“I’ve got something you need to check out,” Natasha said, voice distant and tinny over the speakerphone.
“Is it related to finding Bucky?” asked Steve.
“Then I’m not interested.”
Sam put his hand over the phone before Steve could disconnect the call. “Steve, wait, hear her out. We’re between leads on Barnes right now, aren’t we?”
They were, not that Natasha should have known about it. It had only been a few hours since their latest lead had proven to be definitively cold, and Steve was maybe a little upset. Either Natasha had some sort of psychic awareness of when their latest possible lead on Bucky turned out to be nothing, or more likely Sam had texted her begging for an alternative to the frustrating and fruitless hunt for Bucky, or at the very least, for a distraction from Steve’s stormy mood.
“This isn’t directly related to Barnes. There’s no sign he was in the area, or involved in this. But you should be interested because Colonel Vasily Karpov, former HYDRA and Red Room higher up, was found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning in Cleveland.”
HYDRA higher up meant possible intel on Bucky or the Winter Soldier program. At a minimum, it meant burning another HYDRA head to ash, which was an acceptable if far from preferable alternative to finding Bucky. So Steve said, “Alright. I’m a little interested.”
Natasha ran through it like it was any of dozens of briefings they’d done together with SHIELD, a quick rundown of the basics on Karpov and the bigger picture he was part of. Lately a lot of the leads on Bucky and HYDRA agents still at large had been turning into conspicuous dead ends: scientists associated with the Winter Soldier program who were long dead or who had been killed or apprehended in the immediate chaos after Natasha leaked everything, HYDRA operatives and strike teams who didn’t know anything beyond the basics, their cells left rudderless without orders or directives, HYDRA higher ups who bit into their cyanide capsules as soon as they were cornered. HYDRA, of necessity never particularly unified as an organization in order to minimize the possibility of discovery, was plunged into chaos and infighting in the vacuum of power left by so many HYDRA heads being cut off by the assorted forces of the Avengers and anti-HYDRA task forces. Colonel Vasily Karpov, formerly of the Soviet branch of HYDRA and leading a seemingly unremarkable life under a false identity in Cleveland until he’d turned up dead, seemed like he was just another victim of that infighting.
When Natasha finished her rundown, Sam asked, “Why are we interested in this? For all we know, it really was an accident caused by the guy’s shitty heating system.”
“And he died two months ago. Is there some other indication of HYDRA activity in Cleveland?” Steve added.
“We’re interested because Karpov was the Winter Soldier’s handler, for a little while.” That got Steve’s attention. “Retired and out of the game since the fall of the USSR, and not even active with HYDRA in years as far as I can tell, but he might still have had relevant intel on the Winter Soldier program. If the Soldier himself was there, I can’t find any indication of it and the trail’s beyond cold. But there’s something going on. HYDRA’s collapsing all over the place, convenient data dumps are being left for the task forces or uploaded to the deep web, and a lot of the remaining HYDRA heads are turning on each other instead of disappearing underground or pressing any advantage.”
“If they’re all fragging each other, that’s only to our benefit,” Sam said.
“It’s not just that. Have you noticed that a lot of the HYDRA higher ups who are getting outed or caught are the guys who kept the money flowing? That’s not me and Nick. I’m guessing it’s not you two either.”
It wasn’t. The search for Bucky led them to plenty of HYDRA cells and bases, and Steve was more than happy to take them out. It was work that needed doing. But unless it involved explosions and shield throwing, taking out white collar Nazi terrorists was kind of outside of Steve’s wheelhouse.
“No, it’s not, but why are we worried? Seems like a good thing to me,” said Steve.
“I’m concerned, and Fury’s concerned too, that someone’s consolidating power. The money and resources are going somewhere, and we can’t figure out where. When I tried to trace some of the current activity around some of the HYDRA accounts that’ve been recently emptied, the trail led to Karpov. After he was dead.”
Sam crossed his arms and raised his eyebrows at Steve. “Huh.”
“So we, what, go dig around in Cleveland for whoever might have killed Karpov?” asked Steve.
“The cops have closed the case already; they don’t know anything about Karpov’s real identity, and there was no indication of foul play. But you know, cut off one head, blah blah blah. Fury and I want to know if some new head has spawned there. And you should want to know if that new head got any intel on the Winter Soldier from Karpov before he turned up dead. I’m sure you’ll find some base or another to blow up there, if nothing else.”
Steve almost said no. Months-old leads and no hint of Bucky? It felt like Natasha was giving them busywork, sending them to flail around for a possible mystery rogue HYDRA cell when there were better, more solid leads to follow, on HYDRA cells if not on Bucky. But if Karpov had been Bucky’s handler, if he’d passed along any information on the Winter Soldier—it was somewhere to start, at least. And though Steve hated to admit it, it was a more promising lead than anything else right now, or even any lead they’d followed in the last few months. Steve was desperate enough now that even a glimpse of Bucky’s negative space would carry him forward to keep up the search, even if they were only the places he could have been, but wasn’t anymore.
“Alright. Send us all the details. We’ll be in Cleveland as soon as we can.”
By the time they got to Cleveland, Steve was full of doubt again. Was this worth their time? Should he be searching for some other, better lead on Bucky? It had been over half a year since they’d had anything truly solid on Bucky, and they were coming up on two years since the fall of SHIELD. The longer it took to find Bucky, the less likely it seemed that there would be any kind of happy resolution to the search.
“We’re not giving up on finding him, Steve.” Sam’s hand on his shoulder was firm and bracing, and Steve resisted the unkind urge to brush it off.
“Right. We’re just investigating this possible rogue HYDRA cell when it’s been months since we last had even a hint of a lead on him. We’re just putting the search on hold. Indefinitely,” said Steve, bitterness thick in his throat as he surveyed their base of operations for the next however many weeks.
Said base of operations was a little house in Cleveland, in a quiet though somewhat cramped and shabby neighborhood. They were nominally undercover, or at least Steve was. In the wake of the spectacular collapse of SHIELD, Sam’s connection to the Avengers was still low profile enough that he didn’t have to mess around with disguises or fake names. With a beard and the half-hearted pseudonym of Stephen Grant, Steve could join him, and their more targeted HYDRA raids and intelligence gathering stayed under the radar of local law enforcement and the overburdened anti-HYDRA task forces of the FBI and CIA.
Steve still suited up for the big stuff with the Avengers, still reported what he deemed relevant to Natasha and Fury. But when it came to the dirtier, more delicate work of searching for Bucky and rooting out specific HYDRA operatives who might have information on the Winter Soldier, Steve aimed for anonymity. If he was going to bring Bucky—or the Winter Soldier—in from the cold, he wanted the time and space to decide how best to help him without every alphabet agency and intelligence service in the world getting involved.
Sam bumped him with his shoulder, bringing him back to the present. “I know you’re upset that we’re out of real leads on Bucky. But this might give us some new ones to follow. I’ve got a good feeling about it. Now, you wanna keep brooding, or do you wanna help me move our shit in?”
Steve shook himself free of his thoughts, and gave Sam a tired smile. “Here’s to hoping,” he said, and grabbed their duffels from the trunk.
They didn’t have much to move in. The house was already furnished, which was why they’d picked it. It was old, beat up furniture that had clearly been through a few rounds of college students or bachelor living, but the house itself was clean and more than enough for their needs. Sam was still wrinkling his nose at it and muttering about how they needed to give everything a thorough wipe down, but to Steve’s Brooklyn tenement-raised eyes, this house was almost luxurious. They were bringing in the last few bags of assorted household goods when a middle-aged woman came out of the house on the right of theirs.
“Hey, you the new renters?” she asked as she locked her door.
“Yes ma’am,” said Steve.
“Welcome to the neighborhood. My name’s Jess.” After a round of introductions and handshakes, she said, “Hey, so if you hadn’t noticed, we’re packed in pretty tight on this street, parking wise, so make friends with the neighbors, ‘cause you’re gonna have to ask someone to move their damn car when they block you or box you in at some point.”
She was right, the curbside on both sides of the street was tightly packed with cars, some nosing into the path of homes’ driveways, some parked bumper to bumper. Sam had left his car’s hazard lights on, and double parked until they could unload and find a better spot. Parking in the garage, the landlord had told them, was not an option. That hadn’t really seemed like a deal breaker until just now.
“Noted, we’ll try not to park like assholes,” said Sam with a friendly smile. “You know if our other next door neighbor is in right now or not, so we can introduce ourselves?”
“That’ll be Jack, and no, he won’t be home now. He’s a teacher, at the high school, or maybe middle school, I don’t remember. Anyway, he doesn’t get back until the late afternoon most days. He’s a good guy though, if you need any help moving heavy stuff, he’ll help you out.” She paused, gave them both a look over, eyes lingering on Steve’s chest and Sam’s arms. Steve crossed his arms, uncomfortable with the attention. “Maybe you don’t need that so much. I gotta get to work, but it was nice meeting you!” She waved at them and bustled off to her car.
Steve was downstairs in the house’s basement setting up what Sam called their “wall of crazy” and what Steve called the “results of our intelligence gathering, Sam,” when Sam hollered, “Steve, come out here and meet Neighbor Jack!”
When he got outside, Sam was standing by the low fence that separated their tiny yard from Jack’s. Jack was standing on his side of the fence, clutching a briefcase and a haphazard stack of papers. Sam must have caught him just as he’d returned from work. Steve’s first impression of their other neighbor consisted of mustache and glasses, and that he was the sort of guy your eyes automatically slid over in any American city: unremarkable clothes, a little taller than average, white, in his thirties probably. When Steve got a closer look at Jack, his stomach dropped and the world seized up, everything taking on the heightened sharpness of a fight.
“Hey Steve, this is Jack Murphy, our other neighbor. Jack, this is Steve.” Steve looked at Sam a little wildly, expecting to see—he didn’t even know, but some reaction other than Sam’s usual easy friendliness. And there was something there, but it was just the twitch of Sam’s mouth that said he found something hilarious and he was trying not to show it. Was this Sam’s idea of a joke, or a prank? Because this guy—behind the glasses and mustache, Steve could have sworn—well, he looked like Bucky.
Meanwhile Bucky—or Jack, or whoever he was— had frozen up, was staring at Steve in something like blank disbelief. Did he recognize Steve? The disbelief, if that was what it was, only lasted for a scant moment before Jack’s face smoothed into bland interest. Were his eyes the same clear and bright blue-gray of Bucky’s, or was Steve imagining it? Steve was about to blurt out a baffled “Bucky?” before he looked at their neighbor’s left arm, which was bare to the forearm. He was wearing a long-sleeved shirt with the sleeves pushed up, and his left hand was flesh and blood where it was swiftly losing its grasp on the papers. No metal arm. So not Bucky, couldn’t be, but maybe—just as the silence tipped into the beginning of uncomfortable, the papers slid out of Jack’s hand, and Sam bent to catch most of them. A few sheets fluttered over the fence and Steve made a grab for them, spotting graphs and equations before he handed them back to Jack. Math teacher, then, thought the still-clear part of Steve’s mind that wasn’t stuck in a loop of Bucky?!?!
Jack shifted his briefcase to his left hand, shoving the papers under his arm, and offered his right hand for a handshake. Steve took it, shaking on autopilot.
“Hi, nice to meet you,” said Jack, and that voice—the accent was all wrong, some variety of southern instead of Brooklyn, or even the more smoothed out standard American accent, but did it, was it—
Steve got out some words, and they must have been the right, normal ones, because Jack smiled politely and didn’t say anything like “who the hell is Bucky?” or “you caught me pal, I’m Bucky. Why’d it take you so long to find me?”
“Oh hey, you’re a math teacher?” asked Sam, still totally casual and normal, posture relaxed. Sam, clearly, did not recognize this was Bucky. Not unless he was playing a very cruel joke on Steve, and Sam wouldn’t do that. Sam wasn’t using any of their agreed-upon danger signals either. Sam was reacting more or less exactly the same way he had when they’d met their other neighbor.
Steve was beginning to wonder if he was dreaming, or if maybe he’d slipped into some alternate universe while he wasn’t paying attention. Because that guy, their neighbor, that was Bucky. Steve was as abruptly sure as he had been when the Winter Soldier’s mask had come off. Sure he had a horrible mustache, and he was wearing dorky glasses, and even displaced into the future as an amnesiac assassin, Bucky Barnes wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing pants that ill-fitting. Strip all that away though, and there was the sharp, clean line of Bucky’s jaw, the dimple in his chin. His eyes were the right shade of blue that shifted to gray, the sweep of his long eyelashes was the same. And his voice—that was Bucky’s particular soft and low timbre that could curl around words like a caress.
Except it couldn’t be, because Sam was chatting away with him about inconsequential bullshit like their house’s last tenants and lawn care, and not, “so, hey, where have you been since the helicarriers fell into the Potomac?” It couldn’t be, because Neighbor Jack had two flesh and blood arms and was chatting with Sam right back, and he gave no indication that he knew or recognized Steve. So maybe Steve was being crazy, or maybe this was a dream, one of those anxiety dreams where Steve was naked and everyone was acting like he wasn’t, or where he was suiting up to go on a mission and no one had noticed he was back in his pre-serum body, uniform hanging off of him and shield almost too heavy to lift.
What was it they said about how you could tell you were in a dream? Read something? Look at a clock? Steve snuck a look at his watch: the numbers were all present and accounted for, in an orderly circle from one to twelve. It was ten minutes to four. Hmm. So maybe he was just going crazy.
“It was Steve, right? I didn’t catch your last name.”
Steve startled, focused on the conversation again. “Uh, Grant. Stephen Grant.”
Jack narrowed his eyes a little, and shifted his grip on his briefcase. He was holding it kind of tight, now that Steve looked. His arm was probably tired. They’d been lingering outside for a while. “You seem familiar,” Jack said.
So do you, Steve wanted to say. Some wild part of him thought the comment was deliberate, a signal, but before he could attempt some veiled response of his own, Sam laughed.
“Yeah, he gets that a lot.”
And it was true, he did. Even with the beard and in civilian clothes, people still sometimes squinted at him, recognition niggling at them. Thankfully context did most of the work in keeping Steve undercover; if he shrugged and said that hockey player, right? with a grin, most people would look relieved and nod, pleased to have an answer that fit the bounds of their ordinary lives. Just a guy who looked like some athlete, nothing to see here. Sam nudged him with his stupid pointy elbow.
“That guy, on the—hockey team. You know,” offered Steve weakly.
Something flickered across Jack’s face, lips moving under the mustache, but Steve couldn’t parse his expression. “Yeah, yeah, that’s it. What was his name again?”
Steve did not know his name. Steve just picked a sport at random every time this happened, and people filled in the blank themselves. Steve didn’t even know the names of any hockey teams. Fuck. Somewhere, Natasha was probably feeling a sudden and intense wave of disappointment. Sam, who was standing right beside him, definitely was, and he gave Steve a flat “why are you like this” look. Steve subtly stepped on his foot, hopefully conveying “I don’t know but please help me.”
