The Way Out Is The Way Down

by Speranza

Author's Note: thanks and everything else I've got to lim and astolat for beta!

The Way Out

Wakanda was a blast of heat and blue sky and trees with leaves shaped like nothing Steve had ever seen. Wakanda was a medical team hauling Bucky onto a gurney. T'Challa removed his helmet and handed it to an aide. "These are my personal doctors; you can trust them with your life—or his. I do," and then he was moving off, surrounded by a clamor of suits and soldiers.

Bucky inhaled sharply as the doctors took Steve's makeshift covering off his blasted arm but was otherwise silent. But Steve—who had hauled Bucky up after fights and dragged him off a torture table in Austria—could read the pain lines on his face and hear every suppressed sound.

"Do you remember," Steve said, reaching for any distraction as he followed along beside the gurney, trying to stay in Bucky's line of sight, "that big snow we had when we were kids?"

The doctors were moving Bucky into a sculpted white stone building whose enormous windows were framed with glass as light as gossamer. Bucky had to take a breath before he could answer. "Before the war?" he managed; he was trying to play along. "In what— '39? '40?"

"No—when we were kids, I said. '30—'31, we were taking your sisters to the movies—"

Now he had Bucky's attention for real, which was good, because they'd reached the surgery and the doctors were now putting instruments to the sharded metal, gently prodding the protruding core of bone. "—and we lost Becky! My God. In the snow." He laughed, and Steve laughed too: remembering how they'd doubled back and found a hole shaped like a gingerbread girl.

"Yeah," Steve said, nodding. "Do you remember how the snow was so high that we had to walk the path single file, you first and me behind you and then the girls—"

"—and then we turned around and she was gone; fell in!" Bucky said, almost to himself; he was lost in the memory. "She was the youngest and we put her last—why the hell did we do that?"

"Because we were idiots," Steve replied. "It's funny, you know: nowadays, nobody would let kids our age—" The doctors began to cut the metal pieces away with a blue laser. Bucky's face went milky and faintly green, and Steve repeated mechanically, "Nobody would ever let..." before abruptly switching tacks, "Do you remember the first time that we—you know."

Bucky grimaced and squeezed his eyes shut, and Steve impulsively grabbed his remaining hand and held it tight, tight. I'm here, he thought. I'm here, and Bucky squeezed his hand back, hard.

"Talk," Bucky gritted out. "Keep talking," and Steve nodded.

"That night," Steve whispered, "—God, Buck, I was so scared. Terrified, because I knew it would change everything but I couldn't stop myself from wanting to. I'd been working up my nerve, waiting for my chance. And then..." He let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding; the doctors had stopped cutting through the metal and were conferring in low voices. "Do you remember how it happened?" Steve asked, smiling a little. "Who threw you into my lap?" Bucky was staring at him like he was crazy. "You don't, do you?" Steve rolled his eyes. "Figures."

"I don't." Bucky's forehead was damp with sweat. "I don't even know what you're—what, who?"

"Millicent Ornstein. You were on your third date with Millicent Ornstein, and when you came back, you said she was wearing a girdle that went from her neck to her knees." Steve grinned, remembering it like it was yesterday: Bucky coming back to their apartment, flushed and with his necktie askew. He'd been impossibly hot and bothered, desire steaming off him.

"You said you should have brought a can opener." Smiling used unfamiliar muscles. "You said it was like trying to break into Fort Knox. And then I said..." He was shocked by the memory of own boldness: Whatever you want to do, do it to me. You can do it to me, and he'd pressed his mouth, his body, to Bucky's—and it had worked. Bucky had lost all control.

Bucky was blinking slowly, and then he gave Steve's hand another rough squeeze. "Yeah," he said, "And then you said..." and to Steve's surprise, Bucky broke up laughing, warm and contagious like in the old days, before all the terrible things happened to him. It lit him up, chased the sick look from his face. For a moment he looked himself again. "And then you said," Bucky repeated, and Steve's grin split his face in anticipation of whatever Bucky was winding up to slam him with, and that was like the old days, too; Christ, how he missed this: the rough and tumble of them, "that it would be so much easier," Bucky said, glaring, and Steve burst out giggling and had to grab a hold of himself physically to stop himself from crashing into a table of medical supplies, and Bucky was laughing too, shaking so hard that the doctors reached out, disapprovingly, to hold him down. "You said—" Bucky gasped.

"Well I might—" Steve couldn't get the words out past his own, embarrassingly high-pitched snorts of laughter, "—you know, have underestimated the difficulty of—"

"Fuck. I shoulda persisted with Millicent Ornstein," and then the double doors to the surgery burst open and Steve turned, vaguely expecting to see T'Challa's guards storming in—with his luck, they'd get thrown out of the country like they'd once been thrown out of bars—and finding, to his astonishment and delight, Natasha standing there in a summer dress. Steve was pleased and relieved to see her, but she was staring at him like he had three heads. Then she looked at Bucky, who said, with words that were still tripping with laughter but beginning to slur a little—Steve glanced and saw the IV— "He was the troublemaker, him—you know that, right? Nobody ever believes me. Because of his face, just look at it. Like a choirboy, like a...." and the doctors were easing Bucky back down onto the table, prepping him for—something; Steve didn't know what exactly. Cutting through the fabric of his clothes.

"Nat." Steve tried to get a hold of himself; this obviously wasn't the scene she'd been expecting.

"Come on," Natasha said. "You've got to let the doctors do their—"

" a cherub," Bucky was telling the doctors, "right off a church ceiling, and it was even worse in the old days, when he was... Everybody thought I was the bad news because...I don't know. I guess I got a guilty face... Steve?" and Steve was beside him in an instant. Bucky flung his hand up, then knotted his fingers in the shredded remains of his uniform.

He put his hand over Bucky's. "I'm here, Buck," Steve told him. "I won't leave."

"Steve, you have to leave," Natasha said softly. "Come on, let the doctors work."

Bucky was still smiling at him, relaxed by drugs and laughter and—Steve felt it, too—the rightness of them being together again: a solved puzzle, an itch scratched. "Steve, do you remember," and Steve raised his eyebrows, prompting him to continue, "the night I shipped out?" and Christ how could he forget? "We went to the fair, you and me. And some girl whose name I don't remember. And her friend..."

"Bonnie," Steve said, and made a face. "She didn't like me."

"No. She didn't," Bucky said.

"You spent that whole spring introducing me to girls who didn't like me," and it was hard to keep the bitterness out of his voice. It had been a nightmare, and the girls themselves had been the least of it. Much worse had been the feeling that he was being shopped around, pawned off.

But Bucky held his eyes and nodded. "Yeah," he said, and then his hand was moving up, over Steve's shoulder, and he was cupping the back of Steve's neck and tugging him down. "I introduced you to every girl I could think of," Bucky murmured into his ear. "You talk about terror, that was terror. I thought I was going to get killed and you were gonna be...That you wouldn't have anybody to... wouldn't have anybody." His eyes drifted closed. "Stupid, huh?"

"No," Steve said thickly. "It's not stupid. It—" It was almost exactly what had happened to him, but Bucky was asleep now, and the doctors were staring and Natasha's hand was on his arm.

"Come on, Steve," she said.

"Call me before he wakes up," Steve said, a little desperately. "I need to be here when he wakes up," and then he let Natasha tug him through the door and into the antechamber of—wherever this was. It wasn't a hospital; it could be part of the palace, he supposed, or a government compound. Everything around him was disconcertingly unfamiliar: the fashions, the buildings, the technology. Here we go again, he thought, and right that second, he wasn't sure he could.

"You should wash up," Natasha said, looking him up and down. "And change clothes: you're covered in blood. Did anybody bother to ask whether you needed medical treatment?"

Steve shook his head a little to clear it. "What the hell are you doing here, Romanov?"

Natasha looked up at him, her mouth twisted in a familiar mix of affection and exasperation. "It was here or Avengers HQ," she said. "So here I am."

Natasha'd been busy since he'd last seen her; she'd gone into action in that ruthless, clear-sighted way she had. "Somebody had to get Laura out," she said tensely, "and the kids," and Steve felt the old weariness settling down on his shoulders. "They would have tried to use them," she insisted, hard-voiced, as if he needed convincing. "Against Clint, and I can't allow that to..."

"Yes, of course," Steve said quietly. "Tell me what's happening."

Natasha blew out a breath and muttered, "I'll need a drink for this." Steve followed her out into the sunshine and across a garden thick with plants and flowering trees toward another low, stone building; a guest house. They climbed the wide stone steps and went in—or rather, beneath the roof, as the building had been constructed so as to give the impression that there were no exterior walls and that each room opened onto boughs of purple and orange blossoms. But Steve thought he could sense an even thinner version of the glass running floor to ceiling—except it maybe wasn't even glass, but some kind of force field.

The rooms were enormous, with high ceilings and stone floors with carpets of red, black, and gold strewn across them, and furniture carved from wood and bamboo. Ceiling fans spun lazily overhead, stirring the air. "Take any room you want," Natasha said offhandedly, over her shoulder; she'd gone to an elaborately carved cabinet, which turned out to be a bar. "Mine's first on the left," and Steve passed into a cool stone corridor between two interior walls.

The door to Natasha's room was open, and inside, the gossamer force field was a warm glow, a shimmer of translucent orange that rippled gently in the breeze. Steve went on until he'd reached the end of the hall, leaving as many rooms between them as he could. In the last room the force field was gray and opaque, casting the room into shadow. There was a large bed, an artfully-hewn four-poster—Steve turned, startled by a movement that turned out to be his own dark reflection in a mirror. He'd taken off his helmet, and God knew that his bruised mug was familiar, but he was still wearing the red, white and blue, the stupid star on his chest. He yanked at his collar, unbuttoning and unVelcroing, untwisting all the fasteners on the damn greasy technical fabric until the uniform was in a pile on the floor. He was panting, sucking air through his gritted teeth. He stumbled into the bathroom and switched on the tap to wash up, then abruptly pivoted into the shower and made the water as hot as he could stand and breathed in, and breathed out.

He found plain dark clothes in the closet and came out with his hair still damp. Natasha was sitting at the table, chin in hand, a tumbler of iced vodka pressed to her forehead. Beside her was a place setting and a salver under a silver cover. Natasha pointedly stayed silent until he sat down beside her and lifted the cover off the dish: chicken, a vegetable stew, spiced rice. He was overcome by the warm, delicious smell of it; he was, in fact, starving. Natasha nodded grimly as he began shoveling food into his mouth, but then he caught her eye and gestured at her with his fork as he chewed: go on, talk, talk.

"It's called the Raft," Natasha said, pressing a button on her phone that sent a small holographic blueprint spinning in the air. "It's a fully-submersible supermax prison located south of—"

Steve, hurriedly swallowing, said, "Wait, I've seen that. That was where they wanted to put Loki."

