“You sure about this, Spangles?”
“For the last time, Tony, I have to find him.”
“No, no, I get that, long lost BFF, magically back from the dead, blah, blah, blah. I’m not talking about Barnes. I meant working with those two,” Tony gestured to where Reed Richards and Stephen Strange were conferring near a large, complicated machine. “I mean, I know you’re desperate but to resort to cheap parlour tricks? And yes, Richards, I’m talking about you; you can pull your ear in now. Give J and I just a little more time and I’m sure we’ll track down Buckaroo in whatever corner of the world he is currently terrifying.”
“And what if we’re too late? What if he’s bleeding out in some hole somewhere and needs me now? I can’t wait, Tony.” Steve didn’t look up from the backpack he was checking for the tenth time. Natasha and Clint had provided him with what Clint called “a Bond’s worth” of undercover gadgets but Steve hated that he couldn’t take his shield. Apparently even brown hair, a beard, and face-recognition scrabbling contacts to change his eye colour wouldn’t be enough of a disguise if he took the shield. And he knew that but it doesn’t stop him from feeling unprepared without it. “I just can’t let him down, Tony. Not again.”
“Yeah, yeah, well, if you’re set on going, you better take this. Not everywhere in the world takes StarkCard.” Tony pushed a small wallet sized packet into Steve’s hands before wandering off to poke through more of Richard’s lab. When Steve opened it, he was shocked to find a variety of gemstones, all different colours and sizes, apparently organized by value. His first instinct was to call Tony back, to tell him that he couldn’t possibly accept this, even as a loan, and then his brain helpfully supplied at least a dozen scenarios where it might just be necessary to buy Bucky’s freedom and he slipped the pouch into the inside pocket of his jacket.
“So, Mr. Stretch, you’re really sure that this doodad of yours isn’t going to, I don’t know, turn Captain America inside out? Or plunk him down on the moon or something? Or leave him stranded in that universe without shrimp? ‘Cause that would be horrible, really. I only just got him to actually like them.”
“Tony, I’ll be fine. You checked the numbers yourself.”
“It’s not the numbers that has me worried, it’s the –“ Tony twisted his hands in an elaborate gesture that was actually more complicated than just saying ‘magic’ but he had forbidden all use of the ‘m-word’ except by Strange himself. There had been threats of transmogrification the last time Tony tried to get Strange to obey his dictates. Tony had kept most of his insults reserved for Richards since then.
“Stark, it’s a simple psionic harmonizer portal. I’m surprised that you don’t already have one.”
“Yeah, well, some of us prefer the tried and true methods of traveling. Portals have never really worked out for me.”
“Regardless of your personal feelings , Stark, my portals have been tested extensive-“
“You mean a toaster you once sent through came back with all its parts. They might have been all mixed up but huzzah, a definite success!"
“No, c’mon, Steve, what’s the harm in one more test run?”
“Because your precious technology is not the only thing that must be considered in this matter, Stark. And my calculations have indicated that today is the best day for young Steven to establish a connection with Sergeant Barnes. In fact, we are approaching the optimal time now so you may want to get into place, Captain.”
That was the first Steve had heard about Strange doing his own calculations but he wasn’t about to call the magician out on his lie if it got Tony to shut up. Plus Steve wasn’t sure if it was a lie or not. Dr. Strange’s smile could have been conspiratorial but there was a good chance he was just being his usual inscrutable self.
He hoisted his backpack onto his shoulder and after accepting a brief hug and a muttered “don’t die” from Tony, Steve stepped up to the arched doorway of the portal.
“Please proceed to generate the psionic target, Captain.”
Steve was just about to ask Richards what the hell he meant when he felt Dr. Strange’s fingers on his temples. “Just think about Bucky, Captain. I will use the psychic profile you generate to locate your friend and give his coordinates to Dr. Richards. Activate the talisman and we will use its signal to recall you, if needed. Now, focus. What are you looking for?”
Steve took a breath and did as he was told. He thought about Bucky.
He thought about the last time he saw him, bloody, bruised, and wild-eyed on the Helicarrier. He thought about the file. The pictures. The details. He thought about Bucky’s face as he fell from the train. He thought about how often he failed to save his friend and he resolved to never let it happen again. Wherever you are, Buck, that’s where I want to be. If you need me, I will be there. Wherever you are. Whenever you need me, I will be there.
There was a muffled whump and Steve stepped forward into the portal as it spiralled open.
It was only as he was moving that he processed what the voices around him were saying:
Richards: “Hmm, that’s odd.”
Tony: “Steve, wait!”
Dr. Strange: “The time-stream is relatively robust, Captain. Just don’t run off to kill Hitler and you should be fine.”
Steve’s “Wait, what?” was swallowed up in another muffled whump as the portal closed behind him.
“Whaddya mean the parish can’t pay? He’s sick. He needs help.”
“Don’t you take that tone with me, James Buchanan Barnes! You’re not too big for a switch.”
“Sorry, Sister Agnes. It just doesn’t seem right, ya know? So soon after his ma and all.”
“I know, James. And we all are praying for Steven’s recovery but we simply do not have the funds at the moment to cover more of his hospital bills. Not so soon after Christmas. Steven is not the only member of the parish to need help this winter. You more than most should know that. What would your Ma have done without your wages when your Pa got hurt? There but for the grace of God she and those sisters of yours would have been needing charity sure enough.”
Somehow Bucky managed to reply politely to Sister Agnes, to thank her, accept her thoughts and prayers for Steve without expressing exactly what he was thinking about God’s grace at the moment. Where was the grace in taking Steve’s Ma in October and giving him pneumonia in January? Where was the grace in Bucky finally having enough money saved to get a place for him and Steve only for his father to break his foot and not be able to work for over a month? He had told Steve that he didn’t have to make it on his own but what use was Bucky to him now? He couldn’t even convince a nun to cover Steve’s medical bills. Steve hadn’t even wanted to go to the hospital in the first place. It was Bucky who convinced him to go, who had promised that it’d be okay, had told him that he’d take care of it, to not worry and just get better. And now, not even a day later, he has to go and tell Stevie he was wrong, that he had no help to offer, just the promise of more debt and misery.
Bucky’s sight went blurry and he ducked into an alley, lighting up a cigarette with shaking hands. He slumped against the wall, closing his eyes and willing the tears not to fall. Christ, he was useless.
“You look like you could use a good time, mister.” Bucky was too worn out to jump when the voice seemed to come out of nowhere. He opened his eyes and turned to see a pretty blond man, posed further back in the alley.
“Yeah, you’re probably right about that, fella.”
“Luckily, good times are my specialty.” Only as the man came closer did Bucky’s tired brain catch up with the conversation.
“Ah, pal, you’re barking up the wrong tree here.” The young man froze, fear replacing flirtatious on his delicate features. Bucky glanced towards the mouth of the alley, making sure they were still alone. “Hey, hey, I’m not gonna hurt you, buddy; I’m just not the guy you’re lookin’ for if that good time comes with a price tag.”
“It usually does but . . . certain exceptions can be made for a man in need.”
Bucky was tempted. So tempted. He didn’t know exactly what was on offer but the confident smirk accompanying the comment promised that it would feel real nice. And he was tired enough that the warnings in his head that usually kept him from even looking at another guy too long had gone silent. And the guy was close enough that Bucky could see that his eyes were blue. Not as blue as Steve’s but – Steve, that’s where he needed to be. He shouldn’t be thinking these things, wasting this time when Steve was in the hospital, when his Ma was probably waiting on him for supper, waiting to hear if the parish could help, if Bucky got those extra shifts he asked for. And it might all be bad news but Bucky couldn’t let them wait anymore. Bucky gave himself a shake and pushed off the wall.
“Sorry, pal, I got somewhere to be but, uh, good luck? Be safe?”
“Thanks, handsome. And if ya change your mind, just ask for Frankie down ‘round Jay and Sands.” Frankie turned away with a grin, a genuine one this time.
“Well, that didn’t take long."
“Ah, no, I, uh- um, I was just wondering what kinda livin’ a guy could make around here. In, uh, your line of work.”
“Oh, is that how it is? The pretty ones do all right, enough to keep ya fed, keep a roof over your head. Little harder this time of year but find a few regulars and that roof can be pretty respectable. Just be careful where you set up, a lotta folks don’t like poachers.”
“Yeah, yeah, okay, thanks, pal.” Bucky turned to leave, not even sure why he asked. Or rather, carefully not thinking about why he asked.
“Hey, pretty boy?” Bucky turned back. “Good luck, okay? And be safe.”
Steve spent his first few minutes back in the past stifling slightly hysterical laughter in an alley. After all the preparation, all the arguments about what he would need, all the compiling of contacts and leads, all the debate about if he should dress to blend or just be the obvious American tourist, after all that, the mission took a turn that nobody expected. Well, nobody except Strange. And Strange is . . . Strange.
It hadn’t taken Steve long to figure out where he was. Or when he was, really. It should have been a shock, all the sights, sounds, and smells of the Brooklyn of his childhood after his years of adapting to the future. Instead it was almost a comfort. This was familiar, this was his home ground; he might not have expected this but if this was when Bucky needed him, Steve knew, unequivocally that he was the best Avenger for the job. He just had to find him. And maybe find some clothes that were a little more era appropriate. Boots, dark jeans, a black t-shirt and a leather jacket might have let him pass under the radar in most of the world but Steve knew he stuck out like a sore thumb at the moment.
He took a few minutes to stash the backpack in the back of the alley, carefully burying it with heavier pieces of debris. Anyone without his strength would have to be pretty determined to find anything.
His first mission was to figure out exactly when he was. It had been mid-September when he stepped through the portal but judging by how cold the wind was it wasn’t September anymore.
A discarded newspaper gave him the date, a clock in a store window gave him the time, and his memory filled in where Bucky would be. Or at least should be.
January 18, 1937. 9am. Bucky would have been at work for an hour already, getting the shop open for Mr. Wisotsky. At nineteen, Buck had been pretty proud to have a full-time job.
Steve’s first instinct was to head directly to the store, to see for himself that Bucky was okay but he knew that if he went there directly, he wouldn’t be content with just looking through the window. No, he’d have to go in, to get closer, to maybe even try to talk to Bucky, to test his disguise. And right now, in what he was wearing, with his hair like this, right now he was memorable and he shouldn’t be. He should blend in, do some reconnaissance and try to figure out exactly why Bucky needed him. After all, it didn’t make sense that Bucky would need him today of all days. Steve had been in the hospital – or rather, he was in the hospital – today but he knew this date. January 18, 1937 was Bucky’s Lucky Day. Steve had heard the story of this day so often that he felt as if he had walked every step with Buck.
He tried to remember what Richards and Strange had told him about how the portal worked. He knew that they couldn’t take him directly to Bucky; Richards had gone into a lot of detail about the dangers of trying to narrow the field of a psionic harmonizer portal too much. The words “matter co-mingling,” “implosion,” and “pink mist” had been used with some frequency. So he knew that the portal wouldn’t take him to the same room as Bucky; it would just be drawn by his need for Steve. And while Steve was no Reed Richards – or Dr. Strange or Tony Stark, for that matter, - he figured that the radius thing would apply to time travel as well. He wouldn’t have landed right at the moment that Bucky would need him most but around that time. And it was likely to be before that moment, not after or he wouldn’t be needed anymore.
Steve shook his head. One thing he knew was that he couldn’t just spend the whole day in an alley in Brooklyn waiting for Bucky to stumble upon him. And even as part of him worried about why he ended up here, well, there was another part that was a little excited about watching the events that he heard so much about, even if it was from a distance.
He was glad that he hadn’t given Tony back the gems. His StarkCard was definitely useless here. It didn’t take him long to find a pawnshop but he only sold the smallest stone in the wallet and he definitely didn’t get the full value but he got enough to buy himself a suit, a warmer coat, a hat, and scarf. The salesman who had looked askance when he had entered was a lot friendlier – and five dollars richer, aside from what went in the til – when Steve left, wearing his new clothes with the old ones in a brown bag. He had kept his boots, reasoning that he’d be doing a lot of walking and even if the blisters heal as fast as he got them, it still was a pain to break in new shoes.
Wearing his new suit, Steve took one of the larger stones to an actual jeweller, hoping for a slightly better price. He knew better than to accept anyone’s first offer and his old bartering skills came back with more practice but he wasn’t exactly an expert in gems. When he had looked more carefully at the wallet, he saw that Tony (or Pepper, maybe) had marked the approximate values of the stones above each smaller pouch. The numbers seemed absurdly large in light of the signs currently around him advertising 5-cent lemonade, 10-cent shaves, or a whole can of coffee for 23-cents and he had no idea if he was even getting a quarter of what the stones were actually worth. Or would be worth. He tried to translate 2014 prices into 1937 prices based on what he had paid for a cup of coffee just that morning on the way to the Baxter Building and what coffee was being sold for but he gave up when he realized that it really didn’t matter. He had plenty of money to follow Bucky for the day. And to be honest, all the thinking about time travel was giving him a headache.
This is what he knew:
Bucky needed him. That was what mattered.
On his way back to the alley where he had stashed his gear, he bought a briefcase and an actual suitcase. He had passed a hotel advertising rooms for the night and he’d feel better with all his futuristic spy gear safely behind a locked door.
Getting a room actually turned out to be more complicated than he had thought it would and he ended up paying a lot more than he absolutely had to simply because his new ‘modern’ sensibilities rebelled at the thought of sharing a bathroom with a floor full of strangers. Steve may have done his best impression of Tony and tried to seem too rich and too busy to warrant questioning. He hoped appearing eccentric would also excuse any accidental anachronisms. But soon the room was booked, his gear was safely stashed and Steve had to hold himself back from running to Wisotsky’s. He should be able to get there just in time to catch Bucky as he came back from lunch. A lunch that Steve knew he spent at the hospital visiting Steve, more because Bucky told him than because he actually remembered.
He didn’t remember much of those first few days of this hospital stay. He knew that Bucky had stopped by that Saturday and found him already feverish. They hadn’t seen each other much since New Year’s; Steve had been doing some freelance work in addition to his job at the grocers while Bucky had been busy with his family. And if Steve was being honest with himself, he had also been avoiding Bucky and the rest of the Barnes family. It was just too soon after that first Christmas without his mom and he had just wanted to put his head down, do his work, and forget about feeling sad for a while. And he did, in a way; he also forgot to eat since he wasn’t feeling hungry, forgot to sleep regularly as he was tired all the time anyway, and forgot to bundle up when he went outside as he felt numb to his very core, what more could the wind and snow do to him? And when he got the first tickle at the back of his throat, the first sniffle, well, he figured that he couldn’t really complain about a cold after watching his mom cough to death while he just stood there, helpless. So like everything else that wasn’t his work, he ignored it. Until Bucky came to visit and told him that he either had to go to the hospital or Bucky was moving in until he was better. And Steve had just enough fight left in him to push Bucky away, to argue against getting a cab, to walk through the doors of Brooklyn Hospital before he passed out in the waiting room. The next few days were a little fuzzy.
With the benefit of hindsight, Steve could now see just how unfair he had been to Bucky. And after the experience of leading two teams comprised of fierce individuals who hate admitting they need help and have a habit of flinging themselves into danger without a thought, as well as a tendency to downplay injury, now he got that it wasn’t pity behind Bucky’s protectiveness.
Steve’s musings were cut short when he realized that he had been so caught up in his own thoughts that he had almost passed right by Mr. Wisotsky’s shop. Not only that but he hadn’t even noticed that the person coming towards him was the very subject of his thoughts. Steve only just managed to not stop and stare as Bucky walked by him and entered the shop. This Bucky was not the smiling, laughing Bucky of Steve’s memories of this time. Oh, his hair and clothes were still neat and clean, he was still tall and handsome but still, something was missing. He was pale, paler than he usually was in winter. Bucky had circles under his eyes but not the loose, lazy look he got when a late night turned out to be worth the sacrifice of sleep. His whole body was tight, tense, head down, shoulders rounded, hunched against the world in a way Steve hadn’t seen since the moment that Bucky shrugged off his arm in Azzano and insisted on walking on his own, just minutes after Steve had snapped the straps that had held him down to Zola’s table.
Willing himself to be calmer, Steve followed Bucky into the store. Beautiful, handcrafted, wooden furniture shared floor space with an eclectic mix of antiques and more modern furnishings. “People will always need somewhere to park their bottoms,” was always Mr. Wisotsky’s reply when asked why he had gone into furniture. Having never married and with most of his family still in the “old country,” Morris Wisotsky regarded his employees has surrogate nieces and nephews and had offered Steve some work repainting his signs just on Bucky’s suggestion.
“Can I help you?” Steve tore his attention away from the door behind the counter, the door that lead to the back office where Bucky did the accounts as Mr. Wisotsky reviewed the latest catalogues and answered letters from his network of antique collectors.
“Haz-hey, no, I’m, uh, just looking.” Steve mentally crossed his fingers that his disguise held up. The small dark woman at his elbow examining him closely was Hazel Barnett. Steve could acutely remember her look of pity when she and her beau saw him tagging along on a date Bucky had with Barbara McNally last summer. There certainly wasn’t pity in her gaze at the moment.
“Well, if you need help with . . . anything, I’ll be at the counter. Ask for Miss Barnett. Or Hazel, if you’re feeling friendly.”
“Uh, yes, um, thank you, I will.”
Steve pretended to be interested in various pieces as he tried to get closer to the office door without attracting Hazel’s gaze. Luckily another woman entered the shop and claimed Hazel’s attention just as Steve found a shelf of knick-knacks to peruse close enough to the office that he could overhear the conversation taking place inside.
“-the raise, not now but give it a few months and we’ll talk again. And I called Reynolds, he says no one has a need for someone who can only work evenings or weekends. I’m sorry, boy, there’s nothing I can do for you right now. Times are tough for everyone.”
“Thanks, Mo, I really appreciate you asking. If anything-“ Steve didn’t listen to the rest of what Bucky said. That wasn’t how things went. That wasn’t how Bucky had always told him how that conversation went. This was Bucky’s Lucky Day, this was the day that he got his raise, the day he got a whole extra week of work helping in the warehouse Mr. Wisotsky shared with Mr. Reynolds, the rug seller. Why would he have lied? Why had he hid this from his family? From Steve? And where had Bucky gotten the extra money if not from his job?
Steve only stayed at the shop long enough to make sure Bucky was settled in for the afternoon. He figured that if Bucky had felt the need to lie about his Lucky Day, then whatever he needed Steve for wasn’t going to be as simple as saving him from a mugging or the like. The situation might be longer term and for that, Steve was going to need more money and more clothes. And however annoying and trivial those errands may seem, it made sense to run them when he knew Bucky would be at work. He criss-crossed the city, alternating between pawnshops and jewellers, upgrading the quality of his clothes when he needed to blend into the wealthier areas.
By the time Bucky was helping Mr. Wisotsky lock up, Steve was inconspicuously loitering across the street, pretending to read the evening edition. He had a brief moment of bitter amusement thinking about what Clint and Natasha would say about him lurking in a hat and trenchcoat with a newspaper, like some caricature of a spy. Although to be honest, he had felt just as awkward with the multitude of gadgets they had given him. He’d give anything for his shield and some clear objectives right now, like, say, a few dozen HYDRA agents to mow down.
He followed Bucky at a distance, only losing sight of him once when Bucky didn’t turn towards home as Steve expected but down another few side streets to the church. It didn’t occur to Steve until he was quietly slipping through the front doors, a good minute or so after Bucky, that maybe the church hadn’t offered to pay his hospital bills, that Bucky had to ask, had to beg for charity.
Steve always remembered Bucky’s family as being rich. With both George Barnes and Bucky working, the family never worried about making rent and the three younger girls had all they needed for school. Steve only vaguely remembered the big house Bucky used to live in, the one from before the Crash; he had many, many more memories of the cozy apartment the family now rented. And he remembered the whole neighbourhood being excited when Mr. Barnes bought a brand new car but by the time Bucky and Steve were old enough to help him wash it every week, it was being rented out on evenings and weekends for “rainy day money” that Mrs. Barnes would tuck away in a baking soda tin at the back of the pantry. Steve remembered sharing Bucky’s excitement as Winifred remade an old suit of George’s into a “new” suit for Bucky and bemoaning the day when he got taller than his father.
Then there was the day when Bucky stopped talking about the classes he’d take after high school and instead started talking about the jobs he could get with his grade eight diploma versus his grade nine. Winifred had put her foot down and insisted that he stay in school until he was at least 16 but he started working part-time afterschool for Mr. Wisotsky at 13, keeping the shop clean and helping with deliveries. Steve’s Ma would always say an extra blessing at Mass for Winifred and it wasn’t until he was much older that he realized that Winifred always ended up cooking too much food just when the Rogers’s pantry was at its lowest.
Caught up in his own memories, Steve missed most of the conversation between Bucky and Sister Agnes, only just tucking himself behind a convenient pillar as Bucky left the parish office, clearly unhappy. Steve watched as he walked blindly past Father Callahan, seemingly not hearing the priest’s greeting. He was just about to follow Bucky when he heard his name behind him.
“-sick again. I suppose he really hasn’t been well since his mother passed, God rest her soul. That woman was a near saint, Father, the way she cared for that boy.” Steve froze at the mention of his mother. “I don’t expect him to last long without her.”
“I wouldn’t disregard young Steven just yet, Sister. He has managed to surprise us time and again with his fortitude. Besides, I wouldn’t put it past James to drag Steven out of the arms of Saint Peter himself if need be.” Father Callahan’s voice rumbled from the office.
“And at the peril of his own soul as well, I’d wager. James has more loyalty than sense; won’t take a mouthful if he thinks someone else might be hungry. He’ll wear himself to the bone, one of these days, caring for everyone but himself.”