Sam did, making up a name for all Steve knew, but Jack seemed to buy it.
“Well, we’ll let you get to your grading,” said Sam.
“Always wonder why I give ‘em all that homework when I’m stuck grading it,” said Jack with a grimace. “It was nice talking to y’all, let me know if you ever need me to move my car or anything, I’ve got the blue Corolla. We gotta squeeze in pretty tight on this street. And heads up: the cops really will give you a ticket for blocking the sidewalk if you park in the driveway.”
“Thanks for the tip. See you later!”
Steve walked back into the house in a daze. Sam started chuckling as soon as he closed the door.
“Oh man, Jack seems alright, but that mustache. I’d say it was some hipster, ironic bullshit, but no hipster wears dad jeans like that. And he’s a math teacher! It’s like he came straight outta central casting.” Sam shook his head, grinning. “I nearly laughed right then and there.”
“Haha, yeah,” said Steve. “Say, did he look familiar to you?” he asked, shooting for casual and not crazy.
“Of course he did!” Oh thank god. “Man was rocking a Tom Selleck level ‘stache. Looked kinda like him too.” And now he was back in crazy territory.
“Wha—who’s Tom Selleck?”
“Old TV show, Magnum P.I. Add it to your list. Or don’t, it’s not really a pop culture necessity, you won’t be missing out on much. You done setting up the wall of crazy in the basement?” Sam went down to take a look before Steve could answer with more than a vague “mostly.”
He pulled out his phone and googled Magnum P.I., scrolled through pictures of a dark-haired, blue-eyed man with a luxurious mustache, who was wearing a succession of luridly colored, tropical print shirts. And geez, really short shorts. He could see the superficial resemblance to Jack, and more distantly to Bucky, if only in their similar coloring.
Doubt and cold hard reality began to creep in. If Jack was Bucky, why would he have stood there making small talk while Steve had a quiet nervous breakdown? Why would he have pretended not to know Steve? Why wouldn’t he have just come clean, or even made a run for it? Maybe he didn’t remember, but Steve doubted it.
There were a lot of questions about what Bucky was doing now that he was free of HYDRA, but there was no doubt he knew who he was, and knew who Steve was. Bucky had been the one to pull him out of the river. One of the few solid leads on him had been tracing him to the Howling Commandos part of the Captain America Smithsonian exhibit in the first couple weeks after the fight on the helicarriers. Another bit of security footage from months later had shown him getting tickets for a train in Vienna, and every bit of his body language had been pure Bucky. Whatever Bucky remembered or knew, he knew enough that he wasn’t entirely confused and helpless, or still being used as the Winter Soldier. Steve, Sam, and Natasha all agreed on that.
What none of them could be sure of was just what the hell Bucky was up to. He wasn’t killing HYDRA agents. He wasn’t blowing up HYDRA bases. Steve and Sam, and sometimes the rest of the Avengers, were the ones taking out HYDRA bases. There were ghostly indications that Bucky had raided some bases, or visited places the Winter Soldier had been kept or deployed, but he hadn’t left a trace otherwise, and it was Steve who’d cut a path of destruction in Bucky’s wake instead. Steve didn’t like to leave a job undone, and apparently, he hadn’t finished this one back in the 40s. He’d finish it now by burning all of HYDRA’s remaining heads to ash.
As the months had ticked on with no Winter Soldier-related disasters cropping up, Sam and Natasha had mellowed a little on the urgency of finding Bucky. Natasha figured Bucky was following what protocol he knew from his time as the Winter Soldier, lying low and waiting out the chaos, getting what answers he could out of what was left of HYDRA. “It’s what I’d do. It’s what I did, when I got out of the Red Room,” she’d said. Sam, certain now that Bucky wasn’t hurting himself or anyone else beyond what was necessary for self-defense, thought he was outrunning everyone and everything, trying to carve out enough of a safe space to figure his shit out, uncertain who, if anyone, to trust. “Maybe he just needs time,” he’d said. “I don’t think he’s the kind you stop any more, but maybe he’s not ready for saving either.”
Steve, who knew Bucky, knew him deeper than blood and deeper than bone, suspected something else. Steve read the follow me in the places Bucky allowed himself to be seen in, the subtle target his presence put on the places he’d been: an active HYDRA lab here, an old base full of files and weapons there. Bucky was the scope and Steve was the rifle, and Steve was happy to point and shoot where Bucky aimed. But mid-last year, Bucky had dropped off the map entirely, gone like he’d never been there in the first place. It might have upset Steve a little. It might, possibly, have sent Steve on some ill-advised wild goose chases.
Like the guy in Moscow who Steve had followed for a week, sure that he was Bucky in a disguise. He wasn’t. He was just some former FSB agent who HYDRA had blackmailed, and who had decided to take his own preemptive steps against any more blackmail attempts.
Or the homeless young vet in Detroit who’d been reported as saying some alarming things about HYDRA, who Steve had thought looked like Bucky under the straggly hair and layer of dirt. He wasn’t Bucky either. He was just one of the thousands of mentally ill veterans who’d slipped through the cracks. Sam had gotten the poor kid set up with the local VA to get back on his meds and back on his feet.
And that wasn’t even counting all the times Steve had stopped dead in his tracks, caught by the tilt of a man’s head, the straight profile of someone’s nose, the exact sable brown shade of Bucky’s hair. Grief and hope were, Steve had learned, a recipe for desperation. When there had been no hope of Bucky’s return, he had grown used to the grief, had held it close and tight as the nearest thing he had to Bucky’s actual presence. When hope was an option again, his grief turned into a wild animal, desperate and snarling and starving for the barest hint of Bucky’s presence, real or imagined.
Eventually Sam had put his foot down and insisted on a break, dragging Steve along on his visit with his family. “You’ve gotta slow down, Steve, you’ve gotta take a break. You’re not thinking straight,” he’d said, and while Steve had bristled, he’d seen the exhaustion and worry in the lines on Sam’s face too, so he’d conceded.
If after all that Steve brought up his insane conviction that their math teacher neighbor was Bucky, Sam would have him committed, probably. At the very least there’d be an embarrassing Avengers intervention, and Steve might even deserve it. It was crazy to think they’d moved in next to Bucky, who was inexplicably undercover as a math teacher. But was it any crazier than what had already happened? When the Winter Soldier’s mask had come off in DC, revealing Bucky’s beloved face, Steve’s world had stopped. Old suspicions and fears had rearranged themselves to present a new reality, one in which Bucky had survived, albeit at a horrible cost. Plus, there were aliens and gods and vast government conspiracies. Compared to all that, moving in next to a bafflingly mustachioed and undercover Bucky was downright pedestrian.
Jack Murphy was probably just a guy who bore a passing resemblance to Bucky, a resemblance that Steve’s desperate hope seized on like a drowning man grasping for a life vest. But if he wasn’t—well, Steve would do a little investigating, see what he could find out. If Jack Murphy was exactly what he seemed, a suburban math teacher with an unfortunate mustache, then no harm done, and he wouldn’t have to face Sam’s professional face of concern. If he was Bucky, then Steve would get to the bottom of what the hell Bucky was doing and why he seemingly didn’t know Steve.
Once they were settled into the new house, they got started on digging into Karpov and the reports of possible HYDRA activity in Cleveland and the surrounding areas. It was tedious work, the sort of thing SHIELD analysts would have done for Steve and his team back before SHIELD’s collapse. But trusted analysts were thin on the ground at this point, and Steve would rather do it himself than risk HYDRA infiltration. He and Sam switched off on doing recon at locations associated with Karpov, and they passed the uneventful first week of the mission that way, building the foundation of their investigation and getting the lay of the land.
Steve had his side mission too, which at this point consisted of subtle surveillance and running background on Jack Murphy when Sam wasn’t there to ask him what the hell he was doing. The results thus far were inconclusive. Jack Murphy had moved to Cleveland from Baltimore shortly before the school year had started last year. He’d grown up in Atlanta, gone to school in New Orleans. His social media accounts were sparse, which Natasha had taught him was a warning sign, but that might have just been because he was a teacher who tried to keep his private life clear of where students might find him. No living relatives, which was another small red flag of a false identity, but everything in Jack Murphy’s paper trail checked out. If it was a cover, it was a carefully constructed one.
Steve’s surveillance of Jack hadn’t yielded anything yet either, but that wasn’t too surprising given that his surveillance consisted of engaging in some light stalking and trying to peer into Jack’s windows. Every morning when Steve went out for his daily run, he exchanged casual pleasantries with Jack as Jack left for class, briefcase and travel mug in hand. He scrutinized Jack during these brief interactions, but there wasn’t much to be gleaned from Jack’s “good morning!” or “a bit chilly this morning, isn’t it?” He thought maybe Jack was directing a pointed look at Steve’s chest when he said that, but it was hard to tell under the glasses.
He paid special attention to Jack’s left arm during their morning run-ins. Steve had some up close and personal experience with Bucky’s new metal arm, Steve’s face having made the arm’s particular acquaintance what with all the punching and choking. Long sleeves and gloves would cover the prosthetic from notice easily enough, and had, judging by the few surveillance images they had of Bucky. But he’d seen Jack wearing short sleeves once now, and to all appearances, he had a flesh and blood left arm, same as his right. He did wear some sort of brace on his left hand and wrist though. The extra bulk of the brace could hide any discrepancies between his left and right hands; the prosthetic was good, but the fingers and wrist on the hand were thicker than the slimmer lines of Bucky’s real hand. You could cover the metal, but you couldn’t hide that. Steve asked about the brace one morning while Jack locked his door.
Steve nodded at the brace as he did his pre-run stretches. “Your wrist.”
Jack glanced at the brace as if he’d forgotten it was there. “Oh, that. It’s nothing, just for my carpal tunnel. Too much typing. Have a good run!”
Steve followed Jack to work one morning, putting on a hoodie and running one block behind Jack’s car. Just like Jack’s paper trail said, he worked at the nearest high school. Steve watched from across the street as Jack pulled into the faculty parking lot and got out of his car. He walked towards the high school building with another teacher, his head bent down toward her as they talked. So he was definitely an actual teacher at this high school. Steve kept watching, longer than he should have, because that was Bucky’s walk, the loose and confident saunter he’d settled into as soon as he’d reached his full height. Even hidden under baggy slacks and a polo shirt, Steve knew the lines of Bucky’s body as he walked. Bucky—Jack—whoever he was, disappeared into the building, out of Steve’s sight, and Steve’s body leaned forward, legs braced to follow him across the street and into the building, but no. He didn’t have the time, and he’d be caught for sure. Steve settled for running the perimeter of the school and getting an idea of its layout. Just in case.
Jack returned home in the late afternoons, and usually didn’t leave his house again until the next morning. This was when Steve resorted to trying to peek into Jack’s windows like some sort of creepy peeping Tom. A tiny, narrow little path and wooden fence separated the houses, and Steve scaled the fence to creep along Jack’s side. There were a couple windows situated on this side of the house, and one of them was even open. He couldn’t see anything through the blinds and curtains, but if he strained his super soldier senses, he could hear the low murmur of a TV or radio and the light clacking of someone typing. Steve didn’t know what the hell else he was expecting, to be honest. He’d have to break into Jack’s house to get any truly useful information.
If preliminary surveillance was an inconclusive bust, he’d have to try something different.
The next plan of action for Steve’s side mission was to interact with Jack beyond their brief morning exchanges. Steve felt good about this until he realized he didn’t have any fucking idea how to go about it. The last person Steve had befriended was Sam, and he’d done that by being an asshole while running laps around him. Come to think of it, Sam had also been the first non-work related person Steve had befriended in the 21st century. Steve, having lucked out with being befriended by Bucky at age six, hadn’t particularly felt the need to befriend many other people after that. How could he? Bucky was the best and kindest and smartest and most interesting boy in the neighborhood, and he’d played with Steve like it didn't matter how small or sickly he was.
His ma had been kind of concerned about it for a while. “There aren’t any other little boys or girls you’re friends with?” she’d asked after a full year of Steve only bringing Bucky by, sometimes with his little sisters, but never any of the other neighborhood kids.
Steve had frowned at her. “I play stickball with the other kids in the neighborhood. We play other games together sometimes. They’re not really my friends though. Bucky’s my friend.”
Ma’s lips had twitched into an amused smile, the worried crease on her forehead smoothing out. “It’s not a singular position, dearest. You can have more than one.”
“Bucky’s my favorite, don’t see why I oughta want any other friends,” Steve had said, and that had been that.
Eighty plus years later, Steve was wise enough to know better. He had Peggy and Natasha and Sam, he’d had the Howlies. He’d learned he could have more than one friend, that more people than just Bucky would look at Steve and decide he was worth knowing. Granted, he’d more or less lucked into all of them by virtue of circumstance or work, apart from Sam, but he was grateful all the same. And yet there was still some part of him that was eternally seven years old, wondering how he could ever want or need a friend better than Bucky. There was a part of him that would never stop thinking of Bucky as his favorite.
Okay, so Steve was out of practice at this whole befriending people thing. That was fine. He could learn. They were neighbors, which was a good start. How did people befriend their neighbors anyway? He hadn’t exactly done well with Kate either. Though she’d turned out to be a SHIELD agent tasked with spying on him, so maybe that one wasn’t on him.
Well, Steve had a socially competent, friendly person he could consult. Sam would know how to go about it. Hell, maybe Sam had already befriended Jack.
“Hey, you talk to Jack much yet?”
Sam scowled and narrowed his eyes. “Just to ask him to move his car. I swear to god, that man parks that way deliberately.”
“Parks what way?”
Steve hadn’t noticed anything about the way Jack parked. The street’s parking situation was dire, it was true, a consequence of either too many houses packed in too close together, or just the increase of car ownership, or both. Jess had been right, at some point someone would box you into a spot you couldn’t maneuver out of, either because they were blocking your driveway or because they’d parked too close on the street. Then there were the people who just couldn’t parallel park. One afternoon, Steve had watched from the window as someone spent ten minutes trying to maneuver into a spot across the street. Maybe he should have gone out to help them, but there had been something hypnotic about the constant backing in and out, in and out.
“Every afternoon, he parks either in front of or behind my car, and he leaves, like, an inch of space. It’s impossible to get out. He’s gonna goddamn scratch my bumper.”
So, no help from Sam then.
Steve’s problem was solved, sort of, when Saturday rolled around. When he stepped outside the house, intending to go get some coffee, he saw Jack lying on the tiny lawn in front of his house, reading a book. He was in baggy basketball shorts and a t-shirt, barefoot, and Steve spent longer than was socially acceptable staring at his feet. Did they look like Bucky’s feet? Did Steve even remember what Bucky’s feet looked like? He’d sketched them some when he was in his life drawing phase, but not as often as Bucky’s hands. His attention drifted to Jack’s thighs, the suggestion of powerful muscles outlined by the shorts.
