sparsenicjade
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AN: Thanks to Spatz for the beta, luuv2shop for sponsoring the fic. Written for whipping space on hc_bingo.

***


The drive shows up less than a day after Fury’s death. It’s addressed to Pepper, who takes one look at it and brings it to Tony. Tony calls a team meeting to see if any of them have any clue what’s on it. Of all of them, Clint and Natasha are the most likely, being the most heavily involved in the intelligence side of the team’s work.

Natasha says, “I recognize it. Fury had me pull intel off that ship a week ago, the pirate thing Cap and I took care of.”

Steve hadn’t been thrilled when she’d relayed the extra specs of her mission, but he’d made sure to figure it into his overall plan. He’d never seen the drive.

"No idea what’s on it?" Bruce asks softly.

She shakes her head. “I—I didn’t even ask. Something about how he—” Natasha bites the inside of her cheek. Steve wants to go and draw her into him, but she’d rack him for suggesting she might not be fine in front of the others.

Steve turns to Tony. ”Can you hack it?”

Steve expects bluster. Instead, Tony says, “Yes.”

Which means there’s a but. Clint asks, “But?”

"I’m going to have to dismantle whatever homing devices and encryption programs are written into this thing. And before you ask, I don’t know how long that will take, it depends upon the sophistication of the design."

Steve nods. ”Just make it your first priority right now.”

Tony takes a second to throw a 'you think?' look Steve’s way, and then is heading down to his lab.

*

They’ve had the drive about four hours when Steve gets called into a meeting with Secretary Pierce. Even if he weren’t part of the Council, Steve’s sure he’d be wary, as he has learned to be with almost all power figures. His association with the Council simply makes Steve wire-tight with tension.

Thor asks, “Would you like me to accompany you?”

Steve shakes his head. “No use in getting them all riled up before we know what they want. We just need to give Tony time. I can stall well enough.”

*

He should have brought Thor. Steve’s leaving Pierce’s office, in the process of picking up the shield, having told the man a whole bunch of nothing, when he gets hit from behind with something that knocks him out completely. He knows better than to turn his back on an enemy, but it had been a split second. The next second, his shield would have been there.

When he comes to, he’s locked into a post. Steve shakes his head to try and control his thoughts. This isn’t punishment. This isn’t legal.

Pierce walks into the line of Steve’s periphery vision and says, “You’re awake, good.”

"Special team regulations state—"

"This has nothing to do with team regulations, Captain, and I think you know it."

Steve closes his eyes and takes a breath. ”I’m used to this, you realize? Even if I were planning to tell you something, this wouldn’t be the way to go about forcing it out of me.”

Pierce doesn’t respond, just nods his head and Steve waits to see what they’ve chosen. Probably the cane. He had the most extreme response to that.

Steve has a second where his brain doesn’t really process anything his nerves are telling it. The second after that, he can’t think at all. Everything is pain. Pierce is talking, but words are beyond Steve just then. When the pain has died to the point where English makes sense again, Pierce tilts his head. ”Amazing what embedding a bullwhip with iron nodes and soaking it in a salt solution will do, isn’t it?”

Steve wonders how long it will take to kill him. They’re not going to let him go. Pierce has to think he’s an idiot. There’s no motivation for him to tell.

As if hearing his thoughts, Pierce tells him, “An answer buys you a quick death, Captain. Bullet to the head, neat and tidy. Otherwise…”

Steve closes his eyes, sinks into a place where he can feel Natasha curling around him like a blanket, smell what Bruce is cooking, hear Clint and Tony bickering, Thor’s laughter.

He thinks this will probably buy Tony a fair amount of time.

*

He begs, of course he does. He has no idea how many he’s taken—he’s passed out four or so times—when he breaks, cries, “Stop, stop, please.”

They stop, and Pierce asks, “What did Fury send? One quick answer, and this will be over.”

Steve shakes, the movement causing him more pain, but unstoppable. One word. They wouldn’t even know what was on it. Steve opens his mouth, but all that comes out is a sob. He can’t.

They start again, and as a security precaution, Steve screams until sound ceases to escape from his throat.

*

They decide to move him. He doesn’t understand, that doesn’t make any sense, but there are hands pulling him out of the restraints, weirdly careful about how they touch him.

Someone says, “Steve,” and Steve realizes he’s started hallucinating. Pierce only calls him ‘Captain.’

He says, “Please, please,” but the words never actually form.

*

Steve has no idea where he is when he wakes up. It’s not heaven, because Steve might not be all that religious, but he knows for damn sure that heaven does not smell like a hospital. Also, he is in far too much pain for this to be paradise.

He tips his head to the side and sees Pepper. She looks like she hasn’t slept in days. He tries to say her name, but he doesn’t even make a croaking noise. She must feel something, because she looks up, closes her eyes for a second and breathes, “Thank you. Thank you, thank you.”

