have, a soulmate, even one you’re not with, is just… well, is that even a thing that anyone else has ever had to do? Probably, but he can’t imagine the situation turned out well.

In the end, no, Peggy isn’t Bucky and vice versa, but Steve wouldn’t want them to be exactly the same. He loves Bucky for the things that make him Bucky, and he is maybe a little worried that it’s going to seem like a game of favorites, and he’s not sure how to explain that it’s not. Maybe… if he does take Bucky to meet Peggy. Maybe he’d see, but -- is that fair, either? Is it fair to introduce them, when Peggy’s over ninety (well, technically Steve is, too, but it’s different) and has her good days and her bad ones? Is it fair to introduce people who might be soulmates in that kind of a situation?

He suddenly can’t stand to have his back to Bucky anymore, for all that it still feels good to have Bucky touching him, pressed close behind him. He starts to shift, telegraphing his motions, reaching up to thread his fingers through Bucky’s right hand so they can stay linked as Steve scoots around to face Bucky on the couch, one leg tucked up underneath him and his other hand resting on Bucky’s leg, still a little hesitant to grab him around the shoulders, just in case it’s not a good feeling right now, mentally or physically. It felt good to Steve, but he doesn’t want Bucky to feel trapped after what happened with Brock.

“I never thought I’d find one soulmate, let alone two. But I didn’t know, before, and I still fell head over heels for you, Buck. Don’t think this means -- I don’t know. I think I’m explaining badly. I just knew you were someone I wanted to spend more time with, the instant we met.”

Bucky finds himself holding his breath as Steve turns around, their hands linked together. He’s quiet for a moment, lost in thought. “I think I get what you’re saying, though. It’s been the same for me.” He hesitates. “That first day. There were dozens of people around but when I saw you -- it’s like they all faded out of my line of sight. Like you were the only person around.” He’s never really been a romantic type, aside from his love for music and literature, maybe, and that probably should have been some kind of sign to him. “And I didn’t even think this soulmark stuff was real. It was just...like I was drawn to you.”

He draws in a slow breath. “And every time I’ve seen you since, it’s -- “ His eyebrows furrow as he tries to come up with the words to explain. “I feel more myself? I feel…” His teeth gnaw on his lower lip. “Like every time I see you is the best moment of my life.” His voice is barely audible, but he knows Steve can hear him.

“It’s like that for me, too,” Steve insists. “I don’t care if it’s a soulbond or just really good chemistry,” he laughs. “I want it, and I want it for you. If you wanna… go steady? Is that still a thing people do?” He has admittedly not had occasion to ask. And he is not asking Natasha. “Are we already doing that?”

Bucky can’t help but smile at the words go steady. “I don’t know if that’s what it’s called these days,” he tells him. “But… yeah. In my mind, that’s what we’re doing. It’s -- that we’re not married or bonded, but… dating?” He’s not sure, because dating doesn’t really come close to how he feels about this thing between them. “Exclusive, maybe?”

“I guess as long as we’re both on the same page, it doesn’t matter what it’s called,” Steve admits, feeling a little sheepish, but he doesn’t mind because Bucky’s smiling at him, and it’s honestly like the sun coming out from behind the clouds. “Exclusive, definitely. You’re the first person I’ve even wanted to date this century.” So there is definitely that.

Bucky glances down at the hand Steve has on his knee and he suddenly remembers the hug they’d shared in his kitchen a few days ago, and his skin aches for that. He looks up at Steve once more, shifting restlessly on the couch. “Steve, can we…?”

Steve frowns a little when Bucky starts squirming though, squeezing his hand a little and, “Yeah -- yeah, what do you want?” He desperately wants to put his arms around Bucky, but he also doesn’t want to do something he won’t like or feel comfortable with. It’s not that Bucky being an omega actually changes anything, because it doesn’t. But it does mean that Steve can guess, all the better, how he’s been treated since it happened, how he’s felt since it happened, and he only wants to make sure that what he wants is what Bucky wants, too, rather than forcing it on him. He’d felt like he was just getting comfortable with that, with learning which touches he could just take or give without asking, and then this whole mess had happened.

But he can learn all over again. Or pick up where they left off. He just wants to know where the line is, if it’s still in the same place, or if it needs to move.

Bucky returns the gentle squeeze on his hand and then shifts to move closer, almost in Steve’s lap as he tugs his right hand away and winds his arm around him again, burying his face against his shoulder and exhaling.

Steve goes essentially pliant for a moment, leaving his posture open so Bucky can show him what he wants. It ends up being pretty much perfect for Steve, whose body definitely goes lax as Bucky presses up against him. He gives it a moment, then easily slides his arms to lock loosely around Bucky’s waist, thumbs drifting absently over the soft fabric of his shirt at the small of his back. If Bucky wants to be this close, is comfortable being this close… God, Steve just wants to wrap around him like an octopus so nothing can ever touch him again, even if that’s stupid because he knows Bucky isn’t helpless. The whole thing with Brock had just pushed all the wrong buttons. It definitely doesn’t make Bucky weak; in Steve’s eyes, it just makes him stronger.

But he maybe still likes the way Bucky’s nose is pressed into his skin, and if he drops his head to rest his cheek against Bucky’s hair and breathe in the way it smells… he could probably be forgiven. It makes him feel much more grounded, at any rate. More like himself, like Bucky said.

Bucky almost sighs with relief when Steve’s arms come up and around him, because for a while today he’d been sure he’d never have this again. Not with Steve. And that thought is so unacceptable he almost whimpers, but he bites it back, sure that Steve can feel how much better he feels just being enfolded like this. He tightens his arm around Steve, as well, pressing a kiss against his shoulder absently.

He’s not used to the almost constant need for contact. It’s not something he remembers feeling before, when he’d been a beta. He’s read a lot on how omegas tend to crave touch, and specifically from their alpha once they’ve bonded. He’s read horror stories, in fact, on what can happen if that need isn’t met. He’s never been sure if any of that was real, either, or if it’s just an old wives’ tale.

“Can I ask you something? About...how it was for you, before Rebirth?” Bucky’s voice is hushed.

“Hm? Yeah,” Steve murmurs, voice quiet, too, to match Bucky’s. “Yeah, you can ask me anything. I think I just upped your clearance level as high as it can go,” he teases gently, but it’s true. He trusts Bucky. Anything about Steve’s past, even the classified stuff, he’ll tell him.

Bucky huffs a quiet laugh at the words, though, because Steve’s got a point. He also knows he’ll never utter a word that Steve’s told him to anyone else as long as he lives. He’ll keep Steve’s secrets safe for eternity.

“When you were an omega… did you crave touch?” he asks, keeping his head against Steve’s shoulder, rubbing his back absently.

That is… not actually the question Steve expected, oddly enough. He isn’t sure what he had expected, but maybe he shouldn’t be so surprised. He had offered Bucky perspective on the whole being an omega thing, after all.

But then again, Steve knows he wasn’t exactly a model omega, either. “I think I did, yeah,” he decides quietly, after a moment, eyes fluttering at the touches he’s getting now -- and sort of putting the question to what he hopes is practical use, hitching his arms up a little around Bucky’s middle so he can brush his thumbs over a broader expanse of his back. “I think I did, but I didn’t know it was what I wanted?” he adds, and the knows he has to explain: “I got into a lot of fights. A lot of fights. My ma, when she was still around, and then the sisters at the orphanage, all of them said I must like getting punched, I did it so much. I know it sounds stupid, but I think maybe they were right. I was on my own a lot, and no one wanted to touch me, and I thought I didn’t need them to, besides, if they were just going to be mean or pitying about it. But there was always something…” he shrugs a little, arms sliding up and down Bucky’s waist as he does, careful not to dislodge Bucky’s lips or his hands. “I always felt itchy. Like I needed something and I didn’t know what it was. Could just be some medical thing no one could ever put a finger on,” he has to allow. “But maybe that was it, too.”

Bucky frowns deeply at the thought of the only touch Steve getting as a young omega being through violence. It’s unsettling, at least, and upsetting, at best. And he can’t change the way it had been for him, obviously, because as far as he knows, time travel doesn’t exist. But it does make him hug him a little tighter. “Itchy’s -- that’s a pretty good description. Like there’s something beneath your skin and you can’t get rid of the feeling and you just...find yourself alphabetizing books ‘til eight at night.” There’s a hint of wryness to his voice, but even as he says it, he knows that factors into his anxiety. Well, that’s going to be a problem.

Steve chuckles softly when Bucky mentions alphabetizing books, remembering the night he’d shown up long after the shop was supposed to be closed (not that he’d known) and finding Bucky doing just that. It makes him tighten his own grip a little, like he really could convince Bucky to just crawl up against him and plaster them together so they’d never have to separate.

He hunches a little closer over Bucky and figures he might as well ask, instead of assuming: “You feel like you want to be touched a lot more, now?” Bucky had said he hadn’t wanted to be alone, that maybe he’d latched onto Brock because he was there and offered that. It makes Steve angrier still at Brock, but feel all the worse for Bucky.

Bucky smiles a little at Steve’s chuckle, knowing Steve knows exactly what he’s referring to. But, “Yes,” he admits quietly. “It’s... a weird feeling. I never used to feel like this,” he confesses. He thinks back on some of the insults Brock had slung his way, especially after sex, when he’d craved the prolonged skin to skin contact from cuddling. Fucking needy omega, he’d muttered more than once, clearly annoyed.

Shit. Maybe he’d actually been right about something.

Steve hadn’t had it so bad while his ma was alive -- she’d been as loving as a mother could be, before she’d died. And after… yeah. He’d been a lot more prickly and standoffish, and if some of that was because of a lack of touch, well, it made some bit of sense. Even if some of that had just been him.

And honestly, it can’t be just an omega thing, he thinks. Every time he’s around Bucky, he wants to attach them at the hip, put his hands or his mouth all over him, but not necessarily just because he’s hot and bothered. It’s more about being together. Staying together. Just touching to touch, not for a specific purpose.

“Does this help?” he asks, nudging his cheek a little harder into Bucky’s hair. “It feels good to me, too.” He’s certainly not put out. “I could learn to be an octopus. But I don’t know that I’ve got a better solution. It might level out. It’s… kinda like you hit puberty all at once, when it happened, right? That’s what Peggy told me I was like.”

Bucky hums his affirmation against Steve’s shoulder, nodding. “It helps a lot,” he admits. He wonders if Steve is an exception to what he’d come to assume was the rule with alphas: that they don’t particularly want or need touch that isn’t just sexual. Then again, maybe that’s just Brock.

“I didn’t mind touch before,” he says after a moment. “It just... wasn’t as big a deal I guess?” Mostly he hadn’t thought about it. He and Becca would hug a lot growing up together, and his mom had always been affectionate, even if not overly so. Then later, with others, it wasn’t unusual to give or get a hand on the arm occasionally. “I don’t know, I guess until I was suddenly an omega, I never thought needing it was a real thing, either.”

“It’s harder to understand something when you’ve never felt it yourself,” Steve concedes. “Maybe that’s half the problem with things. It takes extra effort to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.” But that extra effort is well worth it, and he’s always believed that. Shitty laws born out of laziness are still shitty laws. “And the other half is probably the fact that people think different means lesser, not just, you know, different.”

Just because omegas need different things doesn’t make them weak. It’s not wrong to want something, like to be touched. It’s wrong to think someone is worth less than you because they want it.

It sort of brings him back to that mission, to what Natasha told him, to the idea that people could be changed, on a large scale. He can see the appeal. He can. But it’s still wrong. What happened to Bucky was wrong, and he has every right to be angry and unhappy about it. Part of him wonders if there isn’t a way to change him back, in all of this -- to fix it, if he wants that option. But that kind of classified information isn’t Steve’s to share. He has to keep it to himself for now.

“Yeah, I guess it is,” Bucky agrees quietly. He’d never been the type to see omegas as lesser even before he’d been one. He’d like to think he’d done a good job at treating everyone pretty equally, even if the world overall had signaled that it was okay to treat people differently based upon their designation. Even when his dad had made disparaging remarks about omegas -- male omegas, specifically -- and their lack of use in society, long before Bucky had ever been changed. Needless to say, his dad had been dismayed to learn his only son had become one of those useless omegas.

But it’s still different from experiencing something firsthand. “People don’t wanna talk about it. Don’t wanna see that there’s more than one way of thinking and treating people.” He sighs quietly, content to just keep his arm wrapped around Steve and be held in return.

“So. What’s being a beta like?” Steve ends up asking, even though he knows it’s probably a weird question. He kind of went from one extreme to the other; betas are supposed to be more balanced, to provide balance. He wonders if it was just… calm, being like that. Or if it had its own set of problems.

“It’s kinda like... there’s almost an expectation that we’re the go-to people to discuss personal problems with. Or to fix their problems. Or to play peacemaker,” Bucky muses.

“I guess that makes sense,” Steve hums -- if they’re supposed to be neutral, then of course people would turn to betas for advice, as a sounding board. Which probably got old pretty fast.

Bucky goes on. “People tend to forget betas have their own lives and troubles just the same as alphas and omegas. It’s not really any better or worse than being an omega, just... the way people treat you is different. I know you know that, though.” Steve’s already said as much.

Steve nods, knowing Bucky will feel the motion even if he can’t see it. “I know there are stereotypes for a reason, and different kinds of people have different strengths, but that shouldn’t be the end-all of it.”

“Is it a lot different now as an alpha? In how you feel?” Bucky asks.

“I feel mostly the same, except I think I want touch… differently? Like -- if omegas want to be held, then alphas want to do the holding. It’s different, but not different. And I still like it when you hold me.” Bucky’s arms around him make him feel good, feel wanted, feel safe and secure and grounded, like he knows where to come back to.

“I don’t know if all alphas feel like that, but it is different from how I felt before. I think I was always happy to yell at someone being a jerk, though.”

“I can kinda picture it. You yelling at assholes growing up. Fighting the injustices however you could.” With words or fists. It makes Bucky smile just a little.

“It is different, though,” Steve goes on, trying to answer the question as fully as he can. “But sometimes it’s hard to put my finger on how.” Steve lets out a soft little snort. “I’ve been on suppressants the whole time, though. Pretty much since day one, but they have to keep tweaking the dose. I haven’t had a real rut, but I never really had a full, real heat before, either.” He was too sick, his hormones too out of whack.

Bucky pauses at the mention of suppressants, chewing his lower lip momentarily, then pulls back just enough that he can look at him, eyes dark, serious. “I’ve been taking them, too,” he admits, voice barely a whisper. “I’ve never had a heat. Or a rut, obviously. Since betas don’t have either.” He searches Steve’s eyes. “If it happens -- if they don’t work at some point for you…” He tilts his head to the side a little. “I’ll help you handle it. If you want.”

It’s not an offer he makes lightly. Brock hadn’t asked, he’d just expected it, and Bucky had felt obligated. Gone along with it. He’d craved the closeness so badly, he’d taken it anyway he could get it. But with Steve, it’s entirely different. He already knows if Steve ever turns up on his door in rut, he’ll take care of him, no questions asked. He wants to.

“Buck,” Steve breathes, searching Bucky’s face. “That’s a… a big offer.” He doesn’t want to belittle it, and he’s pretty sure Bucky must know what he’s asking, but he actually isn’t sure that he does. “I say I never had one, but… I kinda did. Once. It was on the front lines, and it was really inconvenient.” He’s kind of turning red just thinking about it. “Peggy tried to help, but everybody knows alphas can’t really calm a rut in another alpha.”

Of course, she’d also told him, after sitting with him in a tiny bombed-out cottage while he paced and rocked and sweated his way through every layer of clothing he had on in the below-freezing weather and tried to get her to leave so he could have some privacy to take care of himself when he got too wound up, that he wasn’t even in full rut. If that wasn’t full rut, then God, he didn’t want to know what it would be like. “It only lasted about a day. It never really hit all the way.” Somehow, someone had scrounged together suppressants from enough dead or captured soldiers that downing more doses than was probably safe had cut the thing short before it ever really got started.

Still; “If it happens… I’ll tell you, and we can decide together if it’s something I need help with, or that I should ride out on my own.” He doesn’t want to risk hurting Bucky, doesn’t want to risk turning into someone like Brock. He doesn’t think he would, but he doesn’t know for sure that he wouldn’t.

Bucky listens, watching Steve’s expression as he talks about his one experience having a rut. He’s sure it must have been a miserable experience, especially if Peggy hadn’t really been able to help him through it. He lifts his right hand, curling it around the back of Steve’s neck, and nods slowly. He doesn’t for one second really think that even in a rut that Steve would hurt him, or even act like Brock Rumlow.

“But I -- you have no idea how much I appreciate the offer,” Steve adds. “And you know I’ll help with a heat. If you get one. If you want help.”

But the thing is, “Aren’t suppressants still illegal for omegas?” He certainly doesn’t sound like he cares that Bucky is taking them if they are. Except that illegal also means unregulated, and that’s more what he’s concerned with.

Bucky’s not at all surprised when Steve returns the offer if Bucky ever has a heat. Which, with any luck, he won’t. He does drop his gaze at the question, though. “Yeah. They are,” he admits with a shrug of his shoulders. There are some less than pleasant side effects, and some days are worse than others with said side effects. But he’s been all too aware that if he’d gone into heat, Brock would probably have just laughed at him. And there hadn’t been anyone else that could have helped.

“But...it saves a lot of trouble.” He presses his lips together and lifts his gaze to meet Steve’s once more. “I don’t even know what I’d do with the store if it happened. I have a part time employee, but she’s pretty much evenings and Saturdays only. Can’t afford to pay anyone else. And if anyone realized that’s why I wasn’t running things…” He exhales.

“Right,” Steve agrees, on an exhale. “It’s not -- you don’t have to explain yourself to me.” He is definitely of the opinion that if alphas can use suppressants, then so should omegas. But, of course, that’s not how the law sees it -- if you’re not allowed to own a business or be a major breadwinner, then what’s the harm, really, of needing to take a few days off here or there? It’s ridiculous. “I’d offer to help, but I kinda have another job that I can’t really say no to,” he says, a little wryly.

“I know.” Bucky draws in a breath. He offers him a smile, small and soft. “Well, your job is apparently helping save the world kind, so...I suppose I’ll let you off the hook this time.” He squeezes Steve’s neck gently with his hand.

Besides, Steve thinks -- Bucky shouldn’t have to ask for help. And more than that, growing up a beta, he can’t blame Bucky for not wanting a heat, period. You shouldn’t have to justify not wanting to get heats or ruts. You should just be able to choose. “They work okay, then? The suppressants. I never tried them when I was an omega, but plenty of people did.” And they were certainly illegal then, too. “Sometimes that didn’t work out so well.”

“Sometimes the side effects suck,” Bucky tells him honestly. “But it’s not all the time. And so far they’ve done their job.” But he knows what Steve’s talking about. He’s done plenty of reading. He knows that being on them long term can do permanent damage. Can do even worse. He’s also read about just how bad a heat can be, without being bonded.

Steve huffs a little laugh, but mostly he’s more interested in leaning back into Bucky’s touch. It feels good, honestly, the same way Bucky’s smile makes him feel good, but it’s hard to bask in it too long when Bucky admits that yeah, sometimes the suppressants have side effects. That’s not comforting to hear, even if he won’t question Bucky’s choice to take them.

“I can see if I can get ahold of some stuff, if you think it might be better than what you’re taking,” he offers quietly. He isn’t sure how, but he can think of a few ways. Natasha, for one. Or he could just… probably go and buy some in a drugstore. He’s an alpha, after all. If he needs a prescription, he could probably manage that, too.

“I love your laugh,” Bucky tells him, voice soft, eyes brighter for a moment. He gazes at him intently, considering the offer Steve’s making. He knows Steve probably has better, easier access to quality suppressants than he does. The supplier he’s been utilizing via the internet is up in Canada, and there’s always a possibility that it’ll end up being seized in the postal service. And then he’ll end up getting arrested, probably. Plus, it’s not like he knows the supplier personally. Has no idea how the medication is processed.

“I’ll think about it,” Bucky tells him. “It might be safer.”

Steve nods. “But otherwise, just… be careful. I don’t blame you for not wanting a heat, but make sure the cure isn’t worse than the disease.” He leans in closer, rests his forehead against Bucky’s for a moment, even if it makes him go cross-eyed. “And in the meantime… I can touch you whenever you want?”

It’s a little silly, and a little hopeful. But also a lot sincere.

Bucky draws in a breath when Steve rests their foreheads together. He lets his eyes close. “I want you to touch me. Whenever you want,” he admits. “Whenever you’ve got the urge. And… if you want me to touch you, I can do that, too. I like touching you, Steve.” He strokes his fingers down the back of his neck, light and soft, keeping his forehead leaned against Steve’s.

“Okay,” Steve agrees -- about the suppressants, and definitely about the touching. Definitely the touching, because, “Yeah, I’m pretty much all fair game. For the touching. That feels good.” He slides a hand carefully up Bucky’s back, fingertips brushing the skin just above his collar when they get there, not quite the same motion, but the same idea. “If you don’t like something, though, you can tell me. I’m not Brock -- I only like it if you like it. Would’ve been true if you were an alpha or a beta, too.” It’s not just about being protective or being in charge. It’s about making sure they’re both on the same page and enjoying the same thing at the same time.

Bucky shivers a little at the feel of Steve’s hand against his skin, and he smiles, expression softening at his words. “I know you’re not. You’re nothing like Brock, Steve.” He slides his hand around to cup his cheek. “And I get what you’re saying. If it’s not something we’re both enjoying, we don’t do it.”

“Well, for the record, this is good,” Steve murmurs. Still, he blows out a breath, tilting his head to let his lips carefully brush the corner of Bucky’s mouth. “So, tonight was a… night. Can we try not to have any more of those? And I promise if you ever do want to go to a Stark, well, anything, I can probably get us in.”

He knows it’s not why Bucky bailed on him. That’s why he can joke about it, and he hopes Bucky knows that, too.

Bucky searches his eyes for a moment, then leans in and brushes a kiss against Steve’s mouth in return. “Agreed. And I’d definitely rather go with you.” One corner of his mouth turns up in a grin. “So yeah… does this mean at some point I’m going to get to meet your other Avenger friends?” He arches his eyebrows.

Steve trades Bucky another soft kiss while he considers that question. “I mean… I don’t see most of them that much, but sure. If you want.” He pulls back and cocks an eyebrow, playful. “Widow already knows about you. A little.” If you count her knowing that Steve was distracted by a person, and definitely being able to put two and two together. “Mostly because -- well, you know how that mission I was on when I had to cancel our first dinner went.”

Bucky brushes his nose against Steve’s and presses another kiss against his lips before pausing. “Oh.” He considers that, what it might mean. “So she knows that… we were going to have a date and we had to reschedule because of the mission. And… my name?” he guesses, curious.

“Aw, come on, give me a little credit. She knows I had you on my mind, and if she knew your name, you’d know it, probably,” Steve laughs, but the truth is, he plays things pretty close to the vest, and not just with Rumlow and the STRIKE team. With pretty much everyone -- except Bucky, who’s managed to get more out of him (even in the form of confessions) than anyone in a long time.

Bucky grins, a chuckle escaping him. “Meaning she’d show up here and check me out herself?” She sounds a little like Becca, actually. But he’s already trying not to laugh when he imagines Becca’s expression during a video chat with Captain America. Assuming she pays more attention to the news than he does and recognizes him. He’s pretty sure she does and she will.

“Yeah, pretty much,” Steve agrees. “She’d probably pretend she was interested in books and then end up asking all kinds of inappropriate questions. She’s been trying to set me up on dates for months.” But, if he’s being honest, Natasha had seemed pleased that he’d managed to find one on his own.

And, definitely being honest now, Steve’s pretty pleased he did, too -- or, really, that one found him.

“But I could tell her your name, if you wanted me to.” Something in him doesn’t want to keep this a secret -- not from Nat, and not from Strike. Maybe it is just that alpha part of him, wanting to stake a claim, and doesn’t that make him feel kind of like a barbarian.

Bucky chuckles at the idea of one of the Avengers coming in to pretend to look at books, only to actually interrogate him because he’s dating Steve. Then again, that’s kind of an intimidating thought. “Maybe we should hold off a few days before telling her my name,” he suggests wryly. He’s not sure he can handle anymore displays of intimidation right now.

“I can wait,” Steve promises. And then, maybe a little less sure, he asks, “Can I meet your friends? Or maybe just your part-timer? That’s probably a good idea, if I’m going to be by on the regular for a while.” As in, a long time, he hopes.

Bucky’s own expression dims, but only a little. “You can definitely meet Wanda. And you’ve already met Alpine.” He’s quiet for a second. “If you want, we can do a video chat with my sister. But that’s… about it for people in my life.”

Steve doesn’t miss the flicker of expression on Bucky’s face. “Hey. Quality, not quantity. That sounds nice. I’d like to meet your sister. I can’t even imagine having siblings, but I think my ma would’ve had a heart attack if she’d had to deal with more than one of me.” His fingers slip through the hair at the back of Bucky’s neck, aiming for somewhere between playful and soothing. “Does your sister know? What happened to you?”

“Yeah. I think you’ll like her. She’s a good kid,” Bucky admits. “Smart. Really smart, actually. She’s studying pre-law.” There’s a hint of pride in his voice. “Kinda wish I coulda known you growing up. Sounds like you raised some hell, Stevie.”

He leans back a little, enjoying the feel of Steve’s fingers in his hair. “She knows, yeah. She doesn’t care. I mean, she was pissed, but not at me. I had to practically force her to get back on a plane to California. She wanted to stay here.”

Steve huffs out a laugh at Stevie. “My ma used to call me that.” He scritches his fingers at the base of Bucky’s skull, seemingly hemming and hawing over whether he likes it. But -- he does. Certainly no one else has called him that, and he doesn’t think anyone else is likely to start. It feels good, the same way Bucky’s touches and his kisses and his smiles do. It feels like coming home, in a weird way, and he hasn’t felt like that in a long time. Not since he met Bucky.

Bucky makes a quiet noise, enjoying the scritching more than he probably should. “Is that okay? The nickname?” He watches Steve carefully, trying to read his expression. “If it’s not, it’s okay. I won’t use it again if you don’t want me to.” He doesn’t want to bring up any grief for Steve if it makes him sad to think about his mom calling him Stevie. He hadn’t even really meant to say it. It had just slipped out before he could stop it.

Steve keeps doing what he’s doing with his fingers against Bucky’s scalp, because the sound he’s making is just so nice. And at the question, he grins a little wider, nodding and resting his palm against Bucky’s neck, leaning in to bump their noses together. “Yeah. Yeah, it’s fine. I don’t mind it. I just haven’t heard it in a while.” But he doesn’t think he’d mind hearing it more, in this century. Not from Bucky.

And as for his sister -- “She sounds like a good sister. Not that I’m an expert.” But she does -- smart, caring, and stubborn. So, basically like Bucky, as far as Steve can tell. He’s pretty sure if that’s the case, he’ll like her.

Bucky relaxes at the easy way Steve says he doesn’t mind being called Stevie, pliant in Steve’s arms as their noses bump together, making a soft chuckle escape him. “She is. She’s the best. Was a rotten brat when we were younger, but. I guess I’ll keep her,” Bucky jokes.

“Maybe we can video chat, then, in a couple of days. When things calm down,” Steve suggests. Because he knows this isn’t over, and he can imagine Bucky’s going to need a little time to process it. And then there’s the physical: “Your shoulder feeling okay?”

“She’ll be happy to meet you.” And glad that Brock is out of the picture. He hasn’t exactly kept her in the loop on most of that mess, but she’d meet him at the hospital a couple times. And hated his guts. He didn’t even have to ask. He could see it in Becca’s eyes, the way she’d glare at Brock the entire time they were in the same room together. But Becca’s an alpha. Maybe she’d picked up on something he’d missed at the time.

“It’s a little sore, but a lot better than earlier,” Bucky assures Steve. “Do you -- would you wanna stay tonight?” He tries to keep his voice from sounding too hopeful just in case Steve wants to head back to his own place. He won’t use guilt to try and get him to stay if he doesn’t want to.

It is nice to hear that Bucky’s sister will want to meet him; it’s not that Steve figures what they have is anyone’s business but their own, but that doesn’t mean that keeping it a secret would actually be good for either of them. Bucky already has enough he feels he needs to hide, and Steve knows he’s going to have to keep a low profile if he doesn’t want this getting out to more than just Natasha (and STRIKE… that’s still going to be an issue), but it should be something that Bucky can share with the people he’s close to, however many of them there are.

He nods, relieved, when Bucky says his shoulder is feeling better; and he doesn’t need more than a second to agree: “Yeah. I’d like that. If you want me to stay.” He’d been maybe trying to think of a way to ask if he could stay without sounding like he was being pushy, but the truth is, he doesn’t want to leave Bucky alone tonight. Not after what happened, and not after… everything else. Falling asleep next to Bucky, the way he’s been doing for days now, sounds like the perfect balm to everything that’s happened. Hopefully for them both.

“And… I could bring a couple of things over. To leave here. For the future?” Steve asks, wishing he didn’t sound as tentative as he does, but this is Bucky’s home. His personal space. Steve doesn’t want to infringe on it. But he thinks -- hopes -- that maybe it won’t be a worry. “Just in case.”

There’s palpable relief on Bucky’s face when Steve says he’d like to stay. He hadn’t really thought he’d say no, but sometimes people have their own places to go back to.

“You can bring over anything you want,” he tells Steve quietly. “Plenty of space in the wardrobe.” He does cast a glance over at the Captain America uniform draped over the chair, doing his best not to smirk. “And maybe sometime you can put that back on. Not sure I was in the right frame of mind earlier to really take advantage of checking out all of its… assets.”

Bucky raises his eyebrows.

Steve makes a strangled sound that’s just a little too indignant to be a laugh, but it’s not far from one. “Oh really. I guess maybe I will.” He’s not really a fan of the new suit, not the way he likes the navy and silver tac suit better. But maybe for Bucky’s benefit, a little embarrassment would be worth the price. He owes Bucky, maybe a little, for accepting his reasons that he hadn’t said anything more easily than Steve had anticipated.

Bucky laughs, loudly, at the noise Steve makes. “Yeah?” He grins, something between deeply pleased and amused. He leans in and presses a kiss to Steve’s jaw, light and sweet. The idea of Steve bringing some of his things over just in case is more appealing to him than he would have thought. He loves the idea of waking up with Steve in the morning, of fixing breakfast together, drinking coffee.

And as for Bucky saying Steve could bring over whatever he wants… Well, Steve might bring over quite a few things -- well, relatively speaking. He honestly doesn’t own much at all, but that makes it easier not to really care about going back to his own apartment, if anything.

Steve’s never been very good with living alone, and he hasn’t actually had to do it for most of his life, despite the fact that he’s been alone in the world for a long time now. Between the orphanage and the Army, most of his adult life has been spent living on top of other people. And the idea of sharing a space again, even if it’s only sometimes, is incredibly appealing. Especially with Bucky.

“Of course, if we get cat hair all over it, people are gonna start to ask questions,” he teases right back.

“Well, Alpine won’t tell anyone. Will you, girl?” Bucky looks over at where she’s perched on the coffee table, watching them. He glances back at Steve. “See? Your secret’s safe with the Barnes’ household.” He smiles innocently.

“Oh, well then,” Steve murmurs, finally letting his hand slide down, squeezing Bucky’s waist gently. “I don’t think even the Black Widow could get a secret out of her. I feel much better.”

He leans in, unable to keep himself from pressing his lips to that adorable, innocent smile. And he doesn’t pull back very far to say, “How about we head to bed? Otherwise we’ll probably be up all night on the couch, and I don’t think that’d be very good after a day like today.”

Tomorrow still seems far off enough not to present a problem, and for now, he wants to bundle them up someplace warm and close and dark. “Alpine can come.”

Bucky leans his forehead against Steve’s after the soft kiss, and he nods. “Yeah. We probably both need sleep.”

“Speak for yourself, I’m a super soldier,” Steve teases -- he can tease about that now, God -- but in reality, getting some sleep and making sure Bucky gets some, too, sounds like the best idea in the world.

Bucky presses another gentle kiss to the corner of Steve’s mouth before reluctantly moving away, getting ready to stand up. “Come on, Stevie. You want a water bottle up there if you wake up thirsty?” He usually takes one up for that reason, or in case he needs to take pain meds in the middle of the night.

He stands up, holding out his right hand to help Steve up, as well. Not that he really needs the help, but it’s polite.

Steve grins as Bucky beats him to standing up, taking the offered hand because it was offered -- and using it to pull Bucky in for one more kiss. “Yeah, but only if you let me get it, so you don’t have to,” he says quietly. “Let me toss that ice pack in the sink, too.”

He reluctantly pulls away, letting his fingers slip slowly out of Bucky’s as he heads for the kitchen. It already feels like he’s walking too far away, and he wants to be snugged back up, close again. Maybe he’ll go into work late tomorrow. He never does that -- so he’s overdue.

Bucky stands still for a moment, watching as Steve heads to the kitchen. There are words on the tip of his tongue, ones that he thinks it’s too soon to say, but they’re there anyway. He draws in a breath, chest feeling warm and full as he leans down to pick Alpine up off the coffee table. She snuggles into his neck immediately.

He’s not ready to say them out loud yet. But he’s pretty sure it won’t be too much longer. He kisses the top of the cat’s head and makes his way up the short staircase to the loft where his bed is, and waits for Steve -- his soulmate -- to join him.

It’s been one hell of a day.

Chapter Text

Steve’s a light sleeper, and he usually wakes up at the same time every day -- usually before dawn. Today’s no exception, but when he wakes up and sees that it’s still dark outside, he simply snuggles closer to Bucky and goes back to sleep. Given what had happened last night, he figures they both deserve more time under the covers pressed together in the dark.

Which, admittedly, works fine for another hour or so. But that’s when his phone vibrates silently next to his head and, given the very small list of people who have his number, he knows he’s got to check it. He reaches awkwardly around behind himself to get the little device, trying not to wake Bucky -- or pull away at all -- while he checks the screen.

It’s from Natasha. And it says, Have more info on HYDRA’s little project. One surviving test subject. You’ll never guess where he lives.

Well. Now he’s definitely awake, and his stomach is back to that cold rock feeling, even as he taps out a, One minute so he can very reluctantly start disentangling himself from Bucky, taking care not to jostle his bad shoulder.

Okay, Natasha sends back almost immediately. She sits at the little kitchen table in her own apartment, laptop in front of her and cell phone beside her as she waits for him to call. It had been a long night, most of which she’d spent up poring over the files that had finally been decoded -- files she got her hands on without even Fury knowing. There’s more information there than she’d anticipated, even if she’s had to do extra research to complete more of the puzzle on her own.

It’s okay. She’s good at it. It’s why she’s one of the best at what she does. She’d been trained very well and she knows how to use that to her advantage, and to the advantage of those she trusts and feels a sense of loyalty to. Steve floats right near the top of that short list these days.

When her phone starts to ring, she picks it up immediately, pressing it to her ear. “Good morning,” she greets.

“It’s a morning,” Steve agrees, from just outside the shop; he’d considered calling her right from the living room, but he still hadn’t wanted to wake Bucky, and especially not until he’s got more details on this. “What did you find?” He’s not necessarily one for beating around the bush, but neither is Natasha, really. Not unless she’s playing with you, and he doesn’t think this is exactly a case that warrants it. They both know how serious this is -- and Steve, especially, knows exactly the human impact of that “little project” by now. At least, he thinks he does. He hadn’t asked Bucky if it had been HYDRA specifically that had had his team, and maybe Bucky doesn’t even know. But things are starting to fall into place, and while the picture is starting to make sense, Steve can’t say he likes it.

“They had one test subject so far with this project who survived. And not only did he survive, it worked. All the others died. There was a name in the file: James Buchanan Barnes. It didn’t say much aside from that, so I did some outside research. He’s former Army. Was apparently a beta and they managed to change his designation to omega. It doesn’t say how, but I don’t think it was all they were trying to do. There’s a reference to Project Rebirth, as well.” Natasha finally pauses, picking up her cup of coffee to take a sip.

“Anyway, he actually lives here in Brooklyn after spending months at different VA hospitals on the east coast. And he owns a bookstore. It’s called Book Barnes.”

Steve’s stomach feels like it’s dropping farther the more Natasha says. It’s not necessarily because she has this information, because he trusts her. But it’s that other people have this information, and he knows exactly what Bucky is worried about, exactly the lengths he’s gone to hide what happened to him. To try to heal from it and move on. It feels like this could blow it wide open, and that’s not even to mention the fact that whatever HYDRA’s doing, it’s killing most people and damaging the lives -- life -- of the survivors.

And the fact that they’re trying to do something related to Rebirth… well, that certainly doesn’t sit well with him.

“Yeah,” he finally says, after maybe a beat too long, sounding maybe just a little too breathless for his liking. “Nat, I’m -- right outside Book Barnes, right now. I didn’t want to wake him up when I called.”

He lets everything he didn’t say speak for itself, because she is more than smart enough to work out the details: that James Buchanan Barnes is the guy who was on his mind, and that things are -- despite everything last night, which he’ll have to tell her about -- going well.

Natasha is silent for a moment, absorbing that. “Okay. I’m going to take a shower and I’ll be there soon. Be careful what you say around him for now,” she warns, voice hushed. She trusts Steve, but people sometimes saw what they wanted when it comes to romantic interests. And she wants to make sure that this Barnes guy doesn’t have covert intentions of his own.

“I don’t think there’s much I know that he doesn’t,” Steve admits, given what they’d talked about last night. “But I didn’t mention HYDRA. I wasn’t sure if it was the same operation.” All the same, “Take your time. Text me when you’re close, I’ll walk you in. There are a couple of possible complications I should tell you about.” Like Rumlow. And -- mostly Rumlow. “In person, though. I’m not going behind his back.”

Natasha’s silence doesn’t sound happy about any of that (because she can definitely convey that kind of thing with silence) on the other end of the line, but once they’ve confirmed the address, Steve hangs up and stares at the side of the building for a moment, knowing this isn’t going to be the easy morning for Bucky that he was hoping would follow a hard night. I guess that’s what he gets, for being soulmates with me, he thinks -- at first a little wryly, but then he can’t stop the spreading warmth in his stomach, because they’re soulmates. Holy God, that’s still a lot to process.

But neither he nor Bucky can process anything with him out here. So he heads back inside through the bookstore, locking both doors behind him and getting the coffeepot started before he heads toward the little loft with Bucky’s bed to see if he’s awake yet. “Buck?”

Bucky groans a little at the sound of his name, and he tugs the blankets up and over his head. “Too early,” he mumbles, keeping his eyes shut. And frankly, too cold. He shivers beneath the covers involuntarily, frowning in his state of half-wakefulness, wondering why he’s no longer warm, and he realizes it’s because Steve had gotten up. “Come back.”

“Would that I could,” Steve murmurs, with definite regret even as he does actually crawl back into the bed for a moment, if only to lean in over Bucky and pull the covers down over his head gently. He knows Bucky’s not going to like what comes next; he tries to gentle it by leaning down to touch his lips to Bucky’s, but then he’s got to say it: “Buck, you’ve gotta get up. Natasha’s on her way over in a little bit. Something’s… come up. I guess you’re going to meet her sooner rather than later.”

There’s a definite pout on Bucky’s face when Steve tugs the covers away from him, but he sighs softly into the kiss, letting his eyes flutter open. He manages a sleepy smile before it begins to register what he’s said. It takes a full twenty seconds to even place the name Natasha, but then something in his chest tightens. Black Widow. Of the Avengers. On her way to his place.

And there’s something in Steve’s voice that’s definitely off -- there’s a hint of resignation mixed with concern, as well. Not good signs. Which means this isn’t just one of Steve’s friends visiting because she wants to meet Steve’s boyfriend.

And that means that she’s coming over here because of Avenger stuff, and if Bucky is being included… it’s either got to do with Brock, or it has to do with why he’s no longer in the Army. That does it. He sits up slowly, trying his best not to freak out even as Alpine meows in annoyance as he carefully moves her off legs where she’d been curled up. He mumbles a quiet apology to her, stroking behind her ears. “I’m gonna need --”

Before he can even finish his sentence, he can smell the rich aroma of coffee brewing and he groans a little. “Coffee. Which you’re already making. You’re definitely the best boyfriend ever.”

Even with everything going on, that one word -- boyfriend -- makes Steve’s heart trip a little, in the very best way. It makes his breath catch and his cheeks flush, and it also makes him lean in for another kiss before he shuffles back a little so Bucky can start getting out of bed.

But that’s when reality comes crashing back in. “I didn’t tell her your name,” he says, because Bucky had said not to do that yet, and he wants Bucky to know he hadn’t lied. “But she knew. Based on what happened to you in the Army. That’s what she’s coming to talk to us about -- but she’s not coming to threaten you or put you or your bookstore in danger. If she tries, she’s going through me.”

Steve trusts Natasha, and he’s sure that she’ll understand. But if she does think there’s some course of action she needs to take that Steve doesn’t approve of, they’re going to have a problem, and he’s not going to back down.

Bucky tenses, but it’s an involuntary reaction. “This is about what they did to me, isn’t it?” he asks, forcing himself to stand up. His heart is beating more quickly now and he draws in a shaky breath. He’s going to need so much coffee to get through this. He glances at the clock. It’s only a little after 7. At least he doesn’t have to get the store open until 10, and since it’s a Saturday, Wanda would be in today to help out.

Small blessings. He’s made an effort to start counting them every chance he gets.

“I don’t know how much help I can be if you guys are looking for more information,” he tells Steve seriously. “I was debriefed by about eight different intelligence agencies aside from the Army after I was rescued. They already know everything I do.”

Bucky’s sharp -- he figures it out quickly, and Steve just nods. He’s not surprised. “But they don’t know everything she knows,” he says quietly. “Either way, she was going to look into it, so it’s better that she does it while I’m here.” Natasha can be tactful… but she can also not be. And Bucky deserves a little tact, given what he’s been through.

Besides, “You might know something you don’t know you know,” he says, smiling a little at how strange that sounds at the same time he offers his hand to tug Bucky gently down the stairs and toward the kitchen. “Hearing it might tip her off. But I’m sorry this had to happen this morning,” he adds, because he is. Maybe he isn’t a big proponent of putting things off, but sometimes a guy just needs a break.

“But if the people who did this to you are someone we can take down -- Buck, we could do it soon. We could make sure it won’t happen again.”

Bucky lets Steve guide him down the stairs and into the kitchen, where he reaches up and grabs down three mugs, even though he leaves one unfilled for now. He pours coffee into the other two, considering his words and chewing his lower lip.

“I’ll help however I can,” he says quietly. It’s not like he doesn’t want the bad guys to pay for what they’ve done. He just doesn’t relish the thought of going over the same line of questioning he’s faced over and over since his release from captivity a few months ago. He turns and hands Steve one of the mugs before dumping a bunch of sugar into his own and stirring it before taking a drink.

Steve can tell Bucky isn’t looking forward to this; he can’t blame him, but he can do his best to be there for him and make this as painless as possible. He nods, reaching for his own mug with one hand and lifting his other to rest at the back of Bucky’s neck for a moment. It had felt good, comforting, when Bucky had touched him there last night, and Bucky had seemed to like being touched there, too. If Steve has a free pass to touch Bucky wherever, whenever, then he’s going to do his best to offer what comfort he can.

“And we’ll do whatever we can,” he echoes. “If there’s a chance someone could find out about you, or the store… that’s what Natasha excels at. She can make sure no one will take it away from you.” He hopes.

Bucky closes his eyes when Steve touches his neck, letting the warmth of Steve’s hand seep into his skin, and it does help, even if he’s still nervous. Maybe even bordering on dread. He nods slightly at the reassurance. He doesn’t know Natasha from a stranger on the street, but Steve trusts her. And he trusts Steve. So he’ll do his best not to stress too much over all the ways this could possibly implode and demolish his life.

Steve takes a few slow sips of his coffee, then finally pulls his hand away from Bucky to rake fingers through his hair and glance at the fridge. “I can get started on some breakfast, if you want. She’ll text me when she’s close. I’ll bring her in through the bookstore.”

“You cook, too?” That catches Bucky’s attention and he turns to look at Steve with widened eyes.

And that look makes Steve laugh despite himself. “I -- uh, I guess I’ve only ever cooked for myself, so I don’t know if I cook well, but… I eat a lot. A lot. So, learning to cook was kind of useful. Did you know there are entire television channels where that’s all they do? Cooking shows, 24 hours a day. It’s ridiculous.”

Bucky smiles, too, mostly because he’d meant what he said the previous night: he loves the sound of Steve’s laughter. He intends to do what he can to make sure he does a lot of it, as long as he’s allowed to be in Steve’s life. “Right, super metabolism,” he says, nodding as it clicks easily. “Gotta eat to stay fueled.”

“Yeah,” Steve says, maybe a touch sheepish -- he hadn’t been like this growing up, naturally, without much of an appetite and certainly without access to much food. These days, he does his best to get fresh food regularly, and make what he can to save. Maybe he doesn’t need to pinch pennies quite so much, but old habits die hard.