Jack lowered his book and peered at Steve. His eyes were unreadable behind sunglasses, aviators that made the Magnum P.I. resemblance much more plausible. His shorts weren’t so short though, unfortunately.
“Morning, neighbor,” greeted Jack.
“Hi. Uh, trying for a tan?”
“Not really. Just getting some sun. Vitamin D and all, it’s good for you. You running even on the weekend?”
“No, no, just going to get some coffee.” Ah ha. Maybe this was a way to befriend Jack. Or, wait, he couldn’t ask him to come with him, Steve had learned quickly enough that in the 21st century, asking someone to coffee was either a date, or a job interview. “Uh, I can get you some, if you want?”
Jack’s lips curved into a horribly familiar smirk, and Steve’s heart skipped a beat. “That’s mighty neighborly of you, thanks. Can you get me a venti soy five shot caramel frappucino with extra caramel and no whip?”
“What.” That was the most baffling coffee order Steve had ever heard in his life.
“Did you need me to write it down for you?” asked Jack, all genuine solicitude. Fuck that, Steve had a perfect, serum-enhanced memory. He didn’t need Jack to write it down. He’d only understood maybe three of those words in a coffee context, but he’d manage.
“No, I’ve got it! Be back soon!”
He duly recited the order to the barista at Starbucks, plus his own order of black coffee and Sam’s of a dirty chai latte, and tried not to die on the spot when he saw how much Jack’s ludicrous coffee order cost. When he got back to the house with Jack’s absurdly complex coffee order in hand, Jack was still on the lawn reading. He set the frappucino down beside Jack and was rewarded with a brief but blinding grin. Steve lingered, sipping his own coffee.
“So what’re you reading?” It was a stupid question. Steve could see the title: Dr. Euler’s Fabulous Formula: Cures Many Mathematical Ills.
“A book about Euler’s identity. You know, e to the pi i plus one equals zero?”
Steve nodded like he knew. Steve did not know. Steve didn’t entirely know how three of those things were numbers, even. His knowledge of math was purely practical. He knew how to get his shield to bounce at the desired angles, and he could balance a checkbook, but not even by the grace of Bucky’s patient tutoring throughout all of high school had he been able to get much further than that.
Jack slurped at his iced coffee concoction. Men with mustaches shouldn’t slurp, thought Steve. It looked unseemly.
“Sounds interesting!” Steve said gamely. That was a lie. God, why was all small talk full of lies? How are you doing? Good. You look familiar. Really? I’m definitely not Captain America!
“It’s my favorite equation.” Jack’s voice was serious, and with his eyes hidden behind his sunglasses, Steve couldn’t tell if he was joking or not. Who the hell had a favorite equation? “What do you like to read?”
“Biographies, history. Military history, mostly.”
“Sounds boring,” said Jack.
“You’re reading a book about a math equation. It’s somehow hundreds of pages long.”
Jack gave him a very teacherly disappointed look from over his sunglasses, and was maybe about to start lecturing Steve before Sam’s voice interrupted them. “Steve, where the hell is my caffeine?” came Sam’s distant shout from inside the house.
“Don’t withhold the man’s caffeine from him, Steve, that’s cruel and unusual punishment,” said Jack, and returned his attention to his book.
“Right, yeah, good talking to you!”
Nailed it, thought Steve. As long as Jack hadn’t thought that comment about his boring math equation book was assholish. Shit, he’d been an asshole hadn’t he. To be fair, he’d mocked Sam on their first meeting too, and they’d still ended up friends! Plus, if Jack really was Bucky, nothing about that exchange would have been a surprise. You really oughta try more honey than vinegar some time, Steve, Bucky always used to say, even as the smile tugging at his lips said he didn’t mind the vinegar so much.
Steve’s attempts to befriend Jack were going okay, but Sam was really holding a grudge about the parking thing, and it came out in some weird ways.
“Ahahaha, he is wearing a turtleneck,” said Sam, with more viciousness than the words seemed to warrant. He was sitting on the living room couch, parting the blinds to watch Jack talk to Jess as they both got their mail.
“I don’t understand why you’re personally victimized by Neighbor Jack’s fashion taste.”
Sam made an offended noise. “Since when did you watch Mean Girls? Never mind, I don't care. It’s like every time I look at him, it’s a goddamn time warp to the 90s.”
Sam glowered and didn’t elaborate.
Another afternoon, Steve found Sam glaring out the living room window that looked out onto the street.
“Now what?” asked Steve.
“Come look at this asshole park, Steve.”
Steve sighed, but joined Sam on the couch. They were both peering over the back of the couch through the blinds now. Jack’s blue Corolla was easing its way into the spot in front of their house, in front of Sam’s car. Steve didn’t see anything particularly wrong with the way Jack was parking. He was going kind of slow, sure, and doing that thing where he kept pulling in and out of the spot making small adjustments until he could squeeze in, but that was good, right? Better than just bumping into Sam’s car again and again anyway.
“Wait for it,” hissed Sam. Jack’s blue Corolla inched slowly back until his rear bumper was almost touching Sam’s car’s front bumper. “See, see!”
“I mean, there’s not really any room in the front of his car, not without blocking the other driveway. And there’s no shame in being a slow parker.”
“He’s gonna hit my bumper some day, Steve. It’s just a matter of time,” said Sam in dire tones.
“Right. Maybe we could direct our surveillance focus onto HYDRA instead of our neighbor’s parallel parking skills?”
Steve proved himself a hypocrite a few days later when he himself ended up distracted by Jack’s parallel parking skills, if for the opposite reason than Sam usually was. He was taking the trash out when he saw Jack’s car come down the road. Lucky for Jack, Sam was out getting groceries so he wasn’t home to keep a suspicious eye on Jack’s parking, and there were a couple free spots on the street, one just across from Jack’s house. Steve waved at Jack, and was just thinking, maybe I’ll help him park, be an extra set of eyes, when Jack executed a neat and alarmingly fast three-point turn to face his car in the opposite direction, and maneuvered into the free parking spot in one smooth move. It had taken less than a minute, and had looked like something out of a movie.
Jack got out of the car, briefcase in hand as usual. “Hey, Steve!”
“Hi,” said Steve faintly. He could feel himself blushing for some reason. Jack stopped at the path to his front door.
“Usually, you put the trash in the trash can,” he said, tipping his head in a nod towards the trash bag and trashcan lid Steve was still holding.
“Right. Ha, yeah.” Steve put the bag in the can. “Uh, nice moves,” said Steve, and then cringed at himself. Though seriously, what the hell? How did Jack go from taking five minutes to parallel park to—whatever that was? He kind of wanted to count it as proof that Jack was Bucky, but it wasn’t like he’d ever seen Bucky parallel park.
“Thanks,” said Jack, and disappeared into his house with a wave.
The next week, Steve and Sam’s investigation into Karpov and a potential HYDRA cell hit a roadblock, and they were stuck waiting for leads to come through. The coroner who’d done the autopsy on Karpov was on vacation hiking in the Andes, and they needed more reports on other HYDRA cells to filter through the haphazard network of uncompromised SHIELD agents and Natasha’s digital traps. It left them at loose ends. Steve would have used the time to pursue his side mission, but Sam would have noticed, and Steve still didn’t have enough on his Jack-is-Bucky theory to not sound like a crazy person.
“You know what normal people do when they have some downtime from work?” asked Sam.
Steve sighed. “No, what do normal people do, Sam?”
“They sit their asses on the couch and watch TV.” Sam did just that, and Steve reluctantly joined him.
“Do I get a say in what we’re watching?”
“No,” said Sam, and found a marathon of some show called Grey’s Anatomy on TV. Sam turned to him, put a hand on his shoulder. “Okay, I want you to know that this is a safe space, and I will not judge you for how much you cry watching this, as long as you don't judge me. Also, what happens in Cleveland stays in Cleveland, so Natasha better not hear about any alleged weeping.”
Steve had his doubts that a TV show could make him cry. He’d never been given to that kind of thing, crying at books or movies. Plus, he had yet to watch anything modern that he truly liked, apart from the new animated movies that were leaps and bounds beyond Snow White, and documentaries.
Sam spent about half of the first episode they watched explaining the torturous and tangled web of the doctors’ romantic relationships and it all sounded so exhausting Steve wondered how they got any actual surgery done. It didn’t help that the marathon wasn’t airing episodes in order, instead apparently doing some sort of themed selection of episodes. Sam seemed excited about it, at least. Steve just hoped actual hospitals weren’t much like this. The ratio of emotional conversations to actual medical care was decidedly skewed towards emotional conversations. But two episodes into the marathon, Sam was sniffling and Steve was teary-eyed, so clearly the show was doing something right.
“Yeah, the two people impaled during a train accident episode is rough,” said Sam, passing over a couple tissues.
A couple episodes of emotionally manipulative medical cases after that, Steve was worn down by the appallingly effective melodrama and about two seconds away from bursting into ugly tears, and sure enough, when Meredith told Cristina “you’re the only one who knows me,” Steve was trying and failing not to cry into the throw pillow he was clutching.
“Oh, oh no,” said Sam. “This was a mistake. Um, do we need to talk about this? Should we watch something else?”
Steve shook his head and kept his eyes fixed on the two women on screen. Meredith and Cristina were each other’s person, and just seeing this fictional melodrama of a friendship cut straight through to the tender and still bleeding wound of Bucky’s absence. Because Steve knew what that was like. Bucky was his person, Bucky had been, for a long time, the only one who really knew him, only now he didn’t know Steve, or he was pretending not to, and Steve missed him. Every time he thought he was used to it, every time he thought maybe, just maybe, he could bear Bucky’s absence, something tripped him up, sent him spinning right back into the empty and dark space where Bucky used to be. Steve wanted out of that space, he wanted both of them out of that space. He wanted his person back. It didn’t matter if Bucky wasn’t the same as he had been. He’d always be Steve’s person.
An episode later, Steve had himself well under control and Sam was muttering dire things about Derek Shepherd.
“Bucky’s my person,” Steve blurted out during a commercial break. “That’s—I know I’ve been kind of crazy about looking for him, but—he’s my person.”
Sam looked over at him from his spot at the other end of the couch, eyes warm and sad. “I know, Steve. It’s okay.” Sam pursed his lips like he maybe wanted to say something else, but the doorbell rang, and Steve welcomed the diversion.
When he looked out from the peephole, he saw Jack standing there holding a tupperware container. He must have heard Steve behind the door, because he gave a silly little wave in the direction of the peephole. Steve grinned, eyes a bit teary, which was stupid, because Jack wasn’t Bucky, probably. But for just a second it had felt like he was. For just a second, Steve saw Bucky at age ten, waving at him from the foot of the tenement stairs. Steve got his face under control and shoved that insane hope down, and opened the door.
“Hey, I thought I’d bring over—are you okay?” Maybe Steve hadn’t quite gotten whatever was happening on his face under control.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine, what’s up?”
Jack didn’t look convinced, but he handed over the tupperware container. “The kids I coach had a bake sale today, and we had some leftovers. Thought I’d bring some by, as thanks for the Starbucks the other day.”
“Who’s at the door?” asked Sam, still on the couch.
“It’s Jack, he brought us cookies.”
“And brownies,” added Jack.
This proved sufficient incentive for Sam to come to the door, and he made a strangled sort of almost laughing noise as soon as he caught sight of Jack. “Uh, hey neighbor!” said Sam. Steve didn’t know what was setting him off. Jack looked more or less like he always did: glasses, mustache, and wearing a green sweater and brown slacks today.
“Thanks for this,” said Steve. Maybe he’d been sort of successful at the whole befriending his neighbor thing if Jack was bringing him baked goods.
Jack peered closely at him, and the sharp and assessing look in his eyes was so familiar that muscle memory made Steve almost sway forward, expecting a hand on his forehead to check his temperature, or an arm tossed around his shoulder in casual comfort. He caught himself as Jack said, “Seriously, you sure you’re okay? You look kinda—”
Shit, he was probably still all red and puffy-eyed. The serum didn’t particularly help how awful Steve looked after he cried.
“It’s fine, I’m fine, we were just watching Grey’s Anatomy.” Sam glared at him. “What? You said don’t tell Natasha, you didn’t say anything about Jack. Um, wanna join us?” Now Sam boggled at him. Jack just blinked, surprised.
“Sorry, but I’ve got a lot of tests to grade. Thanks, though,” Jack said, and left with a shy smile.
Sam crossed his arms and looked at Steve with raised eyebrows. “Seriously?”
“What? And, ‘seriously’ to you too! What was up with you almost cracking up?”
“Because it was like Ned goddamn Flanders was at the door, that’s why.”
“I don’t understand that reference,” said Steve, and shoved one of the brownies in his mouth. It was pretty good. And it was even an edge piece.
“Add it to your notebook, god, I don’t know how you’ll understand anyone in the 21st century until you watch The Simpsons. And don’t deflect, what was that, inviting the random neighbor over?”
Steve, fuck his Irish complexion and the serum doing nothing about this particular flaw, blushed. “Just trying to be friendly.”
Now Sam’s eyebrows went up in equal parts horror and delight. “Steven Grant Rogers, are you into our neighbor? Is that what’s happening here?”
“What, I can’t be into guys?” Steve snapped, and tensed, ready for an argument. He didn’t think Sam would have any problems with it, but a lifetime of reflexive privacy was hard to shake. Mostly it didn’t matter anyway. Steve had only ever really had eyes for Bucky and Peggy, and Bucky—well, that had never been an option. Not back then, anyway.
Sam lifted his hands in a conciliatory gesture. “You can be into guys! That’s totally cool. But, uh, Neighbor Jack?”
He looks like Bucky, Steve wanted to say, but didn’t. He shrugged instead. “Just thought it’d be nice to make a new friend.”
“Uh huh. You got some sort of hot for teacher thing going, I get it.”
“Most of my teachers growing up were nuns.”
Sam grabbed a cookie from the tupperware Steve was still holding. “Not sure that guy’s an upgrade.”
They watched another episode of Grey’s Anatomy, and Sam kept sneaking glances at him throughout.
“Sooooo…you and Barnes. You more like Meredith and Cristina, or Meredith and Derek?”
Steve didn’t want to talk about it. There wasn’t, after all, anything to talk about. So what, Steve was maybe kind of in love with his best friend. It wasn’t like he’d ever done anything about it. Bucky might have always ragged on him for being reckless and stupid with his own safety, but joke was on him, because Steve hadn’t been reckless with the things that mattered. He hadn’t endangered Bucky’s life, Bucky’s future, with a love that could have ruined them both if they’d ever been caught.
It’s different now, Sam would say. Steve didn’t want to hear it. He kept his eyes trained on the TV. “Meredith should leave Derek and run away with Cristina.”