“I’m sure his sacrifices are being noticed, Sister; either by earthly observers or heavenly ones. And speaking of sacrifice, are you sure there’s nothing in the coffers for Steven?”
“I spent all today looking through the books, ever since Mary Cavendish popped in after her shift to tell me that he had been admitted with pneumonia. If there was a spare penny, I would have found it.”
“Sister Agnes, of that I have no doubt. Steven and James will just have to make do with our prayers for now.”
It had been a while since Steve had gone to church. Longer still since he had been here, in the church of his childhood, the church he attended with his mother every Sunday until her death and only sporadically afterward. The path to the votive altar was still familiar and his prayers came back to him as Steve lit a candle for his mother. He would have stayed longer but he could hear Father Callahan heading towards the nave. Steve quickly grabbed a handful of cash from his wallet and shoved it in the donation box. He had no idea how much his hospital bill was this time but hopefully that would cover it along with some extra.
He caught up with Bucky as he was exiting an alley, tossing a cigarette butt aside and ducking his head against the wind. Following him, Steve knew just when Bucky spotted Becca. He rolled his shoulders and straightened up, affecting his lazy swaggering stride and slapping on a grin just as his younger sister saw him.
“Bucky!” Becca gave her current best friend, Betty Malone (not to be confused Betty Mahony as Bucky learned the hard way), a quick hug goodbye and hurried across the street to meet him on the corner. She was smiling, a little flushed in the cold but in the happy, pink-cheeked way she got, not in the fever bright way Steve had been when he saw him at lunch today. “Bucky, you’ll never guess what happened today!”
He couldn’t help but smile at his little sister, a real smile, not the fake one that had passed her scrutiny from the other side of the street. Becca had been eight when the family fortunes had shifted, old enough to know something bad had happened but too young to really understand why they had to move. Somehow, though, she had been the one to keep everyone’s spirits up. If Bucky had buckled down, become more serious, more aware of his role as the oldest, the only boy in the family, it was Becca who convinced the twins that it was an adventure to share a room, who invented new games when their toys broke beyond repair and there wasn’t money for new ones. Watching her, knowing all she could have had, Bucky had sworn to do all he could to make sure that she and Katie and Mary always had everything they needed as well as any extras he could afford. His mother occasionally scolded him for all the little treats he bought the girls, saying that he should be getting himself another coat or new boots or a day out at Coney Island with Steve but Bucky would just smile and tell her that he had all he wanted. “Uh, lemme see, Mr. Hardy finally realized he had an ape in his classroom and you’re off to the zoo?”
“Shush, you’re just still mad that I didn’t name my doll after you.”
“No, I’m still laughing at you for calling a stuffed monkey ‘Me.’” Automatically, Bucky reached for Becca’s schoolbooks to carry as they walked home. “You and Betty studying today?”
“Yeah, we have a geometry test tomorrow. Oh, but you have to hear the news! Betty heard from Carol that her cousin, the actress, the one who was in Hollywood, is opening an acting school next month! Right here in Brooklyn! All the kids from theatre class are talking about taking lessons. Do you think Da would let me? I’d keep my marks up, I swear!” Becca’s eyes shone in the light from the lamppost as she shared her news and Bucky’s heart sank. His father was going back to work next week, his foot finally healed, but there was nothing in the “rainy day” tin, the twins needed new shoes, and it was promising to be a cold winter and fuel wasn’t cheap. There was no way there was any money for something as frivolous for acting lessons. Either Bucky was quiet too long or some of his thoughts showed in his expression because Becca’s smile dimmed. “I mean I don’t have to start next month. I can talk to Mrs. Hudson about babysitting again and I can save up to start later. And I’m sure Betty will share what she’s learned and that way I won’t be behind or anything.”
“What? No, Becs, of course you can start next month! I was just thinking of how I won’t be there to see Ma’s face when you tell her; you know how much she loves the pictures.”
“What do you mean? Aren’t you heading home now?”
“Well, I was until I saw you but now you can tell Ma the news.”
“Mr. Wisotsky gave me a raise today.” Bucky nearly stumbled as Becca shrieked and threw her arms around him. “Hey, hey, it’s not much but they also need help at the warehouse this week so I’ll be working nights for Mr. Reynolds.”
“Yeah, so I need you to tell Ma that I’ll be staying at Steve’s place this week. My work clothes are there and it’s closer to the warehouse.”
“And you won’t wake her up stomping in at midnight.”
“That too. Okay, monkey, you go share the news with the family and I’ll see you in a few days.” Bucky handed his sister back her books, accepted a kiss on the cheek and watched until she turned down the street to their apartment block. It was only then that he let his smile fade as he turned and started to walk towards the subway station. He didn’t like lying to Becca or the rest of his family but neither could he go home until he could prove to himself that he did everything he could to take care of them.
It didn’t take Bucky long to find Frankie. Or rather, it didn’t take him long once he actually started looking. First he had told himself that it was too early, that he should go check on Steve’s place, to make sure the key was where he left it. Then he decided to grab a cup of coffee and he lingered over it, reading the paper that someone else had left at the diner. Finally, he ran out of excuses and found himself trying to ignore the cold wind blowing down the street as Frankie gave him a few pointers on how to talk to “customers.”
“Most of the guys tonight are gonna know just what they want and they’ll want it short and sweet. I gotta tell ya, I wasn’t plannin’ on staying out long tonight, was just gonna meet the regulars and find someplace warm for the night but I’ll introduce you to a few guys who’ll treat ya right.”
“Yeah, yeah, thanks, Frankie.” He must not have sounded convincing because Frankie stopped scanning the street and turned to look at him.
“You sure about this, kid?”
“No – I mean, yeah, I am . . . I just need the money, you know?”
Frankie’s face softened, “Yeah, I know about that.”
It was only a few minutes later when Frankie nudged Bucky’s shoulder and tilted his head towards a man coming up the street. “That’s Davy. It’s his old lady’s bridge night so he’s here lookin’ for what he don’t get at home.” Bucky’s puzzlement must have shown. “A suckjob. You okay with that?”
Bucky took a deep breath. Davy looked like just like all the other guys in Bucky’s neighbourhood. He wasn’t particularly handsome but he looked clean, he looked normal, he didn’t look like Bucky expected. Bucky didn’t know what he expected. “Yeah, yeah, I can do this.”
Frankie moved closer to the light of the lamppost and whistled softly. Davy looked up and a slow smile spread over his face as he walked over. “Heya Frankie, who’s your friend?”
“This here is Johnny. He’s gonna take real good care of ya.” The sound of the fake name he gave Frankie calmed some of Bucky’s nerves. Johnny was the boy about to suck a stranger’s cock for money, not him, not Bucky; Bucky would be at home right now, listening to his sisters’ talk about their days or stopping by the hospital to see Steve, not on a seedy street corner. Johnny could do this. Johnny wasn’t the one who had hoped his first time doing more than necking would be special. Johnny wasn’t some kid who had no idea what he was doing.
Bucky stepped forward, tilted his head to the side and smiled the slow, lazy smile that usually got him out of trouble. Or into it, if that’s what he was looking for. “Frankie tells me you’re lookin’ for a good time?”
“Christ, look at that mouth. C’mon, kid.” Davy reached and gripped Bucky’s shoulder, not roughly but firm enough to push him towards the dark alcove Frankie had shown him earlier.
For a moment, Bucky had no idea who had spoken. Was Frankie regretting showing him around? Bucky had promised him a share just for helping. Had Davy changed his mind? Did he want Frankie instead? Or worst of all, had Bucky overruled Johnny, had his fear spoke over his need?
It wasn’t until he stumbled that he realized that someone else was there, someone with a grip on Davy’s arm, pulling him away from Bucky.
“What the fuck? Lemme go!”
“Hey pally, simmer down, we’re all friends here. You let Davy-boy go and you and me can have a nice time together, okay? On the house.” Frankie hadn’t been far off and now he tossed aside a cigarette as he approached.
Trying to take advantage of the distraction, Davy let go of Bucky and took a swing at the stranger. Almost too fast to follow, the stranger ducked under Davy’s swing, got a shoulder in his gut and rolled him over his back. Davy ended up sprawled on the street, the wind knocked out of him. The scuffle was over too quick for anyone else to even really notice. Ignoring Frankie, the stranger turned to loom over a wheezing Davy. “Scram.”
“Jesus Christ! You’re on your own, Frankie!” Davy scrambled off down the street, leaving Bucky and Frankie alone with the stranger. The man had turned back and was looking intently at Bucky, at least until an angry Frankie got in his face and shoved his shoulder.
“Whaddya think you’re doing? You some kinda do-gooder? Saving us poor boys from the big, bad pervert? You just cost us a buck, buddy! Who do you think you are?”
Bucky got his first good look at the guy. He was tall, at least a head taller than Frankie, and big, with a wide chest and broad shoulders. His eyes and hair appeared dark in the light of the streetlamp, his beard was oddly trimmed, and his clothes were too nice for this neighbourhood but he didn’t seem ruffled by the altercation with Davy. The verbal attack from Frankie, however, seemed to confuse him. “Uh, sorry?”
“Yeah, you should be. You know this guy, Johnny?”
“Uh, no, never saw him before.” Bucky couldn’t be sure with the low light, with his pulse racing and him fighting the urge to just run home but he thought the guy looked hurt for a second, like he expected Bucky to remember him from somewhere.
“So there ya go. He don’t know you, I don’t know you, whaddya doin’ gettin’ in our business?”
The guy looked at Frankie for a moment before turning to Bucky. “Him. I want him.”
“And you couldna waited ten minutes? Ya had to bust Davy up? Ya on some kinda deadline, fella? If you were in that much in a hurry, I coulda helped ya out.” Bucky was grateful when Frankie pulled the guy’s attention away from him. The man’s stare was too intent, too familiar, almost possessive. Bucky shivered and it wasn’t from the wind.
“No, I, uh, want him but not here. I have a room. And money! Here.” The guy held a handful of money out to Frankie like a nine year old buying a puppy.
Not being stupid, Frankie took the cash before easing out of reach to count it. “There’s almost ten dollars, here, buddy. What exactly are you lookin’ for? And why the kid, huh? Why don’t I give ‘im some of this, send him home, and you and me can check out that room of yours?”
The guy sort of crumbled in on himself, looking far smaller than a man his size should be able to. He looked at the ground for a moment before straightening back up and looking Frankie in the eye. “It has to be him because he reminds me of . . . of a friend. A friend I can’t be with right now. Hell, I don’t even know where he is!”
“It’s like that, is it?”
“Yeah, it’s like that.”
“You gonna treat the kid right?”
“Like he was my own fella.”
Frankie held eye contact with the guy a little longer before he nodded sharply and turned to Bucky. “Whaddaya say, pretty boy? You okay to go with Mr. Moneybags here?”
“Uh, go where?”
“I’m at the St. George but, uh, wait a minute.” Bucky just watched dumbfounded as the guy pulled a pen and notebook from his pocket and quickly wrote something down. His pen looked odd and Bucky itched to inspect it closer. Carefully torn from the notepad, the piece of paper was handed to Frankie for inspection. Frankie didn’t even look at it before passing it to Bucky. Taking that as his cue, Bucky read the note out loud.
“’Please upgrade my room to a suite, the best available. I will be arriving within the hour with my –‘” Bucky paused for a second. “’with my brother and will expect all to be ready. Also, please give the bearer of this note lodgings in my previous room and add any comforts he wishes to my bill. Sincerely, Clark Kent’ . . . are you for real, pal?” Bucky looked at the man, at this ‘Mr. Kent’ with disbelief. His stare was returned unflinchingly.
It was Frankie who broke the silence. “And what do I get for playing delivery boy?”
Mr. Kent looked puzzled for a second, like he had forgotten Frankie was even there. Then he chuckled, looking ten years younger and all of sudden Bucky wasn’t sure if the flutters he was feeling were from fear or something else entirely. “You mean besides the ten dollars in your hand and a room for the night?”
“Yeah, ‘sides that. It ain’t like I’m some sort of charity, doing all this for nothin’.”
“Christ, you are something else. Okay, Frankie, is it? Okay, Frankie, here’s the deal, you go deliver this note, put up with a bit of first class, if you can, and there’ll be another ten bucks waiting at the desk for you in the morning. Fair?” Mr. Kent held out his hand to shake on the deal.
“And you’ll treat the kid just as good?” Getting a nod as an answer, Frankie gave Mr. Kent’s hand a firm shake and turned to Bucky, reaching for the note. “Okay, Johnny, look’s like it’s your lucky day. Have fun with Moneybags. Be safe.”
With a casual salute, Frankie took off at a jog leaving Bucky and Mr. Kent on their own.
“So, um, we got a bit of time to kill. You hungry?”
“I ain’t – I’m not really dressed for the places you probably like.” Bucky brushed a hand down the front of his somewhat shabby coat and was further embarrassed when his stomach let out a loud rumble. It had been a while since the sandwich he had grabbed on his way to see Steve at lunch.
“You’d be surprised. C’mon.” Mr. Kent turned and walked away like he had no doubt that Bucky would follow him.
It was one of the strangest meals of Bucky’s life. The diner wasn’t one he had been to before but it was familiar in its similarity to those in his neighbourhood. Mr. Kent ordered for both of them, not even looking at the menu, and only once stopping to check what kind of pie Bucky wanted. Not if he wanted pie but what kind. And he nodded when Bucky said peach, like it was exactly the answer he expected. After that, the meal was mostly silent as the food arrived in waves. Bucky did his best to fill the hollow leg his mother joked that he had but even he had to shake his head when Mr. Kent ordered another milkshake and piece of pie for himself and looked to Bucky to see if he wanted more. He couldn’t remember the last time he had so much to eat in one sitting. The two of them had eaten more in one meal than the whole Barnes family usually had in two days.
“Man, I missed this! Everybody thinks they know what vintage is but no one can get it just right.” Despite his high-class suit and oddly muted accent, Mr. Kent devoured the diner food like it was his mother’s own cooking. He blushed after he spoke, like he hadn’t meant to say what he had. The blush and the trace of chocolate milkshake in his beard, along with the bright lights of the diner and presence of other people, made Bucky bold.
“So you from around here?”
“Use to be. It’s been a long time.”
“Made it big and left the old neighbourhood?”
“Something like that, yeah.”
“I know some Kents over on Water Street. Any relation?”
“Uh, no, probably not.”
“Probably not ‘cause you don’t have much family? Or probably not because your name ain’t really Clark Kent?” ‘Mr. Kent’ looked surprised at Bucky’s deduction but not angry.
“I figure I’m as much a Clark Kent as you are a Johnny.” Something about that smirk was familiar, reassuring and Bucky relaxed enough to laugh. “How’d you figure that out?”
“Well, he has glasses, don’t he?” Whoever he was, ‘Mr. Kent’ had a nice laugh. “You wanted by the law, Superman? You gonna get me into trouble?”
“No more trouble than you would have found yourself in down on Sands.” Mr. Kent’s tone shifted. “What’re you doing there anyway? Nice, smart kid like you has to have a job somewhere. And a family? You got no one waiting up for you?”
Bucky jabbed his straw into the remnants of his milkshake. “I told ‘em I got some extra work. And I got a job, it just doesn’t pay enough.”
“You ever do this before?”
“Whazzit to you? You pay me enough and I’m yours tonight.” Bucky didn’t want to think about how he had never done this before. Or what Mr. Kent might want. All of a sudden he felt sick instead of pleasantly full. At some point during the meal he had forgotten why they were really here, about what would happen next and now he just wanted it all over with.
“So for $100?”
That was more than Bucky made in three weeks working for Mr. Wisotsky. He took a deep breath, swallowed and looked Mr. Kent right in the eye. “Whatever you want.”
“Jesus, Bu-buddy!” Swearing softly, Mr. Kent took a bill out of his wallet and dropped it on the table. “Come on. We’re leaving.”
Again, he didn’t wait to see if Bucky followed. He just left the diner without a backwards glance. When they got to the hotel, the night manager came out to greet Mr. Kent and his “brother.” Bucky only nodded, too nervous to talk and intimidated by how brusquely Mr. Kent was confirming that his instructions had been carried out and that his “valet” was settled. No one dared question Bucky’s lack of luggage and he was just glad that it was late enough that there weren’t many people about. In the elevator, his long day and full stomach caught up with him and he couldn’t quite stifle a yawn. He barely noticed the room and didn’t even hear what Mr. Kent said to the manager, who had insisted on showing them to the suite, to make sure that it met with Mr. Kent’s approval. All he heard was the door closing and then silence as he and Mr. Kent were left alone in the luxurious living area of the suite. Bucky willed himself to not throw up on the expensive carpet.
Without a word, Mr. Kent stalked over to one of the bedrooms and a few seconds later, Bucky could hear water running. He had no idea if he should follow or not. He took off his hat and overcoat, hanging them on the coat rack in the corner. He was shuffling his feet, still trying to decide if he should follow or not, and desperately trying to not yawn again when Mr. Kent came out holding several shopping bags. He unceremoniously dropped them on the chaise lounge then started digging in one, stripping back tissue paper to reveal a brand-new pair of pyjamas. These he pushed into Bucky’s hands before lightly pushing him towards the bedroom. In the en suite bathroom, there was steam rising from the tub as well as a growing mound of bubbles. There was the faint smell of apples. Bucky was confused.
“Strip and give me your clothes.”
There was such command in Mr. Kent’s voice that Bucky’s hands were on his coat buttons before his tired brain caught up with what was going on. Undressing got harder when his hands started to shake. He managed not to curse when the loose button on his vest finally popped off but the small “plonk” it made when it hit the marble floor was enough to have Mr. Kent turn from where he was checking on the bath. Bucky had no idea what his face looked like but when Mr. Kent saw his expression, he started cursing as he turned the taps off and he pulled Bucky from the room, pushing him down to sit on the bed and crouching in front of him.
“Bu-buddy? I’m sorry, I forgot.” Forgot what, Bucky had no idea but Mr. Kent’s voice was soft and he was gently rubbing Bucky’s hands. Bucky bit his lip to keep from crying. He had always hated how easily he cried when he was tired or overwhelmed and right now he was both and it was all he could do to keep the tears from falling. His hands kept trembling. “Hey, can you look at me? Okay, there you go. You’re exhausted, aren’t you? God, you’re so young, I forgot you were this young. And I’m so stupid, telling you to strip like that. Okay, let’s start over, all right? Can we do that?”
Bucky could only nod. He still had no idea what was going on but Mr. Kent hadn’t thrown him out; he didn’t even seem mad, and Bucky needed that money.
“Hey, you with me? I need you to talk to me, B-Johnny.”
“I –,” voice cracking, Bucky had to try again. “I’m okay.”
“No, you’re not and that’s my fault. I’m sorry for that. I didn’t mean to scare you. Here’s what’s going to happen tonight. You’re going to go in the bathroom and undress. Alone. Then I want you to get in the tub and have a nice soak, okay? Take as long as you want. Try to relax.”
“And after?” Bucky couldn’t meet Mr. Kent’s eyes as he asked.
“After I want you to put on those pyjamas. Toss your suit out the door and I’ll send it to be laundered. And I’ll get them to sew that button back on too, okay? It’ll be all fresh and clean in the morning.”
“Yeah, you gotta stay the whole night to get that $100, can you do that? You can say no to anything else but you have to be here in the morning to get paid.” Mr. Kent’s brown eyes were soft but his jaw was tense and his hands tightened on Bucky’s, like he thought he was going to run.
“I have to work –“
Steve couldn’t believe how much he had fucked this all up. Looking up at Bucky’s pale face, his eyes shadowed and lost, Steve could only curse himself for not handling this better. He had seen the flash of panic on Bucky’s face when that man had gripped his shoulder and he forgot about hanging back, forgot about keeping his distance and all he could think about was getting Bucky somewhere safe, and he didn’t stop to think about the fact that he was a stranger to Bucky at the moment. A stranger who Bucky thought was paying him for sex. Fuck. He definitely wasn’t going to be able to deny it the next time Sam accused him of making up plans on the spot. Instead of a happy, healthy Bucky safe from muggers, errant cars, and any other physical hazard the city could conjure, he had an exhausted, terrified boy waiting to be raped. Fuck.
“I’ll make sure you get to work on time, I promise. Go take your bath, baby.” Steve wasn’t sure where the endearment came from. Calling Bucky punk, jerk, asshole, or stupid was usually as close to an endearment as he got. But this wasn’t his Bucky, tall, strong, and up for anything. And he wasn’t this Bucky’s Steve, sick with grief, stuck in the hospital with pneumonia, and angry at the world. That Steve might be barely able to help himself right now but this Steve could do something for his friend. Even if it was taking the Stark approach and throwing money at the problem before taking a drink to try to forget how badly you screwed up.
Steve wasn’t sure what drink he was on when the bedroom door finally opened and Bucky shuffled out. He had put the hotel robe over the pyjamas but Steve could see rolled up cuffs over bare feet. He felt a buzz go through him and chose to blame the booze. His Bucky had never seemed so small. His Bucky had never been so vulnerable. Or maybe Steve had just never seen it. Maybe he had never stopped to look. “I, uh, didn’t know if you wanted my shoes, too.”
“Give ‘em here, we’ll get them polished. I told the manager that your luggage was stolen so when the maid comes for the clothes, she’ll bring some toiletries as well. Why don’t you look around while I call the front desk?” He hated seeing Bucky look so lost, so unsure, and doing something, anything, was better than sitting there and facing his failure. Unfortunately, one of the drawbacks of staying in a luxury hotel was the absolutely frightening efficiency of the staff. Before he knew it, a maid had neatly plucked the clothes from his arms while bellboy had bustled in with a basket full of every toiletry a well-to-do young gentleman might want. Steve made arrangements for breakfast the next morning with the butler overseeing everything and then it was just he and Bucky alone in the suite. Again.