"Yeah, well, it's not Loki," Natasha said, and Steve put down his fork and looked at her, because he'd heard cynicism from Natasha before, but it had always been leavened with mocking laughter, an amused refusal to be surprised by all the evil that men do—but there was none of that now. "It's Clint," Natasha said, and her voice was terrible. "Steve, it's Sam," and he felt rage rising: how could anybody think of locking up Sam, who was integrity personified. Natasha went on, relentlessly, wanting to hurt him even though he knew it wasn't really him she wanted to hurt. "It's Wanda, Steve; they've got her in restraints. It's Sam's friend, what's his name—"

"Scott," Steve said.

"Yeah, well, he's there, too. In a fully-submersible prison off the coast of nowhere. Held indefinitely. No trial, no public hearing. Operating in defiance of the Sokovia Accords—where operating means breathing. We're alive in defiance of the law, now," Natasha said bitterly.

"Well," Steve said, and pushed his plate away. "We'll just have to break in and get them."

"Right, let's take it from the top," Natasha said wearily. "The Raft is a fully submersible supermax prison—"

"We can do it," Steve said.

"—in the middle of the ocean off the coast of nowhere, Rogers," and Natasha was stabbing her finger at him before he could open his mouth, "—and no, it's not like the Lemurian Star, because there, we had air support, we had an extraction unit, we had a team behind us—"

"No, you're right," Steve said. "It's nothing like the Lemurian Star."

It was like the liberation of the 107th; it was like his impossible, preposterous infiltration of the Hydra facility after Azzano. It was always possible for one person to wriggle into a prison, and then once inside— He thought of Dugan, of Dernier, Morita and Gabe, and smiled grimly.

"But you're wrong about us not having a team," Steve told Natasha. "Our team's inside the prison. And we're going to get them the hell out."

Natasha sat back in her chair and looked at him. Then she said, almost admiringly, "You know, for the first time, I really understand why so many people want to punch you in the face."

"It's a well-documented phenomenon," Steve agreed, shrugging. "They should do a study."

"I'll save them the money—it's because you're crazy." Natasha leaned in. "That place was built to withstand gods, monsters, inhumans, mutants: what the hell makes you think—"

"We can do it," Steve said with flat certainty. "Rats find holes; I learned that in Brooklyn—"

They were interrupted by the arrival of a strong-looking girl in a uniform. "Captain Rogers," she said, a bit breathlessly in her musically-accented English. "Please come quickly."

"It's Bucky," Steve said, bolting up.

T'Challa was presiding over a scene of controlled chaos: armed guards stood over smashed machines and overturned furniture. Bucky was hunkered defensively in a corner, one arm flung out and the other—Steve's stomach clenched tight at the sight of it—neatly capped at the shoulder. He was muttering, "No, no...don't. Please. Stop."

"Go carefully," T'Challa was telling the guards. "He's not master of himself," and then, turning to Steve as he came in, "Captain, perhaps you will be able to—"

But before Steve could do anything, Natasha surprised him by saying, "Let me," and then she was going to Bucky, her hands open and empty. She said something in Russian, and the effect on Bucky was immediate—he collapsed back against the wall, gasping like a drowning man thrown upon the shore. Natasha nodded rapidly as she dropped to her knees and scraped his sweaty hair away from his forehead; Bucky closed his eyes gratefully and let her hands roam over his face.

"You know the code words," Steve said, betrayed.

"No. I don't. That wouldn't have worked if he'd really been activated—"

T'Challa frowned at this. "So he was not activated."

"Your Highness," Natasha said, "if the Winter Soldier had been activated, you would know it. "

Bucky's voice, thin and reedy, came from the corner, and they all turned to look at him. "Somebody said... something. all this junk in my head. Landmines." He shoved the heel of his remaining hand hard against his forehead. "Booby-traps and jumbled code. All sorts of crossed wires; my programming's seventy years old now. Corrupt."

Steve swallowed his sorrow; anger was harder. "What did you say to him?" he asked Natasha.

"It was—" Natasha sighed. "In the Red Room, our handlers were big on ritualized responses. At the end of a mission, we were always told..." She hesitated, and then said, awkwardly, translating, "All is well. Your mission is complete. You deserve—" Bucky lifted his head.

"Earned," he corrected. "You have earned this. Rest," and then Bucky relaxed and closed his eyes again, exhaling in what seemed almost to be ecstasy. "God. I couldn't wait to hear that."

"Me too." Natasha sounded oddly young, and Steve fought down the urge to punch something; he wanted to go back in time and kill them, all of them: Zola, Karpov, everyone who'd used Bucky, anyone who'd ever dared lay a hand on Natasha. Instead he went to Bucky and carefully helped him to stand. Bucky swayed a little, unbalanced by the loss of his arm, which was terrible but also terribly familiar: he now looked like the countless other war veterans Steve had met since his return.

"M'fucking useless," Bucky muttered. "They should have shelved me years ago," and Steve looked at him, horrified: Bucky wasn't a goddamned piece of equipment, he was—

"We have taken scans," T'Challa said, "and I have my best people working on the problem," and Steve wasn't following until T'Challa added, "Agent Romanov supplied us with the blueprints of the original arm. It was a marvel of engineering, truly, but," and T'Challa's grin was almost smug, "I believe we can do better," and Steve could have kissed him; really, he could've.

But Bucky didn't smile. "It's not my arm I'm worried about, sir," he said. "It's my head," and T'Challa sobered and replied, respectful and serious: "Yes. We will consider that problem, too."

T'Challa let them bring Bucky back to the guesthouse "on my own personal responsibility," Steve told the king. T'Challa seemed amused by Bucky's reaction when they brought him out of the medical pavilion and into the lush gardens beyond.

"Geez, where is this—paradise?" Bucky asked, looking around.

"You're close," T'Challa replied, still smiling.

Bucky shook his head slowly. "I was all over Africa during the 1960s. Uprisings and revolutions: Hydra was on both sides of every decolonization. I've never seen anywhere like this."

"Wakanda was not colonized," T'Challa said. "Nor have we ever been enslaved."

"Wish I could say the same," Bucky said with a quick, thin smile, but T'Challa put a hand on his shoulder and said, in a serious voice: "I mean to do what I can to make things right for you. In my country, we take the abridgment of human will very seriously. It is the most terrible of crimes. We believe in accountability, but without freedom, there can be no accountability; this is a fact."

"I believe in accountability, too," Bucky replied thickly. "And I swear to you, I'm going to do everything I can to make up for what I did—"

"I believe you," T'Challa said. "And I'm sure you will have many chances if you stay in the company of Captain Rogers." T'Challa looked over at Steve and added, "No doubt you are already planning a mission to rescue your friends from the Raft." It wasn't a question.

It was Natasha who answered. "How could you know that? I've told him it's crazy..."

"I am quite familiar with Captain Rogers's style of crazy," T'challa replied wryly. "Shaw once said that a reasonable man adapts himself to the world, while an unreasonable one tries to adapt the world to himself. He therefore concluded that all progress depends upon the unreasonable man." He smiled at Steve. "Wakanda is a progressive country. You are welcome here, sir."

Bucky couldn't help but do a perimeter check of the guest house, and Steve could see that he found the semipermeable barriers that were the exterior walls deeply unsettling. Natasha showed him the controls—"Look, you can darken them and lock them; here,"—but Bucky made Steve go outside and throw a couple of his best punches at the electronic wall while he watched with narrow, intense eyes, and even then Bucky only relented because there was else nothing for it.

"It's just code," Bucky said unhappily, "and if someone's got the key to it, that's the end of it..."

"C'mon, pal," Steve said gently, and took him to wash up. The doctors had removed the smashed up remains of the metal arm, preparing the bone to accept a new prosthesis and carefully covering the stump with a waterproof cap. They'd cut off Bucky's jacket and shirt, and now, as Steve helped him out of the thin garments they'd given him post-op, Steve could see exactly where the doctors had swabbed to disinfect and prep him: there were swaths of clean skin around Bucky's shoulder and down his left side. "Get into the shower," Steve said, "I'll help you." He took his own shirt off and leaned into the stall, methodically helping Bucky wash his back, his legs, the long strands of his hair before roughly toweling him off and helping him out.

Bucky stood there, naked and still idly dragging a towel across his chest. "Should I shave?"

"It's up to you," Steve said. "I'll help if you want, but don't shave on account of..." Bucky's beard was soft, with only a few, sharp bristles. He was excited by the way they dragged across his lips; he'd always loved the scrape of Bucky's beard, the contrasting softness of his mouth. The kiss had been unthinking, but having started, he couldn't stop; he wanted to feel Bucky's mouth from every angle. Bucky's hand skimmed his waist, slid into his pants. It settled possessively over the small of his back. Steve shivered and went hard, reached out to rest his hands on Bucky's naked hips, slid his thumbs down the curve of bone. He tugged him forward; he wanted to feel Bucky's cock on his skin, to drag that velvet head against his belly. But when he reached for him, he was soft.

Bucky looked sad and a little apologetic as he pulled Steve's hand away. "Pal," he scraped out, "I know you want things to be like they were, but..."

"No. Yes," Steve gritted out, and then he jerked out of Bucky's grasp. "I don't care what things are like. You're back, that's what matters," and he was glad he'd kept his pants on, because he would have been embarrassed by his hard-on otherwise. Even so, he felt sixteen again: awkward and desperate to keep Bucky around him, because Bucky was so much older (sixteen months!) and more sophisticated and just as tall and handsome as good goddamn. And he still was.

Bucky's expression softened into fondness. "Just, I don't know the steps to this dance anymore."

"Your body knows," Steve said. "Your body knew who I was before your—"

"Cracked mind?" Bucky supplied, smiling thinly.

"I wasn't going to say it like that, but yeah." Steve ran his hand up Bucky's side, then idly rubbed his thumb over a flat, brown nipple. Nothing happened. "You knew me before you remembered me. Because your body has its own memory, Buck," and Bucky was tightlipped and shaking his head unhappily, his body soft and uninterested, but he didn't pull away. Steve kissed him again and murmured against his mouth: "Just give it a minute, will you? C'mere, let me..."

It took more than a minute, but Steve was happy to take his time: he'd been dreaming of this for years. He kissed Bucky for a long time, then then pulled him down onto the bed and kissed him some more. He dragged his lips across Bucky's soft beard, over his freckled shoulder, down his breastbone. His bones were closer to the skin these days; his whole body was rougher, harder, hammered down like metal. Steve ran his fingertips down Bucky's ribs to the harsh angle of his hip, arrowing to his cock. He was still only half-hard, but Steve put his mouth on him until he moaned, his fingers threading into Steve's hair, pulling him in, guiding him closer.

Steve gripped Bucky's thigh with his hand and coaxed him to thrust—to fuck his mouth, because for all that he had a guilty face, Bucky was a gentleman. Steve—God, when he was younger—had tried his damnedest to lead Bucky into temptation. He'd sat in Bucky's lap and teased his cock against Bucky's stomach as they kissed; he'd encouraged Bucky to rub himself between Steve's thighs and against his balls, until one day Bucky couldn't take it anymore and shoved Steve down onto his back and actually worked his way into him, moaning with the effort of going slow while being half out of his mind with wanting it, with wanting to finally do it.

