sam_storyteller: (Alternate Universe)
sam_storyteller ([personal profile] sam_storyteller) wrote2015-12-01 12:27 pm
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The Captain And The Ghost

Title: The Captain and the Ghost
Rating: Teen and Up (Bucky/Tony; Rhodey/Carol background)
Summary: In the summer of 1970, Tony Stark is leading the expedition ship Marvel in search of the body of Steve Rogers. He has good friends with him: ship's captain Carol Danvers, medic Sam Wilson, best friend James Rhodes and boyfriend James Barnes, as well as scientist Vernon van Dyne and his daughter Janet. But they've also been assigned a diplomatic observer from the USSR named Natalia Romanoff, and the barren chill of Greenland is not the only threat dogging their search.
Notes: This is the third in the series that began with The Soldier And The Hurricane, an AU where Tony was born in 1950 and Bucky Barnes was recovered during a failed assassination attempt on the Starks in 1967.
Warnings: Some minor era-appropriate racism, some mentions of PTSD.

Also available at AO3.

***

"RHODEY!"

The shout was a bellow of pure, unadulterated joy, and it echoed down the length of the train platform. Rhodey, who heard it and knew what was coming, set his bags down just in time for Tony to go barrelling into him with a leap, legs around his waist, arms around his shoulders, laughing joyously. Bucky, trailing behind Tony, took Rhodey's hand when he extended it from Tony's back, then grabbed the collar of Tony's shirt and peeled him off Rhodey, setting him on his feet.

"Look at you! It's been forever. I think you put on a few inches," Rhodey said, clapping Tony on the shoulder.

"It's the shoes," Tony said, lifting a foot to show them off. They were thick snow boots with rather more heel than a man's shoe generally had, but Tony had spent all week breaking them in and Bucky had to admit he was making them work for him.

"I see you're ready to get out on the ice again. Buck," Rhodey added, leaning in to give him a one-armed hug that Bucky returned clumsily. "Keeping the kid in line?"

"Doesn't need much, these days, the boots slow him down," Bucky replied. Tony gave them a dark-eyed scowl, but he couldn't sustain it.

"Come on, you gotta get settled in and get changed out of this stuff," Tony said, plucking at Rhodey's uniform.

"Respect, Tony!" Rhodey said, giving him a gentle shove. "I'm an officer of the US Air Force now, come on."

"You'll always be Blueberry to me," Tony said, mocking a kiss on his cheek. "No uniforms, it's my birthday party tonight!"

"Gee, is it?" Rhodey asked. "You haven't mentioned it in any of your letters. Except for all of them."

"The idea is," Tony said, leading him along towards the car, "Jarvis is sending our luggage over as soon as we get home. We are going to celebrate all night, and when we get tired, we just take a cab straight to the ship and get onboard and in the morning we're off to the arctic."

"This is the worst idea ever," Rhodey said to Bucky.

"There's a lot could go wrong," Bucky agreed.

"What if we get on the wrong boat? What if we don't make it to the boat at all?" Rhodey asked, shooting Tony a teasing look.

"You have so little faith in me," Tony said.

"Well, I spent three years in college with you," Rhodey said.

"Bucky, he's being cruel, make him stop."

"Stop," Bucky said, deadpan. "Please. Don't say such things. You monster."

"Cruel," Tony repeated.

"How old are you gonna be again, twelve?" Rhodey asked, and Bucky hid a smile.

"Twenty, thank you very much," Tony answered with dignity, wrapping an arm around Rhodey's waist because he couldn't quite reach his shoulders comfortably. He had to disengage again almost immediately as they reached the car, where Jarvis was waiting. The older man gave Rhodey a pleased nod of welcome and held the door for him and Tony, while Bucky circled around to take shotgun.

"You're still taking this bodyguard gig seriously," Rhodey said, leaning forward to rest his chin on the back of Bucky's seat.

Tony said "IXNAY!" at the same time Jarvis said, "There have been some threats made on Master Anthony's life."

"What?" Rhodey asked, the surprise and anger in his voice clear. "Now that didn't make it into the letters, T. I wonder why?"

"They aren't specifically against him," Bucky allowed, as Jarvis pulled through the midday traffic, heading for the mansion.

"It's diplomatic, I'm afraid," Jarvis continued. "This year's search is slated for the eastern coast of Greenland. The Soviets aren't happy."

"Greenland's got half of Europe between it and Russia."

"Apparently half of Europe isn't enough. We had to do some fancy footwork just to calm them down," Tony said. "But none of them threatened to shoot me, that's just hearsay from unreliable sources."

"I want to know what happened," Rhodey said.

"With due respect, Lieutenant Rhodes, it may be above your security clearance," Jarvis ribbed gently.

"I'm an attache to Stark Industries starting tomorrow," Rhodey pointed out.

"It's fine, Jarvis, I'll take the heat," Tony said, and launched into an extended monologue.

Bucky tapped his fingers on the edge of the car door, resentful, as Tony and Jarvis explained things. Not...not of them, precisely, but of the entire situation -- his own history with the Soviets, the awkward madness of the cold war, the way Tony disregarded the USSR as a threat when they had kept Bucky on a leash for a long time. He knew he was a threat, and he knew they were a threat when they could produce men like him. It had been Hydra, operating within the Russian state, but still --

"So there's a diplomatic...doodah, I don't remember what his title is -- "

"Observer," Bucky put in. "A diplomatic observer from the USSR is assigned to the ship. Fella named Romanoff. He'll be a spy."

"Who cares? We won't have anything sensitive onboard," Tony said dismissively. "It's not even a new ship, it's older than I am."

"With some modifications," Bucky said.

"And we will if we find Captain America," Rhodey pointed out. "Plus anything you doodle on a napkin becomes sensitive information, T, you know that."

"I'll confine my doodles to my workshop," Tony said. "And if he can pick the locks on that thing without getting electrocuted, Russia deserves to win."

Bucky's hand curled against the armrest, and there was a creak.

"I don't mean it," Tony said softly, after an awkward pause.

"I'd frankly be happy if neither side won," Jarvis said lightly, and Bucky was grateful for his ability to defuse any situation with a few deft words. "I feel like a decisive victory by Great Britain is just what this war needs. Then everyone can have tea and a plate of biscuits and get back to running their own affairs instead of all this sabre rattling."

"Politics tomorrow, when we can't avoid Diplomatic Observer Comrade Red Romanoff anyway," Tony decided. Bucky forcibly relaxed, wincing when he saw what his steel hand had done to the armrest.

"Not to worry," Jarvis said to him in an undertone, as Rhodey and Tony bickered in the back seat. "Sir's been meaning to get this one refurbished. Leather is out, plush is in, you know."

"I hope you brought your fancy threads, Rhodey," Tony continued.

"I'm telling you, girls love a man in uniform," Rhodey said.

"Yeah, but nightclub bouncers don't. Here we are -- look, Mom came out to say hello."

"She loves me best," Rhodey announced.

"She probably does, you're in her hair the least," Tony agreed.

***

Before they could go out to celebrate Tony's 20th they had to, as Tony put it, run the gauntlet of dinner with Howard and Maria. Rhodey had told Bucky that it wasn't nearly as awkward as it used to be, back when Tony was at MIT; Bucky knew his presence had mellowed Howard somewhat, but even with two and a half years of more-or-less good behavior under their belts, Tony and Howard could still get into it with each other if one of them forgot to mind their temper. Still, the more time Tony spent bouncing between Robotics and HQ, the less it seemed to happen, for which Bucky was grateful.

"I was thinking next year I might go with you boys out on the search," Howard said, as they settled in to eat. "Relive a few of the glory days."

"Howard," Maria murmured.

"Well, they've made a lot of advances since I quit polar exploration," Howard said. "I could sit in the radio room, give orders to these punks."

"Yeah, that'd go well," Rhodey muttered to Bucky, who stifled a laugh.

"Well, you can't go this year, so it's a moot point," Maria said.

"There's still time to pack a suitcase," Howard told her, but he was grinning teasingly. "All right, I'm not serious. I hope you find him this year, anyway; these expeditions aren't cheap, and SI needs you, Tony."

"You're both witnesses he said that," Tony said, pointing his fork at Bucky and Rhodey.

"I'm not afraid to tell a man when he's shirking his duties," Howard said, but he smiled. "Anyway, you look after yourselves this year. Remember, the Reds are watching."

"Oh my god, the Reds," Tony rolled his eyes.

"Have a healthy concern for the Soviets, Tony. They certainly have a healthy concern for you. I'm sure you have a KGB file. I know I do."

"What do we know about this Romanoff character, anyway?" Rhodey asked.

"Literally nothing," Bucky said. "They're keeping his identity top secret to keep him from becoming indisposed, at least that's Peggy's theory. They think we're going to send a hit squad if we know where or who he is ahead of time."

"He's meeting us at the boat tomorrow morning -- coming straight off a transport from Britain and straight onto the Marvel," Tony said.

"What does Captain Danvers think of a Soviet aboard the Marvel?" Rhodey asked.

"She's paid to look after my son, not to have opinions," Howard said.

"She's paid to run the Marvel, Dad, she's not a babysitter," Tony interrupted. "We hired her because she's the best pilot and navigator, not because of her maternal instincts."

"All this business of women having careers before they've even had families," Maria sighed. "I'm not sure I'm for it. What man wants to marry a woman who works all day?"

"I don't know," Rhodey said. "I think it shows a real sense of purpose."

"Yes, but what will she do when she does have children? Go off to work with the baby strapped to her back like Pocahontas with a papoose?"

Tony rubbed his face with his hands. "Mom."

"Well, I worry for the younger generation," Maria insisted. "When Peggy had her babies at least she had Angie to help look after them. Take my advice, Rhodey, find a nice girl who keeps a clean house and put a ring on her finger. You can't afford to wait, you know, God knows where they'll send you. Vietnam or somewhere equally awful."

"I'll bear that in mind, Mrs. Stark," Rhodey said, shooting a covert grin at Tony and Bucky. "What about Tony?"

Kill you, Tony mouthed.

"Anthony's not a soldier. He has years yet, and he won't be in Boston forever; a nice debutante is just the thing to lure him back to Manhattan," Maria said. "And anyway in a pinch you can usually find a girl from Smith who's not too selective," she added, winking at Tony. "I trust Bucky in these matters to keep him out of trouble."

There was a momentary amused lilt to her voice that made Bucky narrow his eyes slightly. He'd never dreamed of broaching the topic with Howard or Maria, but he suspected Maria knew where Tony's interest had lain for the last two years. Sometimes he could practically hear her voice -- Well, at least neither of them will get pregnant and it keeps Anthony out of mischief. Time enough for wives later.

He hoped that was what she felt about it, anyway.

"And of course spending the summer in the arctic tends to thin out the herd of gold-diggers," Maria finished.

"Jan van Dyne's coming along this year," Howard remarked.

"Jan has her own money, she's not after Tony's. Besides, she's just tagging along after her father and Vernon's a good sort."

"He's a pacifist. Wouldn't surprise me if he were in league with the Reds."

"You've known Vernon for thirty years, Howard, he's not a Communist."

"I'm just saying, Vernon's not the most dependable, politically, and I don't care if Jan's got her mother's fortune coming to her, a young woman on a shipful of men is a hazard," Howard said firmly. "I've told Bucky to keep an eye on the van Dynes."

"You men and your security briefings," Maria sighed. "No more shop talk at the table. Rhodey, you must tell us about the Academy. Did you in fact get inducted into any secret societies this year?"

***

They had to be a little choosy in the clubs they went to, that evening; there were still nightclubs in 1970 that wouldn't look kindly on Rhodey keeping company with Tony Stark.

Granted, those were a lot fewer lately. Early that spring, Tony had been asked about what clubs were his favorites in New York, and he'd rattled off a few; when the interviewer named one, Tony had frowned and replied, "No, they're last decade's news. I mean who wants to go to a club so square they're not even integrated? These places might as well be your dad's country club," and he'd named names. Of the half-dozen he'd mentioned as "too square to tolerate", three had since integrated; the other three were doing poorly.

In Manhattan in the late sixties, Tony Stark was the voice of the young socialite, even from his home base in Boston. What he said was hip was hip; what he called square was square.

They started out at Cheetah, which was a good place to dance and waste some time and pick up hangers-on; they buzzed the Latin Quarter, more for the scandal than for any real entertainment value. By the time they hit the Copacabana, where The Supremes were headlining a late show, Bucky was definitely the only sober member of a crowd Tony and Rhodey had accumulated and were ruling over. He kept a little distance; Tony was a target like this, but more importantly he was also a little less circumspect when he drank, and Bucky didn't need the publicity of Tony getting handsy with him at a nightclub.

They ended up in some swanky no-name bar, the kind Tony liked because you could basically invade and make yourself the center of attention; Bucky watched with an indulgent smile as Tony held court, Rhodey with a girl on each arm, the low light picking out the sharp planes of Tony's handsome young face, the shadow of the beard he was working on (any additional warmth for a polar expedition was welcome). He felt a secret spike of pleasure whenever Tony gently disentangled himself from one or another of the various girls who were looking to give him a birthday kiss (or more). Or when Tony leaned over the shoulder of a hanger-on and gave Bucky a smoldering look.

When Tony and Rhodey both started looking tired, around three in the morning, Bucky broke out his bodyguard act and gently shepherded them away from the crowd, into a cab bound for the docks.

Tony leaned against him in the cab, mouthing at his neck, and Bucky ruffled his hair with his hand, allowing it since Rhodey was taking a nap and the cabbie was ignoring them.

Sunrise was just hitting the horizon as he half-carried Tony, Rhodey staggering along after him, towards the Marvel, the sleek little icebreaker Tony had bought three years ago and Howard had helped to outfit. Captain Danvers, apparently aware of Tony's birthday plans, was standing watch; she met them with a flask of coffee, teeth flashing in the dark as she grinned a welcome.

"You're a blessing, Carol," Tony said, gulping coffee eagerly.

"Don't get used to it, this is your birthday present," she said. She nodded at Rhodey. "Jim."

"Captain," Rhodey nodded back. Bucky thought they weren't fooling anyone. "How's she running?"

"Come up to the bridge tomorrow and see for yourself. Engine's had an overhaul, we're fully stocked and supplied. Crew's nearly all present and accounted for, now that you three are here. You're in cabin one with Sam. Tony, you and Bucky have cabin two. Do not mistake it for cabin three, Miss van Dyne's got that one to herself."

"Jan wouldn't care," Tony yawned.

"She might not, but her father will," Carol warned. "And he's in four, so he'd hear you."

"If he notices," Tony said. "Talk about your absent-minded professor. What about Red Romanoff?" he asked, swaying into Bucky.

"No sign of him yet. He's due to arrive any minute now. We shove off at seven, though, and if he misses the boat I won't be upset," Carol replied.

"M'kay. I'm goin' below. Don't wake me until we hit Greenland," Tony said, staggering towards the stairwell that led belowdecks. Bucky glanced at Rhodey, decided he was a big boy who could handle himself, and followed Tony down. The door to the second cabin was open, and Bucky noted with approval that it was directly across from the little cubby Tony had overhauled for use as a workshop. The door to the third cabin, Miss van Dyne's cabin, was decorated with a sprig of patriotic bunting.

Tony was undressing almost before Bucky shut the door; there wasn't a lot of room to move in the tiny cabin, with its narrow bunks on either side and desk in the middle. Tony, in his underwear, pressed up against him, wrapped his arms around Bucky's neck, and said, "Hello, sailor."

"Cheesy," Bucky told him, but his hands came up to rest on Tony's waist.

"Did I make you jealous tonight?" Tony asked.

"No," Bucky said, as Tony nosed into his throat again.

"Why not?" Tony asked.

It was a question. It probably deserved an honest answer. But because I don't get to keep you was too sad for that, especially on Tony's birthday. It was true; Tony liked him, and he liked Tony, but Tony didn't belong just to himself. He belonged to SI, and to the Stark dynasty. Bucky knew that they couldn't have -- at least not forever -- the kind of life Peggy and Angie did. Tony was too visible, and he had the pressure of his father and mother to contend with. And he'd need an heir one day.