She stands and holds a cup with a straw. Steve gratefully takes several sips. He does his best to ask a question with his facial expression. Pepper kisses his forehead. ”You’ve been unconscious for nearly a week. We didn’t—we weren’t sure—” She shakes her head. ”You bought Tony the time he needed. He’s going to kill you when he finds out you survived, but…you did it, Steve.”

Slowly, he mouths, “Did what?”

"The drive contained an algorithm needed to aid Hydra in mass murder. The others were able to stop the plan in time. They’ve been taking shifts, but between clean up and their need to actually sleep once in a while, I told them I’d watch over you for a bit. Nat’s going to spit fire when she finds out you woke up without her here."

Steve winces. Pepper smiles a little and reaches out to muss his hair. ”Then she’s going to take you home, and never let you out of her sight, ever again.”

Steve acknowledges the likelihood of this with a nod and falls back asleep.

*

The next time he wakes up, Natasha is sitting next to his bed. She says, "If you go somewhere by yourself ever again and don't end up dead, I’m going to do it myself. With my mind.”

"Sorry," he mouths.

Natasha runs a hand over her face. ”Fuck. Don’t…just don’t, okay?”

Steve gives her a half-smile of agreement. She breathes out, a shuddery little sound. She says, “You need to sleep. When you get out of here, well. There’s some stuff you’re gonna want to know.”

Steve would ask, but he’s too tired to care. Instead, he holds his hand out. Natasha doesn’t hesitate, just puts the rail on the side of the bed down, climbs in, and curls into him as much as is humanly possible.

*


As soon as Steve's awake, the rest of the team spends their time swirling around him. Bruce brings steaks and potatoes, butter chicken, pasta with Bolognese sauce that has three kinds of meats in it, and milkshakes, really thick milkshakes in a positive rainbow of flavors. He sits with Steve and Steve pretends not to notice that Bruce checks his pulse at least three times for every visit.

Thor yells at him for not bringing backup and being an idiot and then says softly, "Do not value your life so cheaply, my friend. For it is priceless to those who stand with you." He stays while Steve sleeps, and when he is there, Steve's nightmares are held at bay.

Clint perches on a chair and chatters aimlessly, without direction or cause, the way he does when scared. Steve cajoles him onto the bed, where Clint can cling, can reassure himself of the physical reality of Steve's continued existence.

Tony brings him toys, and even if he's too tired to play with them, Steve appreciates the gesture. Tony talks like Clint does, only with more bite, more evident fear. Steve keeps quiet and lets him, knowing he will wear himself out given enough time. When he has wound down, Steve sends him to Pepper, who will know what to do with him.

*


Natasha tells him about the helicarrier battle, and that they captured the Winter Soldier for possible intel on Hydra while he's in the hospital. It's only when he's back in the Tower that she's finally willing to talk about whatever it is about which she's kept steadfastly silent. They curl up in a chair next to a window, bright and soft and perfect.

Most of the team is hanging around. They haven't much left him alone since they took him off the post. Clint and Tony are playing video games, and Thor is on a laptop, probably emailing Jane.

Steve knows it's going to be bad before Natasha even opens her mouth. They're too close, and while she can be physical, it's not usually protective like this, pre-emptive, not unless it has to be.

Her opening gambit is, "You had a team before us."

Steve frowns. "A number of them."

"No." Natasha shakes her head. "Your last real team. Special ops. Codename Howling Commandos."

Steve does his best not to stiffen. "You know that. Tony—"

She cuts him off. "Tony gave me the facts that were on paper, so yes, I know the names of your teammates, and what happened in Dubrovnik, at least according to the files. But even if those files were accurate, which there's now good reason to doubt, they are the bare bones, Steve."

Steve's tired, still healing. He never wants to talk about this, but especially not now. That said, this is Natasha.

She goes on, though. "Here's what I know. Your team was slaughtered in an ambush on that mission. You were left for dead, but found by the clean-up team sent in. After that you chose to become part of the SES-program. I'm guessing guilt?"

He can feel the team listening, even over the din of Clint and Tony's game. Steve inclines his head. "They told me it was a way to make their deaths worth something, to continue serving my country. I was…the injuries I was left with, they were career-ending. It was that, or take an honorable discharge and I—I was blind and stupid with grief."

"Steve." Her voice is almost a whisper. "Steve, Tony, he recognized the face of the Winter Soldier from your files, from the pictures of the Howling Commandos. You—" She swallows. "You weren't the only survivor."

Steve's vision blurs a little. "Excuse me?"

"There was another survivor, taken captive by Hydra. A James Barnes."

Steve doesn't remember pushing her off of him, running to the bathroom. All he knows is that there is tile under his knees and his stomach is coming up, a piece at a time. Bucky. Bucky was alive and Steve left him, never even thought to ask about going back. There are voices buzzing in the background, but he can't get air in his lungs, he can't.

