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[personal profile] charybdis
Title: Heart settled, hands cold (aka Brainships! the Halo+Warchild+Honor Harrington mix)
Characters: Bucky Barnes, Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, various Avengers and Avenging auxiliaries.
Summary: Endgame ship is Bucky Barnes/Steve Rogers/Tony Stark, inspired by windsweptfic's amazing fic, Aboard the MV Hawkeye, but not in the same verse. More like an AU of an AU. Things got out of hand and messy towards the end, structure-wise. Brainships and space travels are totally my jam, but I lost interest pretty much as soon as Cap2 came out, because Bucky/Natasha/Steve/Sam OT4. There are some scenes missing in the middle, too. Title is a quote from Warchild by Karin Lowachee.


It’s a long-standing joke between the three of them, always will be, that Tony picked Bucky up in a lift on Terran Central Station — looked over at his bag and his uniform and his ‘tags, and said, “Headed home, soldier?” with just the right kind of edge to his smile, and Bucky said, “Not ‘till tomorrow,” on reflex, grinned back without even thinking about it.

It’s a cleaned-up version of the truth, a story they can laugh about, a decade — or two, in Tony’s case — distant from the idiocy of their youth.

***

Terran Central Station is a military academy station, which is to say, it’s generally pretty rowdy, packed with kids who are smart enough to weaponize Jello and young enough to actually think that that’s a great idea. But it’s the middle of Quals — the UTCF Officer Qualification Exams — so the corridors are deserted when Bucky steps off the dock, and the recycled air smells of stale caff and postponed showers and just the faintest whiff of desperation, all the indicators of frantic studying.

Everything Bucky owns is in his bag, and his body is vaguely achy. He probably should have waited for a bioship with a proper hyperdrive, instead of catching the first transport he could talk his way onto, especially after they’d warned him that the inertial compensators were acting up. He’s looking forward to a shower with real water pressure and a bed that doesn’t fold out of a ship’s hull — has been since he said goodbye to Serrano and the rest of the 107th, back on Charlemagne Station.

But Tony Stark hits on him in the lift, well-dressed and almost confident enough to hide the fact that he can’t be more than eighteen, introduces himself with a handshake that’s anything but childish.

Bucky’s heard the name before — Stark Universal bioships are pretty much god’s gift to the Forces, and everyone in the service knows about the Stark family, the brains behind all that tech — and he can’t help asking, “Your parents know where you are, kid?”

Tony doesn't flinch, which is impressive. He just shrugs, says, "Well they know I'm on Terran Central Station, and they know I don't spend my nights studying for my Qualification Exams, because seriously, who does?” The lift door slides open to Tony’s floor, and he pauses on the threshold, half-turns to ask Bucky, “You want a drink?” with magnificent innuendo.

Bucky shoulders his bag and follows Tony to his apartment.

They fuck three times that night. It’s the best sex Bucky has had in his life, which isn't saying all that much, since the sum of his previous experience has been squeezed into the space of time it takes to call for a shuttle pickup or between campaigns, distracted, a little desperate. Tony maps out his body with machinist’s hands, gradual and intent, but not too gentle, like he wants to take Bucky apart, piece by piece, rebuild him into something better. He lets Bucky suck him off slow, lingering on the edge for long minutes, cursing with shocking creativity, but his fingers are light in Bucky’s hair, willing, as if he could do this all night.

After the second time, Tony draws absent patterns on his back, and Bucky pretends not to recognize stock firing solutions for the Magnetic Accelerator Cannon. Bucky asks, “What’s a rich kid like you doing, taking military quals?” Of course, Bucky means, Your family is richer than the Council, could probably buy the Commonwealth twice over, what’re you doing in the Service? and Tony's hand stills.

"My parents have this thing about military service," Tony says lightly. "It was this or officer school — desk job shit — and you know, I've always wanted to see the stars." It’s the first thing he's said tonight that sounds like it might be the truth, and Bucky appreciates that, the way Tony knows what is important to him, even though he's like, seventeen.

"Wouldn’t have pegged you as the romantic type, Stark." He can’t help thinking that this kid might be unimaginably ballsy but he sure as hell isn’t prepared for the kind of bloody, grinding horror of an actual war.

Tony says, "Oh, it's not romance. No way," so intense that Bucky opens his eyes, stares at him frankly, and Tony doesn't back off. "No, it's- it's power, I guess." He bites the inside of his lip thoughtfully.

"You're on the Force, you've seen it," Tony says, finally, "The way the galaxy opens up around you, the incandescence of the atmosphere, and all that space, the acceleration when you hit the hyper-interface." He leans back, makes gestures at the ceiling as if he can describe the shape of it while he talks, "It's like, knowing that there's so much out there, don't you want to be able to see it all? I mean, that's what you do with a hyperdrive, right, it's a way to move time and space, and that's, I mean, it’s not power, or it doesn’t take much, it’s just a sideways slip, see. But that's power, better than the brute force of sublight engines or whatever, that's what I'm talking about."

"Okay, okay," Bucky says, "I get it. Space is beautiful."

"Yeah," Tony says, and his eyes are a little flatter, then, gleaming opaque with suggestiveness, and Bucky knows how to work with that, and when Tony reaches for him, he goes.

They fall asleep tangled up in each other, well-fucked and exhausted.

Bucky wakes up in Tony's apartment, still feeling lax and pleased. When he rolls out of bed, something crackles underneath his feet. They had stumbled to the bed last night and ignored the fact that the floor was littered with what Bucky assumed were texts for the engineering quals, no matter what Tony had said about studying. But when Bucky stares blearily at the large sheet of paper that he's standing on, it's actually a hand-drawn schematic for something complex, mechanical, and vaguely familiar.

"Never seen a hyperdrive look like that before,” he says. “Is it any good?"

"That's proprietary tech," Tony mumbles into his pillow, and then, squinting and raising his head with monumental effort, he adds, "You recognize a disassembled hyperdrive? What're you doing in an enlisted soldier's uniform?" as if he half-suspects it’s some kind of uniform kink.

It says something about Stark, Bucky thinks, that he’s more likely to make time with a fellow genius with a uniform kink than an enlisted man who actually gets how a hyperdrive works.

Bucky says, "Well, we can't all afford to go to certification school; some of us gotta work for a livin’," tries not to scowl too much.

"You’ve just proved you're not stupid,” Tony says, obviously trying for reasonable and failing miserably. “The exam fee for engineer quals are like, ten C-credits — hell, I could pay your fee, if you wanted in. Knowing how a hyperdrive works puts you ahead of more than ninety percent of those morons."

Bucky stares at the back of Tony’s head, which is about all he can see, since he’s still face-down in the bed. Bucky clenches his fists at his sides, can’t figure out where to start in, can’t decide which part of that spiel was the most insulting-

Then Tony's AI chimes, says, "There is a voice call for a James Barnes," in a perfectly modulated vocal sim, and Bucky moves, grabs his universal comm off of the night stand, says, tightly, "I'll take it on my comm," and settles it over his ear, grabbing for his clothes with his other hand.

In the background, Tony’s sitting up, muttering, “A voice call, really? What kind of technophobe doesn’t use holo- or video, at least?”

It doesn’t matter, though, because it’s Steve on the comm, and Bucky can feel the tension drain out of him as soon as Steve says, “Hey,” even though he follows it up with, “Tell me your shuttle isn’t going to be ‘delayed’ by a pretty face, Barnes.”

“If you think I’m gonna miss my flight planetside, you are sadly mistaken,” Bucky replies, “I’ve been missing real dirt under my feet for weeks.” This is a lie, but he can’t say that he misses Steve, not here, not now.

“You’d better be on that flight, Barnes. I’ve got better things to do than hang around that rickety dock all say.” He’s smiling. Bucky can actually hear it in Steve’s voice, and he feels himself smiling, too — goddamnit, he’s so pathetic.

“Your wish,” Bucky says, trying to get himself under control by focusing on doing up his shirt, putting on his pants. “See ya, pal.”

When he disconnects the call, a knowing smirk spreads across Tony’s face, he says, "Got a boy back home, huh?"

“That ain’t it.” Bucky fastens his belt and shrugs into his jacket, feeling suddenly very grown-up, he says, "I got family," because that’s what Steve is.

Tony doesn’t have an answer for that one. Bucky collects his things in silence, leaves with an absent, “Thanks, man,” thrown over his shoulder, hardly looking back.

***

New Earth is a grimy city, filthy with the kind of dirt that nothing will ever grow in, but it’s home to Bucky, looks good from the air, busy with aircars and smeared with just the right amount of smog, going radiant with color as the sun comes up.

Steve is waiting for him at the shuttle dock, still as skinny as ever, but it’s Bucky’s heart turning over when he catches sight of him, smiling and waving like a lunatic. Bucky hugs Steve tight when he reaches him, drops his bag to do it, but he manages to say, “Good to see you, Rogers,” in a normal voice, at least.