So Bucky held on to what he could, and when Tony asked questions like that, he lied. Tony probably liked the lies. He was a romantic, at heart.

"I knew you weren't into them. You kept lookin' at me," Bucky said, which was at least factually correct.

"So I made you eager," Tony said, and Bucky picked him up, enjoying the way Tony always seemed surprised that he could, and dumped him onto the narrow bunk. He stopped barely long enough to pull off his belt and shoes, shedding his shirt, and then he followed him down, assured now that they were safe on the ship, and no harm or interruption could come to them until at least the morning.

"There's nowhere I'd rather be," Tony said in his ear, thighs coming up to cradle Bucky's hips.

"Tiny little bunk on a bucket of bolts headed for Greenland?" Bucky huffed, amused.

"In your bed," Tony murmured, pulling him close, and Bucky let himself be enclosed by Tony's body, burying his hesitations and worries for now, reminding himself it was his own philosophy of life in the moment that had led them here to begin with.

***

Bucky did wake early the next morning -- it was habit, at this point, and also the jerk of the ship leaving dock was pretty good as an alarm. He lay still for a few minutes and then untangled himself from where Tony was basically sleeping on top of him, which was really only the way two grown men could share one of the bunks. Tony grumbled in his sleep as his heat source went away, then burrowed deeper in the heap of blankets and resumed snoring, faceplanted in the pillow. Bucky washed as best he could in the little sink, found his luggage where it had been stowed under the opposite bunk, and dressed enough to be decent before making his way down the corridor to the mess.

There were two men already in the mess -- one, presumably, the cook, a new fella who was behind the counter making a huge pan of scrambled eggs, and a second fella who was sipping coffee, also unfamiliar. Bucky mumbled a greeting and poured himself some coffee at the service hatch, then looked around vaguely for the sugar.

"Sorry, it's over here," the seated fella called, holding up the sugar shaker. Bucky settled in across from him and poured a measure into the cup.

"Like a little caffeine with your sugar?" he asked, grinning. "You must be Barnes. It's the hand," he added, as Bucky narrowed his eyes. "Kinda stands out. Sam Wilson," he added, offering his free hand. Bucky set his coffee down and shook it. "Call me Sam."

"Then I'm Bucky. You're the new medic," Bucky ventured.

"Yep. Rhodey recruited me. Just about to take him a hangover cure, wanna come?"

"Is it brutal?" Bucky asked.

"What'd Jim Rhodes do to you?" Sam asked, amused.

"I was sober shepherd last night," Bucky said with a grin. "The things I do for the two 'a them, I deserve a little entertainment. Tony could probably use one too."

"Sure, I got enough for both."

"What's in it?" Bucky asked, looking at the thermos flask sitting at Sam's elbow.

"Raw egg, tabasco, shot of bourbon, shot of strong coffee, sugar," Sam replied. "It's medically sound."

"Hair of the dog?"

"Something like that. Hey, look, they live," Sam added, as Tony came stumbling through the mess door in pants and an unbuttoned shirt. Rhodey was behind him in rumpled uniform slacks and a sweater. "Here, have a cure for what ails you."

"Who's this?" Tony asked, as Rhodey took the glass Sam poured for him and threw it back. He sputtered and heaved, tumbling onto the bench next to Sam.

"Sam Wilson, I'm the new medic," Sam said, offering Tony the thermos. Tony glanced at Rhodey, then shrugged and downed the remaining brew. His face went red, but he swallowed and kept it down. Bucky rubbed his back consolingly.

"I hate you," Rhodey rasped.

"Hey man, you got me the job, shouldn't have hired me if you couldn't take your medicine," Sam said lightly.

Bucky was about to take pity on them and bring them some breakfast when a woman walked into the mess.

It wasn't Carol, and it wasn't Ms. van Dyne, who Bucky had met once or twice. This woman moved like a dancer, body held erect even against the gentle sway of the ship, and she had thick red hair pulled into a bun at the back of her head.

Bucky had a strong sensation of deja vu, the kind he felt when a memory from his past life rose to the surface. At this point the memories of America, of growing up in the thirties and fighting for the US Army in the war, were stronger than those of Hydra -- his time as the Winter Soldier seemed dreamlike, which was probably for the best. But now in the haze of half-remembered scenes one rose to the surface.

Two straight lines of little girls, hair held tightly in buns, their slim, preadolescent bodies throwing long shadows in the dim corridor. He passed through them like a wolf through lambs, going the other way. None of them turned to look at him, but he felt their eyes on him as he passed, especially the last girl, the smallest one with the bright red hair. He remembered one of the soldiers escorting him making a filthy remark about the girls, something about it being good they were already used to being handcuffed to the bed. He remembered being punished for lashing out and killing him with a well-placed backhand so strong it snapped his neck.

Two straight lines of little girls, older now, sitting on a sprung wooden floor, looking up at him. A voice saying he could pick one for training; he had two days to wait until his assignment, and he might as well put the time to use educating a future Black Widow.

He shook the memory off because the other men were staring at the woman, who took a plate from the edge of the mess counter, helped herself to eggs and toast, and poured herself a mug of coffee. She came to the table, stood at the bench opposite Bucky, and looked at him steadily.

"May I sit here?" she asked, in thickly accented English.

"Holy shit, Comrade Romanoff's a girl," Tony said. Rhodey elbowed him sharply. Bucky gestured for her to sit, and she settled in gracefully, turning to Tony.

"I am Natalia Romanova," she said. "I am sent as your...diplomatic observer, I think, in English? You have problem with my being girl?"

Tony blinked at her. "No. No problem."

"Good. Will you pass salt, please?"

Rhodey silently handed the salt down to her. She salted her eggs, then spooned them onto her toast and began to eat.

"How long were you in transit to get to the States?" Rhodey asked.

"Not so long," she said, and didn't offer anything more.

"Do we need to have some kind of meeting?" Tony managed. She gave him an amused look. "About, you know, security and things. Maps. Making sure we're not planting tac-nuke launch sites on Greenland."

Rhodey covered his face with one hand. Bucky sympathized.

"No nuclear weapons on this boat," she said. "I have looked."

"Uh, okay. So you're just gonna...hang out?" Tony ventured. "Do Russian crosswords or something?"

She set down her toast, folding her hands in front of her.

"Anthony Stark," she said. "I go where, do what, I am told. They tell me, go see what Stark does on his little boat, protect interests of Motherland. I come, I watch. If you please, I help, if not, is no skin off my face."

"Nose," Sam murmured.

She graced him with a smile. "Maybe I practice my English. Diplomacy is new watchword in this brave nuclear world, eh? I am diplomat. Not here to make trouble."

"Then we shouldn't have any problems," Rhodey said.

"I'm disappointed, I like crosswords," Tony said in Russian. Romanoff's eyebrows shot up.

"A couple of us could be diplomats," Bucky added. She tilted her head.

"Do they deliver Pravda to Greenland?" she asked. "If so, you can have the crossword. I only read the Arts page."

Rhodey exchanged a look with Sam.

"Hey man, I've got like fifteen words in Vietnamese, and most of them mean look out," Sam said.

"I speak French," Rhodey replied.

"I'm joking," Romanoff added. "Pravda doesn't have a crossword. Or an arts page."

"Well, this is all great, but I'm gonna have some breakfast," Tony said, standing up. "Back in a minute. Buck, you want anything?"

"Couple'a sausage and some toast," Bucky said.

"Rhodey? Sam?"

"I'm good with coffee for now," Rhodey said.

"I ate," Sam added. "Actually, I should go check on van Dyne, he spent most of last night getting his lab in order. See you later. Miss Romanoff, nice to meet you," he added, with a quick nod of his head.

"Ms., please," she said, smiling to take the sting from the response. "Or comrade."

"Ms. Romanoff, sorry," Sam agreed. "Anyway, sure I'll see you around the ship."

"Undoubtedly," she said. Sam looked back so often as he left he almost ran into the wall. Tony returned, laying a plate in front of Bucky, who hungrily began to eat.

***

"I don't understand," Natasha had told her handlers, when she received the assignment. Her new cover was a young woman with the diplomatic corps, low-ranking, smart but not too smart, and barely proficient in English. "I speak English perfectly. Surely it would be better..."

"Your purpose on the Marvel isn't to blend in," her handlers told her. "You're there to be obvious."

"Ah," she said, as she reached the second page. "I'm the yudasgoat."

"Where do they get these expressions," one said to the other, amused. "In a way, Black Widow Romanoff. You will have a partner on the boat. His cover is more covert than yours. You are to be seen to be Russian, to be the obvious spy. If necessary, to draw attention from your comrade."

"Which is why you send a Black Widow, and not simply an actual idiot from Diplomatic," she said.

"Just so."

"Interesting," she said, more agreeable now. "May I ask..."

"You wish to question your orders?"

"I wish to learn."

"Very well..."

"Is Tony Stark such a threat? He's not much more than a boy. Even if he were to find Captain America, the world has moved on. People distrust patriots in America. And even with a decade of work, I know Zola never re-created the Serum when he worked for us."

"Precisely why he was allowed to leave when the Americans lured him away," one of the handlers said. "Sometimes you will receive assignments that are beneath the honor of the Black Widow, this is true. But eh...sometimes it turns out they aren't. Watch Stark. Talk with him as often as possible. Steal anything you can get away with. Seduce him if you can."

She raised a delicate eyebrow.

"A Stark under the thumb of the Red Room would be a valuable asset," the other one said. "As would Captain America. If they do find his body, there will be a ship nearby. Your partner is tasked with that recovery, but of course you should lend him all aid."

"Of course."

"And you have one other job."

"Oh?"

"Unofficially."

"Oh."

"Three years ago the Starks recovered the Winter Soldier," one said. "Do you remember him?"

She did, yes; she'd seen him once in a corridor as a child. She'd thought he was the most exciting, dangerous-looking man she'd ever encountered. A few years later, he'd honored her with a few lessons in knife fighting. And a few years after that, after Zola had gone to the Americans, the Soldier had killed a scientist rather than let the Red Room get hold of him. From a train carriage that was already pulling away, she'd watched both the scientist and her partner at the time fall to the Winter Soldier's rifle. Such was war.

"Yes, I remember him," she said.

"Do you imagine he remembers you?"

"If so, it's only as a child he once took a passing interest in," she said.

"Find out if he does. Find out if he is...recoverable. See if the Starks have broken him completely."

"And if they have?"

"Ignore him; he's no longer a threat. If you decide he is a threat who can't be recovered, kill him."

"I understand."

"There is a chance for glory here, Black Widow Romanoff."

Yes, she thought. Rob a child, fuck him if you can; find out if his pet can still bite.

Outwardly, she smiled.

"My life for the motherland," she said, and took her dismissal, hurrying back to the Red Room. She had to practice a Russian accent, it appeared.

***

Life aboard the Marvel was routine, but not unpleasant. That first day, Natasha met Janet van Dyne at lunch; Jan was a small slip of a woman but her personality could fill a room, and Natasha was immediately fascinated. Over lunch it emerged that Natasha had never painted her nails (untrue, but certainly it was rare; she'd never done them just for fun). Jan brought out a manicure kit, a ridiculous luxury on a ship without much storage space, and they spent the afternoon doing their nails. She would have counted it time wasted except that Tony Stark showed up in the middle to flirt with Jan and keep them company.

"Did you know Natalia's never done her nails?" Jan said to Tony, eyes wide.

"Neither have I, but you never offered me a manicure," Tony said. He had a smile like the princes in the old Disney films they used to watch for English lessons, Natasha thought.

"If you painted your nails you'd shock the world," she said. "Your dad would have your head."

"No photographers for the next three months," Tony pointed out.

"If you really want to, do it yourself," she said, tossing him a bottle of blue nail polish, which he caught with a startling deftness. Jan went back to concentrating very hard on the red lacquer she was using for Natasha's fingers.

It was a little shocking, watching the supposedly dangerous young genius sit down and begin carefully painting varnish onto his fingernails. Some formidable foe he was turning out to be. Rumors in the Red Room were right; the west was effete, decadent, and probably doomed by its own hand (a hand wearing fetching blue nail polish).

It did go nicely with his eyes.

She spent most of the first week, as they slipped past Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, skirted the tip of Greenland and turned towards Reykjavik for supplies, doing exactly what her job said: observing. She studied the crew (all men except for Captain Danvers, who avoided her with a gentle skill that suggested wariness more than dislike) and the scientists; she matched up what she knew of each man with how he behaved.

The crew were mostly uninteresting. Danvers less so, because she was a woman, but apparently otherwise she was as ordinary as any captain for hire. There were two mates under her, three sailors, and the cook, all unremarkable. The only standout was the medic, Sam Wilson -- relaxed, friendly, and kind, but also, so her intel said, on this three-month voyage to nowhere because the FBI had taken an interest in his civil rights work, and he needed a place to lie low. She liked him better for it, in a way that made her uncomfortable. You shouldn't admire those who defied their own government, even a bad one.

James Rhodes was different -- fresh from the Air Force, disciplined and solemn, and she rather thought using Stark Industries to get a leg up. Not that she blamed him; compared to most of his classmates he was at a disadvantage because of his skin color. He was also either sleeping with Danvers or wanted to be. That could perhaps be used if necessary. She thought Stark might not care for it and she knew the military wouldn't. What was it they called it, miscegenation?

Vernon van Dyne was riding along to study the extremophile fauna of Greenland; his daughter had no visible purpose on the ship that Natasha could determine except to enjoy herself thoroughly. She purported to help her father in the lab, but Natasha couldn't see how. She was nice, but clearly the shallow product of an unjust capitalist upbringing.

The Starks had been good about keeping Bucky Barnes out of the spotlight, hiding away both his past as the Winter Soldier and his origin as Captain America's second during the war. He showed no sign he recognized her. His obvious concern was Stark, and she began to think the Starks had broken him. He was quiet and watchful, and when he wasn't following Stark he kept to himself, reading or playing cards with Rhodey or the crew. He didn't seem unhappy, precisely -- he was quick to laugh -- but he was hardly the fierce, intense warrior she'd known as a child.

Stark himself was an enigma. For a ladies' man he didn't do much philandering; he acted like a big brother towards Jan, and he flirted with Natasha but never took her up on anything more. Granted, she'd been subtle, but Stark knew how to read subtlety. He spent much of his time with Danvers studying maps of their search grid -- which he obligingly shared without complaint, a gesture of transparency that her cover-alter-ego appreciated. Otherwise he occupied himself in the little workshop, where not even Barnes was allowed in. Possibly because there wasn't room for two people in the converted storage closet, but still.

She wanted to get into that workshop. He had some pretty interesting locks on it.

The day that they left their last resupply port in Reykjavik under a brilliant blue sky, she followed Tony up to the bow, where the coast would soon be visible.

"There are people living on Greenland, yes?" she said, leaning on the railing backwards, so that she could study his face in profile better.

"Sure. Some Danish, some Inuit, mostly both," he said with a grin. "More on the west coast. We'll stop at Kulusuk, eventually."

"To refuel?"

"Mostly just to say hello, ask around. They say they've never seen what we're looking for but it never hurts to ask again. You never know who's seen a debris field since the last time. We'll do the same at Daneborg."

"A US outpost."

"Figured you'd know that one," Tony agreed. "You'll probably want to come ashore, make sure we aren't getting up to mischief."

She rolled her eyes. He gave her a wink.

"What will you do with recovered plane?" she asked.

"It's old junk," Tony said dismissively. "Search it, then slag it. Dad knows everything there is to know about how Schmidt built his airplanes, there's nothing new there. Even your paymasters wouldn't be interested, I guarantee."

"So Captain America is prize."

"I guess you could look at it that way."

"And if you find him?"

"Take him back to New York, in state," Tony said.

"You speak openly, very openly, for who you speak to," she said. He glanced at her.

"I don't have much reason to be covert with you. We don't have anything Russia especially wants," he said. "We're on a mission of study and recovery. You already know our reasons for being out here. Why would I bother lying?"

"Forgive. In diplomatic corps, lying, it is expected," she said.

"Maybe you oughta think about what that says about Soviet diplomacy."