Then he grins a little, tilting his head. “I can do eggs and toast and fruit, if you’ve got that available. Unless you wanted to cook.” He certainly doesn’t want to step on any toes.

Bucky nods. “I do. And be my guest. Usually I just eat corn flakes. Or sometimes a granola bar.” One of the side effects of the suppressants is also appetite suppression. He’s not hungry all that often, which makes it easy to forget that he still needs to eat, anyway. He does make a note to start stocking the fridge and cabinets better for Steve’s sake, though.

“Oh, we’re gonna fix that,” Steve hums with a sly grin, pulling open the fridge to get out ingredients before getting started at the stove. “Gotta pull my weight around here, if you’re gonna let me sleep over on the regular,” he points out, before nodding his head to the bathroom. “Go ahead and wash up first.” He’ll get breakfast on the table and wash up after. He’s not sure how long Natasha’s going to take, but he figures they’ll have enough time to eat and clean up. It doesn’t mean he won’t make sure there’s enough food for her, too.

There’s a slightly dazed, albeit happy look on Bucky’s face as he stares at Steve for a moment before shaking his head and finishing off his first cup of coffee and then heading toward the bathroom as suggested. He’d taken a shower right before bed the previous evening so he’s not too worried about that, but he does spend some time washing his face and using mouthwash, and then changing his clothes. His left shoulder still aches a bit but it’s a lot better than the previous night, so he doesn’t have to have help tugging on a long-sleeved navy blue shirt and a clean pair of jeans and socks.

He combs his hair, raking his hand through it a few times until it lays on his head the way he prefers, then emerges to the smell of eggs cooking. He can’t actually remember the last time he’d made himself eggs so it’s been awhile since he’s had them.

“Smells good,” he comments as he returns to the kitchen and pours himself another cup of coffee.

“Hopefully it’ll taste good, too,” Steve says, maybe appreciating the way Bucky cleans up even just wearing a shirt and jeans -- right around the time he realizes he’s going to have to meet Natasha in what he has on, probably, which is a borrowed pair of sweatpants and an undershirt. But there’s nothing for it; people are a lot more lax on what passes for decent clothing these days, and he’s still going to wash his face and comb out his hair, so it’ll have to do. She’ll probably enjoy it, but he really doesn’t feel like putting the bright blue uniform back on.

He serves out some breakfast for them both, putting the remainder on a plate that he covers for Natasha, then sits down with Bucky at the small table. Steve is actually pretty hungry, but he does his best to eat at a polite pace and make sure Bucky has enough before everything disappears off his own plate. And after that, it’s just a matter of getting himself cleaned up and waiting for Natasha’s text.

The text comes fifteen minutes later. I’m outside the store.

Bucky glances up when he hears Steve’s phone vibrate and he finds himself holding his breath, nerves surging back into place once more. He wants to ask Steve to reassure him again that this isn’t some kind of setup, but he reminds himself that Black Widow is an Avenger. She’s one of the good guys. She’s not here to shatter the life that he’s built for himself post-army. She’s here to help figure out what happened and go after the bad guys, with Steve.

He rises to his feet and moves to the coffee pot to pour himself another cup, taking his suppressants down with a long gulp and hiding them in a half-eaten box of Pop-tarts in the cabinet. He could do this.

Steve knows this is asking a lot of Bucky, asking him to trust not only Steve in this, but someone he’s never met, solely on her (admittedly interesting) reputation. He can practically feel the tension radiating off Bucky; even as he’s typing a quick reply to Natasha, he gets up and wraps an arm briefly around Bucky, burying his nose in his neck for just a moment before he steps back and heads for the door that leads from the apartment into the bookstore. From there, it’s only a few seconds before he’s opening the front door to Natasha.

“Hi,” he says, smile and voice a little grim, but not displeased. “He says he’ll help if he can, but Natasha, this isn’t an interrogation. He’s been through those, and I’m sure you can find them. All right?”

Natasha lifts one eyebrow and takes in his appearance, gaze dropping to the sweatpants -- that are just a couple of inches too short for him -- and then meets his eyes again. “I hear you loud and clear.” She pulls a notebook out of her pocket and shows him a note she’s already scribbled out. Need to sweep for bugs. She’s been accused of being too paranoid before, but she’d rather be too paranoid than not paranoid enough. Especially when it comes to things like HYDRA.

And frankly, she doesn’t know Barnes. She doesn’t just give people her trust without reason. And definitely not before meeting them.

Steve frowns a little at the note, but -- well, shit. If this could be HYDRA they’re dealing with…

“Right,” he says quietly, ushering her in while pulling out his own phone to text Bucky: We’re coming through, but she’s going to check for bugs. Just in case. Don’t think she’s being rude.

But Steve feels suddenly stupid, with everything they’d talked about last night, without having thought to check. But why should he have considered it? There could very well be nothing to worry about. Natasha’s just making sure.

So, he concentrates on locking the doors behind them as they go and making sure he can be the first one back into Bucky’s apartment.

Natasha glances around the store as she follows Steve. Plenty of hiding places for listening devices, that’s for certain. She pulls a small device out of her purse, pressing a button on it when she steps into the small apartment in the back, watching Steve close the door behind her.

“This is a frequency jammer,” she tells them as she sets it on the counter in the kitchen. “We can’t keep it on too long in case anyone gets suspicious, but I’m going to do a quick check of your place. I assume you’re James.” She gazes at the brunette steadily.

“Bucky,” he answers, glancing warily at the device she’s set down and shifting his attention to Steve for a second before looking back at her and stepping forward to shake her hand. “Nice to meet you.”

Steve’s smile is still a little tight as he steps up to stand next to Bucky, but while Bucky and Natasha are certainly wary around each other, that’s sort of to be expected, given the circumstances. This is not how he would have preferred they meet.

But it’s what they have to work with. “There’s some coffee and breakfast,” he says, tilting his chin toward the counter. “We’ll get that laid out for you while you check. If you want me to help you sweep…” He will. He doesn’t know as much about sweeping a place for devices, but he’s gotten the basic training and seen it done. Bucky’s place isn’t that big, but he’ll step in to help Natasha if she wants. Otherwise, he figures it’s best to occupy himself and Bucky some other way and let her work.

“If I’d known breakfast was included, I would have at least brought over some bagels,” she says, tilting her head to the side and then winking at him playfully before moving to start checking the apartment over. “I got this, though. Thanks.”

Bucky relaxes a little with Steve right beside him, leaning against him instinctively even as he picks up his coffee cup to take another drink, eyes following Natasha curiously to watch what she’s doing. He knows the kind of tech she’s looking for exists, of course, but this definitely isn’t his area of expertise. He’d been a soldier, not a spy. “Who do you think would’ve planted bugs in my apartment?” he asks, feeling uneasy.

Natasha hums thoughtfully as she starts in the living room, giving Steve and Bucky the space to refill coffee mugs and set out her plate. “Could be a lot of people. Could be no one,” she says cryptically, eyes darting from corner to corner, table to couch -- before she crouches down and feels around under the table for a long moment. Steve isn’t watching, but when she stands up, there’s something small and black in her hand, and a neutral expression on her face that makes him feel anything but neutral.

“It might take some work to determine who these belong to,” she says, continuing her search while Steve sets her plate down with almost numb hands. “There’s always the possibility of a break-in, of course, but if you’ve given anyone access to your apartment since you’ve come home, I need to know about it.”

Bucky stares blankly at the small device in her hand, his heart starting to pound in his chest. Someone had planted fucking listening devices in his home. The only place where he’s felt remotely safe in months. He rubs his hand over his face. “It’s been me. My ex-boyfriend. My -- employee, Wanda. And Steve. That’s it.” He presses his lips together. “And I feel completely comfortable ruling out both Steve and Wanda. And I don’t know why Brock would bother.” But out of that list of people, he’s the only one that Bucky thinks might have done something like that.

Natasha raises one eyebrow, a hard-to-read expression on her face for a moment. “Well, I don’t. I mean, Steve, sure -- he doesn’t know which end of a telephone to speak into these days -- but I don’t know your employee.” A beat. “And I do know someone named Brock.”

Now her expression turns pointedly at Steve, who glances at Bucky for a moment before giving her a short, unhappy nod. It’s the same Brock. And he doesn’t know why, either, but out of that short list, “He seems the most likely.”

Natasha just makes an expression that clearly says Doesn’t he, though and keeps looking -- and starts humming something Steve doesn’t recognize, but Bucky might: It’s a small world after all…

It takes Bucky some effort to keep his expression calm at the insinuation that Wanda might be behind this. “Okay, Wanda’s 17 years old. And her family isn’t exactly well off enough to be able to afford this kind of tech,” he says, even if it’s more to Steve than Natasha. But when she starts humming that song, he sighs, shoulders hunching.

This is insane. Just the previous night he’d been sure the worst he was going to have to deal with was the fallout of his ex-boyfriend working with his new one, after said ex-boyfriend blackmailed and attacked him.

“Sounds suspect to me,” Natasha stops humming long enough to say, but both she and Steve know that sometimes Occam’s razor applies: the simplest answer is usually right, and the simplest answer is Brock Rumlow.

Bucky can’t help glaring at Natasha at her off-handed comment about still finding the situation with Wanda suspicious. And Steve can guess without thinking that’s what has Bucky hunching his shoulders. He reaches out, touching the small of his back, then deciding to hell with it and hooking that arm around his waist to pull him in a little closer. “There are a lot of reasons Brock could have left bugs,” he says quietly, though he’s not really trying to hide what he’s saying from Natasha. “Ranging from being a petty, perverted bastard to something a lot worse.” Because if Brock did this for a reason that wasn’t petty revenge or territorialism… that makes it so much worse. And that’s a pretty awful thought.

“Sounds like I really missed out on some good gossip,” is all Natasha has to say to that, still turning the apartment over for listening devices. Where there’s one…

Bucky forces himself to take a deep breath, calming a little when Steve’s arm came around his waist. “And of course I would pick to go out with someone like that,” he grumbles. Then he winces, glancing sideways at Steve apologetically, leaning his head against Steve’s. He doesn’t care that Natasha is watching even as she comes back into the kitchen.

“Pretty sure there were about fifty extenuating circumstances,” Steve murmurs, fingers squeezing Bucky’s side lightly for a moment. He doesn’t care if Natasha sees them standing pressed together, either -- she’s already got enough information to guess, and he’d rather she just know, instead of make assumptions. Besides, they have nothing to hide. Not from her, and not from anyone else.

Natasha steps up to the table and drops three tiny bugs onto it unceremoniously. “All of which I want to know,” she tells Steve, but mostly everyone’s focus is on the devices on Bucky’s kitchen table.

“Well, fuck,” Bucky mutters.

“I’m going to check the bookstore on the way out,” Natasha says, “but first, we need to deal with these. I’m going to turn off the jammer and we’re going to say we’re going out. We’re even going to walk over to the door and open and close it. Then no one is going to make a sound while I use this,” she holds up a little silver disc, “to fry them. EMP,” she adds. “Then I’m going to see if Steve’s a decent cook and somebody is going to tell me about Brock.”

Steve glances at Bucky, but… it seems like a reasonable enough plan. To start with.

Bucky glances back at Steve, pressing his lips together and nodding. He has a hell of a lot of questions of his own, and he’s not even sure he knows where to start. He motions to Natasha to let her know he’s ready whenever she is. He picks his coffee cup up once more and finishes it off, pouring himself another and topping Steve’s off, as well, and when she turns off the jammer, he holds his breath for a moment. “I could use some fresh air,” he says, voice eerily calm before he heads for the door, opening the door, giving it a moment, and then closing it again, raising his eyebrows at Natasha.

She smiles faintly, though it doesn’t reach her eyes. She presses on the EMP, shorting out the listening devices and moving to the table. “Smells good,” she tells Steve, settling herself at her plate and taking off the cover over it to reveal the eggs, toast and fruit. “Huh.” She gives Steve a knowing look and digs in as Bucky sits down somewhat uneasily across from her.

Steve lets out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding and waits for Bucky to sit down before he follows suit, keeping his coffee mug between his cupped hands, mostly for something to do with them.

“I do know which end of a frying pan to hold,” he says wryly, but he knows they’re only delaying the inevitable. He glances between Bucky and Natasha, before nodding to his teammate to start. Although first, he says, “I haven’t told him anything about our missions. But maybe we should.”

Natasha’s eyes narrowed just slightly, looking from Steve to Bucky then back again. “I think I need to hear about Rumlow first,” she admits, taking a bite of her eggs and leaning back in her chair. “You two were dating?” She glances at Bucky, keeping her expression completely neutral.

Truthfully, Bucky’s not even sure that’s the word he’d choose. “Yes. For about six months. I dumped him about two months ago. He just never really accepted that fact. Came by yesterday in order to blackmail me into going with him to Stark’s fundraiser.” His voice is flat, no hint of emotion there. He wants to reach up and rub at his neck, but he feels like anything like that will make Natasha assume he’s lying or unreasonably nervous.

“Did you?” she questions, taking a drink.

“Considering he threatened to have my store closed down because it’s illegal for omegas to own a business? Yes.”

Steve doesn’t feel -- or look --- happy while Bucky explains. But, of course, he only explains to a point. He glances at Bucky, then decides to fill in at least a little of the rest. “Pepper called me at the last minute, said one of their guests dropped out and asked if I could do it. So I did. Brock shows up with Bucky in tow, introduces him as his boyfriend, and things kinda went downhill from there.” He pauses. “Nat, he knew Bucky and I knew each other. And he… wanted to grab lunch, a few weeks ago. Not long after I met Bucky. He started asking personal questions -- he said he wanted to make sure I was acclimating all right. It seemed strange at the time, but now…” It seems something worse than strange. And he knows Natasha will know that kind of behavior is not Brock’s norm.

Natasha lets that settle for a moment, studying Bucky’s downcast expression and the seriousness of Steve’s. She knows there’s more to this story than they’re saying, but as long as Steve knows the details, she decides she can pump him for more information later. Without Bucky around. “So he was fishing for something. Trying to determine the nature of your relationship, or for something more twisted.” She hums quietly, tapping her fork against her plate.

Bucky watches her warily, feeling oddly out of place in his own kitchen. He takes a sip of his coffee, resisting the urge to reach out and put a hand on Steve’s arm.

“The people who abducted your unit ten months ago. Do you know who they were? Did you see any faces?”

It’s all Bucky can do not to grimace. “It’s mostly a blur. I remember a couple of faces -- vaguely. But mostly I remember the voices.” He’s definitely tense now, heart beating a little faster.

“They had you for almost two months. They wore masks the entire time? All of them?” Natasha presses.

Steve hadn’t dug for details -- he’d wanted to, but he hadn’t last night, because what good would it do to make Bucky relive that now?

More than either of them would like, it turns out; he knows he told Natasha this wasn’t an interrogation, but he also knows she’s going to have to dig. Still, it’s not easy to see the tension on Bucky’s face, in his posture, as Natasha asks more pointed questions, and he knows Bucky is thinking back to a time he clearly never wants to think about again. Everyone in the future says you’re supposed to process your trauma, but Steve is frankly happy to stay old-fashioned in that respect -- sometimes people just don’t want to talk about shit.

Bucky scrapes his teeth over his lower lip, closing his eyes and trying to remember. He remembers being strapped to a cold metal table. Remembers struggling against restraints that had no give. Remembers being surrounded by people in medical apparel. He draws in a shaky breath, trying to delve further into the memory. “I remember a man. Older. Kinda -- strawberry blond hair. He was dressed -- like a businessman. Suit and tie. Blue eyes.” Cold, detached demeanor.

”His heart rate is off the charts,” one of the men in masks warned.

“Continue the procedure,” the older man ordered.

And then, pain. Blinding, horrid pain. Bucky had only stopped repeating his rank and serial number because he was screaming instead.

Steve glances over as Bucky describes the man -- and then stops talking. Watches as his eyes go unfocused, his skin goes pale, and Steve knows that look. He reaches out, carefully, with one hand to touch Bucky’s forearm. Not grabbing or pulling, but just touching. Grounding. “Buck? Buck, come on back here.”

Bucky jumps at the hand suddenly on his arm, but he blinks a few times, not pulling away. He reaches up with his opposite hand, rubbing it lightly over his face and forcing himself to take a couple of slow, deep breaths. “Sorry,” he mumbles, shaking his head a little. “Whoever he was… he was the one givin’ the orders.” His voice is rougher than before.

Steve squeezes Bucky’s arm a little, then decides just to leave his hand there. “Nothing to be sorry for,” he says quietly, though there is anger building in him, because now that he knows who had Bucky, now that he knows what kind of people those were and at least some of what they were trying to do…

It’s hard not to be angry, at a lot of things. Himself included.

Natasha’s expression softens a little, but only enough that Steve is likely to notice. “The people who had you are part of a group called HYDRA. Are you familiar?” Her voice remains neutral and she wraps her hands around her mug of coffee.

Steve does notice; he appreciates it, and he’s not surprised. Natasha isn’t unfeeling -- she’s good at her job, but she’s a human being and she feels for other human beings, and the fact that one of those is Bucky is a good sign. It sort of maybe means his friends will get along, despite the circumstances under which they’re meeting.

Bucky glances between her and Steve, then shakes his head once more. “No. Should I be?”

“They started out as the Nazis’ science division. Until they went rogue and decided the Third Reich wasn’t ambitious enough. I thought we’d wiped them out in the forties, but… no dice,” Steve says, attention mostly on Bucky, though it ends up back on Natasha. “I didn’t know they were the ones that had you until I talked to Natasha this morning.”

At the words Steve utters, Bucky can’t quite help the shudder that passes through him, feeling sick to his stomach. “Nazi science division. Jesus Christ,” he mumbles. If that thought alone isn’t enough to make him feel ill, there’s also the fact that he’s downed almost four cups of coffee. Probably not helping his nerves.

“And I didn’t know Steve had you until this morning. You, specifically, I mean. He’s sure had somebody on his mind.” Natasha smiles, just a little.

“I will break your leg under this table,” Steve says, but he definitely doesn’t mean it, and puts his concentration into rubbing his thumb back and forth on Bucky’s arm, over the fabric of his shirt.

Bucky’s relieved when Steve doesn’t pull away, letting his touch ground and soothe his nerves in a way no one else’s touch ever has. At least that makes sense now. If soulmarks and soulmates made any kind of sense, anyway. His gaze darts to Natasha long enough to see the smile on her face, but it’s Steve’s light teasing that makes him smile just a little.

“So they’re a terrorist organization that’s now experimenting on people so they can switch people’s designations.” Bucky’s smile fades away as he summarizes what he knows. “And we know they were successful. Whatever the hell they did to me worked. Which means they’re going to try it again, on somebody else. If they haven’t already.”

Steve nods, all teasing gone out of the room now. “Yes. And if they have, I want to find out who, and if we can help them. If they haven’t… I want to make sure they never get the chance.” He twists a little to look at Bucky, fingers sliding down his arm toward his wrist, and then his hand. “I didn’t put two and two together until you told me last night. And even then, I wasn’t sure, but Natasha --”

He glances over, and she nods. She’d confirmed it by contacting him this morning.

“So,” Natasha says, spearing another bite of eggs with her fork. “What I want to know is where Brock Rumlow stands in all this -- if he’s really just a jealous son of a bitch, or if there’s something else going on here. And,” she smiles thinly at Bucky, “I want to know who your mystery man is. That’s two things I don’t know. It might be a record.”

Bucky’s stomach does a somersault. “Brock was there. He was part of the unit that pulled me outta there,” he says after a moment. He’d never been clear on how that unit had found him at all, but he’d been pretty out of it at the time.

That certainly makes Natasha look… interested. “Well, that’s some coincidence,” she says, in a way that indicates she doesn’t think it’s a coincidence at all. And honestly… Steve is starting to think along the same lines.

Which is disturbing for a lot of reasons.

Steve makes a growling noise -- then realizes he’s doing it, and abruptly stops. “I want to have a talk with Rumlow, myself. But it might be hard. I think I broke his jaw last night.”

There’s no mistaking the curiosity in Natasha’s gaze now, though. At all.

“Last night ended… badly,” Bucky tells her, not quite meeting her eyes. “He attacked me on my way back here. Fortunately, Steve caught up to us in time to stop anything worse from happening.” Even if the bite Brock had been about to take wouldn’t have worked, he knows from experience that it’s unpleasant. To say the least. Brock’s never exactly been a gentle person for as long as Bucky’s known him. He’s always been rough around the edges. Brock hadn’t wanted to bond with him; he’d wanted to own him.

Natasha finally glances back to Steve. “I would tell you to lie low, but I don’t think you know how, do you?”

Steve rolls his eyes, watching Natasha pointedly as he takes a slow sip of his coffee. “I can lie low. But what about Bucky?” He glances at the devices on the table. “I know you’re going to sweep the bookstore, but do you think it’s safe for him to stay here?”

He can always bring Bucky back to his place, bare and boring though it is. It’s not the cozy little space here, and it’s not attached to the place where Bucky works, but it is -- as far as he knows -- bug-free.

Natasha studies them both, deciding, “I think it’s a red flag if he doesn’t.” She glances back to Steve. “I can’t imagine you’d let him do it alone.”

Well. She’s got him there. “No,” he murmurs, finally leaning back in his seat again, hand sliding away from Bucky’s. “Wasn’t planning on it.”

“So we just -- pretend we didn’t find bugs in my apartment and go about our daily lives as usual?” Bucky asks uncertainly. Alpine suddenly jumps up onto his lap and he pets her gently, not sure what the plan here is. “And just… wait and see what happens?” His stomach is still doing an unhappy tap dance. Between the uncertainty of what’s going to happen and the dread that’s settled on his shoulders at the thought of Brock being part of the same group that had killed his unit, that had tortured him, changed him entirely -- he’s pretty sure that the nice breakfast that Steve had fixed won’t be staying down much longer.

“No, you pretend you didn’t find bugs in your apartment and go about your daily life. Steve will try his hardest, I’m sure. And I will do some digging.” Natasha picks up one of the little listening devices, turning it over in her palm. “If this has something to do with Rumlow, we’re going to know very soon. And even if it doesn’t have something to do with Rumlow --”

“I’m still going to deal with him,” Steve says quietly. “Very soon. Like I would anyone under my command who can’t act like a normal, decent human being.”

“Right,” Natasha agrees. “Really, it shouldn’t be more than a few days before we have some answers, one way or another. Sooner, if I can manage it. It depends on how well someone like Brock might or might not have covered his tracks. Assuming it is him.”

Steve still thinks Brock’s got the best chance of being their man. Especially if his unit was somehow behind Bucky’s rescue. That does seem too coincidental for comfort.

“Steve, why don’t you work from home for a few days,” Natasha says sweetly. “I can make sure you’ve got enough paperwork to keep you busy.”

“Sounds like a real gas,” Steve murmurs, but he does look, at least, a little grateful. He doesn’t like playing the waiting game, and isn’t great at it, like Natasha intimated. But he can do it. Doing it here, with Bucky, will be at least a little easier.

Bucky can’t pretend he’s not relieved that Steve will be around more often, and he gives him a tiny smile. He doesn’t exactly want to be away from him for any length of time. Which eventually he knows is going to be a problem. He’ll work through it when he has to. Plus, no doubt Brock is out there seething over everything that happened last night. Knowing Steve will be around if he decides to show his face helps ease his worry about that.

“Okay,” he says quietly. He can go about his normal life and pretend nothing’s changed, even though everything has. He glances over at Natasha, noticing her coffee mug is empty. “You want more coffee?” he offers even as Alpine purrs on his lap while he strokes her fur.

“I’m good, but thanks,” she tells him, hint of a smile on her mouth. “I should sweep the front part of the building.”

Bucky considers that. “Maybe you shouldn’t blow those up if you find any. It’ll look less suspicious that way, won’t it?”

Natasha definitely looks pleased, Steve thinks, when Bucky actually offers his thoughts. Honestly, he’s pleased, too -- Bucky is not helpless, omega or not, and he has an Army background. The more active the role he takes… well, Steve knows how it always makes him feel better to do something, instead of feeling like things are just happening to you without any control.

“I’ll let you know where the active one is,” Natasha says, by way of agreeing with him. “And once I figure out where these are transmitting to,” she pokes the one in her palm, “I’ll start transmitting ambient sounds to the source. Should buy us some time.”

Steve takes a slow breath, then nods, and glances between Bucky and Natasha. “I should go grab some things. If I’m going to stay.” Much though he really doesn’t mind wearing Bucky’s clothes at all, he still feels like he’s only half-dressed, and the only other option is his uniform. “Natasha, can you stay until I get back?” He doesn’t want to leave Bucky alone, no matter how well he might be able to handle himself. He knows that Brock is a sore spot, and sometimes, people get under your skin. It makes it harder to handle them, no matter how experienced you are.

“I can do that,” she agrees, tilting her head to the side and arching her eyebrows. She still wants to meet this Wanda person, anyway. And maybe get to know Bucky a little better. Especially if he’s going to be dating Steve, and given what she’s witnessed while she’s here -- she has a gut feeling that it’s not going to be a short-term relationship.

Bucky presses his lips together, not entirely comfortable with the idea of being alone with Natasha yet, but feeling better about it than he would have even a half hour ago. He reminds himself that Steve trusts her. Plus, as much as he’s never kept up with the news about the Avengers, he knows that Black Widow is a force to be reckoned with. “Be careful. If he knows where you live, he might be stupid enough to come after you,” he tells Steve quietly.

Steve knows Natasha is a lot more formidable than she looks; between her and Bucky, he’s confident that if Brock comes back, they won’t have any trouble with him, even if he brings friends. And as for himself -- he nods, considering that is a possibility. Brock doesn’t know where he lives offhand, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t find that information with the right motivation. “I can handle him,” he says, but his smile is grateful all the same.

He reaches over to give Bucky’s right shoulder a squeeze, then sighs softly. He’s going to have to put his uniform pants back on for the walk -- well, it might have to be a run, his place is a few miles away and he’d run the whole way here from the gala, to boot -- home and leave Bucky’s sweatpants here. “I’m going to get changed and head out.” The sooner he leaves, the sooner he can come back, after all. He might stop and pick up a few groceries on the way, too, especially if there are going to be two of them here for the next few days. He doesn’t want to be a poor houseguest (or boyfriend. He’s Bucky’s boyfriend, and that just sets off sparklers in his stomach all over again). “Shouldn’t take long. Maybe an hour or two, tops.”

“We’ll be fine,” Natasha promises, hint of mischief in her eyes. “I’ll be on my best behavior.” There’s no mistaking the barest hint of amusement in her tone.

Bucky raises his eyebrows at that and nods his agreement. “And I’m always on my best behavior, so we should be good,” he says lightly, meeting Steve’s gaze and leaning over to press a kiss to his cheek before pulling away. He’s not really sure where Steve stands on PDA. They haven’t exactly had a chance to have that particular conversation, but he figures a cheek kiss is okay, at any rate.

Steve’s not really used to PDA, and he certainly couldn’t really touch or kiss Peggy in public. But now, with Bucky, he doesn’t really mind. He’s not ashamed of what they have, new or not, and he knows that trying to hide things from Natasha mostly just makes her seek them out all the more.

Natasha, for her part, doesn’t seem to care. She stretches her arms over her head and rises to her feet. “I’m gonna start searching out there so I can be done by the time the store opens.” She glances at her watch. It’s only a little after 9 now, so that should give her enough time to find what she’s looking for.

“I really hope the place is still standing when I get back,” Steve teases, leaning over to pick up the empty plates and mugs as he stands to at least put them in the sink. “I’ll be back as soon as I can. Call me if you need anything.”

After that, it doesn’t take long to get back into the bottom half of his uniform and head out, once he’s sure they’re set for the next hour or so. He’s pretty sure the two of them will get along like a house on fire, whether that leaves him in hot water or not.

***

Bucky doesn’t have much to do in order to get the store ready to open in the morning. He puts on a fresh pot of coffee, straightens up the table of goodies by the front counter, and for the most part manages to ignore the fact that an Avenger is sweeping his store for bugs. At this point, he has little doubt she’ll find them. His tension is eased mostly by the fact that Alpine keeps herself perched on his right shoulder while he works. And when he’s done, there’s still a good twenty minutes until it’s time to flip the sign over to open and before Wanda is due in.

He’s wary about the idea of Natasha possibly interrogating the younger woman. Mostly because Wanda’s just a good kid. She’s smart and level-headed, and she’s always a big help around the store. It’s impressive for someone her age to be so conscientious. In a lot of ways she reminds him of Becca, and he can admit he feels a great deal of protectiveness over her. He’s met her twin brother a couple of times, but Pietro doesn’t come around very often. He doesn’t know too much about their background, but he senses there’s something tragic there because he can see it in her eyes every once in a while.

Bucky makes his way back toward the apartment, figuring he can at least go make his bed and clean up the kitchen before he has to open the door to the shop.

Natasha knows better than to make assumptions but at this point, Brock Rumlow does seem like a fairly good guess. Still, that doesn’t mean Wanda isn’t working with him, no matter how things might appear. It takes her some time to sweep the store, given that there are plenty of places to hide listening devices amidst cozy rows of bookshelves and display tables, and in the end, she’s got two more in her pocket when she steps back into Bucky’s apartment, closes the door, and hands him a note that says, There’s one near the cash register. I’ll show you on my way out. The rest of the store is clear now, even as she leans her hip against the kitchen counter and says, “So. How did you two meet?”

He nods, giving her a grateful look and tucking the note into his pocket, bemused smile touching his mouth at the question. So Steve hadn’t filled her in on the details. He looks a little sheepish as he ducks his head and pours himself another cup of coffee, wrapping his right hand around it. “I went out to grab some fresh air during lunch. And Brock proceeded to stalk me for about eight blocks. I kept telling him for the last two months that I was seeing someone else, but he didn’t believe me. I guess I’m not a good liar.”

Bucky draws in a breath and takes a sip of his coffee. “And that’s when I saw Steve and I had an idea. I went up to him and asked him to pretend we were together just for a few minutes. And then I kissed him.”

Natasha’s eyebrows lift a bit, clearly impressed, amused, or maybe a little of both. “Whether or not you’re a good liar might have had nothing to do with it,” she says, but that’s certainly not the point.

“No. You’re right. It wouldn’t have mattered to Brock even if it was true,” Bucky concedes, voice hushed.

“But you are a good judge of how to get rid of a person in a crowd.” Natasha smiles. “Public displays of affection make people very uncomfortable.”

She can just imagine how that might have gone over with Steve, of all people -- although he’d seemed comfortable enough in the kitchen not that long ago. “Let me guess. He walked you home.” That seems like a very Steve thing to do.

Bucky’s cheeks grow warm at her words. He rubs the back of his neck with an awkward smile. “Yeah. He did. It was -- kind of a foreign concept to me.” He looks up and meets her eyes, gives a small shrug.

“And then we just got to talking and found out we had some stuff in common. I had no idea who he was. Actually… until last night at the gala. My brain didn’t make the connection between Steve Rogers and Captain America.” He’d make a terrible spy, apparently. “And then I saw him in his uniform there and I was kind of in shock for a while. But then it made sense.” Hindsight is definitely 20/20.

“Hm,” Natasha hums, clearly thoughtful, though she doesn’t say anything more for a moment. It’s definitely an interesting story; still almost a little too coincidental for her liking, but sometimes coincidences are just coincidences. And sometimes they’re not. She has yet to determine that, but Bucky doesn’t seem to be lying when he says he hadn’t recognized Steve. Good soldiers didn’t always make good spies -- and vice versa.

“Well, you certainly caught his attention in a way no one else has,” she eventually settles on. “It’s good. If it really is what it seems.” Because Steve trusts Bucky, which means that Natasha mostly trusts Bucky, but there’s always that little sliver of doubt, when you’re trusting secondhand. “Except for the way it makes him distracted, of course,” she adds, a little teasing, but a little sincere, too.

Rumlow certainly hasn’t been distracted. Hadn’t been, either. But then, there could be a lot of reasons for that.

There’s no mistaking the hint of mistrust in her words, and Bucky can’t really say he blames her. Especially considering how high profile of a figure that Captain America is. He’s also not sure how to make her trust him, because trust isn’t something you can force. You either have it or you don’t. And they’d only just met, anyway. He’d have to earn her trust the same way she’d have to earn his, even if he mostly trusted her simply for the fact that Steve does, and because she’s an Avenger.

His chest tightens a little at the mention that he distracts Steve, and he knows that’s true, remembers how Steve had come back with an injured wrist. He doesn’t know the details of that mission, but he’s pretty sure he’s at least partially responsible for Steve’s injury.

Trust is definitely something to be earned, for Natasha -- but given Steve’s blessing, she will absolutely give Bucky the chance to earn it. “Brock had stopped bothering you until yesterday, though?” she presses.

“Yeah. I got about a two-week grace period from his creeper tendencies,” he agrees, moving to pick his mug up off the counter with his left hand, which he manages to do, even if it slips almost instantly out of his grasp and shatters on the floor. “Shit.” He glances first to make sure none of the hot coffee had splattered onto Natasha, and then to where Alpine’s sitting on the counter, tail swishing. “Can you grab her? Make sure she doesn’t jump down?”

Natasha is already starting to nod when Bucky goes for the mug and drops it; she’s quick enough that none of the coffee lands on her, but clearly the floor is going to need some help. At Bucky’s request, however, she instead makes her way around the puddle to the cat, smiling gently and offering her hand first to sniff, before she slips it around underneath Alpine’s chest, pulling the cat off the counter and cradling her to her chest in a way that says she’s familiar with how to hold -- and keep holding -- a cat.

She steps back, getting the feeling Bucky’s going to want to handle the mess himself. She hadn’t missed, though, the action that had preceded it; “Does that happen often? With the left one?”

Bucky moves to kneel down on the floor to start collecting the broken pieces of glass as soon as he’s sure Alpine’s secure, taking note of the way Natasha cradles her close the same way he does when he’s carrying her. Aha, he thinks. She has a cat. Or had a cat at some point.

He picks up the bigger shards of glass and dumps them in the trash can, grimacing at the question. “Sometimes. There’s good days and bad days with it,” he tells her, assuming she probably knows the extent of his injuries from her research. He’s… going to try not to think about how disturbing that kind of is. And he’s also going to hope that other people don’t have the kind of skills she clearly does. “Sometimes I forget it’s not the way it used to be until it’s too late.” Like just now.

Bucky sops up the coffee with paper towels, then moves to get the mop from the tiny utility closet next to the bathroom.

Not many people have Natasha’s skills, and even fewer of them have been looking into Bucky’s history the way she has. Anyone who has likely already knows about it, and probably isn’t playing ball for the right team, as the Americans would say.

She simply hums at the explanation, letting him take care of cleaning up the mess and stroking Alpine absently. “The information I found on the drug they used on you mentioned Project Rebirth,” she says slowly, quietly. “Do I need to explain what I think that means?”

There’s a part of her that still feels in the dark about that, and it’s the part of her that’s got to make an assumption, based on that information. There are still files on Project Rebirth that are out of her reach, largely because they’re paper and were never digitized, and paper can be much easier to secure, which is one of the most ironic things about living in this day and age.

But Natasha is smart: There’s something that tells her there’s a connection between Project Rebirth and designation switching that makes her wonder whether Steve Rogers was really born an alpha or not. It seems like a crazy thing to wonder… but it’s also a stupid mistake to ignore it.

Bucky doesn’t look up at her, focusing his physical attention on what he’s doing, mostly because he has to in order to operate the mop properly. But he’s still listening, still paying attention. Immediately he feels uneasy, guarded, because there are things that Steve’s shared with him that he knows he hasn’t shared with anyone else. Or at least he’s pretty sure Steve hasn’t shared them with anyone else.

“I know that Project Rebirth is what they called the program that transformed Steve into Captain America,” he says carefully. He’s not entirely sure what she’s getting at, even if he’s got a couple of hunches.

“But Steve also said that the formula they used on him was essentially an unknown. That it died with the doctor who invented it, when they killed him.” Bucky winces a little as pain flashes through his left shoulder and he eases up on the amount of pressure he’s using to clean up the mess he’s made. “So obviously there’s a pretty big difference between what he was given and what I was given. I definitely don’t have any kind of superpowers.” There’s more than a hint of wryness in his voice.

“No,” Natasha murmurs, “I don’t think you do.” If he did, he wouldn’t be here now, damaged arm or not. She knows that much for sure.

She sighs -- deliberately, but it’s not necessarily feigned. “Steve is right. The formula was lost. That doesn’t mean people haven’t been trying to recreate it for the better part of a century. It just makes me wonder,” she says, leaning back against the counter, aware that he’s struggling a little, but still giving him space to manage on his own, “whether adjusting your designation was the intent, or a side effect. Or a little of both.”

“Makes sense. If they started out as Nazis doing science.” Bucky presses his lips together, still more than a tad disturbed about that detail. He rolls his shoulders a little to try and loosen them and goes back to mopping up. “Which would explain why they might want to bug my apartment, I guess.” He grimaces. “Keep an eye on their test subject.” And now there’s bitterness in his voice.

“Now there’s an idea,” Natasha says -- one she’s had, but it’s interesting that Barnes jumps to it as well. “Keeping an eye on their test subject.” That does make things interesting, though, doesn’t it, if Brock Rumlow is the one who planted the devices. STRIKE might have a mole -- a mole with a broken jaw.

There’s still something he’s hiding, she thinks. Something about what he knows, although she isn’t sure whether it pertains to himself or to Steve. He could just as easily be trying to protect Steve as himself. “I can think of a lot of uses for that kind of thing, whether superpowers come into the mix or not.”

“Yeah. I’ve been thinking about that, too,” he adds. “About the reasons someone might want to be able to control someone else’s designation. It paints a pretty fucking grim picture.” He sets the mop against the wall and sweeps the remaining tiny pieces of glass into a dustpan, then dumps them in the trash. “But even more reason if it’s not what they were trying to do. If they were trying to make their own version of Captain America. Whole army of super soldiers like him and they’d be able to do whatever the hell they wanted. No one could stop ‘em.”

“You’re right. About both,” Natasha agrees. Changing people’s designations can tip the balance of power in a lot of ways. Creating an army of super soldiers can do that even more. And coupled together, “Just think how many people would sign up for an experimental super soldier program, willingly, if they could become alphas in the process,” she muses.

Bucky’s not surprised that she agrees that it’s a possibility. It’s been spinning in his mind since they laid the pieces out for him to see earlier. And it’s also started him wondering if Brock is more involved than he’s considered before. It’s a horrifying thought, that he’s been intimate with someone who’d helped break him to begin with. If he gives into the amount of horror he truly feels, he’ll crawl back under the covers and not get back up.

“I have a feeling if you told them they could have superpowers, even the appeal of being an alpha wouldn’t be that much of an extra draw. If you have superpowers, your designation wouldn’t even matter that much. It’d be an afterthought, wouldn’t it?” It’s a lot to think about.

“Would you have rather they turned you into an alpha?” Natasha asks, admittedly a little curious. It’s mostly personal curiosity; she tries not to give into it often, but sometimes she likes to indulge.

Bucky considers her question for a moment. “No. I don’t think I would, actually. People’s designations have never really mattered to me that much and if that’s all that matters when someone sees a person, then they’re pretty fucking shallow. Kinda lets you know where you stand with people. Separates out who’s real and who’s an asshole.”

“Maybe,” Natasha concedes. “But there’s something to be said for stereotypes. There’s a reason there are no omega world leaders, I think -- and I don’t believe it’s because there aren’t any qualified omegas,” she adds. She of all people knows that just because something shouldn’t matter doesn’t mean it won’t.

“What do you think that reason is?” he asks, expression cooling just a little at that assertion. He’s witnessed a few arguments as to why omegas can’t -- and shouldn’t -- be involved in government or even in the private sector in the eyes of most. Mostly online, where people have more anonymity. It rarely fails to piss him off.

Natasha tilts her head. “Probably a combination of things, really. Some of it conscious, some of it not. But people are averse to change. They tend to stick with the familiar. If it’s always been done one way, it’s hard to justify doing it another. Even when it might be better.”

“But you’re not wrong,” she adds. “It’s a good litmus test to have.” After all, look at the two highest-ranking alphas in STRIKE: Steve and Brock are very different people, and superpowers have nothing to do with it.

There’s also Bucky’s family, because there are records of home sales and moving trucks and a lot of other things, that all just so happen to coincide neatly with Bucky’s abduction and subsequent release and rehabilitation.

Bucky relaxes a little at her answer. It’s not the one he’d been expecting, the one he’s heard over and over for years: omegas are just hard-wired differently. Aren’t capable of being leaders. That one is absolute bullshit. But she tackles it from a societal standpoint, and that -- well. She’s not wrong. He gives a slight nod of agreement, even if he hopes to live long enough to see that reversed. Not that he wants alphas to be powerless, but he thinks everyone on even ground would be great.

Once Bucky’s done sweeping up the floor, Natasha carefully sweeps one foot over it -- a show of trust, in a way -- before releasing Alpine back onto the counter. “If Brock tries to reach out to you, I want you to take his call,” she decides. “I know it won’t be comfortable or easy, but I think it might tell us something important.”

The instruction to take Brock’s call makes Bucky’s stomach turn, even if he does his best to hide that from showing on his face. “All right. Is there any particular direction you want me to try steering the nature of whatever the conversation is?” He leans against the counter, glancing back at Alpine when she moves to jump up on his shoulder again. It seems to be her very favorite place to be these days.

Natasha knows asking him to engage with Brock again, even if it’s still hypothetical, is asking a lot. Still, that’s what makes her appreciate the fact that he accepts it and moves on, asking how to maximize the effort, rather than shrinking away from it. He may not be a spy, but he’s still a soldier at heart, she thinks.

“No, I think you should let him steer the conversation, actually. Don’t act out of character. See what he wants and where he wants to take it. That will tell us more than anything you could lead him into, I think. He doesn’t seem to be the kind of person who’s afraid of going after what he needs. Or wants.”

“Okay. I can do that.” It’s what he’s been doing for the last couple months anyway, except for the times he’s entirely ignored Brock’s calls and texts. He thinks maybe Steve breaking his jaw -- or almost breaking it, whichever the case may be -- might make him think twice about pursuing Bucky, but he’s been wrong before. “I’m assuming you have my phone number.” And it wouldn’t surprise him to find out she also probably had access to his texts and call log, for that matter.

Natasha smiles; “I do,” she confirms, before taking out her phone and tapping something out. Bucky’s phone pings a moment later with a text notification. “And now you have mine.” Well, one of hers. One of her many, many numbers. But this one will do. “I’m sure you’ll tell Steve, but I’d like to know, too.”

She drifts over to his cabinets, eyeing them for a moment before choosing one and pulling down a mug, offering the fresh, unshattered one to Bucky. “I can keep myself busy until Steve gets back. Don’t put off opening your store on account of me.”

He smiles, too, faint but sincere. “You got it.” He takes the mug from her. “Thanks,” he says quietly. “Make yourself comfortable and if you want anything in the fridge or whatever, have at it.” He heads toward the door, pausing. “Or you’re welcome to come look around the store if you like to read. First book’s on the house.”

***

It only takes Steve a little over an hour to get home, pack a duffel with enough clothes and toiletries for a week, and pack up most of the contents of his kitchen -- admittedly, he’s running low on just about everything because he has been spending time at Bucky’s, but he figures if he’s definitely not going to be coming home for days, he might as well bring it all with him. From there it’s not hard to pack his clothes, food, and shield (in a soft, dark case) onto his bike and head back to Book Barnes.

The store is open by now, given the sign in the window, but part of him still doesn’t want to use the back entrance to Bucky’s apartment. Now, more than ever, he’s aware that someone might be watching, and while he doesn’t expect them to never use the back door, he’d rather keep it in reserve, just in case. So, he parks and pulls everything off the bike, shouldering his way carefully through the door and looking around to see if Bucky’s visible or if he should just make his way through to the back.

Wanda is the one sitting behind the register at the moment, and when she hears the bell above the door jingle, she looks up from the calculus homework she’s been working on for the last half hour. One of the perks about this job is that when things are quiet -- and they are, admittedly, quiet a lot here -- Bucky is more than okay with her working on her homework. But when she looks up and spots a startlingly familiar face walking through the door carrying bags of -- well. She doesn’t know what, really, but it looks like… Captain America is moving in with her boss?

Her eyes are a little wide as she looks at him, momentarily speechless before she picks her jaw up off the floor. “Uh, hi, welcome to Book Barnes… you must be here for Bucky.”

The girl at the counter is definitely not Bucky; Steve smiles as disarmingly as he can when she clearly recognizes him -- that’s the look he’d been trying to avoid the night he’d split faster than he would have liked. “I am. You must be Wanda? It’s nice to meet you -- I’m Steve.” He figures if he just… acts like he’s a normal person, she’ll realize he’s a (mostly) normal person, and maybe the wide-eyed look will die down a little. He glances at her book, then smiles a little wider. “Slow morning, huh?” Not that it’s a good thing, necessarily, but honestly, the quiet might be kind of good, given everything else that’s happened.