Something stings the side of his face, but it's vague, distant. Nothing compared to the way his chest won't work. Things go gray around the edges. Gray, gray, then black.

*


Steve wakes up in bed, the sounds of Clint and Natasha speaking softly in Russian above his head. He gets enough moisture in his mouth to say, "Sorry."

"Hey," Clint, who's plastered against his right, says, "Back with us."

Natasha, taking up his left side, says, "So James Barnes is important, huh?"

Steve could cry at the understatement of it all. "Bucky and I, we grew up together. That was his nickname, short for Buchanan, his middle name. He just wasn't much of a Jimmy, y'know?"

Steve shakes his head. "He—I was a small kid, always picking fights too big for me. He dragged me out of trouble more times than either of us could count." Steve makes himself swallow, breathe through his nose. "It was my idea to join up. Some time serving and then we'd take advantage of the GI bill, right? He wanted to be the first person in his family to go to college. But then I just had to go special ops, and Buck, I don't think he could have left me to fend for myself if he tried."

He barely feels himself saying the words, "I got him killed. Except evidently not. Evidently I did something even worse."

"There was no way you could have known, Steve," Natasha tells him firmly. "You didn't even wake up until you were back in the States and the organization you'd almost given your life for told you they were all dead."

"I didn't even question." Everything that doesn't hurt feels numb.

"Why would you have?" Clint asks. "I might be a suspicious motherfucker, Cap, but you're not, or at least you probably weren't then, and seriously, why?"

Steve makes himself meet Clint's eyes. "Because the other option means my best friend in the world just spent two decades as a prisoner of war. I know I don't look it, but I'm in my fifties, Clint. He is too. Practically half his life."

Natasha and Clint share a look. Steve's stomach flips over again. "What?"

Natasha is the one to say, "The AGD wasn't the only organization trying to develop the serum, Steve."

Steve closes his eyes. "Hydra. They experimented on him."

"He's in rough shape," Clint says by way of response. "Theirs didn’t work out as well as ours, and they were using a brainwashing protocol at the same time. They had to keep your buddy on a shit ton of chemicals for his programming to hold. He—he's not sure who he is, Steve. And that's just the beginning."

"I need to see him," Steve says.

"It's not clear he'll have any idea who you are," Natasha says.

He looks at her. She sighs. "Yeah. Yeah."

*


The man shackled to the bed in Tony's infirmary would be hard to recognize as Bucky if Steve wouldn't have known him anywhere, anytime, under any conditions. He looks as though someone peeled away everything unessential, like a little healthy body fat. Steve could use his hip bones as handles to guide him one way or another. His cheekbones look more like a post-modern warning sign: despair, all ye who enter here. He's got what has to be the heaviest and showiest prosthetic in history in place of his left arm.

Worst of all – perhaps because Steve can empathize, or perhaps just because they are the most pervasive – he is covered in whipping scars. At least Steve's are mostly confined to his back with a few stray wraparounds. With Bucky, if there's skin on his torso, legs or arms bare, there are scars to be seen.

Steve asks, "Why's he bound? He's not—"

Natasha touches Steve's wrist. "He tried to hurt himself the first three times he woke up, Steve. The only reason he's not dead is because Bruce hulked out and held him down. He's a force to be reckoned with, even in this state."

"You mean he tried to kill himself?" Steve's pretty sure he's going to be sick. Again. "Does he think we're going to harm him?"

Clint winces. "He hasn't been all that lucid, Cap. Whatever cocktail they had him on, it's scrambled his brains but good."

Bruce appears then, looking exhausted and surprised to see them. It takes him a second, but he smiles and says, "Good to see you really up and about, Cap. How's your range of movement?"

Steve smiles back, because the worry in Bruce's expression is easy to read, and Bruce isn't open like that, not without extreme cause. "I'm fine, doc. Can you tell me about him?"

Bruce looks as though he's considering pressing Steve on the issue of his own health, but then he slumps a little. "I had some of Tony's specialists come check him out, but nobody could get near unless he was sedated, so what we've got is based mostly on observation and the files we were able to uncover. That said, he's in rough shape. He's nearly thirty pounds below what would be a minimum healthy weight, he's got scar tissue inside and out, and some of the stuff inside didn't heal quite right.

"He's hooked on half-a-dozen psychotropics, none of which are legal. The arm…I don't even know where to start. The scans we could get suggest his skeleton and nerves have been altered in dangerous ways by the grafting of it. He wouldn't be alive except they managed something like the SES accelerated healing. The problem is, their version wasn't quite as good, and it looks like it took them years of trying—and testing—to 'perfect' what they did have.

"Basically, I'm not surprised he's been…frantic each time he's woken up. He's probably learned that any kind of medical environment is dangerous. The problem is, he needs a lot of the machines and IVs he's on to bring him off all the crap they got him hooked on, so I'm not sure what I can do to make him more comfortable."