"Oh, no, you misunderstand. I mean, we expect Americans to lie."

He barked a laugh. "Fair enough. But I'm not a diplomat. I'm not even in the arms business, not yet. Right now, Ms. Romanoff, I build robots for assembly lines, I throw fun parties, and I spend my summers looking for the body of my dad's war buddy. That's really all there is to me."

"One day, you will be a great tsar of America," she said.

"Well, that's the nice thing about America," he replied. "I might. Or I might spend my whole life building robots. I might join a commune. I might move to France. I might become president. My destiny is only as set as I allow it to be. How about yours? You know where you'll be in twenty years?"

She nodded. It wasn't untrue. Her alter ego would be a diplomatic attache in some minor foreign state. She herself would still be a Black Widow of the Red Room, if she wasn't dead.

"Do you like it?" he asked.

"Is not question of like," she said. "Is my duty."

"Duty implies a debt."

"Russia raised me. Fed me. Taught me. I owe everything."

"Does everyone in Russia feel that way?"

"Everyone I know." Although admittedly, that was mostly other Red Room agents and soldiers. Almost universally they were orphans.

"But if nobody's happy about it, then what's the point?" he asked. He seemed genuinely curious, but she felt caught suddenly, pinned in a trap. "I believe we're owed more from the universe in general. I believe we're owed the right to seek out what makes us happy. It gets me in a lot of trouble," he added. "But if I don't even get the opportunity to look for joy, what was the point of getting this far?"

"This is why our people, they never get along," she said, and he nodded acknowledgement. "We are too different."

"At least you and I have better sense than to threaten to bomb one another over it," he said.

"True."

"So, someday when you're secretary of state and I'm president, maybe things will be different."

"Would you like? No more cold war?"

"Russia has beautiful architecture. Some of the best classical composers. Great literature."

"Yes -- you speak the language well, for American."

"When I was a kid, my dad worked with a guy who immigrated after the war. He taught me the language. Taught me a lot about your country, made me interested to see it. I hope I can one day. And I wouldn't say no to taking you to Coney Island for a hot dog, either."

"You offer me...sausage? In return for Tchaikovsky and Nabokov?"

"Well, everyone's got their passions," he shrugged. "When we get back to New York, you should consider it."

"Not allowed. Your rules, not mine."

"My country's rules. Not mine personally. I bet we could smuggle you out. At least as far as the roller coaster."

"I will consider," she said with a smile. "Is date?"

"Is date, if you say yes," he agreed. "I'm going below, Cook's got a craps game going with Rhodey and Buck. You're welcome to buy in, we accept Rubles."

"I will come, I watch."

"You're the observer," he said, and led the way to the stairs. She did watch -- the game was fascinatingly stupid -- but mostly she thought about what he'd said.

She'd had people try to flip her before. It was a test they administered before graduation from the Red Room. That test had been more subtle, the offer more seductive. Stark had offered her a little flattery, a hot dog, and a good time. The agent who'd tried to recruit her had offered her money, power, escape. Comfort. Capitalist luxury. She'd been in the process of disarming and subduing him when one of the Red Room instructors had stopped her, told her she'd just been passing a test.

Perhaps that was the charm of it, how disingenuous it was. Tony didn't seem to really mean any harm by it. There was no hidden offer, no quid pro quo. He just...thought she'd like a Coney Island hot dog. Maybe she'd like the idea of choosing her own path. No one had ever thought to offer her a choice.

Sam, having lost all he was planning on losing, joined her on the sidelines of the craps game, offering her a cup of popcorn. She took it, smiled warmly at him, and was surprised to find she meant it.

***

"In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines," the Winter Soldier said to her one morning, a few days later. He sat down at the table in the mess with her, a cup of coffee in one hand, and cocked an eyebrow at her. "The smallest one was Madeline."

Natasha tilted her head, confused. "A poem?"

"A book. It was Moscow, not Paris, and there were more than twelve, if I remember, and your name isn't Madeline," he said, sipping his coffee. "But there were little girls in two straight lines, and the smallest one was a redheaded girl, just like Madeline. I remember her now. Took me a while, I admit."

"I do not know what you mean," she said.

"I remember you," he said, and then switched to Russian. "You were one of the dancers, the girls marked out for the Black Widow program."

She carefully didn't tense, but something must have given her away, the flicker of an eyelid or the twitch of a finger.

"Don't worry," he continued. "We already knew you were a spy. I just happen to know you're a better one than they think. At least if I'm remembering how good you were with knives."

"So what if I am?"

"I just thought you should know that I know," he said, leaning in a little. "So you're aware that I am watching you. If you hurt my Antosha, I will stop you before you kill him, and then I'll kill you slowly. You know how slow a Red Room veteran can kill."

"I'm not here to kill him."

"You won't have the chance, anyway."

She considered her breakfast, wondering if she was fast enough to kill him from here. He chuckled.

"You couldn't touch me," he said in English, as if he understood her thoughts. "Well, maybe you could, but you couldn't finish the job. Still, I applaud your ambition. Don't forget, I know the Red Room."

"You do know the Red Room," she said, and curiosity got the better of her. "You were Red Room. You were the Winter Soldier, the best of all of us. You were...effortless. Beautiful. You were the perfect son of the motherland."

"I'd say flattery won't help, but that's not flattery at any rate," he replied, looking sour.

"I don't mean to flatter, but I wonder. Why did you defect? What made you run to America? What made you ally yourself with the Starks, of all people?" she asked.

"Do you know what my name was, when I was Winter Soldier?"

"No."

"Neither did I. I didn't have one. Because I wasn't a son of Russia," he said. "I was born American. My name was James Barnes. I was taken prisoner and made into the Winter Soldier, someone I didn't want to be, someone they forced me to be. I was luckier than you; I was grown when they twisted me."

"They haven't twisted me," she said.

"Then you're a dancer for the Russian Ballet, eh? You're not a spy? You've never killed someone without knowing what they did to deserve it? I didn't teach you to fillet a man when you were twelve?"

Natasha glanced away. The Winter Soldier's voice drew her back.

"I came to a place where I could choose, to be the Winter Soldier or James Barnes," he said, and there was a longing in his voice when he said his own name. "I chose to be who I was. Not who they made me into."

"We are all what they make us into," she replied, perplexed.

"No, Madeline. What they make us into is only a shell." He considered her, grey eyes searching. "Do you ever feel a pain? Under your breastbone? Against the small of your back? An ache in your chest?"

She stared at him. He couldn't know, there was no way he could know, she never even told the doctors in the Red Room --

"That's where the shell presses too tightly, because you weren't made for it," he said. "If you're lucky, some day someone will help you crack it open, like Antosha did for me. He's very charming; perhaps he'll do it for you too. Or I could, given time."

"You're talking about breaking me," she hissed.

"I'm talking about breaking you free," he said. "But it's no concern of mine if you don't agree; I'm not your papa, Madeline. As long as you don't hurt my people, well, in America we say It's a free country."

She was going to reply, but Tony arrived then, shuffling over to the table and sitting down next to the Winter Soldier, leaning sleepily on his metal arm. The Soldier smiled indulgently and offered him the coffee mug; he watched as he drank deeply, affection in his eyes.

"Morning," Tony said finally, when he'd drained the cup. He drummed his fingernails against the ceramic, the blue polish chipped and beginning to wear away in patches. "Whatcha talking about?"

"Literature," Natasha said. The Soldier gave her a knowing look.

"That's all there is; there isn't any more," he agreed.

***

It was late July when they reached the northern tip of Greenland, the scattered series of rivers and islands that in winter would be frozen over completely. Even at high summer they had to break the ice on occasion. And from here, really, there wasn't much else for Tony to do but decide whether they wanted to turn around and go back down the eastern coast, or press on and pass into Baffin Bay, heading south between the coasts of Canada and Greenland until they let out into the North Atlantic again.

The likelihood of another failed search weighed on all of them, but Tony saw it pressing hardest on Bucky. Bucky knew what it was like to freeze and freeze; even if Steve Rogers was beyond suffering by this point, it must be hard to imagine his friend locked in the ice, alone, undefended. Harder to know he'd have to wait all year for another chance. He grew quieter, and at night he slept deeply, in his own bunk, pulling away when Tony touched him.

Some of that was probably -- some of it might be memories of Rogers, too, Tony knew that. He knew that what he and Bucky had was on loan, that if or when Steve was found alive, well. He couldn't compete with Captain America on his best day, and they'd grown up together, fought a war together. He'd never asked, but if Bucky was willing to get into bed with Tony, then he must have been with Rogers, too. Honestly, Tony had seen pictures, he'd have been all over that himself and he didn't even know the man. And he'd seen the way Bucky in the film strips had looked at Rogers.

It had been like this last year, too, though it hadn't happened until later, this depression and withdrawal. Tony didn't know what to do, how to reassure or comfort him. Maybe next year they should give up the ship and go by land. He could probably build some kind of lightweight rolling tank that could carry the equipment they needed, maybe from a modified ski-doo.

He was considering this, sketching out ideas in his head to put to paper later in his workshop, when one of the mates came into the mess. "Danvers says get topside," he said. "We might be dropping the expedition boat."

"What? Why?" Tony asked, rising and following him out, Rhodey trailing behind him. Up top, Bucky was looking through field glasses at a distant speck, unmistakably a man.

"Stranded dog patrol?" Tony asked Captain Danvers, who was conferring with the mate.

"Could be," she said. "He clearly wants our attention."

"How close can we get in the Marvel?"

"Another hundred yards, maybe. I've already given the order. Okay to drop a boat?" she asked. They had two -- a large one meant for evacuations or machinery transport, and a smaller one, the expedition boat, for getting to land if need be.

"Sure, we can't just leave him there," Tony said.

"I'll go," Danvers said. "Let me take Sam, Rhodey if you can spare him, van Dyne if he's interested in taking samples. You want to come or stay?"

"Stay, I think," Tony said.

But then, when the Marvel drew closer, they killed the engines and the man's voice could be heard, carrying through the chilly air.

"MARVEL! HEY MARVEL! HEY, STARK AND THE MARVEL! MESSAGE FOR STARK AND THE MARVEL!"

Everyone froze.

"Get in," Danvers said from where they were preparing to drop the boat. Tony hefted himself over the side quickly, Bucky following him.

When they reached the spit of ice on which the man stood, they could see there was another man in the distance, and a pair of dog sleds. The man skidded down the bank to the lowest point and Tony stood up, close enough to see his friendly, open face.

"You've got a message for the Marvel?" he asked. "Do you need aid?"

"No, we're fine and thank you sir!" the man said, with a hint of Danish lilt to his voice. "You're Stark of the Marvel?"

"That's me!"

"I'm from down Ptuffik way, you stopped by last year," the man said. "Said to keep a lookout for debris fields or any funny lookin' wreckage. I came up through the interior for a bit of a holiday..." he jerked his thumb at the dogs. "Well sir, I think we found your debris field."

"Really?" Tony asked, as Bucky stood up too, balancing carefully in the boat. "How far?"

"Day and a half by dogsled," the man pointed south. "We stopped at Nord to see if we could catch you but you'd already gone on. They said we might catch up on the coast, so we camped here the last day."

"Can you take us there?" Tony asked.

"Fraid not sir, we're overdue to home already. But I did you a map, and if you've got anyone can navigate by the stars you can't miss."

"We'd appreciate that map," Tony said, and the man tossed a tube of paper, wrapped in oilskin, down into the boat. "You're from Ptuffik, you said? What's your name?"

"I'm Kuupik Hansen, sir. I run the post at Ptuffik, is why I can't stay."

"I'll telegraph you when we get back to New York," Tony said. "There's a reward in it for you and your friend if we find anything, and a reward either way if you don't mention you did."

"I take your meaning, young Stark! My lips are sealed. Good hunting!" the man said, and began scrambling back up the hill. Bucky almost went after him, but Rhodey grabbed his arm.

"We'll come back with the snowmobiles," Tony said, urging him down into his seat as Danvers carefully maneuvered them back towards the Marvel. "Bucky, we need supplies, equipment. We've had false alarms before."

Bucky subsided, nodding, and Tony settled down next to him.

"We've got the ski-doos and the heavy cargo sled, but we'll have to get the crane up to move that one," Rhodey said.

"Let's travel light," Tony told him. "Day and a half is nothing; if we need the Heavy we can come back for it. We'll load up the cold-weather gear, week and a half of rations, and the retrieval stuff. Buck and me'll take one electric sled, you and Sam take a second one."

"If we take the radio, we can call in when we find something," Rhodey said. "You can bring the Heavy out if we need it," he added to Danvers.

"We should have a code if we're going over radio," she said. "Don't know who's watching."

"Well, we know one person who's watching," Bucky said darkly.

"Lay off," Tony said, even as he saw Sam opening his mouth to defend Natalia too. "She's fine. She won't interfere."

"Still can't hurt," Danvers insisted. "Look, if you don't find anything, radio in and say so. If you find something but you've got it covered, say you just found junk and scrap. If you need the Heavy, say the ski-doos are broken. That gives us an excuse to get it out."

"You're the boss, boss lady," Rhodey said. Tony gagged at Bucky, who summoned a smile.

***

The map was crudely drawn, but it was also useful and detailed. They'd even marked out the site of an abandoned weather station nearby, and anyone with the map could sight off the station and get their bearings. Good thing too; after a day of packing supplies and another day on the ski-doos it was late when they reached the station, and it'd be the best possible shelter that night.

The door to the station was locked, but Bucky snapped the chain slung through the handles, then jerked the doorknob out, effectively removing the deadbolt as well. Inside, the haste with which the station had been evacuated was obvious, as was the fact that nobody had been there in decades.

"This was German," Sam said, hand drifting over a framed picture of Adolf Hitler. Rhodey reached out from behind him, yanked it off the wall, and tossed it into a bin half-full of paper nearby. "This was a German weather station?"

"Supposedly they had spy stations all over," Tony said. "Dad and Bucky bunker-busted a few of them, right Buck?"

"That was in Europe," Bucky said. "Expected them there. Not way the hell out here."

There was still canned food on the shelves, and dusty medical supplies in the cupboards. When Rhodey cautiously fired up a generator in the rear of the station, the lights came on. So, blessedly, did the heat.

"I'm going up top," Bucky decided, and Tony followed him outside, watching as he easily swung his way up, using molding and ice crenelations and bare exposed struts to get to the roof.

"See anything?" Tony asked.

"There's a long shadow, there," Bucky said, pointing south. "Probably the debris field. We could get there tonight."

"I'm not stumbling around in the dark in Greenland."

"Hardly gets dark here in the summer," Bucky said, but he jumped down, landing lightly after a leap that would break the leg of another man. "I could go alone."

"That's not a recipe for disaster," Tony said, tugging Bucky's fur-lined hood up over his hair. "There's a reason an engineer's always been in charge of this search, Buck. We have to be careful and meticulous. If you go out there tonight, fall in a hole and drown, we won't even know what happened to you. And I can't have that," he said lightly.

"But he might be there."

"And if he is, one more day will make sure we get him out safely," Tony said gently. "Look, I know I didn't know him, but I want to bring him home safely just as much as you do. For you. So just this once, let me be the rational one, okay?"

"For me?" Bucky asked.

"Of course. What do you think this is about?" Tony asked, confused. "I mean yeah, he's a war hero, he should be recovered, blah blah, but this is for you, Buck. He's your best friend. After what you've been through you deserve to have him back."

Bucky nodded, like he was trying to digest it all, and then he stepped forward, pulling Tony close, into the warm and slightly musky smell of unwashed parka and barely-washed body. You got used to it, living on a ship in the middle of nowhere. He kissed him, quickly, covertly, and then leaned into him like Tony was the only thing keeping him grounded.

"We'll get him, Buck," Tony said into his shoulder. "And if it's not him out there, we'll keep looking until we do."

"Thank you," Bucky said. "Let's get inside before you freeze."

They'd stocked surplus LRP rations on the ship when they set out, and they were proving useful now; Sam, who had some experience with LRPs, reconstituted them with water heated on the stove.

"I ate so many of these on my tour," he said, digging into a packet of spaghetti and meat sauce. "I feel lucky when I get 'em hot at this point."