Bucky let out a familiar, strangled sound that meant he was close, and Steve moved his eyes to Bucky's face and saw that he was watching Steve suck his cock with a kind of gasping adoration. "I—God, Steve—" and then he groaned and came unexpectedly. Steve laughed, pulled off quick and spit, wiping the salt off his lips and grinning. He kept his hand going, found Bucky's gaze again and looked straight at him, relishing Bucky's pleasure, the way his muscles flexed and his back arched into it. "Christ, I love you," Bucky slurred, "come here," and so Steve crawled up his body and sprawled across him, enjoying being clumsy and naked with him. Bucky slid his arm around Steve's shoulders and Steve lazily nudged his erection against Bucky's smooth skin.

He drifted for a while, rocking his hips and letting the pleasure build. Then Bucky licked the shell of his ear and whispered, come on, do it; come all over me, and Steve mmmed happily and drew his face across Bucky's beard, ground his hips, rubbed himself against him until he came.

Afterwards he lay against Bucky's metal shoulder with his heart hammering pleasantly, taking slow, deep, post-orgasmic breaths. Bucky abruptly clutched him with his remaining hand and said, "It's over, right? This nightmare—Please. Tell me it's over."

"It's over," Steve said, and dug his fingers into Bucky's skin.

"Don't let them get me," Bucky muttered. "Please. You can't let them get to me—"

"They won't. I won't let them. I swear to God," Steve said.

The Way Down

"That's the Raft," Bucky said, frowning at Natasha's rotating 3-D blueprint.

Natasha shot a look at him. "You know it?"

"Sure." Bucky smiled thinly. "I've been on it."

"As a prisoner?" Steve asked.

"No," Bucky said, and looked away.

Natasha pressed on, though. "So there was a protocol?" she asked, and Bucky nodded.

Steve frowned, looking between them. "A protocol for what?"

"For murder," Natasha replied, as easily as she might have said, "For lunch." He stared at her and she went on: "Killing prisoners—and probably the occasional guard, come to think." She looked back at Bucky and asked, with interest: "How did they explain the deaths?"

"They didn't," Bucky replied flatly. "That's the whole point: to create an inexplicable event. Otherwise you wouldn't need the protocol—you can just stage an ‘accident.' There have been six unexplained deaths in the Raft since it opened," Bucky said, and then he looked at Steve and said, in a low, angry voice: "Do you see now? This is the world I've been living in."

"This was the world you were living in," Steve corrected. "It's over now. I'm ending it."

Natasha turned to Bucky and said, with only a hint of a shrug, "He's serious, you know. He's already taken down SHIELD and Hydra both, so you know he means it."

"You don't have to tell me he means it," Bucky shot back. "I've been living with this since ‘26."

It was nice that they were bonding, even if it was at his expense. "If there was a protocol," Steve interjected, "what are the odds that it's still active?"

Bucky considered this. "Not bad," he said finally. "Since I escaped, I've raided a number of Hydra strongholds—for money, passports. Not weapons," he added. "I left the weapons."

Natasha looked at Steve. "We might want those weapons."

Bucky narrowed his eyes at her. "The point," he said, "is that—"

"You could get in." Natasha shot him a bored look. "They hadn't changed the code words."

Bucky sat back, looking irritated but vaguely satisfied at the same time. "No one left to change ‘em," he told her. "The big fish—if they haven't been arrested, they'll be covering their tracks: going underground or disclaiming responsibility." His face grew hard. "But the guys who take orders instead of giving them—They'll be there. Power shifts at the top, but life doesn't change."

"They'll know that The Winter Soldier is a wanted man," Natasha pointed out.

"So what else is new?" Bucky replied. "Not that it matters: I'm not the one going on this mission. I'm..." His mouth twitched, and Steve, who knew the way his mind worked, opened his mouth to try to stop him from saying it, then sighed, knowing he couldn't. "Unarmed."

Steve pinched the bridge of his nose. "So tell me how it works."

"How To Be A Ghost," Bucky said bitterly. "Oh, it's easy-peasy, pal," and Steve knew that the revulsion in Bucky's voice was self-revulsion. "The first three words get you in: give them along with your flight plan and they'll direct you to a private helipad. The place'll be deserted except for one guy. Give him the confirmation codes and tell him who you're there to kill: he'll lock down the block and clear the way for you. No cameras, no witnesses, but you'll have to move fast; it's only a four minute window, though they'll broadcast ‘live' footage of the dead guy for the next few—" and he'd been doing fine, but suddenly Bucky was staring down, until he shook himself and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

"Are you okay?" Steve asked.

Bucky gritted his teeth and jerked a nod. "Yeah."

"These words," Steve began, trying to be careful about this. "Are they like your code words? Do they trigger—some kind of programming, or brainwashing, in your contact, or—?"

"Nah," and Bucky's smile, while faint, was genuine. "They just tell you he's an asshole."

"No witnesses, you said," Natasha piped up, "but there's at least one, right? If the contact sees Steve's face—odds are he recognizes him as Captain America, shield or no shield."

"Yeah and so what?" Bucky shot back. "These guys don't ask questions: they don't know who they're working for, let alone what side anyone else is on. My last handler was the Secretary of Defense. SHIELD built Project Insight. The Raft is administered by the CIA," and Steve stilled, revolted by the betrayal of it. "Captain America turns up with assassination codes: you think they're going to ask a lot of questions? Or just assume he's there to do what soldiers do?"

Assassination codes. Steve felt his mouth turning down, but distantly. He wasn't in control; it was like his whole body was rebelling, viscerally, at the thought. But there was nothing for it.

"So it's decided, then; that's the plan," Steve said.

"I'm coming, too," Natasha said.

Steve looked the question at Bucky: "Would that raise any flags?"

Bucky thought about it, then shook his head. "No," he said slowly, "but I'd keep her in reserve, as backup. If everything goes the way it should, you won't need it. But if you do," he turned grim. "Better they don't know that you have it."

"Right. Okay. Let's bring this to T'Challa," Steve said, and put his hands on the table. "He deserves to know everything we're planning, and we need to know what help, if any, he's willing to give us. I'd understand if he wants no part of—" He stopped, caught by a flicker in Bucky's expression. He could see there was something wrong. "Did we miss something?"

"No. It's a good plan," Bucky said. "But I want to be there when you ask."

T'Challa laced his fingers against the table and listened carefully to Steve's requests—for transport to a place where they could obtain a helicopter; for medical treatment for his friends, if necessary; for asylum until they could establish safe lives undercover—before sitting back and saying, "I have not made myself clear. I will provide the helicopter—" and he raised his hand to forestall Steve's objection, "as well as all necessary tools and weapons for this operation."

"But it's illegal." Steve was unsure whether the king had entirely grasped that critical point, though Bucky's eyeroll suggested that yes, he had, and Steve was just being dumb about it.

"Yes," T'Challa agreed, leaning over the table. "I do appreciate that. But I am also aware that, if this law were being strictly and fairly applied, my own actions should have placed me in a cell in the same prison as your friends." He showed open hands. "I, as much as anyone, am guilty of existing in defiance of the Sokovia accords, and I am afraid I am likely to do so in future. The sovereignty of the Black Panther will not be compromised. So I am happy both to equip you and also to offer you and your friends a base of operations in defiance of this law."

"Well," Steve said finally. "That would be great."

And then Bucky said, quietly, "While you're being so generous, your Highness, I have a request," and Steve shot a look at him, unprepared for whatever this was. "Two actually."

T'Challa had taken an especially gentle tone with Bucky since Siberia. "Tell me," he said.

"This whole plan depends on some code words I know," Bucky said. "But you need to find some way to restrain me before I'll risk giving them to—"

"You said they weren't triggers for brainwashing," Steve accused.

"Not for them. Not for you. But I don't know what they'll do to me. It's only a few words but—" Bucky tensed. "If I'm restrained you can use a tranquilizer gun or Natasha's gun or just let me scream it out. No chance of—" Bucky set his jaw and turned away from Steve. "That's the other thing," he told T'challa. "I want to be put back into cryofreeze," and Steve jerked like he'd been punched—hard, like in the old days, when his whole face had crackled and he had seen stars.

He felt the old anger rising, too, the white rage: what had all this been for, if Bucky was just going to go from one icy coffin to another? He wanted Bucky to be safe, and he'd failed, and—

He didn't know if he'd said this aloud, or maybe he'd said none of it and Bucky knew his face as well as he knew Bucky's, but Bucky said quietly, "Steve, I'm not safe," and Steve was about to protest the tact—any wisdom aside—of saying this in front of T'Challa, who'd just offered them his personal protection, when Bucky went on. "I can't control what I do," and Steve realized with a start that it wasn't his own safety Bucky was concerned about. "I won't be hijacked again," he told Steve. "I won't let them use me to hurt people," and then, misreading Steve's expression, "I know you can take me down, but you won't be here, and I can't risk—" and Steve dropped his eyes to his hands and bit his lip, trying to control his face: he'd been so entirely focused on protecting Bucky, but Bucky wanted Steve to protect other people from him.

Steve had been prepared to assure Bucky that he was safe, among friends, but he didn't know how address this. "We could..." Have you watched. Have you contained. That was worse.

T'Challa waited to see if Steve would protest; when he didn't, said, quietly: "I will arrange it."

"Thank you," Bucky replied, and then he forced a quick, reassuring smile at Steve—he was trying to reassure Steve. "It's all right," Bucky told him. "I don't mind it; I prefer it to...the alternatives," and then he looked at T'Challa and said, "Wake me up when he's back. Or when you've solved it," and then he frowned. "And if for some reason he doesn't come back..."

"I won't wake you," T'Challa said.

"Right," Bucky said. "Just bury the whole goddamned thing in the ground."

Natasha's hand curled, tight, around his arm after T'Challa left. "You should go hit something."

"I'm fine," Steve said, but she was still looking worriedly between him and Bucky as if Bucky couldn't take anything he dished out. "You could have said," Steve accused. "You could have told me that was what you wanted instead of ambushing me in front of—"

"It's not about you," Bucky said, "which I know you find constitutionally impossible to believe but— This is about me. This is about what happens to me when you're not around," and before Steve could protest: "Look, I tried to stay down but they wouldn't let me; I ran away but they wouldn't let me stop running. They hunted me and they found me, and then they saddled me and rode me and—I refuse, Steve. I refuse my consent." He took a breath and then said, soft and despondent, "I'll be yours but I won't be anyone else's," and that blow almost knocked him down. "I'm going to go stretch my legs while I can." Bucky turned and walked down into the gardens a little unevenly. Steve wanted to chase him but Natasha's hand was still on his arm.

"Let him go," Natasha said. "He'll come back."

Steve clenched his jaw. "Yeah."