“It’s pretty late, isn’t it? Guess it’s time to head to bed!” He was mentally berating himself for sounding like some sort of camp counsellor before Steve noticed Bucky’s flinch. “Alone! I meant – um, you take that room and I’ll sleep in the other one. And here, I got these from the manager.”
Bucky looked at the keys that he held out and then back up at Steve. “What’s that?”
“Never saw a key before, punk?”
“Sorry, it kinda got lost in that huge mitt ‘a yours.” Bucky snapped back and then look horrified and started apologizing before Steve could laugh like he wanted to. He had been enjoying seeing “his” Bucky and this reminder that they were strangers here quickly sobered him.
“It’s been a long day for both of us and I thought you might sleep better if you could lock your door."
“I, uh, thought, you’d want to, um, you know, uh, have me.” They both winced at Bucky’s wording.
“Well, usually I enjoy my partner to be awake and you look dead on your feet so how about we figure things out in the morning?”
Steve couldn’t decipher the look on Bucky’s face as he took the key and walked towards his room. He stopped at the door and turned back. “Goodnight, Mr. Kent. And, um, thank you.”
Steve tried not to feel hurt when he heard the click of the lock.
Given the circumstances, Bucky thought that it would take forever to fall asleep but the combination of the hot bath, a full stomach, a long day, and an extremely comfortable bed had him sound asleep within minutes. He woke to a gentle knock on the door.
“Johnny? Your suit is here. And there’s breakfast when you’re ready.”
Not being a morning person, Bucky made a sound that he hoped indicated that he heard and rolled over to burrow back into the soft, warm covers. It took him a couple of minutes for him to realize that he wasn’t in his room and that the voice wasn’t that of any of his family members. He had no idea how these arrangements usually worked but he was pretty sure that he shouldn’t be the one still lounging in bed. He quickly made use of the en suite, tossed on the robe he had claimed, and tried to leave the room. Tried in that he forgot that he had locked it the night before and now had to pat down the pockets of the robe and search both the dresser and nightstand before he finally found the key.
“Have some trouble?” It was then that Bucky realized that the small parlour where the breakfast table was set up shared a wall with his bedroom. His creative cursing when he couldn’t find the key must have been audible.
“Lost the key.” Mr. Kent seemed to understand that Bucky wasn’t at his most verbal in the mornings. He just nodded and passed over a cup of coffee, light and sweet, just like Bucky liked it. The table was covered in a variety of dishes, heavy on breakfast meat and fresh fruit and no sign of Bucky’s usual oatmeal. He had no idea where to start and it must have shown because with a soft smile, Mr. Kent filled a plate and passed it over. He already had a half empty plate in front of him so Bucky felt safe ploughing into the mountain of food now in front of him. They were both finishing their second plates and Bucky was on his third cup of coffee when Mr. Kent spoke.
“I want you to come back tonight. I’ll give you more money.”
“More? You’re still paying me for last night?”
“Yeah? Why wouldn’t I?”
“You didn’t – um, we didn’t-“
“Oh, that. Well, no, um, it was late and I-“ Despite the nature of the conversation, Bucky was still distracted by how vividly Mr. Kent blushed. It was almost like he was the virgin being deflowered. And as soon as he had that thought, Bucky had to shove a piece of bacon in his mouth so that he didn’t ask if that was why he was hired. Oblivious to Bucky’s thoughts, Mr. Kent stumbled on. “Anyway, can you come back tonight? But earlier? What time do you finish work? 5? 6? I can have a car pick you up.”
“No! I mean, no, please, I don’t want people asking questions. I can get the subway and be here by about 6? Is that okay?”
“Yes! That’s great!” Bucky was pretty sure that the smile Mr. Kent gave him could power the whole of New York’s subway system. He had no idea why merely saying that he could meet would warrant such a smile. Why would someone this rich and handsome bother with him? “Oh, and here’s the money for last night. I figured you might prefer small bills.”
It was probably the most surreal morning of Bucky’s life. After a sinfully large breakfast, he got ready in a bathroom bigger than his bedroom, got dressed in an old suit that was spruced up like new, and then Mr. Kent handed him a lunch bag with a smile like Bucky was a kid off to school.
Luckily his workday was somewhat normal and it was good news at the hospital at lunch, as while Steve wasn’t getting better, he wasn’t getting worse which the nurse said was a good sign. Even better news came when Bucky went down to pay Steve’s bill.
“Whaddaya mean the parish paid it? I was just talking to Sister Agnes yesterday and she said they couldn’t!”
“I don’t what to tell you, Bucky. Father Callahan came in himself and said there was enough to keep Steve in as long as he needs. That’s all I know.” Bucky didn’t bother to press Barb for any more information. The McNallys and the Barnes had been neighbours for years and she had been his first kiss and was still a good friend and dance partner when he wanted a night out. “Anyway, a few of us were going out tonight, you wanna come?”
“Ah, no, I gotta work. Got some extra shifts.”
His extra shift turned out to be another extravagant meal; this time with Frankie providing commentary on the tour of the city he had given Mr. Kent. Apparently, Mr. Kent had hired him to be his valet for the week. Bucky wasn’t sure exactly what a valet did but he didn’t think they were supposed to take their employers to seedy gyms.
“You shoulda seen this guy! You’d be betting on him ‘gainst Louis if you seen him at the bag. I thought that thing was going to split he was poundin’ it so hard!” It took a second for Frankie to figure out why his dinner companions had both gone beet red but when he did, he snorted soda and struck the table as he laughed. “Sorry, fellas, didn’t mean ‘ta bring up any sensitive subjects.”
“On that note,” Mr. Clark pushed himself back from the table, “we better hurry up and get ready if we’re gonna make the show.”
“We’re going out?”
“Well, I got us tickets for the Paramount tonight but if you’d rather stay here, we can do that.”
The Paramount! Bucky’s eyes widened but then his face fell. A diner is one thing, the Paramount is another. “I’m not really dress-“
“You think Moneybags didn’t think ‘a that?” Frankie grinned.
“Go check your room.” Mr. Kent was looking particularly pleased with himself.
Hanging in the closet was a brand new suit, new shoes, and an overcoat, everything Bucky would need to fit in with the crowd at the Paramount. Not just that but there was several other new dress shirts hanging up and one of the dresser drawers was slightly open, showing socks, underthings, and more pyjamas. Everything looked to be of good quality but nothing was too extravagant; it was just the kind of stuff Bucky would have bought for himself if he had the notion and the cash.
“You like the suit?” Bucky looked up to see Mr. Kent leaning in the doorway. “I got the staff to measure yours last night so it should fit. Frankie and I guessed on the rest so if anything doesn’t fit, just let me know.”
“Yeah, yeah, it looks perfect. Thank you.” He stared at the suit. “Why are you doing this?”
“Figured you wouldn’t want to stand out.” Bucky was going to interject, to ask about the reason for all of this, the key, all the food and now the suit but Mr. Kent spoke before he could. “Car will be here soon, get dressed.”
He closed the door and Bucky did as he was told. There was nothing else he could do.
Steve had thought that going somewhere public and having Frankie along would relax Bucky but instead he seemed to get more and more tense as the evening carried on. After the show, they let Frankie out of the elevator on his floor and continued on to their room in silence. He suspected that Bucky wanted to ask him about his motives again and Steve still had no answer so he ducked into his room, tossing a quick goodnight over his shoulder and closing the door.
Bucky was still quiet in the morning, coming out of his room wearing his old suit like he wasn’t sure if that was allowed or not. Steve just kept up a patter through breakfast, practically reading the paper out loud before hustling Bucky off to work with another gourmet lunch, a handful of cash, and an invitation to come back that night. Home safe, he sat back at the table to finish his coffee but barely a minute later, there was a quick knock at the door and Frankie let himself in.
“Whaddya doing to that kid? He looks miserable.”
“Nothing! I haven’t done anything to him!”
“You’re confusin’ him, that’s what you’re doing! You’re already paying ‘im, what’s with the romance?”
Steve could feel himself blush and he was glad he had kept the beard. It didn’t hide all of it but it did stop him from looking like an overripe tomato. “I’m not romancing him. I just want him to be happy.
“Nobody wants people like us to be happy. They just wanna use us to make ‘emselves happy.”
“Well, I’m not like that.” If Steve was flushed now, it wasn’t from embarrassment. Frustrated with himself, with the situation, with the whole fucking Depression and its fallout, he stood and threw his mug against the wall. Watching the pieces fall to the floor, he felt helpless. What use was his strength here?
“Ya know, there’re other ways to blow off steam. Like the one you’re already payin’ for.” He had forgotten Frankie was there. Steve turned back to the table to see him helping himself to the leftover food.
“I don’t – I’m not going to do that.”
Steve searched for a reason that wasn’t I feel guilty for what happens to him in the future and want to give him every good thing I can while I can because none of it will last . “He doesn’t want to. I like my . . . lovers willing.”
“That it?” Frankie put down the plate he was filling and circled to Steve’s side of the table. He gracefully slid to his knees and ran his hands up Steve’s legs. “I can give ya willin’, Moneybags.”
“What? No!” Steve tried to step back, forgot that his chair was now behind him and only his supersoldier reflexes saved him from hitting the floor. Instead he took a few awkward steps to put the table back between him and Frankie.
“So it’s really not about a quick fuck, huh? You really do wanna make the kid happy just ‘cause he reminds you of a friend. Musta been some friend.” Frankie stood up, grabbed the plate he had been filling and sat back, watching Steve with narrowed eyes.
“He was my best friend. Is my best friend. I just have to find him.”
“Why can’t ya? All this bread to spend and you can’t use it to find your fella?”
“It’s . . . complicated.” Frankie, mouth full of bacon, just arched his eyebrow and Steve realized that he really wasn’t going to get away with avoiding the question. It took him a minute to find how to explain it without talking about the war, HYDRA, or any other element of the future. “I thought I lost him. Thought he died, actually, and it was really bad for a while and then I – well, I moved on. And there I am with a new job, a new home, new friends and I find out he’s been alive the whole time! Alive and in a- in a very bad place with very bad people, and I wasn’t there for him. I didn’t save him. And now-“
“And now you found a kid who looks like ‘im who you might be able to save.”
“Yeah. I – I know I can’t, not really, but just for a few days, as long as I can, I want to just pretend.” Steve couldn’t look at Frankie, couldn’t look at anything in the overpriced, too fancy room that he never would have set foot in as a kid but was still more familiar than his sleek apartment in the Tower. Elbows on the table, he rested his forehead on his hands, closed his eyes, and just listened as Frankie steadily ate.
“Didja fuck him?”
“You know I didn’t.”
“Not the kid. Your friend. Didja love him?”
Steve thought he must have exhausted his ability to be shocked for the day, he couldn’t even work up a blush at the thought of sex with his Bucky. It still didn’t make it easier to say. “Love him, yes, but we, uh, that is, I never told . . . he didn’t do that with guys. Or so I thought.”
A small, considering “hmmmm” was Frankie’s only response while Steve surprised himself with the bitter tone of his last words. He had thought that he had long accepted that his and Bucky’s relationship would never be sexual. Bucky only dated girls. Bucky was straight. Bucky was normal. And if there was one small, sad consolation of Steve having a future that didn’t include Bucky, it might have been that the future was more accepting of people like him, people who like both boys and girls, and Bucky never had to know how much guilt and shame Steve had carried around for so long, for how wrong he felt, lusting after his best friend. Now it seems like all along, Bucky had been more like him than he thought. Although –
“Do you think B- Johnny, in maybe other circumstances, I mean, if he wasn’t getting paid and just found a fella who he was keen on, do you think Johnny would be,” Steve paused, the question harder to ask than he thought it would be, “do you think he’d be willing?”
“Ah, pal, I’m not the one to ask. I just met the kid on Monday.”
“Found ‘im in some alley near St. Ann’s, lookin’ like his dog just died. Offered him a little pick-me-up, on the house.”
“Wha- Why would you do that?”
“I dunno if you’ve seen that kid cry yet but it’s both the prettiest and the saddest goddamn thing you ever saw and, ya know, I thought I could give ‘im a hand. Or a mouth.” Frankie just grinned as Steve almost choked on his coffee. “Hey, I just wanted to cheer the kid up.”
“Jesus, Frankie! Cheer the kid- Christ!” Steve paused and Frankie just grinned as if he was daring him to ask. And Steve cracked. “What did he say?”
“Relax, Warbucks, the kid said no.” Steve didn’t know if he was relieved or not. On one hand, Frankie was a nice guy and maybe, just maybe, if Bucky did like slight blonde men . . .on the other, well, Steve sort of wanted to throw another cup at the thought of the other hand. “And he was a real gentleman, ‘bout it, too; said he had somewhere to be, kinda like he wanted me ta know that otherwise, he woulda said yes.”
Steve threw another cup against the wall while Frankie just laughed.
At least ten times that day, Bucky took the two keys out of his pocket and just stared at them. The keys weren’t that fancy; one was slightly larger than the other but otherwise they were quite plain. It was what they represented. He had left the key to his room on the small table in the entrance yesterday but today, as he was leaving, Mr. Kent handed him his lunch and the keys, explaining that the larger one was to the suite and Bucky should just feel free to let himself up that evening. He had no idea what it meant. He had no idea what any of this meant.
Last night he had spent most of the show just watching Mr. Kent, trying to figure out why. Why be this nice? And to Bucky, of all people? And why had he woke up hard thinking about the crinkles around Kent’s eyes when he laughed? Why had he watched Mr. Kent’s hands during breakfast, imagining how they’d feel, touching him, holding him?
Frankie hadn’t mentioned anything about actually wanting his clients. Apparently some were better than others but it was a job; a job he enjoyed but not one he took home. Wherever that was. For as much as he had talked last night, Frankie didn’t really share anything personal, keeping all his stories light and funny. Bucky had been short with him that morning and rather than snap back as Bucky expected, Frankie had just asked if he was okay and only nodded when his answer was brusque, with no further prying.
To be honest, Bucky wasn’t sure if he even had the words to explain what he was feeling. Everything was just building and building and he was terrified, waiting for it all to come crashing down. Mr. Kent – a stupidly apt alias as the man was built like Superman and had the same boyish earnestness – well, Bucky could tell that Mr. Kent was trying to put him as ease and it just made him more nervous.
He couldn’t even eat his lunch. Looking at it, he could only picture himself as an animal being fattened for the slaughter. Everything was too good. Mr. Kent was too perfect and nothing at all what Bucky deserved. He sat in the sick ward, curtains pulled tight around Steve’s bed and watched him, brows pulled tight like he was angry even as he slept. Steve was the one who deserved all of this. Stevie was the one who should be treated like a prince. He might be an asshole but that kid fought so hard and for so long that more than anything he deserved a chance just to rest and be pampered. And then Bucky snorted as he thought of how much Steve would hate that. But hell, even Frankie needed this, deserved all this, more than Bucky.
He gave his lunch to Barb and paid to have Steve moved out of the ward, somewhere quieter where he could sleep. Bucky lied easily about getting an advance on his raise and felt more and more like the lowest of the low.
Returning to the shop, he was just glad that Mr. Wisotsky was at his weekly local business lunch. It was really just an excuse for Mo and all of his cronies to spend the afternoon gossiping over coffee and cake but it meant that Bucky got the office to himself. He was glad that he had buried himself in his work yesterday, trying not to think, because it meant that he had a bit of leisure to sit back and think today, without falling behind.
So, he was up $200, not counting the value of the new clothes which he wasn’t sure if he was supposed to keep or not. Mr. Kent had looked pleased to see him in one of the new shirts that morning but Bucky figured he better only count the cash in hand. After paying for Steve’s room change, he had enough to cover Becca’s acting lessons, new shoes for the twins, to stock up Steve’s cupboards before he got out (Bucky would blame that one on the parish, of course), and then some left over to help his parents with the fuel bill that winter. The bottom line was that he could cut and run and he’d have enough to cover all his immediate expenses and lighten the load for Steve and his parents. And he wouldn’t have to deal with feeling like a spring being wound tighter and tighter by the hour.
But one more night and he’d have his own rainy day stash. Two and he wouldn’t feel like one of them tightrope walkers, only without any net below him. And he had already sold himself, right? Even if Mr. Kent had changed his mind and didn’t want him, Bucky had still fallen, hadn’t he? Maybe even before he met Frankie. Maybe he fell the first time he had stared at Steve’s hands as he drew or his lips as he slept and wondered how they would feel. So why not just get it over with? Why not make that last leap, and at least the money could be his apology to his family, to Steve, for never being the person they thought he was.
He slipped out of work early, getting Hazel to cover for him since he did the same for her last week, and went to see if Frankie had any clue what Kent was up to. And if Mr. Kent wasn’t sure if he wanted Bucky, well, a few pointers from Frankie and maybe Bucky could change his mind and he would keep him for another couple of days.
“Nuh, he definitely wants only you. Offered him a suckjob this mornin’ and he jumped back like a scalded cat.”
“You wanna mug to throw? That’s what your boss did when I told ‘im about offerin’ you one. I’m starting to think I ain’t getting paid enough to deal with this.” Frankie flopped down on his bed, scooting back to lean against the pile of pillows at the headboard. Bucky didn’t think there was that many pillows in the whole suite upstairs and part of him wondered where Frankie had got them all.
“But – why? Why would you do that?”
“Look, a man pays one of us, he usually wants one thing. And he’s not gonna refuse it unless that’s not what he really wants. You follow?” Frankie waited for Bucky to nod. “So I was curious, wonderin’ why a bigwig like him would take up with the likes of us if it wasn’t for a bit of fun.”
“And? What did you find out?”
“Uh-nuh, I’m not in the habit of spillin’ another man’s secrets.”
“Frankie, c’mon, I’m dying here! Give me something.”
“Oh, I’ll give you somethin’, pretty boy.” Frankie grabbed his crotch and then laughed as Bucky swore and threw a pillow at him. “All right, all right, lemme think. You gotta sweetheart? Or got someone that ain’t yours but ya’d like ‘em to be?”
“Whaddaya mean?” Bucky shifted uncomfortably in his seat and tried not to think of Steve.
“So you do. Okay, so just ‘magine for a minute that you met someone like that person, someone who could let you pretend for a bit. More important, someone who’d let you pretend, who wouldn’t mind that they weren’t really who you wanted. What wouldja do?”
Bucky spoke without thinking. “Well, I hadta get home so I said no.”
“You foolin’? Damn, kid. Least ya got good taste.” Frankie gave him a wink and lit a smoke, smiling smugly around it.
“That was before ya opened your mouth, asshole. So that friend of his, that ain’t a lie?”
“Nice try, ace, but I’m still not talkin’ behind the boss’s back ‘bout his business. Just – he’s one of the good ones, ya know? Ya might hafta say yes ‘fore he asks.”
“C’mon, boss, have mercy! No more, please!”
“I don’t know, Frankie. I’m sure you have another round in you.”
“No, no, I don’t! How can you still be going? Ya ain’t human!”
“Just takes practice, pal, lots and lots of practice.” Steve grinned as he continued to pummel the speedball. Frankie had collapsed on the mat next to him, one hand still on the medicine ball that Steve had given him to train with. For all of the guy’s perceptiveness, he hadn’t seen the trap in Steve offering to give him a few pointers at the gym after breakfast. It was now nearly noon.
Finally showing mercy, Steve finished up his workout, gave Frankie a hand up and they both changed to go back to the hotel. He didn’t feel like ordering another extravagant lunch from the hotel so after giving Frankie the rest of the day off and getting cleaned up, Steve left to wander the city for a bit. It didn’t take him long to decide what to do.
“Hi Ma.” Steve looked down at the simple side-by-side markers bearing his parents’ names. He was familiar with his father’s, having visited the grave with his mother at least once a month and on all major holidays. She would often bring a little lunch and would tell Steve stories about his Papa while she tidied the grave. He was four when he asked her why Papa lived in the ground and not at the apartment with them. He was nine when he realized that his father’s grave would never have a fancy stone like Bucky’s grandfather’s grave.
Both graves showed signs of being recently tended and Steve figured that he had Bucky’s Ma to thank for that. He carefully brushed a few leaves from the markers and added the flowers he had brought to the small bundle of twigs and red berries already there. Flowers were expensive in the middle of winter but no one would begrudge a girl as pretty and friendly as Becca a few sumac branches and Steve and Bucky had long enlisted her skills to construct “I’m sorry” bouquets for their mothers when needed.
“So, uh, first, I’m sorry. I know he- uh, I haven’t been here yet. I don’t think I’m ready for it to be real yet. Or I wasn’t ready. Jesus, time travel is confusing.” Flicking his eyes to Sarah’s marker, Steve hunched his shoulders and smiled sheepishly. “Sorry, Ma, takin’ the Lord’s name in vain like that. Guess it’s been too long since you washed my mouth out. I don’t think I ever told you, but it wasn’t the taste of the soap I hated most, it was how you’d look so disappointed when you’d tell me that was one less shirt that soap would wash. And everyone thinks it was Bucky who taught me to fight dirty.”
Thinking of Bucky brought back Frankie’s words from earlier and his reaction. “I love him, Ma. I love him so much and I always thought I couldn’t have him and now I’m here and I could but he doesn’t know me. And I’m never gonna get to tell him. Or this me isn’t and I can’t find him in the future and I don’t know how all of this happened. I just want him to be safe and even as a kid, I’m fucking that up. Uh, sorry. But I just don’t know what I can do. I can’t exactly go shake some sense into myself right now. And the Barnes’s have enough on their plate and I think you musta been watching over Bucky, to bring me back here. Maybe watching over both of us.”