"How long were you in Vietnam?" Rhodey asked.

"Too long," Sam said. "I mean, I was PJ, so you know, wasn't as bad as the boys in the ground forces. Plenty bad, though."

"Is that why you left?" Tony asked.

"I had other responsibilities," Sam said. "And I stopped thinking Vietnam was a righteous war pretty fast. I started thinking maybe civil rights was a better use of my time."

"What'll you do when you get back to New York?" Tony asked.

"Why, you got a job for me at Stark?" Sam asked, grinning.

"Sure, we could. Though I think SHIELD would be a better fit," Tony said. All three of them looked at him. "SHIELD was hit really hard when we had to take Hydra down. They're still not fully staffed and finding good agents isn't easy. They could use someone like you."

"I'd never pass the background check."

"Why, 'cause you pissed off the FBI?" Tony asked. Sam tensed, looking at Rhodey. "Don't blame Rhodey, he tried to slip it past Dad. He would have, too, if Danvers hadn't caught it when she did her own checks. Honestly, at this point, pissing off Hoover is a character reference, not a flaw. Dad can't stand the old bastard, but he still deals with him because Aunt Peggy threatened to castrate Hoover the last time they talked, so now Dad has to be his liaison."

"Well, I'll think about it," Sam said.

"Sleep on it. We all should," Tony said.

"Listen to you, commandant," Rhodey grinned.

"I do run SI Robotics," Tony said. "I realize that's not like being a second lieutenant in the Chair Force -- "

"Oh no," Sam said, looking at Rhodey. "You gonna take that from him?"

"You want to go, little man, I'm ready any time," Rhodey said to Tony, with a serious expression but a glint of amusement in his eye.

"Okay, enough," Bucky said, rolling his eyes. "Everyone sleep. We're up early tomorrow. I want all the daylight we can get if we need to salvage."

There was a barracks in the station, a six-bed room with two basins for shaving and a single mirror; Rhodey, Sam, and Tony took beds near each other, and Bucky pulled the thin pad off the fourth, laying it in front of the door.

"You really think prowlers are afoot?" Tony asked sleepily.

"Better safe than sorry," Bucky said.

"Let him, if it makes him feel better," Sam called.

"I'll make coffee in the morning," Bucky promised, and turned out the lights.

***

They reached the debris field mid-morning, though the sun had been up for hours. As soon as the long scar in the landscape -- Bucky's "shadow" from the previous evening -- came into view, Tony stopped his sled. He climbed off and walked down into the furrow, the hardpack frozen solid on either side of him.

"What is it?" Rhodey called, when Tony paused and crouched. Tony reached down and pulled the twist of metal out of the snow, thumbing mud and frost off the indentations. A skull and six tentacles grinned up at him.

"Schmidt," he called back, returning to the sleds. He held it out for them to see. "This was the plane. Or at any rate one of Schmidt's planes. Let's see where this ends, and if we don't find anything we'll start surveying. Once we know more we can radio back to the Marvel."

The long furrow in the ground turned out to be really only about forty feet, easily walkable; Tony and Sam walked along the edges of it, while Bucky and Rhodey walked down and in. When they hit the end of the furrow, Tony began kicking snow around on the surface, somewhat aimlessly.

"There's just snow down here," Bucky called up.

"And ice," Rhodey added. "Water underneath, though. We're not on solid ground."

"Get your asses up, then," Sam said, reaching down to help haul Rhodey up, then Bucky. Tony kicked a particularly lumpy snowdrift, and his boot collided with something inside the drift with a metallic clang.

All around them, the snow shivered. Tony froze.

"Hot shit," Sam said, tossing him a shovel. Tony scraped at the snow until he reached a thin ridge of metal -- a stabilizer fin. It was almost vertical.

"It's nose-down," Rhodey said. "Gotta be at thirty-five, forty degrees at least. Nose itself might be in the ice. Try to find a hatch."

Bucky ran for the foot of what was now clearly the outline of an airship, scraping snow and debris away until he hit solid metal. Rhodey joined him, clearing what they could, while Tony and Sam worked their way towards them, slipping occasionally on the bare metal where it iced over.

It was Sam who finally found it -- a wheel, frozen solid, attached to a wide circular hatch.

"Can we salt it?" Tony asked. "Thaw it and grease it up?"

Bucky didn't even hesitate; he raised his prosthetic arm, punched down, and pulled the entire wheel, locking mechanism and all, out of the hatch.

"Or we could do that," Tony said, as Bucky and Sam together yanked it open. Inside it was dark, and the ladder leading from the hatch had been ripped away after the second or third rung.

"If you jump," Rhodey said, blocking Bucky with an arm, "And you land hard, the whole thing could go under. Not to mention you could break your legs."

"If you're saying we shouldn't go in -- "

"I'm saying let's be smart about this," Rhodey said. "Sam, get a harness."

Bucky jittered while they hooked him into the harness and set up a makeshift winch with the rope. Tony watched him, privately worried; he had the skittish, wild-animal look he'd had when they were bringing him out of Hydra conditioning. He sidled up to him while Rhodey and Sam were threading the winch.

"Hey," he said, leaning his weight on Bucky. "Hey, you're here, it's 1970. You're with me and we're both safe. Whatever we find down there isn't going to change that. If we find him and we can bring him up, that's fine. If we find -- if we find a body, or no body, you will still have me. You will still be here, safe, with me."

Bucky nodded.

"Look, I have some distance on this. Do you want me to go first?"

He'd only meant it as a comforting gesture, but Bucky looked at him, wide-eyed, and nodded.

"Uh. You do?" Tony asked.

"If it's just a body, I can't..." Bucky gestured. "I didn't think about it until now, but I don't...know if I could do that."

"Okay, uh. Come on, unharness," Tony said, and Bucky began shedding the harness, hands flying over the buckles. By the time Sam and Rhodey looked up, ready to go, Tony was strapped in, the bag of supplies slung over his shoulder.

"Oooookay," Rhodey said, but that was all he said about it. "Bucky, come run the winch for me, huh?"

They raised Tony into the air and then swung him over the edge of the hole, the winch groaning as it lowered him down. Tony flicked on the flashlight when he was inside, shining it over twisted metal and what was either glass or ice, perhaps both.

"See anything?" Bucky called.

"Not yet," Tony said. "Gimme another four feet or so."

The floor, once he could see it, sloped sharply. There was no way he'd be able to stand on it. The nose disappeared into darkness down below. "Okay, let me have another...slow ten feet."

He touched the floor with his feet and began to slide along it, listening for creaks and groans, any sign the airship was shifting. Eventually his foot caught on a ledge, which turned out to be the mount for some kind of control chair. The chair itself had been ripped free...

He swung his light to the left, and skittered backwards, boots slipping along the floor.

"What is it?" Rhodey asked.

The chair had been ripped from its mount and thrown sideways, into a corner of the curving console at the nose of the plane. It was crusted with ice, and the base of it was stuck in what looked like a solid sheet of it, but the body in the chair was intact. Blood glistened black on its forehead, and ice crusted it everywhere, but it was whole.

"I've got Rogers," he said. "Don't let Bucky come in. He's fine, Buck!" he added, when he heard scrambling above. "Well, obviously he's not fine, but he's intact. Actually, he's a little precarious. Okay. Okay, I can make physics work for me," he muttered to himself. "I'm gonna need another line of rope."

It took a hazardous two hours, in the dark and unstable and very cold airship, to get the body free. He rigged rope through the chair and told them to put constant pressure on it; they had to use the winch for that, which left him actually standing on the edge of the console, where every time he looked to the right he gazed down through the glass front of the ship into an abyss. With the chair straining one way he began hacking at the brittle metal of the chair's support strut, slowly freeing it from the ice; once the chair was free it began to lift, easily, and Tony steadied it until it was sliding up the floor, towards the hatch.

"You're gonna need a bigger hatch," he yelled, and Bucky obligingly began bending metal backwards, light curling in. It took them twenty minutes to angle Rogers and the chair out of the airship.

They got Tony's tow-rope through the winch just as the ship began to creak ominously. Tony felt that he half-rose, half ran up the floor, climbing free as soon as he could and tumbling down through the snow to where the others stood on firmer hardpack. He barely had time to register Sam working over the body in the chair before the snow began to boom alarmingly, and he flipped over to watch.

The snow shivered and then shuddered, and then jerked sharply. The ship tilted up and up and up, metal screaming, and then shot downward like something out of a science fiction film, vanishing into the ice below. It left a bowl-shaped divot of snow on the landscape. At the very bottom, water lapped up through a crevice the size of a limousine.

"We should go, now," Rhodey said urgently. "We should leave the winch and go."

"Grab a corner," Sam yelled, grasping the back of the control chair. Rhodey grabbed the other side of the back and Tony took an arm, trying not to think about how Captain America's arm was attached to it, while Bucky lifted what remained of the support struts. It wasn't easy going, but they made it back to the snowmobiles before anything else fell into the ice.

They ended up having to build a travois to drag their cargo to the weather station; Tony and Rhodey went back for supplies, which ended up including an actual medical stretcher, while Sam tried to get the Captain at least free of the chair -- detaching him from the shield strapped to his shoulders would have to wait. They'd managed to pull most of the chair away by the time Tony and Rhodey returned, and then the two snowmobiles made a slow, careful caravan back to the weather station.

"What do we do now?" Tony asked, as they hurried to stow their gear inside and Bucky unhitched the travois.

"I was hoping to be at the Marvel for this part," Sam admitted. "Let's get him inside. We need a bed frame, and we're gonna need to tilt him for the melt to run off. Put it in the kitchen, but not too close to the stove. Turn on the burners and put pans of water on them, that'll dissipate the heat a little. I've got a stethoscope in my kit, we need to listen for a heartbeat."

"What if there isn't one?" Bucky asked, his voice hoarse and somehow small, uncertain.

"There's a rule: he's not dead until he's warm and dead," Sam said, catching the stethoscope Rhodey threw to him. "Okay. We're gonna heat things up slowly. Soon as we can get those clothes off him, cut them off, even if it's a piece at a time. Once his chest is clear, you're gonna listen for a heartbeat," he told Bucky, handing him the stethoscope. "The second you hear one, tell me so I can confirm, then I'll run an IV."

"I'm gonna set the radio up," Rhodey said, already unpacking the components. "Do we need the Heavy?"

"If I can get him warmed up, we can take him out of here on one of the ski-doos. It'd be helpful getting him out if he can't walk on his own, but..." Sam looked thoughtful. "Not yet. Let me see what we've got here first. What was the code for that? Junk and scrap?"

"Yep," Rhodey said, fitting the radio together. "Tony, you want to call it in?"

"Uh, yeah, sure," Tony said distractedly, settling down at the radio. He tuned in the Marvel's frequency. "Stark to Marvel, this is Stark calling the Marvel, do you copy? Over."

There was a pause and then Carol's voice, brisk and clear. "This is the Marvel, we copy. How's hunting, Tony? Over."

"Just junk and scrap so far," Tony said. "We're secure for the night, not sure if we'll be here another day yet. Over."

"Copied loud and clear," Carol said, sounding pleased. "Ski-doos doing all right? Over."

"Having a little trouble, but nothing we can't handle so far, over."

"Good to hear. Check in tomorrow morning? Over."

"Sounds good, Carol. I'll call in around 0900. Out," Tony said.

"Out," Carol confirmed, and Tony switched the radio off.

Behind him, Sam was working over the body, cleaning off the wounds and trying to encourage thaw, and Bucky was following his movements with sharp eyes, the stethoscope not yet in use, hanging around his neck. Rhodey had pans heating on the stove and, being pragmatic, had set out rations for lunch for when the water was hot. Tony realized he was both hungry and nauseated, shaky from the adrenaline crash.

"I'm going to secure the snowmobiles," he said, and Rhodey absently nodded. Tony stepped outside into the cold, crisp air, and leaned against the concrete wall of the weather station, taking deep breaths.

***

When Steve woke, it was to the sound of Bucky's voice.

-- have to know something, we can't just sit out here forever --

After a brief few seconds of confusion, his heart filled with joy, because Buccky's voice meant only one thing:

He had died. And there was a Heaven, and he was there, and Bucky was as well. Which meant that he would see -- he would see his mother again, and his father, and the fellas he'd lost in the war.

There was another voice, deeper, soothing, but he didn't quite catch the words. Then Bucky again, Sorry, I just want him to wake up.

Me too, Buck, Steve thought. He hadn't expected this much pain in Heaven, but he supposed dying and whatever process brought you to the afterlife wasn't a serene affair. He ached in every muscle, but the sharp pins and needles in his hands and feet were the worst. And he was so cold, his thoughts sluggish, his skin crawling with the chill of it.

He managed to pry his eyes open, but everything was fuzzy and unfocused. Through the dark he could see a faint outline of walls and a doorway, Bucky standing in it, talking to someone Steve couldn't see. He looked worried, but so damn good Steve didn't care.

He hoped Bucky would forgive him. He trusted, this being Heaven, he probably would.

He opened his mouth and managed to croak Bucky's name, throat rasping, and Bucky's whole body reacted; he flinched and turned, and then he was at Steve's side, kneeling next to the low bed he was on, one hand warm on Steve's arm.

"Hey, hey, pint-sized," he said, his whole face alight, and Steve smiled, warm affection flooding him. "Don't sit up yet, we're still thawin' ya out."

Steve tried to ask if they were really in Heaven, but he couldn't get his throat to work. Another man, the one Bucky must have been talking to, filled a cup of water and dribbled it into Steve's mouth. He swallowed the lukewarm water gratefully, beginning to wonder what was going on.

"Breathe easy, you're safe here," Bucky said, raising his hand to brush Steve's hair out of his eyes. A glint of metal caught Steve's eye and his gaze dropped to Bucky's other hand, gripping the edge of the bed. Bucky followed his look, then met his eye, swallowing.

"Did we die?" Steve asked, carefully ignoring the metal hand where Bucky's real left hand ought to be.

"No," Bucky said.

Steve blinked. "But you..."

"I know this is confusing but trust me, this ain't the afterlife," Bucky said, tucking the unsettling metal hand away. "You crashed the ship in Greenland."

Steve nodded. He remembered that part.

"The serum kept you alive in the ice. We only just found you," Bucky said. "This is Sam, he got you warmed up."

Sam gave him a businesslike nod, checking an IV in his arm. Steve stared at it, perplexed.

"I didn't die when I fell off the train," Bucky continued, and Steve's attention was drawn back to him, the way it always had been, like a magnet seeking iron. "It's a long story, Steve. I promise I'll tell you, just..."

Steve watched, horrified, as Bucky's face seemed to crumple, and he started to cry. He couldn't remember the last time Bucky had cried. Before the war, for sure.

He noticed, peripherally, Sam leaving the room to give them some privacy. Bucky pressed his forehead to Steve's shoulder and shook, and Steve managed to get his arms moving for long enough to curl one around him, fingers in his hair.

"Jesus Christ, Steve. I missed you, I missed you so bad," Bucky said.

"S'okay, Buck. I feel all right," Steve said awkwardly, uncertain how to comfort him. The crying didn't last long; Bucky snuffled after a minute and sat back, wiping his face, forgetting to hide the metal hand. Steve watched it move, graceful as a flesh one, watched Bucky push his hair back with it and smile at him.

"Sorry. It's been a long time," he said softly. He did look older, tired in a way Steve didn't recognize.

"How long?" Steve asked. If he'd been frozen, and Bucky looked older, it had to be at least a couple of years. "Hey -- hey, have we won the war?"

Bucky looked like he was gonna start crying again, but he smiled and nodded. "Yeah. We won the war. 1945. Hitler shot himself, the coward."

"Good riddance," Steve said. "What about Japan?"

Bucky's face was complicated. "We won there, too. Sorta."

"So it's what...1946?" Steve asked. The complication increased. "47? Jesus, Buck, how long was I gone?"

"It's complicated," Bucky said. "I was out for a lot of it, I froze too, so -- "

"It's the summer of 1970," a voice said behind him, and Steve looked past Bucky to where a young man was standing in the doorway. He had curly dark hair, huge blue eyes, and even bigger dark shadows under them. "You've been out for about twenty-five years, I'm afraid."