At the realization that he knows her name, her expression brightens a little and she gives him a nod. “Wanda Maximoff,” she tells him, extending her hand politely. “It’s nice to meet you, too. And… yeah.” She laughs. “It’s usually pretty quiet here on Saturdays. But it gives me a chance to get caught up on homework and studying and Bucky pays me for it.” She glances toward the steps that lead to the second floor. “He’s doing inventory upstairs. Want me to call him down?”

Steve reaches out with the hand carrying his groceries, slipping it around his wrist to shake Wanda’s easily. “In a minute. He’s expecting me, but I don’t want to interrupt him if he’s busy.” He could just let himself into Bucky’s apartment, he figures, and he assumes Natasha is likely around here somewhere. But it might be nice to get to know Wanda, too -- especially if Natasha is suspicious. And although Steve is pretty sure she’s just exercising an overabundance of caution, it can’t hurt to get a little intel of his own. “How long have you been working here?”

“Just a few months,” she tells him, tucking a long strand of red hair behind her ear. “Found this place when I was out taking a walk. It was almost hard to believe it was real. Not a lot of bookstores still around anymore, you know?” Most people have electronic readers now. Her family can’t afford that kind of thing. As it is, they’re lucky if they can keep the power on most of the time.

Steve laughs a little, “Don’t I know it. It’s nice.” Sort of like a little haven in the middle of a world that definitely seems bigger and faster and louder than the one he left behind.

“Yeah, it is,” she agrees quietly. It’s become something of a safe haven for her, too. She just wishes she could get Pietro to come around more often. She knows he’d like it if he gave it half a chance. “There was a sign in the window that part-time help was needed for evenings and Saturdays, which… is pretty much perfect for me.”

“I’m glad it’s working out for you, and I’m sure Bucky’s glad for the help. D’you live close by?” Steve feels a little like he’s interrogating her, but there’s nothing for it. He is curious, in reality, especially since Bucky didn’t mention a whole lot of friends or people he does trust. Getting to know Wanda better, provided she is trustworthy, could be valuable if something goes down.

“I’m not far. About a mile,” Wanda tells him with a small smile. She’s not about to ask him where he lives, even if she can’t help but think it’s about to be with Bucky. Which. Cool. Bucky’s seemed so lonely most of the time she’s known him. “How did you two meet?” she can’t help but ask, because she’s dying of curiosity.

Steve makes a small, strangled sound that’s sort of a laugh at the question. “It was a little… weird, but mostly we just sort of ran into each other on the street.” That’s not untrue, at least. “Bucky needed help with something, so I walked him back and I ended up buying a couple of books.”

It does almost make it sound like Brock hadn’t forced them together; although now that Steve thinks about it, they almost have Brock to thank in a weird, twisted way -- and he is never going to actually thank the man for it. He’d rather just feel lucky. Beyond lucky. “We’ve got a lot in common, I guess. He’s easy to talk to.”

And now Steve’s starting to smile like a dope. “I guess maybe that’s a good quality to have, for someone who owns a shop like this. Keeps people coming back.”

Wanda takes in the way Steve’s expression changes when he starts talking about Bucky, and it’s all she can do to repress a smile of her own at the lovesick expression on his face. It’s very telling. As it is, her entire demeanor shifts into something warmer now that she has an idea of what’s going on. “We do have quite a few regulars. People love him,” she agrees. “I don’t know what he needed help with, but it was nice of you to walk him back.” She bites back a remark about Bucky’s last boyfriend and what a jerk he’d been. She glances over her shoulder and up toward the loft area.

“If you wanna put your stuff away, I’m sure he’d love to see you. He won’t mind if you go up there.”

Steve somehow manages to look like he forgot he was holding anything at all, let alone loaded down with bags. “Yeah -- right. I should. But it was nice to meet you.” And while he’s certainly not Natasha, he does have a good feeling about Wanda. She seems sincere, in a way that he does trust. “I hope I see you again.”

“I’m sure you will,” she tells him with the barest hint of amusement. She tends to come around even on nights she doesn’t have to work. Not every night, but quite a bit.

Steve smiles and waves as best he can before heading for the back so he can actually unload and put his groceries in the kitchen, calling, “Buck? I’m back,” as he does, so he doesn’t startle Bucky or Natasha.

“Okay! Be right down!” Bucky calls from up above. He tucks the pen he’s been using to jot things down behind his ear and sets his clipboard on the small desk, both glad for the reprieve from inventory and also that Steve’s back. He makes his way down the ladder slowly so he doesn’t end up missing a step and falling on his face. It wouldn’t be the first time. It’s hard to really hold on tightly enough when you can’t feel one of your hands most of the time. Today the left hand feels more tingly than usual, and in one way that’s more obnoxious than not feeling it at all.

“Welcome home, Sailor,” Natasha says, voice light and teasing as she leans in the doorframe of the apartment entrance.

“You know, some GIs might find that insulting,” Steve says, but he’s smiling, clearly relieved to find both Bucky and Natasha in a good mood, which means (coupled with the fact that no one called him) that everything must have gone all right between them. He sets the case with the shield down, along with his duffel, and carries the bags with the food into the kitchen, digging things out to start putting them away. “Did you find any more bugs in the store?” Not the cheeriest topic, but he’s assuming the answer is yes and he wants to know for sure.

“Yes,” she confirms. “Three. Killed two of them. Left one like we talked about.” She raises her eyebrows. “I told him if Brock calls, to take the call and act normal. If we give him enough rope, he might just end up hanging himself with it.” That’s what she’s hoping for anyway. As much as she doesn’t like the idea that a member of their team has anything to do with HYDRA, in another way it would almost make things easier.

One corner of Steve’s mouth twitches up wryly, but he agrees with Natasha. “Good idea,” he confirms -- he’s learned that people like Brock will dig their own graves, and gladly, if you let them. Still, there’s a part of him that’s more than a little wary, given how Brock and what he’s said and done have affected Bucky. But if Bucky agreed to it, and Steve suspects he did, then all he can really do is stand by him and be there if he’s needed. Mentally or physically.

Natasha watches as he unpacks several bags of food and starts putting them in the fridge. “Did you literally bring your entire kitchen, Rogers?” She tries not to smirk.

Steve hums, unimpressed, and props open the fridge door with his hip to put his milk away. “I’m actually running pretty low. But if I’m going to be staying here, it’s just going to go to waste over there.” And Steve is loathe to waste anything, food especially. “I don’t wanna eat him out of house and home in a day, that’s just rude. And a guy should probably only eat so much takeout.”

“Who eats takeout?” Bucky jokes as he steps into the apartment, glancing back to make sure Wanda is okay and doesn’t need him for anything. She seems to be good, focusing intently on her homework, though. He’ll check in with her soon, see if she needs any help. She isn’t the world’s biggest fan of math and Bucky’s pretty good with numbers.

“Who doesn’t?” Natasha tosses back lightly.

“Just not all the time,” Steve concludes, grinning at Bucky, feeling more relieved than even before, now that he’s got him in his sights. He doesn’t look particularly ruffled, which is another good sign. And he’ll take all the good signs he can get, right now. “I just figured I’d bring over what I had in my kitchen so it didn’t spoil,” he puts in. “Natasha doesn’t appreciate my efforts not to waste food.”

But really, he’s not so put out at all. It doesn’t take long to find places in Bucky’s kitchen to put the rest of his groceries, after which Steve turns around and leans against the counter. “So we’ve got one live bug out in the store and we’re going to hole up here for a couple of days. Natasha, I want you to check in at least once a day. Preferably more.” Because if she’s going to be out digging up dirt, he wants to know no one is going to sneak up on her -- unlikely, yes, but not impossible. “I can’t stay here forever, and I’m going to have to deal with Brock, but… I want you to dig into the rest of STRIKE, too.”

He doesn’t like asking her that, doesn’t like implicating the rest of their team on what is potentially one bad egg. But it seems the prudent thing to do.

“I was already planning on it,” Natasha admits, patting his arm as she moved to grab her jacket off the kitchen chair. “I’ll let you know what I find. If you need me, you know how to get ahold of me.” She gives Bucky a pointed look. “So do you.”

Bucky gives her a small smile and nods, struggling to keep his attention anywhere but directly on Steve. It feels like it’s getting harder to take his eyes off him each time they’re around each other, and he doesn’t know if it’s because they’re soulmates or if it’s because Steve is just that good looking. It’s probably a little of both. But the mention of the rest of Steve’s team being under investigation knocks him for a loop when his brain catches up with the conversation. “You think they’re all involved?”

Steve grimaces a little, letting out a slow sigh. “I hope not,” he says quietly. “But Rumlow is pals with a lot of them. That may not mean anything. But it could. You know how loyal soldiers can be to their squad, and Natasha and I are the latecomers.” Steve hadn’t considered them outsiders so much as, well, COs (himself more than Natasha, admittedly, given their roles). But they don’t have exactly the same dynamic with the rest of the team that, say, Brock does. “Maybe they’re not involved. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t be covering or even just choosing to look the other way. I want to be sure. HYDRA is too serious a threat to underestimate. Apparently I did that already.”

As if watching their leader disappear off a plane he’d subsequently crashed into the arctic hadn’t been enough. It makes him feel hollow, right now, to think it hadn’t been.

But it’s hard to feel too hollow, with Bucky in the room beside him. That’s weirdly nice -- for all that it is weird.

“We’ll figure it out,” Natasha tells him, voice sincere. “And if they’re involved, we’ll nail them to the wall.” She steps up on her tiptoes and presses a kiss to Steve’s cheek before heading for the door. “I’ll be around.”

Bucky watches her go, then glances back at Steve. “You know this isn’t your fault, right?” he asks quietly. Because it feels like this could very easily spiral into a guilt trip on Steve’s part, and if he gets any say in it, then Bucky’s not letting that happen.

Steve glances over when Bucky speaks, almost like he’s startled to find Bucky there. That’s not it, though -- no, he’s startled that Bucky pretty much hit the nail on the head. “I can’t help but think some of it is,” he ends up saying, just as quietly. “I tried to stamp them out seventy years ago, but… I guess I got cocky.” Cut off one head, two more shall take its place and all that bullshit. Maybe it had been foolish to think that cutting off what he thought was the most important head would have done it.

“I don’t like that they hurt you,” he adds, and now he’s definitely unhappy, just thinking about it. “I don’t like that they’re still hurting people. They’re different from your average terrorists. They’re so much worse.”

Steve can be surprisingly easy to read sometimes. Bucky already feels like he’s learning the intricacies of his various expressions and the way he holds himself. He remembers the first day they’d met, how Steve had deliberately hunched his shoulders before heading out the door to leave the shop, and he wonders how much of his life he feels like he has to pretend he’s not who he is just to get a little peace and quiet.

And now, Bucky’s dragged him right into the middle of the exact opposite.

Wordlessly, he moves over to stand in front of Steve, resting his right hand on his shoulder and squeezing gently. “And I have no doubt you did everything you could to get rid of them. The thing about terrorists is… even when you get rid of one, there are two more behind you waiting to take you down instead. I don’t think evil ever really goes away, Steve. But I think you do more than most to counterbalance it. And that’s -- that’s important.”

Frankly, Bucky could drag Steve through hell and he would go, willingly; it’s not Bucky’s fault that what happened to him happened, and if anything, Steve is glad that he’s the one Bucky did, a little bit literally, pull right into this. He’s the best equipped -- along with Natasha -- to handle HYDRA. And he wouldn’t want anyone else but Bucky by his side, now or in the future.

That probably is because they’re soulmates, but… there’s a part of Steve that doesn’t mind. There’s a part of him that wants to revel in the fact that he has another soulmate, and this time… this time, he doesn’t have to hide it from the world.

Except he does, a little, because Bucky probably doesn’t want the headache that’s going to come along with being attached to (married to? Bonded to? He’s getting ahead of himself, he knows) Captain America. That’s asking a lot of him. And Steve doesn’t want to even consider how to ask that of him, just yet.

And then there’s Peggy. Steve goes right back to feeling guilty for a moment, because Peggy never even got the chance to show her soulmate off to the world. And he knows she doesn’t regret it, he knows her life wasn’t any less for it. But he maybe can regret it a little, for her.

But now he’s been quiet too long. “Yeah,” he finally says, a little distracted, and feeling bad because he knows Bucky’s just trying to make him feel better, and it is working. “Yeah, you’re right. I mean -- I try to do good. I’m not going to stop. That’s when they win.”

Steve blows out a breath and tries to blow out his anger with it. Getting mad now might feel righteous, but it won’t actually do anything to help. But, “If Brock is HYDRA,” Steve finally says, “he will really, really regret lying about who he is and what he stands for to my face. Every day.”

Finally, though, he smiles, reaching out to snag Bucky by the right wrist and pull him in closer. “Sorry. Got lost in my head a little.”

Bucky lets Steve tug him closer, doesn’t protest the way their bodies end up pressed close together. He’s pretty sure he’d never protest closeness with Steve. And the way he craves it sometimes scares him in its intensity. He presses a soft kiss to Steve’s jaw, then leans his cheek against his. “It’s okay,” he murmurs, letting his eyes close. “I wouldn’t let you stay lost too long.”

Just like when he’d gotten lost inside his own bad memories this morning, Steve had reached out, gently pulled him out of that horrible abyss. He’ll do the same for him, always, God willing. He gently tugs his wrist loose and then slides his fingers through Steve’s, giving his hand a light squeeze.

“You okay now?” Bucky’s voice is quiet when he pulls back to look at him, searching his eyes for any signs of distress.

“Yeah,” Steve says -- and this time, he definitely means it. Bucky’s palm pressed against his, Bucky’s cheek pressed against his, are grounding in a way that little else is. Steve had, admittedly, forgotten what it felt like to be touched just to be touched. He can see why Bucky craves it, even without being an omega anymore.

“Although I’ve got to admit, I haven’t had more than about half a day off in… decades,” Steve says, laughing a little. “I’ll try not to go stir crazy and drive you crazy. Or Wanda. I met her coming in. I like her. Although I think she recognized me.”

Which is maybe the barest start of that conversation they’re going to have to have, someday, but it can lie for now if it needs to.

“Maybe you’ll even enjoy it,” Bucky teases, feeling his chest grow warm at the sound of Steve’s quiet laughter. “But if it helps, I’m not that great with down time, either.” Except when Steve’s around, apparently. The rest of the time he feels like a ball of nervous energy bouncing around, usually without any place to go.

And, “Well. I’ve heard you’re kinda popular, so I’m not really surprised.” Bucky chews the inside of his cheek, trying not to smirk. Then his gaze grows serious. “Want me to talk to her? Ask her not to say anything?”

Steve takes a slow breath, searching Bucky’s face as his expression goes a little serious. “Honestly, it depends on whether you want her to say anything,” he says; so, he might as well say the rest of it. “Someone’s going to, at some point, because we’re not going to just sit in your apartment all the time, current circumstances notwithstanding. Plenty of people don’t know who I am,” and here, he grins, hip-checking Bucky ever-so-slightly to indicate who he’s talking about, “but plenty of people do. And that means they’re going to know who you are, too. Is that… gonna be okay? Someday?”

Bucky’s a little startled by the idea that it’s his decision and he frowns until Steve starts to explain more. Then, he relaxes, shaking his head. “Steve.” His voice is hushed, and he reaches up with his left hand, even though it’s a little bit of a struggle, and he presses that hand to his face. “I’m okay with it now.” He squeezes his hand. “I can handle it.”

That touch makes Steve smile, despite his worry; his fingers come up, curling carefully over Bucky’s hand, like he’s trying to acknowledge how hard he knows it can be to use it. “I know you can handle it,” he says -- because he does, he believes Bucky when he says that he can. “I just… no one ever really told me what it was gonna be like, with everyone knowing my name. It’s a price I pay, and that’s fine, but I just wanted to make sure it was fine with you.”

Bucky considers that for a moment, studying him. “Thing is… I don’t really pay that much attention to the news.” He’d gotten out of the habit when he’d been in Afghanistan without regular access to a television or newspapers. “I won’t even see most of it.” He gives Steve a gentle smile, ignoring the ache in his shoulder that’s a little sharper now just from the way his hand is positioned.

Bucky might not see it, but other people will. Steve’s smile is still a little hesitant, but he won’t second-guess Bucky twice. If he says it’s all right, then it’s all right, even if Steve is admittedly still a little worried about some of the things Bucky does have to hide, like his designation. Especially since Brock Rumlow knows the truth.

Bucky said he was okay with it, but Steve just needs to double-check. To make sure. “I don’t like hiding,” Steve finally says. “So if we don’t have to… I don’t want to.”

“I already have to hide a lot. I don’t wanna hide you, too,” Bucky admits, resting his forehead against Steve’s.

He knows he’s probably over-simplifying the way things will be once people catch wind that Captain America is dating someone. But he figures if he can handle an actual battlefield, a couple of months of torture, living through the pain of recovering from his injuries and the loss of his unit...well, hell. It can’t be any worse than all of that.

He presses a light kiss against Steve’s lips before pulling back to look at him, letting his hand drop down to his side once more. “We’ll deal with it. Whatever happens.” And he sounds confident about that, so that’s good. He feels like Steve’s still a little uncertain and he wants to reassure him.

Bucky does sound confident, and it does help. It’s good to have another person in his corner he can trust absolutely, because God knows he has precious few of those. And he wants to be that for Bucky, too, and the funny thing is, despite the things they started out keeping from each other, Steve doesn’t feel like it’s an issue anymore, and he doesn’t feel like it’s made them anything but stronger. Now they both know the value and the importance of telling each other everything.

“All right,” he says, nodding a little as he releases Bucky’s hand. “Then we won’t hide.” He smiles a little more. “I mean, as soon as we’re done lying low, anyway. I don’t think it’ll be more than a couple of days.” He doesn’t want it to be more than a couple of days, either way, and he knows the longer they leave things with Brock without addressing them, the worse it’s going to be when they do.

Except that only reminds him that Brock -- or someone -- heard their entire conversation last night, or will hear it, and probably recorded it. That’s going to be another bridge to cross, but he isn’t going to worry about it yet. They’ll either catch Brock red-handed and deal with it… or they’ll deal with whatever comes of it when it happens. Like Bucky said.

Chapter Text

Wanda still feels a little dazed as she makes her way farther into the store, toward the hidden apartment at the back. She’s been in Bucky’s apartment a couple of times, mostly helping make sure Alpine is in the for the night, but once for hot chocolate after a rough day at school. She tries not to bother Bucky much, because as laid back as he usually is, she feels like he’s always a little on edge, but -- this is out of her realm of experience. She knocks quietly on the door and waits. Monday evenings are usually slow and tonight’s been no exception except for the last not-quite-a-customer who’d shown up.

She hears footsteps approaching and she draws in a breath, knowing she’s about to be the bearer of bad news, which she hates.

“Hey,” Bucky greets as he pulls open the door and smiles at her, at least until he sees the wariness in her eyes. Uh-oh. “What happened? Are you all right?” His eyebrows furrow with concern.

“There was a reporter just here,” she tells him, troubled. “Is Steve around? He should hear this, too.”

Steve is indeed around, just coming out of the bathroom where he’d been hanging up fresh towels (he’s determined to help out around the place, as if it were his). And he doesn’t like the look on Wanda’s face any more than he likes the sound of her voice.

“What is it?” he asks, immediately at least a little on edge. He frowns, because a reporter is much less serious than, say, Brock or someone looking to make physical trouble, but they also haven’t been out of the apartment together, and Steve himself hasn’t left since he brought his things over a few days ago. Even so, someone must have seen him leave and come back (and not leave again) -- he’s already assuming this is going to be about him and Bucky and how it’s become public, which is not ideal timing, but at least it could be something worse, right?

Wanda takes a deep breath, glancing at Steve. “He asked what I thought about the fact that --” She hesitates. “That Captain America wasn’t born an alpha. That he was born an omega, and that the government hid that when they put him through the procedure that made him into who he is.”

Bucky feels all the air leave his lungs. That’s -- worse than he’d been expecting. By far.

“I told him I had no idea what he was talking about and it sounded like a dumb rumor or a conspiracy theory. He left when I threatened to call the cops,” Wanda adds, tucking some hair behind her ear.

Steve is not the kind of guy who really cares what others think about him. He’s not. But even so, Wanda’s words make him go cold, and for a lot of reasons. First, that someone knows he’s involved with Bucky, for sure, which he’d maybe already expected, but has clearly been confirmed. And second, that whoever was on the other end of those bugs did hear their conversation and is already using it against them. Because if he’s potentially exposed as someone whose designation has been changed unnaturally, then Bucky could and very likely would be next.

He’s hoping the look on his face doesn’t tip Wanda off to anything other than the fact that he’s obviously upset. He glances at Bucky, knowing he’ll know it’s not just a baseless accusation, before turning back to Wanda to say, “You did the right thing, threatening to call the cops. I’m sorry someone bothered you like that. Over something so --” What does he even say? Ridiculous? It’s the truth, but while he trusts her, he isn’t sure he wants to tell her that, any more than Bucky wants to tell her what happened to him.

“It’s okay,” Wanda assures him, shaking her head. “I just thought you should know. I’m fine, he wasn’t mean to me or anything. Just… annoying.” She offers them a small smile.

Bucky draws in a slow, deep breath. “We appreciate you telling us,” he says honestly. His heart is beating quickly in his chest. God, this could be terrible. Could put Steve in actual danger when he’s out on his missions. He doesn’t know how Steve’s coworkers will feel about this, but what if it means they won’t have his back when he needs them? He swallows back the nausea that’s building rapidly.

“Yeah, of course. I’ll let you know if he comes back or anything,” she says, nodding, and turning to head back toward the front, then pausing in her tracks, hesitating. “If it was true, and I know it’s not, but if it was --” She turns to look back at them. “I wouldn’t care. You’re still a hero.” She shrugs. “And the whole designation thing is stupid anyway.”

Steve can’t help the way his lips tick up into a smile, if a small one. “Yeah,” he says, feeling a little breathless, but this certainly isn’t the first time he’s needed to put on a brave face, pretend everything is fine, and he can do it now, especially in front of Wanda. “Yeah, it is stupid. Thanks. That means a lot.”

Especially because it is true, but -- like she’d said, even if it wasn’t, it’s still going to get people thinking. It’s not something that can be taken back and hidden again.

Steve waits, though, until Wanda has left the apartment again before he glances at Bucky and says, “Rumlow or not, whoever was listening in isn’t keeping it to themselves.”

Bucky nods at that, gray eyes troubled as he looks at Steve and closes the door behind them. “Steve...I’m sorry,” he says quietly. He hadn’t, of course, known that someone had bugged his apartment until a couple days ago, but it had been here in his apartment where he and Steve had talked about a lot of things of a very sensitive nature and he can’t quite shake the feeling of responsibility.

That definitely makes Steve frown. “Buck -- no. This isn’t your fault. It’s… honestly, even if people believe it, what can it change now?”

“A lot,” Bucky responds, shaking his head. A lot could change. And not for the better if this isn’t handled quickly. And if this is because of Brock and some need for revenge, then it is at least somewhat because of him that this is happening. What doesn’t make much sense to him is why, if it is Brock behind this, he hasn’t already released Bucky’s designation to the general public. But he thinks that despite the fact it means losing his store, Brock going after Steve to get to him is somehow even worse.

Yes, the answer is a lot. But it’s also not much. Steve’s torn between not wanting to care at all, and not being sure what’s going to happen next. But he does know it’s absolutely not Bucky’s fault. He’s honestly more angry that anyone, Rumlow or whoever, bugged Bucky’s apartment. Even if Steve hadn’t admitted things that night, Bucky might have. And that same person would have heard it.

That same person did hear it. “If they can attack me, they can attack you,” Steve says, quietly. “You have a lot more to lose than I do.” Even if he really isn’t thinking about the fact that it’s illegal to pretend to be a designation you’re not. Especially for omegas. And if someone thinks he’s not really an alpha, he can at least be detained until it’s confirmed.

Although there’s never been a case for an omega turning into an alpha before. And no legal precedent. Anything could go.

“We both have a lot to lose,” Bucky says quietly, gnawing on his lower lip. “We should check out the news. See how bad it is.” Because if one reporter’s already managed to track down the connection between them and showed up at the shop, he’s sure more are sure to follow suit. They need to be as prepared as they can.

He hears Steve’s phone buzz and he draws in a slow breath, trying to steady himself.

Steve’s just starting to nod -- he doesn’t have a good solution, just yet, so for now it is best to just see what they’re facing and gather more intel -- when his phone begins rattling its way across Bucky’s counter with several message notifications. “I’ll see what that is,” he says, already having a feeling it’s just as likely to be bad as it is good, “and you maybe turn on the news?”

He resolutely crosses the short distance to his phone and picks it up, only to see three messages from three different people: Tony Stark, Pepper Potts, and Nick Fury. He blows out a breath.; Tony wants to know if it’s true (and how Erskine and his father managed it if it is), Pepper wants to let him know she’s very experienced at turning baseless rumors into yesterday’s news, and Fury only tells him, in very cryptic terms, that there’s going to have to be a public response from the government on his behalf.

Fury also wants to know why a member of his team has filed a complaint against him.

Steve ends up dropping heavily onto the couch. He doesn’t get migraines anymore, but it sure feels like one wants to give it the old college try.

Bucky can’t help wincing at the distressed look on Steve’s face, but he moves to sit down beside him, bodies pressed close together in hopes that the contact helps a little. He rests a hand on Steve’s thigh. “Nat?” he guesses. She’s probably heard rumblings by now. She seems the type who stays pretty connected to everything that’s going on with the Avengers, or at least, to Steve. If he didn’t know better, he might be a little jealous, but he’s seen them interact and the relationship they have is platonic. Strong, but platonic.

He’s glad that she has Steve’s back and he doubts that this information will change anything about that. The other Avengers, though, are complete unknowns to him. He has no clue what to expect from any of them. Hopefully, though, they’re all like Natasha with her sense of loyalty.

“Actually, no,” Steve says, with something that’s almost a laugh under his voice, but it’s not because anything is particularly funny at all. “Although Pepper says she can help me deal with this.” Of course, she also thinks it’s a lie, which is… somehow, that makes him feel worse, even though the whole point is that everyone thinks it’s a lie. “Tony wants to know if it’s true, the government is going to have to say something publicly, and apparently Brock filed a complaint against me.”

The last part sounds somewhere between wry and exhausted. That’s about how he feels. Suddenly, he feels very, very tired, blowing out a slow breath. “It’s -- I mean, I’m an alpha now. You can’t fake that. So I can prove it.”

Even if he doesn’t like the fact that he has to -- or the fact that if someone were to make Bucky prove he’s a beta… he couldn’t.

Bucky feels his heart sink a little more at each new revelation. And sure, Steve can prove it with a DNA blood test. All in all, that’s not that big of a deal. Except it’s a lot all at once and if he feels overwhelmed, then he knows Steve must feel even worse. And he can see the tiredness in his eyes. He wants to apologize again -- especially because the entire thing with Brock is a mess that he’d pretty literally dumped into Steve’s lap.

He wants to make it right, wants to fix it. But he also has no idea where to start. “Are you gonna be in trouble?” His voice is fainter than before. It’s hard to imagine anyone who works with Steve taking Brock’s side on anything, but he knows as well as anyone that the face he uses in public is very different from the one he presents with behind closed doors. He can be charming. Convincing.

Manipulative.

This time when Steve laughs, it doesn’t sound quite so tired, at least. “Aw, Buck -- I’ve been in trouble pretty much my whole life. It’s not about that.” If he’s reprimanded, he’s reprimanded. It doesn’t change the fact that Steve is right and Brock is wrong, even if it puts more power in Brock’s hands and makes it harder to deal with him. But not impossible.

“I’ll talk to my CO.” After all, Fury knows Steve and he knows Brock. He’ll want both sides of the story, which is probably why he told Steve in the first place. “Worst they can do is probably pull me off active duty, but that usually backfires when something comes up.” Like something world-ending. Which, admittedly, he would not like to happen just to get him back on a team.

Not that what HYDRA is doing isn’t potentially world-ending, in a way. It’s at least world-changing. But Steve’s not out of the game yet. “I won’t know until I deal with it. And I don’t want to do anything until I hear back from Natasha. If Brock really is affiliated with HYDRA, there’s a lot more to worry about than my designation. I think the World Security Council will see that.”

At least, that’s what he believes. They’re what stands between HYDRA and the rest of the world, after all. But it’s still a waiting game, right now. And Steve hates waiting. Even so, “I’d rather keep the spotlight on me. Keeps it off other people.” Like Bucky.

Bucky doesn’t like the idea of Steve getting reprimanded, especially not when he’d done it to save Bucky’s ass. And he’s not surprised that Steve doesn’t really care about that part one way or the other. Heroes rarely care about what happens to themselves, apparently. His chest feels too tight but he nods, looking down for a moment at his hands.

He’s not really too inclined to trust entities like the World Security Council or anyone else in a position of a lot of power. He’s familiar with their stance on designations and the way they use them against people. And while Steve might be the one exception -- at least hopefully he’ll be an exception to that rule -- his trust levels have decreased pretty dramatically over the last few months.

And Bucky knows Steve means him when he says he’d prefer to keep the spotlight on himself instead of other people. He reaches out silently and takes the cell phone from Steve’s hand, setting it aside and then he rises to his feet, only to situate himself on Steve’s lap, knees braced on either side of his hips. “You’re a good man, Steve Rogers,” he whispers, lifting his right hand to cup his cheek.

Steve’s lips twitch up into a smile as Bucky settles over him. “Well, I’m not in it for a reward, but… this is pretty nice,” he murmurs, sliding his hands around Bucky’s waist, tangling his fingers at the small of his back.

“We’ll make sure the right thing happens,” he says. “We have an advantage someone like Brock or HYDRA could never understand, and that’s real trust. They’re saying what they’re saying about me because they want to undermine that, but… I trust people to know better. To know that designation isn’t everything.” At least, he really, really hopes so.

“Besides. You’re definitely a good man, too,” Steve adds. “You know, I was kind of terrified you were an alpha when we first met,” he admits. “I already couldn’t get enough of you.”

Steve has so much faith in people. It’s actually kind of incredible. But Bucky finds pretty much everything about him incredible. He hopes like hell that people don’t let him down. He strokes his thumb over Steve’s cheek, gaze dropping a little at the compliment. It doesn’t feel like he’s done anything to earn it.

But his lips quirk upwards a little anyway. “I was afraid you’d think I was an alpha because I owned a store,” he admits. “But right at first I was pretty sure you had me pegged as an omega and that scared me, too.” He closes his eyes, lets the feel of Steve’s hands pressing against his back sink into his skin, warming him. It feels like he spends a lot of his time scared these days. Of one thing or another.

“Yeah, you were… confusing,” Steve admits. “Right there on the street, I was really sure you were an omega. But then when we talked about the bookstore, I figured I must’ve gotten it wrong.” His fingers tangle in the hem of Bucky’s shirt, just grasping it gently, nothing more. “I just wanted to be with you, and… yeah, it’s easier if you’re not an alpha, too. It was hard on Peggy. I couldn’tve cared less, but she’d worked so hard to get where she was, and…”

Bucky shifts forward, resting his forehead against Steve’s as he trails off. “What can I do to help with all of this? There has to be something.”

Steve hums softly, leaning into Bucky when the other leans into him. “I dunno. Just -- be here, y’know? It feels really selfish to ask, but I just want to spend time with you for a little while and forget about everything else. I know we can’t. But I don’t want either of us to be scared for just a little while.”

Bucky presses a soft kiss to the corner of his mouth, brushing his nose over Steve’s lightly. He’d never in his entire life wanted to Eskimo kiss anyone the way he does now. “Not going anywhere,” he murmurs. Wanda’s closing the store tonight so he doesn’t feel the need to get up and start worrying about that.

He rests his left hand loosely atop Steve’s shoulder and then lowers his mouth to kiss him, soft and sweet. “Not selfish,” he adds. He rests his right hand against his heart, feeling the steady thumping beneath it and letting it ground him in the moment.

Steve doesn’t mind the kisses one bit, Eskimo or traditional. It feels good, and it’s exactly what he wants and just… isn’t good at asking for. He’s not used to having this -- to having someone to ask for this kind of thing, because the last time he fell in love, they couldn’t really do this. They had to walk on eggshells and hide everything and now that he doesn’t have to, it’s amazing and a little terrifying, but mostly in a good way. But also in a way that feels like if Bucky will only let Steve touch him and hold him, he’ll never want to stop.

“Okay,” he breathes, slipping his fingers under Bucky’s shirt now, just spreading his palms flat against his back, seeing if Bucky likes that kind of touch, too. It feels closer, more intimate, than even sleeping in the same bed together, but he’s not going to push for anything more than closeness right now. That’s what he wants, and he hopes Bucky can get just as much good out of it as he can. “I’ll make some calls later, but -- later. Right now, I want you to stay here like you wanna and we can pretend we’re normal people without weird-ass lives that don’t know how to let a couple guys get a few days of peace and quiet, right?”

He laughs, “I’m not sure if I feel like I’ve known you my whole life, or only for a day. I feel like time gets weird when you’re around, does that make sense?”

Bucky’s more than happy to oblige Steve’s request to stay there on his lap and pretend the outside world doesn’t exist for a little while. The feel of his hands against his bare skin makes him shudder in a way that’s entirely pleasant, like he’s drunk on the light touching, and a quiet, affirmative sound escapes him. He dips his head, buries his face against the side of Steve’s neck, kissing him there, not quite able to stop himself.

“Yes,” he answers honestly, because it’s the same for him. It’s why he already wants to say certain words to Steve, but also why he hesitates to dare and utter them. He just knows he’s never felt this way for anyone else before. “Do you think it’s the soulmate thing?” His voice is hushed.

Steve makes his own soft, appreciative noise when Bucky noses into his neck, warm lips against skin and it makes him shiver a little, despite the fact that he can also feel himself start to flush. “Maybe? I mean… I think so,” he says, pulling one hand out from beneath Bucky’s shirt to rest it on the back of his neck, fingertips just brushing where the mark should be, at his hairline. “I feel like I should know, if it’s happened to me before, but it’s not exactly the same.”

Which, he guesses, makes sense -- the circumstances are different and Peggy and Bucky are, of course, two very different people. He wouldn’t want them to be the same. Not at all. They have similar qualities, but they are not the same person at all.

Bucky enjoys the noise that escapes Steve at the kisses he places against his neck, so he does it again, almost whining when one of his hands pulls away from his back -- but then it rests against the back of his neck instead. And instantly he felt some of the restlessness in his bones begin to settle. At that realization, he slides his right hand up and around, returning the gesture, wondering if it would have the same effect on Steve.

The hand on the back of Steve’s neck feels real -- more real than anything in this room, like Bucky is the only thing that matters, the only thing Steve needs. It feels like every inch of Bucky is perfect, and perfectly there for him, and it’s a feeling he never wants to lose.

“Peggy I kinda… fell head over heels for within about five seconds, and I knew it,” he goes on. “You, I… think I tried not to?” Because he’d thought Bucky was probably an alpha, and because things were so very different this time around.

And yet, they also weren’t. “But Peggy and I always felt rushed. There was a war. This feels slower. Better, honestly. But also like I don’t need to take my time, because I already know what matters.” He doesn’t know if trying to explain it will help, or if it will make Bucky worry about trying to be like Peggy. He doesn’t want that. “You know I don’t want it to be the same, right? I don’t want you to be the same. Please don’t ever worry about that.”

Bucky listens quietly as Steve considers his question, talking it out and comparing to how things had been with Peggy. He’s surprised, maybe, that he doesn’t feel any jealousy or insecurities with the topic of conversation. Just curiosity.

“I know,” he assures Steve, leaning his forehead against his once more. He’s relieved, still, that Steve seems to be good with going slow, because he feels like he needs that even if he doesn’t necessarily want it. It feels healthier, the way that they’re doing things, slow and steady. “I’m not worried about it,” Bucky assures him quietly. “Promise.”

Steve believes Bucky, feels grateful and relieved in equal measures, when he says he’s not worried about Peggy, about what happened before. “Okay,” he breathes, thumb brushing up into Bucky’s hairline, just seeking out every little extra way to touch. “Okay. Good. Because I feel crazy sometimes when I think about… getting you, too. And it’s not like I have you, but I have a chance with you, and I don’t want to mess it up.”

He really, really doesn’t. Which is part of why everything that’s happening outside of this moment, that he’s working hard not to think of, is doubly as worrying. Because it could take Bucky away from him, and Steve doesn’t want to lose him. Not when he just found him.

Bucky relaxes because he can practically feel Steve’s relief. Or maybe he’s just losing his mind. It isn’t like that many factual texts exist when it comes to soulmates. It’s not something he can research and read up on and just believe in the accuracy of like he could most other topics. “You do, though,” he murmurs, even though he wonders if he should. “You do have me.” It’s just a fact. Steve has him as long as he wants him and he hopes it’s a long, long time. Because the idea of not having this is unbearable.

He knows the kind of odds they’re facing considering the amount of obstacles that have already been thrown into their path already, and they’ve only been together a couple weeks. Less than that if you take away the week Steve had been gone on a mission. It’s crazy to think about. His own fingers slide up and into Steve’s hair, his thumb brushing against the tiny raised mark there.

The little touch to Steve’s mark feels like the tiniest, lightest static shock in the world -- so light that maybe he imagined it, but just enough to feel like he didn’t. His eyes flutter and his breath catches, and he tilts his head into Bucky’s touch, wanting him to know it’s good.

“And you’ve got me,” Steve says, quiet and insistent. “I know you know it’s not like how everybody else thinks it works. We own each other.” Because there are far too many books and movies and everything else about how alphas run the relationship, how omegas want to be possessed and alphas want to possess. Sure, there’s something in Steve that does feel awfully possessive of Bucky. And he can’t help it. But there’s also something in him that wants Bucky to have as much right to him as Steve’s got to Bucky, and he doesn’t want to hide that, either. “As much as anybody owns anybody else, anyway.”

Bucky’s fascinated by the way he hears Steve’s breathing hitch when his fingers brush over the mark, the way his eyes close. And his eyes darken just a little at Steve’s words, a tiny thrill running through him at the declaration that they owned each other. Some part of him thinks that should be appalling, but it just...isn’t. Maybe it would be with anyone else, but Steve isn’t the same kind of alpha that Brock is. When he says they own each other, he doesn’t mean that he wants to control Bucky or put him in his place.

“But whether it’s good or bad, I’m kinda still new to the whole… soulmates who can touch each other whenever they want thing,” Steve admits. “So I guess we’ll have to figure it out together. I don’t think I mind.”

Bucky laughs quietly when Steve says he’s new to the soulmates who can touch each other thing. “We could make it a two-person club,” he jokes, arching his eyebrows.

“That sounds like a club I’d want to join. Do we get cards?” Of course, that’s when Steve brushes his fingers up through Bucky’s hair, sure to catch the mark against the pad of his thumb, half to be a brat, and half because he’s curious, too.

When Steve grazes over his own mark, a whimper escapes Bucky, almost inaudibly and completely involuntary, heart skipping in his chest. His pupils are suddenly blown wide, dazed expression on his face and he literally can’t remember what Steve had just asked him.

Steve’s grin, at that, is wide and a little sloppy. “Feels good?” he asks, although it’s not exactly like he needs confirmation. He leans up, glad for a body that doesn’t actually require much effort at all to do that, and brushes his lips over Bucky’s, liking the look on his face, unaware that maybe his own is a bit the same. Wondering, overwhelmed, definitely lost and definitely liking it.

He brushes his thumb over the same spot again, brushing the fingers of his other hand over the bumps of Bucky’s spine. He doesn’t need more than this, but he does need to keep touching him so he’ll keep looking just like that. “I could kiss you there?”

He isn’t sure if that’s too intimate, or not enough, or something in between. It’s why it’s a question, instead of a statement.

Bucky can’t help but shiver at the idea of Steve’s lips against that same spot, and he doesn’t know how a tiny mark can cause so much of a physical sensation at all. There has to be some sort of explanation behind it, but right now he doesn’t care all that much. He swallows heavily, nodding.

“You can do that,” he whispers, threading the rest of his fingers in Steve’s hair, but continuing to brush his thumb over the soulmark.

There’s probably some reason, but what really matters to Steve is the actual physical reality of it, right now, and the way that Bucky’s hand is in his hair and he says Steve can do the thing he actually really, really wants to do.

“Okay,” he says again, and kisses Bucky one more time for good measure, then works his lips over Bucky’s cheek, his temple, his ear, because why skip all the good stuff on the way?

The tenderness in every kiss that Steve places against his skin makes Bucky’s insides feel like melting butter and he closes his eyes and lets Steve tilt his head to the side. He thinks fleetingly that Steve has even more of an ability to hold him down by the neck, try to force a mating bite on him but that thought is gone as soon as it happens. Because this is Steve, and he’d never do that, and Bucky knows that.

Now, Steve is aiming for Bucky’s neck like a man on a mission, gently twisting his fingers in Bucky’s hair just so he can tilt his head and give Steve access to the right spot to brush his lips over, feeling a strange little jolt again, this time almost like he’d pressed his lips to a frozen light pole, but if that kind of feeling could be good. It’s a little shock of something fresh, like breathing in the tang of ozone after a storm.

“Feel good to you?” he asks, tilting his face to nose at the spot instead. Just in case.

Bucky shivers in Steve’s arms at the tiny electric shock that goes through him when he grazes his lips over the mark, and even when he brushes his nose over it. “Yes,” he whispers, feeling breathless and like any second he might go hurtling over the edge of a cliff. He tightens his fingers in Steve’s hair just a bit, scraping his teeth over his lower lip.

Something in Steve, some last little bit of tension, relaxes and lets go when Bucky says it feels good. When he knows they’re both feeling the same -- if not exactly the same, then enough the same that Steve can enjoy the fact that Bucky’s enjoying the way Steve is touching him. And Steve has to admit that he really, really likes the way Bucky fists his fingers a little tighter in his hair, too.

“That’s good,” he murmurs, not really paying attention to what he’s saying, admittedly, tilting his head so he can mouth at the mark a little more -- testing, seeing if it all feels good, or if some things feel better than others. Of course, he laughs softly a minute later, saying, “Except if I pay too much attention here, everyone’s gonna know there’s something, I guess.” It’s not like he’s trying to leave a mark, not on top of the one that’s already there, but he can only pay a spot so much attention before it’s going to turn a little red.

Bucky doesn’t really care who sees whatever marks Steve leaves on him. He doesn’t have anyone who cares about him one way or the other, aside from Wanda, and well. She’s a teenager. She knows what hickeys are. She also knows he and Steve are living together, even if technically it’s temporary at this point. He doesn’t want to think about that part right now, as a little shiver goes through him as Steve noses his way down his neck.

Bucky doesn’t stop him, so Steve sighs softly against the skin, nosing his way a little further down Bucky’s neck, but he hits a little patch of rougher skin right when he realizes --

“Oh -- oh, shit, sorry.” That’s where Brock tried to bite Bucky before. And that is not at all what Steve wants him to be thinking about; his first instinct is to pull away, but he fights it, not wanting Bucky to think that it’s because Steve is disgusted. Or, well, he is disgusted, but not with Bucky. Not over something like that, when he knows Bucky didn’t have a choice, and Brock didn’t want it for any reason that’s good.

“Sorry,” he says again, instead twisting his head so his forehead is pressed to Bucky’s neck, innocuous and hopefully submissive. “Sorry, I didn’t mean --”

A quiet sound escapes Bucky as Steve hits that scar. He draws in a slow breath, knowing immediately that Steve realizes what it is when he starts apologizing. “Shh,” he murmurs, stroking the back of his neck. The feel of Steve’s head pressing against his throat makes his insides feel warm, tender. “It’s okay,” he whispers. “It’s okay, Stevie.”

Steve still feels a little stupid and embarrassed. He’s not sure why, only that he probably should have been thinking when he’d started making his way down Bucky’s neck. If not for that reason, then maybe just because that’s where people do make mating bites, and he’d never try to do that without someone’s full consent.

Well. Without Bucky’s full consent -- because he can’t imagine being this close to anyone else but Bucky ever again, whether it’s the soulmark talking or not. Part of him thinks the soulmarks are just the icing on the cake. He wants to believe that, wants to believe that they have free will. That they feel better because of the soulmarks when they’re together, but not that the soulmarks mean they have to be together. He’s believed in soulmarks all his life, like he told Bucky -- but he’s always hated the stories that made them seem like fate or compulsion, like people didn’t have a choice. He wants to have a choice. That makes it even more precious, when he chooses it. When someone chooses him.

Still, he doesn’t move for a moment, maybe feeling a little guilty that Bucky’s touch is so soothing, when Steve’s the one who just messed up. “I would never,” he says quietly. “I know you know, but I would never. Brock is going to pay for what he did.” He doesn’t care that Brock tried to register a complaint against him. That’s just the mark of a guilty man, as far as Steve’s concerned. He’s trying to cover his ass out of spite. But spite has nothing on righteousness.