Steve stood for another moment, thinking about why, out of every possible moment of trouble in Bucky’s life, why had he been brought here. Sure he kept Bucky off the streets, was giving him basically free money but it wasn’t like he could single-handedly fix the economy or prevent the war; Dr. Strange’s warning had been pretty clear about trying to shift major events. At best, this was a short-term fix and sooner or later, the money would run out and Bucky would again step in to save Steve from himself. Nothing in Steve’s memories of this time jumped out as being out of the ordinary. Except for Bucky’s Lucky Day and Steve getting sick, the only thing that stood out was – oh. “I’m an idiot, aren’t I, Ma? And sorry, Pops, but she’d probably tell me I got that from you, along with the nose. Ha! You always told me I’d grow into it, Ma, but I bet you didn’t expect this? So, uh, I suppose you know what happens next; I’m gonna be away for a while. But I’ll be back. I love you both and um, I hope I’m making you proud.”
He touched his fingers to his lips and to his mother and father’s names in turn. Steve was glad that Frankie had tossed a package of handkerchiefs on the counter when they had bought the clothes for Bucky. It’d been a while since Steve had carried one but it came in handy as he left the graveyard.
A few hours later all the arrangements were made for a new headstone to be engraved and installed at his parents’ grave. It actually hurt Steve a little to think back to how angry he had been that someone else had dared, that some anonymous person had been able to do what he hadn’t, that someone else was able to honour his parents in a way that Steve couldn’t. Worst of all, and here Steve’s head hurt at the irony of it all, worst of all had been the fact that the stone had been perfect. Nothing too elaborate, just simple grey granite, engraved with their names and the relevant dates, and a sprig of forget-me-not. His mother’s favourite flower, the symbol of undying love.
Steve had hated it the first time he saw it. He had intended to use the money he had been saving to go to art school to commission his own memorial and he and Bucky had had a huge fight about Steve not being able to just say thank you and be grateful, how he had to do everything himself, and how it wasn’t weak to accept help now and then, to let other people do stuff for you, to let people care. And past-Steve had shouted back that Bucky didn’t get it, that he still had his family so he never had to worry about being alone, didn’t have to plan on being alone because he could always go home and his Ma and Pa would be there. He had shouted that he was all alone now and only in retrospect could he see how hurt Bucky was by that.
He had decided to walk home and was nearing the hotel but there was no way he could be around Bucky right now. Apologies for his younger self would spill out or else he would try to give Bucky more money and confuse him more. He ducked into the next bar he saw, found an empty stool, and got a drink. And even though he couldn’t get properly drunk, he was glad for the burn as he drank the cheap whiskey straight.
“You look like a man with a problem.” The bar was quiet and while the bartender had left him in peace for his first few drinks, the steadiness with which Steve was downing them seemed to pique his curiosity.
“You could say that.”
“Lady trouble?” Steve snorted and his seventh (eighth?) drink went down in a single gulp, just like the others, and the bartender refilled it with only a raised eyebrow. It was enough to get Steve talking, though.
“Ever just want to smack some sense inta someone but ya can’t? Like, there’s no way they’re gonna hear what you have to say and you’re just gonna have to watch ‘em make the same stupid mistake over and over.”
The bartender bent down behind the bar and came up holding an artificial leg. “Lost ‘er in the war. And had to watch my boy enlist the day he turned 18. Tried to tell him that it ain’t all glory and honour, more like mud, blood, and shit but kids, right? Never think you know anything. Even if you got the scars to prove otherwise.” Not waiting for an answer, he ducked back down to put his leg back on. When he rose, he neatly filled a glass for himself and raised it to clink against Steve’s. “To experience, eh?”
“And the benefit of hindsight.” The bartender looked at him strangely but simply drank. Steve thought of asking for his name, for his son’s name so he could look them up when he got back, so he could know what happened but even if he did, what use would it be? He couldn’t get the guy his leg back, couldn’t stop the war from happening. He was barely managing to take care of Bucky and so far all the things that he’s done for his past self are the very things that he had resented at the time. And since he was half-tempted to spill the whole story to the sympathetic barkeep, he figured it was past time to leave. He settled his bill and left a bit of cash on the bar when the bartender turned to get his change. Steve was gone when he turned back.
Purely on impulse, he bought a deck of cards on his way home. When there was no money for going out, he and Buck would play cards for hours, sometimes betting matchsticks, sometimes playing to see who would do the dishes for the week. And during the war, Bucky had always played along when Steve acted like he had never even heard of poker, let alone knew at least a dozen ways to cheat.
The temperature had dropped while Steve had been in drinking and catching sight of the time, he felt bad, knowing that Bucky had probably been at the hotel for a while now and most likely had not thought to order supper for himself. Steve hurried through the lobby and took the elevator only because it opened just as he spotted the door to the stairs.
Letting himself into the suite, he tossed his hat and coat on the coat rack, bent down to untie his boots and immediately regretted taking the elevator when he stood up and realized that even if he wasn’t drunk, he had had enough on an empty stomach to give him a faint buzz. At least running up the stairs would have burned through a few of those drinks. Rather than look for Bucky right away, Steve headed to the sitting room to get some water.
He was sitting on the couch, eyes closed and head back when he heard the slight scuff of feet on plush carpet. He kept his eyes closed, didn’t want to look at this Bucky when his head was still spinning. “Hey, Johnny. Have a good day?”
“Yeah, yeah, it was fine.” From Bucky’s voice, Steve knew he was getting closer but he didn’t think anything of it until a weight settled in his lap, arms went around his neck, and lips ghosted along his neck as Bucky kept speaking. “Looks like yours was rough. Anything I can do to make it better?”
Steve opened his eyes to a vision that had haunted all too many of his adolescent fantasies: Bucky, in just his undershirt, lips pink where he had bitten them, looking up coyly through those long eyelashes of his.
Bucky had already closed his eyes in anticipation of a kiss when there was a sudden whoosh and he felt the carpet beneath him.
“Buc-Buddy, I can’t – I don’t want you-“
Bucky could see that Kent’s mouth was still moving but he had stopped listening. I don’t want you kept echoing in his ears as he scrambled to his feet. He didn’t even bother with a proper shirt, it woulda been one from Kent anyway, he just grabbed a coat from the rack, shoved his feet in a pair of shoes and ran to the elevator. He was in luck and the doors opened promptly and slid close when Mr. Kent was still a few feet away.
Bucky quickly did up his shoelaces, glad that he had grabbed his own instead of Kent’s weird boots. The coat, though, the coat was Kent’s and while it was warm and new, it was also clearly too big but there was some money in the pocket and Bucky had no problem spending it at that moment. He buttoned the coat up, secured the belt as tightly as he could, and turned the collar up, hoping that none of the staff would recognised him as Kent’s “brother”. Once outside, he felt he could finally breathe.
He didn’t know if Mr. Kent would follow him so he grabbed a cab and headed to the safest place he could think of. A few minutes later he was standing on the sidewalk, looking up at the lit window where he knew his family would be. His mother would be knitting something while his father read the paper to her. Becca would be working on her homework or helping the twins with theirs and there would be an empty spot on the couch where Bucky usually sat and read. The cab had long since left and Bucky was becoming more and more aware that there was no place for him in that warm, cozy room at the moment. Even if that spot on the couch was empty, he couldn’t go upstairs, with no shirt and another man’s coat and money.
It was past visiting hours but enough of the staff knew Bucky, mostly because of knowing Steve and Sarah, and they turned a blind eye as he made his way to Steve’s room. He had stopped to buy Steve some of the paper he liked and a few pencils as well as a couple of packs of Lifesavers. With the way he had been hacking, Stevie was bound to need something to soothe his throat.
Bucky had hoped Steve would be asleep, had hoped that he could just watch him a while and think, could leave the gifts for him without Steve knowing who they were from. But no such luck.
“Bucky?” Steve’s voice was a harsh croak, still deeper than you’d expect of a guy his size but hoarse and raspy in a way that was all too familiar.
“Yeah, pal, it’s me.” Bucky sat in the chair closest to the bed and hoped that Steve didn’t ask why he didn’t take his coat off. Or where he got the new coat. Or why he didn’t have a hat on.
“Thought you were working this week.”
“Who told you that?”
“Becca came in after school. Told me all ‘bout your raise, too. Sounds like you had a real lucky day.”
“Yeah, it’s all aces for me this week.” Bucky slouched and the bag at his side rustled. “Ah, here, I gotcha some stuff, figured you’d be bored by now.”
“No, no, I’m good. I don’t need anything, Buck. I mean, I got my own private digs, what more could-“ Steve started coughing, the deep, hacking cough that Bucky loved and hated. Loved it because he knew it meant Steve was getting better, was clearing all the gunk from his lungs; hated it because these fits would leave Steve panting, sore, and exhausted. He moved to pass Steve the cup of water on the nightstand but Steve beat him to it. Even after the water, his voice was harsh. “Look, Bucky, I’m fine. Or I’m gettin’ there. You shouldn’t miss work for me.”
“I’m not- we finished early tonight, all right?”
“Why arentcha home, then? I don’t need you checkin’ on me all the time. It’s just a cough and I have enough babysitters here.”
“Jesus, Steve, you were half dead when we got here!”
“I woulda been fine! I can take care of myself!”
“Then do it so I don’t hafta! Christ, Steve, a stiff breeze’d carry you away right now and I think you’d let it.”
“Whaddaya tryin’ say, Buck? C’mon, spill it. You sayin’ I can’t beat this?”
“I’m sayin’ that I don’t know if you wanna beat it, Stevie.”
“Fuck you, Bucky. Get out!”
“Yeah, that’s about right for tonight. Here, try not ta choke on the lifesavers.” Bucky tossed the bag on the bed and walked out. He didn’t flinch as something hit the door as he closed it behind him. The second thump confirmed that Steve had found both packs of candy.
Bucky managed to get out of the hospital before the tears started to fall. Fuck, he had just meant to do something nice for Stevie, maybe hang out and talk a bit and instead he had all but accused him of trying to off himself. There had been this heaviness in Bucky’s chest for months, ever since Steve’s Ma had gotten sick and it had just gotten worse lately until sometimes he thought he was the one with the bad lungs. It had been easy when they were kids. All he had to do then was just let Steve get a few punches in before he stepped in to finish the fight. But now it feels like he’s stuck just watching as Steve takes blow after blow without even trying to block them, let alone fight back, and Bucky’s just waiting for the day when Steve gives up altogether. Six months ago he would have said that was impossible; now he was losing Steve bit by bit, day after day, and Bucky couldn’t help him. Steve didn’t want his help, kept pushing him away, didn’t want him. No one wanted him. Frankie had been wrong about Mr. Kent. He just felt sorry for Bucky, he didn’t actually want him.
Maybe it was time to find someone who did. He scrubbed the tears from his eyes and barely noticed the cold as he swiftly walked to the corner where Kent had first found him. He took a minute to fix his hair and adjust the coat, looking at his reflection in a shop window. Opening the too-big coat to let the undershirt show left him looking smaller than he really was. And his eyes were red and he looked young, vulnerable. Grimly, he figured that he might have luck picking up one of the guys Frankie warned him about, the guys who liked their boys young and their action rough.
It was still early in the night. Respectable people were still on the street; some heading home, some heading out but few giving a second look to the pretty young man leaning near the mouth of an alley. Bucky had just made eye contact with a burly looking guy across the road, doing his best to look enticing when his view was obstructed.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Mr. Kent hadn’t bothered with a coat but didn’t seem to even notice the cold.
“What does it look like?”
“It looks like you’re out lookin’ for trade.”
“And what if I am?”
“I’d say you already have a job.”
“And I’d say that ain’t a job, that’s a handout and I’d rather work for my money. I don’t need your help.” Bucky could see the burly guy approaching and figured he had a way out. “Now, unless ya wanna start another fight, looks like I might have a customer. One who might actually want me.”
“You think I don’t want you?” Kent pushed in closer, not letting Bucky get around him, and seeing Bucky look over his shoulder, he turned and glared at the burly guy who promptly turned on his heel and left.
“You said it yourself, loud and clear.” Bucky stared defiantly into Mr. Kent’s brown eyes, daring him to deny what he said. He wasn’t expecting to be manhandled into the alley, just out of reach of the streetlights, and shoved against the wall.
“Not want you . . . My whole life I’ve done nothing but want you.” Bucky didn’t get a chance to reply before he was being kissed. Big hands framed his face, soft lips pressed firmly against his, and Bucky closed his eyes, stopped thinking, and got lost in the sensations of lips and tongue and teeth. It was when those hands reached down to grip his, when those lips where sliding down his neck that Bucky finally found his voice again. Unfortunately, he still wasn’t quite thinking clearly.
“Steve, oh, please, Stevie.”
“Yeah, Buck, I gotcha. I’m gonna make you feel so good.”
“Wait, wait.” Bucky tried to think. Something wasn’t right. It wasn’t actually his name that first startled him. It was the beard scraping against his jaw that brought him back. Steve didn’t have a beard. Mr. Kent did. But Mr. Kent didn’t seem to mind being called the wrong name. Unless it wasn’t the wrong name. Bucky brought his hands up and pushed against the firm chest.
“Yeah, Bucky, anything.” Kent – Steve? - took a step back as soon as he figured out that the hands on his chest were pushing, not caressing.
“How do you know my name?” Bucky took a couple of steps back, ready to run.
And there it was. The flash of panic, the glance to the side, the awkward half shrug, pure Steven Grant Rogers.
“You can’t- How-? Steve?” Bucky almost never let Steve get away with lying to him. He’d back whatever ridiculous story Steve told anyone else but Steve learned pretty quick that it was just easier to be honest because once Bucky decided he wanted to know something, nothing could put him off until he got the whole story. Steve figured at least three aspects of his explanation might get him arrested, committed, or both if the wrong person overheard so the goal for the moment was containment.
“Come back to the hotel, Buck, and I’ll tell you everything I can.”
“Everything you can? What the fuck is going on? What happened to your eyes? Why are you old? And big?”
“If I show you the eye thing, will you shut up about the rest until we get back to the room?” At Bucky’s nod, even if it was jerky and unsure, Steve reached up and took the contacts out. It took him a second to refocus on Bucky, his eyes having adjusted to wearing the contacts after the last three days. He was just glad that he had a second pair because he was pretty sure this pair wasn’t going to do well in his coat pocket. “These are lenses that can change eye colour.”
Bucky took a careful step forward and poked at the contacts that Steve held out to him. “Back up, I need more light.”
Steve carefully stepped back, trying to catch the light of the lamppost without calling too much attention to them.
“Holy shit, how the fuck is this possible? I just saw you – him at the hospital and you were you.”
“C’mon, Buck, I toldja, we go back to the hotel and I’ll tell you what I can.”
“Yeah, yeah, okay.”
Steve was glad that it was a short walk back to the hotel because Bucky started to ask at least a dozen questions before Steve could shut him up with a look. Finally they were in the suite, safely behind a locked room. Still, Steve took the precaution of doing a quick sweep of all the rooms and closing all the drapes on the windows, more to stall for time than because he really thought there was a threat of being overheard. And of course, Bucky now knew what tells to look for, now that he knew this was Steve, not some stranger, and he grabbed Steve’s arm before Steve could leave the sitting room with another stupid excuse.
“Quit stallin’, punk, and ‘fess up. What the fuck is going on? How can you be Steve?”
Steve sat down heavily on the couch and put his head in his hands. Where could he even start? “I don’t know all the particulars myself, Buck. No, really, I don’t. Where I’m . . . from stuff happens and I don’t know where you are. There was a machine and it was suppose to take me to you. And I guess it did but it took me to a when, not a where.”
“So you used some machine even though you didn’t know how it worked. Or if it would work. All because you thought I was in trouble? Yeah, that’s Steve.” Bucky looked at him with the same fondness and disbelief that he had when Steve had come home bloody and confessed to taking on the O’Reilly twins on his own because he saw them kicking a stray cat. Then his brows furrowed. “But how did you get big? Was that the machine too?”
“Um, no, that was … another one. A different one.”
“So is the future just full of these miracle machines? One on every corner? One for each of your troubles?” Bucky stood and started pacing, gesturing as he spoke. “And how do you find out about these things? Did you just line up and beg to be experimented on?”
Since that was essentially what happened, at least when it came to the serum, Steve flinched. And Bucky noticed.
“For fuck’s sake, Steve! Really?”
“You’re the one who always goes on and on about how amazing the future is going to be! This is . . . just part of that.”
“Yeah, and half of those stories are about how messed up everything can get when something goes wrong! Did you stop and think for even a second? No, no, of course you didn’t because that’s always my job- Steve? Steve, why can’t you find me? What happens to me?”
“I can’t tell you that, Buck. I wasn’t supposed to come back here; I don’t know what might happen if I tell you anything about the future. I was tryin’ stay hid, tryin’ to keep an eye on you without you knowing I was there and then –“
“Then I was about to go suck a guy off in some alley and you had to save my virtue, was that it? Or didja just get jealous, Stevie?” Bucky grimly teased Steve but his expression changed completely when Steve just blushed. “Holy fuck, you did! Shit, Frankie was right! You do want . . . Fuck, Steve, you meant that? You really want me like that?”
Bucky had finally sat down again. He left a careful distance between them but he was looking at Steve intently and never one to back down, Steve met his gaze levelly. “For as long as I can remember I’ve wondered what it would be like to kiss you.”
“Then why didn’t you?”
“Cause I couldn’t risk it, Buck. I knew you weren’t like some of the guys. I knew you didn’t hate the queers but I’d only seen you go around with girls and I didn’t want you to look at me any different.”
“Ah, Stevie, c’mere.” Other questions forgotten for the moment, Bucky just held his arms open and just like when he was smaller, Steve fell into them and buried his face in Bucky’s shoulder. “Nothing, and I mean nothing, could make me look at you any different. End of the line, right?”
Bucky gripped the back of Steve’s neck and made him look up. Forehead to forehead, eye to eye, Steve knew right then that no matter what, he would do whatever it took to make Bucky happy. Both now and in the future. “End of the line.”
“You really are him.” Bucky muttered softly, eyes scanning Steve’s face before his gaze settled on his lips. “Steve, can I-?”
Bucky laughed softly. “You didn’t let me finish, punk.”
Steve smiled but his expression sobered when he locked eyes with Bucky. “Whatever you want.”
“Ah, Stevie.” Bucky leaned down and kissed Steve, softly at first and then growing bolder as Steve responded enthusiastically. A bit of pressure on the back of his neck was the only signal Steve needed to move closer to Bucky, reaching back to push the decorative pillows to the floor with one hand, supporting Bucky with the other, shifting them until Steve was leaning over him, lips still on his. Steve forgot about his increased lung capacity until Bucky turned his mouth away with a gasp. “God, Steve, lemme – lemme catch my breath!”
“Yeah, okay, I’m just gonna. . . “ The tendons of Bucky’s neck were on display, stretched taut, and with his mouth out of reach, Steve made them his new target, kissing, nipping, sucking, and then dragging his tongue over the marks he was leaving, focused only on the sounds Bucky was making and how their bodies fit together. It was strange to think that in Steve’s memories of this time Bucky always seemed so big and now, in his arms, cradled beneath him, he seemed slight, not fragile, never fragile, but vulnerable in a way that called out to all of Steve’s protective instincts. “You’re mine . . . only mine, no one else gets you. Not even him.”
“Please, yes, I’m yours, all yours – wait, him who?” Steve barely made sense of Bucky’s words but a tug on his hair and he met Bucky’s eyes. “Him who?”
“What?” He couldn’t think, kept looking at Bucky’s lips, but another tug on his hair had him focusing more.
“You said no one else gets me, not even him. Him who?”
“Oh.” Steve felt his ears go red. “Um, I might have meant the, uh, other Steve.”
Bucky looked at him oddly for a moment before bursting out laughing. “Did you – did you just get jealous of yourself, Steve?”
“Well, you don’t have to worry, pal, that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. I don’t think that Steve even wants to see me right now, let alone kiss me. Not after tonight.” The mood having shifted, Steve sat up and Bucky followed suit but this time didn’t leave any distance between them. He settled into Steve’s side. “Do you – does he hate me right now?”
Steve thought back, trying to remember this night from the point of view of his younger self, searching for something that might comfort Bucky. He had no idea what the ethics were of revealing the thoughts and feelings of his younger self to a contemporary but at that moment, he didn’t really care about the privacy of his past self, what mattered was Bucky. “I could never hate you, Buck. He doesn’t either. The kid you saw tonight in the hospital . . . he cried after you left. He got mad because you were right. He had stopped fighting, had thought about just ignoring that cough until it got too late. But you showed up and dragged him to the hospital and kept coming to visit and you called him out on his own bullshit tonight. And he got angry and scared about what happens next and he took all that out on you but it wasn’t you, baby, he’s mad at himself.”
“I just want to make things easier for him but every time I try to help, he just tells me that he can do it himself.”
Steve was glad that Bucky hadn’t noticed the endearment. It was one thing to call him ‘baby’ when Steve was pretending to be a stranger, another to admit that Steve was feeling all soft and mushy over this Bucky. “Well, he’s young and stupid and thinks that admitting he needs help means he’s weak.”
“But he’s not! The way he keeps going, nobody’s as strong as Stevie.” The confidence in Bucky’s voice, the utter sincerity and certainty, it sank right down to the depths of Steve’s heart, a warming balm for a wound he thought long since healed. He hadn’t realized how much of his anger and frustration at not being able to find Bucky in the future was because he felt as weak and helpless as he had been before the serum. To hear Bucky speak of him, the admiration, the love in his voice for this Steve, the small, weak, asthmatic, sickly Steve, moved him beyond words and Steve blinked rapidly to keep tears from forming. He was glad that Bucky couldn’t see his face, not with his head resting on Steve’s shoulder. “So, uh, do ya think it might change his mind if I just laid one on him?”