"Great job, Tony," Bucky snarled, twisting.

"He wasn't gonna be happy until he knew," the young man, Tony, said with a shrug. He gave Steve a once-over like he was a prime cut of steak. "Might as well rip the bandage off quickly."

He had a familiar way of talking and a very familiar tilt to his head, a way of holding his body, chest out, hips cocked. Like he knew he owned the world and knew exactly what he was going to do with it.

"Nineteen-seventy," Steve repeated, to be sure.

"Yep."

Jesus, 1970. Twenty-five years. Peggy would be in her forties. The kids from the neighborhood would be adults. There'd be --

"Who's president?" Steve asked.

"Richard Nixon. Don't worry, you wouldn't know the name. We had Eisenhower for a while," the man, Tony, said.

"Not Patton?" Steve asked. "Thought for sure he'd run."

"Fraid not, he died in '45."

"Jesus."

"Nope, he's not a citizen, and anyway he died about two thousand years ago."

Steve gave the man a sharp look. "That ain't funny."

"It should be. You and Bucky are the only recorded cases since of a second coming."

"Steve, this is Tony," Bucky said with a sigh, putting a hand on Steve's chest to stop him from sitting up and taking exception with this fella's flip tone. "He's Howard Stark's kid."

Steve blinked, and felt something settle into place. "Just the one?" he asked, giving Bucky a raised eyebrow. It earned him a smile from Tony, still leaning in the doorway.

"The only one that matters," Tony said.

"Yeah, I see the resemblance," Steve agreed solemnly.

"Sam and Rhodey and I are gonna start packing for the trip back," Tony continued, clearly talking to Bucky. "Easier to leave some stuff here than get the Heavy out, at least Rhodey thinks so. We'll go first light tomorrow."

"Get some food in him," the man from earlier said, leaning around the doorway on the opposite side from Tony. "Hi," he added to Steve. "Sam Wilson. Mission medic. Honor to meet you, Captain."

"Thanks for the..." Steve gestured around him at everything.

"You're welcome. Try to drink as much water as you can, you're dehydrated," Sam added, and then disappeared again, Tony following him at a quick trot.

"He's feelin' shy around Captain America," Bucky said.

"Glad some folks are," Steve replied, trying to sit up again. This time Bucky got a hand under his back and helped him, steadying him before he overbalanced. "I feel like I'm back in grade school," he complained, as Bucky held another cupful of water under his nose.

"You'll bounce back, you always do," Bucky said. "Even when you were a little punk."

Steve smiled and leaned sideways, butting his head into Bucky's. "I'm damn glad to see you. When I woke up I heard your voice, I thought I was in Heaven. I was -- I wasn't even sad, because it meant I got to see you again."

"Trust me, you won't think that when you step outside."

"You were dead, Buck," Steve said softly. "You died and I had a day and a half to mourn you, and when the plane was goin' down I just hoped I'd get to see you again. I was scared, but I thought, well, if he's going to Heaven, I am, and if he's not, I don't imagine Heaven is harder to get out of than a Nazi arms factory..."

He felt Bucky laugh against him and clung tight to the laughter, a steady thing in an uncertain world.

"Is it really 1970?" he asked, eventually, around sips of water Bucky kept forcing on him.

"Yeah. It's all right though. Lot's changed, but most of it's pretty good. Food's better. No more rationing. Howard gave me a job. I live up in Boston, if you can believe that."

"Boston!"

"Yeah, well, his kid's running the business there, my job is to make sure he doesn't go head over ass into the Bay or pick a fight with someone three times his size."

"So business as usual," Steve said with a smile.

"More or less," Bucky agreed. He checked his watch and got up briefly, and Steve twisted to keep him in sight as he picked up a couple of packets from a counter behind them -- they were in a kitchen, it seemed -- and brought them back. "Rations. You should eat all you can."

Steve accepted one, rummaging in it with a fork Bucky gave him to try and identify it. "Should I ask?"

"Chili con carne," Bucky said.

"What's that when it's at home?"

"Beans and meat. It's meant to be spicy. Don't be surprised it isn't."

Steve shrugged and dug in. It wasn't too bad.

"Howard took over the SSR after the war," Bucky said, as Steve realized he was very hungry and began devouring the packet of food. "Renamed it SHIELD. Dugan's one of the directors now."

Steve swallowed, reaching for the water. "Peggy?" he asked hesitantly.

"Yeah, she runs most of it. Seems to like her work," Bucky said, and then added, "She's got kids now."

Steve felt something painful lodge in his chest, not quite hot enough to be anger, not quite sharp enough to be grief.

"Who's the lucky fella?" he asked, hoping to God it wasn't Bucky.

"Truth?" Bucky asked. Steve nodded. "Found herself a girl. Nice lady, named Angie. Don't know how they got the kids; Peggy's got some husband who's never around, I guess he helped."

"Peggy and a lady?" Steve blinked at him. "That kinda thing okay in nineteen-seventy?"

"I wouldn't call it that, but it's...better than it used to be, anyhow. She knew we were looking for you. Said if we found you to send her love."

"She's gotta be -- "

"Fifty. Her oldest is starting at Vassar this year."

"Holy mother of God," Steve muttered. Bucky handed him a second packet of food, slightly more recognizable this time as spaghetti. "What about the others?"

He ate while Bucky ticked off the Commandos on his fingers -- Morita and Dugan in New York, Gabe living an expat life in Paris, Pinky an MP, Dernier a farmer somewhere out in the boondocks of France. General Phillips dead of a heart attack a few years back, Stark running an empire, news of a handful of others Bucky had quietly looked up but hadn't gone to meet in person.

"And what about you?" Steve said finally, washing down the last of the spaghetti with more water.

Bucky looked down at his own empty food packet. "I...it's a long story, Steve. I barely touched the surface of all we gotta tell you, and honest to God, I need a couple of drinks before I get through it. Just...for now, okay, I was frozen. Howard found me. Tony saved me."

"The kid with the big mouth?"

"He's a decent guy," Bucky said, in a tone that made Steve pay a little more attention. "If it weren't for him I'd probably be dead. I sure as shit wouldn't be in Greenland digging your ass out of trouble again. I'll explain later," he added, with a resolved look in his eye. "You need to get some rest."

"I feel all right," Steve said, though he still felt sore, like he'd had a real going-over, and he was sure there must be a hell of a cut on his forehead, to judge from the throbbing ache there.

"You always say that," Bucky said affectionately.

"I'm Captain America," Steve replied, voice dropping low, puffing his chest out. Bucky laughed.

"Go to sleep," he said. "We got a guard posted, and we'll be takin' off for the ship first thing tomorrow. You're gonna spend all day on a sled, you need to have everything in working order."

He stood to go but Steve caught his arm, the metal one, and Bucky flinched.

"It's good to see you, Buck," he said. "I'm so sorry."

His arm twisted under Steve's fingers, pulling up until he held his hand, gripping it briefly. "Wasn't your fault, Steve."

"Well, I disagree, but I'm not arguing with you when you're back from the dead," Steve said. "We can go over all that later."

"We'll have time, it's a long ways back to New York," Bucky said, and turned to give him a brief, reassuring smile. "Get your head down. See you in the morning."

"You will," Steve agreed, and let go of his hand, sliding down into the blankets. The kitchen was warm, and the food felt like it was warming him from the inside out, as well. He didn't even remember falling asleep.

***

Steve woke a few hours later, urgently needing to empty his bladder, and when he threw off the blankets he found he was pretty steady on his feet. His uniform was in shreds in a pile in the corner, but someone had provided him an undershirt and some trousers, and it wasn't hard to find the toilet.

He'd never needed much sleep, not since the Serum. According to a watch someone had left in the bathroom, it was nearly 4:30, so everyone would probably be up soon anyway. Besides, he could use a little time on his own to think things through.

There were parkas hanging near a door that presumably led to the outside, and boots lined up under them; he stole a pair that looked like they'd fit, pulled on a parka, and stepped out into brisk, cold air, dull sunlight already peeking over the horizon. Snow stretched away as far as the eye could see, but he felt like he could smell the ocean, even as distant as they must be from it. Two sleek, fancy-looking machines stood in the lee of one wall, protected from the wind, probably the bikes or sleds or whatever-they-were that they'd used to get here.

1970. The date seemed unrealistic, like something out of a science fiction novel. Howard had a grown son; Peggy was a middle-aged woman. Bucky was physically unchanged, which was almost as unsettling. Howard's child was apparently Bucky's friend, possibly his employer. Steve wondered what Peggy's children were like. Vassar was an awfully good school.

Peggy and a lady, huh. Steve wondered how that had happened. He could almost hear Peggy's dry response -- In the usual way these things do, I suppose. Honestly, did you think there was some sort of Sapphic mating dance?

But he had Bucky, and Bucky clearly had anchored himself to a new life in this new era, which meant he could anchor Steve, too, the way he always had. They'd been through worse before. And he'd thought never to have had him again. He remembered the terrifying, unmoored feeling of being in the world when Bucky wasn't.

The war was over, too. He was going home. No more fighting.

He wondered what a soldier like him did, when the war ended. Fighting was what he was built for, these days.

He was wrapped up in thoughts of the future and the present, distracted, and he didn't notice the noise until it was almost on top of him. Then he saw a dark speck against the white snow, speeding towards the weather station with a loud whine, and he wondered if anyone was expected, if he should go wake the others or at least find a gun. He wasn't sure there was time.

This machine was bigger than the other two, and it had a cockpit enclosed by glass, with a driver up front, small against the huge bulk of the sled. He felt his fists clench and tensed himself for a fight as it pulled up to the building and the engine cut out, the driver jumping lithely to the ground.

It was a woman, a small, pale woman with black hair cut so short he mistook her for a man for a second, after she pulled the hood of her coat down.

"You're Captain America," she said, staring at him. "Well, that's fun."

"Is it?" Steve asked, bewildered.

"It explains a lot. I'm Janet. Jan," she said, running a hand through her hair. "I expected to maybe be wearing makeup when this happened."

"When what happened?"

"Meeting you, possibly saving your life," she said, taking his arm and pulling him towards the entrance to the building. "I'm a friend of Bucky's. The Russians have attacked, it might be armageddon. Come on, let's get inside, I'm freezing."

In the entryway of the building, she shed her boots and parka, yelling for the others -- Tony! Rhodey! Sam! Bucky! Oh my God get up! Without the parka on she was really tiny, smaller than he'd been before the Serum, but she had a voice like a loudspeaker and clearly wasn't afraid to use it.

"What in the God damn hell!" Steve heard Bucky yelling, and then all four men poured out of some back room, Bucky at the head, gun in hand. Sam and another dark-skinned man were behind him, the unfamiliar man apparently trying to block Tony with his body.

"Jan!" Tony yelled, pushing through regardless. "What are you doing here? We didn't call for the Heavy."

"Everything's gone to hell," Janet said. "I barely got away. There's a Russian submarine firing on the Marvel."

"They wouldn't dare," Tony snarled, as the others began throwing on their boots, pulling sweaters on and reaching for the parkas. "It'd be nuclear war. The minute word gets back to the US -- "

"How's she holding?" one of them asked, shouldering past Steve. "Sorry," he said to Steve, and then ripped off a salute Steve hadn't been expecting. "Second Lieutenant Rhodes, sir, Air Force. Pleasure to meet you, Captain."

"Likewise, Rhodes," Steve said, feeling that all this was becoming a little much.

"The magnetic repellers are doing the job, or were when I left," Janet said. "The Marvel was fine, but she might not be soon!"

"Haha! I told Dad they'd work!" Tony crowed.

"Tony, this is serious," Janet scolded. "Captain Danvers had the heavy taken to the mainland just in case, because of your radio message, and when the boat got back, this submarine just -- it just came out of nowhere! And started firing!"

"What was it firing?" Rhodes asked, zipping up his parka. "Sam, clear the back room, make sure we're not leaving anything behind we can't afford to leave."

"On it. Buck, the kitchen?"

"Yep," Bucky said, ducking into the kitchen.

"I don't know, whatever submarines fire!" Jan said. "Captain Danvers said they must have worked out that you found something, and she thinks they wanted to have the ship taken by the time you got back."

"How'd you get away?" Tony asked.

"They put me over the side in the expedition boat -- the sub could only fire on one side at a time. I was almost to shore by the time they even noticed. Captain Danvers said the boat's too small to show up on their radar," Jan said.

"How long have you been in transit?" Rhodes said.

"I pushed the Heavy getting here. Captain Danvers says you should make for Daneborg."

"Like hell!" Bucky snarled from the kitchen.

"That woman," Rhodey shook his head.

"We're going back to help defend the Marvel! We are, right Tony?" Bucky called.

"Of course," Tony said.

"Can we call them by radio? Negotiate?" Sam asked.

"With what? I'm not giving them Steve," Bucky said, dumping a pile of odds-and-ends into a sack and slinging it over by the door.

"Maybe we should," Steve said.

Rhodes, Bucky, and Jan all stared at him. Tony, in the doorway, stopped dead, Sam behind him.

"Excuse me?" Bucky asked, voice dangerously low.

"Why not give me to them?" Steve said, spreading his hands. "Get the civilians clear, hand me over, and I'll wreck the place from the inside out. Like the Trojan horse. I did it before."

"When?" Bucky asked. "I don't remember that, I'd remember that."

"After -- after you...." Steve faltered under his glare.

"We're gonna have a talk, later, you and me," Bucky said ominously.

"No, we can't just send Rogers," Tony said. "We're going to the Marvel to help. All of us."

"Damn right," Rhodes said.

"We'll hit the coast, see how the ship's doing, and figure it out from there. Here, I think this is yours," he added, casually shoving Steve's shield into his hands. Steve looked down at it in shock. "I'm bankrolling this mission, what I say goes."

"What about Jan?" Sam asked.

"What about Jan?" Jan retorted. "I got here fine, didn't I?"

Sam held up his hands. "I was only wondering. You've been driving, what, all night? You want me to take the Heavy?"

"You think I can't -- "

"I think you can, I just think -- "

"Fight later, pack now," Tony barked, leading Rhodey outside. Sam gestured for Steve and Jan to join them, and Bucky shut the door behind them. He picked up a piece of rebar lying nearby, shoved it through the door handles, and twisted. Steve watched, intrigued, as it bent like it was made of butter.

"You do have a story to tell me," he told Bucky, as they hurried towards the sleds. Tony already had one running, and Bucky climbed on behind him.

"Rhodey's taking the other one," Bucky said over the roar of the motor. "Ride with Sam and Jan on the Heavy, just in case. You still look like shit warmed over, Steve."

"It's all right," Steve yelled back. He hefted the shield. "Got my baby back, I'll be fine."

Bucky gave him an ironic salute, and Steve ran to the biggest machine, hefting himself up onto a narrow bench, pulling the hood closed after them. Jan was sitting next to him, Sam in front at the controls; they must have ironed out their argument.

"I want you to tell me everything you know," Steve said.

"That'll take a while," she said.

"We've got the time, haven't we? I need to know all I can so we know what to do when we get there."

She looked at him, a faint smile on her face. "They said you were a great tactician. Are, I guess."

Steve shrugged. "I suppose that's for history to decide. Right now I just want to help your friends. Tell me about the Marvel, that's the ship you came here on? What's her size?"

He listened intently as she reeled off figures, hull length, weight in the water, the special modifications she knew about and, to judge from Sam's expression in the reflection of the cockpit cover, a few she wasn't supposed to know about. From there he asked her about the crew, how many and who they were.

"And there's Natasha, of course," Jan said, as she reeled off the names. "She's Russian -- Captain Danvers had her locked in her quarters as soon as the attack started."

"Why is Russia attacking us, anyway?" Steve asked. "We were allies during the war. I mean, we weren't best pals, but..."

"Oh, you -- don't know," she said. "About the cold war."

"The what now?"

"It's been going on since the war ended. It's not an official war, but -- America and the Soviet Union don't like each other much. We spy on each other all the time and once the Russians got nukes..."

"Nukes?"