“Got something to tell you,” Steve says, as soon as Bucky lets him go. “About the pilot initiative.”

Bucky braces himself to commiserate over a stuffy rejection letter, except-

“They let me in,” says Steve, a little breathless from excitement. He’s grinning fit to bust, and Bucky’s heart drops so fast, he would swear he can hear it crack on the grit-covered floor.

***

There is no cleaned-up story about how Bucky and Steve met. The closest they can come is, we met when we were ten, which is a fact, and not a story at all.

***

"Hey, I'm sure your family’s fine," Bucky says, over the whine of the overworked inertial compensators, as the ship lurches into the hyper-interface. They’ve just met, but he’s already given Steve his coat — it’s the least he can do after the kid held up the whole evacuation ship when he caught sight of Bucky running down the gangway — he’s not sure what else he can do to stop him shaking so much. "There‘re a ton of other evac ships headin’ off-planet, I wouldn't worry about it, kid."

The coat is too big, handed down from a cousin, and more like a blanket on Steve than a garment. He’s tucked it around his skinny body, neat and tight, which Bucky appreciates, because each time the ship jerks, Steve retches like he’s about to spew his guts out.

The ship’s windowless hold is dimly lit and crammed with other refugees from Liberty Colony, clinging to each other and calling out for loved ones, or, like Steve, holding off space-sickness by the skin of their teeth. It’s a cargo hold, not meant to carry passengers — they’re lucky it has gravity. He doesn’t bother trying to find his family. They’re on the ship right ahead, he knows, because they were the last ones on the ship before it filled up, the last ones to board before they closed the hatch right in Bucky’s face.

They’re all headed for New Earth anyway, so there’s nothing to worry about. It’s just a natural disaster — a chain-reaction of supernovae one system over — they have whole days to evacuate before the radiation levels become fatal.

Steve spits bile onto the deck plates before he looks up at Bucky, says, perfectly distinctly, "My mother died a week ago. My father is on deep-space deployment. I don't have family." Then he goes back to putting his head between his knees.

Something about the way his voice is steady and matter-of-fact, even through the shakes, makes Bucky say, "Stick with me, kid. We'll be fine," makes him put his hand on Steve’s shoulder, horribly thin even under the heavy fabric.

It seems to settle him, though, and bit by bit, the shakes ease, until Steve is slumped into Bucky’s side, silent and grateful.



“They let me in,” says Steve, and Bucky’s heart drops.

They’ve gone back to the old apartment, are sharing drinks in an age-old tradition of soldiers and homecomings, though it’s more because Bucky needs a drink than out of any sense of celebration. He can't even make a joke about this, because he knows how much Steve wanted to get into the pilot program, always has — he can't make a crack, because it's going to come out wrong, bitter and cruel, and he does it anyway, says, "Couldn't find anyone else stupid enough to take the gig, huh?"

And yeah, it comes out wrong, stunned and flat, but Steve barely notices, his smile doesn't flicker, brilliant enough to light a whole system.

"Come on, Buck, I'm going to be a pilot. The recruiter for the program, Lieutenant Carter — Mags, she said to call her, you'd like her — signed me on yesterday.”

And it's like this: Steve doesn't need protection, doesn't want it, hates it when Bucky tries to look after him. But, well, that's Bucky's job. All those years ago, he'd said, Stick with me kid, and he meant it, is still finding out just how much, and he's well and truly fucked.

He says, “You sure about this?”

“Yes, I’m sure. This is the only way I'm going to see the stars.” Steve sounds so reasonable, as if he’s not talking about a decision that’s tantamount to suicide. Bucky knocks back his drink so that he won’t have to look Steve in the eyes, slumps down a little further into the cushions of the beat-up couch.

When they were fifteen, Bucky sat right here and held Steve as he coughed up blood all over the floor, forced meds down Steve's throat when he had to. Bucky begged, coerced, stole what they couldn’t afford. He managed to keep Steve from literally coughing up his lungs, though, kept saying, "That’s all I got, but it's better than nothing."

He said that a lot. Better than nothing. Steve never argued, because he knew Bucky wasn’t wrong.

It was never enough, but Bucky wasn’t wrong.

"I guess I can get rid of this rat-trap, at least, huh?" Bucky’s gesture takes in the dingy apartment, the few pieces of beat-up furniture, the walls thin enough to let in the buzzing oscillations of the aircar engines outside, the ever-present toolbox that they leave out because there’s always something that needs fixing.

Steve says, "I'm moving out, but don't you want to have a place to come back to?"

Bucky pours himself another drink, carefully doesn't say that if Steve isn't here, there isn't anything worth coming back for, says, "Sure, but I think I can do better than this piece of shit place, now that I'm getting real pay."

He can't — his pay won't really catch up to his rank for a couple of years yet — but it's okay, so long as Steve is looking at him with that same wry fondness, saying, "Moving on to something better already? I always knew this day would come, Barnes. Oh well — maybe I’ll try for someone with half-way decent brains, this time."

Steve is grinning, angled in close with the natural sag of the couch cushions, and Bucky doesn't even have to force his smile in response, because he's crazy, that's all there is to it, and it’s just so easy, he can't help himself, and Steve is right there, dark eyes gleaming with secret amusement, the corner of his mouth tucked into a smirk, and-

The kiss takes them both by surprise.

It’s impossible to tell who initiated it, or if they reached out in accord, and Bucky leans in instinctively, his heart pounding. Just a press of lips, simple and chaste. Steve smells like dust and soap and home, and Bucky slides his arm around Steve’s waist, tugs him in tight against his side. Bucky doesn’t even think to be embarrassed about the way he sighs into it, like a lovesick kid getting his first kiss.

Then Steve reaches up to cradle Bucky’s face in his slender, clever hands, pulling insistently until Bucky catches a hint and tilts down for a better angle and— jesus, then Steve opens his mouth, flicks his tongue along the curve of Bucky’s lower lip, experimental and inviting, and chaste goes right out the window. Steve squirms into Bucky’s lap,


“I’m still going,” says Steve, disentangling himself gently. He stays close, though, close enough that Bucky can rest his cheek against Steve’s soft hair, so that he doesn’t have to watch Steve’s face, painfully optimistic, when he says, “Someday, you’ll be a Captain, and you’ll be glad to have me as your pilot then.”

This is what he gets for leaving his best friend behind, and he bears it like the penance that it is, memorizes the way that Steve fits just right against him, just like he always has, tries not to think about losing this to cryogenic chambers and ship interface cables.

“You deserve better.” It's the first time that Bucky's said it out loud — he doesn't just mean about the ship, either, and unfortunately for him, it looks like Steve knows it.

“I don't know why you're so hung up on that, Buck,” Steve says, pulling away. His smile is small, tired, and it makes Bucky’s chest ache in a way that he can’t quite identify as either shame or hope. “If no one's going to give me what I deserve, I'll take what I can get.” Then he ruins it by saying, “Better than nothing, yeah?”

“Jesus, Steve.” He’s thinking of blood-spatter on the bathroom wall, a pattern that has nothing to do with arterial spray and everything to do with pneumonia. “It’s a death sentence,” Bucky says, because that’s all it’s ever meant — a slower death than some, maybe, but death, regardless.

“Just let me take the Quals, all right?” And that right there — that’s not Steve asking for permission — he never asks for permission. That’s Steve asking Bucky to let it go for now, because he doesn’t want to argue about it. “If I don't pass, I promise I'll drop it. I'll go back to the control deck, be safe with the rest of the colony. But I have to try.”

“I know, I know,” says Bucky. Thing is, Steve will drop it if he doesn't pass the quals — he wouldn't put anyone's life in danger by trying to pilot a ship if he wasn't capable. And what can it hurt, anyway? (Well, it can hurt a lot, but Bucky has no right — he knows what the right thing to do is.)

This is what he will take with him, all these memories of Steve, the way he smiles over his drink, the one shot that he has, because alcohol doesn't agree with him, and a second one would end with his guts on the floor. The way his mouth turns up at the side when he says something dry, amused and fond, even though his voice is all sarcasm. The way he fits so neatly against Bucky's side, like they were made for it. The way, when Bucky reaches up to cup Steve’s face in his hands, he turns his head to the side at just the right moment, lets Bucky’s fingertips slide into his mouth and runs his tongue over the trigger callus there, slow and dirty.

Bucky never does get to meet Lieutenant Carter. He can’t say he’s sorry.

***

Bucky signs up for a deep-space patrol, and ends up with a raiding squad, the crew of a destroyer, flying dark through asteroid fields, in pursuit of slavers and pirates and worse — the criminals of the universe that the police have forgotten about or washed their hands of. He's good at it, the way he's not so good at following direct orders or sitting on a bridge crew.