“Honestly? Right now he’d probably try to knock your teeth out.”
“Yeah, that sounds about right.” Steve looked down to see Bucky looking up at him, with a wry smile that shifted into a smirk when he caught Steve’s eyes. “You, on the other hand…”
Bucky put a hand on Steve’s shoulder, holding him down as he shifted, moving from Steve’s side to his lap, straddling him like he had this morning but knowing that this time was different. The tension running through Steve was not the tight panic of before, the hands settling on Bucky’s waist were not holding him away, and when Steve looked him, his eyes were dark, not bright with confusion, and the soft exhale from his pink lips was a content sigh, not the start of a stammered denial. “Fuck, Steve, you’re so fucking gorgeous.”
Steve smiled but it was his half smile, the one where he glanced to the side, only one side of his mouth moving. “Yeah, now.”
“Always. You got that, punk? Always.” Bucky held Steve’s face in his hands, forcing him to make eye contact, to see the truth in Bucky’s eyes. “You’re such a fucking dope sometimes, Rogers.”
“You sweet-talkin’ me, Barnes?” There was Steve’s real smile and Bucky matched it even as he moved in for another kiss. He kept his hands on Steve’s face, kept control of the kiss and marvelled at having the freedom to explore the mouth that he had dreamed about for so long. He meant to take his time, to fix every second into his memory but when Steve shifted beneath him and Bucky could feel how hard he was, how hard he was for Bucky, all his control slipped away and soon he was panting against Steve’s mouth, grinding against him, hungry and needy and greedy for more. Steve slipped his hands beneath Bucky’s shirt, skimming up his side, taking the undershirt with them but pausing, tearing his mouth from Bucky’s. “I want to- Buck, I wanna touch.”
Bucky didn’t reply, just sat back and shucked off his shirt before leaning back in to tear at Steve’s clothes. He fumbled a bit with the buttons but the hardest part turned out to be getting Steve to stop touching him long enough so Bucky could do more than push his coat and shirt off his shoulders. “Steve, please.”
Amazingly Steve listened and pulled back just long enough to yank his shirt and coat off. Bucky didn’t waste any time in getting his hands up Steve’s undershirt. His thumb brushed against of Steve’s nipples and the way that he shuddered beneath that single light touch was the most arousing thing Bucky had ever seen. He closed his eyes and dropped his head to Steve’s shoulder, needing a minute to bring himself back from the edge.
Steve didn’t give him that minute, though. The thick thighs beneath Bucky flexed and that was his only warning as Steve stood, easily holding Bucky in his arms. Bucky startled, it had been years since anyone had picked him up like this. Leaning back put him eye to eye with Steve, who now looked slightly worried. “Is this okay? I want – I thought we could – um, the bedroom?”
He had thought he was aroused before but the combination of the uncertainty in those familiar blue eyes and the unfamiliar strength in the arms holding him, had Bucky almost beyond words. “Yes, yes. Now.”
Bucky woke up slowly, sensation registering before any thought could take shape. He was warm, he felt safe, and he knew Steve was near. Waking up with Steve wrapped around him like an octopus was nothing new. Whenever they had shared a bed Steve would always end up wrapped around Bucky; no matter how much distance started out between them, Steve would migrate towards Bucky’s warmth and Bucky was always willing to share. So waking up with Steve Rogers aggressively spooning him was nothing new. What was new was having just so much of Steve engulfing him. This Steve was big. And this Steve was naked. And it turns out that Bucky Barnes can wake up pretty quickly when there’s a hard dick pressing against his back. He shivered.
“Finally awake?” Steve, the little shit, always woke up in an instant, bright-eyed and ready to take on the world. It annoyed Bucky as it usually meant the end of any cuddling as Steve hopped out of bed, already looking for his next fight. Not this morning, though. Bucky grunted and snuggled back against Steve and Steve just pulled him in tighter, as if he, too, thought this might be a dream and didn’t want to risk it ending. Or, not so poetically, he liked pressing his dick against Bucky as much as Bucky liked feeling it. Either way, Bucky shivered again, trying to decide what he wanted more – to keep pressing back against Steve’s dick or to thrust forward and try to find some friction for his own. He whimpered softly in sleepy confusion, unable to sort out which sensation to chase. He felt more than heard Steve’s chuckle at his dilemma. “Got a problem there, Buck? Anything I can help with?”
Steve laughed again when Bucky elbowed him in the gut; his brain might take a while to get into gear but his reflexes were still sharp. “Don’t tease.”
“Awww, I’m sorry, baby. You’re just so cute when you’re sleepy.” Steve held Bucky close with one arm while sliding his other hand slowly down Bucky’s chest. “Is this what you want? Huh? C’mon, tell me what you want.”
This was another new thing. Steve’s voice had always been deep and confident for his size. But Bucky had never heard it be so commanding, so firm and gentle and teasing and laced with promise. He struggled to form a thought, to form words, before giving up and just whimpering, “please.”
The night before they had both been frantic, stripping off and falling onto the bed in a rush, driving each other to the edge before falling over together. It had been overwhelming and confusing and a manic end to an intense day and they had both crashed hard after their climax.
This morning was nothing like that. Steve moved slow and steady, stroking the flat plains of Bucky’s stomach, tracing his hipbones with his thumb, before wrapping his hand firmly around Bucky’s cock. Bucky’s whole world seemed to narrow down to the feeling of Steve touching him, pressed up against him. It was like he was still asleep except for those few bright spots of arousal. Steve kept up his slow and steady strokes until Bucky was whimpering and alternating between thrusting up into the fist around his cock and grinding back against the hard cock pressed against his ass. They hadn’t moved beyond just using their hands on each other last night - too desperate for each other to venture into new territory – but all Bucky could think at the moment was that he wanted it all, wanted all Steve would give him. This was what he had been waiting for; who he had been waiting for and he wanted everything. “More, more, please, Steve, more.”
“Yeah, that’s it, baby. Let me take care of you. I’m gonna make you feel so good. Just you wait, I’m gonna give you everything, sweetheart.” If Bucky had been in any way coherent, he might have been embarrassed at coming just as Steve called him ‘sweetheart.’ He would have sworn that it was the way Steve had just twisted his wrist. Or it was the promise of more. Or just a stupid coincidence. But the truth was that all those muttered endearments were almost as arousing as Steve’s kisses and touches. They seemed like proof that even for Steve this was more than just getting off, that this was special, that Bucky was special and worth all of this attention, that he was something precious. Those were all thoughts for later, though, thoughts for when Bucky was alone and needed to remember just how it felt to be enclosed in Steve’s arms, sleepy, sated, and not yet noticing that he was sticky, front and back. All he knew at the moment was that his own climax had been made even better by feeling Steve grinding against him and coming just after Bucky; that Steve had come with his head pressed against Bucky’s neck and Bucky’s name on his lips.
Of course, with Steve being Steve, Bucky didn’t get to enjoy the moment quite as long as he would have liked to. Steve swatted him on the ass as he rolled out of bed. “C’mon, sleepyhead, enough lounging around! You have to get to work.”
“Work? Ain’t I getting paid for what we were just doin’, Rogers? I get paid, it’s work.” Bucky didn’t have to open his eyes to know which dumb look was currently on Steve’s face. It was definitely the ‘how could you joke about this super serious thing, Bucky? And am I a horrible person for wanting to laugh because I, too, am a little shit, and I’d be making jokes too if I wasn’t all noble and good and shit.’ Bucky grinned when he heard Steve stop in his tracks. He stopped smiling when Steve yanked all of the covers off of him.
“The kid seems in a better mood this morning.” Frankie didn’t bother to hide his grin as he entered the parlour after greeting Bucky at the door to the suite. Steve tried to act casual as he stepped out of his bedroom even as he was blinking trying to settle the brown contacts that he had only just remembered to put in. “I’m guessin’ you two got some stuff sorted?”
Steve was a soldier, not a spy, and for some very good reasons. Only one of which was his inability to suppress a blush. He did, however, have very good aim when it came to hitting someone on the nose with a raisin from across the table. Frankie just grinned and filled a plate while Steve went back to his coffee. “Remind me again why I’m keeping you around.”
“Aww, boss, you’re gonna hurt my feelins’ if you keep talkin’ like that. It’s bad enough that I hafta be all alone in that little room downstairs while you and Johnny are livin’ it up here but then you gotta talk about abandonin’ me as well? And I thought we were pals.” He put on such an over-the-top expression of sadness that Steve couldn’t help but laugh, causing Frankie to grin. “So what are we doin’ today? More shoppin’? I’d be up for that. But if you wanna go back to the gym, I’m only watchin’ this time. Even you don’t have enough money for me to get beat on again.”
Steve thought about it as he watched Frankie plough through the remains of breakfast. He had been so caught up in what was going on with Bucky that he had sort of forgot that he had basically conscripted Frankie. And sure, he was paying the kid well and making sure he was fed and off the streets but Steve wasn’t sure if Frankie really knew that he didn’t have to be at his beck and call for Steve to treat him well. “What would you usually be doin’ on a Thursday?” Steve inwardly winced a bit; Sam would definitely love to hear him at the moment, only a week and his Brooklyn accent was coming back, as strong as ever. He’d have to watch that or he would never hear the end of it from the rest of the team.
“Nothin’ you gotta concern yourself with, boss. It’s your money, my time is yours.” Frankie said that all with a grin and a wink but Steve knew an evasion when he saw on. At least when he thought to look for one.
“Hey, I’m not trying to pry or anything. I just want to make sure that you know that you don’t hafta stay. I mean, if you have someone you want to see or something. Just ‘cause I’m paying you doesn’t mean I own you.”
“You’re an odd one, you know that, right, boss? As much as you’re payin’ me, you might as well own me.” Frankie replied with as much sass as always but his expression softened a bit at the obvious sincerity in Steve’s voice. “And maybe I might meet up with a few buddies at the track on Thursdays but they ain’t gonna miss me.”
“What about family? Anybody you should check in with?”
Frankie didn’t answer right away. He topped off his coffee, added another spoonful of sugar and splash of cream and gave Steve a long, considering look before answering. “You really wanna know, doncha? Like ya really care if I got someone to go home to. You really are an odd one, boss.”
“Not much to tell, really. Influenza got my Pa. He was a doctor over at Beth Israel.” It took Steve a minute to figure out why Frankie had paused, why he might be hesitant to reveal that information. Steve just nodded; he had gotten in enough fights about his own heritage when he was young to know why someone else might be ready for a fight regarding theirs. “And then it was only a few months later when Ma and the rest of the kids ended up on the wrong train home from a visit to my aunt. I was home sick with my oldest sister. So then it was just us.”
“Malbone Street?” Steve wracked his brain to come up with the name; he had been an infant when the train has derailed but his Ma had lost a friend in the crash and they had lit a candle at church every November 1 for as long as Steve could remember. “Jesus, you musta just been a baby; how old was your sister?”
“Ruth was fifteen.” Frankie was carefully picking out every piece of orange from the bowl of fruit salad, leaving the pears, apples, and raisins behind. Steve didn’t say anything; he still wasn’t used to having fruit any time he wanted in the future and knew it was unlikely that Frankie had tasted an orange in a long, long time. “She had finished up at school just about when I was born so she was useta lookin’ after me. We moved in with my aunt for a few years but she had a pack of her own kids and even with the bit of money Pa had left us…well, it wasn’t easy. So when Ruth met Thomas and he proposed knowin’ that I was part of the package, it seemed like the bad times were over.”
Frankie went quiet, pushing the fruit around his bowl with his spoon but not eating it. Steve thought about leaving it, about changing the subject but he doubted that Frankie had many people he could confide in and Steve knew what it was like to feel alone in the world. “What happened, Frankie? Did Ruth and Thomas get married?”
“Yeah. And for a while, it was all great. He – They really loved each other, you know? And it was like Ruth and me had a family again. ‘Specially when they started having kids and I got to be the big brother for once.” Frankie finally pushed his bowl away from him, clearly hesitant to waste food but unable to stomach more. “But I guess Thomas figured out what I was even before I did. He started gettin’ real tough on me, yellin’ at me for every little thing. Nothin’ I could do was good enough. I asked Ruth if I could go live with Aunt Esther but she begged me to stay; said she couldn’t lose me too. So I stayed a few more years but once he stopped yellin’ and started hittin’, well, sometimes a body has to take care of ‘imself before he can look to mind someone else, ya know?”
The statement echoed in Steve’s ears. It hit him all in a moment – how he hadn’t had an answer when Sam asked what made him happy, the flash of anger when Natasha kept trying to set him up on dates, how he held off on calling Tony until he had exhausted all his other avenues – not only had he not been taking care of himself, he had been getting angry when other people tried to help. Just like past-Steve was doing to past-Bucky. So maybe the only way to truly help Bucky was for Steve to take care of himself, whatever year he found himself in. He had no idea how long he had been quiet or what the expression on his face was but Frankie was looking at him oddly when Steve finally remembered he wasn’t alone in the room. “Sorry. Just – what you said, it makes a lot of sense.”
“Not the first time I heard that.”
“What happened next? Do you still see Ruth?”
“Not for the first little bit. Both too angry. And stubborn. But Aunt Esther invited us over, not tellin’ us the other would be there and she made us talk. Said she wasn’t lettin’ us leave until we made up. And no one said no to Esther. So I told Ruth all of what Thomas had done and she admitted that things were calmer at home without me there. So now we meet up on Saturdays. We usually talk about what her kids are doing. Thomas doesn’t want me near them but Ruth told him that she’d leave him if he tried to stop her from seeing me. And he really does love her, you know? And I think, ‘spite it all, he loves me. Or ‘least he did before he got all scared that I’d poison the family or somethin’.” Frankie seemed surprised when he glanced down and realized that he had been steadily reducing a piece of bread to crumbs all over the tablecloth. His ears turned a bit red as he started to use a napkin to push all the bits into a pile. Steve reached over and stilled his hand.
“Leave it. I want you to take the day off, okay?”
“Nah, ya don’t hafta do that. Ya gave me mosta yesterday off.”
“Yesterday I just didn’t want to hear any more of your whinin’ after that little workout at the gym.”
“That wasn’t a workout, that was torture. And I’m not gonna say no again, so ya better mean it.”
“I mean it. Go have fun today, see your friends. Do whatever makes you happy.” Steve could see that Frankie was about to reply with something suggestive so he quickly took out his wallet and tossed a few bills on the table. “There, take that. Consider it a bonus.”
Frankie didn’t waste time scooping the money off the table and giving it a quick count. “I’m so glad Howie’s in town this week.”
“Howie? Is he one of your track buddies?”
“Yeah, he ain’t always around and he’s bit of a jerk but he sure can pick the horses. He’s got this whole system and everything. And he bets smart, ya know? Keeps sayin’ that he’s savin’ to start up his own company but I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Steve could feel a headache starting. “That’s not Howie Stark, is it?”
“You know ‘im, boss?”
Steve only just managed to stifle his groan. Almost eighty years in the past and he still can’t escape the Starks. Fuck. “Let’s just say I know the family. And he might be a jerk but Frankie? If Howard Stark ever offers you a job, take it. Despite appearances, he’s the real deal.”
An hour later, Steve had a plan and a new appreciation for the internet. What would have taken only minutes to Google – “pulmonologists in Brooklyn” – had taken him ages to find out via the telephone, mostly because he hadn’t realized that pulmonology wasn’t really a speciality yet and had had to revise his search strategy. Finally he had the name that he needed and now he just had to pick the right equipment for his mission. He got distracted for a moment when he saw that the talisman Dr. Strange had given him was now glowing but once he noted that it was a pale green – signalling a request for Steve to check in – but he ignored it and started going through the med pack Sam had put together. He was both grateful and a little embarrassed at how comprehensive it was. Just how much trouble was he expected to get into? And hopefully the portable bone-cutting laser was meant to be a joke rather than anything Sam actually expected Steve to need.
It was almost suspiciously easy to gain access to his younger self’s hospital room. Steve was shameless about claiming to be a specialist from the American Sanatorium Association. Remembering Nat’s advice to always tell as much of the truth as possible, he said that he was a former patient of Sarah Rogers and that without her nursing, he would have been dead twice over. Now, having heard that her son was ill, he intended to return the favour. Steve supposed that the fact that his voice caught when he talked of his mother saving his life – which she had, numerous times – would only lend credence to his story. He would also be long gone before anyone could figure out the truth. He had been careful to use the name of an actual specialist in respiratory problems – and to make sure that Dr. Beare was approximately his own age – just in case someone actually checked. Steve might not be a super spy like the Black Widow or Nick Fury but he did know how to plan an op. No matter what the others might say about him always leading with his shield.
Thankfully past-Steve was asleep when now-Steve (fuck, he really hated time-travel) arrived at his room. He dismissed the nurse in as rude a manner as he could muster, trying to ensure that no one would be eager to offer him help. He was just glad that the nurse was one of the younger ones and not someone who had worked with his Ma. He wouldn’t have it in him to be harsh to any of them. Especially as he knew his younger self was being a stubborn ass and a horrible patient. Reading the chart the nurse had left, Steve found out that he had been a lot more stubborn and a lot sicker than he remembered. Apparently after Bucky had left last night, past-Steve tried to sneak out of the hospital and while he had been caught before he made it outside, the exertion had brought on a relapse of his fever. And it was a severe relapse; Steve couldn’t even remember trying to sneak out, only his anger followed by guilt and a desire to apologize. His past self was also incredibly pale and his breathing was quick and shallow. The last notation from the nurse had included a question about whether it was time to contact his family. “You stupid fuck. Do you know how much it would hurt him if you died? If you can’t do this for yourself, you gotta do it for him. For Bucky.”
Steve continued to lecture his past self as he rigged up a makeshift IV pole and laid out all his supplies on the small bedside dresser. He made a mental note to send the coordinator of the SHIELD advanced triage course a thank you when he got back. Well, provided she wasn’t a member of HYDRA. That would be unfortunate. He would also have to thank Sam. During the six months they had spent looking for Bucky, Sam used to quiz Steve on triage technique, partly as a distraction and partly as a way to show off his own knowledge. And while Tony had left the portal construction to Richards and the magic to Strange, he had worked with Sam to develop better portable versions of key triage equipment, on top of footing the bill for the whole venture. So Tony probably also deserved a thank you. Steve dumped a packet of red powder into the jug of water on the nightstand, swirled it until the water turned a pale gold ( Red as in ‘stop, your water is not sterilised yet’ and gold as in ‘you’re now golden’; it’s only coincidence that it matches the armour ) before using it to rehydrate the vacuum packed IV bags. He sprayed some numbing agent on his younger self’s hand, resisting the temptation to hold it against his for comparison, and got the drip started.
Soon past-Steve was getting pumped full of the best antibiotics the twenty-first century had to offer as well as a banana bag to address any acute deficiencies. There was also some painkillers and a light sedative in the mix, just enough to keep past-Steve from waking up too soon. Now-Steve wasn’t quite done with his lecture. And maybe there were some long-lasting, slow-release vitamin and mineral supplement cartridges to inject and yes, he did have to monitor the IV drip but there was something deeply cathartic about being able to lecture your past-self, even if they were unconscious and couldn’t hear you.
“So that’s why you had to slip out early yesterday! Where did you get the bread for the fancy new coat?” Hazel had been behind the counter when Bucky had let himself into the shop but she came around to rub the collar of his new coat between her fingers. He couldn’t blame her. He had taken a moment in the elevator to rub his face against the soft, plush wool. “And is that a new shirt?”
Bucky hadn’t thought twice about wearing his nice new clothes that morning – now that he knew that Steve had bought them for him, not some stranger. And the soft look on Steve’s face when Bucky had come out of the bedroom in his new suit meant that he was probably going to keep wearing them for as long as Steve was there to see him do so. Bucky forgot, however, that he was going to have to explain the new clothes. Luckily, Mr. Wisotsky called for him from the office before he had to reply to Hazel. He gave her an apologetic shrug and began to think furiously as he walked the few steps to the office. Even as he thought, though, he couldn’t resist petting his new coat one more time as he hung it up before turning to face his boss. “Yes, Mo?”
Morris Wisotsky never hid the fact that he was as sharp as a tack. He had no patience for fools and always claimed that he had hired Bucky not as a favour to George Barnes but because he had overheard the way Bucky had tried to talk he and Steve out of a fight with some bigger boys. Bucky always reminded him that the talking hadn’t worked and that encounter had ended with Steve and Bucky both bleeding and Mr. Wisotsky threatening to call the police on the bullies. “And that’s the point, boy!” Mo would always reply, “some people talk too much, some act too soon, it takes a smart person to know when to stop talking and start punching. And it takes a good friend, a loyal friend, to stay in that fight. You’re a good boy, Mr. Barnes.”
Bucky didn’t feel like a good boy as he turned to face his sharp-eyed boss. How could he explain having new clothes just days after claiming to need a raise? And Mo knew that Bucky’s Pa was only just back to work, would he think it selfish of Bucky to spend money on himself at a time when his family might need it? He silently obeyed Mr. Wisotsky’s gesture to take his usual seat at the desk.
“Is Miss Barnett correct, Mr. Barnes? Is that a new coat?”
“Yes, sir. I, uh, had a friend repay some money I loaned him a while back so I, uh, used it for some new clothes.” Bucky ducked his head a bit, waiting for the judgement that he was sure was coming.
“And this money, this debt that was repaid, did you use it all on yourself? No giving half of it to your Ma? Buying sweets for those sisters of yours?”
