Every Sunday she could, Becky went to the Brooklyn Promenade. Every Sunday she could since 1950; rain, hail, or shine; peace protest, book deadline, or exquisitely painful dinner with her other half's parents; it didn't matter. She'd carved out that time for herself and she would, by God, stand by it with no intrusion from the rest of her life. She'd find a bench, sit down with her notebook in her lap if she wanted it (she never did), and people-watch in peace.
Except this Sunday, there was a dark-haired boy leaning against the railing who looked an awful lot like Bucky, and the last time she would have wished her brother to go away and leave her alone was in 1943.
He might not be Bucky. She was occasionally prone to seeing her brother around, only to have his face turn into a stranger's. Steve had called to let her know that Bucky was alive, that Bucky looked young, that Bucky had been used by bad men and had a hell of a lot of memory issues, that Bucky wasn't dead. It would be natural to start wistfully seeing him around again. Only a ghost would be clean-shaven, neatly dressed, his hair combed back and shoes polished. The ghost of a shining boy in his uniform, pretending it was all a wonderful adventure he'd chosen to go on.
This boy was slouched against the railing, hands in his pockets and sneakers scuffed. His hair brushed his shoulders and badly needed to be introduced to the concept of 'soap' and 'brush', and there was a week's old beard darkening his face. He looked haunted and lost, energy coiled underneath his skin like a leopard that had run away from the zoo, and still wasn't sure what he wanted to do.
Then he looked up and met her gaze.
Oh God. Oh God.
Hands shaking, she unclipped her pen from her notebook and held it up to him. The boy frowned. She wrote quickly across two pages, always glancing at him in case he vanished or ran. She added a question mark and an underline, and lifted her makeshift sign so he could read.
He started, pulling his hands from his pockets as his blue eyes went wide. His face seemed to fracture, then twist; fear, anger, desperation enough to make her breath snag in her throat. He took a deep breath of his own, then with a deliberate nonchalance strolled over. He was probably aiming for confidence, but she'd seen the confusion. He ended up standing not in front of her but to the side, facing the trees behind her as if it was important that he had plausible deniability.
“Who's Bucky?” he asked, glancing down. He sounded the same. Voice a little hoarse, but it was his.
“My brother,” she replied and, for the first time in years, heard how her voice had changed. “I'm Becky. Rebecca Pauline Barnes.” She swallowed, tightening her fingers around her notebook so she wouldn't cry. “Hello, Bucky.”
“...Becky?” His voice and face cracked, wavered. “You're...”
“Old?” Becky smiled, bleakly amused. “It happens. You've been gone for a while.”
At the bottom of her vision, she saw his gloved hand shake. Abruptly he turned, sat down on the bench, and stared out across the river. Occasionally he'd move his gaze back to her, studying her face with an unnerving intensity before looking back at New York's skyline. His mouth moved, but whatever he was saying, she couldn't hear it. She wasn't sure if she'd have been able to hear it even if her hearing was fine.
“It's 2014,” he said finally.
“Yeah, it is.”
“I...tried to find our place, Becks. I got lost. I got lost.” He looked young, but the confusion reminded her of the very old. “I tried to go home, and...”
“It's changed, but I'm still in our old apartment,” she said, hopefully reassuring. Or maybe not. Maybe there was nothing comforting she could say to him. The last letter he wrote her from the war, he signed it as he'd signed all his letters: I'll try and be home soon. He'd tried.
Becky felt like screaming.
Instead, she counted to three, very slowly. “The fancy bankers have all taken over. I've had to stay just to make sure there's a bit of spark around.”
There was a beat, and then he smiled. The expression was awkward, as if his face was out of practice, but it was a smile. A bright, entertained smile. “Ever bring any of your Harlem girls?”
“No, but thank you for the suggestion. I might do that next invitation, if I thought Marianne would forgive me. My wife,” Becky added and even now, even with her brother alive and sitting next to her, even with the nearly overwhelming desire to start sobbing in public, the words 'my wife' made her feel lighter. It had been such a long struggle...
And Bucky had missed it. He'd missed so much. He'd missed everything, and from the sudden stricken look on his face, he was realising it.
“Bucky,” she started, and he shook his head sharply.
“We...we have brothers,” he said then, glancing at her for confirmation. “Younger.”
“Yes. Walt and Pete.” Pete was dead, a car-crash before his fifty-fifth birthday. Walt wasn't in the best health, but he was alive. There were wives, nieces and nephews, children of the same, whole lives...
She swallowed it. Bucky looked as if he'd disintegrate under too many facts. He stared at the pavement, and forced his breathing into unnatural evenness.
“Steve,” Bucky said. “I remember Steve.”
Of course you remember Steve. That, too, she kept to herself. “What about him?”
He was silent so long she worried that he was lost inside his head. “I hurt him. I was told to. And I saved him from the river, but-”
“You were always saving Steve, Bucky,” she said with a little sigh, reaching out to pat his shoulder. He tensed under her hand, but almost seemed to lean after her when she pulled back.
“But I wanted to...I. Becky, I.”
“You've always saved him, Bucky,” she repeated. Saved him, and followed him, and needed him to be proud of you, and God don't you fucking remember how much you begged me not to tell him you'd been drafted because you couldn't stand it if he felt sorry for you and why did you follow him into the Howling Commandos, Bucky, we needed you, too.
“Don't tell him I'm here. Please.”
“Don't worry. I'm very good at lying to Steve Rogers,” she said, giving herself a mental shake. There were allowances to be made for complicated emotions (Steve was family, and you never loved and hated anyone like family), and then there was being unreasonable. It'd be cruel to have Steve running around out of his mind with worry trying to find Bucky, she would just ask Bucky again later.
There was going to be a 'later' to ask him. There had to be.
Becky sighed, this time louder. He looked so very young, little more than a boy, and it was making her feel so very, very old. She shut her notebook, and looked up to find him staring at her.
“If they hurt you, I won't let them,” Bucky said.
Well, she thought. That was a disquieting non sequitur.
“Hydra. If they come anywhere near you, I will kill them.”
“I don't believe that violence solves problems,” Becky said, carefully, only for him to look completely blank. The silence stretched out, awkward as a terrible joke at a funeral.
“You used to hit people with our broken broom.” He sounded sure of this, a fact akin to the sun rising in the east. Under other circumstances, she'd cheer.
“Yes. I did. I thought it solved a lot of things. And then...my big brother was conscripted. And he never came home.” He made a sound like someone had punched him, and she reached out to grab his hand before he could even think of leaving. “Until now,” Becky said desperately. “Until now. He just took a very, very long time to get back.”
For a long, ghastly moment, Bucky was frozen, staring at her and half-poised to get up and run. Then, very hesitantly, he said, “Becky, can I come home?”
“Yes,” Becky said. “You can come home now.”