For two years, Bucky collects nightmares the way that some dirtsiders collect insects, each one pinned neatly to his brain, stuck through the middle, transfixed. He learns to recognize the sound that stabbing makes on bare flesh, the pop-slap of a knife, not just the over-comms crack-squeal-hiss of a suit being exposed to vacuum. He finds out what torture looks like, from both sides.

He starts to carry his plasma blade in a sheath strapped to his gun. It's not regulation, but at least he's got a permit for it now, and no one says a word to him about it after he takes back the ship from a well-organized boarding party — cuts open their throats, one by one, until there are none left, vents them all out the airlock, some of them still bleeding freely, leaving a trail of red droplets that glitters in the light of the system's central star.

He grew up taking every advantage that he could get, and by god, he's not abandoning his edge now, not when it actually matters.

Bucky's the first — the only — to come out of the Manticore Belt alive, and he has the scars to show for it, the twisting, brilliant fear that he beats by sheer force of will.

He gets promoted, and they send him off to a capital ship to be part of the boarding force. He learns how to fly a fighter, mainly out of necessity, when his Commander makes a bad decision involving a nuke and an unexpectedly powerful laser cannon, loses half their fighters to the resulting explosion and half of the remainder to radiation poisoning.

He gets promoted, gets blood on his hands up to his shoulders, knocks boots with people where he can, doesn't think about the nights he had back home, wrapped up in his dirtside boy — it’s the kind of thing that they tease you about, if you ever admit to it.

Voice calls are impractical, with the ship in hyperspace so often, so Steve sends messages, and Bucky keeps them, has a whole folder of little memory chips — or, he did, until Manticore, when they got lost with the rest of his squad, his ship. He’s sent some of his own, keeps sending them long after he runs out of things to say, ends up sending a half-dozen of nothing but, I miss you, pal, because everything he wants to say is either too classified to tell Steve, or too personal to let the censors hear.

The end of his latest tour is coming up fast, and he gets a voice call from Steve, telling him that the final Quals are in a month, he's going to be a pilot, he wants Bucky to come watch. Bucky is going to say no, wants to say hell no, you’re asking this of me, I can’t watch you do this. But he thinks about the way that Steve pressed his face against the window of the shuttle, back when they went up to the moon, about the way Steve came in, holding a letter with the Forces seal, and said, My father is dead, in the same matter-of-fact way he'd told Bucky about his mother, that first day.

He wants to say no, but he doesn’t — it’s not as though Steve’s got anyone else to ask, and Bucky says, “Yeah, all right. I'll be there,” because he never had a choice, really.

***

Bucky doesn’t remember what happened during the final Qual, but it doesn’t matter — he knows how it ended up.

He knows — well, he’s been told — that they were attacked, that they lost the hyperdrive and comms, had to haul ass ten light-years back into radio range on sublight engines, barely pushing 0.9c. 

He knows he opened his eyes two days later, and ten years later, too — relativity is a fucking scourge — in a UTCF hospital, with a mess of cables and a cybernetic interface where his left arm used to be.

And he knows that by the time he woke up, Steve was dead.

***

Colonel Maria Hill tells him that it's a miracle that they hit 0.9c — that level of strain should have killed the sublight drive, and it should have been impossible for an inexperienced pilot not to hit a nova or skim a gravity-well at a hull-fracturing angle or something. She's not smiling, but Bucky can tell she’s pleased. 

He wants to punch her in the throat.

She stands over his bed in the sterile hospital room, and tells Bucky that Steve was injected with the powerful interface drugs, had to initiate a full uplink in order to pilot a ship that close to lightspeed without a hyperdrive. The process is not reversible. It’s not her fault, he knows — knows that Steve asked for it, did it to save all of them, without a second thought — but she doesn’t have to look so damn smug about it.

When she’s done, she says, “Any questions, Sergeant?” as smooth as if she debriefs relativity-shocked soldiers every day.

“Can I see him?” says Bucky. That’s what matters, after all.

Colonel Hill gives him a long, flat stare that says she doesn’t think much of his intelligence. “No.”  She doesn’t dissemble, doesn’t offer platitudes or doublespeak — under other circumstances, he might respect that.

“What?”

“No,” she repeats, says, “Steve Rogers is officially KIA, and has already been reassigned to pilot a bioship. Those orders are direct from General Fury. If you don’t like it, take it up with the Ethics Council. No other questions?” Bucky stares at her, appalled, and she snaps out, “Fine,” sounding as if it’s some kind of warning.

“We’re releasing you today,” Colonel Hill says, as she stands up. “Good day, Sergeant Barnes.”

***

Take it up with the Ethics Council, she’d said. 

The legal battle goes on for six months. Bucky spends his time in the library, in the gym, in the nearest bar, almost never sees the fucking sun. 

He misses Steve, and that shouldn’t be anything new, because he has spent the last three (thirteen) years with nothing but a handful of voice calls and a lost stack of message-chips. But it is new, knowing that Steve is gone, that it’s already too late.

***

Tony Stark finds him in a bar. This maybe shouldn’t surprise Bucky as much as it does — everyone knows that a sober Stark is an unhappy Stark.

It's the first day that Bucky's brought his appeal before the UTCF Ethics Council, and the majority of them looked at him like he was nothing more than a dumb grunt. Tomorrow, he gets to stand up in front of those stuffed shirts and give a bullshit speech that he wrote himself because no one wants to go against General Fury’s grand designs.

So when Tony Stark slides up next to him and offers to buy him a drink, Bucky says, “Sure what the hell,” then does a double-take. “Stark? I coulda sworn you’d have quit the Service by now.”

Stark tips his head to the side, like he can’t remember who Bucky is — and of course he can’t, why should he remember a soldier he slept with once, well over a decade ago? Then he says, “Barnes, isn’t it,” his voice cool, impersonal. “I thought you’d be older by now. What happened to you, bad run-in with relativity?"

It's clear that Stark’s expecting to hear something about experimental Prolong treatments, maybe, or a story about a soldier and a black hole, but Bucky knocks back his shot, says, "Got it in one, Stark."

Stark’s eyes widen, just a bit. "That must be a truly epic story,"

Bucky grins with all his teeth, says, "You got no idea," and then takes off his gloves. 

Stark’s eyes get really wide, and he exhales a long whistle, says, “Damn Barnes, that is impressive.” Then he leans in, suddenly all attention, says, with increasing indignation, “Or it would be, if it weren’t made of junk, shit, whoever gave you this really doesn’t like you much, do they, I mean, these connections look like they were done by ten-year-olds, and is this actually brass plating, that’s not going to last you more than a couple of years, if you’re lucky, look, it’s corroding already, gross. I could do so much better than this, hell, you could probably do better than this, god, it hurts just to look at, I swear-”

“If you don’t like it Stark, no one’s forcing you to stand there yammering about it.”

At this point, though, Stark is actually holding Bucky’s wrist in one hand and groping for something in the pocket of his suit jacket with the other, and he mutters back distractedly, “Yeah, yeah, look let me just- this will only take a second, I have to fix that, at least, it’s fucking disgusting—” He comes up with a small utility tool, flicks open a screwdriver and pokes around in Bucky’s forearm for a moment, something sparks, something crackles, and the bartender gives them a dirty look, but after a minute, Stark draws back and says, “Move your fingers.”

Bucky does, and the delay is barely noticeable, and the range of motion is almost natural, he can curl the metal digits against his palm, almost all the way in. He does it a few times, surprised and secretly pleased, but when he looks up to thank Stark, Stark is staring at the metal hand with a look of deep irritation plain across his features.

“That’s not good, look at that — no independent action? Jesus, what the hell—” Stark looks up eventually, though, says, “Tell you what, let me make you a new one.”

“I don’t need your charity, Stark,” Bucky’s response is immediate and automatic, but Stark just raises his eyebrows and retorts, “Yeah, what, totally not charity, we’ve been talking about scaling down and internalizing something like the bioships’ neural interface for military robotic prosthetics, and the designs are done, mostly, and I mean, I’ve tested them on myself, well, sort of, but we still haven’t seen what they’ll stand up to for prolonged wear. Seriously, do you know how long this kind of development testing usually takes? This isn’t charity, man, I am just proposing a mutually beneficial solution here; you’re right here, you can come down to the lab in a couple of days, I don’t have to wait for anyone to find real development volunteers.”

Before Bucky can answer, he’s interrupted by the advent of a woman at Stark’s elbow. She’s speaking almost before she’s in earshot, “Answer your comm, Mr. Stark. You’d think I have nothing better to do than chase you around bars all afternoon.”

Stark attempts to distract her by introducing her to Bucky — “First person ever to walk out on me.” But this doesn’t work out too well, since Pepper smiles at Bucky with real warmth, shakes his hand firmly, and says, “Congratulations on your good judgement, Sergeant Barnes.”