“Right. Guess that answers that question.”
Eventually, their leads came through and they had something to do other than watch Grey’s Anatomy and cry. Most of the leads dead-ended, but they dead-ended in a way that suggested someone had gotten there before them. There was a HYDRA storage facility that was empty of anything other than office furniture, and no security footage of when it had been emptied. There was a possibly HYDRA-affiliated, possibly personal set of safety deposit boxes under Karpov’s name that were empty of anything other than Monopoly money. (Dead end or not, discovering that had made Sam laugh.) And there were the circumstances of Karpov’s death: ruled an accident and a result of carbon monoxide poisoning, but he hadn’t been found until a week after his death. If he’d been strangled or suffocated, it would have been easy to miss the signs. The coroner had told them as much when she’d come back from her vacation.
“No indications of foul play, but I can’t 100% rule it out. Given the circumstances though, I stand by my findings. I’d say you’re welcome to a second opinion, but when the body went unclaimed, we gave it to the medical school for use as a cadaver.”
They were left with combing through Karpov’s life, and chasing signs of HYDRA activity. Natasha had been right; there was something here, but it was like the mostly dissipated smoke after a fire, and just as impossible to catch. It made Steve restless, left him spoiling for a fight, and took time away from his side mission. The side mission at least was going okay, if still inconclusive.
Steve’s certainty that Jack was Bucky warred with, well, everything else. For every little gesture or expression that he mentally catalogued as pure Bucky, there was some moment that tossed him into vertiginous confusion, like that moment in a dream when you realize it’s a dream. There had been one such moment just yesterday, when Steve had spotted Jack wearing a bright purple windbreaker. There’d been a brief flare of hope when he thought he saw a holster at Jack’s hip, but it turned out to be a clip-on cell phone holder. It was one of the most deeply uncool things Steve had ever seen a person wear.
Steve was about ready to move into phase two of his side mission, which would involve an escalation from light stalking to heavy stalking, a move he justified to himself as necessary to obtain enough intelligence to decide whether or not to abandon the side mission wholesale. If he just got solid proof one way or another, he’d let the whole thing drop. If Jack really was Bucky, then he must have a good reason for this ruse. And if it wasn’t a ruse, if Jack was Bucky and Bucky didn’t remember, if he’d built himself this quiet life—Steve could leave him to it, knowing he was safe and happy.
He was tossing and turning in bed one night, mulling over casual and not so casual ways of getting his hands on Jack’s left arm, because surely a quick squeeze would reveal whether it was made of metal or not, when he gave up on sleeping and went to the kitchen for some tea.
It was late, past one a.m., but he could see Jack’s lights on next door, the telltale blue flickering of a screen and the warmer, dimmer glow of a lamp. It was a school night, Jack would undoubtedly have to be up in four or five hours to make it to his first class. Steve wondered what was keeping him up. He slipped outside onto the small porch, and contemplated sneaking along their houses’ adjoining fence to try to get a glimpse inside. He strained his super soldier hearing instead, but only heard the usual sounds of a neighborhood at rest, with something that might have been the rapid, soft clacking of a computer keyboard. He drifted a little like that, listening to the neighborhood’s night time murmur, until the sound of a door opening startled him back into full awareness.
Jack stepped out onto his own porch. “Insomniac or just a night owl?” Jack asked, voice warm.
And surely that was Bucky’s voice, surely. How many times had Steve heard it just like that, quiet and warm in the small hours of the night, in his bedroom or Bucky’s folks’ living room or tents in a war zone or shared barracks? In the diffuse light of the sodium street lamps, Jack’s profile turned him into the Bucky Steve had known, except for the glasses. Illusion or not, it eased the ache of Bucky’s absence.
“Can’t seem to settle,” answered Steve. “What are you doing up? Don’t you have to be up again in a few hours?”
Jack groaned. “Don’t remind me. I do okay on four hours of sleep, but ugh. And, uh, I was just working on a personal project. Got caught up in it, I guess.”
“What kind of project? If you don’t mind me asking.” Steve could hear Jack shift, his porch creaking.
“No, it’s fine, it’s um, a novel. Just, you know, for fun.”
“Cool!” Steve winced. Pull it back, Rogers. “Uh, that’s cool. What’s it about?”
“Oh, it’s uh, a spy thriller?” Jack’s voice had gone kind of weird and high. “Yeah, it’s a spy thriller thing where this guy is trying to bring down a whole...big conspiracy thing.”
Steve wasn’t a huge fan of thrillers. Too much like work. He did like nonfiction books about espionage though. “Sounds interesting. When is it set? I like reading about the history of espionage.”
“Oh, it’s modern. With some flashbacks. A lot of flashbacks,” he said darkly. Ha, maybe the writing wasn’t going so well, thought Steve.
“A lot of action too, I’m guessing. Like, um, James Bond?”
“Not as much action as you’d think. More investigating and paper trails.” Jack sounded amused now, so maybe Steve was being an idiot.
“Ha. Sounds more realistic that way, I guess.”
“Yeah. Um, do you have any hobbies? Apart from watching TV shows that make you cry, that is.”
“Not lately. Work, you know.”
Jack tsked. “Oughta make time. More to life than work.”
“Yeah,” Steve sighed. “I used to sketch and draw a lot. Paint, when I could afford the supplies.”
“What’d you draw?”
Bucky. He’d drawn Bucky a lot. Partly just because he’d been the most convenient model for practicing drawing human anatomy. The Smithsonian probably had a bunch of his old moldering sketchbooks full of his attempts to draw Bucky’s disembodied hands, or shoulders, or lips. Other than that, he’d drawn the usual silly doodles, and a lot of neighborhood scenes.
“People, buildings. Nothing special.”
“Doesn’t matter how special it is or isn’t, as long as it makes you happy, or you have fun doing it.”
“That the kind of thing you tell your students, Mr. Murphy?”
Jack laughed, a low and intimate sort of chuckle. “What can I say, it’s hard to turn it off. Speaking of, I should probably try to get some sleep before teaching a bunch of teenagers about Riemann sums. Goodnight, Steve.”
Steve had his opportunity to more fully stalk Jack when Sam went to Cincinnati for some recon on places Karpov had been seen at before his death. He sent Sam off with a smile and a wave, and an order to check in with Steve every two hours, and then he hustled to catch Jack before he disappeared into the high school.
This time, when Steve followed Jack to the high school, he didn’t leave again after Jack walked in. He’d done enough recon and research to know where Jack’s classroom was. Luckily for him, the classroom wasn’t facing the street, and there was a convenient tree growing just outside the third-story classroom’s window. Once classes had started, Steve snuck around to the back of the building and climbed the tree, hoping the branches would hold his weight. Also that he wouldn’t get caught. The possible headlines after that would be dire: CAPTAIN AMERICA: HERO OR PEEPING TOM MENACE TO OUR CHILDREN?
Thankfully the tree did hold his weight, and had enough foliage to make him difficult to spot. His view into the classroom from the tree wasn’t great, thanks to the leaves and the grimy window, but he could hear what was going on in the classroom perfectly. Steve had missed the first minutes of Jack’s class, so Jack was already in full swing, talking about derivatives this and functions that. It all went well over Steve’s head; he’d only gotten up to geometry in high school. Buck had breezed through all the way up to trigonometry, and then been given a few books on harder math by teachers who’d had hopes of Bucky going off to college. That hadn’t been option for a poor kid from Brooklyn, but Bucky’s aptitude for math (his obnoxious aptitude for everything, really) had been part of why he’d gone up the ranks so quickly after he was drafted. He’d stood out among new recruits who had scarcely enough arithmetic to get by. Seemed like a lot more was expected of kids these days.
Steve should have left, probably, once he had 100% audio and visual confirmation that Jack was in fact a math teacher. There was no reason to stay through an entire calculus class, and then a pre-calculus class, and then another calculus class. It was just—Jack’s voice. Southern accent aside, he sounded exactly like Bucky.
At least, Steve thought he did. His inner rational Sam gently suggested it might be wishful thinking. Do you remember his voice well enough to be sure? It had been over seventy years, or nearly five, depending on how you counted, since Steve had properly heard Bucky’s voice. His brief interactions with the Winter Soldier didn’t count, what with all the agonized screaming and gunfire and shrieking metal. And history hadn’t preserved the sound of Bucky’s voice. Steve had checked. It had just been Captain America who spoke on all those propaganda films and newsreels, his Howling Commandos silent and relegated to montages and still pictures. He couldn’t be too resentful though, not when history had preserved the precious sight of Bucky laughing and smiling, caught in one perfect loop in the Smithsonian.
So maybe Steve just didn’t remember Bucky’s voice, not perfectly. He’d been half deaf for the better part of their friendship after all. Maybe his memory didn’t hold the exact softness of Bucky’s voice, its particular pitch. Maybe all the certainty he had left was in how its soothing and smooth tones had meant home and safe when Bucky had read to him when he’d been too sick to read himself. Maybe he could only be sure of the animated rise and fall of Bucky’s chatter, the way he’d talked and talked when he got home from work, regaling Steve with the latest neighborhood gossip or the plot of whatever pulp novel he was reading.
Whatever Steve did or didn’t remember, however imperfect the memory of Bucky’s voice, listening to Jack plucked at some chord in Steve’s heart, and set it to thrumming. It didn’t matter that Steve was wedged uncomfortably in a tree’s branches, it didn’t matter that Jack was just talking about equations and math terms Steve didn’t know or care about. He sounded like Bucky.
He sounded even more like Bucky when he heard Jack walk students through math problems they were having trouble with, plunging Steve right back into 1935 and watching Bucky help Becca with her math homework. Hell, or Bucky helping Steve with his.
“Ugh, Mr. Murphy, I give up! I’m too dumb to get this!” cried out one girl.
“Hey now, no one insults one of my students like that. C’mon, pick up your pencil. Let’s see where the mix up is,” said Jack, and went through the problem step by step, with perfect patience.
Jack was firm but kind with his students, good-natured. He didn’t snap, or raise his voice, which was more than you could say for most of Steve’s old teachers. He seemed to do a better job teaching too, with clear and careful explanations of mathematical concepts. Though his penchant for doing arithmetic in his head seemed to frustrate the students, eliciting whines of “how do you do that without a calculator?” Jack’s students liked him, judging by the way they greeted him at the beginning of class.
“Mr. Murphy, not only did I finish last night’s homework, but I also programmed Snake into my graphing calculator. Praise me!” Steve caught a glimpse of a teen of indeterminate gender tossing their hands in the air as they walked into the classroom.
“Good job on the homework, not impressed on the game. I will not be amused if I catch you playing that in class.”
“Really? Not even if I beat my high score?”
“Not even then,” said Jack, and Steve heard the grin in his voice, could picture it on Bucky’s face.
Another student came in and triumphantly slapped some paper down on Jack’s desk. “Yo Mr. Murphy, I used that method you showed me and I aced my physics test! High five!” Steve heard the slap of hands striking each other.
Students nowadays were a hell of a lot more chatty with their teachers than they had been back in Steve’s day, and Jack’s classes were peppered with friendly banter. The students even affectionately mocked Jack’s awful mustache, which Jack bore with good grace. As if Steve needed any more proof, every interaction Jack had with his students proved that he’d been their teacher for some time. If Jack was Bucky, whatever op or mission he was running was a long term one. Maybe some of the high school students or teachers were HYDRA, thought Steve before dismissing the idea as ludicrous.
Steve listened in on three class periods before he could bring himself to leave. He’d learned nothing that would prove Jack was Bucky, and a lot that supported the conclusion that Jack was just who he seemed: a well-liked high school math teacher. He did check the high school for any HYDRA ties anyway though. Just in case. He didn’t find anything.
Steve’s side mission might have been floundering, but he and Sam did at least finally catch a break on their actual mission, when they managed to intercept a couple HYDRA operatives at one of HYDRA’s safe houses. Steve and Sam snuck in through the house’s backdoor, unnoticed by the HYDRA goons as they argued with each other.
“Where the fuck is the money, man? Or the guns, or the C-4?” asked HYDRA goon #1.
It looked like they’d already ransacked the place looking for said money, guns, or C-4. Like every other HYDRA base, storage facility, and safe house Steve and Sam had checked out in the last few weeks, it was empty of everything but furniture.
HYDRA goon #2 took on a conciliatory posture. “You’re asking me? Listen, I’m sure it’s just a mix up, or we’re at the wrong location. Maybe everything had to get moved.”
The other HYDRA goon wasn’t having it. “No, I have been to every single warehouse and drop point and vault from the east coast to here: they’re all empty, cleaned out. I haven’t been paid since last year! I heard the same thing from some of the other guys, there’s nothing, not even in the offshore accounts they know about.”
“HYDRA’s not about the money, come on. We have a mission, a cause,” HYDRA goon #2 said, and shifted uncomfortably.
“Okay, yeah, hail HYDRA or what the fuck ever, I’ve still got to make a living! I’m already on the goddamn run, they caught me in that fucking FBI sweep, there’s a warrant out on me. I need cash, I need supplies if I’m gonna continue the glorious mission. Fuck, all of us need cash and supplies if we’re gonna do shit.”
Steve exchanged a speaking look with Sam. So Natasha was right, HYDRA resources were disappearing, and HYDRA rank and file knew about it. Either it was an inside job and there was some HYDRA asshole hoarding funds, or someone was doing the modern equivalent of starving HYDRA out.
“What do you want me to do about it? I was told to sit tight and wait for HYDRA command, and that’s what I’ve been doing.”
“Who the fuck is even left in HYDRA command?! Fucking Captain America and the feds have been taking them all out! How do I know you didn’t steal it all?”
“What the—no I didn’t! Why the fuck would I?”
Things were tense now, both goons’ hands drifting towards their guns. If this scene had played out across the board at every gutted HYDRA base, Steve could see why HYDRA was collapsing faster than expected. Just because HYDRA bragged about growing two heads in place of every destroyed one didn’t mean those two heads got along. Seemed like plenty of them were fighting each other. Steve nodded at Sam, and they moved in before the two goons could escalate to violence.
They disarmed them quickly, surprise on their side, then set about questioning them. The goons didn’t know anything about Karpov, but they did offer a couple new leads on local HYDRA cells and a more extensive HYDRA base somewhere in Appalachia. Mostly they just cried, which always embarrassed Steve. They dropped the goons off in front of the nearest FBI field office and called it a night.
The next morning, Steve and Sam packed up their gear for a quick road trip to follow up on one of the leads the HYDRA goons had given them. With any luck, they could get to the location, do some quick recon, and be back in time for dinner. That was, if they could get their car out of the spot it’d been boxed into.
“Why do you even bother parking in the middle spots, Sam? Who wants to parallel park?”
“It was the only spot, okay! I didn’t want to park way the hell down the block! Man, fuck neighborhoods with street parking. Do you think the owners would notice if we just emptied out the house’s garage, put all their shit in a storage unit, and used the garage for its actual purpose?”