Steve nods. It's obvious Bruce has actually considered his possibilities. Steve says, "I'm gonna stay here. See if I can get him calmed down the next time. Maybe if we can get him to recognize that he's not in a lab, he might be a little less volatile."

Bruce looks at him like he has begun sprouting flowers and is otherwise magic. Steve says, "And maybe you should sleep, just. Um. For a bit."

*


Bucky wakes up straining against the cuffs, his entire body rising off the bed in his struggles. Steve shouts, "Bucky."

The struggles cease abruptly, Bucky whipping to look at him, sharp and feral. "Who—who the hell is Bucky?"

"You are," Steve says without hesitation, even if, looking at this whittled-down version of his best friend, it's a little hard to see.

Bucky looks confused for a moment before telling him, "I'm the Asset."

"To them," Steve says, and it's all he can do not to growl. "To me, you're Bucky."

"I—" Bucky frowns. Then, clearly falling back on whatever he can, asks, "Do I have a mission?"

Steve considers the question carefully. He doesn't want to step into the role of these people who have used Bucky. But he also doesn't want to cast him adrift. In the end, he settles on, "Sleep, for the moment. Rest and eat."

Bucky sits, thinking about this. "What is my target?"

Steve bites the inside of his cheek. "Feeling healthy."

Bucky's body language is agitated, unsure. "Uncertain parameters, please clarify."

Fuck. "Mission ongoing until further advisement," Steve tries.

It must work. Bucky nods once, lies back, and goes to sleep. It's like flipping off a switch. Also, easily the creepiest thing Steve's ever seen—and that is saying something.

*


Tony and Thor play tag team at keeping him company while he waits for Bucky to wake again. When he does, he's leveling off the worst of the drugs, which means that he's also in the throes of withdrawal. He mostly stays conscious long enough to puke until there isn't even bile left in his system, to beg without seeming to know what he's begging for, before the pain becomes overwhelming and he passes into a restless unconsciousness for a while.

Bruce tells Steve, "This could last for a few days."

Steve rubs fiercely at his eyes, which are burning like they've been maced. When he can, he nods and says, "I guess we'd better get a cot in here, huh?"

Bruce looks like he's going to argue for all of a second before he just gives in and leaves. Within the hour, Steve's got a cot to rival most beds. Natasha brings it up—it folds out, somehow, of course—and asks, "Mind some company?"

She hasn't been unsure of her welcome since those early days, since before he became hers. He pulls her into his lap and it's a measure of how she's feeling that she allows it. He says, "I'm sorry."

She shakes her head once, not sharp, but decisive. "No, I—I get it, I think. If it were Clint, I'd be the same way."

Steve is still thinking of what to say when Bucky wakes, already whimpering, almost as if it hurts to breathe. Steve suspects it might. He stands Natasha up and gets to Bucky with a kidney-shaped bowl just in time for more vomiting. There's blood in it, but Bruce has assured him it's just from the strain on his esophagus.

Steve rubs his lower back and says, "Doing good, Buck, doing just fine."

For one, breathtaking, heartbreaking moment, Bucky settles under the touch. Then the pain starts up again and Bucky arches back like someone is yanking him from his hair. His scream is a broken, constricted thing, and Steve murmurs reassurance straight through it, tries to get him to drink water in between pleas for something to stop the pain, and then apologies for the pleas.

When he finally passes back out, Natasha says into the silence, "Fuck."

Steve would laugh if he wasn't afraid it would make him cry. Instead he asks, "Can you stay for a bit?"

Softly, she tells him, "I'd like that."

*


Bucky wakes up shaking and more than a little green-hued around the fourth day after the withdrawal started, and asks, "Wh—where am I?"

Steve, who's been mainlining coffee and anything with sugar, sleeping in patches of two hours or so here and there, and keeping worried teammates mollified, has to think about that for a moment. "Stark Tower infirmary."

Bucky blinks for about a minute straight before admitting, "I don't remember getting here. Or—do I know you?"

Steve's pretty sure if he says anything he's going to burst into tears. He forces himself to nod, say, "It's, ah, it's been a while. But yes."

Bucky looks down at the sheets covering him, flexing the fingers of both hands, flesh and metal, and says softly, "I—I can take punishment now."

Steve swallows back bile. "Punishment."

He can't make himself ask the question that needs asking. He can't do anything beside echo that single word.

Bucky trembles. It's slight, but Steve's sight is better than most and he knows Bucky, even like this he knows him. Bucky says, "Yes, sir. I can—I can take it and be mission ready as soon as I heal."

Steve doesn't know a hell of a lot just now, but he knows this: "There's no punishment."

Bucky's entire body stiffens. In a seemingly unguarded moment, he shudders. "That…failure incurs punishment, and I failed."

"I've never lied to you," Steve tells him. "And I'm sure as all hell not going to start now."