Hey,” says Stark, but when Pepper herds him out, he goes, only pausing to say over his shoulder, “The lab, Barnes. Be there.”

Pepper stays for a moment longer, tells Bucky, "If you are coming to the lab, you'll need one of these," and she hands him an ID chip, "Otherwise you may set off some of the more impossible security systems." And then she smiles at him again, and he holds on to the ID chip and gives her a little salute, grinning, but doesn't exactly manage to say anything beyond maybe, "Do I want to know?"

"Military-grade laser-targeting," Pepper says, and follows Stark out.

Bucky curls the metal fingers all the way into the palm, far enough to hold a knife, now— that makes a difference — and pretends that he’s actually debating whether or not he’s going to go.

***

Stark has something in his chest, something that glows like a small star, giving off light right through the shirt that he’s wearing. 

Bucky says, "Quite a fashion statement," and Stark smiles like a shark, like a predator, and says, "Barnes, you got no fucking idea," like they've been doing this forever.

Tony is different. Bucky would say that he’s grown into his power, but he was confident at seventeen, assured and certain even then, used to having wealth and influence at his fingertips.

He upgrades the neural interface, comes up with something sleek and perfect and shining, and Bucky runs his tongue over his teeth just to look at it, and Tony laughs, low and knowing.

There's no HUD, and there are no external sensors so the feeling is pretty much nothing beyond feedback on what he's doing with it, but it works fine, a thousand times better than the old one, and Stark says, "Adamantium, great right?"

Bucky tilts his head to the side and slides his hand into the space between them, watches Tony's mouth go surprised, and then slack. Bucky laughs, "You are such a freak, Stark," but he follows through, gets a hard kiss for his trouble, and they do it right there, surrounded by the blueprints and the engineering and the parts.



Tony never took off his shirt. Or rather, he didn't like Bucky touching the arc reactor. The first time, he actually flinched when Bucky touched it, pulled back, something terrified (wounded) flashing across his expression for just a split second, and Bucky held his hands up, offered to call it off right then. But Tony Stark, never good with limits, licked his lips and wrapped his fingers around Bucky's metal wrist, and said, "Nah, I wanna feel this. Inside me." And if there's one thing Tony knows, it how to get his own way.

And then, later on, the second, the third time, Bucky knows better than to try anything, but. Tony keeps his shirt on most of the time, and Bucky thought, at first, that it was because touching the arc reactor full-on might burn him or something. But he does it, once, by accident, and nothing happens, other than Tony flinching away and changing the subject very fast. (He doesn't try to touch it again, after that.

***

He only finds out later that Tony's parents died when he was seventeen — the day after he took his quals, jesus, that answers the question of what happened to the kid that wanted to see the stars — that Tony was kidnapped and tortured by Rebellion soldiers in the Outer Colonies, last year. 

***

At the next hearing, Stark is there to provide expert testimony about bioship systems. He looks stunned to see Bucky there.

Stark opens his mouth, looks straight at him, and then says, “Wait a second, no, no, I have no idea. Can't remember a fucking thing, I got no notes or anything, see?” And he holds up his hands, does a ridiculous 'nothing up my sleeves' gesture like a children's party entertainer, and then gets up and leaves. Doesn't look at Bucky, after that initial glance.

***

Pepper Potts corners Bucky during the recess, though, says, “Mr. Stark would like a word, when you have a moment.”




Bucky knows that Tony's only into him for the sex. And that's not bad, sure, but it makes him confused when Tony pulls the stunt at the hearing. Or well. It confuses him until he comes down to the labs and hears Tony talking to Steve, walks in on them, on a ridiculous holo that he recognizes in an instant, because well, he'd know Steve anywhere — and how the fuck did Stark manage to get that right? The graceful curve of his gestures, the way he stands like he's ready to fight for it, like he could move the universe if he had to.

And then Steve turns around, and god, that's worse, because Stark got the face just right, and a ghost shouldn't be so bright, so perfect. Shouldn't fucking light up the way Steve does when he realizes that it's Bucky.

The holo doesn't flicker, not once, as Steve moves across the lab, and Bucky thinks absently that that's some fucking high-class tech that Stark has in his lab, for fuck's sake. But he mostly is concerned with the way Steve's voice is washing over him, worried, a little upset — he hadn't been told about the arm, apparently — familiar and too close to home.

Bucky would follow Steve anywhere, but where Steve's going, he can't follow. He says, “Jesus, Steve, I just wanted you to— I'm out of it for one decade— They told me you were—.”

Steve gives him a wry little smile, says, “Not so much.”

Bucky looks at him, then, really looks, at the way he's perfect, this image that Tony Stark has made for him, for all that it's slightly see-through around the edges, topped off with the too-familiar expression, hopeful and horribly determined. 

“I can’t believe you




Tony's been building the America for the past couple of years, the first superdreadnought with a bioship pilot, and now he doesn't have to scale down, they don't have to work with an auxiliary AI, nothing, Steve just hooks in, the first ship of its kind, and that's it.


“We couldn't find anyone with a high enough score to pilot it,” says Tony, who has been watching this whole exchange with some shock, and Tony looks kind of constipated, almost, like the emotion in the air is making him sick.

Bucky rounds on 

Tony has been basically engineering a ship interface specifically for Steve, performing feats of engineering in an attempt to impress this guy that he doesn't know beyond a name and voice from his speakers (and a holo, but he built that holo, too, so it doesn't really count.)

Tony his hands, says, "I know, I'm sorry, really, you have no idea how hard that is for me to say, jesus, but in my defense, until this morning, I didn't know that your boy was Steve Rogers."

Bucky hisses, “He's not my fuckin' boy, Stark. He's dead,” with all the venom in him, and Steve leaves without another word, winks out, just like that.

After a long, silent moment, Tony moves in, doesn't touch, but he gets too close and he says, “Hey look, I get where he's coming from — the ability to see the stars, I mean, I know what that's like, even hooking in, you get to feel actual space on your skin, I think about it, sometimes, more than I should I guess — but if it's any consolation, I think he was an idiot to choose the ship over you.”

Bucky doesn't even think about it, just moves, decks him — not hard, not with intent, but it's enough to knock Tony down anyway, and he's smart enough that he just sighs at the ceiling and says, “Well shit, I probably deserved that one.”

Pepper's at the door, undoubtably summoned by the commotion, and she says, “Do not even think it, Sergeant.” She steps aside to let him through. He can hear her though, as he goes up the stairs saying, “Oh no, Tony, you really did deserve that. You didn't hire me to lie to you and I'm not going to start now.” 

***

Bucky goes straight back to his quarters and packs up. It's almost suspicious how quickly he gets his orders for the Hawkeye — but then, they were probably just waiting for him to lose the appeal, to assign him to a crap ship at the edge of the commonwealth. By noon the next day, he's on a transport to the Eumenides system, leaving his friends behind again. Thing is, this time it feels like he's the one being left behind.

***

The Hawkeye is not an old ship — not like the Union Jack — but Bucky can see the hull as he heads to the docks, battle-scarred and dull next to the sleek merchant liners docked on either side of it. Due for a refit, maybe, but the Service can be lax on maintenance, when the Captain of a ship doesn't have the time or inclination to push a refit through on schedule.

Bucky steps on board, through the airlock that actually does have a shiny new seal, through a narrow corridor that's all edges and angles, from bulkhead to bulkhead, straight through until he comes to an open space that looks like a common area.

There's someone waiting for him next to the doorway. Not military, dressed in civilian clothes, some old-fashioned style that reminds Bucky of the kind of thing they used to wear on the farm when he was a kid. 

He's not surprised to find that it's Hawkeye.

Hawkeye looks him up and down, says, "Sergeant Barnes, huh. What'd you do to deserve this?" And Bucky says, "Swore at a General," because that's true, even if it ain't the answer, and Hawkeye grins, says, "I like it. Welcome aboard the Hawkeye, headed for the ass-end of nowhere, underway in twenty hours."

"Where's the Captain?" Bucky asks, because seriously, less than twenty-four hours out, and they haven't even got a captain?

Hawkeye doesn't answer, just makes a sound that might be a snort and shakes his head. But a voice does say, "We will pick up Captain Musey on our the way to the Eumenides system." And Bucky turns around, just as a woman in a stripped-down black jumpsuit walks in. Her utility belt is bare — no holster, no weapon except for a single huge knife — and the only equipment she has is large multitool and a vac helmet under her arm.

She doesn't smile, but her expression softens a little when she looks Bucky up and down, decides he isn't lacking. She's possibly the most dangerous-looking person he's seen in his life, not tall, but she moves like a snake.

"Specialist Natalia Romanova," she introduces herself, and she has the hard handshake of someone who grew up in a high grav-field, and Bucky has to quell the urge to squeeze back, harder. 

She nods then, and there's no mistaking the approval, though he can't quite work out why. “I'll give you the quick tour and show you to your quarters."