“Yeah, Sam, I think they would. Isn’t that Jack’s car blocking us from the front?” Steve frowned out at the car. He’d skipped his morning run in favor of prepping for their recon trip, so he hadn’t seen Jack this morning. It was nearly 9 AM, he should have been teaching class by now.
“Shouldn’t he be at work? And I told you, he parks like that on purpose! It’s the ‘I’m not touching you’ of parking, I swear to god.”
Steve rolled his eyes. “C’mon, let’s just go over and ask him to move his car.” When they went next door and rang the doorbell, there was no response. “Maybe he’s in the shower or something,” Steve muttered. Though he couldn’t hear water running.
“Shampooing that goddamn mustache probably.” Sam banged on the door. “Yo, Jack! It’s your neighbors, not the Jehovah’s Witnesses! Come out and move your car!”
Steve glared at Sam and gestured for him to be quiet. He tipped his ear toward the door, and listened for signs of movement in the house. There was silence at first and then he heard a thump and something like the shuffling of feet, and gestured Sam back from the door. The door creaked open a little.
“Please shut up,” said Jack in a hoarse whisper. Steve could barely see him in the sliver of opening Jack had left between the door and door frame, the house dark inside.
“Jack, you okay?” asked Steve, and nudged the door open a little more to get a closer look at him. Jack made a wounded noise that made Steve’s stomach drop with panic, and he pushed the door open more. Jack gave way, but he retreated to the side of the hallway away from the light spilling through the now open door, arm over his eyes and breathing hard and fast. Before Steve could ask what was wrong, Jack sort of fell against the wall and slid down until he was sitting on the floor, curled up tight. Steve didn’t know what was wrong, but something clearly was. He crouched down, hands hovering over Jack’s prone form, uncertain what help was called for here.
“Keys are—um, in the—bowl by the—phone. Can you just—”
Sam went into action now, his professional medic face on. He closed the door and knelt down in front of Jack. “Hey man, don’t worry about the keys. You okay? You don’t look so hot.”
He didn’t. Sam had kept his voice low and even but Jack had still flinched and shrunk back. He was pale as milk from what Steve could see of his face, his eyes still covered by his forearm and elbow.
“Migraine,” whispered Jack. “Light and sound aren’t—” He clamped his mouth shut, heaved a little.
“Steve, go get a trash can or bucket or something.”
Banking on the fact that Jack’s house was probably built along the same plan as theirs, he headed to where he thought the bathroom should be, and sure enough, it was there. He grabbed the wastebasket and rushed back out, just in time to set it down beside Jack who wretched into it. It didn’t seem like he had much to bring up.
Sam reached out to touch Jack’s shoulder, but Jack flinched back hard again, hitting the wall with a thump. “Don’t—”
“Okay, okay, sorry. No touching, got it. That’s fine. Now I used to be a medic, in the Air Force, and I just wanna make sure you’re okay, alright? Can you just answer a few questions for me?” Jack made a vague, small affirmative sound. “Okay. Have you hit your head any time in the past week? Any numbness or weakness on one side of your body?”
Sam got through a few questions in that vein, before Jack reached the limit of his patience and ground out, “It’s a migraine. Had ‘em before. Just gotta sleep it off. Can you please leave.”
Jack had risked lowering his arm from his eyes by now, just the top of his glasses peeking out, his eyes still squinted mostly shut. Steve’s heart lurched. Jack—Bucky—whoever he was—looked so small and so miserable, still curled up in pain. Steve had had his own share of migraines before the serum, but they’d been dull, pounding things that had passed with a few hours’ rest in a dark room. Jack was clearly in a different, worse sort of agony.
“Sure, sure, just wanna make sure you’re not having a stroke or an aneurysm, man.”
“Not,” said Jack, with a surprisingly effective baleful glare given how clearly awful he felt.
“Also, kinda gotta know if you’ve had any seizures in the last six months.” Jack was silent. Sam’s eyes went sharp and worried. “Jack. Jack, you with me? You had any seizures in the last six months? This is important, I’m not leaving ‘till I get an answer.”
“…Year. It’s been a year,” whispered Jack. Sam’s worry lessened a little, though he still looked concerned. Steve, meanwhile, was suddenly a lot more worried. Seizures? Was Jack sick?
“Steve, go bring Jack some water,” Sam ordered.
Steve wanted to object, he didn’t want to leave Jack, but getting water was something to do, to help, so he did. It was also probably Sam’s ploy to give Jack some privacy about his health. The part of Steve that was sure Jack was Bucky wanted to pitch a fit and not move from his side, privacy be damned, because hadn’t Steve stayed at a spooked and shaky Bucky’s side when he’d been examined after Azzano? Hadn’t Bucky stubbornly accompanied Steve to as many doctor appointments as he could, after Steve’s ma had passed? The part of Steve that was slightly more rational and willing to concede that maybe Jack was just some guy accepted that he did not, in fact, need to know Jack’s medical history.
So Steve split the difference and got a dim look at the darkened house as he went to the kitchen for some water, and saw nothing out of the ordinary. Jack kept a neat house, spartan even, aside from the books that colonized the tables and shelves. Steve filled a glass of water at the kitchen sink, and after a moment’s thought, grabbed the cleanest looking dishtowel and soaked it in cold water, wringing out the excess.
Jack took a few tentative sips of the water and murmured thanks.
“Hey, I brought a cool towel, do you—can I—”
Jack was looking at him through narrowed eyes, pupils huge and dark. He nodded, and took off his glasses, eyes closed. Without the glasses, the long sweep of his dark eyelashes set Steve’s heart into a clamor. It was as pretty a sight as it always had been, all those times Steve had watched a sleeping Bucky, chest full of a longing he’d never been brave enough to name before he’d lost Bucky. His pause was long enough to earn a sharp look from Sam, so he quickly set the towel over Bucky’s—Jack’s eyes. Jack sighed in relief and leaned into Steve a little.
“C’mon, let’s get you up and to bed. That’s the room you can make darkest, right?” Sam kept up a low murmur of chatter as he and Steve helped Jack to his bedroom, where he more or less immediately curled into a tiny ball under the blankets, and shoved his head under the pillow. Steve went to fetch the water, wastebasket, and Jack’s glasses, and set them all beside Jack’s bed.
“Should we leave him?” whispered Steve to Sam.
Steve didn’t want to leave him. Steve wanted to slide under the covers with him and ease the hurt however he could.
“He’s a grown ass man and he took his meds. He’s right, he probably just needs to sleep it off.” Sam crossed his arms, frowned down at Jack. “History of seizures though,” he muttered to himself, then said, “Hey, Jack, I’m gonna leave my number, okay? Can you text or call in a couple hours, let us know how you’re doing?”
Jack lifted the pillow from over his head. “…Why?”
“We’re gonna worry, otherwise. Don’t want to come back tonight and find you cracked your skull open when you fell on the floor during a seizure, man. I don’t need that kinda guilt,” said Sam.
Jack shifted under the covers, didn’t answer. Steve dithered. If Jack was Bucky—Steve knelt down beside the bed. Only Jack’s hair was visible, and Steve reached out to run a hand through it, slow and lingering. He knew this gesture was too intimate by far, well beyond neighborly, but Steve had done this for Bucky, when he’d tossed and turned in the grip of a nightmare, when he’d gone mute with pain from some injury. Bucky had done it for him, through countless fevers and headaches. Jack tensed then relaxed under Steve’s hand, letting out a sweet, long sigh.
“Please?” asked Steve, in the exact small, pleading tone that Bucky had never, ever been able to resist.
“Unfair, Stevie,” complained Bucky, just as he always had, and then mumbled, “Fine,” before his breathing went deep and even. He was asleep. Steve felt rooted to the floor. Bucky. That was pure Bucky, Bucky was the only person to ever call him Stevie past age ten. It was nothing he could prove to anyone else. He was still firmly in you-need-an-intervention territory if he tried to explain this to Sam. And maybe he’d misheard, maybe Jack was just out of it or messing with Steve. Sam, right behind him, hadn’t reacted, so maybe—maybe, still, it was wishful thinking.
“Uh, Steve?” hissed Sam. Steve pulled his hand away from Bucky—Jack—fuck. He still couldn’t be sure. “C’mon, man.” Sam jerked his head towards the hallway, and left the bedroom.
Steve followed Sam back out to the hallway, where Sam collected Jack’s keys. “Go move Jack’s car, I’m gonna make sure he’s got what he needs.”
Steve wanted to object, wanted to find some pretext to go through the house himself, but he didn’t have any handy excuse. Sam was the trained medic here, and he’d been so good with Bucky—Jack—whoever he was.
He settled for saying, “Leave him my number too,” which earned him a ‘really?’ look, but Sam didn’t argue.
Steve went out to Jack’s car and moved to it one of the other free spots in the street, and took the few minutes he had before Sam came back out to do a quick search of the gently battered Corolla. The inside of the car was neat like the house, the glovebox home to nothing more than the car’s papers and a wad of tissues, and ha, actual gloves for once. There was a switchblade too, but that wasn’t suspicious in and of itself. He popped the trunk and looked in there too, but only caught a glimpse of a gym bag and an emergency kit before he heard Sam coming and had to ease the trunk back closed.
He jogged back to Jack’s house to leave the keys, and took one last look at Jack/Bucky before he left. The lump of blankets rose and fell with his even breaths, and for a second Steve could pretend, could hope, that it was Bucky, that it was 1939 and Bucky was sleeping in after a long shift, or 1943 and getting what rest he could before the next mission, or even some impossible but real future where Bucky was sharing Steve’s bed on a lazy Sunday morning. But it wasn’t. At least not yet.
“Poor guy,” said Sam as he started the car. “He still parks like an asshole, but I don’t envy him migraines that bad. Let’s check in on him when we get back.”
Sam gave him a sidelong look. “You seemed pretty worried.” Steve shrugged.
“It was worrying. I used to get migraines, before the serum, but not that bad.” If they talked about Jack much longer, Sam might catch on that something was up. More than he already had. So Steve changed the subject. “The HYDRA cell in Akron can’t have many people. You think they’re all congregating at that base in Appalachia?”
“Maybe. Maybe that’s where all the missing shit is going. All I know is we better get a more specific location than Appalachia out of whoever we find. I’m not keen on hiking the entirety of the Appalachian trail in search of Nazis.”
Neither was Steve. He tried to keep his mind on the upcoming recon, but his mind kept returning to Jack and/or Bucky. He just needed proof, one way or the other. Proof that didn’t come down to Steve pointing to some feature or mannerism and insisting, “that’s Bucky.” He needed hard evidence, actual proof, especially now that he had a sinking feeling that this debilitating migraine, and the seizure Jack/Bucky had alluded to, could be symptoms of something having happened to Bucky that had messed with his memories more. Or maybe he was still jumping to conclusions. Maybe this was the guy from Detroit all over again.
At least he didn’t have to worry about Jack passed out on the floor or anything; Jack texted them a two-word not dead when they were leaving surveillance bugs at the empty Akron safe house. Sam snorted and texted back, wanna be a little more forthcoming? Which only earned him a middle finger emoji back, so Jack was probably fine.
When they got back, they checked on Jack first thing. He answered the door still pale and cranky, and still sensitive to light judging by the way he was squinting, but otherwise looking much better.
“How are you feeling?” asked Steve.
“It’s down to a dull roar instead of a pickaxe to the brain, so I’m alright.” He leaned against the doorframe and crossed his arms, looked down, a little shy now. “Um, thank you. For helping.”
“No problem, glad you’re feeling better,” said Sam, with easy generosity. Whatever cold war of parking he had going with Jack, Sam clearly wasn’t willing to be outright mean to Jack.
There was a moment of silence then, and Jack looked up at Steve, a little like he was trying to figure something out. Steve couldn’t help the blush that rose on his face as he remembered how he’d stroked Jack’s hair. Would he mention it? Was it that weird a thing to have done? If Jack was Bucky and didn’t remember, would it have triggered a memory? Jack tilted his head, studied the by now very obvious blush on Steve’s face.
“You okay?” he asked.
Steve cleared his throat, scratched at the back of his neck. “Yeah, yeah, I just—I was worried. About you.”
Now Jack smiled a little, eyes crinkling at the corners. Something warm kindled between them, and to Steve, it was a familiar warmth. He let himself bask in it for a moment, settled into the quiet shared warmth that recalled countless lazy afternoons spent with Bucky or comfortable late night silences.
“I’m okay,” said Jack. He held Steve’s eyes, and surely Steve wasn’t imagining the fondness there, the exasperated affection. “It’s okay.” He said it low and soft, tender, the way Bucky had only ever been with Steve in private.
Horribly, Steve’s eyes filled with tears. He wanted to hug Bucky, he wanted to hold on and not let go. He wanted to go home, unsure of what the word meant other than Bucky. He wanted to believe it, when Bucky said it was okay. But goddammit, if Jack really was Bucky, he needed more of a sign than this. Bucky, if he was Bucky, needed to make the first move. Steve couldn’t make this leap, because if he was wrong—
Sam broke the spell. “Um, I’ll just go then. Make dinner. Yeah. See you, Jack.” He’d been taking small steps backward the whole time and by the time he was finished talking, he was halfway to their house.
“See you tomorrow, Steve,” said Jack, and closed the door with one last smile.
“What the hell was that?” asked Sam when they were back in their house.
“What was what?”
Sam’s eyebrows did an incredulous sort of dance, and he gestured wildly in the direction of Jack/Bucky’s house. “That! What the fuck?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Steve, keeping his voice carefully flat. It wasn’t like he could begin to explain it to Sam, so his best bet was to just pretend it wasn’t happening. Which was also, apparently, what Bucky was maybe doing. God. Steve was past being sad and crazy, and now he was just pissed. What the hell was Bucky up to?
“Fine, don’t tell me.”
Steve didn’t have much time to stay mad. All the HYDRA lackeys in the area were converging on the safe house in Akron, all of them spooked and antsy once they’d found out about the guys Steve and Sam had caught. The bugs Steve and Sam had set picked up a lot of arguments and chatter, and a slow trickle of information on the base in Appalachia. It took a few days until someone talked about the base with enough specificity for Steve and Sam to pinpoint its location, and then it was another couple days of poring over satellite imagery and intelligence reports to determine if they could raid it on their own.
“We can at least do recon on our own. We know it’s empty or only barely staffed right now. We go in, take a look around, leave some more bugs. Set a trap,” said Steve.
Sam surveyed the maps that now had pride of place on the “wall of crazy.” “That’s supposing it’s not already a trap. Maybe not a trap for us, but still a trap.”
“I’m just saying, the timing’s not gonna get any better. We shouldn’t wait until all these guys have fully set up shop in there to plan who knows what.”