Bucky says, "Yeah, sure," quiet and disbelieving. Steve knows words won't help in this instance, so he stays silent.

*


Once Bucky is completely off the drugs, his body starts to heal a little faster. Bruce says, "It's still going to take a while. He needs to eat, for one thing."

Steve takes that directive to heart. He can remember perfectly all the things that Bucky liked best growing up, the things he'd beg his ma and grandma to make. It's a project now, because Steve is willing to put money on the fact that Bucky hasn't had any of that stuff in a long time, maybe not since his last furlough. Steve pushes down his panic at the thought.

He recruits Bruce to help him with making shepherd's pies, beef stew, and the other protein-heavy traditional Irish foods Bucky's family had always eaten when they could afford meat. So, not very often, actually, but they were special foods, and Steve wants Bucky to have everything special he can possibly dream up.

They start easy, though. The first thing Steve brings him is a thick slice of soda bread coated in the creamy butter Natasha picks up at the Farmer's Market.

Bucky eats it with a reverence that rivals Tony's for nuts and bolts, all the while trying to pass it off as if it is nothing more than an everyday snack. When Steve says, "I can get you more, would you like more?" he says, "Whatever you order, sir."

Steve knows he would still be ravenous in Bucky's situation. He brings the loaf and the container of butter, with a spreading tool. He sets them all in front of Bucky and tells him, "Your orders are to stop when you're no longer hungry."

Bucky polishes off everything except for the heel, and even then, he looks at it wistfully. Steve just wraps it up for another time.

*


Bucky's sweet tooth comes back—or perhaps it never went missing—quickly as he recovers. Not that he's any less enthusiastic about healthy, filling foods, but he lingers over the cookies and brownies and cakes. Natasha teaches Steve to make baklava, as it is one of the few things she knows how to do in a kitchen, a remnant of one of her undercover missions.

She licks his sticky fingers afterward, and Steve's attention is all hers for the next few hours. Bucky doesn't even ask where he's been, just eats the dinner Steve brings him voraciously, a good quarter of the pan of baklava, and reminds Steve, perfunctorily, that he is able to take punishment.

Steve punishes him by leaving another quarter of the pan. If Bucky makes himself sick, so be it.

*


Steve entrusts Clint with watching over Bucky and goes to get in some face-to-face time with Tony, who's pretending not to feel neglected. It takes several hours and blowing a few things up together, but Steve gets him settled before talking to him about moving Bucky out of the infirmary.

Four days later, Steve says, "C'mon, Buck, you need something a little more permanent than this room."

Bucky's expression is resigned, but he follows Steve. The expression goes from resigned to suspicious in less than a nano-second when they arrive at the digs Tony has set up. Tony's just separated half of Steve's floor – the half Steve has never used since his first tour of the floor – and made it so Steve has to have a key from Bucky to get in.

There are three bedrooms with en suites for him to choose from, a living area, a kitchen, and a workout room built for super-strength. Really, it looks a lot like Steve's side of the floor, but with less classic art and movie posters. Instead there's rich-colored furniture of the highest-quality—Bucky always liked deep reds, greens, blues, golds, and chocolate browns—framed pictures of some of Steve's art, for something familiar, and a few of landscapes and animals, on the theory that both are calming.

Bucky stands in front of one of Steve's drawings for a long time. It's nothing all that interesting, a watercolor of the city at night from his window. Steve has explored the changes and returned and Bucky is still standing there.

Slowly, he says, "You always liked to draw."

Steve's breath catches. "Bucky?"

Bucky clutches his head in his hands and seems to squeeze until Steve is concerned he'll hurt himself. He starts to say something, but Bucky lets go, shaking his head. "That's all there is. I can't even remember your name, or the one you call me by. Nothing."

"The drugs you were on were meant to cause amnesia and enforce submissiveness, among other things. The details will return. It's…this is good, this step."

Bucky turns around to him. "Bucky, huh?"

Steve smiles. "James Buchanan Barnes. So you have some options, if you'd like."

After a long moment Bucky shakes his head. "Nah, let's go with what was working. I probably liked it for a reason."

"All right," Steve agrees. He holds out his hand. "Steve Rogers."

It takes a bit, and Bucky looks heartbreakingly unsure, but he holds out his hand. "James Barnes. Bucky, I hear. Nice to, uh, see you again. I guess."

*


Bucky doesn't ask Steve to leave, and Steve's too much of a coward to introduce the possibility, so instead he goes into the kitchen to see if Tony's had it stocked. Predictably, he has. Steve sends Natasha an email telling her he's staying on this side for a bit. She responds, "Really, Rogers? I would never have called that."

He laughs and calls to Bucky, "You hungry?"

Bucky calls back, "No, sir!" and then, after a few seconds, as if either sensing Steve's cringe, or realizing the different circumstance, he follows it up with, "Um, Steve."

