Manhattan has changed.
City blocks have been destroyed by the battle with the Chitauri, the skyline once again irrevocably altered by outside forces hell bent on destruction. Even as the skeletons of new buildings grow hopefully toward the sky and the old buildings saved are patched over, re-bricked, reinforced and restructured, the scars remain, and will always remain.
New York doesn’t look the same. From the sky or from the streets, the shape of the city has shifted.
But he doesn’t mean it’s changed in the obvious ways. For Tony, it’s smaller than that…and larger than that. It’s something intangible, a sense that the city he once knew is somehow just…gone.
He once found New York, with its deep, stretching canyons and glorious noise, to be the fast-moving, fast-thinking kind of place that he could plug right into. He could become one with the hustle and bustle and the near-electric flow of traffic and people. As a child, he’d escape the elegant, cordoned off existence of his parents’ Fifth Avenue life and run the streets, ride the subways, eager to explore the nooks and crannies of the too-tiny yet endless island.
His father always saw New York as something to be improved, his mother viewed it as something to be tamed, but Tony reveled in its dirt, its stubborn wild nature, its utter refusal of predictability. He always saw something more than they did and felt special because of it. Like the truth about this place was a secret only he understood.
In Manhattan, Tony once saw himself, writ large with neon signs and massive billboards, street grids marking off organized chaos that just seemed so perfect and brilliant in its irrational sanity. Manhattan was to him a perfect paradox – logical and illogical all at once.
The older he grew, the allure of the city dimmed. Tony avoided it for many reasons – his father being chief among them while he was alive, and strangely even more so after his death – but even as Tony’s life became a whirlwind of globe-trotting business trips and decadent excursions, something inevitably pulled him back. He yearned for New York even when it hurt to be there. He could never refuse its call.
He needed to come home to re-charge. To find his balance. He’d created Stark Tower as a kind of beacon of hope for the future, but really it was his own North Star. He needed this place, even if he didn’t want to admit it.
Now he finds himself off-kilter surrounded by oppressive skyscrapers, claustrophobic in the unceasing, unyielding crowds. Sometimes he feels like the clouds above are going to implode, that the buildings will shatter and every person will cling to him, suffocate him or tear him to pieces in their own desperate attempts to survive.
Manhattan is no longer his friend, eagerly conspiring with him toward greatness. It is his enemy: a living, breathing entity over which he has no control. Everything he once loved about this mercurial island now terrifies him.
He keeps waking up screaming, sure that the dark, gaping maw of the Chitauri’s portal above his once-beloved building has swallowed the city whole.
It’s funny that he’d been willing to die to protect this place, and now he can’t stand to be here.
With his life on both coasts effectively wiped out, his suits of armor destroyed and his chest free and clear of both the arc reactor and shrapnel, Tony should feel like his slate is wiped clean.
For the first time in a long, long time, he has his health, he has an easy conscience, and he has love. He and Pepper could go anywhere, do anything, be anything.
Natasha had ceded their vigil to him alone only an hour ago, the days of nearly non-stop running and fighting finally catching up to her. She’d reluctantly given in and curled up in one of the jump seats, using his coat as a shield against the pervasive chill of the hold and wadding up his hoodie for a makeshift pillow. It’s a sign of how far the two of them have come that she’s able to sleep unarmed in his company, trusting him not to betray her when she’s vulnerable but also to protect her if the need arises.
Even so, Steve suspects the slightest noise will still wake her in alarm, so he moves carefully when he folds himself into the seat beside Bucky.
He feels too large, too threatening, and wonders if Bucky would remember him better – remember him at all rather - if he looked like his old self. The one Bucky grew up with.
The one Bucky loved.
Bucky looks through him now as if he’s not even here. It’s odd to feel both impossibly huge and invisible at the same time.
Steve bites back his questions and concerns because he knows his words won’t register. Bucky would have no answers even if they did. He has to settle for being close enough to touch, reassured by the steady rhythm of his best friend’s breathing.
When he sees the familiar skyline shimmering like a mirage in the distance, emerging blue-grey and beautiful out of the rapidly clearing morning fog, Steve reaches over and puts his hand over Bucky’s.
He dares to hope that Bucky will see the city and remember it all.
The fateful meeting at St. John’s Orphan Asylum; the nights scrapping in Hell’s Kitchen; the days scrounging for work that never quite paid all the bills. He wishes Bucky would remember all the double dates despite the unbearable awkwardness, because Bucky loved to dance, and laugh, and sing, and Steve loved to watch him enjoy life enough for the both of them.
He wants Bucky to recall looking over his shoulder in art class at Cooper Union, his visit made purposely to distract in that frivolous, beautiful way of his that disappeared forever a mere moment later when it was announced that the country was now at war.
He even selfishly wishes Bucky would remember the war itself, fighting side by side as equals, partners. The times that Steve finally saved Bucky’s life, returning half a lifetime’s worth of favors.
They were so close people mistook them for brothers; yet in truth they were even closer – more like lovers who never dared admit that no one else would ever do. He wants Bucky to remember that.
He can see pieces of their past dwelling in the shadows between the shiny, modern, new buildings if he looks hard enough. When he tries to hold on, it all slips through his fingers, but he knows it’s all there, somewhere. Hiding. Waiting.
Steve leans in, pointing out the window.
“Look, Buck. Home. You’re home.”
Bucky’s glance ticks toward the window where New York City stands proudly to welcome them. His blue eyes spark with something akin to recognition but then the light dims, flickers out entirely.
Bucky slowly pulls his fingers from Steve’s grasp, the metal of the handcuff and chain that links his only wrist to the floor clinking lightly. SHIELD agents had removed his cybernetic arm and without it he seems like the walking wounded, despite the injury being seventy years old. Bucky shrinks into himself, hiding his good hand in the folds of his worn jacket.
“That’s not home.”
Bucky shifts, angling his body purposely away from Steve’s. His eyelids slowly close against the morning sun. He doesn’t say anything more.
Steve sighs, dragging his gaze from the sharp lines of Bucky’s face to once again take in the sight of Manhattan.
“You’re right, Buck…it’s not.” He admits, stopping himself as he goes to pat his friend on the knee, reminding himself not to touch. “It’s not.”