"Nuclear bombs," she said. "They work by splitting the atom. They're -- they're very destructive. We have them, the Russians have them...if we went to war with them, real all-out war, it'd probably destroy the planet."

Steve stared at her in horror.

"Sorry, this is probably a lot to deal with," she said. "Look, the point is, we're not friends, but the Soviets actually firing on an American ship would be considered an act of war, it'd be disastrous if word got out."

"I'm sure it's not fun for the people aboard, either. What happened?"

"Well, we took the Heavy to the mainland in the bigger boat. Captain Danvers, the first mate, the three regular crew, me, Dad, and Natasha."

"The Russian."

"She was there to keep an eye on us, but everyone knows she was really there to spy on us if we found you," Jan said.

"Go on."

"This sub just popped up out of nowhere when we got back. Captain Danvers called an all hands and activated Tony's magnetic repulsion system. Anything coming at the hull of the ship, it bounces it back the way it came. It's hell on the fuel, though, so we were only supposed to use it in case of....something like this," she sighed. "Captain Danvers couldn't leave, and she needed her crew. Dad doesn't know how to drive a sled. So I said I'd take the small boat and go warn you all what was happening."

"I like this Danvers, she sounds like she's got guts."

"In spades," Jan confirmed.

"So when we hit the coast, they'll have been under attack almost twenty hours?"

"Something like that."

"We have to be prepared for the ship to have been sunk." Steve considered things. "How far is Daneborg?"

"Probably a week by sled, but I don't know if we have enough fuel. We definitely don't have enough food," Sam said. "Got a radio though, we can probably head back to the weather station, send one or two people ahead on a single sled, and get within radio distance of somewhere."

"Still probably our best shot?" Steve asked. Sam nodded. "Okay, well, then that's taken care of. If the ship's been taken or is still under fire, we'll try to make contact by radio and negotiate for a cease-fire."

"You're serious about letting them just take you," Sam said.

"I'm not in the habit of going quietly," Steve said. Sam's grin showed all his teeth.

"This is thrilling," Jan told him. "I mean, I'm terrified the entire crew plus my dad is gonna die, and they don't know if I'm alive or dead myself, and we might all die soon anyway, but honestly, I'm enjoying the adventure."

"That's the way to look at it," Steve told her. "Sam, how much longer until we reach the coast?"

"Couple of hours," Sam said.

"You should sleep," Steve told Jan. "You drove all night to get us. Rest while you can."

Jan nodded, blinking tiredly, and pulled her parka up around her ears, curling up in the corner. Steve waited until he was sure she was asleep, then leaned over Sam's shoulder to watch the snow unspool in front of them.

"Where are the others?" he asked.

"Riding in my wake," Sam said. "The heavy's flattening the snow for them."

"Makes sense. So you're the medic, huh? Did a great job on me, I feel pretty good today."

"Thanks," Sam said with a smile. "I'm guessing that's more down to your super serum than my skill."

"I've seen hypothermia cases. Don't sell yourself short, they're tough to handle."

"I'd salute and yes-sir, but I got out of the Army a while ago."

"You too, huh? You know Rhodes from service?"

"Nah, I was leaving as he was going in, and he's Air Force anyway. He's fresh out of the academy."

"So the military integrated? I'm glad to hear that."

"Yeah, you had the first integrated unit, didn't you?"

"I guess I'm in the history books," Steve said. "That'll be very strange."

"When you come home you'll be a hero," Sam said. "Ticker-tape parade, probably. Get on Johnny Carson, meet the President, write a memoir..."

Steve shook his head. "I'm twenty-four, I can't write a memoir."

"Can I ask you something?" Sam said.

"Sure."

"Do you mean it, about being happy the military integrated?"

"Well, yeah. The way we treat Negroes in America's a crying shame."

Sam glanced over his shoulder. "Negro isn't used much anymore. Black, now, or African-American."

"Oh! Sorry."

"It's fine. So if you had a chance to, say, to talk to a newspaper about the way Black folks have been treated..."

"I never kept my mouth shut before," Steve said. "I'm not going to start now."

"Then if we live through this, remind me to introduce you to some friends of mine."

Steve grinned. "Back in the world twelve hours and already I'm making all the wrong kinds of friend. Good to know some things never change."

"How're you feeling, anyway? Any shivers, sweats, racing pulse?"

"Nope. A little tired, but I've felt worse."

"No shortness of breath? Tingling in your limbs?"

"Not anymore."

"Good. You should rest too, if you can."

Steve watched the snow scroll past contemplatively for a while, then shook his head. "I think I've had my fill of resting for a while," he said. "You mind talking?"

"No. What about?"

"Well, tell me about -- I don't know. These friends of yours. How the Army integrated."

"You want to hear about civil rights," Sam said.

"I don't know what that is. Do I?"

Sam studied him. "Yeah, you probably do. The Army desegregated in 1948. In the fifties, they had to start fighting for schools to do the same. And then in 1955 came the bus boycott..."

***

They reached the coast a little after mid-day, and they were waved down by Captain Danvers herself, sheltering under a lean-to made from an overturned boat, probably the one Jan had taken. It looked like the larger boat was moored below, still in the water.

Tony only noticed Carol was actually there when he saw Rhodey on the other sled speed up, then skew to a stop and leap off, running towards her.

"Thank God you didn't listen," Tony heard her saying, as Rhodey pulled her into his arms. "I had to give the order, but -- "

"You didn't really think we were gonna leave the Marvel?" Rhodey asked. Bucky already had his field glasses out and was studying the ship through them.

"Ship's been taken?" Bucky prompted.

"Yes -- a few hours ago," Carol said.

"Why're you here?" Rhodey asked.

"They found out Jan got away. They knew you'd come back. They let me go so I could bring you their terms."

"Well, that was really stupid of them," Tony announced.

"I thought so, but I wasn't going to say no," Carol said. "I think -- I'm not sure, but I think Natasha might be on our side."

"Our side?" Rhodey asked, blinking.

"She suggested sending me over. She -- when they finally took the ship she got out of her cabin but she didn't really help them, and she got them to let me go. Cook's a traitor and a spy, by the way," she said. "He disabled the magnetic repulsors, or we'd still be fighting them off. He's either a very skilled Soviet or a very gullible American."

"What happened when your defenses were down?" Captain Rogers asked, and Carol looked at him, startled.

"You're Captain Rogers," she said.

"Yes. I'm sorry, I'm the reason you're in this mess, but we can hammer that out later," he said, not unkindly.

"They got at least one of the engines, once the repellers were down. Then they got on the radio and said they'd fire again unless we surrendered. I had my people to think about, and Jan was already on her way to get you..."

"You did well," Rhodey said. "Good decisions the whole way."

"Yeah, well, they've still got Van Dyne and my crew, plus all the records in Tony's workshop," Carol said. "And they've got all the guns on the Marvel. And a submarine."

"What is it they want?" Steve asked.

"You. And they'll take the Marvel with them, too. They say they'll put the crew off with us and leave us the transport so we can get to Daneborg, but I don't buy it -- I think they'll get you secured and then shoot us. If we get back to the States and tell what happened it'll be war, if we just vanish..."

"Bad accident," Tony said, his voice hushed.

Steve nodded. "Sounds about right. I still think the best course of action is to let them take me. I promise you they're not ready for me. Nobody ever is."

"You think you can stop them before they shoot someone?" Rhodey asked.

"I been thinking about that," Bucky said. "I have a better idea."

***

"Are you sure about this?" Tony asked, as he set up the radio under the boat lean-to and wired it into one of the ski-doo engines.

"It gives us twice the firepower and sweetens the pie for them," Bucky said, crouching next to him.

"They'll know it's a trick, won't they?"

Bucky shook his head. "Dunno. Not if they think I'm still the Soldier. Or, not if they think I'm loyally following my old pal Steve Rogers."

"I don't want you going back to them."

"The Soviets were never the problem," Bucky said. "Hydra was. Hydra's done."

"That's not actually helping my apprehension about this plan," Tony said. He focused on the radio so he wouldn't have to look Bucky in the eye. "I can't lose you, not like this."

Bucky huffed. "Is there a way you could lose me?" he asked, amused.

Tony didn't look in Rogers' direction, though he wanted to. "Not voluntarily," he muttered.

"Look, if it were me they actually wanted, you'd do what you could to come with me, yeah?" Bucky said. "So you'd know I was okay, that I had good backup. I don't like parts of this plan either -- "

"Don't you get on my case now about my job in all this," Tony said.

"No, you're more than capable," Bucky replied. "But that doesn't mean I won't worry about you, the same as you worry about me. I accept the danger you're in because I have to. Try to do the same for me?"

"I really, really hate this plan," Tony sighed.

"It'll be fine."

"You know that if I personally end up dead because of a Soviet sub, it actually will start the third world war," Tony said.

"Well, you'll be dead, what will you care?" Bucky replied, and Tony managed a grin. He glanced around to make sure nobody could see them, then tipped Tony's chin up briefly and kissed him. "Nobody's going to die. Nobody dies on Steve's watch."

"You did."

"And I never make the same mistake twice, do I?" Bucky asked. Tony shook his head. "Have a little faith. When you see what Steve's capable of, you'll understand."

***

Natasha could barely believe it when the radio crackled to life with the voice of someone claiming to be Steve Rogers. First because she'd still put the odds of them finding him alive at slim to none, but also because she didn't believe for a second that James Barnes would give him up so easily. Her comrades from the submarine were overjoyed to be offered Steve Rogers on a silver platter, and when Rogers insisted that Barnes come with him, she could tell they were seeing medals and accolades in their future.

But Natasha had spend a long time on the ship with the others -- Danvers, Stark, van Dyne (who had shown unusual spirit, she thought, in escaping to the mainland), Wilson, Rhodes, and Barnes himself. She knew this had to be a trap, and she only grew more sure of this when Barnes came on the radio.

"I'd like to speak with Natalia, over," he said. The soldiers who had come over from the sub all turned to look at her. Some of them smirked.

"There is no Natalia here, over," the sub commander replied. "We will prepare for your arrival."

"Neither of us are getting on the boat until I speak to Natalia Romanova, the Black Widow, over," Barnes said calmly.

"Give me the radio," she barked at the sub commander, who scowled.

"I don't take orders from -- "

"I am a Black Widow," she told him haughtily. "Give me the radio."

He looked like he was about to argue, so she let her hand come to rest lightly on the knife at her hip. His eyes flicked down and then back up. He held out the radio microphone.

"This is Natalia, over," she said.

"Ah, Madeline," he said, sounding amused. "This is some mischief you've caused, over."

"Madeline is not my name, over," she replied.

"No, I suppose not. Do you know your real name yet, Natalia? Over."

"What does he mean by that?" the commander demanded.

"It's just a taunt," she said, thinking furiously. She was nearly sure what he was asking, which meant Danvers or van Dyne must have understood her actions. Because this -- this wasn't right, what they'd done to the ship, and now it was time to decide. Giving the crew a fighting chance was one thing, but now was the time to choose whether she would side with them or simply let them fight on their own.

James knew his real name, because he was his own man. And he wanted to know -- was she? Or was she a Black Widow, a Red Room agent? Time to either learn her name and make her own choices, or to fall into line with the Red Room and know her whole life lay ahead of her, orderly and assured.

"He's trying to make me angry," she continued, heart thudding so loudly in her chest she was shocked they couldn't hear it.

"Is it working?" the commander asked. Nasty little man.

"No," she said, and clicked the microphone button, making a decision. "I know my name. You will too, when you arrive, I'll make sure of that. Will you come quietly, Barnes? Over."

His voice was devoid of any emotion; she couldn't tell if he understood. "We'll come quietly, the Captain and me, Madeline. Out."

It didn't take them long to arrive; lookouts spotted the larger of the ship's two boats making its way towards the Marvel, and when it pulled up alongside, she was on the railing. The sub commander tossed down a rope ladder.

"One at a time," he said, as the lookouts aimed their rifles down into the boat. "Captain first. We will tell the Winter Soldier when to come up."

Steve Rogers was like a propaganda poster, tall and broad-shouldered, jaw square, face fearless. He had a wide wound on his head that looked half-healed, but his eyes were clear. On his back he had the shield, but the others didn't appear to understand its importance; they didn't even bother taking it off him before they shackled his wrists, hands front, with wide steel sleeves.

"You must be Madeline," he said to her with a smile like a sunrise. "Bucky's told me about you."

"My name is Natasha Romanova," she said.

"My mistake," he said calmly.

He was shuffled aside by a nervous-looking soldier, so that Barnes could come up. Natasha positioned herself in front of Rogers and tucked her hands behind her back at parade rest. she let her hands uncurl, and felt his fingertips brush her palms as he took the little steel key to his shackles.

Really, she thought, they ought to train the military to deal with Black Widows. She couldn't be the first to stage a coup like this. It was sad how easily the soldiers were handled.

Barnes tumbled clumsily over the side, and winked at her as the soldiers helped him up.

"Good to see a son returning to the fold," the sub commander said, as Barnes held out his wrists to be cuffed.

Barnes smiled at him. "Well, Natasha was very persuasive. Remember what I said to you about what we say in America?" He turned to look at her, which meant everyone else did too, following his cue.

"I think you said 'It's a free country'," she replied, and dropped to the deck.

Barnes snapped the chain between his cuffs like it was made of cheap cardboard, and as she dropped she saw him lashing out, taking out one of his guards and throwing the second bodily into the third. There was a shift in the air pressure over her head and a low hum that zipped past her; Captain America's shield bounced off the sub commander, knocking him flat, ricocheted into a soldier's upraised rifle, flew straight at Barnes --

Barnes brought up his arm, deflecting it without even looking, and sent it into the face of the last soldier standing. Rogers caught it on the rebound effortlessly.

She straightened, drawing her gun, and took in the scattered unconscious bodies on the deck.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you, ma'am," Rogers said, eyes fixed on her gun.

"It's okay," Barnes said. "If she wanted to shoot you, you'd already be bleeding, Steve."

She stood over the unconscious commander, studying him.

"Head or kneecaps?" she asked.

Silence.

"Uh, is she asking me?" Rogers said. He sounded confused.

"Neither," Barnes said, and she glanced at him. "Well, honestly, it's your choice. But we..." he gestured at himself, then at Rogers, "don't kill prisoners. Or assault them. It's kinda...a Geneva Convention thing."

She rolled her eyes, which got her a grin from him, but she holstered her gun. "Well, get some rope, then."

Rogers went to the equipment locker on deck, but Barnes strode past him, leaning over the side of the ship -- not the side they'd come over, but the far side, beyond which lay the sub that had been tailing them.

"Tony," he called. A voice drifted up.

"Yeah, Buck!"

"How's that radar coming?"

"Taken care of!"

She went to the rail herself and leaned over. In the shadow of the Marvel, the boat that Rogers and Barnes had come in on was now drifting gently between them and the sub.

"Hiya, Comrade," Tony called up. Next to him, James Rhodes was untangling himself from a tarp where they had apparently hidden when Rogers and Barnes had boarded. "Thanks for the help."

"What are you doing?" she asked.

"Jamming your pals' radio and radar, so we can call ashore to tell the others to come board," Tony said. "Also, siphoning fuel from the sub so we can get home. Don't mind us, go help Cap," he added, making a shooing motion.

She leaned back to check on Rogers, but he was already almost finished tying the soldiers and the commander up.

"How many guards downstairs?" he asked her, when she approached. Barnes had vanished.

"Eight -- four on shift, four in the mess," she said.

"Well, ladies' choice," he said.

"I'll take the shift officers. You take the mess."

"Fine by me." He rolled his shoulders, cracking his neck. "Let's go clean house, shall we?"

***

By the time Rogers and Bucky (and, Tony grudgingly added, Natalia-Natasha) were done retaking the ship, the others they'd left behind were on their way across the water. They'd had to abandon the Heavy and the ski-doos, but that was a negligible loss given what they'd gained, which was not just Steve Rogers but also a shipful of Soviet soldiers.

It was the kind of volatile situation that Tony knew required careful consideration. If the sub had noticed its officers on the Marvel were quiet, it wasn't yet panicking. Tony had set up the radio jammer to mimic natural interference as much as possible, and Rhodey had pumped sea water into their fuel tank even as he was pumping fuel from the sub into the Marvel, so they should be well and truly fucked if they tried to follow when the Marvel ran.