"Steve, there's something I want to tell you," Natasha said. "Just to tell you. While we're alone," and Steve looked at her serious, upturned face and knew what she was going to say.

"You knew him before," Steve said. "Not just in Odessa, but somewhere else—Moscow, Kiev, the Red Room."

Her face betrayed no surprise, but she nodded. "He doesn't remember me," she said.

"He was never good with names." He studied her and then asked, "Were you in love with him?" adding, with a hollow laugh, "I wouldn't judge," but Natasha's mouth twisted with a kind of mocking amusement at the word. Steve supposed that in the world she and Bucky inhabited, love was—decadent or something. What was it that she told Loki? Love is for children.

Natasha's forehead crinkled as she explained. "I liked him. I tried to seduce him once, but that was more like a final exam. He nearly got me eliminated, actually, though I think in the end they were impressed that I tried. But he was ungettable." She stared at him with huge, unreadable eyes. "Like you," and suddenly Steve really did want to hit something; all at once he was absolutely, violently at his limit. "I couldn't understand why I liked him," Natasha went on. "I never liked anyone, but he wasn't like anyone else. But then later I thought..." and she tilted her head, "that maybe I was seeing you in him. Seeing you through him," but that was wrong, that was backwards; he was the troublemaker and anything good in him was Bucky's doing—

He couldn't explain. There was no explaining anything.

"I've got nothing to give you," Steve choked out; it was all he could say. Natasha thought he was withering on the vine, but the opposite was true. He was already empty, picked clean. He'd lost Peggy and his country and his reputation and his shield. If there was anything left of him, Bucky had it, was carrying it in his heart and his cracked memory: all he had left of himself.

Natasha smiled at him wryly. "Yeah, you know, I figured that," she said. "You could just have said you were married, Rogers," and when Steve's mouth fell open, she added, "The funny thing is, now that I see you together, I wonder if all this time I've been seeing him in you," and he realized that he needn't have worried about explaining: Natasha got there in the end.

It took a while to compose himself before he could even think of composing his thoughts on paper: but then Steve went into the bedroom, sat at the desk, and began a letter to Tony.

It was hard to know what to say, and how to say it with sympathy. Tony had always struck him as shockingly, outrageously young: so unused to loss, so easy to hurt. You killed my mom, Tony had screamed at Bucky, whose mother had died on the bed along with the baby a year after Steve's own mother went into the sanatorium. Tuberculosis killed my mom, Steve thought angrily, and there's no use screaming about it—but that was unkind, Bucky wouldn't have said that. Bucky had been strong for Steve and he'd been strong for his sisters—but Steve had found him grieving for his mother in the basement of his building late one night; one of the few places Bucky could ever be alone. He'd been sobbing in the dark like an animal. Steve rubbed wearily at his eyes; you only ever had one mother, he supposed.

The Avengers had been Tony's team—the dream of someone trying to build a family around himself. Tony had earmarked rooms for each of them in Stark Tower, like children's stockings lined up in a row: a fantasy of togetherness. Tony had tried so hard to keep everyone close. He'd wanted them to need him, even to love him: he'd given them presents, luxuries, treats—and practically to a soldier they'd come to Steve, who offered them nothing but the likelihood of failure in a good cause: death on an airport runway, a cell block on the Raft.

I know you were only doing what you believe in, he wrote.

Locks can be replaced, but maybe they shouldn't be, he wrote.

If you need us—but he couldn't promise that. If you need me, I'll be there, Steve wrote, and he'd send Tony a way to get in touch: a rendezvous point or a phone number—

He looked up. Bucky was standing there, he didn't know for how long. "I'm sorry," Bucky said.

Steve put his pen down. "No, I am."

"I don't want you to think I'm not grateful. I am," Bucky said, and then: "I've been in hell."

"I know," Steve managed.

"Watching my life from behind glass. Seeing myself do things that nobody should do." Bucky's eyes were faraway, terrifying. "Once I was in Moscow—dizzy, coming out of it; handlers on the way. This little boy looked up at me and just started screaming. Because I had..." Steve got up, out of his chair; Bucky's face had that greenish cast again, forehead beaded with sweat. He looked pleadingly at Steve. "What was I supposed to say to him?" Bucky asked. "It wasn't me? It was me. I wasn't there? I was there. How do you tell a kid you didn't do what he just saw you do with his own eyes? What you really just did do right in front of him?"

"You can't tell him," Steve agreed. "You can't explain. You let him hate you, and you bear it, but that doesn't mean you were actually guilty or wrong. It wasn't you. You weren't there," and at the look of desperate gratitude on Bucky's face, Steve drew him in and hugged him, drunk on the proximity of him, his strong solid warmth. Bucky wrapped his arm around Steve's waist and held his face to Steve's. Steve closed his eyes and felt all right for the first time in ages.

There was a little cough, and before the war, they might have jerked out of each other's arms. Now they just looked over at Natasha, who was watching them with curious eyes but a neutral expression. "They're ready for us," she said, and Steve forced away his frustration at the interruption. Every minute he spent here was another minute their friends spent in the Raft.

The guards restrained Bucky against a flexible platform with a series of vibranium shackles that ran down his right arm and along both legs. It looked like something out of a medieval dungeon, and Steve instinctively recoiled from it, and from Bucky's calm submission as they pulled the restraints over him and bolted them down, which made everything somehow worse.

"Steve, it's all right," Bucky said. "It's good," and Steve clenched his jaw and looked away so that Bucky would maybe stop goddamn reassuring him already. Finally they finished checking and double-checking all the locks and stepped back warily. "He is secure," they told T'Challa.

T'Challa looked at Bucky, who shrugged minutely and then made a quick test of the vibranium bonds, which didn't budge. He was still outwardly calm, but Steve saw tension building in him now that they were actually getting down to it: about to mess with his cracked mind.

"All right," Bucky said finally. "Let's hope this is a lot of hoo-haw for nothing." He took a breath and licked his lips. "The Raft's CIA, so all the code words are in English. When you radio in, follow up your flight plan and coordinates with d—d---" He stuttered, and every nerve in Steve's body went on high alert. Bucky took a breath and then tried again.

"Deepwater," he said, calmly over-enunciating. "Expansion. C-careless." Bucky stopped and closed his eyes tight, his fingers twitching and jittering helplessly, like he was being electroshocked. Tears were leaking out of the corner of his eyes. "Then," Bucky gritted out, "when you land, give them the words—" Bucky grunted and thrashed violently against the restraints, his hand a fist, and it was like Steve could actually see the program loading into his brain: kill them; no, don't; kill them; don't. Bucky made a strangled sound, then spat the code out as quickly as possible, like ripping off a band-aid: "Junkyard. Binge. Dispatch."

His eyes rolled up, he was choking and shaking. Steve hadn't realized he was moving forward until Natasha's fingers dug into his arm and stopped him. "He's all right," she said. "You can't help him," and Steve turned to her and said, with anguish, "Did they do this to you, too?"

"No," Natasha replied in a calm, even voice. "Not this," and he didn't think she would say more, but she went on, unblinking, "They never had to break me, because they made me. I had no parents. I was raised in the barracks. The KGB trained me to dance and to kill and to fuck, and I got good at those things because I wanted to please my handlers and serve my country. I didn't know there was anything else," and she must have seen the look on his face, because she added, softly: "What happened, happened, Steve. There's no use crying over spilt milk."

The world blurred around the edges. Bucky's breathing was beginning to become less ragged.

"Right. You're absolutely right," Steve said and went to help unbolt Bucky from the table.

T'Challa gave him a black helicopter that couldn't be traced to any particular nation or locality. T'Challa gave him a small tool that could cut through vibranium and just about anything else.

T'Challa gave him an appraising look. "What do you want to use for deadly force?"

Steve considered this. "Natasha," he said. "But I'm hoping it won't come to that."

T'Challa nodded. "We are readying a cryogenic chamber for your friend. He will be safe here while you are gone, so you can focus on your mission without distraction."

It was suddenly hard to speak. "He's the most precious thing I have."

"Yes, I know," T'Challa said. "You left your shield."

Steve frowned at this. "Shield's a piece of metal," he said. "I left my brother. I left my country."

"You are still Captain America," T'Challa said—but that wasn't true.

"No," Steve said. "I'm not." It was a strange thing to say; an even stranger thing to feel. Join. Serve. Defend —but if this was America now, he didn't want any part of it. Even the helicarriers hadn't shaken his faith like this. Hydra had been a parasite within America, but this—this was America. "I'm—homeless now. A nomad," Steve said, and laughed; he could hear Peggy in his head saying, always so dramatic. But it was also true; dramatic or not, it was how he felt.

T'Challa looked grimly sympathetic. "It is a terrible thing to be stateless. I hope you will consider making a home here. You will have my support: moral, practical, and tactical."

"If Bucky's safe here, we'll stay here," Steve said simply. "I'm very grateful, your Highness."

He found Bucky out in the palace gardens, wearing a set of simple white garments and standing very still. A herd of zebra was placidly grazing among the plants.

"You ever see such a thing?" Bucky said.

Steve shook his head. "No." He and Buck had gone to the menagerie in Prospect Park, but seeing animals in cages wasn't anything like seeing them just...wandering around freely like they owned the place, which Steve supposed they did. Just then there was a rustling in the foliage and two large monkeys—baboons?—broke through the plants and ambled out to stare at them.

"Holy cow," Bucky said softly, batting Steve's arm. "Look at that, look."

"I'm looking," Steve replied, and then, his smile growing, "They're just like us."

"Like you, maybe," Bucky replied. The baboons spared them a final glance, then turned and walked away on their knuckles. After a while the zebras moved off, too—and they were actually just like horses, now that Steve saw them close up: just like amazingly patterned horses.

"Have you seen the birds?" Bucky asked him.

"No," Steve replied, instinctively looking around.

"The birds are ridiculous," Bucky told him. "Keep your eye out for the birds." He looked appraisingly at Steve then and said, "Are you all set? Mission...all planned out?"

"Yeah, I think so," Steve said. "We're not going until after—until you—"

‘Yeah," Bucky said, adding, "It's for the best," just as Steve blurted out, "Are you sure—?"

They made faces at each other; Steve felt like his heart was breaking. "Yeah, I'm sure," Bucky said. "You know I'd go with you if I could." He shot a disdainful glance at his left shoulder. "I just don't want to be afraid while you're gone. For myself or for anyone else," and then he huffed out a quick laugh. "Do you remember when you thought dying was the worst thing that could happen?" and Steve found himself laughing, too, because yeah, they had been so naïve.

"The good old days," Steve said, shaking his head.

"Yeah," Bucky agreed, and then he licked his lips and said, hesitantly, "Look, it's a longshot, but just in case...The book Zemo used on me in Berlin. Red cover, black star. Russian. Handwritten. I don't know who's got it now, but...well, it's the sort of thing that tends to end up in The Raft."