Steve makes enough for two anyway. He does quiche, because Bruce has taught him a wide-array of egg-based dishes and quiches have a density to them that he likes. He packs in ham and some strong cheddar, green onions and some broccoli, and when it's cooked he plates two slices and finds Bucky.

Bucky's curled in the back alcove of the closet in the bedroom he chose. Steve acts like that's a perfectly appropriate place for him to be. He leaves the plate with a fork and a glass of milk on a tray right next to Bucky and says, "Just in case you changed your mind," then leaves.

If Bucky's really not hungry, fine. If he thinks they're going to feed him the fucking protein pellets that were discussed in all his medical charts, not so fine.

It takes longer than Steve had hoped for—particularly because he can practically hear Bucky calculating the cost, even from outside the bedroom—but eventually he hears the clink of silverware against a plate.

*


He leaves the leftovers in Bucky's fridge with the note, "Eat, if not it will just go bad."

Then he seeks out Natasha. He's a little nervous about leaving Bucky completely alone, but JARVIS is paying attention. Also, Natasha has been remarkably patient about this whole thing. She deserves more than a little time and attention.

Unfortunately, no sooner has he gotten to her floor than the exhaustion of the past five or six days hits. His body is fully healed, but it wasn't when all this started and he hasn't been eating enough to support the kind of healing it's been doing.

Natasha takes one look at him and laughs. It's not a mean laugh, so Steve joins her, says helplessly, "I came to say hi."

She laughs a little more and pulls him through her floor, into her room. "Nap time?"

"Think you could—"

"Haven't got anywhere else to be," she cuts him off.

He's too worn to consider that there might be repercussions to saying, "I love you."

She freezes for the barest of moments, then kisses him, hot and intimate, and says, "Come to bed."

*


Tony and Bruce are in Steve's kitchen with Natasha when Steve wakes up. He takes a quick shower to freshen up before joining them. Tony gives him a cup of coffee. "I'm gonna say this quick, because you're not gonna like it, so we're going band-aid style."

Steve takes a sip of his coffee and a minute to feel safe, feel most of his team around him. His best friend in the world was essentially left for dead and non-stop tortured—Steve knows what 'punishment' is, thanks—for a lifetime. He's getting pretty used to bad news. "Okay."

"We've gotta get that arm off him. It's got tracking device upon tracking device, all of which I'm currently blocking, but we can't just lock him in the Tower for the rest of his life. Not to mention, some of the docs took x-rays while he was out and it is jacking up his spine and nervous system but good."

Steve sips again. "Okay, well, we're gonna start that process by not talking about this without him anymore and asking him what he thinks."

Tony shrugs. "I just wanted you on the same page with me."

*


Tony doesn't get any further than "multiple tracking—" when Bucky starts trying to pull the damn thing off himself. Tony says, "Whoa, whoa! Let's, uh, let's try this the way where you don't pull your spine out of your armpit and Cap doesn't kill me."

Bucky seems confused by this idea, which makes Steve want to vomit. Instead he says, "We're gonna go down to Tony's labs, where the lighting is better and he has equipment to take it off safely."

Bucky follows them down, standing in the door with the posture of a spooked cat while Tony explains how he's been blocking the signals. It seems to calm some of his fears and after a while, Dum-E comes and pokes him into the room, at which point he laughs. It sounds rusty and uncertain, but it's a laugh. "Pushy little thing, aren’t you?"

Dum-E just pokes him some more until he's sitting on a bench. Steve can see how hard he's trying to appear calm. He goes and sits on Bucky's right side. "Dum-E's an AI."

Bucky looks over at the robot and after a minute says, "Huh."

Tony puts a bunch of x-rays up on screens throughout the workshop and says, "Stop me if you have any questions," before delving into what Steve can tell is a simplified version of everything he and the doctors had talked about.

Bucky stands up and looks at the x-rays, the way his body is bent with the force of the weight.

Tony finishes with, "I can make you a lighter one, one that won't slowly crush your body, but it's going to take a little time."

Steve looks at Tony, then at Natasha, and mouths, "When was the last time Tony slept?" She just shakes her head in return. Pepper must be out of town.

Bucky says quietly, "But we can get this one off right away, right?"

Tony looks at Bruce, who looks down at his notes and says, "It's going to take a few of us, and about four hours, but yes, we can start whenever you want."

Bucky's pale and looks like he might be in a little bit of shock. Steve can't begin to imagine what's going through his head. He had a biological arm the last time Steve saw him. Steve doesn't know where it went, or how he got this one. Without being sure it's necessary for Bucky, but completely certain it's necessary for his own sanity, Steve tells him, "I'll be here."

Bucky swallows. "Please. Please, get it off."

*


Bruce, unsure of how the adulterated serum affects Bucky, does what can only politely be called drugging the everloving hell out of him so that he'll sleep through the procedure and wake up with the area still numbed out. To all evidence, it works.