"We have two problems," Bucky said, as the ship's crew helped the others back onboard and raised the boats.

"One, they'll have to notice when the ship starts to run," Rogers said.

"Two, what the hell do we do with the Soviets?" Carol added.

"Throw them overboard," Romanoff suggested. Everyone looked at her. She shrugged. "A tragic accident. Politically neutral. Besides, if they inform on me, I may as well throw myself overboard. The Red Room doesn't let go of its own."

"They haven't technically seen you betray them," Rogers pointed out. "I could easily have been the one who dropped you when you ducked."

"If we take them back with us, either the government's got to cover it up or it's going to get out and cause an international incident," Tony said. "We don't need another Cuban Missile Crisis. Not with Nixon in the White House."

"A what now?" Rogers asked.

"Tell you later," Bucky said to him quietly.

"Stark Industries doesn't need the publicity either," Rhodey said, and Tony turned to him, startled. "It's an arms-maker, Tony. Tangling with Russians in the back of beyond. Not good for you, even if we weren't the aggressors."

"Can we....just let them go? Put them in one of the boats and run? That seems deeply unwise," Carol said.

"Well, they can't follow the Marvel very far, even in the sub," Tony said, rubbing his face.

"In terms of military intelligence, the commander is useful," Romanoff said. "Take him. Leave the rest?"

"I realize I don't have a lot of the map on this one, but she's got a point," Rogers said. Romanoff looked shocked. "One prisoner's easy to keep track of. The rest of these guys...they're foot soldiers. They're not major players, they're not useful."

"Just following orders?" Tony suggested drily.

"I try not to hold enlisted men accountable for the sins of their commanders," Rogers replied, voice sharp. "And as someone who's actually been in a war -- "

"Steve," Bucky said warningly. Steve frowned at him. Bucky looked to Tony, which warmed him a little.

"Carol's ship," Bucky said. "Tony's expedition. Your call. Anyone who isn't ready to back your play needs to speak up now and -- Steve, my hand to God, if you don't keep quiet," he began, when Steve opened his mouth. It was a tone Steve knew well, and he shut his mouth again.

Tony looked at Carol. "We throw the others in the expedition boat with the radar jammer. Keep the commander. We still have one good engine, right? So, we run as soon and as silent as we can. We're going to haul ass for New York, just in case they have friends around. Yes?"

Carol nodded. "Yeah, I think so."

"You approve, Captain Rogers?" Tony asked. He saw Rogers cross his arms.

"Apparently I do," he said. "But I have one more suggestion," he added, and turned to Natasha. "We're gonna need to tie you up, too."

***

They weighed anchor that night, as quietly as they could, at a time when the submarine was on shift change, at least that was the hope. With one functional engine and a need for silence, they drifted west with agonizing slowness. Tony, from the aft deck, watched the submarine (and the boat with the Soviet crew in it) disappear over the horizon behind them. Either they hadn't noticed the Marvel leaving, or they'd burned out their engines trying to give chase with fuel holds full of sea water.

Bucky was below, probably asleep. Most of the crew were. Janet was helping her father pack up his experiments to make room for her in his room; they'd locked up Natasha and the commander in hers. Tony wasn't sure where Rogers was sleeping yet. Maybe he'd be sharing Bucky's bunk, Tony thought, and then was ashamed of his bitterness.

Tony should go take the cook's bunk, let Steve have his bed in the cabin. Give Bucky and Steve time together. That was -- well, fairness didn't play into it, but that was right, as right as anything could be in a situation this difficult.

He'd known he couldn't have Bucky forever. If they found Steve, he'd have to let him go, and he'd have to try to be graceful about it. He hadn't expected it to hurt this much (or for Steve Rogers to be, well, kind of a dick) but it wasn't the first thing in his life he'd had to let go because of who he was, or who someone else needed to be.

Once they were back in New York, he'd disengage gently; he'd talk to his mother about finding some appropriate young woman for the heir of Stark Industries. A smart girl, sociable but not too wrapped up in society, and a brunette. With blue eyes.

"Have you been to bed yet?" someone asked behind him, and Tony glanced over his shoulder. Rogers.

"Didn't think I'd be able to sleep. If something came up, I wanted to be awake for it, anyway," Tony said. Rogers came to stand at the railing next to him. "You should take my bed if you want, I thought I'd bunk down in the cook's place. Once I bleach it and maybe perform an exorcism."

"Oh, I already took the cook's bunk," Rogers said. "I'm used to worse and anyway, I don't sleep all that much anymore."

Tony nodded, perplexed but unwilling to get into it, not when he was so tired and felt so thin-skinned.

"Listen," Rogers continued. "I feel like we maybe got off on the wrong foot."

"Well, that's me all over," Tony said, not looking at him. "If I can possibly offend Captain America I will find a way. Bucky'll tell you it's an ongoing condition."

"He's sweet on you."

"Don't know what you're talking about."

"Son, I've known him since before his voice broke. Him and men isn't news to me," Rogers said.

"Well, don't you have all the answers."

"I know you gotta protect yourself -- "

"It's not about me," Tony interrupted. "Me, I've got power, I've got the Stark name behind me. It's about protecting him."

"Then you and me have one thing in common already," Rogers said. "I'm trying to make nice here. You're making it difficult."

"Again, you'll find that's something I do," Tony said, but he turned to face him. "Sorry."

"No, I'm sorry," Rogers said firmly. "That swipe earlier was out of line. I'm grateful for what you've done, everything you've done -- for me, for Buck. And I like to own up to my mistakes. I want to be friends. For Bucky's sake if no other reason. Can we start with a truce, at least?"

He offered his hand. Tony glanced down at it, then shook it, a sinking feeling in his chest.

"It'll be what, a week, two weeks back to New York?" Rogers asked.

"Week or ten days," Tony agreed. "Two weeks if I can't get the second engine working."

"You got such a thing as a deck of cards on this tin can?"

"Why, you wanna play bridge?" Tony asked.

"I was thinking poker," Rogers said. "I haven't got much to bet with just yet, but if you loan me a dollar I can usually do all right for myself."

"You want me to loan you a dollar so you can beat me at poker?" Tony asked. Rogers nodded, grinning. "Well, you're ballsy, Rogers, I'll give you that."

"Steve."

"Steve," Tony said, taking his wallet out of his pocket, unearthing a dollar bill. He held it out and then leaned in close when Steve took it. "Don't ever call me son again, Steve."

Steve's smile was wicked. "Sure thing, Kiddo."

***

They ran mostly silent, that week. They didn't know if other Soviet ships might be in the area, and they couldn't report their position, or where they were headed, just in case. Tony spent a lot of time in the engine room, repairing the second engine, trying to get the magnetic repulsion system back online. It kept him out of the way, and it gave Steve and Bucky time to talk, or whatever it was they were doing.

He hauled himself up for evening meals, and sometimes a card game after. But he went to bed early, and even on the nights when Bucky followed him down the corridor and into their shared cabin, he just undressed and crawled into bed. Bucky didn't try to make it anything more, which was a small mercy.

They were passing the coast of Newfoundland, still two days out from New York, and Tony was restlessly looking for somewhere to light -- his usual perch at the rear of the ship was taken by Sam, who was getting Natasha her regular few hours of fresh air before she had to be locked back in with the commander. Half the crew was in the mess, Janet was on the foredeck doing some kind of meteorological research with her father and Rhodey, and Steve and Bucky were playing cards midships. Steve had parlayed Tony's dollar into about thirty bucks' worth of winnings, but he hadn't paid Tony back yet.

He was considering doing another engine walkthrough, just to escape all the people on the ship, but Bucky looked up just as he was descending the stairs to the lower decks.

"Tony," he called. Tony saw Steve lay his cards down and fold up his winnings. "Come over, pull up a tarp."

"Engine walkthrough," Tony called, hesitating on the top step.

"Again?" Steve asked.

"Well, we were under attack," Tony said. "Until we get her into dry-dock, I want to make sure I don't miss it if a housing cracks or something."

"I'll come with you," Bucky said, touching Steve's shoulder as he stood and passed him. Steve gave him a weird little nod.

"Won't be interesting," Tony said, continuing down the stairs as Bucky jogged to catch up. "I mean, it's just staring at machine parts."

"I'm not doing it for laughs," Bucky answered, following him down the hallway, then down another set of narrower stairs.

"Nobody does," Tony said with a half-smile, unlocking the door. This end of the engine room was mostly quiet, but the dull thud-thud of propulsion was like a second pulse. "Seriously, Buck, it's really boring."

"Which is why I'm a little worried you're doing it twice a day," Bucky said, slipping past him just inside the doorway and blocking his way forward. "Tony. Come on. The engines don't need another inspection."

Tony cocked a hip, crossing his arms. "So I'm bored, big deal. Worse things I could be doing."

"This isn't because you're bored," Bucky said. "Don't give me that sullen-kid pout, you haven't pulled the sullen-kid pout on me in two years."

Tony schooled his face into something more passive.

"What's going on?" Bucky asked, stepping closer. "You're down here all the time, you hardly look at me lately -- are you okay?" he asked. Tony stared at him. "Did uh. Everything that's happened, if you were....if it scared you, look, I understand. It scared me, sending you down there to get Steve, retaking the ship..."

"I wasn't scared," Tony said, and then at Bucky's knowing look, amended. "I wasn't so scared it's still bugging me."

"Then what's going on?" Bucky asked. He tipped Tony's chin up and kissed him. "Tell me. I'm worried."

Tony leaned back, and hurt flashed in Bucky's eyes.

"I just wanted to give you and Steve some time," he said.

"Time?" Bucky asked.

"He's got catching up to do. You two do. Together," Tony said.

"Well, yeah, but -- I think you've mostly proved you're actually better at explaining the last twenty years than I am, especially since you were...y'know, lucid for more than I was," Bucky said. His eyes scanned Tony's face, the hurt from earlier settling more permanently. "Did I do something? Are you angry with me?"

"Look, I know I'm not good at making things easy, as Steve very thoroughly reminded me," Tony said. "But I'm trying to make this painless for both of us."

"This?" Bucky asked.

"This. Us. Ending," Tony said.

"Ending," Bucky repeated, his voice dropping.

"I'm trying," Tony said desperately. "I really am, Buck, I -- this is the way I know how to do this. I want you to be happy."

"This is a strange way of showing that," Bucky said. He looked angry. "How exactly is ending -- ending us -- by running away from me, how is that meant to make me happy?"

"Because -- Steve," Tony managed. It was hard to breathe, it hurt, but he drew in what he could, because maybe if he said it, that would be the end of it. "We've been trying to find him forever, and now we have, and I know we were on borrowed time until we did. It's okay, you don't have to worry about me. I knew. I knew, Buck, when he came back it'd be over."

Bucky was staring at him, an unreadable expression on his face. "Because...you think Steve and I were together."

"Well, pretty sure the whole brotherhood-of-soldiers, rescued-you-from-certain-death, lived-your-whole-lives-together thing trumps me," Tony said, misery rising in him. Bucky couldn't be trying to be cruel, he didn't have it in him, but it still hurt, was still so humiliating.

"You thought as soon as Steve was back I'd leave you," Bucky said, sounding....almost confused. The edge of anger had left his voice, though, at least.

"I don't blame you. I can't compete."

"Tony, oh my God," Bucky breathed. "You've got this wrong. Oh, Jesus, you've got this so wrong."

Tony felt hands cup his face, and he didn't realize he'd closed his eyes against hot, embarrassing tears until he felt the warm steel of Bucky's left thumb wipe one away.

"I love Steve, but we weren't ever like that. For God's sake," Bucky said, tilting Tony's face up to look in his eyes. "Tony, I chose you a long time ago."

"You don't have to -- "

"No, I do, you need to hear this," Bucky said. "Even if I could have, with him, and there was a time I would have wanted to, even if he came to me today and asked me to go and be with him, I wouldn't. I love him but I weighed you against his ghost a long time ago and I chose you, Tony. I was never going to leave you for him. You thought -- and you still, we still went looking every year....Tony," he breathed, and kissed him, and Tony wasn't strong enough not to respond when Bucky said his name that way. "Jesus, I don't deserve you."

"But..." Tony trailed off, pressing his face into Bucky's neck, letting Bucky pull him close. "You never with him? Ever?"

"I should have told you, but it didn't even occur to me you might think that. Steve's no reason to end this, Tony. He likes you. Thinks you're good for me," he added, and Tony snorted a wet, snotty laugh into Bucky's shoulder.

"Clearly he hasn't spent enough time around me," Tony said.

"Whose fault is that?" Bucky asked, but Tony felt him kiss the ridge of his ear, gently. "I'm not gonna leave you until I gotta, Tony. And that'll be your call, not mine."

Tony clung to him for a while, waiting for Bucky to let go, to make an awkward joke and maybe hustle him back upstairs, but he didn't; he just stood there, waiting, and didn't step back until Tony did first.

"What do we do now?" Tony asked, wiping his nose embarrassedly. Bucky handed him a handkerchief with a smile.

"You should probably wash your face," he said. "Then come up to the mess and we'll have something to eat. We should be docking day after tomorrow, and you know I'll be in hot water if you look less than healthy."

"I don't think anyone's going to be looking at us," Tony said. "Well. Not me."

Bucky smiled. "One more act before we can leave this all behind us and go sleep on real beds in a real house."

"You love the Marvel."

"I like her a lot more when my boyfriend isn't ignoring me," Bucky said softly. "The next few days are gonna be...a lot, Tony. Promise me we'll still have this on the other side."

"Yeah," Tony said, and relief flooded through him. He felt warm for the first time in days. "Promise. Okay. Let's go eat."

***

They made radio contact when they were only two or three hours out from Manhattan, figuring that this close to the US coastline they'd be reasonably safe from Soviet subs.

Tony got on the radio once Carol had approved it, and he made it through to SHIELD pretty fast. They fetched Peggy, and once Tony had given a brief report, he handed the microphone to Steve and left the room -- it couldn't be an easy conversation, and they were owed at least a little privacy. All he heard as he left was Aunt Peggy saying, I'm afraid we missed our dance.

"I didn't think about how hard it'd be for him," Tony said, standing in the corridor outside with Bucky. "I forgot how hard it was for you."

"Well, I had you," Bucky said. "And now he's got you, too, as well as me. We'll get him back to the mansion and give him some time. Steve's strong. He'll adapt, like I did."

Steve emerged then, looking haggard. "Howard's on," he said. "He wants to talk to Tony."

"Time to convince Dad to bring out the press at the dock," Tony said. "He's gonna think I've gone off the deep end."

"Wouldn't be the first time," Bucky said, pressing a hand gently into the small of his back. "Almost done. Don't forget to tell him about the Soviet prisoners."

They might not always be the best at talking, him and his dad, but Tony would say this, Howard was good at reading vocal tone, and he was fast to catch on when something was happening beneath the surface. He agreed readily to the presence of the press, and he said he'd handle the announcement about the Soviet spies.

"I hope you know what you're doing, Tony. Over," he said, before they signed off.

"Me too, Dad. Remember -- we think they were working for a small extremist cell, not the Soviet government. Over."

"Believe me, nobody wants to take a swipe at the Soviets less than I do," Howard said, and then there was a pause so long Tony wondered if he'd forgotten to over. "You've done great work on this, son. I know it's been a lot of time and effort. Well done. Over."

Tony stared at the radio, shocked.

"Did Mom tell you to say that? Over," he said, and heard the crackle of Howard's laughter.

"I had some prodding," he admitted. "Doesn't make it untrue, Tony. I'll see you in a few hours. Out."

By the time they were pulling in to dock, the crew wrangling a gangplank up to the deck, everyone had washed and put on the best clothes they had -- Bucky and Steve were scrubbed and sleek, and Tony had shaved off most of the beard, though he'd left a goatee, which he thought made him look older. Jan hopped up and down and waved at the railing beside him.

"This was fun," she said to Tony, in between shouts and posing for the cameras. "You have to promise to take me on all your exciting adventures, Tony."