Bucky was miserable. He was a cad, a heel, a selfish son and brother. “No, sir. I did buy Stevie some candy and such but most of it went to the clothes.”
“Ha! Good!” Bucky nearly jumped out of his skin when Mo clapped loudly as he spoke. His confusion must have shown clearly as for once, Mo didn’t make him try to figure things out for himself. “Mr. Barnes, James, we have known each other for a long time, yes? I have watched you grow as if you were my own. And I know you are a good boy but I always worried about you. Do you know why I didn’t give you that raise you wanted?”
“You – you said times were tough, that it just wasn’t in the books right now.”
“James, you do my books. How is the shop doing?”
“Business has been steady. Better since we started the trade in program.”
“Which was your idea, if I remember correctly.” Mr. Wisotsky took off his small glasses and carefully set them aside. He clasped his hands and looked straight at Bucky. Bucky fought not to squirm under his gaze. “I gave you a bonus for it at Christmas. And how did you spend it? Floozy Flirt dolls for the twins.”
“Uh, the doll, Mo, it was a Flossy Flirt doll, not Floozy. And I only got the one.” Mainly because Katie had requested a different toy.
“Still! I give you a bonus, hoping you will finally replace that old coat of your father’s and instead you come in, still in that rag, talking about new dolls! Pah! Is a doll going to feed those little girls if you get sick and die from being too stupid to keep warm? No! I didn’t give you that raise because I thought you’d waste it on fripperies and doodads for those girls. They want dolls, let them work to earn them!”
“They’re ten, Mo!”
“Pah! Not that Rebecca girl. She must be older than you were when you started here. Why isn’t she out working?”
“She’s still in school.” Bucky protested.
“So were you.” Mr. Wisotsky countered, pointing a finger at Bucky. “So why do I always see her flitting around with those friends of hers, eh? If she needs all these things, why isn’t she out working for them?”
Bucky opened his mouth, ready as always to defend one of his loved ones, but Mo just raised an eyebrow and Bucky sat back to think. He did enjoy surprising the girls with treats; it had started with his very first paycheque from Mo. Half had gone to his parents – at his insistence – and then he had bought little toys for the girls and a bag of oranges for Mrs. Rogers and he and Steve had gone to Coney Island. But maybe lately he had been feeling like his treats weren’t really surprises anymore, that maybe the girls were starting to expect the candy and toys their brother bought them. He thought back to Monday when Becca told him about wanting those acting lessons. She had said that she could wait and earn the money herself but wasn’t her first plan to ask their parents, perhaps knowing that Bucky would be there to make up the difference? And Mary hadn’t asked for the Flossy Flirt doll for Christmas so much as she had pointed at it in the store and told Bucky that was what she wanted. It wasn’t that they were spoiled, exactly, they all did their chores and were polite and respectful and Bucky knew that his sisters loved him. But perhaps they were just a little too used to him always putting them first, always being there, always saying yes. Maybe it was time to be a bit selfish, to think about what he wanted. Bucky grabbed a fresh pencil and started working through some numbers.
Mr. Wisotsky had made a good appearance of working but he was quick to put down the order form he was working on when Bucky finally looked up from the figures that he had been working on. “So, tell me, boy, should I be giving you that raise?”
“Actually, you’re going to give me more than I asked.”
“Oh, am I?”
“Yup, because I’m going to start teaching Hazel how to do the books and put the orders in.”
“And who’s going to do her job while you’re teaching her?”
“Becca will come in after school for an hour.”
“Nice of her to do that for nothing.”
“Look, Mo, on Monday I asked you for a five percent raise. Now by my math, you could easily make that fifteen. Instead, you’re going to give me a ten percent raise and the remainder should cover paying Becca to mind the shop for an hour every day after school.”
“You still haven’t told me why you deserve this raise. I’m not giving you more money for dolls, young man.”
“I’m gonna go back to school, to the trade school, and I’m gonna study to be an engineer. I don’t want to be here forever, Mo, but I can’t leave you short-handed. Not after all you’ve done for me; so Hazel’ll learn the books and Becca can take over out front.”
“Let me see your numbers.” Bucky handed his work over and tried not to think about how much it felt like years ago when Mo was teaching him how to keep the books. That feeling only increased when Mo started mumbling to himself as he grabbed a pencil and started doing his own calculations. “No, no, this won’t do. And this! You have to be kidding, boy! What were you thinking?! There is no way I can give you ten percent. No, it has to be twenty. Not a penny less. Otherwise you would starve and your mother would kill me.”
“It’s okay, Mo, I under- …wait, twenty? As in twenty percent? No, no, that’s too much.”
“Oh, and when did you become the boss, eh? Is that your name above the door? Do you pay the bills around here? You want me to start calling you ‘sir’? These kids! They ask you for money and then won’t take it when you offer. Where’s the gratitude?” Mo rose from his chair and was pacing and gesturing as he spoke. Usually Bucky would just sit back and enjoy the show when Mr. Wisotsky got this wound up but this morning he could only shake his head in disbelief; a twenty percent raise? Mo took it as more denial and stopped. He grabbed his chair and pulled it around so he could face Bucky without the wide desk between them. “Look, boy, I’m an old man without any family. This shop keeps me housed and fed and able to get coffee with my friends. I don’t need more than that. So if there’s a little extra, I’d rather see it be used by a smart young person such as yourself. But not for dollies! I know you’re going to keep helping your Ma and I’d expect nothing less but you have to look to yourself, as well, boy, do you hear me?”
Bucky had to clear his throat before he could speak. “Yeah – yes, Mo, I hear you. No more dollies.”
“Good, now get back to work! I’m not paying you to just sit around and look pretty.” Mr. Wisotsky gave Bucky’s shoulder a squeeze as he rose to put his chair back.
Bucky was in a daze the whole way to the hospital. He had to tell Steve his news. Well, not the news of the raise – Steve thought he got that on Monday – but the news of his plan to go back to school. Ever since Steve started saving to go to Auburndale, he had been pushing Bucky about his plans for the future. Bucky had never really seen the sense of it before; sure, there were things that he was interested in but why would he give up the job he had? How could he when the girls were still in school? But Becca was graduating this year and if she was working for Mr. Wisotsky, Bucky wouldn’t have to worry about her. He knew that she didn’t want to go to college but there was no way their parents would let her go to Hollywood at only seventeen so she planned to stay at home and work for a couple of years. And Mr. Wisotsky paid better than any factory would.
“Someone’s in a good mood today! And is that a new coat?” Until she spoke, Bucky hadn’t notice Barb in the hospital lobby but now turned and grabbed her hand, twirling her around in a few impromptu dance steps. He grinned as she laughed and gave a little curtsy when he relinquished her hand. “Did you win the lottery or something?”
“Nope, just having a great day and wanted to share it with Steve. Do ya know if he’s awake?”
“Sorry, no. There’s been some specialist in there all morning. We all thought he was a pip when he walked in, all tall and handsome, and then he all but growled at Alice when she offered to stay and help and he hasn’t let anyone inta see Steve since he got here. He said he was a friend of Steve’s Ma, had some story about her saving his life. I think if she hadn’t heard the same a dozen times before, Matron would have put him out on his ear. There’s just something strange about him. I think he’s foreign.”
Bucky started walking a little faster towards Stevie’s room. He knew Sarah Rogers had been an excellent nurse and who would lie about owing a favour to a dead woman? But he was nervous about some stranger poking at Steve. “Well, he can growl all he wants but I’m getting inta see Steve.”
The door to Steve’s room was locked when they got there and Barb shoot Bucky a worried look as she knocked. “See what I mean? Strange.”
Bucky was just about to pound on the door again when the lock clicked and the door opened just enough for a familiar face to look out and glare at them. “You!”
“You know this guy?” Barb asked.
Bucky probably looked like a fish out of water, the way his lips were flapping without him saying a word. Luckily, Steve – big Steve - jumped in and saved him from having to answer Barb. “James, right? We met at the church the other day. You were in to talk to Sister Agnes, I believe? You told me about your friend being sick.”
“Oh, yeah, yes. I, uh, didn’t know that Mrs. Rogers had been your nurse.”
“She treated me as if I was her own son.” Bucky almost burst out in giddy laughter at Steve’s audacity. Out of the corner of his eye he could see that Barb was looking at him strangely and he was glad that Steve kept talking, pulling her attention back to him. “And when Father Callahan told me about Mr. Rogers’ case, I thought I might have more insight into the matter than the local doctors.”
The way he said ‘local doctors’ made it sound like they were in some backwater hut and not one of the top hospitals in Brooklyn and Bucky could feel Barb bristle at the insult. He could see why all the nurses were avoiding Steve’s room. “Of course, Doctor, any help you can offer is appreciated. Is there any chance I could have a quick visit with Steve? I’m just on my lunch break so I won’t stay long.”
“He’s sleeping at the moment but a quick visit shouldn’t hurt.” He moved and allowed Bucky to pass through the door but put up a hand to prevent Barb from following. “I’m sorry, miss, I’d like to limit Steven’s guests at the moment.”
Bucky had to shove his fist against his mouth to keep from laughing when Steve then just shut the door in Barb’s face and locked it with a decisive click. He didn’t feel so much like laughing when he got further into the room and saw Steve – his Steve – hooked up to a bunch of tubes. “What is all that? What are you doing to him? Is this when he gets bigger?”
Looking at Bucky’s face, it really sunk in for Steve that he didn’t belong here. As much as he wanted to pretend, this wasn’t his Bucky, this wasn’t his time any more, not his Brooklyn. And as close as they’ve gotten, this Bucky would always belong to this Steve. Oddly, though, that thought didn’t hurt as much as he thought it would. Maybe this was just how things should be. Past Bucky and past Steve will get to grow up together for a few more years and he would just have to wait to find his Bucky in the future. And he could wait. Maybe it will be enough, knowing that Bucky is out there, trusting that he can take care of himself. It might even be time for Steve to start taking care of himself as well. “It’s okay, Buck. It’s all just medicine and no, this is not when I get big. C’mere, I’m pretty much done here but I’ll show you what everything is.”
Steve explained the IV drip, the antibiotics, and the supplement cartridges he had injected into past-Steve’s upper arm, but glossed over the mini oxygen concentrator, deftly unhooking and hiding the small machine while Bucky poked at the IV bag. Some things were just too difficult to explain. Especially as Tony told him how to use it but not exactly how it worked, which was what Steve knew Bucky would be most interested in.
“You didn’t pack any of this for him, though, didja? What kind of shape do you expect to find me in, Stevie? What happens to me?” Bucky looked scared but he still raised his chin, as if daring Steve to do his worst.
“I don’t know.” Bucky scoffed and turned away from him, choosing to look at Steve’s younger self, instead. Steve grasped his shoulder and turned him back, ducking his head a bit to make eye contact. “No, really, Buck, right now I don’t know where you are and what’s going on; you could be living it up on some beach somewheres for all I know and I’m just being stupid carrying all this around and worrying.”
“You are pretty stupid.” Bucky didn’t look entirely reassured but one side of his mouth kicked up into a smirk.
“Yeah, I’m stupid for you, jerk.” Steve pulled Bucky into a hug and tried not to think about finding Bucky on that table in Azzano. Or the look on his face as he fell. Or the things in that file. Or the hundred different things that could be happening to future Bucky right now. He just held on tight for a moment before giving the top of Bucky’s head a quick kiss and gently pushing him away. “I should go before Barb comes back with reinforcements. Steve – the other Steve – should actually be waking up soon and I shouldn’t be here when he does.”
“Why? Is that universe gonna explode or somethin’? Is that why ya waited so long to share your fancy medicine?”
Steve pretended not to notice the edge to Bucky’s voice, even as it confirmed for him where this Bucky’s loyalty would lie in a contest between past-Steve and himself. He just answered, calmly and honestly. “No, no explosion. It would just be weird. And I didn’t come earlier because I didn’t think about it. I could remember that I – he - felt better today, a lot better, but I didn’t think that I had anything to do with it until Frankie said something this morning about people having to take care of themselves. And then I realized that I had this med-kit just collecting dust so, yeah, here I am.”
Bucky’s expression softened and he gave Steve’s arm a squeeze but as he when to speak, past-Steve shifted on the bed behind him and Bucky’s attention immediately went to the small figure in the bed. He turned back almost as quickly, looking a bit guilty and a little confused. “I wanna – I mean, I gotta-“
“Go, go tell him your news.”
“How do- oh, you remember this?”
“Not specifically, you’re gonna have to tell him again in a couple of days. But I knew you were happy, and that was enough.” Steve leaned down to give Bucky a quick kiss before pushing him towards the bed. Past-Steve was showing further signs of waking up and Steve just hoped that Bucky could keep him distracted long enough for him to finish packing and get out of there.
It was while he was leaving the hospital, carefully avoiding being caught by Barb or any of the other nurses he had been rude to, that he thought more about Bucky’s news and what it meant for Steve. Past-Steve, that is. No more time-traveling, he decided, not if he could help it. Too confusing. It was enough that Bucky was happy but Steve was now remembering how his stomach had clenched at the news, how he had added up his savings and what he was making at the grocers and painting signs and no matter how many times he did the numbers, it was never enough for him to move in with Bucky and go to Auburndale. In fact, if it wasn’t for the money his Ma- Steve stopped dead in the middle of the sidewalk, oblivious to the couple of people who bumped into him and their less-than-polite comments. He changed direction and set off at a quick walk to the last place he had expected to be going.
Of course the key was where he remembered it. Almost everyone in the neighbourhood knew where the Rogers’ kept their spare key, just as they knew that the family didn’t have anything worth stealing. Steve still entered the apartment quietly, checking to make sure that he wasn’t seen. Otherwise, the news would reach his younger self at the hospital almost faster than big Steve could run there. He stopped dead still once he closed the door, just breathing in the familiar scent, fixing the way the light fell on the couch into his memory, hearing the rhythm of Mrs. Henderson’s feet as she shuffled around her kitchen upstairs. This, this was home. And yet it wasn’t. It hadn’t really been since his mother had passed and even after an interval of more than seventy years, Steve could feel the difference in the small space, it was just a little duller, a little darker without his mother there.
A thump and the wail of a baby from upstairs jolted Steve back into action; he didn’t have time to sit around and work himself into a funk at the moment. He left the med-kit, packed carefully into his briefcase, by the door and went directly to his mother’s room. He ignored the clothes still in the closet, the pictures on the dresser, all the little signs that past-Steve wasn’t yet ready to let go of his mother, and he got on his hands and knees and started running his hands along the floor. When he didn’t find anything, no slightly raised nails, no loose board, not a single sign of disturbance, he sat back and leaned his head against the bed, tears in his eyes. He had hoped, had really hoped that he was going to be wrong. Hoped that this wasn’t something he was going to have to do for himself. A little angry, a little desperate, he leaned forward, pulled out the small knife he had gotten used to carrying while traveling with Sam, and started digging at the nails holding down the floorboard nearest the bed. He pried them all out and levered the board out of the way, peering down into the small space between the floor of this apartment and the ceiling of the one below. Empty. He was just about to put the board back when a bit of light from the window behind him made something in the dust gleam. A dime. A single, solitary dime. A coin that Steve wouldn’t even stoop to pick up in the future. He sat back, looked at that dime, looked past it to his mother’s dresser, still as she left it, and Steve cried.
He knew this dime. Knew exactly how it got under the floor and when. He had been twelve. Bucky had invited him to go to Coney Island to celebrate his first paycheque. Steve had been getting over a cold and his mother hadn’t wanted him to go out just yet. Bored and tired of staying in the apartment and jealous of Bucky’s ability to go out and earn money for his family, he had done what he rarely did and he argued with his mother. In front of a guest, no less. Mrs. Rogers had insisted Bucky stay for supper when he came by to drop off his gift of oranges and issue the invitation to Steve to go out that Saturday. He had gone beet-red when Steve started to argue with his Ma and didn’t let out a peep when she hauled her boy into her room by his ear and started giving him a lecture on manners that Steve still remembered, almost verbatim. She left him there to think about what he had done and as soon as the door had closed, Steve had lashed out and knocked her handbag from the dresser to the floor. For a moment he felt satisfied seeing how his mother’s change purse spilt as it tumbled about, coins rolling every which way across the floor. But the guilt set in as soon as he heard the two voices in the other room go silent. Then there were a few more murmurs, footsteps, a door closing, and then more steps, this time getting closer.
Twelve-year-old Steve had gone to his knees on this exact floor and was tracking down every penny when his mother opened the door. Older Steve sat in the same spot and remembered looking up at his Ma, nose still stuffy from his cold, chest hurting just a bit, palm full of coins, and crying as he told her that he was just so tired of being sick all the time and that just once he wished he could be as tall and strong and rich as Bucky. And he confessed that he wasn’t really angry with her, that maybe he was angry with God and that he was sorry and he would tell Father Callahan but he couldn’t help it. Steve remembered how his mother had taken that change from his hand, carefully put it on the dresser, and gently pulled Steve up to sit on the bed next to her. She told him that God could only do so much for him, that sometimes he had to make his own strength, his own riches, that he had to look at what he had and not compare himself with others. She asked if he would give up his ability to draw in order to be as tall as Bucky and he had to think for a few minutes but he thought of how Ma had smiled whenever he presented her with another picture, how Bucky always carried the sketch of his sisters that Steve had done, and how Mrs. Barnes had asked for her own copy of that sketch. His face must have shown his answer as his Ma had just kissed him and told him that everyone has gifts and burdens in equal measure and while he might not be able to see it at the moment, there is a greater balance in the world. She still didn’t let him go to Coney Island that weekend, though; he and Buck had had to wait a whole week. It had been torture for his twelve-year-old self.
Steve looked at the dime that had been lost over seven years ago - or eighty-four, depending on how he was counting – it was a little dusty from its time under the floorboards but otherwise looked like new. Steve tucked it carefully into his inside pocket before standing. He washed his face in the small kitchen sink and used the flour sack tea towel to dry off. It looked like he wasn’t quite finished helping his past self today. Time to find some old jam jars and a whole lot of coins.
It definitely wasn’t home but Bucky was getting more accustomed to walking into the hotel and taking the elevator up to the suite he was sharing with Steve. Opening the door, he dropped his keys on the small table in the hall, hung up his overcoat, and took off his shoes, noting that Steve’s weird boots were already there. He called for him before it occurred to him that Frankie might be around. “Uh, I mean, Mr. Kent?”
“It’s just me, Buck. I’m in the parlour.” Steve was sitting on the couch, coat off and shirt untucked, looking at something in his hands. “Frankie’s spending the night with some friends.”
“What’s that ya got there?” Bucky sat down beside him, nudging Steve’s shoulder with his own. Wordlessly, Steve held up a gold chain with a golden starburst dangling from it. The starburst was glowing with a faint yellow glow. “Is that some other bit of future technology? Can I touch it?”
Steve passed it to Bucky and slumped back against the couch. “Tony would say it’s a technology we don’t understand yet. Dr. Strange just told me it was magic.”
“Okay, wait, you’ve had a magic amulet this whole time and didn’t tell me? And who’s Tony? And did you say Dr. Strange? What kind of name is that?” Bucky stopped playing with the amulet for a moment to turn to question Steve. Having Steve here (and big!) was weird enough but then he had all that mysterious medicine – and Bucky did see him palm that weird small box, by the way – and now there’s this glowy magic thing? This week was getting stranger and stranger. And a lot more worrisome. “Steve, you’re not just from a few years down the road, are ya?”
Steve shook his head.
“And you can’t tell me anything about it, cause it might change things, right?”
“Can you at least tell me what this does?” Bucky passed the amulet back, noted as he did that it was warmer than any metal should be, even after being held for however long.
“This … this is like a distress beacon. If I got into trouble, I was to hold onto it, say some words, and it would send a signal to my … friends, in the future.”
“This Tony guy, and Dr. Weird.”
“Yes, it is. All of it.”
Steve cracked a smile, realizing Bucky’s mistake had been intentional. “Anyway, yeah, Strange would get the message and Tony and this other doc, Richards, would make sure I got home. This morning it was green.”
“They probably expected to hear from me days ago. Green is a request to check in.”
“I have two days to let them know I’m okay.”
“Or? C’mon, Stevie, it’s like pulling teeth here! Spill it.” Bucky grabbed the glowing amulet and plonked it on the coffee table. Then he turned back to Steve, putting a hand under his chin, forcing him to look up into Bucky’s eyes. “It’s okay, you can tell me.”
“If I don’t let them know I’m okay, it’ll turn red. Which starts a twelve hour countdown and once that’s up, they pull me back.”
“They’re worried about you.”
“But I’m fine!”
“They don’t know that! How can they know that? It’s not like you can call them on the telephone. Or send a telegram to the future, asking to stay a few more days.”
“Just a few more days? Is that all you want?” There was something plaintive in Steve’s eyes, something searching, asking for something Bucky didn’t think he had.
“What other option we got, Stevie? Steve – my Steve –you shoulda seen him after you left; it was ‘mazing, how much better he was doing. The nurses couldn’t believe it, kept coming in to check on him. So he’s gonna be home in a coupla days. And while I’m here, my parents think I’m at his place and if he’s there-“ Bucky ran a hand through his hair, frustrated at not being able to find the right words.
“I know, I know. It’s just – easier, in a way, being here with you like this. Home is – home is complicated. And not really home at all, really.”