Steve felt a sudden glimmer of hope. "If we recovered it, could we use it to—"

"—turn me into a helpless killing machine? Yeah," Bucky shot back. "To help me? I doubt it, but all the same it would be nice to know where it—" He forced himself to unclench. "Sorry, Steve."

"Don't be sorry. I'll keep my eyes open for it," and Steve couldn't stop the fantasy from unspooling in his head: of handing Bucky the book, and a can of lighter fluid, and a match.

The cryostasis machine was a clear tube in a sterile chamber in a modern steel and glass building surrounded by a gratifying number of force fields. But Steve was uncomfortably reminded of the silo in Siberia, the Soviet warehouse in Poland, the bank vault in D.C. Medical or therapeutic trappings aside, they were doing the same thing to Bucky that Hydra had done: putting him into storage like he was a thing, not a person. They should have shelved me years ago—and it was this, more than anything, that made Steve cry out, "Wait," even though he'd sworn to himself he wouldn't say anything. They waited, Bucky turning to look at him expectantly.

He wanted to ask, again, if Bucky was sure, but held the words back. Instead he went over and muttered, "Look, Sleeping Beauty you ain't," before pressing a kiss to Bucky's bearded cheek, and then, awkward and quick, to his mouth.

Bucky made a face at him when he pulled away. "You're sweet, you know. You always were sweet."

Steve's throat felt tight. "I'm going to come right back, okay? And when I do, we're going to get you fixed up and we're gonna figure out—" He broke off; it was all suddenly too much. "We're gonna figure out the rest of our lives, Buck," he said. "We're going to figure out how to live in this goddamned world," and it took him a second to recognize the look on Bucky's face as hope.

"Okay." He was settling back and closing his eyes. "Okay, Steve."

The tube closed around him, then flooded with some kind of chemical mixture, which enveloped him in a thick white fog. When it cleared, Bucky lay there, still and unbreathing. Steve had seen Bucky awake and asleep, but this wasn't like sleep. He looked like a corpse in a coffin; dead.

"Bucky?" Steve was horrorstruck by the unnaturalness of it. "Oh my God..."

"He's all right." T'Challa looked at the doctors, who nodded briskly to confirm this.

Natasha was frowning at him. "Steve, he's fine. We'll wake him up after we—"

But Steve shook his head—lies, excuses—and touched his hand to the glass. After Bucky fell from the train, Steve had dreamed of searching the Alps for him; he would have done anything to recover a body. Now here was Bucky's body, entombed, but undead. Do you remember when you thought dying was the worst thing that could happen? he heard Bucky ask.

"We must have done something terrible," Steve whispered to him, "for God to hate us like this," and then he pressed his forehead to the glass and wept until they finally left him the hell alone.

The Way In

He got his first look at the Raft as it surfaced like a black and malevolent sea creature, water streaming off its sides. There were at least six heliports—bright circles against the dark rubber like octopus suckers. He swiftly glanced at Natasha, who jerked a nod. Then he took a breath and switched on the radio. "Raft approach, helicopter FVD12, twenty west at 1500," and before they could reply, he added, "Deepwater, expansion, careless," and waited.

There was silence for a long moment. He looked at Natasha, who looked stonily back.

"Helicopter FVD12, roger, cleared to land helipad five," and then: "What's your call sign?"

That wasn't a question he was prepared for. During the war, he knew RAF pilots who had call signs: "Cocky" Dundas, for instance, and "Drunken Duncan" Smith. He looked at Natasha—Black Widow, he reminded himself—and saw her mouth the words, Winter Soldier.

But he shook his head. "This is Nomad," he said.

The gated landing pad was surrounded by blank screens and dead cameras, and, as Bucky had promised, the place was completely deserted except for a single guard standing there in stealth gear and a helmet. He looked stonily at Steve, one hand resting on the long and powerful rifle strapped across his chest; he had at least four other weapons on him.

Steve stared back at him; he was himself was dressed in dark clothes and he had, at Natasha's insistence, armed himself with an ostentatiously powerful gun and a silencer; it was the sort of weapon Bucky might have carried. "It's what they'll expect," Natasha said, shrugging, and now, as the guard's eyes dropped to the gun before returning back to his face, Steve saw she was right.

Steve showed him his coldest smile; the one that said, you weren't stupid enough to buy all that propaganda about Captain America, were you? and said, "Junkyard. Binge. Dispatch."

The guard's lip curled with satisfaction. "Sir," he said, and Steve felt sick; this guy had no innocence to lose. "You've got four minutes," he said. "Who's the target?"

For a moment Steve couldn't process the question. "Maximoff," he said, and drew his gun.

The guard nodded as if that were nothing more or less than he had expected. "R3. Level 8."

The curved corridor was quiet as he raced down it; all power seemed to be off except for the emergency lights lining the walls, directing his way. The floor was springy beneath his feet, made of some synthetic material, rubbery and giving. He didn't meet another soul as he went through the various airlocks; didn't see anyone until he went through the door marked R3, L8.

And then suddenly it went wrong; screens flashed on all around him showing the interiors of the cells, and a klaxon started—but it was faraway; somewhere else. Natasha—and now there were guards moving toward him in the darkness, their guns raised. Steve smashed one of their heads against the wall, then grabbed the gun out of the other one's hands and clocked him with the grip. He went down, too, and Steve stepped over their bodies, glancing up at the flickering screens—Clint lying motionless on his bunk, Sam pacing his cage like a trapped animal.

Steve had to shove the final airlock open manually; inside there was white light, harsh and clinical, and dark shadows moving behind the thick horizontal bars. Cells 801, 802, 803...The brightly lit cells surrounded a dark core, and Steve crept forward into the room. A blue-clad figure stopped pacing and turned to peer into the darkness. Steve stepped into the light.

Sam Wilson grinned slowly. "Well, well," he said. "It's about time you showed up."

"There's no time at all," Steve replied, quickly flipping the enormous handle beside his cell; there was a buzzing and then the bars swiveled, unlocked, and came apart, pulling the glass wall apart, too. "They're gonna be on us in a second: we're gonna to have to fight our way out." Steve moved to the next cell and there was Wanda was sitting against the back wall, hair hanging down into her face. He yanked the lever and her cell opened. But she didn't even look up.

"Wanda," and hearing his voice, she raised her head: they'd put a restraining collar on her.

"Jesus," Steve muttered, and then he was going to her, gritting his teeth and cracking the collar with his bare hands before yanking it off her. Her eyes were huge and disbelieving. He gripped her shoulders and said, earnestly, "We need you, Wanda. Stop these guys—mix up their minds."

She shook off despair, readied herself for combat. "Sir," she said, and took a battle stance.

"Good soldier," Steve said, and meant it.

They fought their way back to the heliport together; Wanda casting hexes and sowing general confusion, while—to Steve's surprise—Sam took an uncharacteristically aggressive position at the front punching the magic-dazed guards and knocking their bodies aside. Behind them, Barton grimly herded Scott Lang along, and Steve brought up the rear, defending their flank.

The klaxons grew louder as they approached the helipad, though this obviously wasn't the source of the alarm either; helipad five was still deserted. They ran for the chopper, flung the cargo bay door open, and piled in. Barton lurched for the cockpit and started the rotors going, yanking headphones down over his ears, except— "Wait! Natasha!" Steve yelled, looking around wildly, and Barton immediately jerked around, face strained. The helicopter was two feet off the ground.

"Natasha?" Barton shouted. "Is Natasha here?" and even as Steve yanked open the helicopter's secret compartments, he knew it was too much to hope. Those klaxons...

Steve went back to the chopper door, then turned to Barton and shouted, "Get this thing out of here! I'll find Natasha and—" He was interrupted by gunfire and turned to see Natasha burst into the heliport, racing towards them while shooting over her shoulder at unseen pursuers. "Go! Go! Now!" Steve shouted, and Clint obeyed, the helicopter circling rapidly upwards, even as Steve slithered out onto the landing skids and reached down to grab Natasha as she leapt up.

Her hands grasped his, her red hair blowing wildly in the draft from the rotors. He held on tight and hauled her up into his arms, even as behind his eyes, Bucky was falling; forever falling. He pushed that thought away; Natasha held on to him as he climbed into the rapidly rising chopper.

"What the hell?" Steve demanded, once they were inside, sliding the door shut against a hail of bullets. "You were supposed to stay in the—?" The words died as Natasha unzipped the top of her uniform and, grinning, yanked out a book. It had a red cover decorated with a black star.

Laura Barton and the three Barton children were waiting on the ground in Wakanda, and Steve got emotional watching Clint trying to hug all four of them at once, his muscled arms curving around their necks and shoulders. Clint stared gratefully over their heads at Natasha, who smiled back at him, almost smugly. Steve looked over at Scott Lang, who was watching this too.

"We'll find a way to get you to your daughter," Steve told him, but Scott just made a face.

"I've been in prison before, and for nothing as noble as this, Cap, believe me. Besides," Scott sighed, "I'm starting to think I should just stay away from her. She's better off without me."

"That's not true," Steve said, but Sam looked at Scott consideringly, and then shrugged.

"It could be true," Sam said, and Steve, shocked, was going to argue, but Scott grinned at Sam.

"I know, right? It's like that old Marx Brothers joke, where they're musicians. ‘How much do you get to play?'" Scott broke into Chico Marx's fake Italian accent. "We get-a ten dollars.' ‘Oh yeah? How much do you get not to play?'"

"Fifteen dollars," Steve replied; he knew that bit, though Scott seemed surprised that he did.

"Right," Scott said. "So everybody's looking to have a supportive, involved dad. But I ask you: ‘How much for me to be an uninvolved dad?' They can't afford it," and yeah, that was the old punchline all right, but Steve shook his head; he'd been fatherless; he knew.

"It's not the same," Steve said.

Sam looked at Steve and said, "So where's your other half?" and it was kindly meant; a tease—but it felt like an ambush.

Steve began, "He—" and then choked on it. "Back in cryo," he managed finally. "For now. While they—" He couldn't seem to finish a goddamned sentence. "It was what he wanted."

"Oh. Okay," Sam said slowly. "Well. That's important, listening to what he wants."

"Yeah, I — " Lies, excuses. "Yeah. Let me show you where our quarters are."

They trailed behind Steve through the gardens, necks craned to look at the pink and orange flowering trees. Wanda kept stopping to crush blossoms between her fingertips and smell them. She looked as happy as Steve had ever seen her. "It's so beautiful here. The flowers..."

"Forget the flowers!" There was hushed laughter in Sam's voice. "The birds," and Steve reacted—Bucky'd said something about birds, too—just as Sam took him by the arm, pointed, then went still. "Look at those birds," Sam said under his breath, and Steve followed his finger—and stifled a laugh, because—Bucky'd been right: these birds were ridiculous. One tiny plump bird was bright green, with red polka-dots and a purple comb on its head; it looked like it had been painted by a child. Another bird was orange with a green shimmering wings; a third was bright blue with a yellow breast; still others had multiple patches of color on them: Steve saw one with a black body, a sky blue breast, and a lime green head. Ridiculous birds, in Bucky's voice.