“Yeah, yeah, I hear you. Okay, lay it out, what’s the plan.”
They hashed out a quick and dirty plan together: they’d leave for the base in the early afternoon to arrive there by nightfall, and use the cover of night to infiltrate. Once they were in, they’d evaluate whether to just do recon and plant some bugs, or to take some more decisive action.
“I thought this was just recon,” said Sam, eyeing Steve as he packed a duffel full of C-4.
“Just in case! You never know,” said Steve, as if a good two-thirds of the HYDRA bases they’d raided or done recon at hadn’t ended up exploding. Whatever, Steve wasn’t going to apologize for blowing up Nazis. That was the American way, or something.
“Right,” said Sam. He zipped his own duffel of gear back open and added more ammo.
It took them a few hours to drive to the base, and then another hour to hike through the forest to the base’s hidden entrance, built into an old abandoned mine. A few well-placed strikes with his shield and the heavy metal blast door gave way. The tunnels of the base inside were lit with the same buzzing fluorescent lights as every other HYDRA base, and the space was cramped and echoing.
“So, bets on what’s in here? Horrifying science experiments? Old weapons? Bunch of files?” asked Sam.
“I don’t know, I just hope it’s not servers full of some other dead Nazi’s brain.” Those things had screamed in a really disturbing way when they blew up that base. Steve and Sam both shuddered at the memory.
They cleared a few rooms, and like just about every HYDRA safe house or base they’d been to in the past year, it was empty of anything but furniture and rusting equipment. Maybe there had been a lab here once, but if so, it had been long abandoned. Eventually they reached an old but well-maintained mine cart that went deeper into the mines.
“Well, this is ominous,” said Sam.
Steve agreed. “There’s gotta be something down there though, right?”
“Uh huh. Here’s a by no means complete list of things that could be down there: an eldritch monster, like, say a hydra, a flooded out mine, a fuck ton of HYDRA agents, zombie HYDRA agents, those things that were in The Descent—” Steve got in the cart. “Radioactive materials—” Huh, that was a good point. Steve fished out a geiger counter from his pack, but it clicked more or less the normal amount. Sam was still going. “—Evil robots, bats, a zombie plague but no zombies, vampires—”
“That’s where you’re gonna draw the line? Vampires?” Steve held his hand over the cart’s controls, eyebrows raised. Sam rolled his eyes and got in. “I’m gonna regret this.”
The cart clacked and creaked its way down the shaft for a few minutes before it deposited them in another set of tunnels. They cleared some more rooms, these ones filled with empty file cabinets and antiquated computers for a change, but when they got a few hundred more yards down the tunnel, they started hearing groaning and thumping, interspersed with the odd scream.
“What did I fucking tell you, Steve! Zombies!” hissed Sam.
Steve was about to tell Sam he was overreacting when the smell hit him. The smell of rotting flesh wasn’t easily forgotten, and this couldn’t be anything else. It rolled over them thick and rank, with an undertone of something that smelled unidentifiably but sharply unnatural. Sam started gagging even as he brought his sidearm up.
“Come on, we’ve gotta see what’s down there,” said Steve.
“Do we, though? Do we really? Because I vote for setting the C-4 and blowing the whole place.” Sam still followed though when Steve moved forward.
They crept along the tunnel until they heard the sound of running feet and a woman’s voice screaming, “Fucking leave it! Come on!”
The woman careened around the turn in the tunnel just ahead of them and ran headlong into Steve. She bounced off of him and fell to the ground, and after a few dazed blinks said, “Oh you’ve got to be kidding—well, hail HYDRA I guess.”
Steve knocked her out with his shield before she could get her gun up. Sam already had his gun trained on the woman’s companion, who was rolling a cart in front of him that he was only barely in control of, not even looking at them yet, his head turned to look behind him in terror.
“Hey, freeze!” called out Sam.
The guy turned to look at him, and let out an honest to god wail once he spotted them. “Seriously?!”
“Seriously,” said Steve. “What’re you running from, kid?”
“Fucking—I don’t even know, okay? Zombies or some shit? Pops always said, ‘you’re gonna die in a mine, kid, just like your grandpappy before you, and just like I will’ and I thought, whatever, fuck coal mining, I’m moving up in the world, but I guess not! I guess even when you join a fuckin’ sweet organization and get a cool uniform, you still end up dead in a mine! Dead of zombies!”
“Shouldn’t’ve joined up with Nazis then,” said Sam, unsympathetic.
The kid shoved the cart toward them and made a run for it as Steve and Sam dodged the cart. They didn’t bother to give chase, Steve just tossed the shield to knock the kid out, and caught the rebound. Steve kept a wary eye on the other end of the tunnel, where he could still hear a rattling sort of moaning in the distance. They had enough time to investigate the cart before whatever it was caught up to them. One look inside and Steve understood why the two HYDRA agents had been unwilling to leave it: It was full of gold bullion. Steve and Sam didn’t have much time to admire it before the stench hit them again, along with a rapid sort of shuffling noise that proved to be—well, an undead HYDRA soldier, from the look of it.
The thing was more bone than flesh, uniform tattered. What was left of the uniform though—it looked like the old HYDRA uniforms, the ones from the war. How long had this thing been down here? Steve sent the shield spinning through the zombie’s neck, and it collapsed in a clatter of bones.
“Okay, what the fuck,” muttered Sam.
“You think there are more of them?”
“I do not fucking want to find out, Steve! Let’s just go! We’ll blow the entrances as we go and trap whatever’s down here.”
Steve had a lot of questions about just how HYDRA had managed to reanimate the dead, but discretion was probably the better part of valor at this point. “Yeah. Yeah, okay. Grab some of the gold, maybe we can trace it.”
They both grabbed a couple ingots and turned back the way they’d come. When Steve caught the sound of dragging and moaning on the edge of his hearing, he urged Sam into a faster jog back to the mining cart. But the sound was coming from up ahead too, louder now. When they reached the mining cart, the rails and tunnel leading back out were overrun by the zombified dead, a tangle of rotting and bony limbs. Here in the relative dark of the mine shaft, they had a dim eldritch glow, a sickly mix of green and purple that seemed too ugly to exist.
“Oh, I guess we’re in hell now,” said Sam in a disturbingly even voice, having apparently reached some plateau of calm beyond the valleys of freaking out.
Steve wanted to laugh hysterically, but it wasn’t the time. He focused instead on beheading as many undead HYDRA soldiers as he could, and they shot and bashed and kicked their way to the cart. The mining cart still ran, thankfully, though its progress was slow and the crunch of bones under its wheels was kind of unsettling. They held off the dead that were still coming, but some apparently had vestigial rotted brains because they were swarming up ahead to where the mine cart would stop at the top of the shaft. They were going to have a hell of a time getting through the press of bodies. The zombies weren’t especially strong, but they were disgusting and couldn’t be stopped until beheaded. Sam had wretched over the side of the mining cart more than once already, and so had Steve. He’d have to burn their clothes when they got of this. If they got out of it.
“Should we just toss a grenade?” shouted Sam.
“We can’t risk the tunnels collapsing while we’re in them!”
Steve was contemplating just rushing the undead masses with his shield up to make them a path when the crack of a rifle sounded, shots fired off in quick succession that dropped a half dozen of the zombies surrounding Steve. Steve and Sam took advantage of the newly freed space around them and pressed forwards until they saw a masked figure in black striding towards them and the still seething mass of moldering zombies surrounding them.
“Because that’s what this day needed! The Winter Fucking Soldier! Great!”
Steve didn’t know what Sam was talking about, because Steve’s day was going great now. “Bucky?”
Bucky bodily flung assorted zombies out of their path. “I said, go! I set this place to blow, the whole mine’s gonna collapse in four minutes and forty-five seconds, get outside!”
Steve bashed a few more zombies. Sam was out of ammo and was down to his knife and swinging his pack like a cudgel, but they fought their way to Bucky’s side, where Bucky picked Sam up by the back of his shirt and tossed him clear of the fray.
“What the—not cool, man! Not cool!” Bucky threw a gun over Sam’s way then turned back to presumably chuck Steve to safety too.
“Hell no,” said Steve, and planted himself at Bucky’s side to fend off more of the undead hordes. Bucky let out a frustrated sort of growl, but they were too close to being overrun by the zombies or whatever they were for Bucky to get into it with Steve. How many undead HYDRA agents could there be, anyway? Though their uniforms weren’t HYDRA now, were instead a dingy gray and beige. Confederate, maybe? Maybe HYDRA only wanted to reanimate the racist dead.
He fell into easy sync with Bucky as they fought, like no time had passed at all since they’d last fought with each other instead of against. He’d taken this for granted, during the war, hadn’t known it for the gift and blessing it was, to move so easily with Bucky in the heat of a fight, to feel the certainty of his presence and know how he would move, both of them moving together like two halves of a whole. All-black tac gear and mask aside, Steve knew it was Bucky he was fighting with now, not the Winter Soldier, though his new relentless, brutal grace was Bucky’s own skill taken to super soldier-enhanced heights. Sam gave them cover fire and together they moved steadily back up towards the mine’s entrance.
“Two minutes,” said Bucky, and they tried to move faster as the mostly skeletal Confederate soldiers were grasping and scrabbling at their clothes and bodies. Steve stumbled, tripped up by a tangle of bones, and when he looked up, Bucky was close to overrun by the zombies.
Steve flung some skeletons off of Bucky as Bucky battered at them with his left arm, and one managed to scrabble at Bucky’s mask, pulling it off to reveal—
“I knew it! I fucking knew it! You giant fucking jerk!” Steve shouted, flush with a heady mixture of outrage, relief, joy, and terror. Because under the mask, Bucky had that godawful carpet brush of a mustache, and it looked absolutely ridiculous when contrasted with the Winter Soldier tac gear he was wearing.
“Now is not the time! One minute thirty!” Bucky said, plowing forward towards Sam and the sliver of starlit night ahead. Sam just gaped at Bucky.
“Neighbor Jack? What the fuck?”
But Bucky was right, they didn’t have the time, so Steve shoved Sam, then grabbed a grenade from his utility belt, pulled the pin, and tossed it behind them, and they all sprinted towards the blast door at the mine entrance in one last desperate push, kicking off grasping skeletal hands along the way. Bucky slammed the blast door closed once they were all safely outside, and scant seconds later, the door rattled and a series of deep, percussive booms rumbled through the mountainside like thunder. The only sound after that was the sound of the trees shivering from the blast, and their own heavy breaths.
“Everyone okay?” asked Steve.
Sam was still staring at Bucky, something between rage and confusion on his face. “Yeah, I’m fine. But I repeat: what the fuck?”
Bucky leaned on a nearby tree and smirked at Sam. “Hi-diddly-ho, neighborino.” Steve had no idea what that meant, but Sam evidently did because he laughed, for kind of an uncomfortably long time, and there was an edge of hysteria to it.
“I hate you. So much,” said Sam, gasping and blinking tears from his eyes. “Steve, I swear to god, if you knew about this and you two were—I don’t even know. In on it together? Pretending for shits and giggles?”
“I didn’t know, I suspected. But what the hell, Buck?”
“You’re asking me what the hell? You’re the ones who moved in next door and made like you didn’t recognize me!”
“Uh, I didn’t, Mr. Flanders meets Magnum PI!” said Sam.
“I did, but then Sam was acting like you were just some guy, and you didn’t say anything, and, uh. It maybe wouldn’t have been the first time I thought some random guy was you,” admitted Steve. “And hey, this goes both ways, jerk! Why didn’t you say anything?”
Bucky winced, shrugged. “Well, neither of you said anything. I figured, if you weren’t gonna say anything, and if I wasn’t gonna be surrounded by a SWAT team or whatever, I wouldn’t break cover. Seemed safest. And I had plans for this base,” he said, and gestured at the base.
“So you decided you’d just pretend to be a math teacher,” said Sam. Now Bucky looked offended.
“I’m not pretending to be a math teacher!”
“Oh, no, he’s an actual math teacher,” said Steve at the same time. Sam raised an eyebrow at him. “I maybe, um, followed him one day?”
“Yeah, don’t think I didn’t notice that, Steven. The hell were you doing up that tree for three class periods?”
Steve couldn’t come up with a convincing lie, not now. “I missed your voice.” Bucky’s eyes went big and surprised, and he swallowed hard, Adam’s apple bobbing.
“Oh my god,” muttered Sam, and Steve figured it was time to change the subject before there was a lot of crying and hopefully some hugging. Steve fully planned on engaging in both of those activities, just not while they were in the middle of the forest, covered in zombie dust.
“Never mind that, what the hell kind of plan did you have going anyway?” asked Steve. This, thankfully, did indeed divert Sam from the topic of Steve being generally tragic about Bucky.
“Yeah, what was the end game here, Barnes? We’ve been hauling ass all around the world looking for you, and you’ve been, what, living it up as a math teacher in Cleveland? That’s crazy. It’s crazy, right?” Sam looked at Steve. Steve nodded.
Bucky narrowed his eyes and drew himself up, stalking towards them a little, and oh shit, Steve was in for it now.
“Oh, I’m the crazy one, really? You two idiots have spent the last two years running around all of creation blowing up HYDRA bases and messily taking out HYDRA agents and in general leaving a trail of very obvious destruction in your wake. I have spent the last two years dealing with,” he gestured irritably in the general direction of his head, “all of this amnesia, trauma bullshit while quietly draining HYDRA’s accounts and getting rid of all their weapons and supplies, making them turn on each other, while safely undercover no less, and I’m the crazy one? Please, tell me, how is my almost murder-free revenge plan more crazy than yours.”
Now Steve really wanted to cry. Not because Bucky’s diatribe made him feel bad or contrite or anything, but out of sheer happy relief. This harangue was deeply familiar, the sort of furious rant Steve had been subjected to after every alley brawl gone sideways, every ill-advised plan concocted with the Howlies, every time Steve had thrown his ass right into the line of fire. This was Bucky, and my god, Steve loved him.
“I’m sorry, is this your judgey teacher face? Are you using your judgey math teacher face on me, Barnes?” Sam demanded.
“Yes, yes I am!” said Bucky, crossing his arms and delivering a pretty impressive judgey teacher face. Maybe Bucky really had found his calling with this teaching thing.
When Steve was certain he wouldn’t burst into relieved tears or otherwise embarrass himself, he asked, “Almost murder-free?”
Now Bucky hunched his shoulders a little. “Karpov had to go. I’m not apologizing for that one.”
“Right, right. Fair enough,” said Steve. Everyone shifted uncomfortably for a moment.
Sam sighed and rubbed at his face. “Okay, I still have a lot of questions. Like, a lot. But I gotta ask, what the fuck was up with the zombies?”
Now Bucky put on a disapproving and didactic sort of expression that Steve instantly bristled at, because goddamn it, he wasn’t one of Bucky’s students.