Hawkeye raises an eyebrow at that, says, "Woah, slow down there, Nat, he's not even formally registered to this ship yet."

She flips him off, but her smile is sudden, sharp and honest, and it takes Bucky's breath away, even though it's not directed at him. "Come, Sergeant Barnes."

The quarters she shows him to are in a section of the ship that's on a different level to the common area, and the doors here are placed closer together than in other areas of the ship. Junior officers' quarters, then, individual rooms, but tiny ones. He's surprised — he thought he'd be in the barracks like any other enlisted man. Natalia nods to the corridor, two doors on each side, and says, "You may choose. All of them are free except the one on the far right."

"Who's in that one?" Bucky asks, reaching for the nearest door, the one on the left.

"Me," Natalia answers simply. Then she adds, “I have to head out to repair the scanners, but if you have any questions, Hawkeye will be monitoring your comm — ask him.” She gives him a nod, and heads back down the way they came.

Bucky stows his things. The room is even more cramped than he expected, not even enough space for a chair at the desk, and a bed that folds out of the wall. Lucky he doesn't have many things. He folds out the bed to sit at the desk, pulls up the ship registry and signs on, notices that the required forms are already flagged. That's generally the Captain’s job, and he wonders who took care of that small detail if there is no captain.

Once he’s registered to the ship, Bucky comms the Hawkeye and asks, "Don't you have engineers to do repairs?"

Hawkeye says, "Technically? Yes. But if I ask the fuckup du jour who's currently head of engineering, I might as well just stick a chunk of asteroid — a radioactive chunk — into the signal mount. Natasha knows what she's doing, and I need those scanners.”

No captain, a cynical pilot, and a crew made of fuckups and super-soldiers — thankfully he just has to survive his eight month tour.

***

Before he left, Bucky almost told Steve. He meant to, except he drew a breath to do it, and Steve made a face that said, No no, come on, Buck, don't do this to me, and Bucky closed his mouth without saying anything at all — because yeah, who knew if he was even coming back. He was eighteen and stupid with it.

Bucky shipped out the next morning, leaving his best friend behind, and taking all his secrets with him.

***

He tells Natasha early in their acquaintance, but that's an accident. And it doesn't really count, because one: there was no one else to hear it, and two: he was concussed and drugged.

They’re coming back from a mission in another asteroid belt, and that's bad enough, but she's in the cockpit of the fighter and they're running on the barest of nav systems, and last time was Manticore Belt, all blood and screaming and then silence by increments as the vacuum burst in. 

He and Natasha had got what they went in for, but now he’s in the copilot’s seat, hunched over in a puddle of something that he can’t identify — it might be piss, it might be blood, maybe even his own blood. He tries to focus on the back of Natasha's head — she has to be a little whacked by vac-shock, he'd seen the crack in her helmet before the canopy came down, before she'd yanked off the helmet and turned to the controls. Her hair is bright, more gold than red in the flickering light of the burning slaver-base they're leaving behind, and he's confused, he's thinking about following, always following, and she's saying, “Come on, James, we're heading back to the Hawkeye now. We'll be there in a minute, tops. I can't believe you actually stepped in front of a sonic cannon. Seriously, how stupid do you have to be.”

Her fire-gilded hair sure is something better to look at and think about than the screaming and the hiss of escaping atmosphere and the crackle of cartilage under uneven pressure. Or the creeping feeling at the back of his neck that means that the abomination is coming for them. Her hair is golden, and her voice is soft, urgent, at odds with the easy way she's piloting the fighter. He can feel consciousness sliding out from under him, and he says, "Tell the America—" because this is important, and she might be flying fast and sure, but the Hawkeye isn't out there — six shifts or six months after they're supposed to be back, anyone sensible would have listed them MIA after the second shift of radio silence. 

If she can shake off the vac-shock, if the air doesn't run out, if the darkness and the asteroids don’t catch her, he thinks she's got a pretty good chance of getting back to the Hawkeye. Otherwise, he'd never say anything. She's not paying attention, though. She's blurring out, sliding into gray and dark, which is downright inconsiderate of her to do while he’s trying to make a declaration, and he barely manages to say, "Tell Steve—" before the world goes sideways, and he's caught between thinking about love and thinking about unnecessary astrobatics as he loses his grip on the world for the last time.

***

When he comes to in the med bay, he's not sure how much of it he hallucinated — only remembers the gilt of her hair in the light of the flames, and he knows it made his throat ache in a way completely unrelated to the drugs in his system, but he can't remember what was going on in his head at the time.

Bucky keeps getting voice calls from Steve. The name FS-MV America flashes on the screen, each time. He doesn't answer.

Bucky is going to go back, of course he is, he's going to go back, and he's going to make it work, because he'd follow Steve anywhere, best pilot in the galaxy or not.

But he’s had enough of years where all he had were voice calls and messages. He never answers his comm when it's the FS-MV America, because he doesn't want to speak to Steve if it isn't something like in person, and he'll be damned if he takes a voice call.

Last time he took a voice call, well, that was the last thing he remembered; he woke up and Steve was dead, and yeah, okay he has certain memories about the intervening time, terrible memories that come to him in dreams, smeared in with the rest of the blood and the fire and the dying screams of the crew. He doesn't know how Steve died, but he has dreamed that he was the one to do it, even though that makes no sense. That he pulled the trigger and smashed the last part of anything he left behind.

He's requested transfer often enough. 

***
Bucky is there when Coulson shows up, maybe ends up coming on board at the same time, requests an airlock, and they tell him, yeah, can you hang on, we've got one shuttle coming in before you. And the shuttle does, and then they let Bucky into the hangar. He climbs out just as the shuttle unloads, and the old Commander is on the deck already, and Bucky nods as he goes by.

His first impression of Coulson is that of a man utterly overwhelmed by his situation, but immediately followed by the recognition of the way Coulson's eyes clock every single craft in the fighter bay, the ones that are battered and the ones that are old but well kept, the way he seems to be taking note of the names on the nose of each, like he's already building a mental list of call-signs, trying to match them against the crew roster he's probably already memorized. Bucky quickly revises his estimate of the man, not least because he manages to do this very thorough survey of the hangar in one slow sweep, maintaining an expression of innocent interest all the time.

This is how Bucky knows, in the first minute, that he's either going to like this guy, or hate his guts.

Nat finds him soon after, blank-faced, but relaxed. "Have you seen Coulson?"

Bucky says, "He any good?"

Nat just smiles, all teeth. That and the way she's not complaining is answer enough, really.

***

The MAC is a heavy, slow thing that they usually use against planet-side weapons emplacements, or to blow a slaver-base once everyone's out. But it's the last thing they've got, and Bucky is the one that gives the order to arm it, watches the check lights flick to green, even as Hawkeye says, "They'll see it coming from a light-day away. Don't waste my ammo."

And instead of trying to give him a dressing-down about just whose ammo it is (like any right-thinking tac officer should), Bucky says, unfazed, "They'll be passing the moon in a few minutes." The implication is clear -- use the mass of the satellite to mask the MAC round until it's too close for the pirate ship to evade.

"That thing is big enough to bend the flight path of even the heaviest round." Hawkeye says, skeptically, with the air of a pilot looking askance at a maneuver. "We don't have time to aim."

The last light comes on, indicating that the MAC is armed, and Bucky twists a switch, giving the firing controls to the pilot. "Come on, Hawkeye," he says, "This is what you hooked in for. You've got the wetware -- eyeball it."

"There are too many variables," Hawkeye snaps. "The gravity well- interference from the atmosphere-. It's impossible."

Bucky's right hand is relaxed, open, trusting, even though he snaps right back, "Are you a marksman or not?"

And Hawkeye doesn't reply, but ten seconds later, the organic code stops abruptly, and the distinctive, quiet *thunk* of the MAC gun firing echos on the bridge. As soon as the round is away, Bucky touches his console with his left hand, the hard metal fingertips light on the screen, and Coulson bites down on a smile, saves it for when the MAC round reappears on the other side of the moon and flies right into the enemy ship's hull, tears it open like so much paper, sends the whole thing spinning into chaos.

Coulson flattens his hand on the arm of the captain's chair, and the crew -- pilot included -- cheers.

***

The next time Tony Stark appears on Bucky’s scanner, the crew of the Hawkeye is on stationside leave for a couple nights, just enough time to get drunk and get laid, but not enough time to get bored and get arrested.

Tony has just come from some kind of rich-bastards’ party, and he happens to stagger past the docks on his way to his suite. 

Tony finds him, and his formal clothing is undone, the collar unfastened and the traditional tie barely draped around his neck, and he smells a (little bit) like alcohol, and a (lot) like the cold, fresh scent associated with expensive imported atmo, and Bucky breathes in and in, and when Tony says, “Let's get outta here,” he goes.