Sadness pressed down on him, and he turned to Sam and said, wearily, "I gotta—Sam, I'm tired, I need to—" and Sam nodded seriously and said, "Yeah, come on; we're all right behind you."

He left Sam and Scott and Wanda happily exploring the guest house with its enormous rooms and forcefield walls while he went to his own room to wash up and get some rest. Here it was dim and quiet, the forcefields thick and opaque and casting a grayish shadow over everything—and every shadow was Bucky: behind him in the mirror as he lifted his dripping face from the basin, staring at him from behind the shimmering canopy on the enormous bed. Steve rubbed his eyes, stripped down, and got under the covers. The bed was comfortable and markedly empty; Steve was certainly used to sleeping alone, but this bed—Bucky'd slept in this bed with him.

When he opened his eyes, it was dark, and for a moment Steve didn't know why he had woken up. Then he heard the soft ringing of—and he scrambled out of bed and scooped the burner phone off the desk where he'd written his letter. He flipped it open. "Tony?"

"Well, you've had a busy day or—wait, night? You sound sleepy—is it night where you are? Did I wake you?" and Christ, it was good to hear his voice despite everything.

Steve closed his eyes. "It's okay, Tony," he said. "I'm up. I'm—happy you called," except he suddenly had a vision of aliens, killer robots, or worse. "Unless—is there trouble?"

He could hear Tony's sigh all the way down the line. "Well, no," Tony said wearily, "not unless you count, you know, Captain America abandoning America and taking a good 73 percent of Earth's Mightiest Heroes with him—I'm counting Barnes, Romanov, and T'Challa, mind you."

Steve was gritting his teeth; how did Tony get under his skin so fast? "I didn't abandon—"

"I know, I know." Tony's voice was soft, even placating. "We—abandoned you, I guess. I get it. I took civics, you know. American Democracy I and II. Okay, fine there was a girl involved. Janice Kendall, history major. Blonde hair, enormous knockers..." He trailed off and then said, awkwardly: "I think we should meet. In person. Talk. Safety of the world shouldn't rest on a burner phone—and seriously, Steve, a flip? What is this, 1998?"

"I made it all the way to 1998?" Steve shot back, and then: "Where do you want to meet?"

"You call it," Tony said. "You're the one on the lam."

Suspicion flared. He was the one who'd reached out, but what if Tony was sitting there with Steve's phone—and Thaddeus Ross standing over his shoulder? "Tell me I can trust you."

"Fuck no, Rogers," Tony retorted, angry and hurt. "If you don't know... Then you don't know."

"All right: you're right. I'm sorry," Steve said, and then he told Tony exactly when and where they should meet.

"That is certainly no problem," T'Challa said, when Steve brought the plan to him. "In fact," he added, "we have significant influence with the relevant nations, though I would advise you to go in from the Zambian side. We will make contact with all relevant border authorities."

"Thank you, Your Highness," Steve said. "I don't know how I'm ever going to repay you."

"Well," T'Challa said, and grinned just a little mockingly, "I'm not done indebting you yet," and when Steve raised his eyebrows, the king went on: "We have a prototype arm. It is currently undergoing tests," and when Steve's mouth dropped open, T'Challa laughed, braced his forearms on the table, and leaned in. "Yes. Vibranium: one tenth the weight, six times the flexibility and sensitivity. We've also been considering your friend's brainwashing—"

"The red book," Steve interrupted. "Can it help?" but T'Challa's brows drew together. He shook his head, then put the damned book on the table and pushed it across to Steve.

"I have studied it myself," T'Challa said gravely, "so as not to take any risks whatsoever with your friend's autonomy. The activation codes are there, but if I understand the methods by which they were implanted, there is no simple way to deactivate them. Rather, it seems to be a matter of diminishing the force of those memories and helping him make new ones. There is no obvious way to do this," T'Challa went on, once Steve nodded to show he was following, "but we have several competing ideas, most of which involve flooding the brain with chemicals that target the various neutrotransmitters. Glutamate seems to be the front runner," T'Challa mused. "In deconditioning studies, rats that had been given electric shocks...." The king suddenly seemed to hear what he was saying, or perhaps he saw Steve's face. "Before we would implement any of these ideas," he added hastily, "we would of course get his complete and informed consent."

"What—" Steve cleared his throat. "What happened to the rats?"

"They..." T'Challa began, then decided to tell the story the other way around. "Certain drugs in combination with extinction training seem to weaken the power of traumatic memories."

Steve jerked a nod; he was all for that. "Is he— Can I see him?" he asked.

"Of course," T'Challa replied. "Any time you like."

That was a mistake; Steve knew it the moment he entered the sterile room and saw the tube, the tomb. He'd thought, somehow, that it would reassure him: that Bucky would look peaceful; safe here, waiting. But Bucky looked exhausted, gray and drawn: his arm amputated, the gashes and bruises on his face still visible. But Steve could still see the man he used to be: Bucky Barnes of the cheerful disposition, full of Irish sunshine, the complement to his own dark and stormy temper; Bucky tanned and laughing as he came out of the sea at Coney Island while Steve sat wrapped like a mummy in a bed sheet, hat jammed down over his head, prone to burning; Bucky taking his shirt off and stopping to play with the kids in the spray from the jonny pump in front of Steve's building on those summer days when heat baked the concrete and made everything shimmer. And now Bucky was here: gray-faced and shut up in a tube in a vault while outside there was sunshine and the most ridiculous birds anyone had ever seen. But not for long, Steve vowed, pressing his hand to the glass: he was going to get Bucky into the sunlight if it was the last thing he did. He was going to take Bucky Barnes to the seaside. Any sea would do.

It wasn't easy to slip out of Wakanda unnoticed, even with T'Challa's help, but Steve was determined not to risk the safety of any of the others. T'Challa gave him a set of Wakandan identity papers in the name of Roger Stevens, and a private plane took him to Livingstone, where he took a taxi to one of the big fancy resort hotels. The Zambezi Star had seven pools and three 24 hour bars surrounded by private bungalows, and so Steve checked in, put on a brightly patterned shirt and a pair of sunglasses, and slung a camera around his neck before heading down the path indicated by the sign: a handpainted arrow that cheerily promised: TO THE FALLS.

Steve seamlessly melted into a larger group of tourists, moving with them along the prescribed hike and listening to the growing roar until they suddenly crossed a narrow rope bridge and there it was, the first view of it coming out of the enormous white mist: Victoria Falls. Around him, people started snapping pictures. The better prepared tourists were pulling out plastic rain ponchos to protect them from the violent spray. He stopped, stared, slowly getting damp, then wet; there were rainbows everywhere in the mist.

This vantage point was clearly enough for many of the older tourists, but the hike continued: more rope bridges leading off to other overlooks atop the gorge. Steve crossed another narrow hanging bridge, moving through a cloud of spray almost like an ocean wave hitting a jetty, then stopped and took a few pictures before continuing onward. The crowd of tourists began to thin as the hike went on, fewer and fewer people continuing along the rocky path as it turned away from the falls and began to head steeply down into the gorge. Signs warned of feeding the baboons, and indeed, Steve saw a couple of the animals on the trail, staring at him balefully as if they wished he were maybe carrying a cheeseburger and a milkshake.

Steve was the only person on the trail for a good five minutes before it leveled out and he saw a figure up ahead, standing with his back to him. He was wearing black jeans and a black t-shirt and he looked not so much like he had travelled from New York but that he had been transported from there: Tony Stark.

"Doctor Livingstone, I presume," Steve said, and Tony turned.

"First of all," Tony said, glaring, "I knew you were going to say that; in fact, I bet you brought me here just so you could say that, because it's just the kind of old man joke you would make, which—by the way—is racist now; totally racist. Also this isn't even called Victoria Falls any more; it's reverted to its native name which is—okay, fine, I don't remember, but I googled it: it means something like Geez, That Freaking Water's Loud. Also Rhodesia is now Zimbabwe." He raised his eyebrows a couple of times, significantly. "Look it up."

Steve rubbed between his eyes. "Yeah, I heard about Zimbabwe."

"Second of all," Tony said, ignoring this, "don't you think there's a bad precedent for setting up a meeting with your archnemesis—"

Steve rolled his eyes. "You're not my archnemesis, Tony."

"—at a waterfall? I mean, you're old but you're not that old; they had Sherlock Holmes in your day, right, Benedict Rathbone or whatever? Didn't you read it? Because that story doesn't end well—or are you suggesting we do the faking our own deaths thing? Is this a hallucination?"

"It certainly feels like a hallucination," Steve said, and then: "C'mere," and when Tony did a nervous two-step, forward and back: "I mean it: come here," and he wondered, as he dragged Tony in and hugged him roughly, how it was that his generation had got the reputation for being bottled-up when in his day, guys had hugged so unselfconsciously: had flung their arms around each other's necks and sat in each other's laps and even danced together, when there weren't girls around, anyway. He could have gone pretty far with Bucky—and did, actually—without anyone suspecting anything, even Bucky. It was Tony's irony-drenched generation that thought it was unmanly to cry at the movies. Everybody cried at the movies. Wasn't that why you went?

"Okay," Tony said finally, breaking away, "so I'm sorry, you're sorry, we're both sorry, but we still have to face facts. You're an international fugitive, and I can't just go on the lam with you, much as I'd like to— not that you've asked. Pepper thinks—" and now it was Steve's turn to raise his eyebrows, and Tony said, hastily, "Yes, yes, yes, yes yes—Pepper thinks that we—Stark Industries—should get a senator to sponsor legislation ASAP to have America formally withdraw from the Accords—which, by the way, other countries are already doing. I think everyone imagined that The Avengers would come under direct U.S. government control," Tony elaborated, "not that you'd break out of prison and become global free agents! Everybody's pulling out of the Accords now, because everyone wants to sign you to their ball club. Yeah."

"I've officially lost track of this conversation," Steve said.

"You could join the Yankees if you wanted to. You could join the Bulls. Seventeen nations withdrew their support of the Accords once word got out and your resumes hit You're going to get lots of job offers. You could be Captain Norway. Captain Zimbabwe—"

"I'd never be Captain Zimbabwe," Steve said, recoiling. "Mugabe's a dictator—"

"Captain Wakanda, then," Tony said significantly. "They were the first ones out."

"Wakanda has a protector," and then, feeling angry: "Somewhere with a beach would be nice."

"Sure!" Tony replied. "Captain Turks and Caicos, Captain South of France—but what this really means, first and foremost, is that the U.S. is shitting a brick, okay? They thought they were fucked when Burger King moved to Canada and Budweiser moved to Belgium, but that's nothing compared to Captain America decamping and taking eight superpowered people with—"

"Eight?" Steve repeated.