Bucky moves his hand to cup Steve’s cheek, gently tugging his face up so he can look at him. So Steve can look at Bucky when he utters his next words. “I do know,” he says softly, solemnly. “You’re nothing like Brock Rumlow, Steve.” He couldn’t be more different from Brock if he was actively trying. Brock is a snake in the grass, and Bucky sees that in all the ways he hadn’t at the start of the thing between them. It’s even more vividly clear now, because he’s with Steve, and there’s something good, something pure, to compare it with.

And he doesn’t doubt that Steve’s going to make sure Brock gets what he deserves. But --

“Hey.” Bucky searches his eyes. “I don’t want you to do anything that’s going to cause you more trouble. Okay? If it turns out that he’s the one who planted the bugs, we’ll find a way to nail his ass to the wall for it, but -- I don’t want you putting yourself at risk personally or professionally any more than you already have. Not for me.”

Steve’s lips twitch up a little; “Uh, I have some bad news for you. You might be soulmark matched with the wrong guy, pal.”

It’s not that he wants to make things difficult. But he wants to make sure Brock doesn’t get away with what he’s done, with trying to bond someone against their will twice, with bugging Bucky’s apartment and with blackmailing him into whatever he wants. He has a feeling that last bit is probably out the window, now, but he knows that Brock might not think so. And now, someone’s essentially trying to blackmail Steve. It all feels very much like the same hand is doing both, and if it’s not Brock Rumlow, then Steve will apologize to the guy’s face, but he’s not really willing to bet that he’ll have to.

“What if I like causing trouble?” he asks, trying to tease, but it’s maybe a little true. For all that he’d said maybe he liked getting punched before, he also knows that stirring up trouble is often the only way to get people to think about something. Things don’t change when everything seems fine and trouble-free. “But -- I don’t want to cause trouble for you,” he adds, because he certainly does realize that if Bucky’s going to end up in the public eye… Steve should maybe try to restrain himself a little, on his behalf.

Bucky’s silent for a moment, torn between amusement and worry. Steve isn’t the only one who likes to shake things up because things need to be shaken up. He’s been quietly, steadily working to help do some shaking up of his own, even if it’s not on his own. “I need to show you something,” he whispers. He leans in and presses a soft kiss to Steve’s mouth before reluctantly climbing off his lap and rising to his feet. He rakes his hand through his short hair and then moves to kneel down on the floor beside the area rug that’s covering part of the floor in the living room area.

Steve hums softly when Bucky says he needs to show him something; he feels a little colder when Bucky climbs off him, but he leans forward into the touch to his hair, hunching over a little more, elbows on his knees, admittedly a bit confused when Bucky goes to lift up the corner of the rug.

But he’s only confused for a moment.

Bucky carefully folds the rug back, glancing at Steve and pressing his lips together before his fingers seek out the indention in one of the boards, lifting it up and out of the way before doing the same to the one right beside it. He rocks back onto his heels and carefully pulls out a laptop, which he sets on the coffee table, pulling the charger and the flash drive out, as well. He leaves the gun in its place even if he knows Steve can see it from his vantage point.

Once a soldier, always a soldier, he figures. He sets the boards back in place and covers them up with the rug once more, exhaling as he moves to sit down beside Steve on the couch once more. “I might like causing a little trouble, too,” he admits.

“How’s that?” Steve asks, interested and curious, eyes flicking from Bucky to the laptop. Granted, he doesn’t know exactly what Bucky means, but he’s seen people like Natasha and Tony cause enough trouble with screens and keyboard to know that a simple computer isn’t always as innocuous as it looks. Especially not one that someone keeps hidden.

Bucky flips the laptop open, turns it on and glances sideways to meet Steve’s eyes momentarily. When the screen comes up, he types in a complicated password and waits for it to get going before clicking on an icon on the screen that logs him onto the dark web. Then he plugs in his flash drive, typing in a series of commands before drawing in a breath and connecting to a website.

Steve sits quietly while Bucky gets the laptop set up, figuring that asking questions prematurely, even if he’s curious, will just get in the way of what Bucky’s doing. It’s innocent-looking enough -- a website that features a forum on topics like art history, music, and writing. At the bottom of the forum is a button that simply says “Feedback.” Bucky clicks it and types in a username and password on that screen, too.

And suddenly there’s a branding across the top of the screen: ORC. “Omega Rights Committee,” he tells Steve in a hushed tone, sneaking a glance at him.

Nothing seems too serious, until Bucky gets to the last screen and Steve scoots forward a little more, peering at the computer like it will tell him everything he definitely wants to know, now. “What is it?” he asks, watching the screen a little more intently, eyes flicking to Bucky’s. “Is this…”

He’s quiet a moment, because it’s at least a little self-explanatory, and it’s not like Steve had never gone to a rally or a meeting or a speech when he was growing up. On the contrary, he’d got to a lot of demonstrations, because there were a lot, if a person knew the right people and the right places. “What does the group do?” He doesn’t believe Bucky would be a part of something violent, but he does want to know what it is he seems to be a part of, that has to be such a secret.

Bucky takes a deep breath, licking his lips absently. “It’s -- a worldwide network made of omegas and their allies. Grassroots. Purpose is to achieve equality among all designations,” he tells him, knowing Steve will be on board with that. It’s the reason he knows he can show this to him without worrying about him telling anyone else. “Buried deep on the dark web, on a site that most alphas wouldn’t glance twice at.” Because of course most of the resistance they were met with was from alphas, who didn’t want omegas to have equal rights, like it would somehow make their own rights less important.

“It started long before the internet existed,” he says, but he knows Steve knows that part, too. Because all those rallies and speeches and demonstrations had been around back in Steve’s day. “The American group was disbanded in the fifties, when it was deemed a violation of the constitution.” There’s a hint of bitterness in his voice. “A lot of the other segments were disbanded around that time, too, but not all of them. The Canadian branch kept going strong and as things go, they’ve been the first to make actual progress with laws and societal shifts in view regarding omegas and what they’re allowed to do. There’s a law in progress that -- if it gets signed, omegas will be able to own their own businesses.” He smiles and turns his attention back to the laptop.

Steve nods a little as Bucky speaks, absorbing that and -- well, yeah. He has a little experience with the “before the internet existed” part, and somehow he’d never thought… but it makes sense. People use the internet for everything, these days. And it would be a way to connect instantly across state and country lines that just hadn’t even been a possibility, when he had attended all those rallies. Everything he’d gone to had been extremely regional -- and extremely secret. Except for the few that had been broken up by the police.

“So it’s… people sharing ideas on how to do that. And how to get people to understand? That’s what we used to do,” he admits, suddenly feeling old, and old-fashioned. “I was never really very good at it, but… I was never really very good at subtle.”

He smiles a bit helplessly, but he remembers lectures on how to slowly, gently bring alphas around, how to make them think they’d thought of the idea, and Steve just hadn’t really operated that way. Being loud in an effort to change policies and acting up on what was right, those are more up his alley. Which is why he had always been a little disappointed in the rallies he’d attended, but is very interested in this, because, “People are more outspoken now, though. That could be a good thing. Getting a law passed like that anywhere in the world shows that it can work.”

Bucky nods at that, but his lips quirk up in a tiny smile at Steve’s admission. “I can’t imagine you not being subtle, Stevie.” He nudges him lightly with his knee. “But it’s not just brainstorming. It’s more -- a lot of it’s networking. People who are willing to do some of the nitty gritty work that others can’t for whatever reason. There are safehouses for omegas fleeing from their significant other when they’ve been bonded or married or both.” All of which is also illegal. “People who help them relocate, start over. People who know how to get a hold of suppressants, others who do other kinds of assistance with family planning.”

He lets out a breath. “There’s a lot.”

Steve’s eyebrows rise, because, “Yeah. That is a lot. That’s --” He blows out a breath, too, leaning back against the couch again. That’s a hell of a lot more resources than anyone he ever knew had, even though of course people had done things back then to help, too. People had housed omegas who were in bad relationships. People had gotten illegal suppressants easily enough. People had found ways to help, but this sounds so much bigger. So much better.

“And you help them? You’re part of this?” It seems obvious, but it makes his heart feel like it’s growing exponentially, to know Bucky is struggling, himself, but also trying to be a part of something bigger. To try and make the world a better place. Yes, he’s trying to keep his shop, and it’s stupid and unfair that he could lose it in the first place. But he’s doing his best not to struggle alone.

“Yeah,” Bucky answers quietly. “I’m a little limited in what I’m able to do, but I help connect people with others in the area who can help them. Or even locating people out of the area, wherever they’re wanting to go. There’s an entire section of businesses either owned by supportive alphas and betas who are willing to help omegas in need, or owned by alphas or betas but run by omegas…” He glances at Steve sideways. “Like Stark Industries. Everyone went kind of nuts when Mr. Stark turned his business over to be run by Pepper Potts. The community’s been really active ever since then.”

The next question, for Steve, is also obvious: “Can I help?”

He doesn’t know if he’s too high-profile for this kind of thing. There are some very significant disadvantages, and he knows everything right now is delicate, if the government is going to have to deal with the rumors -- are they even rumors, if they’re true? -- about him that are only going to escalate, he’s sure, until they’re shut down. Part of him, the small, confrontational part, hates that they really are just going to disappear, when they just ask him for a blood DNA test. Maybe he could just explain, tell the truth -- But that might be a whole other can of worms. He’s not sure what would help the most. But he wants to help. And he’d been so wrapped up in his own little world of good guys and bad guys ever since the ice, that he hadn’t realized he could be doing more, and that’s not a feeling he likes.

Bucky reaches out and lets his hand rest on Steve’s arm. “Yeah. I think you can. It just depends on what you’re interested in doing. We’re always glad to have support.” And having support from two Avengers -- well. That was something.

It feels weird, for a second, the way Bucky says We’re always glad to have support, because -- Steve isn’t part of the we. It’s not like he can just forget he’s an alpha, but it’s just… weird, being on the other side of things. Weird, being on the outside looking in, being the one with all the power in the situation, and it jars him for a moment.

But, “I don’t know,” he says, quietly. “I want to do whatever I can. I mean, I’ve been…” He falls silent for a long moment; this isn’t something he wants to admit. But it’s something that maybe Bucky would understand, in a way most other people wouldn’t. Can’t.

“I feel like since I woke up, I’ve been… sleepwalking, kinda. Like this is just a really elaborate dream, or like -- I don’t know. Disconnected. Like all I was good for was the work.” Because he had nothing else left, no one from the home he’d left behind except for Peggy, and she’s been slipping away since long before he woke up. “I don’t want to feel like that anymore. I want to stand for something. Not just… whatever I used to stand for. It’s not the same.”

He doesn’t know if that thing could or should be omega rights, but this whole situation has got him thinking. Maybe whoever is trying to take him down just opened a door for him, instead.

Bucky sits back against the couch, watching Steve carefully as he speaks. His own chest tightens as he describes how he’s felt since he’d woke up from the ice. “Steve, you give people hope,” he says quietly. “Whether or not you decide to jump on board with ORC or something else, you do stand for something already. And -- hell, you’ve changed my life for the better and I’ve only known you a couple weeks.”

“I feel outdated,” Steve murmurs, like what he stood for isn’t really relevant anymore, given the state of things right now. “And I don’t want to be.” He shrugs a little, not sure if that’s even the right word to use, but not sure how else to put it. He just knows that he doesn’t want to be outdated. Or unapproachable. Maybe working covert ops has just made him feel a little more disconnected than he was, before.

Bucky reaches out, rests his hand on Steve’s knee. “Whatever you decide you want to do -- I’m behind you. A hundred percent.” Bucky holds his breath for a second. “I’m with you till the end of the line.”

Steve glances down, at Bucky, reaching over to put a hand over his. “That means a lot, actually. I mean, I want to make sure it’s something we can both live with. If I go out and do something big and it blows up in my face… that’s not what I want, either. I want to be able to come back. And stay with you.” It’s weird, having someone else to worry about before he makes a decision. Weird, but not bad. He wouldn’t trade it for anything, even after only a few weeks. “Till the end of the line, if that’s what you want. I want it, too.”

“Then let’s make sure it doesn’t blow up,” Bucky says, raising his eyebrows. He shifts on the couch, tucking one of his legs beneath him, angling his body more toward Steve’s. He’s been wondering since the day he’d met Steve, and even more so since they’d started dating, what he has to offer the other man, and honestly -- there’s not a lot. He’s just this side of poor and constantly under worry of either losing his shop or not being able to pay the rent for it, so there’s not much he has to offer financially. It’s not like he can do much to keep Steve safe from anything, nor does Steve really need his protection even if he could.

He can listen, can support; neither of those is a problem for him.

There are other things he can offer, other skills -- and eventually he does plan to put those to use, but a good relationship can’t be based on sex alone, even though it can certainly help. But getting caught up on things, helping Steve fill in whatever blanks that are still -- well. Blank. That’s something he can help out with.

“We’ll figure it out,” Bucky says quietly, sincerely. He slides his arms around Steve, rests his forehead against his temple. “Because it is what I want.” And that Steve wants it, too, means more than he probably realizes.

Steve doesn’t need Bucky to give him anything specific; already, Bucky’s given him someone he likes spending time with, someone he’s comfortable with, someone who’s not an Avenger or a team member or a coworker, basically, and someone who doesn’t act differently around him. He likes Bucky for Bucky, for the things he loves -- his family business -- and for the things he cares about -- doing what he can to make life better for people who don’t have it as well off as others. There’s nothing there he would change; he would take away the trauma, if he could, but even then, Bucky’s made it through that, and that means something, too.

Just like Bucky wants him around, wants to stick around, and that means everything.

“Can I look at the website? Later,” Steve asks, because right now, Bucky is here on the couch with him, holding him, and Steve’s hands snake around Bucky’s waist, tugging him a little closer. “I should probably catch up on everything I missed. Although I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same. Life’s kinda funny that way, sometimes, but whenever I try to explain, people just usually give me weird looks.”

“Of course,” Bucky agrees easily. Admittedly, he hasn’t checked in for a couple days with the network, but everyone tends to take a day or two off when life gets in the way. It happens. He lets Steve tug him closer, shifts so he’s on his lap once more, comfortable and warm. All he can see is Steve, all he can smell is Steve and he’s good with this, good with just letting himself be wrapped up and wrapping Steve up in his arms in return.

“People are weird,” he adds quietly. He strokes his fingers down the back of Steve’s neck. “Don’t let it get to you.” He pressed his lips to Steve’s forehead.

“Yeah, they are, Steve agrees, with a little laugh that sounds pretty pleased, as Bucky crawls back into his lap and touches lips to his forehead. “But you’re not. You’re perfect.” He absolutely means that; Bucky is funny and brave and kind and smart and so, so many other things. “I’m really glad I got lost that day.” Because if he hadn’t, he would never have met Bucky, and it feels like that one moment is so important, and so precious, and it would have been so easy to miss.

---

They spend the next few days at Bucky’s place, as planned; of course, Bucky works in the shop, and sometimes Steve comes out to join him when it’s slow. He doesn’t mind helping out, and he doesn’t care about getting paid. He just cares about spending time with Bucky, and he isn’t going to waste the time they have.

Of course, sometimes Bucky doesn’t need help or actively needs Steve not to hang around distracting him. He spends the rest of his time on Bucky’s computer looking at the omega rights forums, or texting Natasha, or taking phone calls from Fury and trying to deal with the multiple situations that have risen up to try to eclipse his life, from Rumlow’s complaint to the increasing news media coverage of the rumors about his designation.

The last is something that disgusts him -- the amount of time every channel seems to spend speculating on what the rumors mean, what happens if they’re true, and sometimes going off onto wild tangents, saying things like he’s faked being an alpha all along, or that the military has been changing designations for decades, or a hundred other half-cocked ideas that are all more bullshit crazy than the last.

And eventually, he can’t handle it from Bucky’s place any longer. He’s had more than one secure video chat with Fury, but eventually the man calls and tells him he needs to come in. Steve hasn’t brought up what he and Natasha suspect about Rumlow, simply because it’s only a suspicion. But he has brought up every single thing he has seen or knows Brock Rumlow has actually done, and while Fury says he can essentially table the complaint, he still needs Steve to come in on the record so they can handle it. This, they can’t fudge or make an exception for. This, he says, is from the Secretary of State, who’s made it clear that Steve is not above the rules, not in a case like this. And Steve… Steve can respect that.

So, while Bucky opens up the shop, Steve gets himself cleaned up and heads out. Bucky’s with a customer at the time, so Steve just tosses him a smile and a mock salute as he passes quietly through the store, headed for his bike. He’s texted Natasha to let her know someone should stay with Bucky while he’s gone, and she says she’s on her way. Bucky said he’d be fine until Natasha gets there, and Steve knows he can handle himself. Still, he doesn’t think he’ll stop feeling just the tiniest bit sick until Natasha confirms she arrived.

He pulls into the SHIELD parking garage and is just pulling out his phone to see whether Natasha’s with Bucky yet when the garage elevator doors open, and Fury barks his name like he’s been waiting. Maybe he has; Steve has to pocket the phone and jog for the doors without really getting a good look at the screen.

“I was starting to think you were avoiding me,” Fury informs him with raised eyebrows when Steve steps onto the elevator and the doors close. “It was starting to hurt my feelings, Rogers.” There’s a hint of wryness in his voice as the elevator ascends to the tenth floor where his office is.

“Aw, that would just be rude, and I’m never rude,” Steve puts in, maybe a little sarcastically, but he’s not looking forward to this, and he can’t imagine Fury is, either. But it is better to get this over with, get his comments on the record and just be done with it. A formal complaint really doesn’t mean much, but it does have to be dealt with. “Maybe I just wanted to take a little of that time off that I’m owed.”

And, not that he cares in the least, but he asks, “How’s Rumlow?”

“Recovering from a broken jaw,” Fury responds, nonplussed. “Had surgery, metal plates currently attached to his face to keep it in place. Taking some time off work. Unpaid, by the way, which he’s filed a complaint about, too.” It’s obvious whose side Fury’s on in the situation. “How’s Barnes?”

Steve can’t help the tiny, tiny pang of smugness he feels at the answer, any more than he can help the not-so-tiny pang of protectiveness he feels when Fury turns things around on him -- not that he’s surprised Fury knows where he is. If the media does, of course Nick Fury does.

“Better, now that no one’s trying to force a mating bond on him,” Steve says, quietly, not quite a growl. “Brock and I never saw eye to eye, but I hadn’t thought he was the kind of person who’d do that.” But he is, and Steve is willing to go on the record to say it, which is exactly why he’s here.

But he can’t go on the record with other things until they know for sure. So, one thing at a time. “I’m sorry to make this a big official thing.”

Fury glances at him sideways as the elevator door slides open and leads the way down the hall to his office, opening the door and waiting for Steve to step inside before he closes it and moves to sit at his desk. “It’s what I’m here to handle.” He pulls out a few pieces of paperwork and a pen. “Mostly just need you to read over and sign some things.”

“I’m sure it’s your favorite part of the job,” Steve says, not without some empathy, crossing the room to sink into the chair across from Fury’s desk. But while red tape is one of the things Steve doesn’t like about government work, in this case, actually dealing with things by the book is just the best option. It gets everything on the record, especially about Brock Rumlow, and that could be valuable. He reaches across the desk for the papers, pulling them closer to start scanning.

But he doesn’t really get the chance; just as he starts, there’s a knock on the door, followed immediately by the sound of it opening, and -- that’s the Secretary of State, Pierce, right there, in Fury’s doorway, flanked by… is that the rest of STRIKE?

“Oh, good -- Captain, I need you to come with me,” Pierce says genially, though his expression looks a bit like Steve’s must have, a moment ago -- firm, but empathetic. “I’m sure you’ve seen just how bad all the media reports and inquiries have been getting. It’s time we address this. I need you to come with me and submit to a DNA test. Once the results are released, I think we’ll all be in the clear.”

Steve frowns, glancing between Fury and the secretary.

Fury frowns, too, looking a little wary as he sits forward in his seat. “I don’t see any reason to submit Captain America to medical testing because of some rumors. Sir.” His eyes narrow and he stares intently at Pierce.

Pierce just smiles helplessly; “Unfortunately, if it were anyone else, I would agree. But Captain America needs to be a symbol that people can trust. Rumors are one thing, but if those rumors start to undermine his authority, they undermine the authority of the entire government for which he stands.”

An entire government that won’t let omegas have the same rights as everyone else, Steve wants to say, but one of the dark-clad figures behind Pierce shifts, and the secretary says, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to insist. I have a signed order here from the White House.”

Steve blows out a breath, setting the unsigned paperwork on Fury’s desk. “It’s fine,” he says, even though it’s really not. Of course, he can prove he’s an alpha, and the DNA test isn’t the problem. It’s the principle of the thing. “But I don’t know that I want to stand for a government that forces people to submit to DNA tests just because of media rumors,” he says, turning and heading for the door.

“Take it up with the president, I’m afraid, son,” Pierce says, as the doors close behind them as soon as Steve’s out in the hall. And then two pairs of hands come around his own, and there’s the buzzing hum of magnetic cuffs locking around his hands.

That stops Steve in his tracks, staring openly at the secretary and the paper in his hand. “Did the president order this, too?” he asks archly, as the members of STRIKE -- his team -- take a few steps closer, and someone pulls out a stun baton like they think they’re going to have to use it. “I’m already coming with you.”

“And you’ll stay with us -- here -- for the forty-eight hours it takes for the results to come back, I’m afraid,” Pierce says. “There’s just no precedent for what could be an omega potentially lying his way into one of the military’s most powerful positions. I’m sorry, Captain Rogers, but we just need to be sure.”

Chapter Text

Hours have passed since Steve had set off to go into SHIELD that morning to talk to his director and do -- well. Whatever it is that they were going to make him do, whether it was release some sort of statement to the press about the rumors, or force him into a leave of absence because of Brock, or any other possible outcomes that he’d been trying his best not to pry out of Natasha. She sits perched on the countertop as he works on closing the shop down for the evening. He’s been trying to tell her all day that he’ll be fine, that she doesn’t have to stay and keep him company, but she’d insisted. He’d bought her lunch at a little sandwich shop on the way to the post office to pick up his next package of suppressants.

Not that he told her that’s what he was picking up. He likes her well enough, trusts her in a hesitant kind of way, but the only person he trusts enough to share that detail with is Steve, and even then, he knows Steve had concerns about their side effects.

Bucky had felt himself slipping into something more akin to autopilot the longer the day had gone on without word from Steve. He’s done his best not to worry, but it’s still there all the same, itching beneath his skin in a way that he can’t really scratch to relieve. It’s taking everything he has not to ask Natasha to text their director and see what’s going on.

“You hungry?” he asks as he finishes sweeping up the floor, already having flipped the sign to Closed for the night.

Natasha, although Bucky can’t tell, is a little itchy herself, if for completely different reasons. She actually has texted Fury twice, but he’s been maddeningly cryptic, even with her, and it’s -- exactly that. Maddening. Steve’s been unresponsive all day, but that’s nothing new. Sometimes the fossil forgets to check his phone. It’s cute, except when it’s not.

But Natasha is nothing if not good at distracting herself from the things that bother her and focusing on her work. Admittedly, her work is not all that comforting right now, but when is it ever?

She’s finding out a lot of things about Brock Rumlow and, by connection, most of the members of STRIKE that aren’t Steve and herself. And she is not liking what she’s finding.

She glances up from her Starkpad as Bucky finishes up, watching him with an assessing gaze, noting the little signs of agitation even as he’s trying to be hospitable. She smiles, shrugging a little and swinging her feet a bit, careful not to scuff the counter with her heels. “I could be. If you want to order in.”

She’s not about to take the two of them out of here when she now knows just how bad an idea that could be.

Bucky smiles despite himself at her response. “Well, I don’t feel like going out again or cooking, so ordering in works for me.” He’ll assume Steve is going to be back at some point in the near future considering the late hour, and he’ll order enough for all three of them. “You feeling pizza, Chinese, or deli?”

He doesn’t really care one way or the other personally; he’s not all that hungry himself. He hadn’t been all that hungry at lunch, either. His nerves have tied his stomach up in knots that he knows won’t untangle until he sees for himself that Steve is okay, that nothing too bad is going to happen to him because of Bucky, or because of the stupid -- and yet completely true -- rumors flying around about him.

He sets the broom by the front door and rakes a hand through his hair. Really, having Nat around for company hasn’t been half as nerve-wracking as he’d assumed it would be. For the most part she’s been quiet, working on her tablet and not bothering him while he struggled to focus and do his own work.

Natasha hums thoughtfully, ultimately deciding on “Chinese. Have you seen Steve try to eat with chopsticks?” Granted, he’s much better now. He’s not Clint levels of bad. But it’s still funny, sometimes. He gets very intense and focused on how much food he can scoop into his mouth with two tiny sticks. A girl’s got to get her entertainment where she can.

“Just order whatever. I’m not picky,” she says, right as her phone vibrates in her pocket and she stops swinging her legs to pull it out, eyes flicking over the screen --

“Okay.” Bucky pulls his phone out, looking up the number for a restaurant a couple blocks from there and right before he hits the number to place the call, it’s like everything in Natasha’s body goes completely still all at once.

“Bucky,” she says. “I have some bad news.”

He hears her words and it feels like the floor drops out from beneath him. She doesn’t strike him as the type to be dramatic, which means whatever the news is, it is as bad as she’s making it sound.

“What?” His voice doesn’t waver, even though his chest feels tight.

Natasha is typing rapidly even as she glances up at him, and while her expression is mostly as neutral as ever, there’s something in it that’s not usually there. Something hard and cold. “The President of the United States has ordered Steve Rogers detained and tested to prove that he’s an alpha. It’s being carried out by the Secretary of State’s staff, and Steve is going to remain in custody until the results are released.”

Bucky’s breathing hitches momentarily and he suddenly feels a little light-headed. He sinks slowly down into one of the chairs not far from where Natasha’s perched. “Why would they detain him for that? It’s a simple blood test,” he says faintly. “It takes two minutes. Do they really believe this shit?” There’s a hint of disbelief in his voice.

“They’re sending the results to two independent labs. No room for mistakes,” Natasha says, voice calm, but there’s something grim underneath it. “Here’s my question: Would you believe it, unless it had happened to you?” What this reeks of, to her, is HYDRA. HYDRA’s hand, somewhere, somehow, and the fact that she doesn’t know exactly where is irksome, to say the least.

Because it all seems… very extreme, to her. Not that she’s not used to extreme government action, but the rumors are just that -- rumors -- and Steve would hardly be the first Avenger to have rumors questioning their integrity. Hell, Tony Stark used to show up in the tabloids weekly; granted, it was before he was an Avenger, but… this still seems disproportionate. Unfortunately, Fury is confirming the situation while she sits there. With a tone that, even over text, says he feels the same way she does. Detaining Captain America for a public witch hunt seems strange. Which, frankly, seems worse to her than the actual detention itself.

Steve is an alpha and the results will show exactly that, thank God. But something about this feels all too shady to Bucky, too. “Is this even legal?” It’s not. He knows it’s not, but since when has that ever stopped a government figure in a position of authority? Never.

“Yes, and no,” Natasha says, with just a hint of a sigh. “It’s legal because the President is Commander in Chief of the armed forces, and Steve is still technically enlisted in the Army. He’s essentially being forced to follow orders from his CO.”

On the other hand, “There is absolutely no precedent for handling this kind of thing. But there are laws about omegas hiding their designation, and laws about enlisting in the Army under a falsified persona.”

“Surprised they don’t brand us with an O across our foreheads so everyone knows,” he mumbles, forcing himself to take slow, deep breaths. Because hiding his designation is essentially what Steve had done, back in the 40’s -- but he also hadn’t done it on his own. People had known. The government had been in on it. Had wiped out Steve’s records and made it impossible for anyone to know that history unless Steve told them.

It shouldn’t matter. Steve’s an alpha and any blood test will show that even if the very idea of him being held hostage and forced to submit to medical testing makes Bucky’s skin crawl. Makes nausea churn in his gut. It hits far, far too close to home, and it’s hard to actually focus on the things Natasha’s saying.

Natasha narrows her eyes a little at Bucky at that, thoughtful. There’s still something that bothers her about what she read in those initial files, about the attempts to recreate the serum in what they did to Bucky. “He’s never said anything to you, has he? About the serum changing him like that?” After all, Steve can be very loose-lipped around people he trusts. Even when he shouldn’t be.

Steve had told Bucky, but not Natasha. And this isn’t his secret to share, so Bucky just shakes his head. “How long is this is gonna take? Are they saying?” He’s chewing his lower lip, barely cognizant of the fact that Alpine is winding herself around his feet.

Natasha can tell he’s hesitating, not telling her something. But she had thought he might not; she doesn’t push for now, despite the fact that she wants to know what it is. It’s less important than the immediate situation at hand. And she can certainly always ask Steve, later. She plans to.

“Forty-eight hours, at least,” she says. “He’s being kept in custody, presumably at SHIELD, until then. I assume his phone has probably been confiscated or he’d be telling us this himself.” She sighs. “I hope your couch is comfortable, Barnes.” Because she’s not leaving until she can either find someone to relieve her, or Steve is released.

***

“I don’t like this. We should be doing something,” Clint says bluntly as his gaze flickers back and forth between the numerous dropdown TV screens in Tony’s office at Stark Industries. His arms are folded across his chest. “It’s been 24 hours.” His voice is tense as he stares at the ticker-tape subtitle lines.

”Captain America: War Hero? Or Ultimate Deceiver?”

He snorts in disgust. “How fast they fucking forgot that if it wasn’t for Cap and the rest of us, the entire planet would be bowing down to alien overlords.”

“C’mon, Barton, you know anyone born less than thirty years ago has an attention span of five seconds, max,” Tony says, from where he’s simultaneously tipping the chair he’s sitting in back precariously far on two legs and frantically tapping on a Starkpad. “They’d forget their own names if they didn’t have them entered into their six social media accounts.”

The truth is, though, Tony only gets this snappish when he’s upset, and boy, is he upset. He’s upset that the serum might have had effects he didn’t know about, and upset that Steve would neither confirm nor deny it (which, admittedly, makes him think it’s true), and upset that apparently holding people hostage for DNA testing to see if they’re actually what they say they are is a thing that the government does now. He’s not buying this shit about it being an Army internal investigation. That makes it sound nice on paper, but in reality it sounds like bullshit.

“That’s not actually the point,” Banner says, a bit subdued -- probably because he’s trying very hard not to get worked up about this. “The point is the precedent they’re setting.”

“Exactly, Green Man,” Tony says, without pausing what he’s doing. “It’s the precedent they’re setting, it’s the fact that Cap’s being held in a jail cell, and the entire frigging world is salivating at the latest juicy gossip.” His voice is bitter as he lets the chair fall forward and gets up, pacing a few steps before he huffs and then stops in front of another one of the screens.

“None of this makes any sense,” Maria Hill interjects from where she’s leaning against the wall in the back. “Why make a rumor that Cap’s an omega in the first place? What’s it accomplishing? Who’s benefiting from it?”

“Are we still sure it’s a rumor,” Tony says, in a way that sounds more like a statement than a question. “I’m just saying, maybe it’s not a rumor. Maybe it’s a reality. Maybe they’re trying to run damage control because they know it’s not actually a rumor.”

“Tony,” Bruce sighs. “It’s a rumor. It’s a very, very imaginative rumor, but it’s a rumor. You can’t change someone’s designation.”

“Yours changes.”

“And then it changes back,” Bruce says, but -- there’s something, a hitch in his voice, maybe, and it’s a moment before he says, “Based on the serum.”

“Exactly,” Tony says, and then finally looks up, focusing in on Hill. “It takes Cap out of the game, if he’s been lying this whole time. An omega Captain America? It’ll never fly. He’ll never get out of that jail cell.”

“So someone who knows more than the rest of us released something anonymously to the press, knowing it would require an investigation and if it’s found to be true, Cap’s out of the way. Again. Who stands to benefit the most?” She arches an eyebrow.

“HYDRA,” Clint says without looking at any of them. “Evil alien overlords. Criminals in general.”

“I think we all know that Steve’s only going to put up with this for so long. That cell won’t hold him. The moment he decides he’s done playing nice, he’ll be out. And then he’ll be a fugitive.” Hill sighs.

“You know, he’s a lot less uptight than we’ve been led to believe,” Tony puts in, thoughtfully. “And that the first three hours with him led me to believe. He was really boring for at least three hours.”

But he’s not arguing the point.

“So, the question becomes, are we going to aid and abet Captain America, who may or may not either be an omega or have once been an omega, or are we going to be good little girls and boys and put him back in his cell?” Tony asks, going back to the table and picking up his Starkpad. “I think you can guess where I stand on this one.”

“It… is a very dangerous precedent, if we let it stand,” Bruce puts in.

Clint tosses a look over his shoulder at the rest of them. “I vote aid and abet,” he responds without missing a beat. “And I’ll put in Nat’s vote for the same in absentia.”

“Where is Agent Romanoff?” Hill questions. It isn’t the first time she’s wondered since she’d arrived at this meeting.

“Cap has her on a personal assignment,” Clint says vaguely, returning his gaze to the screens once more.

“That doesn’t sound like something I absolutely need to hear more about this very second,” Tony says, actually looking up from the tablet again, zeroing in on Clint. “He doesn’t have a personal life, didn’t you know? He might be less boring than advertised but I’m pretty sure we’d know if he had a personal… anything.”

“I wouldn’t bet on that.” Clint’s eyebrows rise and he glances at Tony. “I don’t know a lot of details, but she’s keeping an eye on someone for him. Someone he’s worried about getting hurt.” He shrugs. “Sounds like he’s got more of a personal life than we know.”

“Sounds like Agent Romanoff is pretty in the know,” Hill comments, head cocked to the side.

“Well, if she ever shows up, we’ll have to ask her.” Tony definitely doesn’t like not being in the know -- even if all of them know he’s not really any match for Natasha when it comes to an interrogation.

“I think, Cap’s personal life aside, the point is to focus on, ah, how we’re going to aid and abet him. It sounds like his personal life is covered, but we shouldn’t count on Natasha, if she’s on… duty, there,” Bruce says.

“I vote for hacking into the Secretary of State’s database,” Tony says, raising one hand like it’s not probably six different federal offenses to do exactly that. “How hard can it be? I hacked SHIELD in like, an hour.”

Hill simply levels him with a nonplussed look, arms folded across her chest.

“Not the worst idea. Might give us a heads-up on how to proceed,” Clint agrees, glancing over at Tony. “Probably more information there than what we’re seeing here.” He motions to all the screens. “And in theory it’d be more legitimate information. Most of this is the same shit we already know and a lot of speculation.”

“Ah, gotta love that twenty-four-hour news cycle,” Tony sighs, but stretches his arms out, cracking his fingers like a pianist preparing to play. “I’m on it. Well -- JARVIS?”

“Yes, sir.”

“We’re on it. Hill, Barton, any help you want to lend will only make this go faster. Let’s find out what they think they have on Cap, and what they think they’re gonna do about it.”

Hill gives a nod, relieved to have something concrete to focus on. “I’ll head back to SHIELD, talk with Fury. I’ll be in touch.” She doesn’t wait for a response before she heads out the door.

***

“Sir, he’s behaving erratically.”

Pierce barely spares Jenkins and Russo a glance as he walks past where they’ve moved into the hallway, both holding machine guns and looking nervous. “I’ve heard captivity does that to people,” he responds, knowing full well that Rogers can hear them. He steps into the room, separated from Captain America by bulletproof glass that he knows without a doubt the other man could shatter if he wanted. Which means he’s still playing by the rules. “Captain,” he greets with a courteous nod.

Steve glances up as Pierce walks in, giving the man a smile that is tight and not exactly friendly, for all that the expression is supposed to be. “Secretary.” He doesn’t stop pacing. “Don’t suppose you’re here to let me out, are you?”

Because behaving erratically is right, and it feels like it’s the only thing keeping Steve sane. He’s spent time in tight spaces before, this shouldn’t be so hard. But there’s this itch until his skin and this nervous energy in his stomach like he’s about to go on a mission, and he has nothing to do with it and nowhere to go. So what if he pushed his lunch tray back out the slot with the little medication cup holding his suppressants still full? So what if he tipped the cup into the room’s tiny wastebasket when it came right back through the slot? So what if he’s pacing now, wearing an invisible track in the floor? He’s here, still in this room, having submitted to their DNA test, and that should be good enough for them. They never said he had to be happy about it, and he isn’t -- not when they brought him here in handcuffs and took his phone. His line of communication with Natasha and Bucky.

Pierce sighs softly. “Would that I could, Captain,” he says, ruefully. “Unfortunately, I have to follow orders the same as anyone else. No, I wanted to come and check on you, see how you were doing. Seeing if there’s anything I can do to help ease your mind.” He sits down in one of the hardback chairs, pulling it closer to the glass. “I sincerely appreciate your cooperation thus far. I’m certain that within twenty-four more hours this entire… unpleasant situation will be cleared up and you’ll be free to go. I’m hoping we’ll be able to put this behind us when it does.” He gives him an apologetic look.

“That’s a nice hope,” Steve says, a lot more calmly than he feels. He finally stops pacing, coming to stand in front of Pierce’s chair, arms crossed, entire body feeling like it’s buzzing uncomfortably. “But I think we both know this is setting a dangerous precedent. Despite the fact that I agreed.”

And, since Pierce did offer, “Don’t suppose I can have my phone back?”

“I’ll see if I can pull a few strings,” Pierce tells him with a slight nod.

Well. That would be nice. God, even just talking to Bucky feels better than nothing. He hadn’t even really said goodbye to him on the way out, thinking (maybe stupidly) that he’d be back in a few hours. Now, he doesn’t even know if Bucky knows where he is or why he’s here. He misses Bucky like something’s been carved out of himself, and like he won’t be able to sit still until Bucky’s back in his sight. He hopes to God Natasha got over there all right, that she’s staying with Bucky until Steve can just get out.

Pierce leans back in the chair, studying the blond super soldier for a long moment. “I’ve gotten reports you’ve begun refusing meals. And your suppressants.”

Steve huffs a little, shrugging absently. “Not really hungry.” It’s… actually kind of true, which is abnormal for him, but he’s not really in the mood to think about it. He’s stuck in here, after all, so what is there to burn calories on? And, “I don’t want them,” he adds, about the suppressants. Besides -- he grins a little ferally, definitely feeling the “erratic” bubbling up. “If I go into rut, will that prove my case well enough?”

Pierce looks unimpressed, lips thinning as he presses them together. “I don’t think you’d have a very good experience if that was to happen, Captain,” he responds. “If you were to go into rut, we’d certainly have to interrupt your boyfriend’s life to bring him down here to… assist you, and my understanding is that he has a bookstore to run.”

That gets Steve’s attention, zeroing in on Pierce even more single-mindedly than before. “He does,” he says, quietly, but with a deeper quality to his voice that’s almost, almost on the edge of a growl. “And his business is none of yours.” There’s a flare of possessiveness in his chest that wells up, hot and sharp like glass, like lava. “I would rather ride it out alone in here.”

It’s all Pierce can do not to smirk. Sometimes it’s so easy to find another person’s Achilles heel. “Understood.” He held his hands out in placation. “But you have to understand that ultimately, I’m not the one who’s calling the shots here.” He sighs. “And those who are… are more concerned about keeping chaos from erupting, in whatever form that may take. I implore you to take the suppressants, Captain.” He rises to his feet. “I’d hate to see you here longer than absolutely necessary.”

Steve’s eyes narrow; he may be feeling awful and acting (supposedly) erratic, but he’s not stupid. He can tell when he’s being threatened, thinly veiled or not. He knows Pierce is telling him to either make sure he doesn’t go into rut, or risk SHIELD detaining Bucky. And he still doesn’t want to trust any “suppressant” that might come through a slot in here for him.

But while he’s not a spy, he’s not entirely unfamiliar with misdirection. And people might call him a lousy liar, but he can deliver when the pressure’s on. “If I take the meds, he stays where he is.” It’s not so much a question as a statement, for all that he doesn’t have any bargaining power in here, and they do both know it. But he has to trust in the Secretary of State, in the President, that they will let him go when this is over, that they’re only holding him here because they don’t know what else to do while they wait.

“You have my word,” Pierce says quietly, nodding. “And I’ll work on getting you access to a phone. Believe me, I understand how difficult it is to be away from a bondmate. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, Captain, least of all someone I admire and respect.”

“... Right,” Steve says, unable to keep the split-second hesitation out of his voice. But his mind is racing, because… bondmate? He and Bucky aren’t bonded, but -- is that why they think he’s acting erratically?

He’s just fucking annoyed he has to be in here and away from Bucky at all. That they’re trying to make it okay to hold someone while they test his designation. Like it’s really a concern, that they think he could be lying.

That’s all.

Pierce gives him a slight nod. “I’ll have another dose sent in and I’ll be back as soon as I have more news for you.”

“Thank you,” Steve says, maybe a beat or two too late, and maybe with not as much sincerity as it could have, but… there is at least a little sincerity, there. A little hope.

“Of course.” Pierce gives him a small, seemingly sincere smile at his thanks, delayed as it may be. Then he turns and heads for the door.

Steve watches him go; and he watches, a few minutes later, when another member of STRIKE shoves a glass of water and another little paper cup of suppressants through the hatch in the door.

“Thanks,” Steve says, voice absolutely flat -- and palms the pill instead of swallowing it with the water. Just in case.

***

By the time the next evening rolls around, Bucky’s exhausted from the worry that he can’t shake. It settled into his bones the moment that Natasha had told him that Steve was taken into custody pending DNA testing to make sure he’s truly an alpha and it’s been clinging to him like a second skin ever since. He hadn’t slept the previous night -- at all. He’d taken the couch, insisting Nat take his bed because he’s a gentleman, thank you very much. He’s also pretty sure he wouldn’t have slept even if he’d been in his bed.

In addition, he’s got a headache that had started out sharp but that’s now tapered into a steady and constant dull throbbing. He’s sure that’s what’s causing the nausea in his belly that hasn’t allowed him to keep anything but broth down since earlier this afternoon.

Wanda tells him she’ll close down the store, even as she kind of gapes at the sight of the Black Widow in the store just hanging out. She knows Steve is being held in custody because she watches the news and besides that, it’s apparently all anyone at her school is talking about. He knows she’s aware something more is going on, because it’s not exactly common for an Avenger to randomly be hanging around. She also doesn’t ask questions, and he’s grateful because he wouldn’t want to lie to her. There’s genuine worry in her eyes when she tells him to get some rest and he gives her a faint, reassuring smile and promises he will.

Bucky drops onto the sofa without bothering to change clothes, his entire body aching in that dull sort of way when you know you’re on the verge of illness but haven’t yet spiked a fever. He figures he’s caught some kind of bug, which is either terrible or perfect timing considering Steve’s not there to witness his pathetic lethargy, but it also means he’s not there to cuddle up to him until he feels warm again.

“You can order in if you’re hungry,” he mumbles to Natasha, closing his eyes. “Or you can help yourself to anything in the kitchen.” There’s plenty of food there, thanks to everything Steve had brought from his place.

Natasha is very, very good at not worrying about things unnecessarily. But even more importantly, she is very, very good at not showing that worry when it does crop up. Because zero contact from Steve, on top of everything the media is saying, on top of Bucky’s sudden illness, actually have her worried. Just a little. The tiniest bit.

But like hell is she going to actually let that show, when Bucky is clearly feeling bad. “I can find something here, I’m sure,” she says from her spot at the kitchen table; Steve’s not here to eat it, Bucky’s not eating much of it, and Natasha knows how much Steve hates wasting food. “You should try to eat some toast,” she says, seemingly not to care one way or the other what his answer is going to be. But she does.

Just like she cares about what the DNA test is going to show, and what the government is going to do with that information. And whether Steve is going to come walking back in that door unscathed. She knows Rumlow is out of the picture, thanks to the fact that Steve had apparently actually broke his jaw. But the more she digs, the more she finds on connections, previous assignments, and, least savory of all, additional equipment requisitions that have nothing to do with STRIKE’s missions -- at least, the ones that are on the books.

Bucky grunts at that suggestion, not opening his eyes. “It’ll just come right back up,” he says tiredly, wrapping a blanket around himself and snuggling down into it even as he shivers. “I’m pretty sure I’ve got a stomach bug. You don’t have to hang out here. I don’t wanna make you sick, too.” Alpine jumps up beside him on the sofa, nudging his chin and then tucking herself up into his neck like a soft furry pillow. Which, not inaccurate.

“Is there any news? They should be letting him out tonight, right? The results should be back by now.” It’s all he’s been thinking about all day. It’s been two full days now, and the news kept reporting the lab results were due back within 48 hours.