And this time, Bucky is tired, so fucking tired, and Tony is more than a little drunk, and he barely notices when Bucky slides his hands up under his shirt, not too far or anything, just skimming his palms across the plane of his stomach, the curve of his ribs. He tucks his face into the angle of Tony's neck and tries to remember if planetside air ever smelled like that. Not on any planet he's ever been to. (Except maybe that's a lie, because he doesn't really remember what his childhood smelled like — he was born there, it's been fifteen years).

Tony reaches back and pulls on his hair, yanks his head forward, arches back to kiss him, and Bucky lets him have his way, spreads his hands the width of Tony's ribcage, just along the lower ridge, and swallows down the snarl that it earns him.

Tony arches, and hooks his arm around the back of Bucky's neck, and Bucky can see, now, the hard curve of the arc reactor, the faint glow, and he frees up one hand to slide up, over Tony's chest, pulls him back and grinds his hips forward, slides his other hand down, until Tony groans into his mouth, swears, and reaches for the buttons on his shirt.

Tony is just drunk enough to let Bucky have things all his own way, or at least drunk enough to let him think he can.

"Fuck yes," Bucky says, when the arc reactor is bared, and something eases in Tony's shoulders, and Bucky almost laughs at the sudden knowledge that Tony was nervous about this. He slides his metal fingers under the waistband of Tony's too-tight formal pants, and says, "You're such an idiot, Stark."

"Don't- fucking- call me that," Tony gasps out, writhing into the light clasp of Bucky's metal hand.

Bucky traces his fingers around the arc reactor, and Tony says something about a projection — of course he has a projection mirror in his bedroom — and suddenly, there they are, in brilliant definition, a mirror image, Tony's hands unfastening his slacks, quick and sure, even drunk, Bucky's fingers gleaming blue in the glow of the arc reactor, and Tony, shirt around his elbows, arching back like a slut, hair a mess and mouth slick and dark.

He meets Bucky's eyes in the projection, an instant before Bucky moves his hand from tracing around the arc reactor to splayed right over the casing, making shadows come flooding over them. He doesn't miss it though, the momentary flash of something that he can't put a name to — not quite trust and not quite gratitude, but something between the two — right before Tony arches hard into the grip of his metal hand, he's probably going to have bruises, but that's not Bucky's fault this time, and comes all over.

Bucky is licking it off his fingers before he knows what he's doing. He'd wipe it on Stark's jacket, if he had thought about it. But he didn't, just raises his fingers to his mouth and watches Tony's eyes go wide and appreciative when he slides his tongue between his fingers.



(Tony is sick of these rich-bastards parties and not doing anything real, and he’s been offered head engineer on the America, after all, and he knows better than to take it. But he’s going to take it. He leaves a calling card for Bucky. Bucky doesn’t call and doesn’t call and doesn’t call. Until the party when he has nothing better to do. When it’s just him alone on the bridge, lonely.)

***

Once, they get drunk, and Bucky's stripped down to his undershirt (the climate control is malfunctioning, but it's not so bad -- Nat is down to her bra, as well) and they start sharing scars.

“This one,” Nat says indicating a thin line along her side, “I got from a sniper. Not terribly good at his job.”

“This one,” a Marine — Bucky thinks his name is Lucas — says, “I got from a fucking lab explosion. Never get involved in arc-welding near anything flammable, no matter how much of a fucking genius your best friend is.”

“I got this,” the EVA mechanic, Jan, tiny, deft, cocksure like the rest of them, says, “from an asteroid.” Everyone sucks in a breath at the ragged scaring all around her thigh, a crush injury. Parts of it are still tinted pale orange from the standard-issue sealant foam that the EVA suits have, in case they are compromised.

“Anyone wanna hear about this one?” Bucky holds up his left hand, and Natasha rolls her eyes, “Everyone knows about that one, Barnes. Why don't you try something different. Like this?”

She brushes her finger along the welted ridge of tissue that runs along the back of his right shoulder. “Plasma blade,” he says, struggling to keep his voice even.

“Got you good,” Lucas whistles.

Bucky gives him a lopsided smirk, “Sure, but I got to walk away and I kept the plasma blade, so I think I came out ahead.”

He doesn't say that he got it when his stupid best friend couldn’t back up his mouth, and Bucky almost couldn't either. He doesn't say that Steve stitched him up, neat and even, because Steve had a steady hand when it really mattered, that Steve carefully poured alcohol on the stitches, listened to Bucky swear too loud, and said, “Thanks,” to the stitches in Bucky’s shoulder, while Bucky looked at the bottle of vodka on the other side of the table, said, “S’what I’m here for,” just as quiet.

***

The day that Bucky leaves the Hawkeye, half the station grav generators are down, and when he steps onto the dock, he almost bounces. At least it makes the trek to the next dock over a lot less like trudging to his own execution — if nothing else, carrying all his possessions in his bag becomes a barely-noticeable weight.

Before he stepped off the ship, his comm had crackled with Hawkeye's voice, "Any last words, soldier?" flippant as usual, a subtle jab at the way Bucky kept touching the formal transfer orders tucked into the pocket of his uniform jacket, as if they were an execution sentence. Bucky said, "Sure; suck it, Hawkeye," and that was easy. 

But now there’s Natasha's voice, exponentially softer than it was earlier today in front of the bridge crew (she has a reputation to maintain — deadly, ex-dirtside Tisiphone native — so he doesn’t begrudge her the deception), "Be safe, James."

"Yeah?" Nice to know they cared, really. She must hear something in his voice, something that he hadn't quite intended, because she says, quickly, "He'd better appreciate what he's got." 

Bucky says, "I think I can handle Stark if he gets out of line." 

Natasha replies, "I’m not talking about Tony Stark," but she must be feeling merciful, since it’s soft enough that he can pretend he doesn’t hear her as he heads up the gangway and onto the America.

Captain Carter was on the UTCF Ethics Council, back when Bucky brought his case, and he'd almost liked her, then, if only because she was the only member of the council who listened to a word he'd said, who hadn't looked at him like he would never be anything more than a grunt, like cannon-fodder. 

There's nothing on Captain Carter’s desktop except for a holo of a group of people that he can only assume are her family, and a holo of the America itself, shrunk down small enough to fit in the palm of her hand. The rest of her office is similarly neat, though there is a glass-fronted case tucked into a corner, full of her many commendations and medals.

She’s not behind her desk when Bucky comes in — she’s leaning against the desktop with a slate in her hands, scrolling through something that she clears away as soon as Bucky opens the door. Her handshake is surprisingly moderate — for some reason, he’d been expecting a grip similar to Natasha’s super-grav crush. 

"I'll be brief, Sergeant. I'm sure you'd like to get settled in while you have a chance," Captain Carter says, taking her seat and gesturing for him to do the same. "I am aware that you've requested transfer to this ship before.”

Bucky doesn't actually flinch, but it's a close thing. Captain Carter gives him a wry smile, acknowledging her bluntness, but she continues, utterly straightforward,

"Have you any idea why General Fury's pushing you through now?"

"No clue, sir." Bucky keeps his face carefully neutral. "I'm still not too clear on why my requests were denied in the first place."

"They weren't denied in the first place, Barnes." She sighs. "When I got the first one, I gave your file a full review, checked up on your record, and approved it. We could have used a few good officers, that first tour."

"What-?" Bucky looks askance at her, more surprised than anything. "Then what happened to it?" 

"The request never made it off the ship," Captain Carter replies, briskly. "America disputed it, and nearly had a fit when I tried to argue."

She steeples her hands in front of her — it makes Bucky unaccountably nervous. “Now, I’m of the belief that a Captain’s best asset is her ship, and that includes her pilot. Nothing is more important to my command than my ship. Do you understand, Sergeant?”

 Her message is clear — fuck with my pilot and I will vent you.

"I didn't —" says Bucky, and he's going to say, I didn't do anything to him, but even that's a lie, so he bites his tongue, and if she throws him off the ship, well maybe he'll deserve it.

Except the captain shakes her head, says, "I don’t need an explanation." 

She looks right through him, he can see where she's judging him, weighing his record against something in her head, he has no idea what, deciding whether she should register a formal protest against his assignment. She has a poker face like Natasha, and he can't read the secret codes in her eyes. In the end though, she smiles a little, the first real one he's seen today, and says, “Welcome aboard, Sergeant.”

***

There's not a ton to do while the America is hanging around the Eumenides system waiting for orders.

Tony Stark corners him early in his first goldshift aboard the America and gives him a box full of circuit parts, a multitool, and a long list of access panels.

He looks like he's not sure whether or not he's supposed to smile. He says, "We're due for the annual upgrade, and the sooner we get these babies switched in, the better. I've got everyone who knows how to hook up a circuit board on it. You're helping." And then he disappears like an over-caffeinated apparition.