“Now, maybe you’d know the answer to that if you hadn’t run into a mysterious HYDRA base half-cocked. Maybe, if you had been gathering intelligence for months, you might have had a better idea about the contents of that base.”
Oh my god. Was Bucky chastising them for not doing their homework? Steve couldn’t let this stand.
“Yeah? Maybe if someone hadn’t dropped off the map, not even leaving us any clues about what bases to hit next, we wouldn’t have had to go into this one!”
Sam rolled his eyes and forestalled Bucky’s indignant response. “Fight later, explanation now.” Bucky glared at Sam and Steve both, but dropped the argument in favor of the requested explanation.
“HYDRA used this base to store a bunch of its war loot, stuff they’ve been moving around for decades. Some of it was some fucked up occult shit. I was gonna pull a Robin Hood with all the gold, but then—you know. Figured it was best to just blow up the whole place. Gold might be cursed.” Steve and Sam glanced at each other guiltily. Bucky sighed. “You took some of the gold.”
“We were thinking we could trace it!”
“There’s no such thing as curses,” scoffed Sam.
“Says the man who just fought off an army of the undead.”
“Yeah, okay, we’ll send it to Stark for some tests,” said Steve.
Bucky ran a hand through his hair and the gesture, to Bucky’s visible horror, released a little cloud of zombie dust and bone fragments. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m not willing to smell like undead Nazis for any longer than I have to. There’s a stream about half a mile that way, I’m gonna wash off before I head back.”
“Good call. We’re not going anywhere near my car while we’re still covered with zombie gunk,” said Sam.
Bucky took point in leading them to the stream, and when they arrived, he started unceremoniously removing his weapons and clothes. Steve followed suit, half out of a desire to distract himself with his own clothes to avoid staring at Bucky. Sam grumbled about skinny dipping in the middle of nowhere, but he stripped off too, down to his briefs. By the time Steve looked up, Bucky was already waist deep in the stream, metal arm gleaming and hair wet. Steve could have stared at the play of muscles under the pale skin of his broad back all night, and maybe would have had Sam not given him an unsubtle push towards the water on his own way to the stream.
After some cursing about how cold the water was, they all washed up quickly. There was no saving their clothes, but Steve and Sam had a spare set of civilian clothes in their packs, and so it seemed did Bucky.
“Nice to know you were at least a little prepared,” said Bucky, and Steve ignored the jibe. He didn’t want to admit that he and Sam had learned that particular lesson the hard way, when they’d stumbled out of a HYDRA lab covered in some acidic goo that had eaten away at their clothes. After that, they’d gone lighter on the explosives and made some room in their mission packs for more clothes.
Before Bucky put on his clean shirt, he pulled some thin, shimmering sort of fabric over the length of his metal arm and twitched his fingers. The fabric flickered, turned flesh colored, and suddenly Bucky’s left arm matched his right.
“So that’s how you covered up your arm. A version of SHIELD’s face mesh?” asked Steve.
Sam nodded. “Okay, I get that, that’s an obvious element of your disguise. What the hell’s your excuse for that ‘stache, man?”
“What, you don’t think I’m pulling this look off, Wilson?” said Bucky as he stroked the offending facial hair.
“No one could pull that look off,” said Sam.
Bucky snorted and didn’t disagree. “Helps fool facial recognition software. Same with the glasses. And I don’t care how much shit you give me about it, clearly it worked. No one’s gonna mistake me for the Winter Soldier looking like this. Steve didn’t recognize me.”
“Hey, I recognized you! The second I saw you I thought it was you! But the whole arm thing threw me off, and the southern accent, and you not saying anything, and Sam not recognizing you—and, hey, did you even recognize me?”
“Ah yes, a beard and the pseudonym of Steven Grant. Truly, an impenetrable cover,” said Bucky with a dead-eyed stare.
“It’s Stephen, with a ph,” mumbled Steve.
Bucky stopped dead in his tracks to give Steve a look of disbelief, and Steve blushed and scowled. A smile grew on Bucky’s face until he tipped his head back and laughed, a bright and shockingly sweet sound that was maybe the best thing Steve had heard this century. Bucky’s laugh was infectious enough that even Sam was chuckling.
Eventually Bucky’s laughter subsided, though the delighted creases around his eyes only deepened, and he said, with something between wonder and tenderness, “I really missed you.”
They hiked back towards the road where they’d left their cars, and spent most of that time swapping intel. It wasn’t exactly what Steve most wanted to know, but he let Bucky keep the focus on what they’d all been doing to take out HYDRA. The middle of the woods with Sam as an audience wasn’t the best time to get into a more emotional conversation, probably. So instead Steve listened as Bucky relayed a terse report of his time in Cleveland and what he’d been doing to destroy as many HYDRA heads as he could and avoid capture. It turned out that Bucky was the one quietly and thoroughly starving HYDRA of resources.
“Well, that’s one less thing to worry about, at least. Natasha was worried about where all that shit was going. What’ve you been doing with all of it anyway?” asked Sam.
“I kept some of the money. Don’t give me that look, Rogers.” Steve subsided before he could work up a proper disappointed glare. “I figure I’m owed some goddamn backpay and compensation for emotional damages on account of seventy years of torture and freezing. And a teacher’s salary is a pittance, let me tell you, it’s a disgrace. The rest of it’s been going to various charities. No amounts big enough to draw a ton of questions.”
“And the data dumps were you too, I’m guessing,” said Steve.
“Yeah. HYDRA wants to sow a lot of chaos? That goes both ways. It’s not that hard to get all those heads snapping at each other. And sometimes they did a lot of talking around me, gave me access to a lot of bases, because why not, right? Asset’s just gonna get wiped again.” Steve felt the surge of sick anger that always accompanied the reminders of how horribly Bucky had been used. It must have shown on his face, because after one sideways glance, Bucky cut him off with a low and vehement, “Don’t.”
“Huh. So you’re doing alright,” said Sam.
“Thanks for sounding so surprised.”
“Just saying, I counsel vets for a living. Or did. Anyway, plenty of ‘em are worse off than you seem to be now, and they weren’t brainwashed assassins for decades.”
Steve had sat in on enough of Sam’s group sessions to see this as the bait it was. But Bucky didn’t take the bait, just gave a noncommittal hum. This was the march back from Azzano all over again, Bucky keeping stubbornly silent about anything that actually mattered, that actually hurt him. Steve had let it pass then, too high on the success and having Bucky back to press for details. Steve had naively thought that he’d have time to pull the whole story from Bucky, that it would be like when they were kids and Bucky would eventually confide in him, some midnight confession offered up in the dark and smoothed over by daylight. But Bucky never had, and Steve had never pushed it. He wouldn’t make the same mistake again. They were nearly back at the car now, and Steve needed to know before he spent the whole ride back stewing and worrying about it.
“Buck. Please. How are you, really? You had that migraine the other week, are you okay? How much do you—”
Bucky stopped walking. “My head—don’t worry about that. Hurts sometimes, less than it used to. It’s just leftover shit from all that brain scrambling, far as I can tell.” That didn’t especially keep Steve from worrying. If what he’d seen earlier that week counted as less painful…. “And how much do I remember? Can’t be sure,” said Bucky, and laughed a little. “That’s the answer to everything, really. I can’t be sure. But it was—bad, at first, really—” he choked up and shook his head, eyes wide and haunted, before swallowing and continuing, “—and now it’s not, and—I don't wanna talk about it. I remember enough. More than I’d like, maybe.”
That wasn’t much of an answer, halting and vague as it was, but at least it was more than Steve had gotten out of Bucky after Azzano. Maybe he’d say more when it was just them. Or maybe he wouldn’t, but at least if they were alone they could have a proper fight about it. Steve stole a glance at Sam, who looked solemn but not worried or alarmed.
After a few more minutes of hiking they reached the off-road clearing where they’d left the car.
“You got a ride out of here, Barnes?” asked Sam.
Bucky continued into the brush a few dozen yards away and moved some branches aside to reveal a motorcycle.
“I’ll see you back in Cleveland,” said Bucky, already walking his bike back to the road.
Steve wasn’t ready for him to go. It seemed too fast, and everything felt abruptly surreal again, and Steve couldn’t help but wonder if he let Bucky go now, would he ever see him again?
“Can I—” he gestured vaguely at the bike. They wouldn’t be able to talk while riding on the motorcycle, but Steve didn’t care, an hours-long ride spent holding onto Bucky seemed like heaven right now. And if he was holding onto Bucky, then he’d know exactly where he was, he’d know Bucky was real and here.
Bucky frowned at him. “I only have one helmet.”
“That’s—who cares about helmets!”
“Well I don’t know about you, Steve, but I’ve had enough brain damage for a lifetime. So I care about helmets. Go with Wilson, I’ll see you two back at the house. Might get there a little later than you two, I’ve gotta swap the bike for my car.” Bucky was already pulling his helmet out of the bike’s saddle bag.
Bucky’s casual normalcy made Steve’s precarious control fray. “Promise. Promise you’ll come back.”
Bucky stopped, startled. He looked at Steve, really looked at him, and Steve struggled not to fidget under his scrutiny. He set his jaw and glared at Bucky instead.
“Steve. Of course I’m coming back.”
“Don’t. Don’t make out like I’m the one being crazy, James Buchanan Barnes. It’s been two years since I found out you were alive and almost five since I ended up in this century and you were gone, you were dead—”
Bucky flinched, then he dropped the helmet and strode towards Steve to envelop him in a hug, and Steve almost shoved him back just to yell at him some more, but Bucky’s arms were tight and unyielding around him, and maybe this was different than it had been seventy years ago but Steve didn’t care. Bucky was tense and stiff at first, like he wasn’t sure he was doing it right, and only relaxed by degrees though he didn’t loosen his hold. Steve held on just as tightly as Bucky and buried his face in the crook of Bucky’s neck. The smell of river water and lingering sweat and gunpowder assured him that this was real, and more than that, there was the beloved sound of Bucky’s even breaths and steady heartbeat.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Bucky was murmuring into Steve’s ear. “I wasn’t ready before. I’m not going anywhere, okay? I promise.”
It was a while before Steve was willing to let go, but eventually he did, and they both pulled back and tried to pretend they hadn’t both been crying a little.
“Okay that was touching and everything, but we really gotta get going,” said Sam.
Sam drove them back while Steve made some calls about the base they’d just taken out. The remnants of SHIELD would make sure that old mine stayed blocked up, and they could set up surveillance to catch any other HYDRA agents who tried to get in. He texted Natasha too to let her know they’d completed the mission. It was a vague, uninformative text, but summarizing this particular mission would probably have her heading to Cleveland to have them committed. He didn’t mention anything about Bucky, not yet.
“You know, when I imagined us finally finding Barnes, this was not how I thought it would go,” said Sam once Steve set his phone down.
“Guess you’re feeling pretty dumb you didn't recognize him, huh?” Steve was just feeling the smug glow of vindication.
“You wanna walk back to Cleveland? Because you can walk back to Cleveland.”
Steve laughed. “No, I know. It’s not what I was expecting either.”
“Math teacher. What the fuck.”
“Oh no, that’s not that surprising. Buck was always good at math. No, I just meant—he’s okay.”
“Yeah. Shit, he’s holding down a job, he’s being careful about taking HYDRA out.” Sam suddenly got a simultaneously queasy and stricken look on his face. “I think he’s maybe more well-adjusted than we are. What the fuck.”
It was only a couple hours before dawn by the time they got back to Cleveland. Bucky arrived ten minutes after them, now driving his blue Corolla again, the transformation back to Jack Murphy complete. Steve had waited for him on the porch, and now that he was back, for a moment he was afraid again that none of it had been real, that Jack was just some guy and not Bucky at all. But Bucky smiled when he saw him and gestured him inside his house with a tip of his head.
“Thanks for not raiding that base on a school night,” said Bucky while Steve looked around the house.
“Sure thing, Mr. Murphy,” Steve shot back, and Bucky chuckled.
His first impression, back when he’d only seen it briefly in dim lighting, still held. It was spartan and mostly bare, save for all the books scattered everywhere. There was only the minimum of furniture, everything arranged carefully for the best sight lines, no clutter apart from the books and a neat stack of what was probably Bucky’s latest batch of homework or tests to grade on the kitchen table. There was a calendar hung up with a magnet on the refrigerator, with things written on it like, “MATH DEPARTMENT MEETING” and “AP CALC EXAM PREP SESSION 3-5.” There were a couple photos too, of Bucky with a group of smiling students.
“You done snooping?” asked Bucky.
Bucky rolled his eyes. “I’m surprised you didn’t try to break in.”
“That was gonna be my next step,” admitted Steve, and he followed Bucky into the bedroom.
The bedroom was as neat and spare as the rest of the house, but the bed was big and comfortable looking, piled high with soft blankets. If Bucky thought it was weird that Steve was basically making himself at home in his house, he didn’t say anything about it, and in fact, must have expected it, because they both fell back into the rhythm of sharing a living space like it hadn’t been six years or seventy since the last time they had. Steve had missed this, desperately. He’d lived with Bucky nearly his entire adult life, and whatever else had changed, to have this simple, banal routine snap back into place as if it had never been interrupted was like having a weight he hadn’t even known he was carrying lifted from his shoulders. Here was Bucky, washing his hands and face and changing out of his clothes as if home from any other long day at work. Here was Steve, turning down the covers and getting in the bed. All was right with the world.
“I take it we’re bunking together tonight,” said Bucky, voice dry and amused.
“Yeah. You got a problem with that?” Sharing a bed was nothing new for them. They’d done it out of necessity both before the war and during it, and maybe they didn’t have to any more, but Steve wanted to, now. He pretty much didn’t want to let Bucky out of his sight at all if he could help it.
“No,” said Bucky, and turned out the light before getting in the bed.
They faced each other, and oh, that godawful mustache. Steve found himself grinning into the dark and Bucky huffed out a laugh.
“I know, but it worked, didn’t it?” Bucky said, and Steve shrugged.
“I still knew you,” said Steve, and brought his thumb up to the telltale dimple in Bucky’s chin.
“Oh, that’s what gave me away, huh?” said Bucky with a small smile, his voice a low murmur that Steve could almost feel more than he could hear.
“Yeah. And this,” he said, running his fingers along the stubbled edge of Bucky’s sharp jaw. Bucky’s breath caught and his eyes fluttered closed, and Steve reached up to cup Bucky’s face, thumbs just brushing Bucky’s soft eyelashes. “And these too.”
Steve was maybe giving too much away just now, but here in the quiet dark of Bucky’s bedroom, in a future he never could have imagined, he couldn’t bring himself to do otherwise. He had traced these beloved features on paper so often, but he had never used his hands to map them, never said any of it aloud. If the terrible miracle of Bucky’s survival demanded anything, surely it demanded Steve’s honesty.
“I missed you so damn much, Buck. Why didn’t you let me find you?”