“Nothing yet,” Natasha says, ignoring the insistence that she leave. Not only had Steve asked her to stay, regardless of how much Bucky might want her to go, but there is definitely no way she’s leaving the man in the state he’s in now. The last thing she wants is to play nursemaid, but that doesn’t mean she can’t still keep an eye on the guy. It could very well just be a stomach bug. But if it is, it’s sure got a hell of a sense of timing.

Everything does, it seems.

“But they should be releasing the results -- and Steve -- soon.” Provided they’re going to do the latter, she doesn’t actually say out loud, but she definitely thinks it. Based on what she knows from Fury, the Secretary of State has been incredibly tight-lipped about the whole operation. He insists Steve is just fine, only mildly inconvenienced (and of course, who wouldn’t be?) but the fact that Steve’s phone has clearly been confiscated and he’s cut off from even communicating is worrisome. Someone seems to want him isolated and out of the way, whether that someone is the president, or Pierce, or HYDRA. “I’ll leave when he gets here. Trust me, I’m sure I’ll want to.”

Bucky’s truthfully not surprised that she completely ignores his comment that she can go. He knows that there’s a pretty good chance his place is being watched -- if not by Brock, by someone. And he knows he’s vulnerable, more so than usual, because of his left arm and because of this stupid bug that’s taken hold. He also knows if push comes to shove, if Brock is stupid enough to show up here and cause trouble while Steve is detained, the other man has a vulnerability of his own at the moment and he doubts that a punch to an already broken jaw would probably feel very good.

Natasha eventually tosses Bucky a smile, but it’s tighter than she would like. “You want me to turn up the heat?”

Bucky closes his eyes again, trying to focus on the fact that in theory, Steve should be released soon -- any time now -- and shakes his head, burrowing farther beneath the blanket. “Bill’s already too high,” he mumbles. “I’ll be fine.” Miserable, maybe. But fine. He’ll get through it. He’s used to being cold these days, anyway.

Alpine purrs and he can feel the sound reverberate through his entire body and he sighs softly, letting the familiar sound comfort him.

Natasha just hums, but she doesn’t argue further. She is just about to go in search of another blanket when her phone pings in her hand. She swipes to open the message from Clint, and then goes very still.

Then she walks over to find Bucky’s television remote and turns the TV on, finding the first news station, where Secretary of State Pierce is already standing outside the Triskelion in the middle of an informal press conference.

“--confirmed that Captain Rogers is, indeed, an alpha through DNA testing.” There’s a twitter that goes through the crowd, but he raises his hand to quiet them and keeps speaking. “Unfortunately, we have also confirmed that, based on several pieces of clothing and other materials that belonged to Rogers prior to the procedure that turned him into the super soldier we all know and love, he was, in fact, an omega.”

That gets a louder, longer rumble going through the amassed reporters, as hands already start shooting up. Pierce, still at the microphone, continues. “I know you all have a lot of questions. And I will do my best to answer them. But at this time, it’s clear that some kind of federal offense has been committed on Steven Rogers’ part, because his enlistment papers predate the time at which he -- somehow, utterly unbeknownst to anyone and undeterminable by our best medical researchers at this time -- transformed from an omega into an alpha. We don’t know how it was possible and of course, there is,” he stops and laughs a little here, like he knows what he’s going to say is ridiculous, “absolutely no legislation in place for how to handle a person whose designation has changed. It’s supposed to be a medical impossibility. But in this case… we have no choice but to continue holding Captain Rogers -- who is being treated well and fully consented to custody two days ago, on the record -- until such time as we can determine what kind of legal and federal measures are needed to handle this situation.”

Bucky’s sitting up now, all the color drained from his face and his heart pounding hard in his chest. He struggles to process not only what he’s hearing, but what he’s seeing as well. Or, more precisely, who. His mouth has gone dry, mind flashing back to the sterile medical facility, to the cold metal table beneath his restrained body. To the man giving the orders for the doctors to keep going. The blinding pain that had followed as they mutilated his arm and he screamed until he’d passed out, unable to tolerate the torture any longer.

The crowd on TV is even louder now as reporters begin to shout out questions.

“Mr. Secretary, do you believe that Captain America has been compromised?” someone calls out.

Another: “Mr. Secretary, if Captain America has to be detained long term, is there currently any facility that’s able to house him?”

Bucky’s stomach turns. “You have to get the others,” he says urgently. “You have to get him out of wherever they’re keeping him.”

Natasha’s attention is, of course, on the TV. But it’s also on her madly vibrating phone -- and the omega whose behavior indicates that something even more than the obvious is very, very wrong.

She glances over at Bucky, at the sound of his voice and the clear urgency in it, right as Pierce says, “I don’t know whether the Captain has been compromised, but I assure you that we do have facilities meant to contain individuals who are… outside the normal range of human abilities. I can’t say anything more than that, I’m afraid -- except that Captain America is a citizen just like you or I, and he is not above the law. He may think that he is, and the government -- past, certainly, and perhaps present -- may have aided and abetted him. He has lied about his past to me and all of you. It has been covered up by more people than just him. And I believe all of us should think very hard about the amount of trust and power we place in the hands of an individual like that. Perhaps we’ve gotten complacent, but we need to take stock of whether that kind of thing is acceptable or not. Thank you.”

The shouted questions start all over again and Natasha hits MUTE, her gaze not having left Bucky, and she asks, “Why?”

Not that she’s trying to argue, because she isn’t, necessarily. But she wants to know what caused the sudden change in Bucky’s behavior. That’s more than just worry talking. There’s something else.

Bucky pries his eyes from the television as the older blond man leaves the stage and the TV goes silent. He turns his head to meet her eyes, fear flickering in his gray eyes. “Because when I was overseas being held captive and tortured -- that was the man giving the orders to do it,” he whispers, breathing hard and struggling not to have a panic attack at the mere thought of that bastard being the one in charge of Steve’s fate.

“So you have to get the others, and you have to get him the hell out of there before they make him disappear or worse.” His voice is strained.

Natasha studies Bucky for a moment, her face deceptively blank. But only for a moment; then, she lets out a quiet, slow breath, and says, “Well, shit.”

That just puts a whole new spin on the situation, now doesn’t it. “I’m only going to ask you once if you’re sure,” she says, but her eyes are already on her phone, where she’s texting rapidly. “Because I need you to be sure. If you’re sure, this whole situation just got a lot more complicated, and in a way I very much don’t like.”

Because if Bucky is sure, then the Secretary of State of the United States of America is very likely affiliated with HYDRA, and that pulls into question a lot -- a lot -- of things.

Well shit is about the sum of things in Bucky’s book, too. Natasha’s barely finished saying she needs him to be sure before he’s responding. “It’s him,” he tells her again, more urgency in his voice than before. “And he has Steve, and we don’t know where he is or what they’re doing to him, so you have to get your band of superheroes together and you have to go get him.”

His eyes are hazy with tears and his hands are shaking as he holds Alpine close to his chest. “Please, Natasha. Go get Steve.”

“All right,” she says, quiet and grim, and spends the next several minutes on her phone, typing out message after message as the tension in the room seems to ratchet up by degrees. But it’s only a few minutes later that she says, “I’m leaving in about ten minutes. Stark’s going to send over a security detail -- I think if someone was going to target you, we would know by now, but I’m not leaving you completely vulnerable. Especially like this.”

Her eyes go up and down his form once, as if to say, While you’re clearly sick. And, as if to accentuate that point, she asks, “You think this is a physical illness, right? Not something brought on by Steve’s absence?”

She knows Steve’s been gone for days before and Barnes hadn’t complained of a sickness like this then. But she wants to be sure. There are some aspects of how he’s acting that look to her more like separation anxiety -- like Alpha-Omega Separation Disorder -- than just feeling under the weather.

It honestly doesn’t occur to Bucky until Natasha hints at Steve's absence being the cause of how shitty he’s feeling. It makes his breath catch in his throat momentarily. Because of course that makes sense, considering he hasn’t been around anyone with the stomach flu. He’d never given much thought to it, hadn’t experienced it when he’d been with Brock. Which also made sense because not only were they not bonded, but they weren’t soulmates.

“I’m not sure it matters right now,” he tells her, dropping his gaze. Because if that’s what’s causing him to feel badly, the only cure for it is Steve’s physical presence, and that’s not something he has access to at this point.

Natasha watches the realization cross his face, but just as quickly, she watches him shut down. That alone seems to indicate there’s something more than a bug going on here -- and that alone makes her antsy and anxious to get Steve back. She’s never put much stock in bonds, mating or otherwise. But she can recognize that just because it’s not for her doesn’t mean it’s not for someone else.

In fact, Steve has seemed happier and more alive for the past few weeks than the entire rest of the time she’s known him.

“We’ll get him back,” she says, because there is no other option.

Chapter Text

Brock Rumlow’s week started out relatively shitty, considering his broken jaw. But by Monday, it’s gotten better, and by Friday, he’s not sure things could possibly be going more smoothly. Steve Rogers is in custody, his reputation blown all to hell -- and all because of a few simple confessions he’d made to Brock’s ex-boyfriend. All of which had proven to be extremely true and easy enough to confirm. On top of that, word has it that James isn’t doing so well and hadn’t even opened his store this morning.

Karma’s a real bitch, ain’t it? he thinks with a smirk as he makes his way down the hall toward the room where Rogers is being contained.

The rest of STRIKE team one is at his back, but he halts them outside the room. “I wanna talk to him for a few minutes. Alone.”

None of them argue and he struts into the room, letting the door close behind him and just watching Rogers for a long moment, genuine pleasure in his eyes. “Looks like you’re having a shitty week, Cap.”

Steve has been having a shitty week, and it’s been getting shittier the longer it goes on. He hasn’t been taking the medication they’ve been giving him, pretending to swallow the pills each time but hiding them instead. He can’t trust what they’ve been giving him, because he’s starting to get the worrying feeling that he can’t trust anyone here at all. The more helpful Pierce is, the more agitated Steve gets. He knows it’s not the Secretary of State’s fault, that he’s only carrying out orders the same as anyone else, but there’s just something that’s setting him on edge. Maybe it is the hormones starting to make it hard to think straight. Maybe it’s the way he misses Bucky like there’s a physical piece of him missing.

Or maybe it’s the way Brock Rumlow is the one to come into his cell today, looking every bit as pleased as Steve is miserable -- and Steve’s had to hide that misery and agitation as best he can, because if they guess he’s not taking his medication, he suspects they’re going to find a more forceful way to make him take it.

But there’s only so much hiding he can do in front of Brock. “Had better,” he says, voice tight, smile tighter. “How’s your jaw? I see rearranging it didn’t fix your face any.”

Brock’s smile is cold, but his words are calm and casual when he responds. “I’m sure I’ll forget all about the pain once I get James’ pretty mouth on my dick again. He’s real talented at sucking cock.”

It’s not really the best thing to say to an alpha dealing with hormone levels he’s never had before, on top of being separated from his soulmate without any form of contact for days. Steve’s eyes narrow and there’s a brief second where he tenses like he’s going to spring, like he’s going to do any of the hundred things he’s picturing doing right now to Brock’s face.

He visibly keeps himself in check; he will be the better man here, the better alpha. He has to be. Or -- he has to try. He really, really has to try. “He’s real talented at a lot of things,” Steve finally says. “It’s why you two could never work. You’re really only good at one thing, and it’s not even all that original.”

“I don’t know. Seems like I’m pretty good at a lot of things. Staying out of jail, for instance.” Brock smiles as best he can at Steve, given his healing jaw. “Uncovering people’s deep dark secrets.” He takes a step closer to the glass. “See, Cap, end of the day… I always get what I want. One way or another.”

Steve tilts his head, doing his best impression of Natasha being unimpressed. It definitely loses something with the fire blazing behind his eyes, but there’s nothing for it. “You’ll get what you deserve. And that is not someone like Bucky.”

The next part is something Steve would never, ever say under normal circumstances. But here and now, tired and worn down and missing Bucky and fully off suppressants cold turkey for the first time in his alpha life, he can’t help it: “He’s mine.”

“Where you’re heading? You’ll be lucky if you get out before he dies of old age.” Brock chuckles. “Don’t worry. I’ll take real good care of him in your absence, Cap. He might protest a little at first, but he’ll get past it. I’ll get him in line.” He winks at Steve before heading for the door. “Pack up your shit. It’s moving day.”

There’s something about that that manages to break through the red not-so-slowly clouding Steve’s vision. There’s being detained, and there’s being put somewhere out of sight, where the world can slowly forget about you because --

Because this isn’t just punishment for enlisting as an omega. This is someone putting him away, because they want him away.

And Steve Rogers has never sat down and shut up, not once in his life, and he isn’t going to start now. Especially not when he’s got Bucky to get back to -- and this asshole, who needs every bone in his body broken, this time around. It’s just better motivation, as Steve (who has absolutely nothing in here to pack up) waits and watches out the little window in the door and counts the number of people with Brock, estimates where they’re going to take him out based on what he knows of the building, and formulates a plan to make sure he never gets where he’s going, where he takes out as many people as he can -- especially Brock -- on the way.

“Does that mean you’ve got babysitting detail?”

“That makes it sound like a job. For this?” Brock glances back at him with a shit-eating grin. “I volunteered. Come on in, boys,” he says to the others as he steps aside for the rest of the team to come in, all fully prepared with stun batons.

Rollins glances at him warily before shifting his gaze back to Steve. “Sorry, Cap. Orders.”

“You know, that’s always been my least favorite word,” Steve tells Rollins, a lot more genially than he feels. He feels like he wants to snap some necks, like the room is hotter and itchier for the men piling in it, all armed and bristling. Steve’s eyes track the number of stun batons, estimating just how many he can get hit with at once without passing out. It’s a very high number. It won’t be pleasant, but these things rarely are.

He stands, shoving the little metal chair out of the way with a foot, but for all intents and purposes looking like he’s going to go along with what they want. Like Brock’s threats have actually cowed him when in fact, they’ve done the exact opposite. But he has to play along, at least a little, until he gets somewhere with a clear view of the outside. He has to let them lead him a little, so he can stand the best chance of getting away.

“Not a big fan of them either.” Rollins gives him a half smile. “But you’re a smart guy.” He glances around at the rest of the team. There’s no possible way one man can take down all of them. Not even Captain America. Right? Still, he can’t help but feel a little nervous.

“I think Cap’s gonna come along nice and easy,” Brock says as he moves forward to unlock the door, stepping back to let Steve out of his cell. “We’ve got a van waiting downstairs.”

Steve is so very, very ready to prove Rumlow wrong. He very nearly just gives in and does it, because Rumlow has at least told him what he wants to know. But he doesn’t, because he’s still here with no clear path to the exit, and while he doesn’t doubt he can -- and will -- take all of these men out on the way down, he would like to be a little further down before he does it. Just a little further.

“So let’s get going, already,” he says, and starts heading for the door, like he might very well take the lead just like he used to on missions. (He knows right now that he will never go on another mission with any of these men again.)

Rollins shoots Rumlow an uneasy look, not at all convinced that this is going to go as smoothly as his friend thinks. He’s seen Cap in action far too many times. He keeps his stun baton at the ready and follows the broad-shouldered man right out the door. “It’s nothing personal,” he says.

“It never is,” Steve says. Except for when it is. Like with Rumlow. Because Brock? Has made it very, very personal.

They crowd him into the elevator; part of Steve’s mind boggles, because it’s the perfect place to do this. But the thing is, if he were anyone else, it wouldn’t be. There’s a lot of them, pressing in on all sides, stun batons humming with low-level electricity despite the fact that his hands are locked together behind his back. They’re probably thinking he could have taken them easier in the stairwell -- and maybe he could have. But this’ll do.

“Anyone want to maybe wait for the next one?” he asks, just as the doors are starting to shut. They’re probably thinking he’s uncomfortable, but really, the more they press in around him, the more his skin crackles to life and the more he tenses, until the elevator car starts sinking and Steve lets loose with every ounce of anger and frustration and worry and want that he’s been sitting on for an entire fucking week with no contact with the outside world, and only a politician’s too-sweet smiles to make up for it.

It’s not easy; by the time everyone but Rumlow is down, groaning in pain or just plain unconscious, Steve’s clothes are ripped, he’s got several electrical burns in places he very much wishes he didn’t, and the tingle in his skin is much more akin to utter fatigue and pain doing their damnedest to catch up with him. But he’s still standing, and all that’s left is Rumlow, and Steve may not have really enjoyed taking anyone else down, but he might maybe, a little, enjoy this.

Rumlow is eying him with a wariness that hadn’t been there only moments before when they’d been upstairs, but the elevator has been stopped in the midst of its descent during the fight. “You’re hurtin’, Cap. And there’s more of us all over this building. You really think you can take us all out?” He levels him with a look. “Second STRIKE team’s already been deployed to retrieve James. Even if you get outta here, you’ll never make it in time.”

“You don’t know how fast I can run,” Steve growls, but the truth is, he is hurting, and he’s feeling cornered and desperate. It’s no longer about making Rumlow hurt -- it’s about getting him out of the picture and getting to Bucky, keeping him safe from all of this, everything that’s spiraled out of control when all he wanted was to try for one goddamned normal thing in his life.

And Rumlow is the only one Steve can actually get at, just now, standing between him and it.

Rumlow does, admittedly, put his best foot forward. For all that Steve has come to seriously dislike him, he’s a skilled, tenacious, brutal fighter, and Steve is gasping around several broken ribs and two additional stun baton burns by the time Rumlow drops to the floor. He glances out the window, considering for a second… but they’re too high up, and even he will turn into a grease stain on the ground if he tries to jump. If he had the shield, maybe, to break his fall, but -- but it’s safely back home with Bucky.

Bucky. He’s got to get back to Bucky.

He pries open the elevator doors and has to half-climb, half-crawl into the hallway of the nearest floor. There are sirens blaring but no one visible, so Steve picks himself up and runs, skidding into the stairwell and practically hurling himself down each flight of stairs. And maybe that wasn’t the best idea, because by the time he stumbles out into the garage, he’s got too much momentum going to keep from literally barreling right into the side of --

A heavily armored transport truck. That is probably meant for him. Well, shit. He peels himself off the now-dented door and scrabbles for purchase beneath his feet, planning to sprint away before the guys in the truck even realize what’s happened. If he can lose them in the depths of the garage, find his bike or, frankly, anything he can hotwire, he can get the hell out of here.

Before he has a chance to move away, a familiar figure leans out the driver’s side window. “Get in,” Maria Hill orders. “We don’t have much time. There’s more of them on their way right now.”

Steve, admittedly, barely manages to stay upright as he comes to a stop, blinking at the figure leaning out of the window for a moment, like he can’t believe it’s actually her.

“Maria?” His mouth and tongue feel thick, as his injuries and fatigue start to catch up with him, but he finally seems to process that he knows the person in front of him, and that she’s -- probably not…

“Wait, are you -- you’re not with…” STRIKE. Or HYDRA. It’s suddenly hard to tell.

“Probably unemployed after this is all said and done,” she says grimly. “Get in. I need to get you back to Stark Tower.” There’s concern in her eyes as her gaze flickers over him. He looks like he’s a few moments away from passing out and if that happens, they’re screwed. No way she’ll be able to load him into the transport van on her own.

Steve hesitates for a few more seconds -- but only a few. The look on her face is what decides him, and he sprints back around for the passenger side door, hauling himself up into the seat and doing his best to ignore exactly how painful that very action is. “We need to get to Bucky’s,” he says, leaning back against the seat and just letting himself trust her, letting her get them out of here even though he’s still on high alert, watching their progress through slitted eyes because if he needs to get out and fight again, well, that’s just what he’ll do. There’s no choice. No matter how much he really, really wants to just pass out. “He’s -- There’s a STRIKE team going after him. Right now.”

Maria glances at him sideways with one question in mind.

“Who the hell is Bucky?”

***

Bucky doesn’t open the store on Friday. Frankly he's been far too exhausted to even move off the couch other than when he’s had to drag himself to the bathroom to throw up again. He’s lost count of how many times he’s been sick this week, and he knows part of it is just nerves. The other part -- each day he’s felt progressively worse than the previous day.

He’s known that Alpha-Omega Separation Disorder is a real thing and has seen a couple people suffer its effects during separation from their bondmates. But Bucky isn’t bonded with anyone. Not technically. And the others that he’d witnessed hadn’t been this sick. He’s running a fever now -- about 103 according to the thermometer he’d managed to dig out of the bathroom closet. And he hasn’t been able to get warm regardless of how many blankets he’s burrowed beneath.

He’s spent the better part of the day on the ORC website, reading when he could focus long enough to do so, and seeing their thoughts and posts regarding Captain America and what’s been going on all week. He doesn’t post a single thing. Doesn’t dare. But it is heartening to see that the overwhelming majority in the network thinks it’s absolute bullshit, and many of them have talked about protests going on in their cities across the country. Most of the other countries haven’t been as vocal, but there’s a pretty strong Captain America following in France and another in Germany, which makes sense.

His eyes are hazy, red-rimmed from lack of sleep and misery by the time he finishes throwing up the nothing but water that’s been on his stomach for the last two days. And his suppressants. But he doubts they’re doing what he needs them to because he doesn’t think he’s kept them down long enough to do any real good.

Alpine has taken up permanent residence at his side and she immediately crawls onto his chest when he lies back down on the sofa, yanking all the blankets over himself. He’d be more comfortable in bed but he’s pretty sure he has no chance of making it up the steps to the loft, so. The couch it is.

If Steve isn’t released, and soon…

Bucky’s pretty sure he’s going to die here.

***

Steve’s not sure how they make it out of the Triskelion’s garage (mostly) unscathed, but he’s got to hand it to Maria -- her driving is a thing of beauty. They crash through two blockades and several closed gates, but between the general chaos of no one being ready for Captain America to escape in the very truck meant to take him to a permanent holding facility and Maria’s having already disabled the three trackers embedded in the truck, they somehow make it out onto the highway with enough of a head start that a tiny, tiny fraction of Steve’s adrenaline rush starts to ebb away.

But all he has to do is think about what Brock said, about a STRIKE team going after Bucky, and he’s on edge all over again. Which is good, really, because he knows that when he does drop, it’s going to be hard. But it can’t be yet. It absolutely cannot be yet.

He’s briefed Maria enough that she doesn’t wait for backup before making straight for Bucky’s. Steve has to physically pry his hands away from the dash several times, although he can’t exactly feel bad about the finger-shaped indents he leaves behind. When the truck finally pulls up outside Book Barnes, Steve spots the Stark Industries car down the block -- and at the same time realizes it’s empty. And that can’t mean anything good.

He’s already tearing out of the truck before it’s actually stopped. “Rogers --” Maria is calling after him, but Steve’s already tearing open the front door of the bookstore (like it wasn’t deadbolted shut… well, he’s going to pay to fix it, he will, if Bucky will only just please be all right) and racing toward the back of the store to do the same to Bucky’s apartment door.

“Bucky!” He knows he must be a sight, clothes torn and bloody and burned, but at that moment, all he can do is stand in the doorway of Bucky’s apartment like an avenging angel and scan the room for the only person that matters in the world to him right now. “Buck --”

Bucky is pretty sure he’s hallucinating when his door is suddenly pulled right off the hinges to reveal Steve’s familiar frame looming there, urgent look in his eyes. He manages to prop himself up on his right elbow, sitting up just a little, relieved when he doesn’t get immediately nauseous. Clothes tattered and torn or not, he’s the best sight Bucky’s seen in days, even if he is a hallucination. Why would Steve pull the door off its hinges?

“Am I dreaming?” His voice is hoarse from all the vomiting he’s done this week.

Steve zeroes in on Bucky as soon as he senses motion, as soon a Bucky speaks. It’s probably overdramatic, but he ends up vaulting over the coffee table into the small space between its edge and the couch, looking at Bucky, taking in how awful he looks (and sounds), hands immediately going to his shoulders. “Are you okay? What’s -- Can you get up? We need to get out of here.” Before the team arrives, and if they’re already engaging with the protection Stark put in place, then they really don’t have a lot of time. And while Steve could and would absolutely fight an entire second STRIKE team for Bucky… he doesn’t want to risk it, because Bucky or Alpine could get hurt, and the store or the apartment could suffer (more) damage, and he just wants to get Bucky out safe and someplace where he can basically sit on him and take a nap. That’s all he wants right now, in the back of his addled brain: Bucky and sleep. And safety.

A quiet, wounded noise escapes Bucky’s lips at the feel of Steve’s hands on his shoulders and he doesn’t hesitate to shift forward and wrap his arms around him, burying his face against Steve’s throat. “What’s happening?” There’s confusion in his voice as his brain starts to catch up with the fact that he’s not, actually, hallucinating. That Steve is here, and he’s hurt, and he’s saying they need to get out of there, and there’s an unfamiliar voice calling out that an engine is running. Nothing makes any sense and part of him doesn’t care because Steve’s there somehow, and he’s real.

“Rogers?” Maria’s voice floats in from the direction of the bookstore. “I’m not getting out because I want to keep the engine running, so hurry it up in there, whatever you’re doing.”

At the sound of another voice, Bucky reluctantly pulls back to look at Steve, dazed expression on his face. “Did you pull the door off its hinges?”

Steve looks back over his shoulder like he actually needs to check. “Uh. Yeah? Yeah, I -- I’ll pay to fix it, Buck, I promise, but you’ve gotta get up. Right now.” He wants to hurl himself on top of Bucky and bury his face in his neck so, so badly, but he can’t. Not yet. Instead, he slides an arm around Bucky’s back, under his shoulders, and starts working him up into a real sitting position, in preparation to get him standing. And it’s then that he realizes -- Bucky is burning up. His skin is hot and clammy to the touch, and he’d looked awful and sounded awful, yeah, and every single protective instinct Steve has been shoving down for days feels like it’s trying to come roaring to the surface.

“Buck, you -- can you stand? Should you stand? I can get whatever you need, but we need to leave, sweetheart.”

“‘Sokay. Glad you’re here. Missed you so much, Stevie,” he murmurs, letting Steve help him sit up. The room spins violently around them, but he squeezes his eyes shut, leaning into Steve and letting the warmth of his skin press into him. He wants to ask where they’re going, what’s happening, and distantly he knows that something big is happening because Steve is hurt and he’s urging Bucky to his feet. “Alpine.” The cat jumps up and perches on his shoulder, meowing. He wants to reach up and pet her but isn’t sure he has the necessary energy to walk and pet. He’s not even sure he has the energy to walk.

“I missed you too.” Steve feels breathless, desperate, rushed (and of course he is) as he helps pull Bucky to his feet, Alpine hopping up onto Bucky, and Steve spares a few seconds to run a hand over her back.

“Your shield,” Bucky tells Steve, nodding toward the bookcase. His mouth's as dry as the desert but the thought of drinking anything makes him want to throw up again. He reaches down for his computer absently, picking it up even though he’s not sure where they’re going. It seems important not to leave it here if they’re going somewhere else for long.

“I’ll get it on the way out. Do you need anything else?” Steve’s not surprised Bucky’s taking the laptop, considering where it had been hidden, but he wants to make sure they’re not leaving anything else important behind. He knows Bucky understands the importance of leaving with only what you can carry, but Steve can carry more if he has to. He knows they’ll be back, and soon, he hopes, but it might not be as soon as either of them wants.

Bucky can’t shake the feeling that it might be awhile before he’s back here and he does a quick visual scan -- which is difficult considering how hazy his vision is at the moment. “Suppressants,” he admits. “They’re in the chocolate pop tart box in the cabinet with the cereal.” Hidden, where they wouldn’t be easily found by anyone who might be willing to break in and plant bugs in his apartment. “I think that’s it.”

“Okay,” Steve says, and gets them both moving toward the kitchen so he can grab them before picking up his shield by the door. He’s maybe more dragging Bucky than helping him, feeling anxious about getting the hell out before STRIKE gets here. It feels like every second, the walls are closing in on them just a little more.

Of course, as he picks up the box to dump the bottle out into his hand, he feels a sharp pang over the fact that he hasn’t had suppressants in a week. He knows it’s making him act and feel different, and he knows he’s got to tell Bucky, even as he very deliberately does not detour them into the bathroom to get his own bottle. He no longer trusts anything given to him by SHIELD, because he doesn’t know whose hands could have been on it before his. He’s been okay after a week -- for a given definition of okay. He’ll figure it out from here.

From there, he gets them out of the apartment and into the bookstore, trying to work his way down the aisles without knocking anything over.

Everything feels very strange, hard to focus on, and Bucky’s not sure if it’s the fever or the nearness to Steve, but he really just wants to crawl into his arms and sleep. He doesn’t put up any argument as Steve half drags, half carries him through the bookstore even as he wonders why they didn’t use the back door.

The truth is, Steve’s all but forgotten about the back door, especially given that Maria pulled up to the front. “I -- I’ll pay to replace this door, too,” he says, feeling suddenly sheepish, but at least the front door is still on its hinges, and when they get out he turns around, sets down the shield, and, with Bucky in one arm, uses the other hand to mangle the lock enough that no one can break in.

Bucky’s mind is still spinning, a blur of confusion as Steve gets them out of the store and does something to the lock that makes it look pretty unusable. “Where’re we going?” he mumbles, head lolling onto Steve’s shoulder as he hauls them toward a van.

“Someplace safe,” Steve promises -- even if he doesn’t actually know where that might be, anymore. “There are people coming for you. We’re going where they can’t find you.”

He really, really doesn’t like the way Bucky sounds, the way he’s dragging. He pulls Bucky bodily around to the back of the transport van, pulling open the door and shouting to Maria to step on it as soon as Bucky and Alpine are settled and Steve is just starting to swing the door closed behind him -- and hears shouting and the pounding of boots on pavement.

A second later, there’s the sound of something moving hard and fast in their general direction and an explosion rocks the van. Maria curses as she presses her foot to the gas pedal, eyes widening as she glances in the rearview mirror to see flames erupting from Book Barnes, black smoke rising from all around it. “Jesus,” she whispers, clutching onto the wheel.

Talk about cutting it close.

Steve just barely catches a glimpse of the blast before they’re speeding off; he hangs on the handle of the door for a moment, eyes wide, feeling almost numb, before he takes a deep breath, pulls it all the way shut, and shuffles back up to the front of the holding bay, where he’d set Bucky on the floor of the van, propped against the side.

Everything hurts, his heart is pounding hard in his chest, and he’s got no control of the situation -- and no easy way to talk to Maria, now that they’re sealed in the back of the truck, which is meant to transport a high-level threat. Like himself.

But he trusts Maria and trusts her to figure out where to go. He can feel her accelerating around corners and he’s not about to strap Bucky into one of the seats back here, so he just crawls up to bracket Bucky’s body with his own, as Alpine slides down to settle in Bucky’s lap, looking (understandably) agitated. Steve settles the shield and the laptop at their feet, then wraps an arm around Bucky, doing his best to get as close as humanly possible without actually crawling on top of him and squishing him, which is the last thing he needs in this condition.

Steve feels awful and wrung out, but Bucky looks worse, and Steve can’t help himself -- it’s now that he gives into the urge to wrap himself around Bucky and bury his face against his neck, and before he can even realize what’s happening, the adrenaline crashes out from underneath him and he’s out, still clinging to Bucky just as tight.

***

“He’s coming around, Mr. Stark.”

Tony glances up from the medical chart he’s reading over to look down at the large man who’s been lying unconscious for the last several hours. “You waking up there, Capsicle?” he asks, setting the chart down on the rolling bedside table and moving a couple steps closer.

Steve is indeed waking up, but he’s not exactly liking what he’s finding. His eyes flutter as one hand starts patting absently around a little; when it hits the side of the medical bed he’s in, his eyes finally fly open and he starts to try to sit up -- which is harder than it should be, thanks to the medical tape that’s wrapped tightly around his torso to keep his broken ribs in place before they start to heal improperly.

“Where’s Bucky,” is the first thing he says, and it’s more of a demand than a question.

“Easy, Cap,” Tony warns, pulling the curtain by his bed open enough to reveal the other person lying in a bed next to his, unconscious. “He’s still out, but he’s stabilized.” His gaze shifts from “Bucky” back to Steve. “How are you feeling?” He folds his arms across his chest, expression giving nothing away. He sure as hell has a lot of questions he wants answers to, though.

“Fine,” is Steve’s absent, flat answer; all his attention has zeroed in on Bucky in the bed next to his, eyes roving over his prone figure, looking for injuries -- but finding none. Bucky was -- is -- sick, but he doesn’t appear worse off than that, and he does look a little better, asleep and hooked up to a saline drip.

His eyes finally, as though it takes effort, slide back to Tony. “Where are we?”

“Medical wing of Stark Tower,” he responds, not missing the way Steve had looked at the man in the bed. Interesting. Tony already knows a bit about their other guest because Maria had given him the basics -- that Steve had insisted on going to some bookstore where a friend of his apparently lived -- “Bucky” -- and that right after they’d left, the place had gone up in flames. There’s a whole hell of a lot he doesn’t know yet, but JARVIS is working on that part.

Steve does relax minutely at that -- Stark Tower is one the most secure places he knows of, which means Bucky is safe. With that taken care of, he can finally focus on other things… which, for better or worse, means Tony Stark.

“Gotta say, Cap. Your life appears to be a hell of a lot more interesting than I was giving you credit for all this time.” There’s a hint of amusement behind Tony’s words, despite the serious expression he’s wearing.

Steve looks unimpressed, but there’s a hint of wryness in his voice when he says, “I was trying to make it less interesting. Y’know, normal.” It’s normal to have relationships, right?

But then, some people you thought you knew clearly aren’t the people you assumed they were. Like his coworkers at SHIELD, which is disturbing, to say the least. But Stark… Stark seems to be on the right side of things here, and Steve is glad to see him. “Thanks. For taking us in.”

Tony makes an offended sound, waving off the thanks like the no big deal it actually is. “Don’t mention it. Seriously -- don’t.” He raises his eyebrows, glancing over his shoulder at the sleeping brunette momentarily before looking back at Steve. “We’ll get caught up tomorrow when you’re a little more healed.” No matter how badly he wants more information about a whole lot of things, he’s not totally heartless. He recognizes the fact that, despite superpowers, Steve is injured and needs to rest and recover.

Part of Steve wants to just get up, say he’s fine, get to work figuring out what the hell is really going on here.

But a bigger part of him wants -- needs -- to stay right here with Bucky until he wakes up, and he’s already starting to sit up a little more, planning to slide out of bed so he can at least go sit down next to Bucky’s bed and wait. Then he realizes -- “Alpine. Where’s the cat?”

Tony makes a face. “With Barton. He’s apparently a cat person. She hissed at me when I tried to pet her.”

That makes Steve laugh for the first time in… God, it feels like it’s been a long time. “She’s a smart cat.” But good. He trusts Barton with her. Good.

He starts working on disentangling himself from the various cords and machines so he can get over to Bucky’s bed. “Is everyone else all right?”

Steve is not doing a very good job of waiting until he’s healed to ask questions.

Tony narrows his eyes a bit, watching Steve as he undoes all the cords and machines he’s hooked up to. He’s not surprised, and he doesn’t blame him. He doesn’t care for hospitals, either. “Probably won’t pay attention if I tell you that you shouldn’t be out of bed yet, right?” His voice is mild, without a hint of judgment for once.

“Nope,” Steve grits out, finally free of the tangle so he can shuffle his way over to Bucky’s half of the room.

Tony finally deigns to answer Steve’s question, staying put for the moment but looking uncomfortable as Steve takes slow step after slow step. “We’re still waiting to hear back from Romanoff, but everyone else appears to be fine and accounted for now that you’re back.”

Steve glances back, realizing Tony isn’t following, and not minding if he does.

At that look, Tony does get in gear, following somewhat closely on the off chance that Steve ends up falling. Not that he’ll ever admit that’s what he was doing.

Steve makes it, though, pulling over one of the chairs in the corner so he can drop down into it next to Bucky’s bed. He knows he doesn’t really have the wherewithal to discuss it in depth right now, but, “Tony, something really strange -- and really big -- is going on, here. Someone’s trying to take me out of the picture, and I don’t know why.”

When Steve drops into a chair beside the brunette’s bed and lays that statement out there, Tony gives a short nod. “Don’t know a lot of the details yet myself, but it looks like an old enemy of yours has resurfaced with quite an entrance.” He glances at Bucky momentarily and then back at Steve. “The good part is they were unsuccessful. And they’ll continue to be unsuccessful.”

That gets Steve’s attention, even as he’s rooting around a bit for Bucky’s hand. He needs to touch Bucky, needs to convince himself he’s here, needs skin to skin contact because he feels like, after a whole week apart, he’ll never get enough of it. God, how did he go on a mission for an entire week right after he met Bucky and not just go out of his mind?

(He was on suppressants at the time, he knows, and this is probably what it’s like without them. No wonder he’s been on them his entire time as an alpha… and he should probably deal with that, but first --)

“What do you mean, old enemy?” he asks, eyes narrowing even as he fits his fingers in between Bucky’s limp ones, squeezing tight. He has a bad feeling, though, that he knows what Tony’s going to say. Who he’s going to say.

Tony watches Steve slot his fingers between the other man’s and presses his lips together. “I mean HYDRA. Apparently, they’ve managed to infiltrate SHIELD. And our good buddy Brock Rumlow’s part of it. Sounds like a few of the others from STRIKE, too, Romanoff wasn’t real clear. Just that she was still digging. Oh, and the Secretary of State is in on the whole conspiracy, too.”

Well. That gets Steve’s attention -- his undivided attention, because admittedly up until now, things had been about 60 percent Bucky, 40 percent everything else. Now, though, just for a second, Steve’s hand almost feels numb, as he turns to look at Tony -- really look at him, as his stomach goes cold.

He hates when hunches like this are right.

“HYDRA? All of them?” Well. Well, shit. The Secretary of State is in on it? Suddenly every little way he’d rubbed Steve wrong for the entire past week comes rushing back to him, and he feels much more justified.

Buf if HYDRA has gotten that far… what if it’s only the tip of the iceberg? “Where’s Natasha now?” he asks, voice tight, as he works through everything he was just told, all the way down to its conclusion: HYDRA is still very much alive and kicking, and might be a much, much bigger problem than a few isolated, outdated cells.

“Great question. Don’t know how deep it goes. And she went off the grid yesterday afternoon.” Tony’s decidedly unhappy about both of those things and it shows on his face, even if the latter had a tendency to happen pretty often. Spies.

“Barton’s working on trying to get in touch with her through other means -- whatever those are, I have no idea.” He’s too old for some of this shit and he shakes his head. “I’m sure we’ll have more information soon. Meanwhile, I’ve got a team of lawyers ready to tear the current presidential administration apart on your behalf, but in the meantime you’re gonna need to lie low.”

Tear the current presidential administration apart on your behalf, Steve’s mind echoes, and -- suddenly he feels very tired. Very tired, and very worried, and he just nods mutely for a moment. He should get up, he knows -- get up and say he’s fine and go with Tony and deal with this, somehow. Deal with the fact that HYDRA is back and rooted deeply and firmly in the institutions people are supposed to be able to trust to protect them.

But -- He glances back at Bucky, asleep and hooked up to machines, to medications, and he finally looks back to Tony. “Can you keep me updated? Tell me when she checks in. I -- I’m gonna stay here for a bit.” Maybe try to get some of that rest Tony had just mentioned, a few minutes ago. Maybe just… try to figure out what went wrong, to get them to this point.

“Can do,” Tony responds, not liking the almost-lost look on Steve’s face. It’s not something he’s used to seeing, at least not when it comes to something serious, and it makes him uneasy. He pats Steve’s shoulder somewhat awkwardly. “If you need something before then, don’t hesitate. I mean it.” There’s a thread of seriousness there that’s usually not, but before Steve has a chance to respond, Tony’s turning and heading for the door, leaving him there alone with Bucky.

“Yeah,” Steve says absently -- and then, just before Tony actually makes it out the door: “Thank you, Tony.” He means it.

He doesn’t know where he’d be or what he’d be doing now, whether Bucky would be alive, without his teammates. Without his friends. That thought turns Steve’s stomach and he hunches over a little, trying to thread his and Bucky’s fingers closer together as he settles into the uncomfortable plastic chair and leans his shoulder against the rails on the side of Bucky’s bed, trying to just… calm down, focus, figure out what the next move is here, and convince himself that they really are safe, at least for the time being.

The first thing Bucky notices is that there’s light pressure on his hand. It doesn’t hurt and it doesn’t scare him, even as he realizes quickly he’s not at home. The light in the room is far too bright when he opens his eyes, and he winces. Almost instantly the lights dim a bit, which is weird. It takes him a few seconds to realize he’s in the hospital. Or something like a hospital. Aren’t I already done with all of this? he thinks, his brain full of cotton candy. He licks his lips, wincing again and lets his head roll to the side, gaze landing on Steve.

He coughs a couple of times, fingers tightening around Steve’s involuntarily, and then staying that way even as his body relaxes back into the pillow behind him, a small, dopey smile spreading across his face.

“Steve.”

Steve might have been drifting for a few minutes, but as soon as Bucky starts to stir, it’s like an alarm blaring in his ear. He sits up a little closer, laser-focused in on the dark-haired omega as he starts to wake. And when Bucky looks over at him with that smile, Steve’s face breaks out into a relieved grin of his own. “Buck. Hey. Hey, what do you need? Are you thirsty?”

He feels like he needs to do something, he needs to help Bucky out or he’s going to just crawl into the bed with him, and that would probably make some of those machines unhappy. “How are you feeling?”

Bucky shifts a little, trying to see Steve easier, chest feeling warm at the sight of his smile. He licks his lips, and yep -- he’s definitely thirsty. His mouth feels like an old sock and that thought makes him grimace. “Thirsty,” he agrees, closing his eyes again for a second, but opening them back up almost immediately. He takes stock of how he feels aside from that. His head still hurts, but it’s less intense that it has been in days. His body still aches but it, too, feels somewhat better. He glances up at the IV bag hooked into his left arm, and he’s glad they hooked it up to that one so at least he’ll be able to use his other.

“Kinda crappy,” he admits, yawning. “How are you? What happened?” His eyebrows furrow for a moment as he tries to remember how he’d ended up here, and vaguely he can recall that Steve had shown up at his apartment and told him they needed to go. But why? There’s something -- but it’s too distant to grasp onto at the moment, his head still too fuzzy.

“Yeah, okay, lemme -- um,” Steve casts about, and after a few seconds he spots a pitcher of water and two plastic cups with straws over on a nearby table. “Hang on,” he says, pushing himself stiffly up to head for the table and pull it closer, so he can fill one of the cups and hand it over to Bucky. It’s very convenient how everything is on wheels around here.

Bucky takes a sip of the water, letting its coolness quench his throat and get rid of the old sock feeling in his mouth. He holds onto the cup even though he’d rather go back to holding Steve’s hand, watching as he sits down once more, somewhat stiffly. It makes his eyes narrow.

Once Steve’s back in the chair, he turns it so he can face Bucky a little better, now that he’s awake. He’s still trying to look for any obvious injuries on the outside, but Bucky really, truly seems intact, and Steve couldn’t be more grateful. “It’s… kind of a long story,” he says, although he guesses they’ve got nothing but time. At the moment, anyway. He doesn’t know what Bucky knows, so he tries to start at the beginning: “They said I had to submit to testing, to prove I was an alpha. They took my phone and they wouldn’t let me out even after, because even though I’m an alpha now, they found a way to prove I wasn’t, before.”

He’s trying to recount everything calmly and detachedly, but he definitely doesn’t look happy or calm about any of that. “This morning, they said they were transferring me. That I’d never get out. They sent Rumlow and the rest of my team to do it.” Steve’s smiling now, but it’s grim. “I took them down, but not before Rumlow said there was a team on its way to you.”

As soon as Steve starts talking, Bucky remembers the last horrible week without him, watching the news every spare moment, and feeling like he was dying slowly. “Jesus, Steve,” he whispers, eyes searching for signs of visible injury. “Are you okay? Are you hurt?” He assumes so, considering he’s in a matching blue hospital gown, and Bucky carefully balances the cup of water on his thigh before pressing the button that moves the hospital bed to more of a seated position. “Should you even be out of bed?”

He sets aside the thought of a team of people being sent to capture him, because okay. It’s happened before. And because right now, he’s safe, in some hospital he doesn’t recognize, and Steve is there and they’re together. He’ll focus on that right now and deal with the rest later.

“I’m okay,” Steve says quickly, and it’s not quite as flat as when he’d told Tony, but it is probably just as much of an overestimate. But the truth is, even if he hurts now, no one can do much of anything about it. His ribs will heal in a couple of days, and the burns are probably already sloughing off. “I heal quick, I promise.”

And there’s also the fact that Bucky is right here, right next to him, within touching distance, and that goes a long way toward making Steve feel better than the caged, anxious animal he’s felt like all week. “I wanna know what happened to you. You were dehydrated and I know you had a fever. Are you sick?”

Bucky studies him with tired eyes. Steve looks every bit as tired as he feels, and he scrapes his teeth over his lower lip for a moment. “Yeah. I think so.” He’s not entirely sure why, even if he has a suspicion about the cause, one that Natasha had so casually mentioned. It feels true. And it makes sense.