“Then ya gotta make it one.” Bucky had seen Steve in many moods. Happy, sad, angry, calm, scared and fearless, he was familiar with them all. And while maybe he hadn’t known how to deal with a flat and pessimistic Steve when it was his Steve, this Steve, future Steve, had unwittingly given him exactly the information he needed. Apparently when you have a Steve who is talking himself into a downward spiral, you gotta just kick his ass out of it and deal with the inevitable blow-up. Bucky subtly braced himself before going on. “I mean, I don’t know where ya are but it ain’t here and you can’t leave, you damn well better make it a home. And dontcha go saying that it ain’t home without me or your Ma because I’ve heard that, Stevie. You can’t make your home in some other person, ya gotta make it your own. And wherever I am in that crazy future of yours, you can bet that I’m not gonna come back to ya just so you can fuss over me and keep ignoring yourself.”
“I’m not – Bucky, I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.”
“Yeah, and that’s what you said just ‘fore I dragged you to the hospital last Saturday. And what happened when we got there?”
“I passed out. But it’s not the same-“ Bucky just arched his eyebrow, so glad that he had managed to pick up that particular expression from Mr. Wisotsky. And he watched, amazed, as this big, bearded, brown-hair and brown-eyed Steve - who looked almost nothing like the slip of golden hair and blue eyes he had left that afternoon in the hospital – just shrank into himself, movement and mannerisms as familiar to Bucky as his own. “I guess – I guess maybe it is kinda the same. And when I saw that – that amulet glowing like that, I knew it meant I had to go back. I had to lose this, lose you all over again.”
“You stupid punk.” Bucky grabbed Steve by the back of the neck, leaned in, eye-to-eye, forehead-to-forehead. “You’re never gonna lose me. I’m like a bad penny. See the question isn’t if I’m gonna turn up, it’s when. You got that? The way I figure, the problem is gonna be when I know that you are you. I mean, what if I go to kiss the wrong Steve and I get my lights punched out? You ever think of that?”
“You jerk. Always thinking of yourself.” There was still that thing in Steve’s eyes, the worry, the knowledge of what the future holds for Bucky but Bucky decided then and there that he didn’t want to know. He didn’t want to know what was gonna happen, how he gets lost; he’s nineteen, he just got an amazing raise, his best friend is on the mend, and the man he loves is right in front of him - he was going to just have to make the most of whatever time he had and he was going to start now. Bucky focused on Steve’s slight smile and ignored the shadow in his eyes.
“That’s me. Selfish to the core. Now, how are you going to spoil me tonight? I’m feeling like steak. A big thick filet mignon, something I can really wrap my mouth around, you know?” Bucky licked his lips and watched as Steve’s eyes followed the motion. And maybe he had no idea how to follow through on that innuendo but he’d figure that out later. Right now he had a Steve to distract.
“Yeah, I think I can help you with that.” Steve leaned just that littlest bit towards him, just enough that Bucky knew he was hooked.
“Good, good.” Bucky eased back, shrugging out of his coat and starting to undo his shirt. He waited until he was sure that Steve was watching every movement before he jumped up and started running for the bedroom. “Cause I really want a bath and someone has to call room service!”
“You little shit!” Steve vaulted over the back of the couch, something Bucky really had not been expecting, and caught him two steps shy of the bedroom. He easily turned Bucky and pinned him against the wall, using his weight to just hold Bucky there. “Gotcha.”
“Yeah, so now what are you gonna do?” Bucky looked up at Steve through half-closed eyes, resisting the temptation to just melt against him.
“Whatever I want. I paid for you, didn’t I?” Steve leaned down and started kissing him. Mission accomplished , Bucky thought.
It was almost surreal for Bucky to walk into the hospital the next day and talk to his Steve. He found himself just looking at him, comparing and contrasting the two very different versions of his best friend. Future Steve had followed through on his promise and had made Bucky feel real good last night and Bucky had done his best to reciprocate. They had also discovered that at least one person at the hotel might suspect their relationship was more than brotherly. The basket of toiletries that had been delivered for the poor younger Mr. Kent who had ‘lost his luggage’ had been suspiciously well-equipped with certain products that had come in handy last night. Bucky shifted a bit, still feeling the aftereffects of some of the things he and future Steve had gotten up to last night.
“Whatza matter? Ya got ants in your pants or somethin’? If you got somewheres better to be, just go already. I’m fine here.” Bucky quickly turned his attention back to this Steve, so similar and yet so different from the person Bucky had been with the night before. And now that he stopped to look for it, he could see the fear, the worry that Bucky really might decide that he had somewhere better to be, someone better to be friends with, that he might move on and Steve would be left alone.
“You kiddin’? Steve, we always have lunch together. Can’t break tradition.” Bucky leaned back in his chair and put his feet on the end of Steve’s bed. “Besides, some of these nurses of yours are pretty swell lookin’ gals and a guy needs someone to dance with on a Friday night.”
“So you’re not working tonight?” Some of the tension left Steve and he leaned back against his pillow.
“Nah, finished up at the warehouse. But I’ll prolly stay in, maybe catch up on my reading.”
“You? Too tired to go dancing? That’d be a first.”
“It’s been a pretty long week, pal.” Longer than you know , Bucky thought.
As usual, Mr. Wisotsky had Bucky and Hazel close the shop up early. They didn’t get much business on Friday afternoons and while Mo might say that he didn’t trust Bucky and Hazel to keep working if he wasn’t there to supervise, he had also told Mr. Barnes that he might be an old man but he remembered what it was like to be young and at the end of the work week. Hazel’s beau, Charlie, was there to walk her home. Charlie hadn’t been able to find steady work in a long while so Mr. Wisotsky hired him whenever a customer asked for a piece to be delivered. And since he did the books, Bucky knew that Mo always paid Charlie out of his own pocket, not that he’d ever let Hazel know. Not after the way she had chewed Mo out when she found out that the ‘broken’ couch he had let her buy for less than the ticket price had just needed to have a single leg replaced - a fix that Mo could do in his sleep. She tried to pay him back the balance so he gave her a raise for the same amount. She insisted on doing his laundry so he paid Charlie to paint his apartment for him. Things had been at a stalemate for a while now but Bucky was eager to see how Hazel would retaliate this time.
He and Steve – in some ways it was easier when Bucky had thought of him as Mr. Kent – were actually having a night in, as he had told the other (the younger? the past?) Steve but Bucky certainly wasn’t catching up on his reading. Frankie had taken one look at them at supper, watching each other across the table, before loudly declaring that he was going to go to the pictures that night with some friends, provided his boss was okay with that. Steve hadn’t even taken his eyes off Bucky as he grabbed his wallet and tossed some money in Frankie’s direction. Frankie hadn’t even stuck around for dessert.
Steve felt bad for practically giving Frankie the bum’s rush the night before so he and Bucky had decided to let Frankie pick what they did that morning. Needless to say, Bucky was enjoying Frankie’s chosen excursion much more than Steve was. At least there was a comfortable chair for Steve to sit in as he watched the other two flit around the store, picking up and discarding suits, shirts, and ties almost as quick as they picked them up.
“Nah, look, if you gonna go with that suit, then ya gotta pick another tie. No, don’t look at him for advice, the guy’s colour blind.
“That true, boss?” Frankie turned to look at Steve, not seeing how Bucky was mouthing ‘sorry’ over his shoulder. “You ain’t see colour?”
“Ah, it’s more like red and green both look like brown to me. I like blue, though.” Steve hadn’t thought about his colour blindness in years. He had told Bucky that the machine that had made him ‘big’ had cured his asthma but he hadn’t revealed that it cured everything. “But Bu-Johnny’s right, I’m not the one to ask.”
“Okay, okay, so which tie should I go with, pretty boy? I want something nice, something respectable, ya know.”
“What’s the occasion anyway? You’re laying down a good chunk of change here.”
“Well, I was gonna tell you fellas last night but ya both seemed to have something else on your minds,” Frankie paused and grinned as both Steve and Bucky blushed, “so I figured I’d wait.”
“And? What’s the news?”
“Took your advice, Mr. Kent. Onlys I didn’t wait for Howie to offer me a job. We got to talking on Thursday and I told’em that if he’s really fixin’ to start something here in New York, he was gonna need a man on the ground, someone discreet, someone he can trust. And since he knows me and I know the city, that man should be me. And he agreed. So as of Monday, if it’s okay with you, boss, I’m gonna be Howie – I mean, Mr. Stark’s personal secretary. Figured I could blow a bit of dough on a decent suit.”
Bucky let out a whoop that echoed a bit in the small store and thumped Frankie on the back.
“That’s incredible, Frankie!” Steve stood and took Frankie’s hand to shake it, pausing mid-shake to pull him into a brief hug instead. “Of course it’s okay with me! And you save that money, I’m paying for your suit. Call it a going away present.”
“Thanks, boss. Wait, you’re leavin’? So soon? You know about this, Johnny?”
“Yeah, he knows. We do talk, Frankie.” It might have been late and they both might have been naked and in bed, but they had talked last night. Bucky told him about his conversation with the other Steve that day, about his realizations about the similarities but more importantly the differences between the two Steves. It scares me some, Steve. That kid in the hospital might be a whole lotta sad on top of all his usual spit and vinegar but you – you got this look like you seen stuff that I ain’t ready for and that scares the shit outta me. Even in the dark, Steve could see that Bucky felt guilty, felt weak for not being able to take up Steve’s burdens along with his own. He had held him close, called him sweetheart and baby and told him that it would be okay and Bucky had the grace to pretend to believe him. There had been tension between them that morning, neither of them willing to admit that maybe it was for the best that their time together was limited. Not for the first time, Steve was grateful for Frankie’s presence and he’d buy him the moon if he could.
It was near to lunchtime when they finally finished their shopping and were on their way back to the hotel. With a pang, Steve could see that Bucky was looking anxious again, even as he was still laughing and joking with Frankie. “Hey, Bu- buddy, Johnny, gimme those bags. Don’t you usually spend lunch with that friend of yours? The sick one?”
Bucky looked stunned. “But – it’s your last day here. I thought-“
“Go. It’s okay. Really.” Steve gently took the shopping bags from Bucky’s hands, glad to have his hands full because if he didn’t – if he didn’t, he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to resist the urge to touch Bucky, to cradle his face, to kiss those lips and try to show him that it really was okay. That Steve understood, that maybe as much as he loved being here with this Bucky, to see him young and unshadowed, that maybe Steve was ready to go back, ready to be part of the future again, ready to say goodbye to this Bucky, this Brooklyn, this time of his life, and figure out what happens in the next one. There was no way he’d be able to say goodbye as easily if he didn’t know that Bucky was somewhere in that future but he was starting to feel like maybe after everything that happened that he might have more in common with the scarred and wary Bucky of the future than he did with this boy who still hadn’t left home yet. “Go. We’ll have tonight, okay? Why don’t you pick up a deck of cards, spend the afternoon there?”
Bucky narrowed his eyes, clearly wondering if Steve was just making a suggestion or was drawing on his memory of this time. “Yeah, sounds like a good idea. I’ll see you tonight. See you later, Frankie.”
“See ya, pretty boy.” Frankie waited with Steve, watching as Bucky hailed a cab and drove off. “Ya know boss, watching you two is almost like going to the pictures, ‘cept with more cussin’ and no dames.”
The afternoon passed faster than Steve expected. He had enlisted Frankie’s help to stock up the other Steve’s bare cupboards, assuring him that he had gotten permission from ‘Johnny’ to do this favour for his friend. How else would I know where the key is, Frankie? And no, no caviar, Johnny said to stick with the basics. He then helped Frankie pack up, truly surprised that a man with no luggage could manage to acquire so much stuff in just a week. He even gave Frankie the suitcase he had bought at the beginning of the week, saying that he was getting a new trunk delivered. Frankie clearly didn’t believe him but just gave him a long, slow look before accepting it. Steve tucked a few extra dollars in the pockets of the clothes that he packed. He and Frankie had settled their bill with Frankie refusing to take more than they had initially agreed on, ten dollars a day and room and board. Steve didn’t know if it was because he had a job now or because Mr. Kent was now a friend instead of a mark, but Frankie had declared that the suit was the last gift he would accept. He was refusing to stay at the hotel that night and even insisted on paying for the lunch he and Steve grabbed at a little diner near the hotel. Steve didn’t bother to brush away the few tears that gathered when Frankie hugged him after Steve helped to load all his new stuff into a cab. It was as the car was driving off and Frankie had turned to wave that Steve realized that he wasn’t even sure if Frankie was even his real name. Fuck.
Dinner was quiet. Bucky had come back from the hospital in a good mood, bubbling over with stories about his Steve until he caught himself, realizing that the man in front of him already knew what happened. There wasn’t much to talk about after that. Steve had hidden the amulet away with his other spy-gear, not wanting housekeeping to find it, but now he took it out and laid it out on the coffee table, pouring drinks for both he and Bucky as they sat on the couch and silently watched as the starburst – no longer the pale yellow of Thursday but now a deep orange – slowly turned red.
“So just about nine tomorrow.”
“You’re all packed?”
“Wasn’t much. Not taking the clothes back. You should sell ‘em.”
“Yeah, I guess you don’t need ‘em.” Bucky took another drink. “Do you gotta be any certain place? Like where you arrived? Somewhere outside? A fucking fairy ring?”
Steve smiled a bit at that but it wasn’t a happy smile. “No, here’s fine. It’s just like walking through a door.”
“Yeah, a door in time . I can’t believe you’re so calm about all this.”
“I guess I just know what I’m going back to, is all. And I’m gonna miss you, Buck.”
“Sounds weird to say I’ll miss you too. I mean, we were just talking today about you coming home…but he’s not you and you’re not him, except you are. It’s confusing.”
“Yeah, ‘cause it’s so tough to tell us apart.” Steve looked down at his drink, surprised to see that he had finished it off.
“There is that one big difference.” Bucky waited until Steve met his eyes before pointedly looking at Steve’s crotch. Steve’s jaw dropped, not quite believing what Bucky was saying. Sure the serum changed things but it changed everything proportionally . He was about to say so when Bucky continued. “Yeah, you usedta prefer suspenders, not belts. Only way I know who I’m talkin’ to these days is to check.”
Steve couldn’t speak for a moment. Bucky just took a sip of his drinking, just watching him until he couldn’t take it anymore and started laughing. “You fucker!”
Bucky grinned, obviously pleased with himself. “Had you goin’ there, Rogers. C’mon, pal, ease up a bit on the doom and gloom. Ya got friends there, right? And you’re gonna make a home there. You promised. And I’ll find ya. I promise. I’m thinkin’ you’re the one who has it easy. You get to sit back and wait for me. I’m the one who’s gonna spend the next few years wonderin’ when you’re gonna jump willy-nilly into some machine and come out all big. And even then, I’m not gonna know if I’m getting kissy-Steve or punchy-Steve. Yeah, you’re laughin’ now but think of how bad you’ll feel if I come in for a smooch and you sock me one. I’m tellin’, Rogers, we gotta work out some way for me to know. This mug is too pretty to be punched.”
Steve thought for a moment, wiping his eyes as he did. He wasn’t quite sure if the moisture there was from laughing or if it came from that part of him that knew it was probably useless to try to give Bucky a reminder of this time. But there was no way he could even hint to the boy in front of him what his future would be. He scratched at his beard and then had an idea. “Okay, okay, how about this: I’ll shave this off soon as I get back - was part of the disguise ‘cause I don’t usually wear one – and that way, if you see me with a beard, you know it’ll be after I came here, after we had this.”
“Or how about this – why don’t you shave it off now an’ take those things outta your eyes and let me see that pretty face of yours? Let me know what I’m in for, in this future of yours.”
Part of Steve wanted to say no. It wasn’t that he had gotten used to the brown hair, the beard, the brown eyes; catching sight of himself in a mirror was still like seeing a stranger. The problem was that this stranger got to do all the things Steve wanted to do but felt he couldn’t. This stranger got to hide from the world in this plush nest, got to be selfish and not think about other people’s problems, this stranger was no one’s hero, no one’s role model, and had no public image to maintain. The stranger in the mirror wasn’t Captain America. But he wasn’t Steve, either, and looking at Bucky, he realized that if he denied Bucky this request, he was also denying himself the whole experience. If he kept the beard now, it would be too tempting to keep it once he got back. To cheat, to not do the work he knew he had to do to make a home in the future, to look in the mirror and say he changed without actually changing anything on the inside. And maybe he could cheat himself but he couldn’t cheat Bucky. “All right, fine. Might take a bit, though.”
“Wait.” Bucky put a hand on Steve’s arm when he went to stand. “Can I – Is it okay- I wanna help.”
“You want to help me shave?”
“Whaddya expect me to do? Just sit here with my thumb up my ass?” Steve couldn’t reply for a moment. He knew Bucky hadn’t meant anything by the statement but given their recent activities, his imagination supplied him with a few visuals that took a moment to process. Bucky gave Steve a strange look and then started to laugh. “You havin’ some impure thoughts there, Rogers?”
“C’mon if you’re coming.”
“Yes, sir.” Bucky kept laughing as he followed Steve into the bedroom.
It took them a few minutes to work out how best to proceed. Even though the bathroom was almost three times the size of the one in which a younger Bucky had first taught a young Steve to shave – not that he really needed to, but Bucky figured someone had to teach the kid – there still wasn’t enough room for both of them to stand in front of the mirror. Steve ended up sitting on the edge of the large tub, Bucky standing between his legs. Steve had already taken out his contacts and there was a small vial of solvent on the counter, ready to strip the brown dye from his hair. The sink was filled with steaming water and Bucky had just finished trimming most of the beard off with a pair of sharp scissors. Setting the scissors down, he lifted a handtowel from where it had been resting in the steaming water, wrung it out, and draped it loosely over Steve’s face. “That okay?”
It was the warmth that made the difference. Steve normally avoided any combination of ‘wet’ and ‘pressure’ on his face as the combo brought up way too many memories. But the towel was warm and part of Steve always felt safer when Bucky was around, so he took a breath and consciously allowed his spine to relax. “Yeah, it’s good.”
“So this hair stuff, I just have to rub it in and then rinse it out? That’s it?”
“That’s it.” Steve wasn’t sure if it had been Nat, Pepper, or Darcy’s idea to begin with but he had been there when a ‘casual’ conversation among the three of them about the problem of removing hair dye without damaging one’s hair had sparked a ‘science duel’ as Tony called it between him and Bruce. Bruce had won officially but Tony did find a way to add bright colours to dark hair without bleaching it first so he became Darcy’s favourite person for a while.
“Whatcha thinking about there? Ya got a smile on your face, your eyes are crinkling.” Bucky put a hand behind Steve’s neck, getting him to lean back a little so Bucky could rinse his hair.
“Was just thinking.” Something about Bucky’s hands sliding through his wet hair was making Steve feel like he was melting.
“That’s a first for you.”
“Funny. No, was just thinking that there are people I’m missing. Friends.”
“That’s good.” Bucky finished rinsing Steve’s hair, grabbing another towel to dry him off. Feeling some water run down his neck, under his collar and soaking into his undershirt, Steve shivered a bit. “Isn’t it?”
Steve sat up straighter, catching the wet towel as it slid off his face. “Yeah, no, I’m good. Thought I just might take this,” Steve plucked at his shirt, now sticking to him in a couple of places and covered in bits of beard hair, “off before you keep going.”
“Fine, fine, but it’s on you if I get distracted and you end up bleeding.” Bucky grumbled but he stepped back and started honing the razor as Steve removed his shirt and undershirt. “Now how is it that you managed to grow that bushy thing on your face but your chest is as bare as when we were kids?”
Steve shrugged. “Don’t know, never asked. Now you gonna leave this job half-done or what?”
Even though they had spent every night of the past week together, three of them in the same bed, Steve was almost overwhelmed at the intimacy of having Bucky shave his face. He couldn’t decide if it was better to close his eyes and just enjoy the sensation or keep them open and watch as Bucky licked his lips and stuck his tongue out a bit as he concentrated. At one point he had to close his eyes and just focus on his breathing. Bucky had just finished shaving one side of his neck and was getting Steve to tilt the other way, gentle fingers lightly pushing in the right direction, and it all just became too much. He tried to blink them back but first one tear, then another, gathered in the corner of his eye and began to trickle down his face. He kept his eyes shut and his breathing even, hoping that Bucky wouldn’t notice them. No such luck.
“Hey, hey, Stevie, what’s wrong? Did I nick you or something, doll?” Steve could hear Bucky put the razor down on the counter, freeing his hands to rest on Steve’s face, thumbs smoothing away the tears, lifting Steve’s chin when he wanted to duck his face and hide. “No, none of that, c’mon, look at me. Please, Stevie?”
Steve shook his head. He couldn’t, not yet. Bucky didn’t ask again, just let Steve rest his forehead on Bucky’s chest until he got a hold of himself. Even after the tears stopped, he needed a breath or two to get his thoughts in order. “I think – it’s just – you’re being so gentle, Buck. You know I ain’t gonna break?”
“I know that, Steve. I just like treatin’ you nice, is all. That okay?” Steve nodded as Bucky stroked his drying hair, his touch still light and gentle. “All right, sweetheart, lean back for me, let me finish your shave.”
It felt like Bucky took forever, dabbing extra lather here and there, stopping to wipe the razor clean, turning Steve’s face back and forth, making sure that every inch was nice and smooth. Finally he wet a clean towel and scrubbed the last of the lather off. Steve looked to Bucky before he looked at the mirror.
“Wow. You really are him.” Bucky bit his lip, shook his head, not shy, but suddenly unsure. “I mean, I knew you were Steve, you move like him, sound like him, but now…”
And Steve got it. It was his tension from this morning, reflected back at him. If stripping off his disguise revealed more superficial similarities to his younger counterpart, it also showed the deeper differences. And those differences were a gulf that this Steve and this Bucky just weren’t able to bridge. “It’s okay, Bucky. I understand.”