"I wouldn't leave you out, not after what you did," Tony agreed. "We'll start an explorers' club. The Millionaire Mountain Climbing and Table Tennis Society."

"Sounds delightful. Smile and hug me so everyone thinks we had a torrid affair on the boat, and the creeps won't bother me for a few months," she ordered, and Tony laughed and wrapped an arm around her waist, kissing her on the cheek for the photographers before pulling back.

"Almost time?" he asked Bucky, on his other side.

"Wait for it," Bucky said with a grin.

Below, on the dock, a crowd of reporters and photographers was cordoned off to one side; beyond them were a handful of cars, including at least two he recognized as his dad's. Off to the left were stacks of cargo boxes and pallets waiting to be loaded onto some other ship. Perfect.

The gangplank was finally settled into place, and a band began to play the Star Spangled Banner as Steve appeared at the railing, waving like a movie star. The reporters below began to hustle and elbow one another. A pair of policeman approached the bottom of the gangplank as Rhodey pushed his way to the front, dragging the shackled sub commander by an elbow. Behind him, Carol was leading a likewise-bound Natasha.

"Almost," Bucky said. "Almost..."

With a movement so fast it was almost a blur, Natasha Romanoff turned gracefully, bringing both of her hands up and into Carol's chest. Carol flew backwards and Natasha all but pirouetted, kicking another crew member in the face. Still bound at the wrists, she ducked and rolled past a clumsy attempt to grab her by Steve, elbowed Rhodey so hard he and the commander went down together, and then bolted for the gangplank.

The police at the bottom started up, but she kicked out mid-stride, knocking one of them into the water, catching the other one a stunning blow on the jaw. Reporters clamored as she hit the ground running; Steve bounded up to the railing and yelled "STOP HER!"

A few brave souls gave chase, but Natasha was fast; she was already weaving through the pallets, looking for cover.

"Now?" Tony asked.

"Now," Bucky agreed, checking to be sure that the commander was on his feet again and watching. He drew his gun, took careful aim, and squeezed the trigger.

Natasha's body jerked, and a spray of blood danced across the pallet behind her. She went down like a puppet with its strings cut. Blood began to pool beneath her.

Rhodey, taking his cue off Bucky, hustled the commander down the gangway. About halfway down, another set of police took him into custody and dragged him, stunned, into a squad car. The rest of the crew began unloading, while the reporters stared up at Bucky in shocked silence. Bucky holstered the gun.

"Steve," he said. "Dancing monkey time."

"Got it," Steve said grimly, then put on a big wide smile and descended to distract the journalists. "Ladies and gentlemen, I'm sorry you had to see that. Stark Industries is preparing a statement on the two spies that we uncovered while on our return journey to New York, but understandably that will now have to wait. That said, I think we can still give you a story. My name is Steve Rogers..."

"Wow," Tony said, watching him go. "He's really good at that."

"Lots of practice," Bucky sighed. Tony glanced back at the row of pallets where Natasha had been shot. There was nothing but the pool of blood left.

They joined Steve at the makeshift podium, or rather Tony did; Bucky stood back a little, watchful, while Tony, Jan, and Rhodey clustered around Steve and answered questions. Finally, Howard appeared and dismissed the crowd, then turned to Steve and hugged him tightly. Tony was shocked to see dampness in his eyes.

"I'm sorry I didn't look harder for you," he said.

"Howard -- " Steve shook his head. "You had no way of knowing."

"But we should have -- "

"Nothing to be done about it now," Steve said firmly. "I don't need an apology. But I wouldn't mind a sandwich if you've got one handy."

"He knows how to deal with Dad, doesn't he?" Tony asked Bucky in a low voice, as they headed for the limousine that would take them back to the mansion.

"Howard hasn't actually changed all that much," Bucky replied.

When Tony clambered into the limo, he found his mother already inside, handing a martini to Natasha, who was sitting crosslegged on the floor so as not to be seen, cleaning fake blood out of her hair with a damp towel.

"Tony, dearest," Maria said, hugging him from the seat before gesturing to Natasha. "I believe this delightful young thing belongs to you?"

"Not to me," Tony said, grinning. "Natasha's her own woman."

"I am now," she agreed.

"Well, then I'll keep her for now; we're practically running a Home for Disenfranchised Soldiers at this rate anyway," she said, smiling benevolently at Natasha. Tony recognized the look; it was the same expression Maria had gotten whenever she approved of a girl Tony brought home. The one that said Potential Daughter Material.

"Sorry about all the theatrics," Tony said. "Steve's idea. We had to convince our other Soviet guest that Natasha wasn't a traitor. We'll have to send him home eventually, that's just diplomacy, and if word gets out that she's alive..."

"Hardly going to happen now," Howard said, cramming himself in, making room for Steve and his giant shoulders. "I haven't faked a death in too long, that was fun. Jarvis! Take this traveling circus home."

"Of course, sir," Jarvis said from the front seat.

"Tony, Natasha tells me you've promised her a Coney Island hot dog," Maria said. "I was thinking a nice outing this weekend might be just the thing."

"Is Coney Island still around?" Steve asked, looking wistful. "I'd like to go on the Cyclone without throwin' up -- uh, sorry, that's not nice conversation," he added, looking to Maria and blushing.

"Well," Maria said, smiling at him. "Aren't you sweet, Steve Rogers."

***

Dinner that evening was lively.

Rhodey showed up with Sam and Carol in tow, and Howard had invited Jan; her father was already locked away in his lab recording his findings and, no doubt, muttering darkly about how they'd had to cut the trip short. Tony wasn't sure Vernon van Dyne had even noticed that Soviets had invaded the ship at all.

Howard was cheerful, if subdued; Maria seemed thrilled to have so many young people in the house. Natasha sat with her back to the wall and watched everything, but she smiled and laughed when Sam went and settled next to her, and whenever she got a little wild-eyed, Maria appeared and seemed to soothe her down.

Peggy and Angie arrived with the girls, too, just before the meal. Conversation dropped to a murmur when they entered; Steve got up from the couch, where he'd been deep in conversation with Bucky. Maria began to gently herd everyone into the dining room. Tony stayed where he was near the door, watching.

"Steve," Peggy said quietly.

"Peggy," Steve replied. They eyed each other for a minute, warily, and then Peggy took a step forward and Steve swept her into his arms, shaking. Tony caught Angie's eye. She looked sad.

When the hug ended, Peggy stepped back, dry-eyed, and gave him a brave smile. "Steve, this is my good friend Angela Martinelli."

"Call me Angie," she said, taking his hand. "Heard a lot about you over the years."

"Pleasure to meet you," Steve said. "I understand you've been keeping Peggy out of trouble."

"It's why I got all the grey hairs," Angie said, smiling.

"And these are our daughters, Lilian and Sofia," Peggy continued. "Girls, this is Captain America."

Steve shook Lilian's hand, then crouched to shake Sofia's. "Call me Steve," he said softly. "You two look just like your mother."

"Lil, Sof," Tony called, and the two of them looked up, beaming when they saw him. "Come on, I need dates for dinner."

The girls ran forward, and he saw Angie pat Peggy on the arm before joining them.

"Give Peg and the kid a minute," she said to Tony, as they shuffled into the dining room. "They need a little time."

"You aren't worried?" Tony asked.

"About what? She might slap him for being two decades late to their date, but I doubt it, and I hear he can take it," Angie said, shooting him a grin.

"About, you know. Their past."

"Oh, Squirt," Angie laughed. "He might have her memories, but I've got twenty-five years on him now. Peggy's not going to leave me for a boy she knew for a few months in the war, however great or cinematic their love story was." She pecked him on the cheek. "And Bucky's not going to leave you for him either."

"I wasn't worried," he lied.

"Mmhm. Precious little queen." She patted his head. "Go sit with my daughters and make your boyfriend play nice with Lilian."

Tony let her shove him towards the empty seat between Lilian and Sofia; Bucky was indeed on the other side of Lilian, and shot him a look of tolerant annoyance over her head. Tony settled in as Steve and Peggy slipped through the door, hurrying to the last open seats -- Peggy next to Angie, Steve on Bucky's other side, at Howard's left hand.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Howard said from the head of the table, lifting his glass. "I have two toasts to make before we eat. First, to the crew of the Marvel, and the friends and family gathered here, for their hard work and the risks they've taken."

Everyone raised their drinks, and Howard let the silence stretch dramatically.

"Dad's such a showman," Tony muttered to Lilian, who stifled a laugh.

"And a second toast, which I think you all see coming. For twenty-five years, whenever we got together, the Howling Commandos have been lifting their glasses to the Captain, in remembrance," Howard continued. Steve flushed red. "Steve, I think I speak for everyone here when I say how happy we are to be able to toast you in the flesh once more and thank you for your sacrifice in person. And," he added, as everyone drank, "to be able to feed you, even if Anna threw a fit about serving a banquet on short notice. All right, kids, dig in. Someone pass me the mashed potatoes."

***

That night, after Peggy and Angie had gone home and Howard and Maria had gone up to bed, the remaining members of the Marvel's expedition team gathered in the library, and Tony poured out drinks from his father's "secret" good stash.

"So, how long is the ship in dry dock?" he asked, handing Carol a glass.

"Depends on you," she said. "Once the engines get a going-over, she'll be seaworthy. But I can't say I'd mind if you installed another set of magnetic repulsors."

"Why? Going up against the Soviets again?"

She shrugged. "No, but I told Dad about them and he's hot to see how they work."

"You're not taking the Marvel out again?"

"I was thinking I'd stay on land for a while. The hazard pay I got from Greenland, I could put a down payment on a couple of years of college. Or flight school -- I always liked planes better than boats," she added, glancing at Rhodey, who looked a little smug. "I have a few good reasons to stick around."

"SHIELD would train you, if you wanted," Tony said. "We're getting Sam a job -- "

"I'm still thinking about that," Sam put in.

" -- so I'm sure I could talk to Peggy about a new pilot," Tony finished.

"See what you can do about those uniforms," Jan said, wrinkling her nose. "I could never join SHIELD. So unfashionable."

"Well, design some new ones yourself," Rhodey said. "They'd probably love to have you."

"No high heels," Carol said.

"Dad's been doing some work with extreme textiles," Jan said thoughtfully.

"What about you, Steve?" Carol said, sitting back. "Any idea what you'd like to do? Or is it too early to say yet?"

Steve swirled his drink, considering. "I thought a little about it. I don't think I want to go back into the military yet. I need a little study first. Suppose I could always do some more moving pictures."

"Steve," Bucky said, looking at him gravely.

"Yeah, Buck?" Steve asked.

"Your movies were really and truly the worst thing I've ever seen in the dark," Bucky said, and Steve burst out laughing.

"All right, maybe Hollywood's not for me," he allowed. "I don't know. Seems a shame to waste all this science," he added, gesturing at his chest. "Maybe I'll join SHIELD too. Or the police. No need to decide tonight, Howard said I can stay here for a while. Me and Natasha both."

"How about you, Tasha?" Jan asked, giving her an encouraging smile. "What're you going to do in the New World?"

Natasha looked at Sam, then down at her hands. "Don't know," she said softly.

"Well, what do you like to do?" Jan prompted.

Natasha frowned. "Don't know that either," she said, sounding faintly upset.

"Well, finding out oughta be fun," Sam said. "You can start at Coney Island this weekend. Maria invited me," he said to Tony, who grinned.

"You should take Natasha to a ball game," he said. "And the movies. You get decadent capitalist movies in the USSR?"

Natasha's smile was a little less unsure. "Strictly for research," she said.

"So is that a no?" Sam asked.

"No, it's not a no," she said. Sam looked delighted.

"Are you two going back to Boston?" Rhodey asked, turning to Tony.

"I don't know," Tony said, looking to Bucky. "Robotics did okay without me all summer, and it's making money now. I feel like I could probably hand it off to the interim head. Come back to HQ, start learning my way around the business."

"So you'd stay in New York?" Steve asked, sounding hopeful. "You and Bucky?"

"Tony," Bucky said. "We don't have to -- "

"No, it's time. Dad said I couldn't dick around in Robotics forever, and he's not wrong. I can do better work at HQ. But I'm not moving back into the mansion," Tony said. "Dad cramps my style. We'll get a bachelor pad somewhere. Steve can come too -- you'll want to, by the time we find one," he added to Steve. "Dad cramps everyone's style."

"This'll be so great," Jan said. "The eight of us? We'll be unstoppable. Look out, Manhattan!"

"Today Coney Island, tomorrow the world," Tony said, and everyone raised their glasses. Bucky rested a hand on Tony's back, curling his fingers into the material of his shirt, and Tony leaned back into it, trying to convey affection and gratitude and possessiveness without speaking. Maybe it worked; Bucky relaxed a little, and his hand slipped down to cop a quick feel of his ass before he withdrew.

"You're my favorite," Tony said in his ear.

"Love you too," Bucky replied, and ruffled his hair.

"Okay, as the responsible adult here, I'm calling an end to the party," Rhodey said, giving Tony a knowing look. "Sam, Carol? Jan, you need a lift?"

"Easier than a taxi, thank you," Jan said. "Natasha, call me before you let Maria take you shopping."

"Thank you," Natasha said.

"Don't thank me yet, I can't wait to see how you look in designer labels," Jan said, kissing her cheek. She patted Steve on the head as she passed. "If you want to come along, Steve, don't be shy..."

"I'm not sure I can find my room again," Steve said to Tony, once the others were gone. "Howard showed me, but this place..."

"Yeah, I used to pretend I was a jungle explorer when I was a kid, I drew maps of every floor," Tony said with a grin. "Come on, I'll show you there. Natasha, you need a native guide too?"

"No, I remember," she said, and disappeared down the hallway before Tony could reply.

"She's going to be fun," Tony said.

"She sounds very lost," Steve said. "I think both of us have a ways to go."

"You know, when Bucky was...coming back, he had bad days too," Tony said. "You could talk to him. He'd like that, probably."

Steve cast a sidelong look at him. "You don't mind?"

"Was I so obvious?"

"Only to Bucky. Once he brought it up, it wasn't hard to see." Steve shrugged. "He was worried about you."

"Well, I'm feeling a little more secure now. Apparently I can take you in a fight," Tony said, punching Steve's arm. It actually hurt a little, and he shook his hand out, subtly.

"I love Buck," Steve said. "What he went through, even just the little he told me...I'm glad he had you, Tony."

"Well, he saved my life a couple of times, so, I figure we're even. Aaand here's your room," Tony added, exquisitely glad that this little confessional was over. "Sleep well."

"That's the great thing about Bucky," Steve said, turning to stand in the doorway. "And the awful thing. You think you have to balance the books, but he just doesn't think that way. He'd give everything and never expect anything back. Far as I can tell, he did that with me, a couple of times. I'm just glad he found someone who takes -- takes a little less than I did."

"Oh," Tony said, unsure how to react to that. "Well. Thanks, I guess."

Steve smiled. "Goodnight, Tony. Hey, if I don't show up by breakfast, send out a search party, huh?"

"Night, Steve," Tony said, and hurried back to his own room once the door had shut. Bucky was there, undressed and in bed, already half-asleep by the look of him.

"Steve get to bed okay?" he mumbled, as Tony stripped down and crawled under the blankets, huddling into the warmth of him.

"Yep. Long day for everyone," Tony yawned.

"No kiddin'." Bucky curled an arm around him. "Can I be there when you tell your dad you're moving back to New York?"

"Consider it an early Christmas gift," Tony said. "He's going to pull the same shit he pulled with Boston -- be prepared to look at every penthouse in Manhattan."

Bucky nuzzled into his neck sleepily. "S'okay. Steve'll handle him."

"Steve's gonna be fun, I think."

"Oh, now you like him."

"Mmhm," Tony said, curling his hands around Bucky's on his waist. "Sleep, Buck. Big day tomorrow."

Bucky's breathing evened out against his neck, and Tony could feel him smile as he slept. It felt like a puzzle piece fitting into place, one he didn't even know was missing until today. Some old wound in Bucky was healing, and he'd have to thank Steve Rogers for that, somehow.

Tommorrow. Tonight, this was enough.