He’s not sure he wants to toss such a diagnosis out between them without an actual doctor being the one to suggest it, though. “Been nauseated and headachey all week.” And lethargic, but he figures that’s a given. “But I’m not the one who’s been locked up for a week. Have you gotten any rest?”

Steve smiles a little at Bucky’s question, but it’s humorless and dry, because, “Not much, I guess. I felt kinda like a bug under glass. The more they tried to reassure me, the less better I actually felt.”

Bucky reaches out for his hand wordlessly, needing the contact. “Sounds about right,” he murmurs. Especially when there’s little doubt that the bastards who’d locked him up in the first place are fucking evil. He doesn’t know how to break that news to him yet, but one thing at a time.

Steve’s huffs quietly, because despite that reassurance, he’s still unhappy to hear that Bucky’s been sick. After all, Steve spent most of his childhood sick, and has pretty vivid memories of feeling awful most of the time. Plus, that stupid protective part of himself that he’s been trying to shove down more and more this week is really unhappy to hear his omega isn’t feeling good.

And then Steve realizes he’d just thought of Bucky as his omega, and -- and shit, he can’t be thinking like that. He’s never thought like that before -- except he has, hours ago, facing down Brock Rumlow, and he’s pretty sure he knows why.

He really should tell Bucky.

“I, uh. I stopped taking the medication they were giving me. The suppressants. I didn’t trust it. I don’t know why -- maybe it was stupid. But I haven’t had any in a week and I… don’t know if I’m acting weird or if they just mistook my being pissed off for something else. I’m not saying I don’t think I can control myself, but I keep -- If you stop feeling safe around me, you need to say something. Please.”

Bucky watches Steve huff, looking frustrated, unsettled and that unsettles Bucky, but when he hears why, he relaxes once more. “I don’t blame you. It was a good choice. Best you coulda made at the time, under the circumstances.”

His voice cracks and he grimaces, taking another drink of the water. “I don’t think you’re actin’ weird, Steve. They locked you up for a bullshit reason. I was pissed, too.” He’s still pissed. And he’s been terrified for the entire week, worried about what they were doing to him, if they were treating him okay, or if they were hurting him.

“This is the safest I’ve felt since you left Monday morning,” Bucky admits tiredly.

Steve laughs softly, but it’s mostly (almost entirely) relief. “Well, you probably still have a fever. I don’t know if you can tell what’s weird and what’s not.”

But joking aside… he hopes to God that Bucky will say something if Steve does something he doesn’t like. He knows Bucky’s told him, more than once, that he could never be an alpha like Brock Rumlow. And while Steve doesn’t think Bucky’s lying, he just… doesn’t know. He doesn’t know exactly what he’s like off suppressants, especially cold turkey like that. He’d fooled STRIKE and Pierce all right, but he’d also been mad, and had reason to be mad. Here and now… he has Bucky, and he knows there’s still more anger and action to be had, but right now, he doesn’t want those things at all. He just wants Bucky.

Bucky smirks at that. “Well, I don’t think I’m wrong anyway. Fever or not.” He shrugs, expression softening at the worry that he can read on Steve's face. He’s been around more than one alpha off suppressants before. His dad’s an alpha. And plenty of guys in the military had been. A couple of them had been more than a little brassed off that a beta had bypassed them for sergeant, but it hadn’t scared him. His dad might have always been an asshole, but he’d never been abusive.

Brock’s another story all together. He doesn’t think it’s necessarily the norm, and he knows it’s not the norm for Steve. He’s not at all worried that’s going to change anytime soon, and he wishes he knew how to put that into words that Steve would believe. Instead, he focuses on their joined hands, his thumb brushing over the back of Steve’s knuckles over and over, willing him to understand that Bucky’s not afraid of him.

“I’ll be fine,” Bucky assures him, because he’s already feeling a lot better than he had been before he woke up.

Steve twists his hand in Bucky’s grip so they can slide their fingers together a little better. “Whatever’s wrong, whatever you caught, they’ve got good medics here. They’ll have you back on your feet in no time. I don’t know what comes next, but --”

Oh, God. Bucky can’t just go home, and Steve isn’t sure he even knows, or remembers. He scoots a little closer, while at the same time knowing that this might be it -- this might be the deal breaker, this might make Bucky tell him to get up and go. Because this has to be Steve’s fault. If he and Bucky hadn’t been seeing each other… “Book Barnes is gone. I’m sorry, Buck. I’m -- I know it’s because of me. I’m sorry.”

Steve’s words echo in his head, and they make no sense. Book Barnes is gone. Bucky’s eyebrows furrow. “Gone? What do you mean?”

Bucky’s touch is soothing, like maybe Steve doesn’t need suppressants as long as he’s got Bucky here to hold his hand like this. He doesn’t feel nearly as antsy or angry as he did before, but that doesn’t mean the cold lump in the pit of his stomach is gone. Especially not as Bucky seems to not quite process what Steve’s saying and he realizes Bucky definitely didn’t see what happened.

“Bombed,” he says, quietly. “The team that was after you. I think they were going to kill you. They destroyed the store, Buck. We barely made it out in time.” If they’d been even a little bit slower… Steve doesn’t want to think about it. He’d rather have Bucky here than the alternative, but that place had meant so much to him. And it had been his home. “I didn’t think they’d do something like that. I’m so sorry.”

Bombed. His store… his apartment. It’s gone. All the air leaves Bucky’s lungs and for a moment he stares blankly at Steve’s face. The look on the other’s face when he busted into the apartment flashes through his mind -- the fear, the urgency -- and it makes a lot more sense now.

He’s silent for a few seconds before he sits up a little more, eyes widening fearfully. “Alpine?” His voice is strained and his eyes dart around. She’d been on his shoulder, he’s pretty sure, but he doesn’t see her anywhere nearby and fear shoots through him.

“She’s fine,” Steve says quickly, squeezing Bucky’s hand. “She’s here. She’s with Hawkeye,” he adds, smiling a little because nothing here is funny, but maybe that will at least make Bucky smile, too. “I heard she took a swipe at Stark. I always knew she was smart.”

But still, that doesn’t change the fact that everything Bucky had is gone. Everything his grandfather gave him. “I know money or a new place to live can’t make it right,” Steve says, somber again. “But -- whatever I can do. Whatever you need. I’ll try. But… Stark said we might want to lie low for a while, and maybe he’s right.”

Steve doesn’t want to lie low, but he feels much more beholden to Bucky than to just about anyone else right now.

Bucky’s never met Hawkeye, but he’s part of the Avengers. He relaxes a little, closing his eyes for a moment and forcing himself to take a deep breath, trying to focus on the rest of what Steve says. “Lie low,” he echoes faintly. “Right. Okay.” It’s probably not the worst idea, considering Steve’s apparently now a fugitive and the same people who had Bucky captive all those months ago are the ones after Steve now. And apparently also trying to kill him. He chews his lower lip.

“Do they know they didn’t succeed? In trying to kill me?” Because if there’d been a bomb, he figures there’s a pretty good chance they don’t know he’s not dead, and that might just come in handy.

“I’m not sure,” Steve admits. “But maybe. There might be ways to find out.” Tony might be able to hack their communications, or Natasha -- he’s still worried about Natasha, but once she resurfaces (because she will resurface, there’s just no other option), she might be able to tap into what they’re saying as well. “If they think you’re dead… that might actually be better for you,” he says, even though it’s clear he doesn’t like that situation a lot, either. “But they know I’m not, and they’re going to be looking for me. I want to take the fight to them, but not until I have the whole picture, or I could just make it worse.”

Steve knows he’s not exactly known for his patience, but things are a little different, this time around.

Bucky exhales. “If they think I’m dead we may be able to use that to our advantage at some point soon.” He shifts his gaze to Steve’s face. “Stark might be right. We can lie low for a few days, maybe come up with a plan of attack.” He presses his lips together, squeezes Steve’s hand.

Steve can’t help the way his lips twitch into a smile, as Bucky’s already starting to think strategically. It’s nothing he asked of him, and yet it’s not a surprise, either. He was a soldier. He knows how to take shitty situations in stride and keep going. Steve wishes he didn’t have to do that, this time. But he can’t really say how much he appreciates the fact that Bucky can -- and is.

“I love you,” he says, suddenly -- for that, for a hundred other things, for everything -- and then he looks almost a little guilty that he just said it. But he can’t take it back. Won’t. Doesn’t want to. “I -- sorry. These are not really the circumstances under which I wanted to tell you,” he finishes, a little lamely.

Bucky’s eyes go wide at Steve’s words. “You love me?” he echoes.

Steve grimaces a little -- yeah, way to go, super-romantic circumstances, Rogers. “Yeah? I mean -- yeah. Yeah, I do, Buck,” he says, sounding a little more each time, even if his voice is still quiet. “I don’t think it’s just the hormones talking. I’m pretty sure I just -- love you.”

Bucky’s heart beats quickly in his chest and he looks down at their hands. “Thought I was gonna be the one to say it first,” he admits just as quietly. “Keep thinking about the words but -- I was kinda afraid to say ‘em.”

“You don’t have to,” Steve insists, quickly, but gently. “I don’t -- this isn’t me asking you to say it back. I just… couldn’t not say it anymore. After everything.”

Steve loves him. Him. Bucky’s chest feels warm and he suddenly really wants to be much closer. “If uh -- if I move over, will you come up here with me?”

Steve laughs, ducking his head. “God, I would like nothing more in the entire world.” He maybe doesn’t feel quite so guilty for basically wishing he could do exactly that, not very long ago.

Bucky shifts over to make room for Steve as he pushes up out of the chair, doing his best to help Bucky rearrange cords and wires and IVs. He momentarily considers pulling them out of his veins and off his skin, before Steve simply does his best to climb up onto the bed without jostling him, trying to take up as little space as possible while simultaneously press as much of himself along Bucky’s side as he can manage. “Is this okay?”

It’s a tight squeeze to accommodate the two of them. Bucky’s tall and lean but Steve is a mountain of a man beside him and he almost immediately buries his face into the other’s neck. “Yes,” he whispers. “This is good.” He shivers against him, struggling momentarily but managing to lift his left arm up so he can rest his hand on Steve’s arm.

Steve.” He closes his eyes, breathing in the scent of his skin and pressing a kiss to his collarbone, soft and tender. “Fuck, I missed you.”

Steve can’t really suppress the full-body shiver at the touch of Bucky’s lips; he feels hot and cold all at once, like he wants to roll on top of Bucky but also like he wants to pull Bucky on top of him. Neither is the best idea, but it’s not like their current situation is bad -- like Bucky said, this is good. This is so, so good; Steve worms one arm under Bucky’s shoulders, trying to wrap it around him as the other cuddles close, and yes, this is good.

“I missed you, too,” he breathes, hooking one leg carefully over Bucky’s, still trying his best to keep most of his weight on the mattress, and not on Bucky. “I feel like I’ve spent more time apart from you than with you since we met,” he laughs, softly, even though it’s not all that funny. It’s just horribly true. “But I think I might be out of a job, at least for a while, so…”

Of course, so will Bucky. Maybe for longer than a while. “God, I am so, so sorry.” He feels like he can’t stop saying it, but everything feels like it’s imploded in on them, and he hates it. He just wanted one thing to be normal. And now it’s definitely not.

Bucky’s heart aches at the apology, and he does his best to shift closer. “Shh,” he murmurs, not at all minding the way their legs hook together or the way Steve’s arm curls beneath him. “This isn’t your fault,” he whispers. There are people at fault, that much is certain, but Steve? No. Not even close. He pushes away all thoughts on the store, on his apartment, on his family, focusing solely on the man in bed with him at the moment.

His soulmate.

He presses another kiss against Steve’s skin. “I love you,” he whispers, breath hitching in his throat. “I wasn’t sure if -- it’s so soon and I thought maybe saying it too soon would make you turn and run the other way.” There’s an undercurrent of guilt in his voice. “I shoulda known better. Been afraid I wouldn’t get the chance to say it at all.” For more reasons than one.

“Well, I didn’t mean to beat you to it,” Steve says, curling closer, trying to press his nose into Bucky’s hair, breathe him in. He feels calmer, clearer, and maybe a little more worn out, like his adrenaline has crashed again, but Bucky’s scent is something he never wants to lose again. “It kinda just came out. I’m not really known for my romantic timing.”

But all jokes aside, “It feels like my fault. It feels personal. The people who did this… they’re the people I tried to take down in the war. I thought I died to rid the world of them, and here they are, fucking everything up for the person who means the most to me in the entire world, and I’d be a lot more pissed about it if I didn’t want to sleep for a week, now that I know you’re okay.”

He tilts his head to brush his lips over Bucky’s hairline, his temple. “Maybe lying low would be nice. Like a vacation. I’ve never had one of those. D’you think Alpine would like the beach?”

Yeah, he knows they’ll probably have zero control over where they can actually go, but it’s a nice thought.

A quiet, choked laugh escapes Bucky at the teasing and he rests his forehead against Steve’s neck, closing his eyes. “Heck yeah. Although she might just think it’s a giant litter box,” he jokes. He’s not surprised Steve’s never had a vacation. Sad, but not surprised.

But there’s still the rest of what Steve said. “That’s the thing, though,” Bucky says quietly. “It’s not the same people, right? HYDRA.” He’s pretty sure he’s right on that part at least -- anyone who’d been part of HYDRA back in the 40’s would either be in their late nineties, or dead. “The people are different, but the idea is the same. It’s damn near impossible to kill an idea, Steve. And that’s not your fault.” If defeating an idea was an easy task, the world would be a lot better place.

Steve starts to protest, but, “Okay, if you’re gonna be literal about it,” he teases, poking Bucky’s arm gently. “It’s not the same people. Except for me. I just wanted to take cradle-robbing to a whole new level.”

Bucky snorts. “I’m not sure datin’ a thirty year old is robbin’ the cradle, Stevie,” he teases, managing to squeeze his arm faintly with his left hand. It’s apparently a halfway decent day for it and he tries to remember if it had been at all functional this morning. He supposes it doesn’t really matter one way or the other.

“Yeah, you, uh, realize I was born in 1918, right?” Steve points out, but he’s not really going to argue that one a lot farther, because it is weird to think about and he doesn’t actually want Bucky to decide this is a bad idea, after everything.

But Bucky’s still right. It is the same idea. The same organization. And in truth, it scares him, that that idea has wormed its way into a place that should be transparent. But then, when the government sanctions operations like SHIELD, black boxes that aren’t regulated… maybe that’s what happens. It doesn’t sit better with him -- in fact, it sits worse. It makes him think that they’re going to have to do something drastic, and that could end really, really badly.

But then again, the alternative is a world where it’s okay to hold someone for forced DNA testing. Where it’s okay to lock them away until you even know how to deal with them. Steve can break himself out, but not everyone can. And he can’t let it happen to anyone else.

“We’re gonna have to do something big. Something deep. We can’t ignore this, and we can’t go at it half-assed.” Steve hums quietly, brain starting to go to work on it, even while he’s trying to just focus on being here with Bucky, which is what he’d wanted all damn week. “But I know we have to wait. I’m not really great at that part. But I can try.”

Bucky pulls back just enough that they can look at one another. “And we will,” he says quietly. Confident. The relief he feels at Steve using we is immense. He’s part of this, and he’s fully planning to be at Steve’s side til this is done. Til the end of the damned line. “We’ll put our heads together, and we’ll figure this out.” Bucky’s gaze is intense as he searches Steve’s eyes. “And we’ll take them down.” One by one, if that’s what it takes.

“And until then… I’ll show you how to wait it out. It’s one of my skills,” he says seriously.

Steve simply settles closer until Bucky looks at him like that, and -- yeah. Yeah, that was why he’d blurted out I love you. Because he does -- he loves the dedication and ferocity and loyalty in Bucky’s eyes. He loves the fact that he should be telling Steve to get out, but instead, he’s talking about how he’s going to stay.

Part of him wants to keep Bucky safe and as far away from this as possible. But that would be belittling everything Bucky is, and ignoring the fact that this has already touched him, in too big a way to back down from.

“Should I make the joke about old dog and new tricks?” he asks, but he leans in to kiss Bucky slowly, sincerely, before he might have a chance to answer. “I want to do this right. All of it. I want to wipe them off the face of the Earth, and I don’t want to lose you doing it. If we have to wait… I’ll wait. I’ll do my best.”

Bucky closes his eyes when Steve kisses him, pushing away so many other thoughts and worries. That Steve’s worried about losing him is kind of mind-blowing, in the same way that staring at the Egyptian pyramids or the Grand Canyon for the first time is.

He draws in a slow, deep breath, shaking his head a little as he grins and then leans in, pressing a kiss to Steve’s forehead before looking at him again. He’s not sure how he wound up lucky enough to meet this man, to get to know him, to somehow be loved by him, but he’s damned grateful he is. Everything else may be shit right now, but he has Steve.

And, “You’re not gonna lose me. You uttered the words, Steve. Now you’re stuck with me,” he jokes, leaning in and kissing him again. Truthfully, even if Steve hadn’t have uttered the words, Bucky’s pretty sure it wouldn’t have changed anything. He knows himself well enough to know he’ll fight tooth and nail to stay with Steve, the rest of the world be damned.

Steve very much wants to be stuck with this man; he can’t help but slide his hand carefully up into Bucky’s hair, maybe cheating a little by brushing his thumb over just the right spot to touch his soulmark. Unless that’s not cheating at all, but playing by exactly the right rules.

Bucky can’t suppress the shiver when Steve thumbs over his soulmark, but he buries his face against Steve’s throat for a moment, wishing his left hand was working well enough that he could return the favor. And at the feel of that, Steve can’t say his worry about losing Bucky is totally alleviated, but he does feel a little better, a little calmer. He’s never been a guy that needs reassurances but hearing it is soothing, and it maybe settles that roiling, possessive part of himself that he doesn’t fully understand or like, but can’t ignore, either.

“Well, I think we’re stuck in here until tomorrow at least,” he says finally, leaning back just enough to get his head on the pillow and talk to Bucky instead of just kiss him. “After that, I’m not sure, but I know the longer we stay, the more people here we put at risk. But I also don’t want to leave until you’re definitely on the mend. My field medic training isn’t gonna do you much good if you get worse again.” And he isn’t sure he should say it, but the way Bucky had been when he’d found him at home, barely conscious and burning with fever, had been terrifying. There had been so much going on at the time that Steve had had to table his fear over that and deal with the situation at hand, but he never wants to see Bucky like that again.

When Steve pulls back to look at him, so that they can talk, Bucky draws in a shaky breath. “I think I’m doing a lot better already,” he admits. He knows he’d been pretty bad off when Steve found him. Remembers idly thinking he might actually die -- which is an oddly strong response, an extreme even if it had been AOSD.

“Good,” Steve hums, because Bucky is definitely better -- awake and lucid -- but Steve wants to make sure he continues on that upward trajectory a little longer before they end up potentially going completely dark.

And then he has a thought that… well, it’ll either be a good one or a bad one, but Bucky can decide: “Should you call your sister? Or your family? Let them know you’re okay?” Stark Tower might be the very best -- most secure -- location to make a call like that. “Doesn’t have to be right now.”

Bucky finds himself gazing at Steve, soft, adoring smile on his face, even though he drops his gaze. “I should definitely call Becca,” he agrees, chest feeling tight for a whole new set of reasons. “Don’t think it’ll matter much one way or the other to my parents.” He shrugs. No doubt they’ll hear about the store being blown up -- he knows they watch the news and his dad’s always loved the Times. But they won’t care whether he’d been in the store at the time or not. It hurts to think it, but he also knows it’s the truth.

Steve’s not as thrilled to hear that Bucky doesn’t think his parents will care; in fact, it makes him tighten his arm around Bucky a little, brushing that mark one more time before sliding his hand down around his shoulder. If his parents need to know, he guesses, Bucky’s sister will tell them. “Okay. We’ll call her --” he starts, right before something else suddenly occurs to Bucky and he almost groans, dropping his head.

Wanda. Oh god. I need to call her right now. She’s gonna freak out.” Bucky bites down on his lower lip and reluctantly starts to extricate himself from Steve even if it’s the last thing he wants to do. He needs to find a phone.

“Hey, hey -- hang on,” Steve says, trying to get Bucky to stay in place before he glances up at the ceiling (habit) and says, “JARVIS?”

“Yes, Captain,” is the smooth, unruffled response to the prompt. “I can initiate an audio call via the speakers in the room, if that is acceptable. Otherwise, I can certainly arrange for a physical telephone connection.”

Bucky lets Steve still his movements to get up and out of bed, and his eyes widen a little when Steve starts talking to someone named JARVIS. Considering there’s no one in the room, Bucky’s a tad weirded out, especially when whoever it is responds. He, too, looks up at the ceiling and then at Steve, eyebrows raised high.

Who is JARVIS?” he whispers.

“Hello, Sergeant Barnes. I’m the A.I. designed by Mr. Stark to assist with tasks here in the building. It’s a pleasure to meet you. Would you like to place a call for you?”

If anything, his eyes are even wider now and he just stares at Steve, dumbfounded.

Steve didn’t mean to startle Bucky; still, he grins a little haplessly and shrugs one shoulder a bit. “I thought it might be easier than getting up and hunting down a phone. Mine’s gone for good.” And he isn’t sure where Bucky’s is, but he’ll bet it’s safe with his laptop. He (mostly) trusts Tony not to hack the thing. And if he does? Then he’s gonna get Steve’s fist to the face.

“JARVIS does more than I could probably explain in a few minutes,” Steve admits. “But if you need anything and no one’s around, he’s really great at getting things done.”

And, “It’d be just like calling her on speakerphone,” he reassures Bucky.”I can go outside, if you want some privacy.” And then -- “Let her know that if she needs her salary… I can probably cover it.” He looks sheepish, but he has a ridiculous amount of money and he’d be happy to help -- provided HYDRA or the government haven’t seized his accounts, he suddenly realizes. That is a possibility.

Bucky shakes his head a little, amazement on his face. “Is it --” He glances up toward the ceiling. “Do you have a physical body?” How does this even work?

If you asked him later, Bucky would swear there’s amusement in the AI’s voice when he responds. “No, sir. I am not technically a robot.”

“Holy shit,” he mumbles, wondering suddenly if he’s really awake at all. This is like I, Robot, except the robot says he’s not actually a robot. It takes him a full moment to shake off the shock and fascination he feels. “Um, yes, please place a call to me, for uh -- Wanda Maximoff?” He glances at Steve quizzically.

“He’s surprisingly easy to get used to,” Steve promises, with a nod and a tiny, tiny grin, as the speakers in the room connect and the line starts ringing. Of course, the news Bucky’s going to have to give Wanda isn’t a good reason to grin, so his expression grows a little more somber as he keeps his arm around Bucky and waits for her to pick up. “If you want to video call your sister later, we can do that,” he adds, just before the line clicks and Wanda says, “Hello?”

Steve honestly has no idea what the Caller ID reads when you make a call through JARVIS. Maybe it shows up as Unknown? Or maybe it shows up as Bucky. Or something else.

Bucky hasn’t exactly considered what he should tell Wanda, but he won’t let her think he’s dead, and he’d rather she doesn’t find out about the shop on the news, if she hasn’t already. “Wanda? It’s Bucky. I -- thought you should know that something happened with the store.” Involuntarily, his voice hitches a little and he closes his eyes, willing himself not to break down. It’s just a place. “There was uh -- a fire. Pretty bad. But Alpine and I are both fine.”

Steve knows how much Bucky cares for the store -- yes, it’s just a place, but it was his place, and it was a gift, and he’d clearly put a lot of time, thought, and care into it. His arm tightens a little around Bucky’s shoulders just as Wanda says, “What? A fire? Bucky, that’s terrible!”

And, because maybe she’s sharper than your average girl, or because she’s seen both Captain America and the Black Widow in the store as of late, she asks, “What happened? Where are you? It doesn’t have something to do with your… um, ‘friends,’ does it?”

Bucky leans into Steve a little more when his arms tighten around his shoulders. He’s not surprised by her question, really. Wanda’s been sharp as a tack since he’d first met her. “It’s a long story and I can’t really divulge details right now, but -- just know that I’m okay even if you hear differently. I gotta go away for a bit, but I’ll come find you when I can, okay? And uh -- if you could not tell anyone you heard from me? I’d appreciate it.”

“Okay,” Wanda says slowly. She doesn’t sound happy about it -- in fact, Steve can practically imagine her narrowing her eyes at the both of them, even if she doesn’t know he’s essentially on the line, too. “You know, there were probably a lot of better ways to make your life more exciting,” she says, but there’s still worry under her teasing tone. “You’d better come back. And find me,” she says. And then, after a pause, “Should I… start looking for another job?” She doesn’t sound thrilled about it.

Steve glances at Bucky, but it’s his call, what he wants to tell Wanda about that.

Bucky winces, exhaling for a moment. “I’ll come back, I promise. I’m not sure about the other part. I’ll have to see where things stand with insurance.” Because if insurance doesn’t come through, there’s no way in hell he’ll be able to even consider rebuilding. “But -- if it works out, I’d love to have you stay on. I can pay you your normal salary still, until I know for sure.” Because he does have some savings, and he’s not taking Steve’s money, despite the offer. “It’s your call.”

Wanda sighs, but it doesn’t sound like she’s frustrated with Bucky. Just the situation. “You don’t have to pay me if there’s no work for me to do,” she says quietly. “Is there something I can do for you? Aside from staying quiet.”

And then, “I would like to continue working for you. If I could, if you rebuild. Which you should.”

Steve does smile at that -- Wanda’s a good kid, and he thinks she’s offering out of genuine like for Bucky, and not just the fact that her job wasn’t too taxing and he let her work on other things when she wasn’t busy. He nudges Bucky gently, just to silently say, I agree.

“Wanda, if I decide to rebuild, you’ll be one of the first people to know,” Bucky promises, voice sincere. He wishes she was there so he could give her a hug. “For now, just stay safe. But if I think of anything, you’ll be my first call.” He glances at Steve, returning his smile even if it’s fainter than Steve’s. “Take care of yourself. I’ll be in touch as soon as I can. Okay?”

“Okay,” Wanda says, with a soft tone of finality. “You, too, Bucky.” There’s a soft click as she hangs up, and the speakers overhead fall silent.

Steve lets out a slow breath, rubbing his hand up and down Bucky’s arm, avoiding any IV lines or medical wires as best he can. “I think you should rebuild,” he says softly, “but I know it’s probably not something you want to think about right now.”

Bucky’s quiet for a minute, thinking. “I guess I'm still trying to wrap my head around the fact that it’s gone, you know? Doesn’t feel real yet.” He has a feeling it might not until he sees it with his own eyes. And considering they need to go somewhere else to lie low for a few days, he knows that’s not going to be anytime soon. It’s probably for the best. It’ll give him more time to focus on the task that lay ahead: taking down the bastards who’d done it in the first place.

“Yeah, I understand,” Steve breathes -- and works on wrapping himself around Bucky a little more now, in lieu of trying to offer condolences that he knows won’t really fix it. “Try not to worry about it right now, then,” he says, knowing that’s much easier said than done. “Do you wanna wait to call your sister until later?” And, “Is this a really bad time for me to meet her?”

Steve’s nearness, the warmth of his skin pressed up against Bucky’s and his familiar scent all make the loss a little bit easier to stomach, and not to think too deeply about. Bucky’s gotten very good at compartmentalizing things -- the Army had taught him a lot about that, and his propensity for getting lost in books probably helps too. This is just one more thing to tuck neatly into a box in his mind to be unpacked at a later date and time.

Before he has a chance to answer Steve’s question, a doctor -- he assumes, anyway, given the white lab coat -- approaches, looking both surprised and pleased. “Mr. Barnes, glad to see you awake. I was worried,” she admits, gaze flickering momentarily to Steve and then back to Bucky. “I’m Dr. Cho. Are you comfortable with Captain Rogers being here while I go over a few things and take your vitals?”

“Yeah, I’m good,” Bucky says immediately, no desire to move away from Steve’s arms.

Steve had been so wrapped up in Bucky he hadn’t really heard (at least, not consciously) Cho come in. He glances over his shoulder and smiles a little sheepishly; he doesn’t pull away, exactly, but he does turn more onto his back, keeping one arm around and under Bucky but trying not to attach to him quite so much like an octopus so that Dr. Cho can do whatever she needs. “Hey, Doc,” he offers. “Thanks for your help.”

She offers them both a warm smile before settling in to take Bucky’s blood pressure and heart rate, taking that moment to study both of them, a thoughtful expression on her face. She takes his temperature as well. “Much better. 99.6. Not quite where we want it, but a lot better than 104, which is what you were running when you were brought in. How are you feeling?”

Bucky glances sideways at Steve and then back at the doctor. “I’m feeling a lot better than I was most of the week.”

Steve definitely doesn’t look happy that Bucky was running a fever of 104 when he’d brought him in. “Buck,” he murmurs, knowing there’s obviously nothing he can do now, and glad that it’s not that high any longer, but remembering just what fevers like that feel like -- and how dangerous they are. He’s pretty sure he would’ve gotten last rites -- again -- as a kid, with a temperature like that.

He also doesn’t want to think about what might have happened if he hadn’t gotten to Bucky in time -- the actual firebombing of his store aside.

“Hmm.” She jots something down in his chart. “I need to ask you a few questions. What symptoms have you been exhibiting this week?”

He hesitates a second before answering. “Nausea. Vomiting. Fatigue. A lot of achiness. Chills and fever.”

“And when did these symptoms begin?”

Bucky’s pretty sure he knows where she’s going with this and he carefully doesn’t look at Steve. “I guess it was -- Tuesday? Afternoon.”

Dr. Cho’s gaze shifts momentarily to Steve. “I ask because we took a blood sample and almost all of your blood chemistry was, essentially, out of whack.” She smiles briefly. “The symptoms sound like the flu, along with dehydration, but given your blood levels, I don’t believe it was the flu.” She shifts. “I need to ask you a question that may make you uncomfortable, so I apologize in advance. Are the two of you bondmates?”

Steve definitely isn’t sure he’s going to like what Cho asks, but when she actually asks the question, he frowns and shakes his head, figuring this is one that, obviously, either of them can answer. “No,” he says -- because they’re not. They’re not.

And yet he immediately feels like he’s lying, because they’re not bondmates, but they are soulmates. But that’s… something much more private, much less common, and besides -- neither he nor Peggy ever had symptoms like that, and they were also soulmates. So it can’t be that, and there’s no harm in keeping that much to himself.

It wasn’t the question, after all.

Although now he’s curious: “Why do you ask?”

Dr. Cho doesn’t look too surprised by the answer and she jots something else down on Bucky’s chart. “Captain, have you ever heard of AOSD?” she asks gently, not sure if he’s familiar with it or not. It hadn’t been a diagnosis until the late 80’s, even if it had certainly occurred in far earlier cases.

Steve glances between Cho and Bucky, but he has to shake his head. “No,” he says slowly. “At least, not by that name, if I have.”

Of course, that doesn’t really do much to alleviate his worry; he glances back at Bucky and frowns. “Wait, is this something you have?” He figures it must be, if Cho is mentioning it, but he genuinely doesn’t know what it is.

“It’s what I’m trying to determine,” Dr. Cho tells him. She shifts her gaze to Bucky. “I assume you’re aware of it?”

“Yes,” he admits, cheeks growing warm at the concern on Steve’s face.

“I’ll need to run a few more tests, but… so far, all signs point to it being the cause of your illness.” She draws in a breath. “AOSD is Alpha-Omega Separation Disorder. It tends to occur in alphas and omegas who have a strong connection but haven’t yet bonded. Alphas tend to get more restless, angry, unable to sleep, have trouble focusing when they’re away from their omega for too long. Omegas tend to run high fevers, get very lethargic, be sick to their stomachs, have extreme anxiety while away from their alpha.” She folds the chart across her chest with her arms. “This is the most intense case of it I’ve seen, if it is in fact AOSD.”

Steve frowns, not quite sure what they’re talking about, until --

“Wait, do you mean bond shock?” he asks, frowning as he uses a term that has definitely gone out of fashion, but was definitely what people called the symptoms that came with being separated from a bondmate in the earlier half of the 20th century.

Dr. Cho smiles faintly at him, nodding. “Bond shock is what they used to call it, yes. But after a great deal of studying and learning more about the science behind it, its name was changed to Alpha-Omega Separation Disorder, because it only happens to those in alpha-omega relationships, as opposed to alpha-betas or beta-omegas,” she explains.

“Oh,” Steve says quietly, taking that all in. He probably shouldn’t be surprised -- modern medicine is, in a lot of ways, very different from what he grew up with, even if a lot of things are also the same. But to him, bond shock had been a thing that happened to other people. And he’d never felt it with Peggy -- and now he guesses he knows why. They’d both been alphas, by the time they spent any appreciable time apart.

“It does sound like --” he ends up looking a mix between surprised and guilty, taking a breath before he admits, “I mean, I’ve felt like that a lot of the week, but I just thought it was, y’know.” He smiles tightly. “HYDRA. And I stopped taking suppressants.”

The last part is aimed at Dr. Cho, since he’s already told Bucky. “I wasn’t sure I trusted anything they were giving me. But I’ve never been off them before.” So it had seemed like as reasonable an explanation as any, to him. Honestly, maybe it still is, given the intensity of Bucky’s reaction, and how it sounds like it might be an outlier.

Cho looks thoughtful. “Well, there’s certainly been a great deal of stress, given all of that. It’s possible. Without running some additional tests -- on both of you -- we won’t know for sure.”

Bucky sits quietly as Dr. Cho explains the condition to Steve, who seems a lot more surprised than he is, but he’s been pretty sure that’s what’s happening since Natasha mentioned it a few days ago. He finally draws in a breath and exhales slowly. “So what’s uh, the solution?”

“It’s a tricky condition,” she says, after a moment. “It’s not diagnosed that often, but… usually completing a mating bond helps. Those who’ve gone on to do so find that being able to feel their mate’s emotions helps ease both agitation on the alpha’s part and anxiety on the omega’s. Now, I’m not saying that’s the only option, but it is the most tried-and-true method. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, just yet. I’d like to take another blood sample from each of you and compare it to your samples from when you were first admitted.”

Bucky knows there are treatments for it that help lessen the severity of the symptoms, but he’s also done a bit of research himself. He knows she’s telling the truth when she says the best cure for it is a mating bond.

He and Steve haven’t actually talked about it, other than in terms of what Brock had done to him. But a week of feeling like death warmed over has him pretty convinced that he’d rather have an actual solution and not just something that lessens some symptoms. But he also knows he and Steve need to talk about that possibility and all that it entails, because it’s a big deal. He meets Steve’s eyes when the other glances at him, expression calm.

Steve’s mind, meanwhile, has definitely ticked to a stop at “mating bond.” Because a mating bond -- well, shit. Of course Steve wants that, he loves Bucky, and he’d meant it when he’d said it. He can’t imagine living life apart ever again. But fucking Brock Rumlow had just tried to force that on Bucky not so long ago, and… everything feels new and fast and maybe Steve’s always lived his life on fast-forward, a little, because death was always just around the corner. But right now…

Right now, he doesn’t want either of them to be forced into anything. He wants to do this right. Even if he’s not entirely sure what that means.

“I -- sure. Yeah, go ahead,” he finally says, at least on his part. He glances at Bucky, suddenly a little unsure as to what he’s going to find on his face.

“Yeah, of course,” Bucky answers, even as he grimaces. “I should warn you I’m not a big fan of needles.” Or any kind of medical equipment for that matter, but he doesn’t say that.

Dr. Cho nods. “I’ll have my nurse come in to do the blood draws. We should have some results pretty quickly.”

“Thanks,” Steve says quietly, watching as Dr. Cho checks a few more numbers, looking satisfied. He’s seen her face when people are doing well and when they’re doing badly -- the way she looks now is definitely reassuring, even if he sort of feels like she’s dropped a bomb in his lap.

She ducks out a moment later and he turns to Bucky, blowing a breath out and not sure whether he’s supposed to look happy or sad or angry or… he thinks he feels all of those things, all at once, in a big complicated ball, and he isn’t even sure which one he wants to win out. So he tries for a smile, even if it’s a little weak and worried, knowing that Bucky might really not appreciate anyone else’s teeth near his neck, now or ever again. But he also knows that if it can help, and he doesn’t do it… things are only going to get worse for Bucky, if they get separated for more than a few days.

And God… he doesn’t want to be responsible for nearly killing the guy he loves every time something happens. Because something will happen. It always does. “I think agitation and insomnia are the better end of the bargain,” he says, not sure whether he’s trying for a joke or not. It probably misses the mark, if he is.

Bucky’s lips quirk upwards a little and he glances at Steve again. “Trade ya?” he jokes, his own voice more hushed than usual. He shakes his head and lays his head back against the pillow, but more against Steve’s shoulder than anything.

“I am a pro at fevers and nausea,” Steve promises, but something in him relaxes when Bucky leans close again, with his head on Steve’s shoulder like he’s not suddenly afraid that the cure might be worse than the disease. Which -- is good. Being bonded to somebody you love… that’s good. It’s supposed to be the best.

“It might be something else entirely,” Bucky adds, but he doesn’t sound convinced, mostly because he’s not convinced. “But if she’s right on the cause… maybe the reason it’s more intense is because of the soulmate thing.” His voice drops so low he’s not sure even JARVIS could have possibly picked up what he said.

It could be something else. It could be, but something in Steve’s gut feels like Bucky is onto something when he says it could be the soulbond. Because that would make everything more intense, wouldn’t it? “It could be, yeah,” Steve murmurs, just as quietly. “I didn’t -- it wasn’t like this with Peggy, but… I wasn’t an omega anymore. I don’t want to put you in danger just by leaving. That seems awful, Buck.”

Steve shuffles down a little more on the bed, so their heads can rest together, taking and letting out a few slow breaths. “I guess we figure out if… that’s what we have? And then we figure out what we want to do about it. I want you to be happy -- and healthy. But I wouldn’t force anything on you, either. Maybe if I go back on suppressants… that could’ve made it worse, too, if I wasn’t?”

Bucky lets his eyes close, humming quietly when Steve moves so they’re closer again. He lets his left hand rest on Steve’s hip. “I know you wouldn’t,” he says honestly, pressing a kiss to his cheek. He doesn’t for one second think Steve would ever be out of control enough to bite him against his will. And neither had Brock. He’d been perfectly in control -- it had been a conscious decision both times. He’s never really seen the appeal of bonding with someone like that, no matter how good it’s supposed to be.

But there’s also no doubt in his mind if he’s going to bond with anyone -- he wants it to be Steve. He’ll always want it to be Steve. “We’ll wait and see what the tests say,” he agrees. “But I don’t know that the suppressants have much to do with it one way or the other. We can ask, but -- ” He nudges Steve’s nose with his own. “Think that might be an entirely different situation.” He’s also no expert in mating bonds or suppressants with regard to AOSD. “We’ll figure it out.”

“Yeah,” Steve agrees, and laughs a bit, softly. “I mean, I don’t want to be ready spit in everybody’s faces all the time -- just anyone affiliated with HYDRA. So maybe the suppressants aren’t a terrible idea.” Honestly, it’s really hard to say how much of what he was feeling this past week was due to captivity, or suppressants, or the actual threat. But Bucky’s condition was undeniable, which maybe makes Steve’s condition the same way.

“To be fair, HYDRA deserves to be spat on. Anytime you get a chance to spit on a Nazi, you should spit on a Nazi.” Bucky might have done a little bit of research earlier in the week on HYDRA during some of his downtime in the store when he wasn’t also feeling horrible. He’s sure he’s far from having a complete picture, but he’s got enough of one.

“Is it bad if you telling me to spit on Nazis is kinda hot?” Steve says, with a bit of a laugh that he definitely can’t hide and doesn’t bother trying.

Bucky chuckles right back. He thinks that’s the least of what they deserve. “Is it bad that I’d find it hot if you actually did it…?”

“If I say no, is that gonna be a problem?” Steve asks, grinning a little more. “I think it’s a win-win situation for us both, really.” And being linked to someone who thinks that… it’s as exciting as it is terrifying. And if that person were Bucky -- it feels almost too good to be true. He lets his thumb brush along Bucky’s hip, feeling settled if contemplative, and thinking how funny that is.

“You know… I don’t think I ever feel half as calm around anyone else as I do around you,” Steve puts in. “I don’t know what that is, but… I’m kinda not used to it. I kinda think I could get used to it, though.”

Bucky relaxes in Steve’s arms. “Me too,” he whispers. “Feels like… I can think better when you’re around. More focused?” And definitely less anxious. “I’m going out on a limb and saying even if we’re not experiencing AOSD that being around one another helps us both feel more at ease.” Which he assumes is also the soulbond at work, but if Steve hadn’t felt that way with Peggy, too, there might be more at play here than that.

Things with Peggy had been… they’d been intense, but they’d also been strained sometimes, given that they weren’t always in the same place at the same time. Peggy had made Steve feel more settled in his new body, but she had also made him feel energized, alert, ready to fight. It’s certainly not that Bucky makes him feel lethargic, but he definitely sometimes makes Steve feel like he just wants to crawl under a blanket together and never come out.

But that clarity is there. That feeling comfortable in himself. “I guess the bad news is, we’re just good for each other,” he murmurs.

And he might even kiss Bucky for it, only right then is when Cho’s assistant comes in, carrying everything he needs for two separate blood draws. Steve hums a quiet apology to Bucky and obligingly sticks his arm out without being asked, in a motion that says he is very, very familiar with the procedure. Cho’s assistant smiles, amused and grateful, and sets aside Bucky’s empty vial to fill up Steve’s first.

Bucky watches warily as the guy sticks the needle in Steve’s veins and draws blood into the vial. He forces himself to take a deep breath, trying not to think about all the times he’d been poked and prodded in the last few weeks and months. It sets his nerves on edge, but when the nurse is done with Steve, he rounds the bed to reach for Bucky’s right arm.

Bucky had already said he wasn’t a fan of needles; Steve can see it now, in his eyes, when the nurse shuffles around to the other side. Steve shifts himself closer, very aware of the other man in the room, but intent on keeping Bucky’s attention on him. “So, tell me about your sister. What’s the best way for a guy who maybe wants to stick around you to impress her? I might need some tips.”

“Quick sting,” the nurse warns.

Bucky sinks his teeth into his lower lip, turning his head away to look at Steve instead. “Won’t take much, actually. She’s a fan.” He tries not to grin too much at that, relieved for the distraction from the needle in his arm. “And she also hated Brock’s guts, so really… she’ll love you.” There’s no doubt in his mind about that. “But just in case, she can be easily bribed with Oreo cookies. They’re her favorite.”

“Okay, Oreos and hating Brock. I think I can manage that,” Steve agrees, doing his best to keep an eye on what the nurse is doing without actually watching him directly over Bucky’s shoulder. Fortunately, drawing blood really doesn’t take too long -- and he really does want to know more about Bucky’s sister. He’s heard a little, all good things, but he does genuinely want to make a good impression. “Anything else I should know? You said she’s in school, right?”

Bucky barely notices when the nurse moves away, finishing the task and heading out of the room quietly with their blood samples. “Yeah. Stanford. Pre-law. She’s also very competitive when it comes to board games. Especially Monopoly.” His lips quirk upwards. “She loves reading. Almost as much as me. Which is good, considering how much reading she’s got ahead of her if she’s planning to be a lawyer.”

“I can’t even imagine how tough college must be. And you don’t sound proud of her at all,” Steve teases. “I think I’m gonna love her -- almost as much as I love you.” He nudges Bucky’s nose with his own. He’s feeling a little more relaxed, himself, now that the nurse has slipped out of the room, finally feeling comfortable since no one’s likely to disturb them for at least a few more hours, now. “You’re kind of a shoo-in.”

Bucky slides his leg between Steve’s, a shiver rushing through him at the feel of bare skin against bare skin. “Oh good. I’d be really sad if you left me for Becca.” A soft chuckle escapes him.

He shifts a little to get more comfortable. “But she really is gonna love you.” His voice grows quieter again. “Can’t imagine anyone not loving you, Steve.”

“Except those Nazis,” Steve points out, but there’s something clearly pleased in his face at what Bucky says. “She sounds amazing, Buck. And I’m not at all surprised she likes to read, if she’s related to you.”

Bucky grins at that, expression softening at the look on Steve’s face. He has a feeling that Steve needs to hear as much praise as he can, because he doubts it’s something he gets a lot of from people who actually know him. “Except the Nazis,” he amends.

“We’ll call her tomorrow, yeah? I think we should wait and see what our best plan of attack is. That way you’ll have something to tell her, unless you think she might hear something about the store before then.” Steve definitely doesn’t want Bucky’s sister up all night worried about him, but he honestly has no idea whether the store’s destruction is going to make the local news, let alone national. Part of him thinks HYDRA might want to cover at least some of it up.