Steve's bolting some food when Bucky wakes up and looks at his left arm, which is surgically wrapped where they had to remove the casing and do some cleanup work on the amputation itself. Steve had kept his promise to stay, but he didn't watch the whole time, it was too much. He trusts that Tony, Bruce, and the doctors did what they had to do.

Bucky says, "I, uh. I can't feel my left side." After a second. "To my toes."

Steve manages to suppress his wince. "Yeah, Bruce said it was possible he'd gone overboard. He can't get me numbed up at all, and he hasn't had a lot of chances to work with you, so he didn't want to take any chances."

Bucky crosses his arm over his chest, puts it at his side, then crosses it again. He cants his head. "Did we—I have this memory of us jumping off a roof."

"Yeah," Steve blinks. "Yeah, it was yours. Mom and I never had a real stable place, but your family rented a townhouse. We, uh, we were basically assholes as kids."

Something that might be a smile plays at Bucky's lips. Then he swallows. "I might still be an asshole. Couldn't tell you."

Steve does smile. "Oh, I'm counting on it."

*


It's at dinner—well, midnight snack, but Bucky's slept through dinner—that he asks, "Could you just tell me when punishment's going to be? Because I—the not knowing—"

"You're not being punished." Steve knows he should let him finish, should listen to the clues he's being given, but he can't.

Natasha puts a hand to Steve's lower back. Clint studiously eats his food. Thor looks like he's going to start the storm to end all storms. Tony and Bruce just look tired. Bucky slants them all a look that screams bullshit. He says, "I'm non-operational. Of course there's punishment."

Steve, who's gotten used to the idea that punishment is not fair, says, "Please tell me you're kidding."

Bucky just frowns. "It's in the rules. The inability to use the Asset shall be penalized by no less than a forty count to the Asset."

Steve makes himself keep breathing. It's harder than when he was growing up, and his lungs didn't always work right. "Buck, there's—that's not a real rule, and you're not just an asset, and nobody's going to punish you."

"No one shall be punishing anyone," Thor adds.

Steve looks at him. He's not sure lying is really the way to go in this instance. Natasha pulls his gaze to her and meets his eyes. "We took a vote, Cap, while you were maybe dying from punishment inflicted wounds. With Coulson at the head of SHIELD, he's abolishing team leader penalization codes anyway, but he thinks we should split off into our own entity, and we agree. The one surviving Council member, ah, declined to object. Pepper made us our own corporate entity."

Steve blinks. "Oh." Then, as it hits him, really sinks in, he says, "Oh. Wow. Wow."

Natasha smiles. "Yeah."

Bucky says, "What?"

Steve tells him, "Nobody's punishing us. Not for being sick, not for screwing up, not for anything. Nobody's getting punished. We're done with that."

Bucky's silent for a long moment. "Are you kidding?"

Steve shakes his head. "I'm not sure I've ever been more serious in my life."

Whatever Steve's expecting, it's not for Bucky to start hyperventilating, crossing his arm across his chest and clutching at himself. Thor and Clint, who are nearest to him, back up a bit to give him space. Steve says, "Crap," and starts to go to him, but Natasha holds him back.

She whispers, "You've just told him every 'rule' they trained into him, everything he's known to be true for as long as his brain can currently remember, is a lie. Try to get him breathing normally, but don't expect too much."

Steve swallows down his anger and heartbreak and goes to next to Bucky. "It's almost one o'clock in the morning and we're in Stark Tower. We're sitting at my kitchen table. You are safe. Please breathe with me. In, one, two, out, one two."

Bucky's breath hitches and starts and stops, but eventually he manages the one, two pattern, and Steve switches it out to one, two, three. Bucky's still shaking and he hides his face in his hand. Steve says, "You're all right, you're fine."

Bucky stutters, "S-sorry. I don't know what that…"

"You're fine," Steve repeats.

Natasha, who Steve hadn't even noticed leaving, comes back with a bottle of scotch and seven shot glasses, stacked neatly. She pours out a shot for each of them. Bucky's hand is unsteady as he takes it, but he throws it back just fine. Steve takes a sip, appreciating the smooth burn of it.

Bucky sets down his glass. After a second he looks at the bottle. "Can I—"

Natasha pours him another two fingers and says, "Go to town. Tony's got more where that came from, trust me."

Tony makes noises at that, but also pours himself and Bucky another shot. Bucky's smile is dented and maybe a little bit bruised, but it's a smile, all the same.

*


When Bucky's passed out—evidently the better portion of a bottle of scotch and some well-earned exhaustion will do that for him—Steve says, "I'm guessing that's not how you were planning on breaking that to me."

"Not so much," Natasha agrees. She surges up to kiss him, one hand holding his chin. When she pulls back she says, "You didn't see you, Steve. You could see bone." She swallows harshly.