It's just installation of control boards for the life-support systems, and all he has to do is attach the boards and runs some diagnostics, self-explanatory, but time-consuming. It gives Bucky something to do that isn't kicking around the ship's gym and requalifying for the long-range pulse rifle, at least. 

By the third goldshift, the labs have finished churning out all the upgraded circuit boards — Bucky finds out about it because Tony shows up at the access panel where he's working, half-in-half-out of the cramped crawlspace in the America's wires.

"Out," says Stark, nudging his foot. "Come on. I've just been freed from overseeing a dozen ham-handed lab techs trying to follow a simple circuit diagram. I need a drink and a fuck and a shower."

He pauses to tap thoughtfully on Bucky's knee. "Maybe not in that order."

Bucky finishes up the last of the connections and wriggles out of the crawlspace to look up into Stark's leering face. He probably shouldn't find it as much of a turn-on as he does.

"Well, I'd love to, but I've got three more of these to install," says Bucky, with patently false coolness. "Access panels seven, eleven, and nineteen on Delta deck."

Tony makes a face, grabs two of the circuit boards, and says, "You take nineteen; I'll get seven and eleven."

***

A few goldshifts later, Bucky goes down to the workshop. He’s looking for Stark, but he runs into the America’s holo instead. The holo nods to Bucky, says, “Thanks,” and the stupid life support systems circuit board appears in miniature on the holo’s forearm, and Bucky is hit by the realization that he was inside there for the better part of three days.

Before he flees the lab, he manages to get out, "Yeah, no problem," his mouth suddenly dry.

***

Stark turns into a comfortable habit.

It's better in person than all those times over the comms. Tony's hands are magic, more deft than Bucky remembers, and he watches Bucky with sharp intent, and there are several times where Bucky is truly, truly impressed by Tony's ability to remember precisely how Bucky likes it.

Tonight, Bucky falls asleep when they’re done — in the lab, with his back against the couch and Tony curled into his arms, under the unlikely weight of his metal arm.

When he wakes up, it's still darkshift, but Tony is gone. Bucky suppresses the faint twinge when he realizes he's alone and Tony isn't in the lab, but he should be getting to his quarters anyway. So he heads back. He hears voices from the rec room — he was going to cut through, but if there are people there, it’s maybe not the best idea for him to wander up from the labs with his hair a mess and still reeking of sex.

Except he hears Tony's voice saying, "I don’t get it." And Bucky pauses in the shadow of the bulkhead and strains to hear a reply so he can figure out who Tony's talking to.

“What, because it isn’t rocket science?” It's Steve.

“Thank you, Captain Sarcasm; don’t change the subject,” Tony says. “I think you're an idiot. I don't know how you could choose a ship — even, admittedly the most awesome ship in the ‘verse — over him.”

The shutters on the deck windows whirr apart, opening the whole up to the vision of space around them, and Tony laughs ruefully and mutters, “Yeah yeah, if you say so. Fine. Your loss, I guess.”

Well shit. That’s kind of a revelation, to be honest. Bucky knows that Tony said it to him, way back in the lab on Central HQ — his knuckles still tingle a little at the memory — but he hadn’t really realized that Tony meant it, that it wasn’t just a pathetic attempt at comforting a fuckbuddy. He hasn’t let it sink in until just now, the depth of what Tony said, because if he means it— if he means it, then what he’s saying is that he thinks Bucky is worth more than a childhood dream, worth more than the brilliant fire of the stars. This is — Bucky has heard Tony talk about space; he knows how hard it is to get him to shut up about space. It just doesn’t make any sense.

“You’re right,” says Steve. “You don’t understand. It’s not a question of instead — I didn’t choose this ship over him. I love him — I do — but well, you get tired of just being saved, after a while.”

Of course, thinks Bucky. Steve didn't want just to feel space on his skin; he wanted to help people, to make a difference, and he wanted to have the power to save people, to stop people who needed to be stopped. And experience had shown them both that no one would to listen to one sickly, poor kid from the streets of New Earth, whose knees knock and who can barely give a speech without wheezing.

Tony doesn't know Bucky is there, probably, but Steve sure as hell does, and it feels like a confessional, the kind of thing that they used to roll their eyes about as kids, before they had anything to confess, before life and war started to heap guilt on their shoulders. Tony leans towards the holo as if he can touch it, somehow. Bucky presses the palm of his cold hand, still laid open where he’d cracked it on the last mission, inner connections bare, to the hull of the America.

Bucky risks a peek into the room, and he can see Tony standing near the windows, next to the holo, both of them facing out towards the stars.

"It was never supposed to be him or the ship," Steve says, finally. "The fact that it turned out that way— well. It didn’t change anything. Even then, especially then, I had to prove — to myself, to the universe, maybe, and to him — I had to prove that I was worth coming back for.”

Silence. Bucky puts both his hands on the bulkhead, and wishes he knew any words that were a powerful enough apology to absolve him, redeem him.

Tony flops into a chair, says, "It really did a number on you, huh? When he left you." It's flat, almost cold, but there's something sharp underneath, like fear, or grief.

"He was my best friend," says Steve, but it's not simple.

It's years of protection that he never asked for, a history of being left behind like a child, it's a litany of arguments over just what a bioship pilot meant. And it's that one word — was.

"You're gonna have to forgive him, someday," Tony says, and he's looking at Steve's holo, still, with the same close scrutiny that he turns on a tricky design problem.

Steve's sigh comes out of all the speakers at once. "There's nothing to forgive."

Bucky leaves then, turns back and takes the long way around instead of cutting through to get to his room.

He sleeps poorly, his dreams lit up by splashes of enemy fire off energy shields and blood running into his eyes, with the sound of Steve’s voice over his universal comm, telling him that he's acting tac officer, that they've lost hyper-capabilities, that he's getting them out of there. Bucky dreams of Steve saying goodbye, and when he wakes, aching, he’s unsure how much of it was actual memory, and how much was an invention of his own crazed subconscious.

***

It’s not that Bucky hates the America's holo, exactly. It's just that he can't touch, and that's hard to remember, and he does it three times, forgets and puts his hand through empty, bright air. And finally, Steve says, tightly, "I will be back in a moment, captain." And walks right out. It feels a lot sharper than it should. But then, it's Bucky's fault — he should know better, really, he's been trained for god's sake — and he knows it, so he keeps his mouth shut.

He doesn't see the holo so much, after that. Which is better and worse, because then it's just Steve's voice in his comm, just like the voice calls that they used to have.

A few times, Bucky comes down to the lab, and Steve is there, but he'll just turn and walk out, find an excuse to leave ASAP.



After that, Bucky never sees Steve. He'll come up with an excuse to leave, or, if it is a ship meeting, he'll become very stiff and mechanical, as if he is determined to prove Bucky right about 'nothing but a shell'.

The thing is, of course Bucky knows better, he always has. He was on the Hawkeye for long enough, he knows how wetware works, knows how integral it is to the operation of a ship of this size, even. But he feels even more like there's just a shell now.

***

He's out of it, he's losing blood and losing oxygen, and the only person there is Tony. And he flicks on the little voice recorder, and says, "Hey make sure this gets back to Steve, huh?" And he says.

"Steve. I should have told you. I loved you. I was going to tell you." And he says, "I kept every message you sent me, all the stupid little memory chips in a folder. Lost 'em after Manticore, though. Sorry."

He knows it's cruel. He knows it, but he figures it won't matter to the pilot, holed up in his chamber of ice and interface cables, not matter, really, since Bucky is just an old memory, and what is the point of hooking into all that tech if you can't decide what parts to keep under ice?

So he lets everything true out. He says, "I miss you, pal." And he says, "Feels like I wasn't anything but an in to the pilot program, but I don't even mind -- that's fucked up, ain't it. All I've got left is this shell and you're -- you're everything you wanted, I guess, so you know. Congratulations."

And it almost burns, the words coming out of his mouth, because he knows, knows that they're cruel, that he's being horrible and selfish, leaving all this at Steve's doorstep, to burden himself with. But he's spent his whole life being selfish for the both of them, even up to the days he spent on this ship, silent and docile, kept all his madness to himself. But just this once.

He knows that he is being cruel, and above all, selfish, but it's an impossible habit to break.

He kind of hopes that Tony is going to forget all about it. He kind of hopes that Tony is going to pull something selfish of his own, that he's going to let Steve go on thinking that Bucky had nothing to say to him, even right up to the last. That might be kinder.

(Bucky has left his own messages behind for Tony, if this happens. They're loaded into the computer, on his own drives. There's nothing there that Tony hasn't already been told, but Bucky knows enough to recognize that it can't hurt to say it a few more times, to leave a record.)

He says what he has to say, because he has to, and he's almost sure that Tony will toss the message in a fit of jealousy or rage or something. He's very nearly counting on it. He can see the way Tony's mouth gets tight around the edges, and he honestly cannot tell if that's jealousy of Steve, or not.