“I thought – I thought seeing his face on you might make it easier, you know, cause it’s just been starting to feel like – like I was being a cheat. Which is stupid, I know, it’s not like he and I are toget-“
“I love you, Buck.” Steve hadn’t meant to just blurt it out. Seeing the look on Bucky’s face, he wished for a second that he could take it back. Instead he pushed through, determined to explain what he meant. “I mean, he loves you. We both do. He might not know what to do with it but it’s there. Always has been. And I need you know that. I need you to know that no matter what happens after tomorrow, after I go back, I need you to know that you are a good man, my friend, the best friend anyone could ask for and I love you and always will. Til the end of the line.”
He could see that he was scaring Bucky, could see those questions and worries about the future starting to well up inside again. Steve stood, slowly, moving much as he had that first night, telegraphing every movement, leaving Bucky an escape route. He opened his arms and without hesitation Bucky stepped forward and held him, tight.
“Can we – can we go to bed?” Bucky’s voice was muffled against his neck. “Not to – just to be close.”
“Yeah, come on, baby, let’s go to bed.”
There was no teasing as they both stripped down to their boxers. Steve turned out all the lights while Bucky carefully set the alarm clock for 8am. And when Steve settled into the bed, Bucky grabbed his arm and pulled him closer, tucking his body into Steve’s and Steve held on like he never wanted to let go.
But he did let go.
When he was sure that Bucky was truly asleep, Steve slipped out of the bed. He went over to the other bedroom where he still kept all of his stuff in an effort to lend some credence to the fiction that he and Buck were just brothers. He got dressed in his twenty-first century clothes, checked that he had packed all his high-tech spy-gear, even doing a sweep of the rest of the suite. He treated the suite as if it was a camping site behind enemy lines, careful to remove any trace that Mr. Kent was anything other than an ordinary 1930s rich eccentric. If there was such a thing.
He left the last of his cash. He left a simple note – I’m sorry. Couldn’t say goodbye.
He took everything he brought there and nothing else. Nothing except a single dime.
Steve held the amulet, said the words, and stepped through the portal when it opened.
He left Bucky. Alone.
He had wondered, lying there on the table, if this was when he was lost. If this had been the time Steve had meant. And then Steve came for him except it wasn’t his Steve, wasn’t either of his Steves – his friend or his lover - it was Captain America who saved Bucky that day. Bucky was okay to wait, okay to follow Captain America until he was ready to be Steve again.
And then he fell.
And things went dark.
For a long time.
“Hey, look at that! We put in an average Joe – well, an incredibly built Joe - and got back a Captain America. Maybe these portals of yours are worth something, Richards.” Tony might have been talking to Richards but his eyes were locked on Steve, shifting, scanning every part of him. Steve felt naked as Tony looked him but he kept his head high, even as the room seemed to swim around him. “You okay there, Cap? Anything scrambled?”
“He’s fine, Stark.” Reed Richards was scrolling through the biometric data his scanners were collecting. He wasn’t looking at Steve, just the numbers.
“How about we let the man answer for himself, Mr. Marvelous?” Tony moved forward to help Steve step down from the portal. “Easy there, big guy. Got all your parts? C’mon, Cap, at least yell at me or something, let me know you’re okay.”
“Maybe if you gave him a moment, Stark, he will be able to comply. Captain Rogers may have only been gone moments for us but it’s clear that his time away was relatively longer for him. Time-travel can be disorientating for the inexperienced.”
“So time-travel? That’s a thing now? I mean the loss of the face fungus clued me in that something happened on Cap’s end of things but time-travel? Does this mean I can go back and fix some of my more troublesome fashion faux pas? Not that there were many, mind you."
“It’s not something one does lightly, Stark. Everything has its cost. As I’m sure Captain Rogers is aware.”
Steve shrugged off the backpack and took the seat Dr. Strange offered him. He also handed back the now-dull amulet, glad to be rid of it. “If I haven’t been gone long, why did this start to glow? Why did you call me back?”
Tony and Strange exchanged a look at the harshness of Steve’s tone but it was Richards who answered from across the room, face still turned towards his monitors. “Dr. Strange and I keyed both the portal and the amulet specifically to you, Captain. So when you didn’t made contact in four days according to your own perception of reality, the failsafe program was automatically triggered.”
“Oh, I - I just thought I’d have longer.”
Tony pulled another chair over while Strange went to look over the data with Richards. “Are you sure you’re okay, Steve? Seems like you had a hell of a trip.”
“You have no idea. But I’m fine. Really.” There were some things that he wasn’t ready to share. There were others that he should. “Tony, we have to talk. There’s something I haven’t told you.”
In retrospect, it might not have been the best idea to tell Tony about the connection between the death of his parents and the Winter Soldier – a connection he had been keeping secret for almost six months - before Steve had found another place to live. Coming back, though, seeing Tony and Tony’s worry for him, had made it clear that if – when – Bucky came back, it couldn’t be while Steve was keeping something so big hidden from a friend.
And Tony was a friend, even if he hadn’t talked to Steve in several months. He was still ignoring Steve even when they were side by side at the press conference to announce that while Steve Rogers was taking an indefinite leave of absence, Sam Wilson would be taking up the mantel of Captain America.
“Captain, Captain, can you tell us how long you will be gone?” Steve had no idea who had asked the question but it was the only one he could pick out of the din that arose after he had made his announcement.
“No, at this point, I can’t.” He resisted the urge to remind them that ‘indefinite’ was right there in the official statement.
“Why? Why now, Cap? Does this have anything to do with happened in DC last April?” Steve started to say no, but then he thought about what HYDRA had been trying to accomplish with INSIGHT. The reporters seemed to sense that they were on to something as the questions slowed, the volume lowered, and when he finally spoke, the room was quiet.
“I was gonna say no. To say that this is for me, that it has nothing to do with SHIELD or HYDRA or any of it. But that’s not quite true. You’ve all read the reports. You know what INSIGHT was all about – HYDRA was going to kill millions of us, all to keep the rest in line. And we all got caught up in those big numbers, the millions, the billions, and we forgot that those numbers represent individuals. I forgot. And yes, we need the heroes who act on the scale of millions and billions but just as important are those heroes who save a single individual. And even if you only save yourself, that is a victory for all of us. It’s not easy out there, for any of us. I feel like I’ve been fighting my whole life, first against my own body, then against HYDRA, then aliens. And then HYDRA again. I’m tired. Have been for a long while. It’s time that I step back from being one of those heroes focussed on the millions and billions and be one who looks a little closer to home. So I’m gonna take some time and just be a kid from Brooklyn again for a while.”
After reassuring everyone that in case of a global emergency, he would be available but he had full faith in Sam’s ability to carry the shield, followed by some ribbing about his pocketful of inspiring speeches from Sam, and then another hour or so of questions and being ignored by Tony, Steve was finally able to retreat and turn his focus to that new home.
Tony hadn’t kicked him out of the Tower. Nothing so crass. He just made sure that he was never, ever in the same room as Steve, ever. Steve was happy to give him the space he needed but after a couple of weeks, he could see the effect it was having on the whole team. And since, technically, he wasn’t part of the team any more, he figured it was best if he found somewhere else to live. No one tried to talk him out of it. Sam might have actually said something to the effect that it was about damn time he looked for a place for himself instead of letting SHIELD set him up in another Ikea catalogue shoebox or let Tony stick him in a superhero dorm.
With some help from Pepper ( I’m not mad at you, Steve, I just think you should have told him sooner ) and a very patient real estate agent, Steve found a little place in Midwoods. Miranda, the agent, tried to talk him out of the ‘handyman special’ they found but he needed a project and having a house made just for him had appeal. There was also a furnished apartment for rent nearby so he had somewhere to stay that wasn’t the Tower while he worked on his house.
Steve did a lot of the initial tear down himself. There was something very satisfying about taking a sledgehammer and beating the walls down to bare studs, pulling out old wires, breaking down old pipes, and finally looking at the bones of the house and knowing that he could do anything with it. He went with Natasha’s suggestion for the architect to do the redesign. She hadn’t given it to him person; he hadn’t actually seen Natasha more than a handful of times in the last few months but he hadn’t been that surprised when two lists, one of architects and one of contractors, showed up in an envelope pushed under his door. Scrawled on the list was ‘guaranteed free of HYDRA’ and while there options, he went with the names that had the checkmarks next to them. He wasn’t disappointed.
Mid-December, just as the weather was turning from brisk to chilly, there was a knock at Steve’s new (and reinforced) front door.
“Tony, hi, c’mon in.” Steve could only step aside as Tony came barrelling in.
“Oh, don’t act surprised. Your system should have told you who it was before I hit the top step. Who do you think suggested that security company to our favourite Russian? And that doesn’t mean I’m still not angry. I’m furious. You knew! Even while I was bankrolling that whole ‘Find Cap’s BFF’ mission, you knew that he killed my parents. My mom, Steve! He killed my mom.”
“I know and I’m sor-“
“No, no, no, you don’t get to say sorry. Not yet. Because I’m not done. See you can be sorry for lying but you don’t get to be sorry about what happened that day because you weren’t involved. They weren’t your parents and you weren’t the one to collaborate with HYDRA to have them murdered. You are neither the aggrieved nor the guilty so no, you don’t get to be sorry. This isn’t about you and I don’t want an apology from you. And I don’t want one from Barnes.”
“What?” Steve finally thought to actually close the door. He turned to face Tony. “But you just said – Tony, he killed your parents.”
“You really want to talk about this in your hallway? What are we? Gibbons? You’re a terrible host, Steve. Here, happy housewarming.” Tony pushed a paper bag into Steve’s hands. “It’s booze. Open it and pour us some drinks. We’ll do this right. Now, through here?”
Steve could only nod and follow Tony through to his living room. He had kept things simple, comfortable - on the surface, at least. The walls and floors were all heavily reinforced, the many windows were the strongest glass available, and, as Tony had pointed out, the security system was top notch. But none of that showed on the surface; instead there were clean lines, muted colours, and soft furnishings. He had a small gym in the basement and had knocked out a wall on the third floor to make a large studio / office. There were still a few boxes to unpack and the backyard would have to wait until spring but Steve had already sketched some plans for garden beds.
Tony had thrown himself down on the plush couch but was on his feet again after only a moment. Steve, knowing Tony would talk (and talk and talk) when he was ready, just went and grabbed a couple glasses from the kitchen. He almost poured the drinks there and left the bottle but thought better of it and took both glasses and bottle back to the living room and set them on the coffee table. This was probably a multiple drink type of talk.
Sitting back on the couch, Steve just watched as Tony prowled the room, stopping now and then to examine a photo or pick up a knickknack. Steve didn’t have much on the shelves and walls but everything that was there had a story behind it. Tony was putting down a frame photo of the team from last Christmas when he spoke. “You can’t get mad at a gun, Steve. You can’t…blame a gun. I mean, you can, but it’s a waste, it’s inefficient. You have to look for who made the gun, who bought it, who aimed it.”
“And Bucky’s the gun?” Steve could hear the tension in his own voice, the anger that flared whenever someone referred to Bucky as a thing . He grabbed his glass and took a sip, trying to stay calm, to let Tony have his say.
“No, the Asset was the gun. The Winter Soldier was the gun. Not Bucky. HYDRA made the man into a weapon and Stane used him to kill my parents.” Tony took the seat across from Steve and lifted his own glass. To Steve’s surprise, Tony only swirled the amber bourbon, watching the way the light played off the liquid. He noticed Steve looking. “Pep’s condition. I was allowed to come over as long as I didn’t have a drink before we talked.”
“You told me to pour them. I could have waited.”
“Yeah, but then what would we hold while awkwardly suppressing our manly emotions? And what if you got angry? Don’t you like to throw things when you’re angry?” He smirked a bit and Steve raised his glass in a mock toast, allowing Tony the point. “So, Rogers, as you know, I am a man of logic and science and reason and when I look at the facts of the case, I know that it wasn’t Bucky who pulled that trigger. So, logically, I am not mad at Bucky and I don’t blame him and I don’t want an apology from him.”
“But?” Steve put down his glass and rested his elbows on his knees, clasping his hands in front of him. It had taken him a while to learn Tony’s rhythms, the way he would say so much yet so little, seeming to babble, when he was really just lining up all his thoughts before lighting the fuse of the whole conversation. In this case, since Tony had started with the good news, Steve was bracing himself for the bad.
“But I look at him and I still see all I lost. I’m getting reports from Hill on what Fury is doing over in Europe and there just has to be a mention of the Winter Soldier or the Asset and I’m that twenty-year-old kid, orphaned all over again. And it fucking sucks, Steve. I want to tell you that when you find him, that I’ll be able to forgive him, that I’ll be cool with having him around the Tower and I just can’t. Not right now. I didn’t want you to leave, to feel like you couldn’t be part of the team while you looked for him. I mean, you did a great job here but you do have a home at the Tower, you know that right? And friends?”
Tony had been right. Picking up his glass and taking a drink was a great way for Steve to avoid answering right away and risk a few tears. “I know, Tony. And I am sorry that I lied to you. I kept thinking that I’d find some other evidence to prove that it hadn’t been him, that it was just another of HYDRA’s lies. I didn’t want it to be true.”
Tony thought for a moment, taking a long sip of his own drink. “Yeah, I might have fallen into that ‘maybe I can fix this before I have to tell anybody’ trap a time or two. Funny how that always backfires, huh?”
“Always, it always backfires. And yet-“
“-it’s also so tempting to do.”
“So tempting! And you keep thinking-“
“Maybe this time it’s work! But nope! It always blows up in your face.”
“Usually literally. Well, for you, anyway.”
“Hey! I resemble that remark!” Tony took the bottle and topped up both of their glasses. “So before I start listing the explosions you’re responsible for, I just wanted to let you know that you don’t have to keep looking for him on your own any more, Stark Industries will back you again”
“Tony, I’m not still looking for him. I gave that up when I got back.”
“That was for real? I thought it was just for show, to let you get out of the public eye for a bit, maybe to get Barnes to let down his guard. Shit, you actually retired?”
“Well, it’s a leave of absence, it’s not really retirement but no, it wasn’t just for show.”
“Then why? And what are you doing? I mean even you can only spend so many hours working out, right?”
“I worked on the house. I mean, I had the contractors in for the tricky bits but I know which end of a paintbrush to use. Sam hooked me up with a group at the VA. And I’m looking to start some art history classes at Brooklyn College in January. I never did get to finish studying art.” Steve took a drink. Why was a little harder to explain.
“Okay, so you’re covering the physical, the psychological and the cognitive. What about the emotional? What happened to all that ‘I need to find him, Tony’ you gave me before you jumped through a portal and went back in time? The details of which you have still not gone into to my satisfaction, by the way. Yeah, yeah, you said you gave us the relevant facts but I know you, Rogers, I know there’s more to the story. No one spends almost $100k in a week when they’re just ‘observing’ their target.”
Steve nearly choked on his latest sip for bourbon. He may have stopped looking at the relative values of the gems when he was pawning them but he hadn’t stopped to total their value in today’s dollar. “A hundred thousand? Tony, I’m sorry, I had no idea it was that much. Look, I can pay you back.”
“What? No. I don’t need the money back. I just want the details. What happened back then to make you change everything here? Why have you given up on Barnes?”
“I haven’t given up on him. But being back there, seeing myself, what I was like, what I was like to Bucky, how much he cared, what he would do for me…”
“What did the kid – wait, you said it was 1937, so yeah, 19, he was a kid –“ And of all the goddamn inconvenient times to have an eidetic memory, this had to be the worst because thinking about nineteen year old Bucky led to Steve thinking about nineteen year old Bucky in his lap with those lips and those eyes and he quickly squelched the image before it got more detailed but Tony, goddamn Tony, had to notice the way Steve blushed. “Or maybe not such a kid. Steeeevvveeee, did something happen between you and baby Bucky?”
Steve had left a lot of details out of his report. A lot. His colleagues may have been under the impression that he pulled a Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life and had counselled a distraught Bucky when past-Steve’s pneumonia had relapsed, swooping in to treat his younger self and save the day. Clint might have actually taken to calling him Clarence and Steve was more than happy to put up with it.
But this was Tony. And while Tony liked to know things, he could also keep secrets. And Steve hadn’t told anyone, not even Sam, and he still had moments when he woke up through the night and wondered if he was doing the right thing.
So he told Tony.
“Wait, you played sugar daddy to a teenage twink Bucky and you are only just telling me now? Forget lying about my parents, Steve, this is what ends our friendship.” Tony stood and started walking to the door. Steve knew he was joking, knew it but still couldn’t stop himself from jumping up and grabbing Tony’s arm.
“Tony, Tony, stop, it wasn’t like that. You should have seen him.”
“Oh, I think I would like to but it sounds like you saw enough of him for the both of us.”
“No, no, before he knew it was me. He was out there for me. Well, the other me. He saved my life.”
“Through hustling? I think I missed that after school special.”
Steve looked at the glass in his hand and realized that Tony was right. He really did want to throw it. Instead he set the glass carefully on the coffee table. “He was trying to get the money to pay my medical bills. I had this cough-“
“-which turned to pneumonia, I know this part. Tell me more about hustler Bucky, did he have one of those newsboy caps?”
“No, Tony, I let it become pneumonia. I knew exactly what was happening and I was letting it happen. When you were sick as often as I was, you came to learn when you could beat something and when it would beat you, if you didn’t get help. And I was going to let it beat me. Technically, it wouldn’t be suicide, right?”
“Jesus, Steve.” Tony sat back down.
“And Bucky called me on it. Which, of course, meant that I had to prove him wrong and get better. But he wouldn’t have been in that situation in the first place if I had just taken care of myself. Or hadn’t been so pigheaded about accepting help. I went through that portal expecting to find Bucky sick or injured or a hostage somewhere, I thought I’d swoop in, be the hero, and you know what? I found out that I was the problem all along.”
“Steve, you know I’m not that kind of doctor, right? If you’re having those ‘better off without me’ kind of thoughts?”
“Relax, Tony. I’m not suicidal. And if I ever am, I’ll use the appropriate professionals. I promise. Bucky – young Bucky-“
“-young Bucky told me that I had to make a home here.”
“And you took him literally, I see.”
“Very funny. No, I got back, and I realized that since I woke up, I’ve been jumping from crisis to crisis, doing everything I could to not think about what I lost. And being back there, back with him, it made me think about what I have here, in the future.”
“I have another chance. I even have another chance with Bucky. And I can spend it chasing him around the world, wearing myself out, wearing him out, making him do things on my terms.”
“Or you can settle down, have a life, go to school, get your shit together so that if-“
“-when he comes back, you’re in a spot to help him. Not a bad plan.” Tony splashed more bourbon in their glasses. “Well, I hope it works, Steve. I really do. Just…if – when he comes back, he might not go on my Christmas card list right away, okay?”
“Tony, that is more than okay. I mean, in another life, you guys might have hit it off, but given what happened – I’d settle for you just not trying to kill each other.”
“Well, as long as he doesn’t try to shoot me, I won’t try to rip his arm off.” Tony pushed Steve’s glass back towards him, lifting his own in a toast. “To friendship! Now, apparently, if I don’t invite you to celebrate Christmas at the Tower, I will be locked out of my workshop for the next few months.”
“Not the bedroom?”
“Steve, she’s trying to punish me, not herself.”
Steve shaved every day. Every day he looked at himself in the mirror, wondering if he was ready to stop. And every day, he considered how far he had come but also how far he thought he had to go and he would turn on the water and pick up his razor. He thought he would know the day he was ready.
Then the Avengers got called out on the night of Hill’s birthday and the party got rescheduled for a Tuesday. And Thor felt the occasion called for some Asgardian ale. A lot of Asgardian ale. So Steve woke up late for class and didn’t even stop and think about shaving.
And he didn’t bother the next day either.
Or the next.
Morris Wisotsky, not having any children of his own, had left his shop to Hazel, his long time bookkeeper. She and her husband Charlie kept it going until they lost a son in Vietnam and moved to California to be closer to their daughter. It had been sold a few times since then and currently Steve was looking out the window of a café at the plant nursery that now occupied the lot. He had started out by sketching the shop how it used to be and a few quick portraits of people from the old neighbourhood but now he was working on a plan for his backyard. That winter had felt endless but May was looking to be nice and warm and Steve thought it might be time to get some seedlings started. He never really had a green thumb but he liked the thought of growing his own vegetables.
“Americano?” The barista’s call had Steve checking his own coffee. He hadn’t been the only person to duck into the café when it had started raining but he seemed to be the only one who had stayed after it cleared up and he wanted to spend enough to make up for him camping at the table. He still had a few sips left, however, so he got back to drawing. “I have an Americano for Clark? Clark?”
“This yours, pal?” A coffee appeared in Steve’s peripheral vision.
Trying to figure out where to put the giant grill the team had gotten him as a housewarming gift, Steve wasn’t paying that much attention to what was going on around him. “No, not mine.”
“Are you sure? ‘Cause you look an awful lot like this guy I useta know.” When the coffee was set down on the table and the chair opposite him was moved so someone could sit, Steve finally paid attention. Ready with his ‘yes, I’m him, no, sorry, only kids get autographs’ smile, Steve glanced up. And froze. Bucky kept talking. “Lost track of him for a while but I swear you’re the spitting image of him. Name was Clark Kent.”
Steve consciously loosened his grip on his pencil and put it neatly next to his sketchbook. He took a deep breath and smiled, for real this time. “Sorry, pal, the name is Steve.”
“Hi Steve, I’m James.” He offered a hand to shake. His right hand. The other was covered with a glove.
Steve took the offered hand. “James, is it?”
“For now.” Bu-James smiled, a little sadly, but his eyes were soft. He tucked his hair behind his ear, looking almost shy for a moment. “So, Steve, any chance you maybe wanna get lunch? Get to know each other a bit?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’d like that a lot.”
“Who knows? Maybe we can make it a tradition.”