"Oh, yeah. That's another—" Tony took out his phone and pressed a button; a second later, Steve's phone vibrated in his pocket. Tony sighed and said, "Banner wants to talk; I've sent you his contact info. Meanwhile, Jane's going to try to keep Thor on the down-low when he pops into town. That won't work for long, but..." He shrugged. "It doesn't have to, because of all the aforementioned brick-shitting. It's 3-2-1 till you become a political hot potato, Cap. I can hear it now: We're compromising our national security by creating a climate that's no longer conducive to superheroes, which are as American as cars and hot dogs, blah blah blah—"

"I think Thor might have something to say about that," Steve said. "Also hot dogs are German."

"Point is, they're gonna want you back; we just have to wait them out," Tony said. "I mean, you're actually wearing the American flag..."

"No, I'm not," Steve said, and when Tony stared at him, he gestured with both hands to his colorful summer shirt of pink and orange flowers. "Do you like it? I think these are pansies."

"Well, I wouldn't suggest it for a rebrand," Tony said, making a face. "It's kind of eighties."

"I'm not kidding, Tony. I'm not Captain America anymore. No flag, no shield—"

Tony rolled his eyes. "I brought it; didn't you know I'd—" but Steve was still shaking his head.

"I'm not carrying it," Steve said quietly. "I can't carry it anymore."

"But—" Tony's face changed as he began to understand what Steve meant. "You have to. My father wanted you to. He said it was the one good thing he did. He said you were the one thing that gave his life meaning—" and Steve couldn't stop the laughter, hard and terrible as it was.

"I can't give his life meaning! I can't give my own life meaning," and then: "Look. I don't have it in me to stand by and do nothing if someone's getting hurt and I can stop it. I meant what I said: if you need me, if there's a situation that needs me, call and I'll come; I'll be there. But I'm done representing—anything. I don't care if they want me: I don't want them. War's over—my war, anyway. All I want now is for Bucky to get healthy and for us to live some kind of—"

"Oh my God, he's not your friend, he's your friend! He's your euphemism friend, your—" and Tony made two Vs in the air, "—friend friend. Your inseparable on playground and battlefield intimate friend that you're totally doing it with—whoa, were you doing it before the war? Did my father know you were doing it?" and Steve, hot in the face, stopped himself from saying, There wasn't much your father didn't know about, and instead managed: "He's my friend."

"Wow, everything makes sense now," Tony said wonderingly. "I'm such an idiot."

"I won't argue," Steve said.

He didn't— wouldn't—take the shield, despite all Tony's arguments and protestations, but he did agree to take part in the elaborate communications system that Tony had devised to keep them all in touch as they disbanded. He went back to where Tony was staying—a big house on the bank of the Zambezi, upriver; its enormous patio built out over the flowing waters—to pick up the special phones and earpieces Tony had made for them all, because Tony was right: the fate of the world shouldn't rest on a store-bought Motorola flip. The phones also contained a global map of tiny flashing triangles: a map of resources (weapons, cash, identity papers; Quinjets and other vehicles: "Zipcar for superheroes," Tony said, inexplicably) that Tony was putting at their disposal in case of an emergency; a map that looked to Steve like nothing so much as a map of underground Hydra bases—but now he was the one who was underground, hidden; forced to operate in the cracks and crevices of things. A counteragent—and Steve had to look away, out at the river: so placid here but picking up speed and churning down, down to the Falls.

The Way Through

Natasha met him at the landing pad in Wakanda; all smiles. "They're ready to take him out of cryofreeze," she said. "They're just waiting on you," and so Steve ran straight to the medical pavilion, where a team of doctors was waiting to go over the plan with him. Steve listened carefully; after they brought Bucky out of cryo, they would hook him up to an IV and flood his brain with a specially designed cocktail of chemicals: neural disruptors, tranquilizers. And then—and here the lead doctor stumbled a bit, her face growing grim; Steve could see that this was the part he wasn't going to like—they would read the sequence of code words to him, activating him.

Steve gripped the arms of his chair but kept calm. "And then?"

And then—nothing. That was the point. They would activate him and do nothing—except, perhaps, to gently remind him that there would be no orders coming, that he was free now to do whatever he wished. And then they would wait. And when he calmed down: they would do it to him again. And again. This was the "extinction training" T'Challa had talked to him about.

It was what had been done to the rats.

"How many times," Steve had to stop, clear his throat, "will you have to do this?"

There was an exchange of glances. "Many times," another doctor said finally, and Steve turned at her; she was a powerful looking woman with a scar on her neck; ex-military, Steve guessed.

"We think," the doctor continued, after getting a silent go-ahead from the lead doctor, "that each activation word was introduced with a punishment. So it took ten words to break him—" and Steve's hand flew up, begging for silence, because he couldn't hear anything over the rushing of rage in his ears, and he didn't want to miss any important details. He breathed, blinking to clear his vision, and let his hand drop when the roar subsided. The doctor nodded at him and went on.

"As I say, this was their tactic: to associate certain words with physical and psychological punishments, and then, when the prisoner finally broke, to repeat the progression until the link between word and punishment was strong enough that prisoner would react to the words alone. At that point, the punishments themselves become unnecessary—aside from the occasional, unpredictable reinforcement. This is the conditioning we are attempting to undo—but we believe that we can undo it. The activation procedure itself will be useful to us: studies show that administrating extinction training directly after reactivating a fear memory can convert it into a safety memory. The association between word and pain can be completely eliminated."

"Good," Steve said. "I want to be there. For him. Through it. I want to be with him through it," and this time the doctors only exchanged quick glances among themselves before nodding.

"It's a good idea, if you're willing," the lead doctor said. "You already represent safety to him. It will save us time: we won't have to convince him of the safety of his environment."

Steve nodded and pushed out of his chair. "Let's do it."

Lies, excuses: cryofreeze wasn't sleep and it clearly wasn't restful: Bucky came out collapsed and exhausted, supported between two orderlies. Still, he lifted his head when Steve said his name and didn't protest when Steve took him from the orderlies' arms and limped him into the recovery room, holding on tight.

"You got them all out?" Bucky asked hoarsely. "Everyone safe?"

"Yes," Steve said.

"Tell me what's happening," and that sent him right back to the war: long nights spent huddled together, strategizing in whispers. Bucky had been the best goddamned sergeant in the European theater, and no one could tell Steve any different.

"They have a plan for freeing your mind. It doesn't sound like a picnic," he cautioned, but Bucky's demeanor changed lightning-fast: sharpening and brightening up.

"I don't care," Bucky shot back. "You think this is a picnic? What do they have to do?"

"They have to..." and he couldn't say it yet, so he said the other thing first. "They're gonna dose you up with something, sedatives or— Then they're going to do it—activate you. I'm going to activate you," and Bucky's mouth twisted like maybe he was going to say something about that. But he didn't.

"Then what?" he said finally.

"Then nothing; then I'm going to hold you till it wears off," Steve said. "And then we're going to do it again, as many times as it takes."

Bucky looked away; he'd gone somewhere far away. "I don't want you to see me like that."

"I know," Steve said, and he did, "but I can't bear to let it be anyone else. It's my pain to have. Yours and mine. To the end of the line, I guess," and Bucky looked at him and nodded.

The first time was the worst. Steve had learned to pronounce the words phonetically, but the translator'd explained what they meant. Longing. Rusted. Seventeen—and even knowing that he was in a safe room with Steve and this was all in the plan; and even with the vast quantities of drugs that they'd pumped into his system, so powerful that he ought to have floated through his activation on a cloud of tranquilizers—Bucky couldn't stop himself from muttering, then shouting out, then screaming till his voice frayed. Steve bent to him and held him close, his face pressed to the top of Bucky's head, but he had to go on with it: had to take the place of that long ago torturer. Daybreak. Furnace. Nine. Benign, punishments piling up and up—and just when Steve thought it couldn't get any worse, Bucky collapsed under the weight of it and went silent; Bucky just broke in his arms.

Steve stared down at him: it was like he'd been held under water, drowned; his face slack, his eyes unfocused. His white-spittled lips shaped a word—Anything—and Steve saw the Winter Soldier in that terrible, blank acquiescence and understood, really for the first time, that he was Bucky. Not someone else, not some alternate invading personality, but actually who Bucky was after you stripped him of everything, and Steve found to his surprise that he loved the Winter Soldier so hard it hurt. He was the part of Bucky that had survived this; the ice-hard core of him.

He jerked, his hand flying to the tiny radio, loud in his ear. "Captain; you have to finish," and so he roughly brushed wetness from his face and finished the sequence. Homecoming. One. Freight Car—and then he had the Winter Soldier in his arms, staring up at him and breathing shallowly: both in pain and beyond pain. He muttered something that the earpiece immediately translated.

Ready to comply.

Steve swallowed hard and went into the script they'd prepared, his voice oddly tense and nervous, like his first days on the stage. "There's nothing to comply with. You've got no orders; no more orders. You're gonna be all right, Buck. You don't have to do anything; you can do anything you want. It's just you and me—it's me. Steve," and the Winter Soldier's face stayed carefully blank but his eyes darted like those of a trapped animal—taking in Steve, who was unarmed; the room, which was empty. No guns, no equipment, no nothing; just Steve.

And after a while, the Winter Soldier jerked a nod, closed his eyes, and turned his face into Steve's shoulder. Steve numbly repeated, "You're all right. No more orders, Buck. Do what you want; you're free," and the Winter Soldier was gradually subsumed back into Bucky Barnes.

The second time was the worst, and the third was the worst, too, and between the seventh and eighth times they had to let Steve out so he could go and punch things and break stuff and lean against the wall sobbing in outrage somewhere where Bucky couldn't see him do it.

But the fourteenth time—Homecoming. One. Freight Car.—Bucky didn't break. He was clammy and sweating, eyes darting around—but he was lucid and apparently in control of himself. There was no sign of the Winter Soldier's blank stare. "Bucky?" Steve ventured.

"Just—give me a goddamned second," Bucky said, panting.

"All the time in the world, pal," Steve choked out. "All the time in the world."

T'Challa's delighted expression—he was fighting to keep himself from grinning—and Bucky's surprised reaction told Steve that the new arm was as vast an improvement as T'Challa said it would be. It looked very like the other – silvered, with plates—but sleeker, somehow; better proportioned. The plates went in more complex directions. The metal was differently textured. The hand—Bucky reached out and took Steve's hand in his metal one, turned it around, laced their fingers together—felt pleasant in his: warmer, less sharp. Bucky gripped Steve's hand experimentally: flexing his fingers, rubbing the pad of his thumb across Steve's palm, his cuticles, the rough edge of his fingernail—and then smiled broadly: like the sun coming out.

"It's great," Bucky told T'Challa. "It's amazing. And it's light—it doesn't hurt, it—"

T'Challa gave up and grinned back at him like a schoolboy. "Yes, because it is more in proportion to your body and better attached. It will not unbalance you as much—though it is ten times as strong. You can do anything you were accustomed to doing. I will take you to meet the designers—and I confess I had some small input myself. It was an interesting project."