Because, see, everyone knows that Tony loves the pilot. Everyone knows that the Head Engineer would start a sexy sexy relationship with the pilot if the pilot ever got a clue that that was on offer. Or would actually accept.

***

Bucky wakes up with a truly poisonous hangover, head pounding, stomach queasy, limbs aching, the whole bit. He's convinced that he made some spectacularly bad decisions involving alcohol, right up until he hears Captain Carter say, "We very nearly lost them both."

It takes a little while to sort out the meaning of her words from the stabbing pain that they set off in his head.

Steve says, “This is Tony Stark we’re talking about, Mags. Not only is he my Head Engineer, but his codes hacks are the stuff of legend — there was nothing I could have done.” Bucky would recognize that blandly innocent tone of voice anywhere, but that’s not what catches his attention.

Mags. Captain Margaret Carter. He thinks about the photo in her file, the straight-ahead gaze, the perfect profile, the ruthless, fearless leader who fought her way up from the meatpacking district on Erzsebet to become the most decorated tac officer the Force has ever known, Captain of a flagship before she turned forty, apparently still 'Mags', to her friends.

“You are possibly the only person with the right kind of influence to keep Stark in line, Steve.” But she sounds resigned, exasperated, more than a little fond.

Bucky tells himself that he's not fucking jealous, but even he can acknowledge that that's only because he never had a chance in hell with Steve.

He thinks about the way that Captain Carter always reaches for the hull, a bulkhead, a handhold, even when the grav is full-blast, whenever she has a spare moment, easy and natural.

Then Steve says, "I had to do it, Mags," low enough that Bucky knows that no one else is supposed to hear it. He recognizes that tone, too — the contrite one that means he’s sorry, but he won’t apologize because he’d do it again in a heartbeat.

It reminds Bucky of Steve saying, "I had to," ten years old, with his eyes wide and shoulders shaking because he never thought twice about doing the right thing, fifteen with bruises on his face and back-alley grit in his hair because he could not stand a bully, twenty-two and fresh out of pilot school, blood running down his neck, because he always had something to prove.

***

Tony shows up in the middle of darkshift, a telltale swathe of bandages wrapped around his upper arm, where the med-team injected him with the standard cocktail of drugs for vac-shock.

Tony says, "Move over," and climbs into bed, whispers, "I'm sorry," when he thinks that Bucky is asleep. But for what, he doesn't say.

***

The next time Bucky wakes up, Tony is still there, but he's sleeping, and there's a holo leaning over the bed, too. It's Steve.  His jaw is set, but it's different to the stubborn determination that Bucky's seen before. It's more like — hell, if Bucky didn't know better, if he didn't know that there was a cryo chamber with nothing but ice and interface cables running the show, he'd think it was pain, because he recognizes the way Steve's jaw goes tight — that's the same face he'd make when Bucky took a needle and thread to his cuts.

"Tony made sure I got it."

Bucky's heart drops and freezes solid. He sighs. At least now he knows what Tony was apologizing for. "Christ."

"Did you mean it?" Steve's — the America's vocal-sim is low enough that Bucky's pretty sure it's only coming through his comm.

"Did I mean what? Sorry, I ain't exactly— It's been kind of a long day," Bucky says, "Sir," he adds, because he is an ass, and it's almost worth it when Steve flinches.

But Steve doesn't leave; instead, he sets his jaw, and damnit, Bucky should know better than to push his luck. And he taps Bucky's comm, which does nothing at all, because a holo, no matter how real, is just a projection of light and sound. Then the recording starts playing.

"Shit," Bucky mutters. And yeah, it's not as though it isn't the truth. And hell, he'd thought he was dying. That was something, right?

They're getting to the part where he's saying that he wasn't anything but an in to the pilot program, an introduction to the fabled Mags Carter, and Steve says, again, "Did you mean it?"

“Yeah I meant it. Every word. I thought I was a goner, you think I'd lie at a time like that?”

It's uncanny, how Stark managed to reproduce all these familiar expressions on a holo — layers of ‘em, even. Frustration, grief, and outright anger.

"I see," says Steve. “That's a hell of a lot of regret to be taking with you to the grave, Sergeant.” And that really stings, not the actual words, but the way Steve won’t even call him by name, cold and sharp.

“I said, ‘every word’,” Bucky tells him, “idiot. Didn't you hear me say I didn't mind? I would do it the same again, dammit. You couldn't stop me doing it the same again. I know how it ends up, and hell. Here I am. Here you are. Fuck you, I'd do everything the same, because that's what matters. Mission accomplished.”

“Oh,” Steve says. “Oh.”

Bucky can still repeat most of the messages that were destroyed in Manticore, word for fucking word. And — maybe this is most telling — he wouldn't trade the America for anything in the world, not even to go back to the way things were, because okay, Steve is gone, officially, and the pilot of the America can never turn off, never go back to just Steve, but that doesn't matter, because he's still there, somewhere, in the heart of it, frozen, maybe, a collection of complex organic signals, but then again, so is everyone. And he got what he wanted. That's important.

***

It makes the whole holo thing a little better; Steve stops leaving a room as soon as Bucky comes in.

Things go back to normal, and they work together easily, better than before, and Steve maps out corridors and Bucky goes through them, pulse rifle and plasma blade at the ready

It's weird though. After a battle, lots of times Bucky and Tony will come back to the lab, and they'll fuck, and most times Steve is there too. Bucky is pretty sure that it's to make sure that they're both of them in one piece. And sometimes to nag them to go to medical — the holo works best for that.

He always leaves as soon as Tony and Bucky start to look a little too long at each other.

One day, Bucky says, "Don't go." 

Steve is right about to turn around and walk out of the lab, and Tony is staring at him like there's something very important he's trying to say, without so much as moving his lips, and Bucky says, "Hey," his voice gentle, "You can stay, if you want. You could watch." It should sound like something dirty, like all the times that he and Tony have fucked over comms, called across ships and had dirty kinky holosex. But it doesn't feel like that.

Steve turns to Tony, uncertain, and Tony shrugs, says plainly, "I'm not gonna say no — I've been trying to talk you into this for ages, man."

So Steve stays. The lock clicks shut -- the bolt sliding home and the soft sussurration of the vac seal -- and it shouldn't feel like safety, shouldn't be like coming home, like the click of locking his EVA helmet, shouldn't feel necessary, but it does, and he can tell by the way that Tony's shoulders go down, by the way that he turns easily, lets Bucky get a hand up under his shirt, can tell he feels the same way.

Tony is attentive as usual, doesn't even seem to notice a difference — his hands on Bucky's hips are as definite as ever. And it says something that Tony might not be doing anything differently, but it feels like he's doing introductions, showing Steve silently — touch here, put your mouth here, don't let him rush you — all the secrets of Bucky's body.

Steve talks, which shouldn't be as much of a surprise as it is. All that long history of voice calls, Bucky should have seen that one coming. He sounds reverent, though, strange to Bucky's ears after years of nothing but one-sided messages. His voice is as much for Tony as it is for Bucky, and that makes it even better.

Steve is the one watching, talking, all the time, the voice call that Bucky hasn't had in years, but he still remembers, and it's all the same, the vocal sim is perfect, somehow, maybe Tony got recordings of his actual voice to do it, Bucky neither knows nor cares.

Steve's voice go soft and awed at the way Tony slides in, slick, and the way Bucky arches under him. The gentle whisper of, "God, you're so beautiful" like a physical touch on his skin, almost, almost, and more deep than that, too.

Bucky isn't supposed to say it — he promised General Fury, swore that he'd never say it — but Tony strokes into him, and Steve's voice is like a caress on the inside of his head, and he comes with the wrong name in his mouth, Steve and, god, Tony.

He's not supposed to say it, of course. Fury will come down on him like a grav hammer if he finds out about it. But Steve locked the door, right down the to vac seal, and he can't help it.

Their history is one of voice calls and worn-out inertial compensators, and Bucky arches under Tony's hands, but he's gasping out the wrong name, again.

He says it, and the rest of the history falls away, all the hours spent hunched over the fucking letters and rulings of the UTCF Council, all the days spent in front of a jury that would look at him and see nothing but a grunt. A litany of anger and fear that isn't his own -- has never been, because that's just the way he's made -- all vanishing, and he says it again, half-breathless, like the first time he was saved. boiling down to just catching the last shuttle, and a borrowed coat.

***

“What about you?” Bucky asks, when he's recovered his senses, and Tony's dozing off, tucked into his side.

Steve is nowhere in sight, but the lab is fully wired — he’s watching. Sure enough, he says, "I don't need - that - anymore, actually." 

And Bucky says, "Seriously, then what's the point?” too sharp, because it feels like rejection, still, all over again. “I just don't see what you're getting out of this, Rogers." 

Steve says, "Idiot. I'll always need you.

Bucky doesn't sleep for a long time.



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