“We should be okay till tomorrow. I don’t think there’s much chance she’ll hear about it tonight anyway.” If it even makes the news. Bucky can’t imagine it wouldn’t at least draw some attention, though. Then again, for all he knows HYDRA has people working at the news station, too, and -- wow, that’s definitely not a rabbit hole he wants to jump down tonight.

“Plus if I video call her from a hospital bed, she’ll freak out,” he admits quietly.

“Yeah, that probably would not endear me to her,” Steve admits, although if he sounds distracted, it’s probably because he is. Every inch of Bucky pressed against him feels so good -- grounding, warm, reassuring. It’s like he can never be sure enough that Bucky is alive and well and safe and right here with him. He twists a little, as best he can with his ribs still wrapped up, to sling an arm over Bucky and settle closer, taking just a moment to bury his nose in Bucky’s neck, this time around. It makes him feel smaller again, clinging to Bucky like this, and it’s not really a bad feeling at all.

“It’s not your fault,” Bucky tells him quietly, more than okay with him burrowing closer. He lifts his right hand up, running his fingers lightly through Steve’s hair. “She’d never think it was.” And Bucky would never let her. Not for a second.

The position isn’t how they usually lie together, but he likes it. Likes feeling like he’s comforting Steve as much as Steve’s comforting him. Likes the idea of taking care of him. He thinks it’s been a long, long time since anyone has.

“Are you sure your parents won’t want to hear from you?” Steve asks quietly, mumbling a little into the spot where Bucky’s neck meets his shoulder. “I don’t wanna push, I just… wanna make sure.”

Bucky draws in a breath and lets it out slowly, wishing he’d had the sort of relationship with his parents that Steve had with his mom. “Doubt my father would even come to my funeral if I died, Steve,” he tells him honestly. “My mom…” It’s a little more complicated there. “She mostly just wants to keep him happy, so.” Bucky shrugs. “If they hear about it, it won’t matter.” Because they wouldn’t care anyway.

Steve doesn’t say anything for a minute, but Bucky can probably feel his unhappy expression against his collarbone. “I’m sorry it’s like that,” he says, not because he feels guilty, but because he feels like it’s a loss -- for Bucky’s parents. And for Bucky. “But I’m glad you’ve got your sister. And that she’s got you. She seems smart enough to realize you’re something special.” Because he is. He’s special -- and strong. Steve can’t imagine going through what Bucky went through, and even when he tries… he doesn’t know how Bucky’s parents couldn’t see the strong person he is, for withstanding that, for picking himself back up, for taking his life back and fighting to keep it. Fighting to let other people have the life they want, too. He’s been doing that for longer than he’s been in the Army, Steve knows that for a fact.

His arm tightens around Bucky’s waist, and he burrows a little closer. “If you ever think a sternly worded letter from Captain America might do some good… I know a guy.”

The laugh that Bucky lets out is a little watery, and his fingers tighten in Steve’s hair momentarily before they go back to stroking. He doesn’t know if he’s really anything special, but he and Becca have always been close. She’s a few years younger than he is, but Bucky’s always adored her. And he’s not being conceited when he knows that it’s a mutual feeling. He knows she still has contact with their mom, but she doesn’t have much to say to their dad, and he also knows that’s only gotten worse since his Army discharge.

“I’ll definitely keep that in mind.” He kisses Steve’s forehead, closing his eyes. “Think you can sleep like this?” he murmurs.

Steve knows he certainly can’t solve this problem with a few bad jokes, but he wants Bucky to know that even if his parents have divorced themselves from him, he’s got people who love him and care about him. And one of them is right here, and is very happy to stay right here, although while the immediate answer is, “Yeah, definitely,” he also wants to make sure, “I’m not squishing you, am I? I can move if you don’t want me for a blanket. I’d understand.”

“We’re good. I love having you for a blanket,” Bucky informs him without a hint of kidding. He rests his head atop Steve’s, fingers still gently curled in his hair. “I love you.” Just because he feels the need to reiterate it, now that he knows he can say it without scaring Steve away.

“Well, I love being your blanket,” Steve breathes, because it’s true. Right now, he feels this weird, perfect mix of protective and protected, and he doesn’t want to have to explain himself or this to anyone or anything. The fact that Bucky seems comfortable right here, like this, just means he’s -- well. Perfect. Which is totally unsurprising.

Especially when he says those words, and God. Steve might never get enough of it. He really might not. “And I love you, too, Buck,” he murmurs, lips brushing the skin just above the collar of Bucky’s hospital gown. “Anyone who wants to get at you is gonna have to go through me. And that’s not gonna happen. Promise.”

He settles a little more, fingers tangling in the fabric of Bucky’s gown at his hip, and lets his eyes fall shut. “Get some rest, pal. I’ll be right here.”

Chapter Text

A good night’s sleep can do wonders, and Steve has to admit that he’d slept better pressed up against Bucky in a tiny hospital bed than he had the entire previous week in that cell at the Triskelion. By the time he’d woken up, his ribs had mostly stopped aching and Bucky had been miles better, with real color in his cheeks and a temperature hovering around normal. That had been a massive relief, despite the fact that Dr. Cho had come in with breakfast (Steve had been starving for the first time in a week, and even Bucky had seemed tentatively hungry, too) and a diagnosis that maybe shouldn’t have really surprised them: AOSD.

She’d reiterated, looking a little apologetic, that a mating bond was really the only actual cure-all. But she’d also taken time to go over all the current best treatments for the symptoms either of them might experience, saying it was much more like managing a chronic condition than the need to call for a shotgun wedding these days. Even so, she’d reminded them, albeit gently, that this was the worst case -- at least, with regard to Bucky -- that she’d ever seen, and if they wanted help managing it, they should talk to her or a specialist in bond medicine -- another entire field that had sprung up in the nearly 70 years Steve had been asleep. At least, another real field; there had been plenty of old wives’ tales and home remedies in the 40s, but now it was a real, legitimate scientific and medical field.

Bucky’s definitely not surprised by Dr. Cho’s revelation, and he doesn’t think Steve is at this point either. But it’s something they’ll need to talk about, and soon. There are a lot of implications and expectations that go with bonding, and Bucky’s not generally prone to jumping into things headfirst without looking both ways and making pro and con lists. Usually. The entire thing with Steve has been life-altering in every way possible.

Life-altering is definitely the way Steve would put it; he knows they need to talk, and he doesn’t like having it hanging over their heads, but at the same time, he also knows that right now and here aren’t the time and place.

Especially because, still reeling a little from all that, there’s no chance to regroup before Stark and Barton show up, the former with secured tablets and phones for them both, and the latter with Alpine and two sets of real -- if generic -- clothes.

When the newcomers join them, Bucky’s still curled up beside Steve even if they’re more sitting up now post-breakfast. Steve blows out a breath, grinning gratefully at Clint as he offers the jeans, t-shirts, and hoodies to them both, the latter in blue (for Steve) and black (for Bucky). “You’re a lifesaver.”

Unlike Steve, Bucky’s eyes immediately go to Alpine, who meows loudly and almost leaps out of Clint’s arms in an effort to get to Bucky. He wraps his arms around her, closing his eyes as she purrs like an engine, nuzzling into his neck and cheek affectionately. “Missed you, too,” he whispers.

“Seems like a great cat. I’m Clint Barton, by the way. Or Hawkeye,” he greets as he passes the clothes to Steve.

“Nice to meet you,” Bucky responds. “Thanks for watching after her.”

Steve watches as Alpine reacquaints herself with Bucky, unable to keep the fond smile off his face -- at least, until Tony steps in and says, “I still have about seventy-five questions, but the one I’m going to lead with is, where do you want to go? Because you need to go somewhere, I’ve already turned away three separate attempts by SHIELD -- HYDRA, whoever -- to search the Tower and I might have the best lawyers in the universe but we all know that they’re going to get in here sooner or later, and I’d rather there be no patriotic popsicles or their boyfriends -- hi, I’m Tony Stark, by the way -- here when that happens. So. Where are you thinking? I think you’re thinking someplace warm.”

By the time Stark is done talking, Bucky feels a little dazed, blinking a few times at the rapid-fire amount of information. He’s going to blame it on the fact he hasn’t had coffee in days. He glances at Steve with raised eyebrows before glancing back at Tony, not sure what to say, or if he should just let Steve do the talking. The latter seems to be the safest bet.

Steve takes a minute himself to take that all in, and it’s not that he doesn’t understand or agree with the principle, but, “Are you actually giving us a choice? How many options do we have?”

“Around two dozen. But I’d suggest one of the beach options. Malibu is lovely this time of year. Unless you want to literally skip the country, which is also an option. I have a house in the Bahamas, too,” Tony informs them.

Bucky’s heart does a flip flop at the mention of Malibu. It’s a bit south of Stanford, but only by a few hours. Still, he keeps silent, leaving the choice up to Steve.

But Steve is actually thinking along the same lines as Bucky. Part of him does want to get out of the country entirely -- but he knows that’s not actually the best plan. They might need him, and if they do, they’ll need him fast. The other coast isn’t exactly a short hop, but it’s shorter than most out-of-the-country places.

And Malibu is in California. Where Stanford is. “Malibu,” Steve decides, to which Tony actually looks a little surprised, like hadn’t expected Steve to make a decision so quickly.

But he recovers pretty quickly, too. “Great, excellent choice, I’ll have a quinjet set up for you in twenty minutes. Not that I’m kicking you out in twenty, but you probably shouldn’t stick around all day. Coordinates’ll be uploaded into the navigation,” he says, and then holds out the two tablets and phones. “These are secure. Don’t use anything that isn’t. Romanoff still hasn’t gotten back to us yet with who we can trust and who we can’t, so I’m vetting everyone from here.”

“Romanoff hasn’t gotten back to us at all,” Barton adds, and doesn’t that make Steve’s stomach flip.

“You think she’s all right?” he asks, shoulders setting in a way that says he’s not going to up and leave if he thinks he shouldn’t. If he thinks Natasha is in danger.

But Clint just shrugs. “She’s gone dark for worse reasons. I’m not too worried. Yet.”

Bucky listens silently, troubled expression on his face at the mention of Natasha being out of contact, whether it’s something she’s done before or not. But he’s also kind of stunned from the fact that Tony’s handed him a brand-new Stark tablet and phone. Those things probably cost more than his bookstore had. Alpine curls up and rests on his left shoulder as he stares down at the new technology in his hands and then looks up at Stark.

“Word has it that Dr. Cho will be coming around to remove your IV. Looks like you’re both doing well enough now.” Tony waves his hand toward them. “But when this is all resolved, I have a lot of questions. For both of you,” he warns.

“Thank you for this,” Bucky responds, clutching onto the tablet and phone.

“Thank me when I do something big,” Tony says, but Steve knows better by now than to think that isn’t Tony Stark for ‘You’re welcome.’ So he thanks Tony, too, in the best way he can: “I’ll answer whatever you want. When this is all resolved,” he promises.

Although -- he glances between his two teammates and decides to address at least one thing right now: “Pierce wasn’t lying. About what the serum did to me.”

This time, Tony’s eyes widen, if only a little. “Okay, yeah -- now I have a lot more questions. Unless you’re shitting us. Please tell me you’re not shitting us.” He glances at Barton, who looks similarly surprised, and like he’s trying to hide it.

“I’m not shitting you,” Steve says, smiling a little helplessly. He just figures… his team deserves the truth. Letting them go on thinking that HYDRA was lying about that seems unfair. HYDRA might lie about a lot. But not that.

Tony looks like he might want to ask some of those questions now -- but then he lets out a breath and runs a hand through his hair. “So many questions, Cap. So many. Expect a questionnaire. After we save the world from the Nazis who have apparently decided to infiltrate potentially every level of government.”

Clint is silent for a few seconds, then he gives Steve a small smile. “Well, for the record, it doesn’t change jack shit for me. Doubt it changes things for any of us,” he tells him bluntly. “We’ve got your back, Cap.”

Bucky’s fingers curl around Steve’s, squeezing gently. Any wariness he’d had about either of the men has been efficiently erased. He relaxes back into the pillow behind him, exhaling.

Bucky’s gentle grip on his hand is grounding, and almost more soothing than Tony and Clint basically taking Steve’s admission in stride. He’d hoped they would, of course, but there hadn’t been a guarantee. Telling someone you were once a different designation… yeah, it’s pretty much nothing anyone expects to hear, because it’s basically impossible. Except for at least two cases where it wasn’t.

Steve knows Bucky knows how he feels.

Bucky still can’t help but glance at Tony again -- if only because he’s grown up hearing so much about the genius billionaire that he can’t help but be curious. Plus, the guy invents robots. As much as he loves books -- and he definitely does -- he’s always had a bit of a fascination for technology, too. Maybe if he’s really lucky he’ll get the opportunity to check out the man’s workshop someday.

“You need us to do anything specific while you’re in California?” Clint questions. “Aside from the obvious.”

Steve’s smile is grateful, if still a little grim. “Just the obvious,” he says, on a slow exhale. “Find how deep this goes. And then stop it in its tracks. But -- call me. Before you start. I want to know about it, and I want to be here, if I can.”

He glances at Tony, raising a hand and going on even as he sees the man’s mouth opening. “I know it’s best for me to stay out of the way right now. But I have to be part of the solution. I have to. This is still my fight, even if it’s seventy years old.”

Tony, who looks more indignant over being cut off than anything, really, just sighs and says, “Fine. We won’t Avengers assemble without you, Rocket Pop. But we will figure out who to aim you at. I promise. Trust me, I may not have gotten along with dear old dad all that well, but I did inherit his hate for everything Hitler.”

***

An hour and a half later finds them in a quinjet -- a thing that Bucky still hasn’t managed to wrap his mind around actually even existing, let alone the fact that he’s inside one. With Steve. It’s… been a really bizarre few days.

It takes him a few minutes of looking around and getting settled with Alpine on his lap before he realizes they don’t have a pilot yet. He frowns, glancing at Steve, who’s sitting in what appears to be the pilot’s seat. Which -- wait.

“...are you serious?” There’s a hint of disbelief in his voice.

Steve glances over, and the expression on his face is half-curious, half-smug. “I mean, JARVIS could probably fly it remotely, but I don’t see why we need him to when I can do it.”

He grins a little, mostly because he knows that Bucky has had a weird couple of days and Steve’s asked him to accept a lot, on top of the things he’s been a part of but hasn’t yet even talked to him about. Sometimes a little levity goes a long way. “It’s more secure than trusting a pilot if we’re trying to disappear off the map.”

Admittedly, staying in Tony Stark’s Malibu home probably isn’t ideal, but Tony has sworn up and down that the place has enough security and countermeasures to fool anyone and everyone. And Steve does trust him.

Bucky just stares at him for a long moment before blurting out, “Is there anything you don’t know how to do?” Because right now he’s doubting it. Steve loves to read, he cooks, he’s good with cats, he’s an actual goddamned superhero who fights Nazis and helps pathetic omegas out of shitty situations when he doesn’t even know them. Now he also apparently flies really complicated, advanced aircraft that until a bit ago Bucky didn’t even know existed.

Steve actually flushes a little, feeling a little embarrassed for showing off (which maybe, yeah, he’d kind of jumped at the chance to do. There’s still part of him that keeps thinking that Bucky will find a reason Steve’s not worth it, that he’s too much trouble, and take whatever medication he can for the AOSD that Steve’s apparently given him, and walk away). “I can’t dance,” he offers, which is also embarrassing -- although he thinks it might not mean the same thing anymore that it used to. “And I’m not very good at, uh, walking away?”

Which sometimes, yes, can be a good thing. But sometimes, he knows, it’s not.

Bucky watches the way Steve’s face turns a very pretty shade of pink and his chest feels warm as he smiles. It’s not the reaction he’d been expecting, though he’s not sure what he was expecting. “I can’t dance either,” he tells Steve with a shrug. It’s not a skill that anyone has ever tried teaching him, nor one that he’s ever been particularly interested in. His expression softens, though, at the second thing Steve says he’s not good at.

“Guess as long as that means you’re not tempted to walk away from me, then I can use that to my advantage,” he responds, only half joking. He holds his breath for a moment, chancing a quick glance at him. “I think you’re amazing.” His voice is hushed. “If that wasn’t already clear.” He licks his lips and looks out the windshield of the jet, right hand stroking Alpine’s back gently.

In a way, it’s weirdly nice to hear Bucky say he can’t dance either; it’s also just plain nice, what he says next, and Steve can’t help the way his heart trips in his chest, because it’s basically I love you all over again, and he will never get enough of that.

He offers Bucky a small smile and finishes the preflight checks, adding, “It’s vertical takeoff, shouldn’t be bad,” before he powers up the engines and gets them in the air. “And honestly, it’s mostly autopilot on the way; we’re not flying at the same altitude as commercial jets.”

And then, once they’re in the air, “I keep thinking you’re too amazing to think I’m amazing,” he murmurs over the soft sound of the engines, twisting in his seat a little (and glad that his ribs are healed enough now that he can do that without hating himself) to look at Bucky for a minute. “You maybe kinda make me want to show off. Maybe it’s just a stupid alpha thing.”

Bucky is quiet for a few seconds, gazing at him. Truthfully he still has no idea what the hell he’d done to deserve someone like Steve in his life, and half the time he wonders if it’s all a hallucination or dream or something.

It’s his turn to blush, though, at Steve’s admission that he wants to show off because of him. He huffs out a quiet laugh, shaking his head. “I think it’s a you thing.” He pauses at that. “It’s not a bad thing, you just -- keep surprising me. In good ways. I’m not used to that.”

“Maybe it is,” Steve admits -- because okay, he can definitely admit, deep down, to himself, that making Bucky blush like that is very, very worth any showing off he might be able to do. “But I’ve kinda got a lot to measure up to.” Bucky had owned his own store, had been doing his best to make it on his own, had found a way to reach out for help when he needed it, and had given Steve a chance to get to know him. That all means a lot, and he thinks it means a lot more than Bucky can see.

Which is why what Dr. Cho had told them feels so weirdly uncomfortable -- because Bucky had worked so hard to stay independent and now it feels like Steve’s taken that away from him, without ever meaning to. When he’d been a kid, he’d always thought bond shock sounded both romantic and terrible. Of course it was romantic, to not be able to stand to be without the person you loved. But it was also a chain, one that could put you in danger if you tried to pull too hard at it. He hadn’t known then that mating would fix it, but maybe it’s what all the scandalized whispers had always been about.

“You really don’t,” Bucky responds with a tiny smile. He likes that Steve wants to show off for his benefit, likes that Steve has such a high opinion of him even if he doesn’t feel like he’s done anything to earn it. He knows there are certain things he’s decent at -- maybe even above average -- like bookkeeping and running a shop, handling money, networking -- but he doesn’t think any of that is all that special.

And he’d never really given that much thought to AOSD until recently, had no reason to. He’d been neither alpha nor omega for the majority of his life. His dad is an alpha, his mom a beta, so he’d never directly witnessed anything resembling the disorder growing up. He’d heard stories, even read some over the years. But hearing and reading about it are entirely different than experiencing it firsthand by a longshot. He supposes that’s true with anything.

“You know, we’ve got a while before we get there,” Steve finally says after a minute. They’re certainly flying faster than they would on a commercial jet, but crossing the country is still going to take an hour or two. “If we… should talk. Or we don’t have to. I’m just -- also not very good at putting things off.”

Bucky finds himself holding his breath again when Steve suggests they use their flight time to talk about what they’d learned and what they’re going to do about it, if anything. “Yeah. We should talk,” he agrees, because he doesn’t want to pretend that it’s not happening. He’s packed away far too many things in his head to deal with later over the years, and especially the last few months. This isn’t something he can afford to do that with.

Steve nods a little, flipping the switches that will allow the autopilot to engage so he can actually push his seat back and twist it around. If they’re going to talk, he wants to do it face to face. The navigation will alert him if anything comes up. “I don’t… uh, I never planned to need to have this talk with anyone,” he admits, smiling a little shyly. But it’s true -- he hadn’t been a popular guy, and even if he’d believed he had a soulmark, he hadn’t really believed anyone would want to bond with a guy who wasn’t going to make it out of his twenties. And then he’d met Peggy, and then they were suddenly both alphas, and…

Yeah. There’d always been a reason just not to even entertain the possibility. And… technically, there still is, now.

“Me either,” Bucky says honestly. Not really, anyway. It’s not something he’d ever really fixated on or thought about all that much growing up, and then once he was in the Army, it was as distant from his realm of reality as it ever could have been.

“I know I keep saying this, but I don’t want to force you into anything,” Steve insists, by way of opening. “And I don’t. It kinda feels like I already have, though. You were really bad off, Buck. You scared me.”

Bucky shifts in his seat a little, and then turns his seat so he could see Steve more easily, chewing his lower lip. “And I don’t want you to feel like we have to do this because I might get sick if we don’t.” He doesn’t ever want Steve to feel like he’s trapped with Bucky, and forever is a long time. “But for what it’s worth, I’m sorry I scared you.”

Steve shakes his head, frowning a little. “It’s not that. It’s just -- I had a part in that. In causing it, and I think that’s what I don’t like.” He certainly doesn’t feel chained to Bucky -- how can he, when he wants to be with Bucky? He just knows that his life always seems a lot more complicated than he wants it to be. Nothing is ever easy, and it’s not like he could promise a mate a stable life.

Although… he could try. And he has to admit, he might kind of be out of a job, given what’s going on right now.

“You didn’t, though. Not really. Not -- in any kind of intentional way,” Bucky points out, not liking how quickly Steve tries to blame himself for things. But especially this. “Not anymore than I did. It just...sorta happened. I don’t think either of us is to blame.” He rests his hands in his lap.

“You -- we -- should have options, if we want them. But I also want to fix it. And --” Steve glances at Bucky, before letting out a breath, and just saying it: “I want to be with you. I do. But I don’t want us to do it if it’s the AOSD or the soulmarks or… something else, deciding for us. I’m not sure if that makes sense -- if you even want to consider it. Mating, I mean. With me.”

“It’s...probably not a secret that I’ve been wary about the entire mating bite thing since Brock --” Bucky draws in a breath. “Well. Since all of that. It’s not something that I thought I’d want. I wasn’t looking for -- anything, actually.” He gives Steve a small, apologetic smile. “And I never saw you coming, Steve. I guess that’s how it happens. When you stop looking or think you know what your future looks like, that’s when it all changes.”

Bucky shifts in his seat, leaning forward a little, resting his elbows on his knees.

“Thing is, I love you.” His voice is quiet. “And that’s new for me. But it’s also the easiest thing I’ve ever done. It’s so goddamn easy to love you that it’s kinda painful. In a good way. But -- my head and my life are screwed up a lot. I’m kind of a mess.”

“You’re not screwed up,” Steve says quickly, frowning. “You’re -- Bucky, something happened to you that shouldn’t ever happen to anybody. The fact that you’re still here, that you’re still a good person, says pretty much everything about you that anything could. You went through something you didn’t ask to go through, and you came out the other side, anyway. And I love that about you.

“Everybody’s a little bit of a mess. God knows I am. But you never held that against me, either.” Maybe Bucky hasn’t seen a whole lot of Steve being a mess, but it’s there. It’s definitely there, every time he doesn’t quite get something in this century, or he tries to be suave or funny and fails, and apparently he’s been working with, if not for, the bad guys without even realizing it. “I think… love isn’t about not being a mess. It’s about being okay being a mess, and having someone who thinks you’re okay, even knowing you’re a mess.”

He laughs a little, ducking his head. “I might be making a mess of trying to say that.”

Bucky’s gaze is soft. “Sometimes I don’t sleep for days at a time. And sometimes I scream myself awake from nightmares.” It’s nothing that’s happened when Steve’s slept over, but eventually, he figures, it’ll happen. “You already know I hate early mornings, and if I don’t have nine cups of coffee a day my brain doesn’t work that well.” The last bit might be a bit of an exaggeration, but he does love his coffee.

“I have a lot of anxiety and most of the time I can’t even place where it’s coming from, and there’s still a lot about my family you don’t know yet, and a lot of my life choices are -- questionable at best. But… I can’t picture a future without you in it and if you can be okay with all of that mess, then --” He takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. “I already know what I wanna do. But I need you to be sure. Like, really sure, Steve,” he whispers. “Because I don’t think my heart can handle it if we go much farther and you decide I’m not what you want.”

“I don’t need to sleep for days at a time. And you’re pretty much the same as every single soldier I knew on the front. Including me,” Steve says, softly. He doesn’t tend to scream himself awake so much as wake up frozen in a panic, sometimes thinking he’s actually frozen again. But the point is, nightmares happen to him, too. And they oddly haven’t happened since he started spending time with Bucky, but he knows better than to chalk that up entirely to the other. Even so, he knows that Bucky helps him sleep better; maybe Steve could do the same for him.

Besides, “Buck, you have no idea how questionable most of my life decisions have been.”

But, “This isn’t a contest. I don’t mean to make it sound like one.” Steve unbuckles his seatbelt and gets up, coming over to sit closer to Bucky. “I want your mess. I really, really want your mess, and part of my mess is the fact that I don’t change my mind, once I decide something. I just -- I remember feeling like everything was decided for me and I’ve been afraid, ever since, that I was gonna decide for someone else, and that’s… worse than having you if you don’t want it.”

Bucky watches as Steve gets out of his seat and moves closer, holding his breath. “I do want it,” he whispers. “I want you, Steve. Now, forever.” There’s a certainty not just in his voice, but all the way down to his bones because he can’t fathom ever not loving this man. Can’t imagine a future without him in it. And he doesn’t want to. He unbuckles his own seatbelt and leans forward, wrapping his arms around Steve’s neck. “I love you. And I want your mess, too. All of it.” He presses a soft kiss against his jaw.

Steve wants nothing more than to melt into Bucky’s embrace; he feels relief and terror all at once, even as his arms come automatically around Bucky’s waist, trying not to squish Alpine in the process, but she mostly seems intent on butting her head against his stomach as long as he leaves her enough room. He lets out a breath that’s much shakier than he meant, twisting his head a little to brush a kiss to Bucky’s temple. “My mess might put you in danger. I just -- need you to remember that. I know you can take care of yourself. And I won’t ever pretend you can’t. But I won’t like it, and I’ll probably be stupid about it.”

He’s not actually trying to talk Bucky out of it. Just… trying to remind him of what he’s getting himself into. Just in case.

“I know,” Bucky admits, shrugging. And he does. He’s not dumb enough to believe that being Captain America’s mate won’t put him in the direct line of fire sometimes. But he’d been a soldier for ten years. He knows he can handle himself better than a lot of people probably can. “I think I remember you saying something about nothing worth having being easy.”

He pulls back to look at Steve, small smile on his mouth. “I think you were right. And I think this is worth it. What we have -- I don’t think it’s something that’s… normal?” It doesn’t feel normal. It feels bigger, more important.

Steve laughs when Bucky throws his words back in his face -- in pretty much the best way possible, honestly. “I don’t think it’s normal, either,” he has to admit, because nothing in his entire goddamn life has ever been normal. Not from the moment he was born, but if it’s gotten him this far, to right here, with Bucky, then… who the hell wants normal, anyway. “But I want it, and I don’t give a shit about normal. So I guess it’s good that I’m the one who likes getting punched, right?”

Bucky relaxes when Steve says he doesn’t give a shit about normal. Despite how many times he’s wished for exactly that the last few months, he’s glad that wish hadn’t come true. He’d take Steve Rogers over normal any day of the week, and twice on Sundays. “Maybe that’s why we’ve had so much struggle already. Maybe we gotta fight for it to prove it’s what we want.”

He takes in a breath. “And I’m willing to fight. With you, and for you. For us.”

Steve feels a little like he’s been punched in the gut, right now -- but if punches to the gut were good. He feels out of breath and a little shell shocked, staring at Bucky and realizing this is it -- this is it, he wants to be with this man and he might actually get to be with this man. It’s a really overwhelming feeling, like he isn’t sure how to actually be that happy, all at once.

“Okay. Okay, we’ll do it,” he breathes, barely feeling like he has any air to make the words. “I mean -- whenever it’s good for us.” His eyes can’t help but slide down to Bucky’s neck, where the stark, if fading, reminder of what Brock tried to do is still visible if you know where to look. “When it’s good for you.” Even if that’s not for a while, yet -- it doesn’t matter. Knowing it’s what they both want is more than enough.

Bucky stares at Steve right back, lifting his right hand to cup his cheek. “Whenever it’s good for us,” he corrects him quietly. He doesn’t want this to just be about him, regardless of what’s happened in the past. He brushes his thumb over Steve’s cheek before leaning in to press a soft kiss to his mouth.

It’s sweet, and chaste, because for as much as Captain America might be used to rougher treatment, Bucky feels like Steve Rogers needs tenderness. Needs gentle, affectionate touches. To be reminded that while he’s an alpha, he’s also a human with human needs.

It’s not really in Steve’s nature to put himself first; but it is in Bucky’s, to put them both on even footing, and Steve already knew this was going to work out but he can see, in that strategic part of his mind, how they might actually make a really good pair. Bucky doesn’t take shit from Steve, and while sometimes that’s going to be frustrating, he knows that he needs someone like that. And he knows that maybe Bucky needs that from someone, too -- because Steve understands feeling every one of your shortcomings, acutely, but he knows he will love Bucky through any single one of them, real or perceived.

He can’t help but lean into the touch, fingers curling in the hem of Bucky’s hoodie as he leans in close, keeping that kiss chaste but chasing it, too, chasing more of that feeling. He hasn’t gotten a lot of gentle touches, no -- not since his ma died -- and he loves them, and he wants to make Bucky get that warm, comforting feeling from them, too.

Bucky’s more than happy to accommodate the kiss with more kisses, smiling softly against Steve’s mouth when he agrees. He knows it won’t always be like this. He knows there’ll be disagreements and fights and times where they’re both frustrated, and that’s okay. Because at the end of the day, he believes they’ll still love one another, that they’ll be able to work through any issues with respect and consideration. Their personalities are complimentary enough that he’s pretty sure that they can make this work.

“Okay. Whenever’s good for us,” Steve finally agrees when they part, bumping his nose against Bucky’s. “Although maybe I should meet your sister first. Get the, uh, family stamp of approval? Stanford’s not that far from Malibu, I’m pretty sure.”

Bucky blinks a couple of times, pulling back just enough to look at Steve, search his eyes. “Is that why you picked Malibu?” And Steve doesn’t even have to answer, because Bucky’s certain now that’s exactly why he’d chosen Tony’s offer of the house in California: for him. So that he could see his sister, and so Steve could actually meet her.

“It might’ve crossed my mind,” Steve admits -- as in yes, that’s exactly why he’d picked Malibu, because all else being equal, it was the one location that meant something. Bucky’s sister is one of the only people he’s talked about at all, and it had seemed like the best possible option, given that. Especially if he was going to need to explain things to her. Like… apparently wanting to spend the rest of his life with Captain America.

“Yeah, it’s not far. A few hours,” Bucky tells Steve, with a forming grin. “We can surprise her.” And boy will she be surprised.

“I guess I’m just old-fashioned like that, but I wasn’t going to turn up a chance to just talk in person,” Steve admits. That, and he’d wanted Bucky to see her in person, if he could arrange it. “Tony said to lie low. He didn’t say to hide in one place and not leave.”

Bucky’s grin remains in place at the admission, confirming what he’d already figured out. “You’re incredible,” he informs Steve, leaning his forehead against Steve’s. “And I don’t know how the hell I got so lucky.” He really doesn’t.
Steve’s grin is admittedly a pleased one; he hadn’t thought he could go wrong, picking the spot closest to Bucky’s sister, but it is nice to have it confirmed. “I mean, I guess you just really know how to pick ‘em,” he says, because honestly, everything feels like it’s just come down to chance -- chance, that Bucky picked him off the street, instead of anyone else. And he is very grateful to whatever force made that happen.

Bucky laughs quietly. His previous relationships all had their fair share of issues, though none worse than he’d had with Brock. But this time he really had chosen well, even if it had been completely unintentional at the time. “Guess I do,” he teases, enjoying the satisfied grin on Steve’s face.

He presses another soft kiss to Steve’s mouth. “I can’t wait for you to meet her, Steve. You’re gonna love her.”

“If you do, then I know I will,” Steve. “Which I guess is important, if she’s gonna be my family, too.”

Which is… wow. That’s a thought that suddenly hits him right in the gut. Bucky’s sister would become his family, and… that’s something he hasn’t had for a long, long time. “If she wants that.”

Steve’s words hit Bucky hard -- in a good way. “She will.” There’s no hesitation in his voice before he affirms that. He presses a soft kiss to Steve’s forehead. “It’s been a long time since you’ve had family,” he whispers, needing to acknowledge that he understands why this is a big deal for Steve, too. “But you’ve got one now. With me, and when you meet Becca, she’ll agree with me. And Alpine, of course.”

“Sounds like a pretty perfect family, to me,” Steve breathes, leaning a little into Bucky, just… taking a few seconds to realize that yeah. Yeah, he will have a family, and one that really does sound just right. And if Becca is all the way on the other coast, at least for now, that might help keep her safe. Just in case -- because he knows that anyone connected to him could potentially become a target. Especially now. And he doesn’t know what the future could bring.

But if she’s anything like Bucky, and he’s sure she is, she’s going to be competent and smart and able to take care of herself. So they’ll cross that bridge when they come to it. “I’m really glad I met you, Bucky Barnes.”

Bucky leans his forehead against Steve’s, letting his eyes close for a moment. “The feeling is extremely mutual.”

***

It only takes a couple of hours to make it all the way to Malibu, which is pretty incredible in Bucky’s book. Quinjets are definitely the best way to travel long distances -- that much he’s convinced of now. And the fact that his boyfriend knows how to fly one is still mind-blowing.

He’s not really sure what he’s expecting from a house belonging to Tony Stark -- but whatever it is, it isn’t the ginormous, sprawling cliffside house that he’s met with when he steps off the jet, Alpine wrapped in his arms.

“Holy shit,” he mutters, freezing and simply staring at it for a long moment. Then he turns his head to look at Steve with wide eyes. “Are all of his places like this?”

Steve is maybe just a little gobsmacked, himself. It’s not that he hasn’t come to associate the name Stark with opulence of one kind or another, and hell -- to him, nearly everything in the future is unbelievably big and shiny and high-tech (helicarriers, quinjets, even the Triskelion, all included). But this house really takes the cake. Steve’s got an eye for design, and this is some design.

“I… think I wanna say yes,” he says, breathing out before reaching out to put a hand gently at Bucky’s lower back, just to get them moving toward the front door. “I’m not even really sure he actually appreciates it properly.” Or maybe it’s just the fact that to him, the design is clean and futuristic, but also a little impersonal. There’s a lot to tell him that ‘Stark owns this,’ but not a lot to tell him about Stark himself. Granted, everything Tony does is digital, and maybe that’s just a future thing… but it had been a big part of what had drawn him to Bucky’s bookshop (and Bucky, probably). It had personality. A good one.

Then again, Steve can’t really speak. His own -- SHIELD-sanctioned, which means it’s probably gone -- apartment was still as bare as the day he’d moved in.

Bucky lets Steve guide him toward the door and watches as he produces a set of keys, unlocking it. The inside of the place is no less impressive, even if the style isn’t exactly Bucky’s. He can still admire it -- it’s sleek and comfortable looking even if the decor itself is a bit sparse. “Wow,” he murmurs, glancing around before carefully setting Alpine down on the floor. She quickly scampers off to explore, and he makes a note to buy a litter box and cat food as soon as possible.

“This place is huge.” He walks farther into the house, heading toward the kitchen and dining room to check it out.

“I don’t even want to think about how many people you could fit in this space,” Steve murmurs, closing the door to make sure Alpine can’t get back out again, now that they’re inside. “And it probably never runs out of hot water.”

Steve’s still examining the living room when he hears Bucky’s voice from the kitchen -- “Look at the size of this kitchen!” He wanders in and blows out a slow breath at the sight. “You know, Tony’s an interesting guy. I think he wants to be generous and he wants people to notice, but he doesn’t actually want them to say anything about it at all. Which is too bad, because he didn’t have to let us stay here, and I think I wanna thank him for it.”

Bucky’s only met Tony once, but he can’t help agreeing with that assessment, remembering how quickly Tony had literally said not to thank him. He hums softly, considering that. “Sometimes you can find ways to thank people without actually saying the words,” he says, mostly just thinking out loud. “Maybe we can figure something out like that.” He doubts there’s anything on Earth they could buy and send him as a gift that Tony would want or need, but sometimes actions spoke a lot louder than money anyway. “We could cook him dinner, maybe?” He’s tossing out ideas because Steve obviously knows him better than Bucky does.

“Maybe,” Steve considers. He’s definitely with Bucky -- he doesn’t know what they could get Tony, but making him something doesn’t seem outside the realm of possibility. “He’d probably go for that, although I don’t know if we should tell him until after the fact.” His lips twitch into a little half-smile, thinking that mostly the dinner conversation would be poking fun of either early 20th-century cooking trends or current super soldier eating habits. Although maybe sitting through that would be its own way of thanking Tony. “But actions do speak louder than words.”

Which is exactly how Tony works, and Steve doesn’t mind.

He makes his way through the kitchen, noting that it’s actually filled with enough basics to keep them set for a while, although they’ll need to pick up anything fresh. And after that, he can’t help but wander toward the huge -- huge -- windows, because he’s seen a lot of views, but never one quite like this. “I think I might get the appeal of California. Just a little,” he says, nose nearly pressed up against the glass.

Bucky’s glancing around the kitchen, occasionally pulling open a cabinet to look inside curiously, before following Steve to the windows, smiling softly at the awed look on his face. “It definitely has its charm.” More than that, really. The view is incredible, and he stares out over the ocean, leaning into Steve’s side instinctively, and then winding his arm around his waist, letting his right hand rest on Steve’s hip.

“Long way from New York, huh?”

“Yeah,” Steve agrees, looking out over the ocean, and it’s not like you can’t see the ocean in New York, but this is the other ocean. The one he’s never actually seen. Somehow, it looks different, even if he can’t really put his finger on how, once the water stretches away from the shore.

He just knows that Bucky’s arm around his waist feels good, and he wants to savor this moment, and every single one like it that comes after, even while he also knows they’re not actually here for a vacation, exactly.

Bucky exhales slowly, turning his head to look the other direction and spotting a large pool outside. His eyes light up. “And of course there’s a pool.” He’s already eager to get in it, but he thinks they better stock up on a few more clothes before he drenches the only ones he has. “What do you think? Should we relax a bit or head out for supplies?”

Steve glances down, watching Bucky’s expression as he spots the pool. “Maybe we should get supplies first, so we don’t have to leave again later? Tony said there are a couple of cars in the garage… which probably means between ten and twenty and all of them stupidly flashy.”

“Yeah that’s what I was thinking. I’m definitely going to need a pair of swim trunks.” He nudges Steve lightly with his hip. “And unless you’ve got some hidden on you, you will too.” Bucky’s voice is light, playful.

Steve glances down at himself, like he’s actually got to check that he’s not wearing swim trunks. “I guess I will,” he says; he hasn’t been swimming in a long time, hasn’t really thought about it. But Bucky seems pretty intent on it, so he can at least get something to sit by the pool in, even if he isn’t sure he wants to get in. It seems only fair.

But then Bucky pauses. “Something just occurred to me. If either of us uses a debit or credit card, if HYDRA’s paying attention, they’ll know exactly where we are.”

And that’s when Steve grins a little and pulls his wallet out of his pocket -- well. The wallet Tony had given him, considering Steve’s is long gone, confiscated by SHIELD -- aka HYDRA. “Got a couple of reloadable cards,” he says, and hands one to Bucky. Steve had needed a little counseling on how money “worked” these days when he’d come out of the ice, but it hadn’t really been hard to pick up. Reloadable Visa cards were great when you didn’t want to be traced, and for when you were extra paranoid: “And cash. Which is what I normally use, anyway. Sometimes being a weird old coot comes in handy.”

The money is all his; when he’d first been getting set up, Natasha had sat him down and explained, very patiently, about the benefits of multiple accounts. About how even she didn’t want to know about all of his accounts, because someday he might need to be untraceable, even by her. Steve had honestly thought she was being a little paranoid at the time but had, at the same time, acknowledged that people in the future left digital footprints like muddy bootprints everywhere they went. Cash would only get you so far until you couldn’t take any more out, and about six people had been needed to convince him, with growing panic in their eyes, that he shouldn’t just take all his money and hide it under his mattress (which was ridiculous, he’d have hidden it under a floorboard, at least). They’d nonetheless very patiently explained all the measures put in place since the Depression. He mostly trusted those measures. And money wasn’t everything, anyway.

But still, “This should hold us over just fine.”

Bucky watches curiously as Steve pulls out a couple of prepaid Visa cards. “Smart,” he says with a smile, glancing at him. “I actually prefer to use cash most of the time. Just don’t happen to have any on me.”

One of the things he’d learned long ago from his grandpa was not to become dependent on credit cards. He has two that he keeps for emergencies but they’re both carrying a zero balance and he doesn’t dare touch them. He does use his debit card sometimes, if he runs low on cash. But overall, he still prefers actual money. Easier to deal with and harder to part with, which means he’s less likely to spend it on frivolous things. Clothes, though, are going to be a necessity.

He tucks the card in his jeans pocket and then winds his arms around Steve’s waist. “And if you’re an old coot, then… well. You’re my old coot.”

“Don’t wanna be anybody else’s old coot,” Steve puts in slinging his arms low around Bucky’s waist right back, pretty sure that from now on, if he can have the chance to drape himself over the guy, he’s going to take it. It’s maybe good they have to lie low right now. He’s not really a PDA kind of guy, but for Bucky he could maybe make an exception. Especially right now, when he never really wants to let him get out of sight again.

“Good,” Bucky responds, shifting closer when Steve’s arms wrap around him in return. He’s never been the type to engage in a lot of PDA either -- but they’re not in public.

Bucky leans in and presses a kiss to Steve’s jaw before drawing back to look at him. “I’ll pay you back,” he tells him seriously.

Steve shrugs a little to that. “If we’re… uh, I mean, it’s your money, too. If we’re just going to share everything.” That’s what mates do, right? That’s what couples do. Everything he has is Bucky’s, unconditionally, if Bucky wants or needs it.

Bucky leans in again and when he kisses Steve his cheek this time, he lets his lips linger there. The thing about money is that Brock had accused Bucky more than once of using him for that reason -- which couldn’t have been farther from the truth. He’d never asked the guy for anything, but even on the handful of dates they’d gone on, Brock had managed to make Bucky feel like he owed him something for paying, even though Bucky had offered to pay his own way.

He knows that his relationship with Brock hadn’t been healthy in any way. Knows that it wasn’t the norm. But he also can’t shrug off old insecurities and worries as easily as he wishes he could. He scrapes his teeth over his bottom lip before pulling back to look at Steve. He doesn’t really know how to put all that into words and he’s not even sure it’s worth it. He’ll just have to figure out how to get over it. “Okay,” he says finally.

Steve has known Bucky long enough to see when he’s at least uncomfortable enough to try to want to hide it. And Steve knows exactly what it’s like to not want to feel beholden to anyone -- even someone you care about. He actually expects Bucky to argue when he pulls back, and maybe that would’ve been better, because he’s not really sure it is okay, when that’s all Bucky finally says.

And it takes him a minute to decide whether it’s worth it to pursue that, or leave it be. But Steve’s not great at leaving things -- anything -- be. “Are you sure? I mean -- if you want to split things, we can. I know you can pay. But you just lost your home and your livelihood and I’d rather take care of this so you can take care of that.” Steve shakes his head. “But you don’t look thrilled with the idea,” he murmurs, a small smile on his lips, to show that he isn’t mad, and isn’t going to be put out. “I know what it’s like to not want everyone to take care of everything for you. I do.”

Bucky’s expression softens at his words and he looks down at the floor for a moment, relieved that Steve doesn’t seem upset, at least. “I’m sorry,” he admits, glancing back up at him. “I just never want you to think I’m using you for money.” There’s a humorless smile on his face and he exhales. “Which I know you wouldn’t, but… there’s some old stuff still in my head. You’re right. I don’t actually have any money at the moment. At all.” Not any that he can access anyway, and even that’s pretty limited. “So, thank you.” His insides are squirming with the admission.

Steve blinks, and then he glances around, sweeping an arm at the house, still smiling a bit. “It never actually crossed my mind. If someone wants money… I feel like they’d go after Stark.” His smile is crooked and fond, but the thing is, he knows it’s not easy to admit something like that. The arm still around Bucky’s waist pulls him closer again and he says, “I know that’s not why you’re here. With me. But I promise, I’ll prove it, too, so maybe it won’t be something you have to worry about, after a while.”

He knows you can’t just turn worry on and off -- just like nightmares and memories and love and fear. But you can learn that you don’t have to worry about something, even if you did before, and he knows that actions speak louder than words. And, “Honestly… when this is all over, you might be the only one of us who’s employable without having to change his name and his profession.”

Bucky cracks a smile at that because Steve does have a point. His muscles relax as Steve pulls him closer, though, and he lets his head rest against Steve’s. Soulmark aside, he seriously has no idea how someone hasn’t scooped Steve up before now. The guy is fucking incredible and he’s kind of overwhelmed by it, eyes feeling warm even as he blinks rapidly to clear them. “Nah. If nothing else I’ll hire you to work at the store,” he jokes, letting his right hand move up to cup the back of Steve’s neck. He pauses at that, realization dawning on him. “We can co-own it.”

Frankly, Steve hadn’t wanted anything to do with anyone, before Bucky. Not after waking up and feeling like the world he was living in was just one big, long dream that was a bad one, more often than not. Things had been okay, but they hadn’t been great. He hadn’t honestly had much left to lose.

Now, he does -- and he couldn’t be more grateful for it. Or, at least, he’d thought he couldn’t, until Bucky says he’d hire him, and Steve actually laughs a little but is about to say something like, That would be an amazing job, and when Bucky says they could co-own it, and --

And Steve just stops, blinking for a second. “You -- you would want to?” he asks, voice barely a whisper, as he just tries to think about that. Tries to think about Bucky sharing something like that with him. Bucky makes him feel overwhelmed a lot, and right now is definitely no exception.

Bucky’s eyes light up at the clear surprise Steve exhibits, and he presses a soft kiss to his mouth before pulling back to look at him. “Yeah. Yeah, it’ll be great. I mean, if you want to.” That store has meant so much to him since he was a kid and he realizes he wants to share that with Steve, who also means so much to him. He brushes his thumb gently over the mark on Steve’s neck.

Steve’s breath hitches a little when Bucky touches the mark, enjoying the tiny electric shock of heat it always gives him. “Yeah, I’d want to,” he breathes.

If someone had told Bucky a few weeks ago he’d be considering the very real possibility of sharing ownership of the store with anyone, he’d have laughed in their face. It’s funny how quickly things can change. “I mean, I think when all is said and done you’re not going to have to be worried about being unemployable, and I know you’ll still have plenty of world-saving things to keep you busy, but… it’d be nice, wouldn’t it?” he says.

“I don’t know if anyone would want me to save the world. Any government, I mean,” Steve says. Admittedly, Stark and Barton had taken the whole designation change thing pretty well. “I’d still do it, if it needed to be done. But I could do other things, too. In between apocalypses.” Which, honestly, a guy could hope will be few and far between. “Like help out around the store. You’re gonna need a new sign. I know a guy who’s pretty good at making ‘em.”

But in the end, his teasing smile turns soft. “You’re amazing. Have I said that in the last five minutes?” He leans in, bumping Bucky’s nose before closing the rest of the distance for a long, slow kiss. He wants to make sure Bucky understands just what that kind of life would mean to him. And it would mean a lot. Everything.

Bucky’s pretty sure that regardless of how governments feel about Steve’s original designation being an omega, when it comes right down to it, they don’t want the world to end. Most of them, anyway, he assumes. And he doesn’t for one second think that if things get bad -- and they inevitably will -- anyone will turn down an offer of help from Captain America. The world doesn’t deserve this man, he thinks, before all thoughts are wiped right out of his head with that kiss.

 

“I think we should get to the store before I tackle you to the ground and take a nap on you,” Steve murmurs, lips curved up against Bucky’s lips. “I just want to stay close to you forever. Especially every time you say something amazing like that.”

“Probably,” he agrees. “But for the record, you make an excellent blanket and I may hold you to that nap thing when we get back.” Stark’s sofa in front of the windows looks soft and comfortable -- a great spot for napping. He’s pretty sure it’s calling their names.

“You’d better,” Steve grins, chasing that kiss with one more, because how can he not?

And Bucky presses another soft kiss against Steve’s mouth, too, before reluctantly pulling away. “All right. Let’s do this. You’re driving, right?”

Steve nods, stepping back and tugging Bucky in what he hopes is the direction of the garage with one arm still around his waist so he doesn’t have to break the contact. “Sure, I can if you want.”

The garage is… possibly the same square footage as the house itself. Steve is both surprised and not, given that his initial guess seems to be pretty on the money -- there are at least 10 cars, and most of them are pretty flashy. He finally settles on a red two-seater that looks like its trunk is for more than just aesthetics; they won’t need a whole lot, but they’re still going to need someplace to put it.

It’s also a convertible. Because of course it is. “Should we put the roof down?”

“Hell yeah,” Bucky says immediately, reaching up to do just that even as he buckles himself into the passenger seat. He flashes Steve a bright grin as he leans back. “Let’s do this.” He’s never been to Malibu before, has no idea where anything is or how far they’ll have to drive to find a store to buy a few things, but right now he doesn’t care, either. After a terrible week, they’re finally getting a bit of a break and he plans to do what he can to enjoy and make the most out of it.

Steve reaches up for his side of the roof latch, and together they get it down and head out. He doesn’t actually know where he’s going, either, but as soon as they pull out of the garage, the GPS in the dash lights up and he figures he’ll just follow it until they reach civilization, and Bucky can probably navigate with his Stark phone from there. And if not -- well, they’ll just explore a little. It’s nice to be outside without having to worry about secrecy, even if there is a part of him still worried about what’s going on back on the east coast, and he knows it’s still a problem, and he can’t just pretend it’s not.

“Where’d you learn to drive anyway? Army?” Bucky guesses, glancing at Steve sideways as they start down the road.

“In a way,” he answers, shooting Bucky a quick grin. “I definitely didn’t ever have the chance, before then. But yeah, I kinda learned on the job. Mostly in Nazi Germany. I can hotwire a car, too.” He glances at the push-start button. “If it’s got a regular key ignition, anyway. But I admit, there were a lot of days all I was good for was pushing tanks out of the mud. I don’t think I actually drove on a paved road until after I woke up.”

Bucky’s eyebrows rise at that bit of information. No way had Steve meant for that to sound as incredibly hot as it does, but here they are anyway. “I’m not sure which part is more awesome: that you can hotwire a car or push a tank out of mud.” He’s grinning, but there’s just a faint tinge of pink to his cheeks that he hopes Steve doesn’t notice.

The rest of it makes sense, though, considering most people in New York City and from New York City don’t know how to drive. Nor can most of them afford to own a car, considering the price of rent in most places in the city.

Steve grins over at Bucky a little, admittedly liking the look on his face when he glances away from the road for a few seconds. It’s a nice image to have fixed in his mind when he puts his concentration back in front of them. “I’ll take whichever of those you want to give me.”

A moment later, he steals a sideways glance at Bucky again. “You should’ve seen the guy at the DMV, when I went in with my application. It was about the only time I was glad to have a SHIELD handler.”

Bucky laughs out loud at that. “Yeah, how’d he react? Did he know who you were?” he asks, wondering just how often people recognize Steve when he’s out of the uniform. He knows a lot of people don’t; hell, he’d been one of them. He leans his head back against the headrest, but keeps his body angled toward Steve so he can see him better.

“He didn’t mostly because he wasn’t expecting see me, I think,” Steve says. “It was only a couple of weeks after the Chitauri and people still weren’t sure I wasn’t some new guy in the old colors, and not the same person. So he thought I was shitting him with my birthdate until my handler stepped in with a whole buncha paperwork, and somehow it went through.”

Bucky can’t help but chuckle as he pictures the scene, imagining the shock on the DMV worker’s face when he finally realized the actual Steve Rogers was standing there signing up to get his driver’s license.

He also can’t help but notice how angelic Steve looks, with the sunlight catching in his blond hair, giving him an ethereal glow as he focuses on the road ahead. Bucky draws in a breath and lets it out slowly, willing his left hand to move because he really wants to reach out and wrap his fingers around Steve’s right hand, but today apparently isn’t a day that’s going to happen when the most he can do is get his arm to twitch a little.

Steve’s got Bucky in his peripheral vision, mostly paying attention to the road but the serum lets him split his attention a lot easier than most people can. It’s the only reason, he thinks, he doesn’t miss that little twitch; and that’s what makes him drop his right hand off the wheel, sliding it into Bucky’s, fingers casually finding their way between the other man’s while he steers with his own left hand. He doesn’t know what Bucky was going for, but he hopes this might be close enough. “I used to want people to pay more attention to me, when all they usually did was overlook me. But before you figured out who I was, all I wanted was for you to keep treating me like a person, instead of a guy in your history book,” he admits.

Bucky’s expression softens when Steve reaches his hand out and slides their fingers together. He smiles softly at how Steve had either been thinking the same thing or that he’d somehow picked up on his nonverbal cues well enough to know it’s what he’d wanted. A quiet, contented sigh escapes him and he closes his eyes for the briefest of moments before opening them and gazing at Steve again. “Wanna hear all about your history, pal, but not because you’re a celebrity superhero,” he tells him.

“I dunno, you could probably make a lot of money with a tell-all,” Steve jokes, only because if he doesn’t joke about it, he’ll either get mad or depressed about it. “Especially after HYDRA told everyone about my designation.”

That’s… something he’s still not sure how to deal with. But while Bucky is probably the only other person on the entire planet who understands, it’s also very, very close to home for him, and Steve doesn’t want to make it worse by bringing it up more than he already has. It’s not like he’s the only one who’s been hurt over that kind of information coming out. In fact, he believes he had a lot less to lose than Bucky. A reputation is one thing. The bookshop your grandfather left you is definitely another.

“But sure. I’ll tell you anything you want to know. Anytime. I promise.” He flashes Bucky a smile, squeezing his fingers gently, but enough that Bucky should be able to feel it, even through the nerve damage.

Bucky can’t squeeze Steve’s hand with his left one today, so he reaches out and covers their hands with his right instead. He knows he can’t avoid thinking about everything forever, and he won’t. He has to figure out how to tell Becca the news, for one thing. And for the other -- he can’t just check out of his life anytime he wants to. Not anymore. Not when he has a reason to stay checked into it.

And Bucky has no idea how the general population is going to handle the news about Steve, how the government is ultimately going to choose to handle it. They may end up having to leave the country entirely, forever.

Steve brushes his thumb over Bucky’s right hand when it comes to cover his. “First, though, I think I need you and your phone to figure out where we should go. We need stuff for Alpine too, right?”

Bucky draws in a breath and lets it out slowly. “Yeah, I can do that.” He reluctantly pulls his hand away once more, reaching into his jeans pocket for the Stark phone (and holy shit he still can’t believe he actually has a Stark phone). “Definitely going to need a litter box and kitty litter and food,” he agrees as he messes with the phone, trying to figure it out. A moment later, he manages to pull up directions to a nearby store. “Here we go. All right, just stay on this road for the next six miles and then we’ll be making a right.”

Steve nods a little as Bucky gives him directions. “Yes, sir,” he says, and leaves his hand in Bucky’s as he follows the road and the directions to the store, where they pick up everything they need for two humans and one cat for at least a week, even if Steve isn’t sure whether they’ll be here that long -- or longer. If it’s longer, they can just come back. And if not, well, he’d rather be overprepared than underprepared.

At least Tony’s place has most of what they need, so all they really have to buy are the things for Alpine, a couple sets of clothing each, and the fresh food that isn’t already stocked at the place. That includes swim trunks for the both of them, which is actually a new experience for Steve. As they’re headed back, he murmurs over the sound of the wind, “D’you know, I’ve never had a bathing suit before. You used to swim bare-ass naked at the Y.”

Bucky’s just taken a drink of the water he’d gotten on their way out of the store and at that piece of information, he promptly chokes. He coughs and sputters a few times before turning to look at Steve wide-eyed. “Seriously?” He certainly doesn’t remember any details like that from any of his history books. His cheeks have grown warm at the thought, though, because it’s impossible not to let his mind go there when Steve just drops that tidbit into his lap like it’s not a big deal.

Steve definitely glances over, grinning in a sheepish way that says maybe he’s kind of amused by the reaction, all the same. “Yeah. I mean -- don’t get all excited. I was nothing to look at, and everybody sure as hell made sure I knew it.”

Bucky feels his cheeks get hotter at Steve’s teasingly telling him not to get excited. He makes it a mental note to find some pictures of what Steve had looked like before Project Rebirth, merely out of curiosity. He knows he’s seen some before, but he’d never really paid attention. Back then, there’s a lot he hadn’t paid attention to.

Steve’s grin doesn’t betray anything but mirth. “I guess it’s a good thing there were a couple of other guys in the locker room, the first time I went down to my local one last year. I definitely did not end up in the pool that day.” Or any other, really. He’d never actually gotten around to getting a suit and going back. Hadn’t thought about it much, either.

A chuckle escapes Bucky involuntarily at the idea of Steve going to the local Y, under the assumption people still swim buck naked in public places. “Oh man.” He lays his head against the headrest. “I mean, if it makes you more comfortable to swim naked, Steve, by all means, I’m not about to stop you.” Because if he’s blushing, then Steve should be, too, dammit.

“Aw, no, I wouldn’t want to offend your modern sense of propriety,” Steve puts in, but he maybe looks a little embarrassed, too. It’s one thing to do it when it’s the norm. It’s another to be the only person who thinks it’s still the norm. Besides, Steve has maybe never been all that comfortable with his own naked body. Strangely enough, Rebirth didn’t exactly change that, just… changed the things that embarrass him. He’s never looked like everybody else and he never will, regardless of where the differences lie.

“I have had kids ask me what life was like before electricity and running water, though,” he adds, grin now a little lopsided. “That’s always a fun one to answer.”

“Gotta admit, they skim over a lot of that stuff in schools.” Bucky’s still grinning, too, amused. “What was it like before electricity existed?” he jokes.

Steve snorts and reaches out to bump Bucky’s shoulder gently with the side of his hand. “You know, somehow we managed. There was a lot of telling stories around the campfire, with nothing else to do at night.”

Which had kind of been true -- just out on the front, not actually back at home.

Bucky laughs at that gentle bump. “See, now that part sounds familiar, except it was in Afghanistan and not at home.” He’d had a good unit of people, most of whom were gone now. He doesn’t let his mind go there, though.

“We didn’t have a shower, though. I’ve got to admit, it’s a lot faster than filling the tub,” Steve says. “I also have to admit that, based on the tower, I’m kind of afraid to actually see what kind of bathrooms Tony has in this house. The shower might be big enough to throw a party in. You should be prepared.”

Apparently, Bucky’s got a bit of a one-track mind today. Especially when Steve mentions a shower big enough to throw a party in, because he scrapes his teeth over his lower lip. “Sounds like it could be useful.” His voice is a little more hushed than before. “And environmentally friendly,” he adds, teasing, and mostly because he doesn’t want Steve to get the impression he’s suddenly a horndog. He’s not, but today the ideas are sticking in his head in a way they hadn’t before, and he’s not sure why. Maybe it had been the week-long separation, or how close they’d come to dying last night, or maybe it’s the California air. He doesn’t know, really.

Steve knows he’s maybe being a bit of a tease; still, there’s something in him that can’t help but maybe push, just a little -- testing, more than anything, because it’s new for him. He hadn’t exactly flirted with Peggy this way, but things had been different, for more reasons than one. But things with Bucky are different, and he’s said it before, and meant it -- he doesn’t want to be like Brock. He isn’t like Brock. He won’t actually push for anything Bucky doesn’t want to give, for as long as Bucky doesn’t want to give it. He understands that it might be a long time, and he understands that joking about things doesn’t mean they’ll come to fruition.

But still, he likes the way it makes Bucky look -- he likes the color in his face and the laughter in his voice, and he really likes the way Bucky looks when he does that thing with his mouth. It makes Steve feel more comfortable in his skin, not less, and if he wants to chase that feeling… hopefully Bucky won’t mind that much.

“I do keep wondering when the hot water’s gonna run out,” he puts in, turning them off the road finally and onto the long, long drive that will take them up to Tony’s house. “It doesn’t seem to be as big a problem these days, but still…”

Bucky knows it’s unusual that they haven’t gone any farther with one another than some kissing and light touching. Especially given that they’re actually soulmates. But Steve is from a different time, and Bucky’s -- getting past things with Brock. Steve hasn’t pushed him in any way and he hasn’t pushed Steve and it’s been good. But he’d be lying if he said he isn’t enjoying the way they’re teasing one another, dangling possibilities in front of each other even if it might not go much farther than that.

“It would be a shame if it were to happen. One of us would have to suffer through a cold shower.” He grimaces, but it’s all in jest.

“Yeah, I’m sure we’ve both had enough of those in the Army to last a lifetime,” Steve agrees, as the house finally comes into sight. He gives Bucky another grin. “Do you still want to try out that pool today?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I think so. You up for that?”

“Yeah, of course. I mean… I’m pretty sure ‘lie low’ means ‘don’t do anything suspicious,’ and it would be suspicious not to try it out. It is right there, after all.” Steve’s not used to the level of luxury that Tony clearly is, given every residence of his that Steve has ever seen. But he honestly thinks that, given everything, Bucky could use a bit of a break, and Steve is more than happy to indulge him. Even if he’s not good at relaxing, making sure Bucky can relax seems like the next best thing.

Maybe it’ll even help him figure out how to really, truly stop worrying about everything happening on the other side of the country, just for a little while. He knows the situation will need him to come back sooner rather than later, and he wants to make sure that Bucky has had enough of a chance to recuperate by then.

They pull up, and Steve shuts the car off, hopping out so he can start loading up his arms with their purchases. He can get the bags and boxes, he figures, so Bucky can get the door and Steve can bring it inside without having to put everything down on the way. “Let’s get Alpine set up and get changed.”

Somehow Steve manages to gather all their stuff before he even has a chance to help. It’s actually kind of impressive how easily he grabs it all in one trip, so Bucky focuses on unlocking the door and opening it for him, then reaches out to help him unload. “All right, sounds like a plan. Meet you out there in fifteen minutes?” He figures that’s more than enough time to set up Alpine’s litter box and get changed into the swim trunks he’d picked out.

“You got it,” Steve agrees, letting Bucky take a few of the bags once they’re inside. “I’ll go pull the car in first.” He figures it’s safer if the place doesn’t look occupied from the front, after all.

It doesn’t take long to get the car into the garage, or to put the fresh food away before taking the bag with his own swim trunks to the nearest bathroom that he can find. It takes only a minute to get changed after that, and it’s not long before Steve is padding out onto the patio in bare feet in his swimsuit and t-shirt. It’s funny, but now that stripping naked just isn’t what’s done, he feels a little extra self-conscious.

It takes Bucky a little longer to make it outside, mostly because he is having such a rough day with his left arm. Days like today always take him longer to accomplish simple tasks, which is frustrating sometimes, but he does his best to take it in stride. He finds himself standing in front of a mirror after he’s changed into the swim trunks he’d gotten, gaze drawn to his left arm. Steve’s seen it before, of course, but Bucky still hates the way it looks. He can’t imagine it’s a pleasant sight for anyone else, either.

Sighing, he tugs a long-sleeved shirt over his head, pets Alpine, who’s currently settled herself atop the bathroom sink, and then makes his way out to the pool. He spots Steve immediately and some of his negative thoughts begin to fade away. “Fancy seeing you here,” he teases.

Steve has seen his arm before, and it doesn’t bother him -- it doesn’t take away from the way Bucky looks (which is damn good), but he knows that Bucky doesn’t necessarily feel that way. And Steve certainly knows what it’s like not to like parts (or all, sometimes) of your body. He knows that all the reassurances in the world won’t make Bucky like it any better; he isn’t sure if there’s anything he can do, except to treat it like it’s completely normal, because like he’s said, actions speak louder than words. If he acts like Bucky is the handsome man that he is, maybe, after long enough, Bucky will start to believe it, too.

He glances over from where he’s standing by the pool, surveying it like he’s searching for sharks. The sight of Bucky makes him smile, though, and turn back toward him. “Hey, stranger. Those look pretty good on you.”

They do. He can’t miss the long-sleeved shirt, and part of him suddenly guiltily wonders if Bucky could have used some help getting changed. But he isn’t sure Bucky would’ve wanted it, anyway. “Think I might soak up some sun, first,” he admits, because something about staring at the pool… has him not really all that excited to get in. But he still wants to spend time out here -- and spend time with Bucky.

Bucky’s not sure what to think about the intensity with which Steve’s staring into the pool, but he watches it fade quickly when the other turns to look at him. He returns the smile easily and nods his agreement. It’s been awhile since either of them have had the opportunity to just bask in the sunlight for a while, even if Bucky knows he needs to be careful so he doesn’t burn. “Of course.”

Steve was never much of a sunbather as a kid, but that’s mostly because he didn’t have the time or the means. Now, though, he can’t really burn (or if he does, it fades in a couple of hours) and just because his body tends to self-regulate its temperature doesn’t mean he doesn’t appreciate sunlight when he can get it. He grins at Bucky and heads over toward the few loungers lined up along the side, pulling one closer to the pool because if he’s going to spend time with Bucky, then he’s going to do it close by.

Meanwhile, Bucky moves toward the side of the pool and dips his toes in, almost surprised by the warmth of the water. He hesitates a second, then reaches down with his right hand and tugs his shirt up and over his head, not daring to chance a look at Steve as he does so. He folds it up and drops it onto one of the patio lounge chairs. It’s tempting to just jump in instead of using the pool ladder, but it also seems foolish given his left arm. So he makes his way to the ladder and eases himself down into the water, closing his eyes momentarily.

It feels like wading into a warm bath, rather than the cool water he remembers from competitions in high school. Once he’s all the way in the water, he ventures a glance at Steve and smiles. “Not sure if the pool’s actually heated or if it’s just from the sun, but it feels amazing.”

Steve very deliberately doesn’t stare when Bucky shucks his shirt; but nor does he ignore him completely, despite the fact that Bucky’s not looking at him. It’s definitely clear that his left arm isn’t having a good day, but Steve trusts that it won’t be a problem in the pool as Bucky lowers himself in, and Steve wouldn’t trade the satisfied look on his face for anything.

Steve, for his part, has lowered himself down onto the side of the lounge chair, just watching Bucky with a grin. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s heated,” he admits, “but I don’t know if you really need it out here, either. Definitely not my area of expertise,” he laughs -- and, because Bucky did it, he reaches down to yank on the hem of his own shirt and pull it up over his head. That way, they’re both even. “I honestly wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I lived someplace without winter.”

“Mine either,” Bucky tells him with a smile, pausing and not quite able to keep himself from looking at Steve as he strips his shirt off. It’s not the first time he’s seen Steve without a shirt, of course, but it still feels like a punch to the gut that leaves him a little breathless each time it happens. In a good way. His boyfriend is gorgeous and there’s no denying that. He moves so he’s more in front of Steve and he leans his right arm on the edge of the pool, peering up at him. “I like winter.”

“Me, too -- except when I had to live outside in it,” Steve grins. Bucky might have spent his time on duty without winter, but Steve and the entire Army deployed to the European theater had dealt with brutal winters full of frostbite and poor morale. Admittedly, Steve had been pretty immune to the frostbite part of it, but it hadn’t always been pleasant. It hadn’t always been bad either, though, and he still likes the turning of the seasons -- although admittedly a lot more from inside someplace warm.

““Yeah, I’ll pass on winter camping,” Bucky answers with a laugh. “I gotta admit, the sun’s pretty nice after months of cold weather.” Bucky had gone without dealing with much winter weather for the majority of his adult life, thanks to being stationed overseas for most of it. And this year hadn’t exactly lent itself to enjoying the season, all things considered. But there had been a handful of days before he’d taken over the store, where he’d spent time curled up in his loft reading and staring out the window at the falling snow. There’d been something inherently peaceful about it.

“You ever been sledding?” he asks.

Steve considers the question, tilting his head as he has to admit, “Not really, no. Never went outside the city limits as a kid, and it wasn’t exactly a priority in the Army. I mean -- I know how it works. But I’ve never done it. Skiing, either. And… snowboarding? That’s a thing, now?”

Bucky rests his chin on the edge of the pool, enjoying the way the warm water helps soothe the aches and pains in his body. He stores that piece of information away for later. “Yeah, that’s a thing now, too. Not a me-thing because I’m pretty sure I’d end up breaking something. But sledding’s fun. Becca and I used to sled down this hill by our old apartment when there was enough snow.”

He meets Steve’s eyes. “Guess we’ll have to start making a list of things we need to do this winter. Number one: take Steve sledding.”

Steve laughs, but honestly, it sounds amazing. Everything sounds amazing with Bucky, who looks pretty amazing -- and maybe just a little alluring -- leaning over the edge of the pool and watching him like that. It’s enough to make Steve itch to get closer to him, and he finds himself getting up off the chair and drifting over to the side of the pool, settling on the edge and twisting to dunk his feet in. The water is warm, and he swishes them around a little, reaching out to touch the side of Bucky’s face, fingertips brushing over the damp skin.

“Sledding sounds good,” he confirms. “I bet we could also build a pretty great snow fort. That’s supposed to be fun, right? Or is that too over the top?”

“Hell no. It’s not over the top at all.” Bucky leans into the touch, eyes closing momentarily at the feel of his warm hand against his cheek. “I’d love to build a snow fort with you. Or a snowman. Or both.” His lips twitch upwards into a smile and he looks up at Steve again, shifting so that his body is stretched out and brushing up against Steve’s legs dangling in the water.

“Might as well put both on the list,” Steve murmurs, fingers curling against Bucky’s cheek for a moment, even as Bucky presses closer to his legs and says, “Right now, though, I’m wondering if maybe you’re gonna come down here with me.”

Well, how can he refuse an invitation like that? “I think maybe I am.” Steve runs his fingers through Bucky’s hair, then pulls his hand back enough that he can just twist himself around enough to push off the side of the pool and into the water. It is warm and it feels good, but there’s this weird, sinking feeling in his stomach and this strange constricting tightness around his chest as his feet swish through the water without touching the bottom and the water laps up at his chin and --

And suddenly his heart is racing and he can’t breathe -- he can’t breathe because the cockpit is filling up with water and he knows it’s useless to hold his breath, but he can’t not because he’s afraid, he knows he was willing to die but he can’t help but be afraid, now, alone as the heat leaches out of him and why can’t he get his feet on solid ground? Where’s the deck?

One minute, everything is fine. Steve is sliding into the water with him and Bucky’s smiling at him, pleased with the response and looking forward to slipping his arms around him, and next there’s an unmistakable flash of terror on the blonde’s face. “Steve?” He reaches out to grasp onto his arm, trying to figure out what’s happening. “Hey, it’s okay. You’re safe.”

But Steve kicks his feet beneath him, holds his breath -- and suddenly it dawns on him that maybe Steve can’t swim at all. He shifts closer, uses his right arm to anchor the man to his side, above water. “It’s okay, I’ve got you.”

Steve hears Bucky’s voice, but at first it doesn’t register. Then it does register, but -- but he was alone, he did this alone, and Bucky can’t be here with him. He can’t, he’ll drown, too, and drowning is horrible and he never wants Bucky to go through that --

He lets out the breath he’s holding, but even though he sucks more air in, it still feels like he can’t get enough into his lungs, breathing panicked as he flails a little, as if maybe he can push Bucky away, out of the cockpit, get him free somehow. “You have to go, you can’t be here --”

It’s clear as day to Bucky that Steve isn’t really there at the moment. He’s not sure where he is, but it’s nowhere good, that much is certain. Steve’s trying to push him away, flailing in the water and he’s seen this before, more than once. There’s only one clear solution, and that’s to get Steve out of the pool as quickly as possible.

“Steve, focus on my voice, okay? I’m right here. Not going anywhere.” Bucky kicks his own legs, pulling them away from the side of the pool and toward the shallow end. It’ll be easier to pull him out from that end. He swims with Steve pressed tightly to his side, right arm wrapped around him and, since his left arm isn’t very helpful at the moment, he depends on his legs to keep them above water.

“You have to go!” For Steve, seconds feel like hours, as time slows down and panic is the only thing he can feel. He’s not helpful in the least as Bucky pulls him toward the side of the pool, but at least his flailing isn’t as directed or effective as it would be if he were actually aware enough to be coordinated. All he can think is that he’s killed Bucky, too, that they’re going to drown together and he’ll wake up alone, alone, knowing it’s his fault Bucky is gone.

Years and years of muscle memory kick in and Bucky pulls Steve to the shallow end of the pool, then maneuvers himself up and onto the ledge, gritting his teeth and pulling the other man out the way he’d been trained so long ago.

It isn’t until Bucky is hauling him bodily up out of the pool and onto the deck that Steve registers… the air is warm. The air is warm and the water dripping off him is warm and everything is green, not white, and Bucky’s --

Oh, God, of course Bucky’s not trapped with him, because it’s 2014 and not 1945 and he doesn’t know what happened, but it feels like he’s just woken up from a nightmare and his adrenaline crashes at exactly the same time that crushing shame tries to flatten him. He was just supposed to get into the pool. Get into the pool and swim with his boyfriend, not… not forget what year it was or that he’s not in the cockpit of a crashing plane.

“Fuck,” is about all he can say, trying to roll over onto his side, away from Bucky, trying to hide his face. This time, when he flails, it’s deliberately because he doesn’t want Bucky to get near him. “Fuck, Bucky -- I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I don’t -- are you okay?”

Fuck, he could have actually pulled Bucky underwater or knocked him unconscious and actually killed him, he’s an idiot and he can’t stop shaking and he definitely can’t look Bucky in the face.

None of Steve’s words register as Bucky pulls him from the pool. Adrenaline is rushing through him and all he can focus on is getting him out, and when he does, he leans over him, peering down with worried eyes even as Steve rolls away and onto his side. He lets him, though he reaches out and lays a hand on his shoulder, his own heart pounding hard in his chest. He takes a slow deep breath, willing down his nerves and his own racing thoughts so that he can focus on Steve and what he needs.

“Easy. It’s okay,” he murmurs, shifting closer and stroking Steve’s hair back. “Easy. You’re all right. I’m fine. Everything’s okay.” He sits back on his ankles, then moves so that he’s practically draped over him, trying to warm him up. “Breathe. Slow and deep, with me.” He breathes along with him, resting his right hand over his heart.

Steve does respond better to Bucky letting him turn away that he would have to Bucky trying to pull him back around. Even so, he’s tense when Bucky touches him, shaking his head a little and squeezing his eyes shut, like that might make this go away, like it might convince him he’s dreaming so he can just wake up.

“I could’ve -- that’s never -- I don’t know what happened,” he finally gets out, from between clenched teeth. He knows, on some level, what happened -- he lost his mind and thought he was somewhere else. But that’s… it’s never happened that bad while he’s been awake, never not been something he can just shrug off. Never been something dangerous, and he’s only half-heartedly trying to actually follow Bucky’s instructions to breathe, chest stuttering even as his heart pounds under Bucky’s hand. “I’m sorry.”

He wants to take comfort in Bucky, lean back against his body heat, but he can’t. He shouldn’t. He doesn’t deserve to. He feels drained dry, all of a sudden, but he also feels too keyed up to relax and go limp.

“No apologies necessary, Steve,” Bucky says quietly, voice full of sincerity. “It’s okay.” He rests his forehead against the back of Steve’s neck momentarily, breathing slowly and willing his own calmness onto Steve, because he feels the way his heart is still racing. “Think you had a flashback, Pal,” he murmurs. He’s not sure what had brought it on, but he’s had enough of them himself that he’s familiar with the symptoms. With the aftermath. He knows how draining it is, how you only want to crawl into bed beneath the covers and get as far as you can away from whatever it is that brought the attack on.

A flashback, Steve thinks muzzily, and tries to make that word make sense, tries to remember what it means, and slowly, slowly, the whole of what happened comes back to him, from sliding into the pool to being so sure he was in the cockpit if the Valkyrie, to trying to get Bucky to leave, to get out, so he wouldn’t drown. A flashback, Bucky says, and it’s not really okay, he doesn’t feel okay, but the heat and weight of Bucky’s body pressed against his, close and unyielding… he’s never had that, after a nightmare. He’s used to weathering them alone. But this is so much better, at the same time that it’s so, so much worse.

Bucky presses a kiss to the back of Steve’s head, keeping his palm pressed against his heart in attempt to monitor where he is. “You know where you are? You all the way back with me?” His voice is soft.

It takes a moment, but eventually Steve nods a little, face still turned away. “Yeah,” he says, throat feeling raw like he’s been screaming, lungs feeling thick like they used to after an asthma attack. “Yeah, we’re -- California. In Malibu. In -- in 2014.”

Bucky can feel Steve’s heart is still beating quickly beneath his hand, but it seems to slow down a little, at least. “Good,” he agrees softly, not making any move to pull away, remembering how Steve had helped him through a panic attack of his own last weekend. “That’s right. Malibu, 2014, and you’re here with me. I’ve got you, soldier.” He closes his eyes for a moment. “You’re safe now.” He rests his cheek over Steve’s.

He listens intently to the sound of Steve’s breathing -- still shaky but a little more even than before. He has questions, worries, but they’ll wait for now. They’ll wait for as long as it takes for Steve to recover from the flashback, from the panic. Steve hadn’t asked him questions after his own trip down memory lane, and he’s not about to put the guy through an interrogation.

Steve thinks that those words, those actions, from anyone else… they would’ve made him feel angry. Helpless. He still feels that way, yes, but Bucky’s not patronizing, and he’s not annoyed. He’s just… here, and it’s that fact that finally seems to get through to him, finally seems to slow his shaky breathing, calm his racing heart. He does still feel foolish, and he definitely still feels shaky.

He ends up letting out a weird, sudden burst of laughter that’s maybe tinged, the tiniest bit, with a sob. “See? Definitely a mess,” he says, trying to find the humor in it, because if he can’t… He wants to be around Bucky. He wants to be here, always, and he wants Bucky to want to comfort him, always.

Bucky relaxes as Steve’s heart finally starts beating more normally, as the breaths that he’s taking grow less shaky. But the faint laugh-slash-sob that escapes him makes his chest tighten all over again and he turns his hand to thread his fingers through Steve’s when he covers Bucky’s hand with his own. “Nah, you’re just human,” he responds. “And it’s been a shitty week.”

One of Steve’s hands comes up, trying to hook over Bucky’s on his chest, even if his fingers feel a little clumsy and numb. Even if he knows he should be stronger than this. He doesn’t want to be strong, just for a few more seconds. A few more heartbeats. It’s embarrassing, but it’s true.

“I’m here,” Steve confirms, one more time. “Sorry I ruined your swim, though.”

Bucky has no plans of going anywhere, now or anytime soon, and he presses a soft kiss to Steve’s cheek, wanting to look down at him and search his eyes and face for visual cues, but he also doesn’t want him to feel like he’s a bug under a microscope, so he refrains. “You didn’t ruin a thing. Pool’s not going anywhere. Plenty of time for swimmin’ later, Stevie.” He chews his lower lip for a moment. “You want to go inside? Get warmed up?” His skin still feels cool to the touch and he wonders if his blood pressure had dropped with the attack; and if it had, he wonders if that’s normal.

Steve takes in and lets out a few more breaths, eyes still squeezed shut as Bucky’s voice, calm and warm, soothes him in a way nothing else really ever has. Maybe his ma’s, a long time ago, but not since then. Not that he can really, clearly remember in the past several years, awake or asleep.

He lays there for a few more minutes, but eventually his body starts to protest being curled up on the hard pool deck, and Bucky can’t be feeling much better about it. And he’s cold, despite the warm afternoon air, starting to shiver. He nods, slowly starting to push up off the deck, head hanging as though he still won’t have to look Bucky in the face, even though he can’t avoid it forever and they both know it. “Yeah,” he says, feeling exhausted, but also feeling pulled by Bucky’s voice, wanting to respond to the warmth and comfort in it. “Yeah, inside.” He has to let go of Bucky’s hand to push to his feet, running a hand through his hair and feeling a bit hangdog, soaking wet as he heads for the patio door. “I’ll be okay.”

Bucky reluctantly lets Steve pull away and sit up, then rise to his feet, pushing himself upwards as well. The look on his face breaks his heart, and he grabs the towel he’d brought outside and wraps it around Steve’s shoulders, rubbing his back through the material. “I know you will,” he replies without reservation, and it’s true. Steve will be okay, just like Bucky is after an attack -- but he knows it won’t happen without the exhaustion part in between. So he guides him into the house and leaves his side long enough to kick the air conditioning down a little since Steve’s already cold.

Then he offers him a gentle smile, taking note of the fact that Steve’s still not looking at him but not calling him on it. “All right, let’s find you some clothes and crawl into one of the undoubtedly far too soft beds with a trillion-thread-count sheets,” he jokes, trying to let him know that he’s not weirded out by what had transpired.

It does make Steve laugh a little, at the same time he’s grateful that Bucky just knows what to do, how to make it better, in as much as anyone or anything can. He knows it’s because Bucky’s felt this way, himself, and he wishes that weren’t true, but he also can’t belittle the fact that Bucky’s made it through things like this, to be here with Steve now and walk him through it.

“I left all the other bags on the kitchen table,” he finally says, because there had been a couple bags of clothes for them each, but he had figured they could put those away later. He guesses now is as good a time as any, padding into the kitchen and rooting through the bags until he finds the things in his size, holding out the other bags for Bucky.

Bucky follows him into the kitchen, keeping his hand on Steve’s back instinctively rather than out of any real conscious decision to do so. “Thanks.” He takes the bags from him, planning to go change as quickly as possible and spend the rest of the day -- or however long is needed -- with Steve under the covers.

Steve finally blows out a breath, adding, “I really wanted to -- you looked so happy. And real handsome,” he adds, attention on the clothes in his hands. “I was hoping we’d be done with the shitty week. At least until next week.”

“Hey.” Bucky’s own voice is quiet in response to Steve’s words. “I looked happy cause I was there with you. I’m still happy,” he says sincerely. “Even if I’m also a little worried about my best guy.”

“I’m okay,” Steve insists, although he knows he isn’t acting it. He’s got to do better, pull himself together; he doesn’t know why this has shaken him up so much, except that maybe he’s never had someone to lose, someone he might hurt, quite like this before. Weathering things on his own is awful, but the idea of hurting Bucky is worse.

But he’s here, now, and he’s in control. And so is Bucky, and he’s not leaving.

Bucky gazes at Steve intently. He’s been through this enough to anticipate, at least somewhat, what the other man’s going to need after that. “Why don’t you go get changed, and I’ll do the same, and then I’ll come and find you, okay? Pick us out a room?” He gives Steve a soft, sweet smile.

Getting changed and crawling into bed sounds really, really good. Steve nods, leaning in carefully to press a kiss to Bucky’s temple, before he retreats deeper into the house to find a room, figuring he’ll get changed there.

He isn’t sure how many rooms there are, but the first one he finds has a window that faces east, not west, so it’s mostly in shadow, and there’s a big bed that will definitely fit them both. He peels off his sopping shorts, finding an attached bathroom where he can drape them over the side of the (enormous) tub. After that, it doesn’t take much time to pull on a fresh set of clothes -- the sleep pants and a t-shirt they’d bought as pajamas for him -- before he pushes the door of the room open again, scanning for Bucky.

Bucky does his best to take his time changing, mostly because he feels like maybe Steve wants a few moments to collect himself, even if his own nerves feel like they’re hyper-focused on where the other man had gone. He tugs on a long-sleeved shirt he’d bought and a pair of comfortable sweatpants, then rakes his fingers through his wet hair, noting that his cheeks are a little flushed. He chalks it up to having been so sick just the day before, and probably to the fear that had shot through him when Steve had gone away for those few moments. Even though he’d known -- or was pretty sure anyway -- what was happening, knowing something intellectually and feeling it are two very different things.

He makes his way to the kitchen, yanking open the fridge and grabbing a couple bottles of water out as well as a protein shake, figuring before too much longer, Steve’s going to need the calories. He heads down the hall toward where he’d thought he’d heard footsteps, peeking into a couple of empty office-type rooms before he sees Steve duck his head out of another on the right. Relief washes over him and he smiles, holding up the bottles in his right hand -- one water and the protein shake, the other bottle of water tucked between his left arm and his body.

“Just in case we don’t feel like getting up anytime soon,” he explains.

There’s a distinct wave of relief that goes through Steve when he sees Bucky approaching, like there was maybe a chance that he would’ve taken the chance to leave, not stay. Steve knows that’s stupid, that Bucky wouldn’t do that to him -- or anyone -- but somehow, the relief is there all the same.

Along with a warm, bubbling feeling of unmistakable love, when he clearly comes prepared, and Steve’s smile is still a little tight and shaky at the edges, but it’s real. “You’re the best,” he murmurs, because despite the fact that he doesn’t tend to need a lot of sleep, he doesn’t want to think about getting up anytime soon, and really does just want to sleep until he can forget all of this, impossible though that is. “The bed in here should be big enough for both of us,” he says, backing into the room as Bucky approaches, wanting him close and a part of this space as soon as possible. “If you want to get in, too,” he adds. Just to make sure.

Bucky peeks into the room and notes the bed -- which is gigantic and possibly the biggest bed he’s ever seen that’s not on TV or in a movie. “Yeah, looks great. I definitely want to get in.” He hands one of the bottles to Steve before rising up on his tiptoes and kissing his forehead softly in an attempt to reassure him that he’s not upset or planning to leave his side. “Come on.” He steps past him and into the room, setting the bottles down on the nightstand and then working to pull the blankets back.

The kiss to his forehead is reassuring; something in the line of Steve’s shoulders relaxes, even as Bucky steps past him and into the room. Steve pulls the door shut most of the way, but not all of the way, in case Alpine wants to wander in here later. He’s never minded if she slept with them before, and he definitely doesn’t mind now.

“Got a side preference?” Bucky glances over at Steve with raised eyebrows. It never mattered in his bed at home because it had been so small that it always took some maneuvering to fit both of them on it comfortably. They’d always made it work, though, even if it usually resulted in Bucky draped over Steve’s body like a blanket or vice versa. Which, now that he thinks about it, sounds great.

Steve shakes his head at the question, just picking the side of the bed that Bucky’s not standing on and helping to pull everything back. “Not really.” Although there’s a part of him that does lament the sheer size of the bed, because Bucky’s bed had been dark and warm and comfortable, and if it had been small, it had just made it cozier. Steve had always liked sleeping in it, liked the way Bucky usually ended up on top of him or curled up against his stomach. In this bed, it feels like they could stretch out and not even touch -- and that’s not what Steve wants at all. “We can just… get in the middle?” he suggests, and goes to do exactly that, maybe hoping Bucky will take the hint and not stay all the way over on the other side.

“It’s like you’re reading my mind, Stevie,” Bucky tells him with a grin, crawling onto the mattress and using his right arm to propel himself toward the center of the bed before he drops his head onto the massive mountain of pillows. “Come here.” He motions for Steve to move closer, because he definitely wants to be in physical contact with him, and he’s pretty sure they both need it, for that matter. He doesn’t really care which one of them does the holding, even if he feels like Steve might need it more than he does at this point. He’ll let Steve decide, though, because he just wants to help make him feel better again. Feel normal.

“This is definitely a lot bigger than my bed. Feel like the entire Avengers team would be able to fit,” he jokes.

“I feel like you’re not wrong, but that would still be really awkward,” Steve says, trying to let Bucky’s efforts at relaxing him, well, relax him as he shuffles over into the middle next to him, pulling the covers up with him.

“Incredibly awkward,” Bucky agrees with a nod. “Besides, you’re the only Avenger I want in bed with me.” His cheeks grow warm with the admission even though he knows Steve already knows that.

“You’re the only person I want in bed with me,” Steve echoes, because he means it, and Bucky deserves to hear it, after everything he’s done just in the last 20 minutes. Today had started out so much better, but now it’s starting to feel like a bit of a wash, even if Steve knows that one bad thing can’t undo all the good things. It just feels big and heavy, and beyond his control, and he’s never liked feeling like that.

“Not sure what to do with all this room,” he admits. “I don’t care where you wanna be, I just… want you close.” Steve isn’t sure how he wants to arrange them, but he does know that he wants them to be as close as possible. And he is still cold, so he ends up tucking himself up a little into the middle, holding up an arm that Bucky can either crawl under or just drape around his waist.

Bucky lets Steve rearrange himself, tucking the blankets close, and then he turns onto his side and scoots up closer to him, crawling beneath his arm but also draping his arm around Steve’s waist, too. It’s kind of perfect, really, because it’s more like they’re holding each other than one of them being held and the other doing the holding. Give and take. A partnership. He presses a kiss against Steve’s collarbone. “This work?” he asks quietly, rubbing Steve’s back slow and gentle.

When Bucky eels up close, Steve finally starts to relax a little more and sink into the mattress, as Bucky’s hand comes around his waist and his lips touch his collarbone. “Yeah,” he breathes, curling up tighter so he can press his nose into Bucky’s hair, like the scent of his shampoo -- admittedly a little harder to get at, under the pool water scent, but it’s still there -- can lull him to sleep and remind him of where and when they are. “Yeah. Thanks, Buck.”

His fingers curl tightly into the shirt Bucky’s wearing, but now that he’s lying down and finally starting to warm up, and all the adrenaline has long since drained out of him, it doesn’t take much soothing at all for Steve to slip into sleep.