"It's fantastic." He moved his arm; the plates shifted soundlessly. "I can't thank you enough."

"It's enough," T'Challa said. "We didn't know if you wanted the star back," and Bucky grinned at this, but Steve found himself mumbling, "I don't know, I kind of miss it," and Bucky looked at him curiously, but Steve couldn't find the words to explain: you're him, he's you; I love you.

But Bucky seemed to understand anyway. "Okay," he said slowly. "Sure. Put it back on, then," and Steve felt an inexplicable happiness. This was who they were now. It was going to be okay.

The guest house was strangely deserted when they returned to it; everyone seemed to have cleared out, disappeared. "Good," Bucky said, a little savagely, and dragged him to the bedroom, manhandling him a little like in the old days, when Steve had been slight enough—and pretty enough, Bucky had always said—to pass for a girl. And then Bucky read his mind: "Still pretty enough," he murmured, his beard prickling against Steve's face, scraping his lips, "and still sweet as anything, all these muscles aside," and Steve let Bucky push him down on the bed, knock his thighs apart and slide between them; get on top of him.

Bucky was heavy; heavier than he used to be. Christ—just the weight of him, the press of all that weight. Steve closed his eyes and felt Bucky's body settling on him: hips, chest, shoulders, all that warm skin. He missed the scriggle-scraggle of Bucky's chest hair against his own wisps, missed the scent of his Pinaud-Clubman aftershave—but the press of Bucky's body against his still thrilled him. That shivery, desperate feeling was building: the one that made him queer, that meant he wanted a cock inside him. It made him feel queasy as well as excited, always had—though for the first time in his life, in both their lives, there was nothing to be afraid of: no parents or nosy neighbors, no soldiers to barge in or report them to HQ: nobody to rat them out. In fact, there wasn't even anything to rat out—this was normal now. Lots of people loved each other this way, wanted to share their bodies like this. There were magazine articles about it.

When Bucky dragged his cock against Steve's, they both groaned and began to move—helplessly, thoughtlessly—against each other. Steve curved his arm around Bucky's neck and dragged him down to kiss him. Bucky's metal hand closed around Steve's wrist and pulled it up, over his head. They were drowning in the sweet building of friction, grunting into each other's mouths—until Steve stopped it, because the queasy, excited feeling had taken over him completely, and unless they stopped soon—unless— God, he was sick with it, with wanting it.

"Come on," he said, rough-voiced, knowing Bucky would understand. "Please—"

"Jesus, Steve!" and Bucky was taken by a head-to-toe shiver. "You—you're—" and then they were moving together again, purposefully, arms around each other and Steve's legs hauled up, and over the years they'd used shortening, Vaseline, gun oil, anything they could get their hands on, but mostly they'd just used spit and persistence, like now. Steve fell back, sweating, when Bucky finally managed to work it into him, and then they were kissing clumsily between thrusts, hands gripping and sliding over slippery skin. Steve could hardly think, his whole body was quivering around Bucky's cock, fluttering, a million tiny contractions—and there was no greater intimacy than this, having Bucky on him, in him, hard inside him; rocking into him. Steve closed his eyes and leaned up into the sweet, familiar kisses. Everything else fell away.

They fucked twice and then dozed, limbs entangled, for nearly sixteen hours. Steve woke only once during the night, his eyes opening on darkness, and knew immediately that Bucky was awake, too.

"You all right?" Steve muttered groggily; he hadn't slept so heavily and so well in years.

Bucky's mouth was near his temple. "Yeah," he said, and tightened his arm around Steve. "Fine," but something about the silence afterward made Steve know he wasn't done talking. Bucky took a few harsh breaths before he spoke, his voice barely audible. "Say the words."

Steve didn't know what he meant, and then when it dawned on him he almost said no. No. He didn't want to, couldn't stand to: didn't want this horror in their goddamned bed—but Bucky was asking and Bucky never ever asked him for anything. "Are you sure?" he said instead.

"Yes," Bucky replied softly. "Please," and Steve swallowed against the bile rising in his throat and numbly began to recite the sequence. Longing. Rusted. Bucky's breathing grew ragged and strained, but he didn't thrash or cry out, and when Steve was done, "Gruzovoy vagon," Bucky just let out a long shuddering sigh and murmured, "Yeah. Thank you," and drifted back to sleep.

They woke up starving, and wordlessly made for the kitchen in only their skivvies—to find Sam Wilson sitting on a stool and drinking coffee. His eyebrows went up and up and up.

"We, uh," Sam began, "were wondering where you guys—" and then he raised his hands and said, "You know what: never mind. Although happy's a whole new look on you, man," and Steve glared but knew he was turning pink.

For his part, Bucky'd gone straight into the kitchen and and had poured himself coffee and taken an enormous slice of some nutty-looking cake. He scowled at Sam and asked, chewing: "What block are you?" and when Sam turned to stare: "You're not from DC; your accent's wrong."

Sam gave a little snort of mock hostility. "Edgecombe Avenue," he replied.

Bucky looked impressed. "Sugar Hill," he said, and then he took another bite of cake and jerked his metal thumb toward himself. "Vinegar Hill. West of the Navy yards," and Sam laughed and said, with almost theatrical sincerity: "Well, that explains just about everything, doesn't it," and Bucky chewed his cake thoughtfully and replied, "You know, I think it really does."

Sam leaned back to look Bucky up and down appraisingly. "So how're you doing, Vinegar Hill?"

"I'm all right," Bucky replied. "Got a new arm."

"Very nice," Sam allowed.

"A goddamned miracle is what it is," Bucky said.

"Yeah, Big Cat's a genius," and that reminded Sam of something, and he turned to Steve. "And he's given us a headquarters, our own compound: Natasha moved us over there two days ago. It's like our old place upstate: training rooms, all sorts of tech and weaponry. Our own jet—"

"Us?" Steve asked. "What do you mean, us?"

"Avengers was always a stupid name, let's face it," Clint said; he had one eye on Nathaniel, who was sitting on the floor of the living room vrooming a toy truck. "I mean, don't get me wrong: there's lots of things I blame Tony for, but not that. He was under pressure: Loki was threatening him, there were aliens outside. Nobody does their best creative work in that kind of situation."

"It's a terrible name," Wanda agreed. "I always thought it was a terrible name."

"Oh, c'mon, it's not so bad!" Scott protested. "You know, people criticize the Beatles' White Album, but at the end of the day, it's the Beatles' White Album, guys, you know? Yesterday! Revolution #9! We're the Avengers—okay, fine," he said, raising his hands. "You guys: you're the Avengers. I'm like a substitute teacher for the Avengers. But it's still a cool name."

"Okay, first of all," Sam said, in that tone of deadpan flatness that Steve had learned meant he was moving in for the kill, "Yesterday isn't on the White Album. And secondly, Ant Man—"

"That was not my fault! I did not name Ant Man. I came pre-named as Ant Man—"

"—you don't get to name anything. Not a goldfish, not a sandwich; nothing," and while Sam trash talked Scott into the ground, Steve had a wordless conversation with Natasha, shaking his head at her—I don't know if I'm up for this—and seeing the mute plea in her eyes—We're a team, Steve; we should stay together; we need each other—and—We tried it your way—which was true. Natasha had backed his play; maybe now it was his turn to—

Wanda was laughing. "Don't you listen to him. You're one of us, Scott—whatever we end up calling ourselves," and then a voice came from an unfamiliar corner, and Steve's heart stopped.

"Howling Commandos," Bucky said softly.

Everyone went silent. Wanda swallowed hard, and Scott was doing ecstatic little fist pumps. Natasha stared at Bucky, then looked swiftly at Steve. Then everyone else was looking at Steve.

Steve looked at Bucky and said, "What, you have just the one idea and that's it?"

"Hey, it's a great name: all the history books say so. Ask Sugar Hill over there."

Sam shrugged helplessly. "It's a great name, I got to give it to you. Howling Commandos."

"Or you know, we could be like the Bowling Commandos," Clint said, straight-faced.

"The Trolling Commandos," Sam suggested.

"Or—we could just, you know, go commando," Scott said. "I mean, that could be comfortable."

"There's a noticeable decline of dignity in this conversation," Steve said, but he was trying not to laugh. Natasha was looking at him, though: still waiting for a serious answer. "Let me think about it," Steve pleaded with her. "I need to think about it," and that was when the door opened.

There was a general uproar and hullabaloo as T'Challa walked in followed by Dr. Bruce Banner, who was wearing some kind of long tunic over flowy pants and who looked pleased and a little confused to be here, like he wasn't quite sure where here was.

"Hello," Bruce said, peering around at them over the tops of his glasses. "I'm sorry I wasn't there to help; I was in Nepal, about two weeks behind the news, and by the time I found out..."

Bruce stopped in front of Steve and said, earnestly, "I don't think you need me to tell you that you made the right decision. Putting Thaddeus Ross in charge..." He shook his head, jaw clenched. "If that's my choice, I'm with you, Cap. We all are. Because let's face it: when we can't trust anyone, including ourselves, we can at least trust you to make the least terrible decision." Bruce pushed his glasses up his nose. "That's why I've come. That and—"

He looked around again, taking the temperature of everyone assembled, and then nodded.

"WorldMed just pulled out of Kundu," Banner said grimly, "after six aid workers were killed last week. But that means that there's no one to deliver food, water, and medical supplies to the villages." He tugged off his glasses and rubbed his eyes, sighing. "So I figured—you know, since we seem to have some time on our hands... Anyone up for a humanitarian mission?"

"I am." Bucky looked at Steve and said, "I don't know who this guy is, but I like him."

"Doctor Bruce Banner," Bruce said, bending to extend his hand to Bucky.

"Bucky Barnes," Bucky replied, shaking it, and Bruce blinked at him and said: "Oh. Wow."

Natasha was wearing the smug little happy smile she wore when everyone finally agreed that she'd been right all along and decided that they'd do things her way from now on; it was a smile that Steve had seen on her a lot. "We're mission ready," she told Steve. "I, um, took the liberty of assigning packs and weapons to, hm...Captain Nomad and his Howling Commandos?"

"Captain who now?" Bucky snorted. "Captain No Man?"

"Nomad," Steve shot back. "It was a thing, I was feeling prickly and isolated—" He stopped, because Wanda was looking at him with hope in her eyes. She'd been through a lot, that kid: she'd survived a war only to be locked up and mistreated by one so-called rescuer after another.

"Steve?" Wanda asked. "Are we going to do this? Can we be this?" and Steve looked around at them: Bruce, patiently waiting; Natasha, her lips curving; Scott, sick with excitement. T'Challa, implacable, one eyebrow raised. Sam Wilson nodded at him. Then he looked at Bucky, not that he needed to: he knew Bucky better than he knew himself, and Bucky'd already said he was in.

Captain Nomad and his Howling Commandos. Steve let out a laugh; he was going to have to come up with a team name just to avoid this one. It was like a musical he didn't want to be in.

"Let's suit up," he said.

The End

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