Bucky let out a long, shuddering breath. “Wasn’t safe. And I wasn’t—” Bucky shook his head, pressed his lips together tight. He looked at Steve, pained and frustrated. Steve ran a hand over Bucky’s shoulder and arm in an attempt at comfort. “I don’t think I’m the Bucky you knew,” whispered Bucky eventually.
“You don’t have to be.” Steve shuffled closer to Bucky and Bucky sighed, tugged Steve in even closer with a hand at his hip. “I don’t think I’m the Steve you knew either,” confessed Steve.
“Yeah, this is new,” said Bucky, eyes creasing up in a smile as he ran a hand over Steve’s beard. “It suits you, actually.” His face went solemn again and his mouth twisted in that way it always did when he was considering what he should say. “I knew you. Before I knew my name, I knew you.”
Steve’s heart felt like it was breaking and expanding to fill all of him at once, but before Steve could do or say anything, Bucky closed what little distance was left between them, and kissed him. Steve was so surprised he couldn’t respond to the brief, warm press of lips before Bucky was pulling away again, eyes wide and scared.
“Sorry, sorry—we didn’t—we didn’t do that, before? Did we? I didn’t—”
Steve grabbed Bucky’s shirt before he could move away any further.
“No, we didn’t.”
Bucky flinched and made as if to move away. “Right, yeah, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have—”
“But I wanted to. So bad, Buck,” said Steve, and showed him by pushing forward to kiss him clumsily.
It felt kind of weird, between his beard and Bucky’s mustache, and their noses were bumping together, but Bucky brought his hand up to Steve’s face to tilt his head just so, and then went to work showing him just why so many girls had walked away from dates with him with red lips and starry eyes. Steve tried to match him and take the kiss deeper, until he had to pull away with a giggle because—
“Fuck, that tickles,” he gasped, and Bucky laughed too.
“And you’re giving me beard burn, Rogers.” Steve moved in for another kiss anyway and Bucky was smiling into it, which was a gift that struck Steve dumb with gratitude. But then he was laughing again because Bucky’s stupid mustache kept tickling his upper lip and making his nose twitch, and Bucky laughed with him. “Sorry, sorry, I’ll shave it off in the morning, I promise.”
“Awww, you don't have to, Buck. Not on my account, anyway. I don’t mind it so much, honest.”
Bucky gave him a deeply incredulous look. “Fuck’s sake, Rogers, what kind of true love is this that you’re okay with this thing on my face?”
Steve should’ve joked it off, probably, because Bucky was joking, right, but—
“It is,” blurted out Steve. “True love, that is. I mean, I love you. I have for, I don’t know, a long time.”
Bucky blinked in apparent shock, then took Steve’s face in his hands and kissed him hard and deep, a little rough, and Steve lost the plot for a bit, caught up in the feel of Bucky and the joy that was fizzing and burning bright in his bones. When he finally drew back, they were both breathless, and Bucky’s eyes were bright even in the darkness of the bedroom.
“Yeah, I—I don’t remember how long I’ve loved you, but I know I did. I do,” said Bucky, voice rough and shaky. Steve didn’t have any answer to that but to pull Bucky in close and hold on.
The next morning, Steve woke up smiling, like a sap. He could feel that Bucky wasn’t in the bed, vaguely remembered Bucky getting up a little earlier while he’d still been half asleep, but he could hear water running in the bathroom so he knew Bucky wasn’t far. When he opened his eyes, he saw Bucky at the sink in the en suite bathroom, shaving carefully with a straight razor, towel slung over his bare shoulder and hair still damp from the shower. He’d put on briefs, to Steve’s disappointment, but there was still a tantalizing stretch of bare skin on view, and his metal arm shone. If not for that, this could have been any number of other mornings where Steve had tried to surreptitiously watch Bucky shave, an activity that had always provided ample opportunity for Steve to ogle the chiseled line of Bucky’s jaw and the lean column of his neck, to watch his clever and lovely hands. Steve had even sketched this a few times, with the excuse that maybe he’d try to sell it as part of some ad for shave cream, but the sketches had always ended up looking too private, too intimate.
With a few neat strokes of the razor on his upper lip and a couple swipes of the towel, Jack Murphy fell away to reveal Steve’s Bucky: more scarred now, older and sadder, but still Bucky. Bucky rubbed at his upper lip and made a silly face at himself in the bathroom mirror, and Steve laughed, too happy to hide it. Bucky turned to look at him with a smile, and forget the sun, that was Steve’s sunrise, bright and sweet and warm.
“Hi,” said Bucky, and came back to kneel on the bed.
“Hi,” Steve said back, and levered himself up to take Bucky’s smoothly shaven face in his hands, swiping his thumbs over Bucky’s newly bare upper lip. Bucky nipped playfully at his fingers, and Steve tugged him forward for a kiss. He could feel Bucky wrinkling his nose and he pulled away with a grin.
“Ugh, morning breath, go brush your teeth, Rogers,” he said, but he kissed Steve again anyway.
“Lookin’ good, Buck.”
Bucky rolled his eyes, and to Steve’s delight, blushed a little. “Yeah, yeah. Go on, brush your teeth, take a shower.” He gave Steve a wicked grin and patted him on the cheek. “Don’t shave though.”
When Steve got out of the shower, he followed the scent of coffee and bacon to the kitchen, where Bucky was at the stove and Sam was sitting at the kitchen table, bleary-eyed.
Sam glared. “Nope, nuh uh. Dial it down, Steve, I have had about four hours of sleep and I am sore every-fucking-where. We’re not all supersoldiers.”
Bucky set a plate of bacon, eggs, and toast down in front of Sam, then piled another couple plates high for himself and Steve. Steve beamed at Bucky and wrapped him up in a hug. Bucky made a “really?” sort of grunt, but he indulged Steve and held on right back.
“Oh my god,” muttered Sam, and shoved bacon and eggs in his mouth.
“How long’s this good mood gonna last then?” asked Bucky.
“Forever,” said Steve, releasing Bucky with a kiss to his cheek before sitting down to attack breakfast.
Bucky snorted. “That’s a goddamn lie, but you’re sweet to say it.”
Everyone ate in silence for a few minutes, and it was quite possibly the best morning Steve had had since waking up in the twenty-first century. He had two of his best friends at the table, a good breakfast, a finished mission, and he could kiss Bucky whenever he wanted.
“So, Natasha’s gonna skype us for a debrief later today, and then I figure we can look into where to hit HYDRA next—” Steve started.
“Um, I’m not leaving Cleveland,” interrupted Bucky.
“I’m not leaving my students, Steve. My AP Calc classes have their AP test in a few weeks! The kids I’m coaching are going to regionals next week!”
“What do you even coach?” asked Sam.
“What are regionals?” asked Steve.
Bucky crossed his arms. “The mathletes.”
“Holy shit,” said Sam faintly. “Are you serious? The Winter Soldier is coaching a bunch of nerdy mathletes?”
Steve just sat back and blinked at Bucky, who raised his eyebrows and set his jaw in a way that meant he was digging into his position.
“You want to stay. Okay, sure. Until the end of the school year?” Steve understood that. That was commitment to his cover. And Bucky was a good teacher, he didn’t want to leave his kids in the lurch.
Now Bucky chewed at his lower lip and shook his head. “No—I mean, yes, but that’s not—I don’t want to fight, Steve.”
“We’re not fighting. This isn’t a fight. It’s fine, I’m not making you do anything, Buck. You want to stay, you can stay,” Steve said it gently, trying to ease the tension suddenly vibrating in Bucky.
“No, I know, I mean—you still want to suit up, go take out HYDRA bases. I don’t. I can’t—I don’t want to fight. I don’t want to do that any more. The things I did when they—”
Bucky broke off, practically choking on the words. He was shaking with a fine tremor now.
“That wasn’t you,” said Steve.
Bucky made a frustrated noise. “I know. But I did it.”
Bucky looked at him, defiant and hurting and pleading in equal measure. Steve swallowed hard. Bucky had always had his back in a fight, had come in swinging to finish brawls Steve had started, had stayed on the front lines of the war at Steve’s side when he could have gone home. And it had cost him dearly, more than either of them could have ever imagined. It had been his choice, but he’d made that choice for Steve, and everything that followed after his fall hadn’t been his choice at all, and that wouldn’t ever stop hurting. Steve couldn’t begrudge Bucky wanting to stay out of it now. If Bucky wanted to spend the rest of his days teaching teenagers math, Steve would support him. But the refusal still stung.
Sam was looking between them both, concerned. He set his coffee cup down. “What you said, after we blew that base. Your almost murder-free revenge plan. You’ve still been going after HYDRA.”
“Yeah, and that’s—I’ll do that, I wanna do that. I’m good at that. It’s numbers and data, and it’s all—from a distance. Moving money around, getting intel where it needs to be. No hurting people. But I can’t—” Bucky was starting to breathe fast now, eyes a little wild. He winced, rubbed at his forehead.
“Okay, okay, that’s fine, you’re good,” said Sam. “You wanna take a few deep breaths for me, Barnes?”
“Don’t,” said Bucky with a glare, and then clammed up, but he did slow his breathing. Steve, stricken, went around to Bucky’s side of the table to kneel in front of him.
“Hey, hey, Buck. Look at me, it’s okay.”
Bucky laughed, more hysteria than humor. “It’s not,” he managed to grind out, and this wasn’t Bucky’s usual blithe silence and misdirection about anything he didn’t want to talk about. Every time so far that Bucky had tried to talk about this, about what he’d been through, the few words he managed to get out about it looked like they hurt to say. It hurt Steve just to see it. Bucky put on a good show, but he probably wasn’t as well-adjusted as Jack Murphy’s constructed life suggested.
Bucky looked down at him, scared and trying to hide it, but he still took Steve’s hands when he offered them and held on tight. “It’s okay, Buck,” Steve repeated. “I’m sorry for assuming. No one’s gonna make you fight, I promise. You don’t have to come with me.”
Bucky shook his head again, whispered, “I don’t want to leave you. I never wanted to leave you.”
Now it was Steve who couldn’t get the words out. I have never once deserved you, was Steve’s first thought. He pressed a kiss to Bucky’s hands instead. He had to do right by Bucky. What the hell was any of it even for, if not that.
“I know. We’ll work something out. No one has to go anywhere.”
“Okay.” Bucky took in a deep breath, nodded to himself. “Okay,” he repeated. He leaned down to rest his forehead against Steve’s, and they breathed together like that for a minute as Bucky relaxed again.
“We can do it the way we’ve been doing it. You aim, I shoot.”
Now Bucky smiled a little. “You noticed that, huh?”
“I noticed that. I know how you think, Barnes. You disappeared though, all our leads went cold. I was worried.”
“Sorry. Had to deal with Karpov myself. And I’ve been working on something bigger. Wanna see?”
“Yeah,” answered Steve, and followed where Bucky led.
“Now this is a proper wall of crazy,” said Sam in admiring tones.
Bucky’s garage was dominated by it: a whiteboard filled with Bucky’s neat, blocky handwriting, plus maps and photos and documents tacked up all along the wall. It was all meticulously organized, color-coded even, and there were files and notebooks and a multi-monitor computer setup on the table under the wall. Given free rein of an office supplies store, Bucky’s organizational impulses had apparently flourished.
“You’re such a nerd,” said Steve. “I don’t know how anyone ever thought you were cool, Buck.”
“I am organized and prepared, Steve, there’s a difference!”
“You are coaching mathletes, Barnes. You’re a nerd. Do you have a powerpoint presentation for this? Wait, do you know what powerpoint is?”
Bucky ignored Sam. “So, there’s this guy named Strucker….”
Steve hadn’t really been intending to engage in a last bit of heavy stalking when he’d sent Bucky off to work on Monday morning with a kiss and a smile. He’d watched Bucky put Jack Murphy’s life back on like it was a comfortable jacket, rolling the digital mesh back over his left arm, and putting on those dorky, boxy glasses. Bucky had eased up on the conspicuously unfashionable clothes at least, instead wearing a pair of slacks that actually fit right, and a soft sweater that was loose enough to hide his well-muscled bulk a little.
“How surprised are your students gonna be?”
“I’m gonna get so much shit,” Bucky had groaned as he’d combed his hair into place. “From the rest of the faculty too.”
“They’re not gonna—I mean, you’re in the history books. We’re in the history books. Shit, maybe you shouldn’t have shaved it off.”
“Come on, Steve. I know life has gotten pretty damned crazy for us, but no sane person is gonna look at me and think, ‘is that Bucky Barnes back from the dead?’ And no one at that school is secretly HYDRA, I checked. Though if you’re really worried about it, maybe I’ll follow your lead and grow a beard.” He’d squinted at his reflection as if imagining it.
“Your beard comes in patchy,” Steve had retorted.
“Does it? I’m always learning more about myself. Seriously, Steve, don’t worry about it.”
But Steve did worry, so he followed Bucky to work again. He was also, admittedly, more than a little curious how, if at all, Bucky would explain his new look to his students and coworkers. He scaled the tree outside Bucky’s classroom again, and he settled into what passed for a comfortable position just as the first bell rang.
He saw Bucky tilt his head suspiciously in the direction of the window, and then Bucky hissed, “Are you fucking kidding me, Steve?”
“Heads up, students incoming,” Steve murmured, knowing Bucky would hear.
The first little cluster of students entered. “Hey, Mr. Murph—whoa.”
“Who the hell is—Mr. Murphy?!”
“Did you have a makeover?”
“Yeah, yeah, settle down, take your seats,” said Bucky.
It went like that with every group of students trickling in until the classroom was full, all of them wide-eyed and tittering.
“Quiet down, come on, class is starting,” said Bucky as the second bell rang and he began passing out papers. The students dutifully quieted down, but one insistent hand immediately went up. “Yes, Gloria? You have a question?”
“What’s with the new look, Mr. M?”
“That’s not a math-related question.” A collective whine went through the classroom.
“Are we gonna get any work done if I don’t answer this question?” A chorus of nos.
“Okay.” Bucky leaned back against his desk, crossed his arms. Steve leaned towards the window, unwilling to miss whatever undoubtedly bullshit answer Bucky came up with. Steve was kind of hoping he’d go with ‘tragic grilling accident.’ “The mustache was a dare. I don’t chicken out on dares.” Steve struggled to muffle the shout of laughter he wanted to let loose.
“But it’s been months. And that mustache was so awful,” said one of the students, in a wondering sort of tone.
“And you look like this without it,” said another.
“Yeah,” said Bucky. “What can I say, I’m competitive.” A ripple of hushed respect spread through the classroom.
“Did you win? The dare, I mean.”
Now Bucky turned towards the window as he walked to the whiteboard, and even through the window’s grime, Steve could see the secretive and challenging little smile on Bucky’s face, could imagine the way his eyes were twinkling with suppressed hilarity.
“Oh yeah, I definitely won.”