Steve combs a hand through her hair. "I'm okay, Tash. I'm here."

"And we're going to keep it that way." She pauses. "No more. We're Tony's now, for better or for worse."

Steve smiles. "You once told me Tony was the easy one."

She smiles back. "I was right, wasn't I?"

*


Bucky can't ever sleep through the night. Steve finds him wandering Steve's side – Steve gave him a key from the first – or curled on the sofa, or sometimes wandering the greater tower. After about the third week of Bucky's stay, Natasha decides Steve needs to sleep through a night, even if Bucky can't, and delegates nights to the different members of the team.

Steve says, "But you guys don't know him the way I do. You didn't-- He's not your responsibility."

She responds with an unimpressed, "No, but you are," and gives him Saturday and Sunday nights.

She gives Tony and Pepper Mondays, Clint Tuesdays, Bruce Wednesdays, Thor Thursdays (with a smirk), and takes Friday for herself. Steve tries not to pry, he does, but after about a month of the rotation, Bucky says, "Out with it."

Steve blinks. "Out with…what?"

"Whatever's bothering you so loudly I can hear it from across the room."

Steve can't help the little flicker of happiness in him that Bucky has noticed, that he feels safe enough to call Steve on it. Now that he has been called on it, however, he's not sure what to say that won't sound like he doesn't trust his team or Bucky. In the end he goes with, "Are the others—are you good, with them?"

Bucky considers the question for a long enough time that Steve starts to worry all over again. Eventually, he says, "Tony's kind of a livewire," but there's a fondness to it that Steve can recognize. Bucky breathes heavily, the way he does when he's done something he deems punishment worthy.

"You get to speak your mind," Steve says, because he's found voicing aloud that Bucky hasn't done anything wrong helps. "You get to speak it whether someone asks, like I did, or if you just have an opinion to offer."

"Clint—Clint has a lot of good hiding places."

Steve has to remind Bucky, "You're allowed to hide," and wait again until they can go on, but it's a good sign that at least Bucky's telling him these things.

"Bruce has been teaching me how to make cakes. Haven't made an edible one so far."

Steve can only imagine how many panic attacks Bruce has had to walk Bucky through. Failure of any type is still a major trigger. Bucky's breathing heavily enough that Steve reminds him, "Nobody makes a perfect cake their first time, not unless they're some kind of culinary savant."

"Thor tells me stories." Bucky's breathing evens out. "About you guys, mostly. But sometimes about Jane or Asgard. He's pretty entertaining. And Natasha."

"Nat spars with you." Steve has seen the bruises.

"Natasha kicks my ass," Bucky corrects, and there's an uptick in his breathing, but not so heavy as it was before.

Steve holds his hand up to let Bucky see it coming, and squeezes his shoulder. "Natasha kicks everyone's ass. Even Thor, from time to time. It's a fact of life, buddy."

*


Bucky sleeps one of two places: in his closet, or under his bed. On the nights Steve's allowed to take care of him, he generally tries to get the both of them to squeeze in, so that Bucky can get some sleep. Under the bed is easiest, and it's also where Tony can wander in and sidle up to Steve to try and get some rest of his own.

When Clint finds out about this, he abandons his own hidey-holes on weekends to cuddle up to Steve underneath Bucky's bed. Whoever gets there first burrows into Steve, and the next person snuggles in to whoever was there first. Nat occasionally joins and claims pride of place next to Steve.

Nobody gets on Bucky's other side, nobody hems him in. But now and then, he'll reach a hand over Steve and squeeze the shoulder of the person closest, or even roll in close enough that they can throw an arm over Steve and place it lightly on his arm or hip.

*


Steve finally agrees to spar with Bucky when they're both back up to recommended weight, and their healing processes are working correctly. The two of them strip down to shorts and Steve turns around to get into a sparring stance only to see Bucky looking at him, stricken.

"Buck?"

"They hurt you," he says, low and angry.

Steve has a thousand thoughts all at once: a sharp, almost painful gratitude that Bruce's care has cleaned up the worst of the scarring; confusion, because Bucky knows Steve was subject to punishment; a pang of familiarity at that voice, that tone of protection. When he manages to pull even a few of his thoughts together, all he can say is, "Punishment."

Bucky hisses, which makes Steve happy, that Bucky's finally realizing that word is a euphemism. He comes closer, hesitating as he reaches out, but Steve just stays where he is, lets Bucky touch all he wants. They don't hurt, not anymore.

"No more," Bucky pronounces, so much intent behind the words Steve can almost feel it. "Never."

"No, Buck, no more," Steve agrees. Because even if the worst happens, and somehow the team ends up under military or governmental purview again, Steve's the team leader, and they will never, ever touch Bucky again. He knows that's not what Bucky means, but it's what Steve means. Bucky is done being hurt.

Bucky flattens his palm over Steve's back and repeats, "No more."


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile