“You need to take a break,” Sam tells him, and Steve wishes he didn't recognize his tone from the VA, the one Sam uses when people are fragile and hurting and don't know they're about to snap. He can't get away from Sam staring him down, one hand planted in the middle of Steve's chest over the hole where his armor has been ripped away. “You need to take a break or this will break you.”
Steve wants to tell Sam he's only bleeding a little, that he can already feel his ribs knitting themselves back together, but he's got a feeling that's not what Sam means. Behind him another concrete wall comes crumbling down, but Steve is too tired to flinch; if the wall falls on him, he'll just dig himself out.
In the settling dust, Sam's eyebrows arch even higher, like he pulled that thought right out of Steve's head.
“...Maybe I need a break,” Steve says, voice not as strong as he's used to hearing it.
“What a great idea,” Sam says, moving his hand to Steve's shoulder and keeping it there, using it to steer him toward the exit—or where the exit used to be. They have to pick their way over rubble and shattered Hydra tech, going slow. “Anyone gives you shit for it, you just point 'em towards me.”
Steve drags in a breath until one of his healing ribs pokes at his lung. “If Bucky—”
“Steve, man,” Sam starts, and stops, dragging a hand over his hair. “It's been six months. We've gotta start thinking Barnes won't be found until he wants to be found.”
Steve knows that. He knows that. But he hadn't looked for Bucky when he fell from the train—everyone said he shouldn't, he wouldn't want to see Bucky like that, Colonel Phillips sent men up and down the gulley even though it had snowed and no one said wolves to his face, no one would look at him for very long, but Steve knew they were right when they said no one could have survived from that fall.
“What if I stop,” Steve says, too rough to be quiet, “and he thinks I don't care if he's found?”
Sam looks at him, surrounded by the ruins of the last North American Hydra stronghold. “Then he's a damn fool,” Sam says. “That sound like Barnes?”
That startles a laugh out of Steve, though it's not a very nice one. “Sometimes, maybe.”
“I can't wait to meet this guy,” Sam says, shaking his head. “Look,” he adds, searching Steve's face for something, “even super soldiers can't run forever.”
Steve nods past the clench of his throat, past the childhood panic telling him his asthma's acting up, closing his airways for good.
“Steve,” Sam says as the helicopters break over the horizon, bearing down on their location, and he might say something else but the sound of chopper blades feels overwhelming. He hopes it wasn't important.
He thought it would be a lot harder to quit, but it turns out with SHIELD in shambles and Hydra still trying to pick up the pieces after Steve and the other Avengers systematically destroying their strongholds, the Government seems pleased to have Captain America out of the equation—and out of DC—for a bit. Either that, or they looked at the disaster over the Potomac and didn't want to tell the man who saved the world, “No.”
“You didn't quit,” Sam says, wandering in from the kitchen post-run with an orange juice carton in his hand. “Which means you don't actually get to turn into a ninety-year-old watching public television and eating me out of house and home.” He takes a swig, only remembering half-way through that he's co-habitating now in their Brooklyn apartment and not supposed to do that; Steve watches him freeze, caught orange-lipped and red-handed.
Steve raises his eyebrow. Sam brings down the juice.
“Okay, alright,” Sam sighs, “I'll buy new OJ and you do what you want. It's good. I'm glad, man, don't get me wrong.” He settles on the couch next to Steve, kicks up his feet on the coffee table and tips the carton in Steve's direction. “So what are we watching?”
“Antiques Roadshow,” Steve tells him, not trying very hard to keep a straight face.
“Ohh,” Sam drawls. “So, when do you come on? Before or after this ugly-ass vase?”
“Very funny,” Steve says, giving Sam's shoulder a shove. It feels good, familiar, tossing worn jokes back and forth. “I like it. There's a lot of history to pick up on, I can add things to my list. Hey!” he adds, pointing at the screen where two older men are leaning over a leader-bound book. “I remember that place! The, ah, Stage Door—“
“—Canteen,” the appraiser finishes in time with Steve's snapping fingers. “There were three major ones: one in New York, one in Los Angeles and one in San Francisco. And they were a place for servicemen to go and the movie stars would entertain them, dance with the soldiers, wait on them, cook for them and wash up after them. This was part of their war volunteer work. What you have here is the log book for the Stage Door Canteen...”
“Wow,” Sam says. Steve can feel him sneaking glances his way, but Steve doesn't bother to look back; he's leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and in any case Sam doesn't sound anything other than surprised. “I never heard about that. Did you do something like this?”
“Yeah.” Steve scrubs at the back of his neck while the appraiser finds autographs for Shirley Temple and the Three Stooges. “Here in New York, once. They didn't know whether I should be part of the servicemen or part of the talent. But Cary Grant was a good guy. He made me a drink, made a big show out of it—but in a nice way, like it was only the two of us, or like a stage play or something. In any case the other fellas were tickled by it.”
“Uh-huh,” Sam says, sounding a little strained. “You and...and Cary Grant.”
“Bucky didn't like him,” Steve mutters, not really listening because the appraiser just found Cary's signature, which means—
“But the one I'm really excited about,” the appraiser says, “especially considering recent events, is this little beauty right here.” He turns the page, and there's Steve's name. “Now, usually Captain America liked to sign his name as just that: Captain America. It's very, very rare that we find a signature for Steven G. Rogers, which is what you have here.”
Cary had given him a hard time about that, Steve remembers. He'd said, You don't see me signing my name Archibald Leach, do you? and nudged his elbow into Steve's arm. Steve had been too starstruck to do much more than laugh, and one of the Howling Commandos made a crack about Steven Grant-Rogers, not even needing to change the name if they got married. Dangerous thing to even joke about then, but there were never any reporters allowed through the Canteen door, and none of the boys there thought anything of it. Bucky had stayed in the back most of the night, playing cards with the soldiers too worn down to care about the movie star in their presence. Steve thinks he remembers Bucky drinking a lot, knows Bucky left early without saying goodbye.
When Steve tunes back in the appraiser is telling the owner that his logbook is worth eighteen thousand dollars as it is, but if he cuts it up and sells the autographs individually then he has a total worth of somewhere closer to fifty thousand dollars. For the 'Steven G. Rogers' autograph alone he could get between two and three grand.
Steve lets out a long breath as Sam whistles. “So that is a lot,” Steve says, voice low. “Sometimes it all seems like monopoly money.”
“Inflation, man,” Sam says, voice kind. “You sure watching this doesn't bring you down?”
“Yeah,” Steve says, shaking his head. “It feels... It's good to know people are keeping things like this. Keeping them safe.”
“Well, I'd never cut it up,” the owner says, resting his hand on the cover. “I could never do that to Freda. This place meant the world to her.”
“I remember Freda,” Steve smiles. “She ran the front-of-house. I think Dum-Dum took her home that night.”
“This is the most fun I have ever had watching PBS,” Sam says after a stunned moment of silence. “Since I outgrew Sesame Street, anyway. Maybe I'll make popcorn.”
Steve snags a receipt from the coffee table and lobs it at Sam's head with lazy, perfect accuracy. “Don't you have work at the VA today?”
“Not for another hour. You're stuck with me.” Sam grins at him, throws the receipt back to bounce harmlessly off Steve's shoulder. “Tell me more about Cary Grant chatting you up in front of witnesses while this lady tries to get money for her creepy doll.”
The doll is creepy, with ratty hair and turned in feet. Steve gladly looks away. “He didn't mean anything by it. I think he had someone at home,” Steve says, thinking back on the tired, sad smile on Cary's face when he'd caught Steve scanning the crowd for Bucky. “Or he...wanted someone at home.”
“Hang on, I'll Google it,” Sam says, thumbs methodically tapping out keywords into his smart phone. “What year was this?”
They spend the next three appraisals—the doll, a chair, a Civil War rifle—learning about Cary Grant and Randolph Scott, with a quick break for Marvin Gaye's passport (worth twenty thousand dollars, according to the appraiser; “Damn straight it is,” Sam says, “Hey Steve, can I borrow twenty thousand dollars?”). The article Sam found ends with a story about Cary and Randolph in their seventies, seen quietly holding hands in an empty restaurant in Beverly Hills.
“I'm glad they found each other,” Steve says with a firm nod.
“Yeah...” Sam says. “Seven marriages between them, but they came back together in the end.”
Steve knows when he's being watched—always did, though the serum might've made it a little more obvious. Bucky had the same way of looking at Steve like he could see right through him to the faulty lungs, the heart that never pumped quite right. “Okay,” Steve says, dragging his hands down his legs. “Now you've really got to head out.”
Sam groans but doesn't disagree, using Steve's shoulder for leverage. “You could come with me, you know,” he offers, like he always does, arms stretched high above his head.
“Not today,” Steve says with a fleeting smile. “I promise I'm not wallowing,” he says to cut Sam off at the pass, “Just...there's a lot to think about. On my break.”
“Good,” Sam says. He reaches out to mess up Steve's hair, which he'd combed reflexively this morning. “Make lists. Take a walk. Maybe a shower. Pick some hobbies. You like art, right? Get yourself some art supplies. This is your break, all about you.”
“After Antiques Roadshow,” Steve promises, shrugging him off.
“Yeah, yeah,” says Sam, walking backward toward his room. “You know I can't promise not to tell Natasha about this, right? I'm a weak man, and she's running out of fossil jokes.”
It's an offer, Steve knows, to keep this between them. If Steve says Don't tell Natasha, then she'll have to get it out of Sam with a pair of pliers. He shrugs. “I can handle it.”
Sam's grin is wide and white, and Steve thinks—not for the first time—that this break was a good idea for both of them.
It's not supposed to become a routine, but Steve and Sam have gotten used to their lives structured into set patterns. Sam's work at the VA is only three days a week, and Steve usually tries to get in some drawing after lunch, with limited...interest, or success. An hour of TV after their morning run gives them time to plan, rest a little, remember how to fit into bodies used to being on-call 24/7 when they don't have anything they need to do.
After a week or so of mornings curled up watching PBS with Sam, Natasha climbs in through their window. “Sam told me you were watching Antiques Roadshow,” she says, shaking out her hair. “I assumed it was a national emergency.”
“Hold onto your mocking, commercial coming up,” Steve says, waving for her to join them on the couch while keeping his eyes fixed on the screen. He only lasts about a minute of shop-talk about a folk-art root sculpture of a fish before he cuts his eyes to her and admits, “There are no commercials on PBS.”
Natasha punches his arm. Sam stifles his laughter into a fistful of popcorn.
“Ow,” Steve says, wincing as the bruise blooms; in a few seconds it'll start itching up a storm, which she knows.
Natasha gives him a look, before her gaze gets caught by the TV. “Oh nice, a purse revolver.”
It looks like a clunky wallet to Steve, but then the appraiser opens the catch and lays it out—there's a small metal chamber for a round of bullets and a pin mechanism for firing them. “Right here on the side is a button, and if you push the button, it will reveal the barrel,” the appraiser explains. “And also, underneath, a folding trigger will come out.”
“I used to have one of those,” Natasha says, lips curled fondly. “Mine was blue, though, with a silver chain.”
“The concept behind the pistol was that as a robber came up to you and tried to take your money from you, as it appears that you're fumbling with your purse, you're actually preparing to shoot. So it deters robbers.”
“Yes,” Nat says slowly, purposefully stilted. “That is what I used it for.”
Sam accidentally tries to inhale his popcorn, coughing up a storm.
“So you don't want to make fun of me?” Steve asks when the show moves on to an antique table and Natasha stays comfortable, nodding along to the new owner's monotone. It feels...nice with both of them here, warm and heavy either side of him on the couch. The tense knot at the back of his spine—the one he'd tried so hard to work out the day before at the gym—suddenly gives way, exactly the right amount of stretch and sprawl to tug it loose.
“Nah, I'm good,” she says, nudging his knee with her toes. Steve isn't entirely sure when she took her shoes off, or if she was wearing any when she came in. “You gonna hog all that popcorn, Birdbrain?”
“I thought you'd've used all your bird-related digs on the other guy,” Sam says, obediently handing over the bowl. It takes Steve a second to realize when Sam says 'the other guy' he doesn't mean the Hulk.
“It just means I have years of stockpiled puns and a brand new audience,” Natasha smirks.
“I still need to meet this Hawkeye,” Sam points out, pouting a little. “He can give me all his spider jokes and we'll team up on you.”
“He could, but he won't if he knows what's good for him.” She pops another kernel in her mouth, pausing to chew. “On the other hand, that's never been Clint's strong suit. Hey, Steve, look. It's you.”
Steve's face is on the TV screen, though that's not so unusual these days. What is unusual is that it's been painted, printed, and pinned to a soft velvet backboard with tiny magnets. Captain America is staring straight ahead with a slight smirk on his painted face, holding a shield with the words 'EVERY BOND YOU BUY' stamped across it.
“I picked it up at a garage sale,” the owner is saying, “for about ten dollars, I think.”
“This was before the Chitauri attack on New York, I imagine?” the appraiser prompts, a tall, oily man with a thick mustache.
“Yes, a few years before that,” the owner says; he's short, round, middle-aged and balding. Steve frowns at him, leaning forward on the couch again as the screen snaps back to the poster—this time, panned back far enough to see a painted image of Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes back-to-back with Captain America, stoically staring into the distance with a rifle in his hands. 'A BULLET IN THE BARREL OF YOUR BEST GUY'S GUN' is scrawled across his rifle, red letters crisp and bright. Steve feels his skin go cold.
“I've always been a big fan of Captain America, so I knew I just—had to have it. I hoped it was something special.”
“Well,” the appraiser says, “It is.”
“Steve?” Sam asks. Steve holds up his hand, asking him to wait. Natasha shifts into something closer to a crouch.
“This date here says it was printed in January, 1944. Now this is really exciting because there's a sort of breaking point after Captain America's heroic rescue of the 107th, at least as far as War Bonds posters are concerned. Cap-themed World War II memorabilia is infinitely more desirable starting in 1944, but before this find we'd had reason to believe the first poster printed with Cap's stamp of approval was one called 'Strength In Unity,' which features him and all of the Howling Commandos. Your poster not only predates that—it's also the only Cap-approved poster featuring just him and his childhood friend, Bucky Barnes. And—and here's where it gets really exciting—as far as we know? This is a one-of-a-kind. So yes, it's very valuable to collectors, you bet.” He laughs.
Steve's jaw is so tightly clenched he feels like he might break something.
“That's not true,” he gets out.
“What's not true, Steve?” Natasha asks, too gentle with him. It's even harder not to snap back a response.
Steve shakes his head, frustration thick at the back of his throat. “Peggy...Peggy saw to it that I held sole rights to my own image and images related to Captain America as soon as she had enough leverage to do it, which happened right after the 107th was recovered. I wouldn't have bothered, but. She knew why it was important.”
He makes himself breathe, drags a hand through his hair so it can't curl into a fist. “All War Bonds posters I signed off on,” he says, “had to also portray at least two other Howling Commandos—and when I realized they kept only using Dum-Dum, Monty, and Jacques I wrote it into the contract that they had to show either Jim or Gabe too.”
“Ahh,” Sam sighs, sinking back. “No one liked seeing Captain America palling around with Blacks and Asians, huh?”
“I'm surprised the Army let you have that kind of control,” Natasha says, before Steve can work out how to stop gritting his teeth long enough to answer.
“I was too much of a public figure for them to stop me,” Steve manages. “At least, that's what Peggy said.” He swallows, even though it's difficult. “We couldn't extend it to the rest of the Howling Commandos, but I made sure they were written in as equal share beneficiaries of any profits made.”
The War Bonds posters hadn't originally been designed to generate money—they were seen as free advertising for the companies who printed them, stamped with their trademark at the bottom of a poster they knew would be hung up in every factory from coast to coast. It wasn't until they realized people were willing to pay for Captain America telling them what to do that the military started selling the posters, collecting the proceeds—and by that time Steve's contract had been settled.
Steve hadn't taken a share of the profits; he didn't need it, the Army was paying him plenty as leader of such a specialized task-force. And all the signing off he'd done only after the men depicted gave him the go-ahead. In order for this poster to be printed legally, Steve would have had to show a copy to Bucky to get his permission, and no way Bucky would've given it without one of the other boys in the picture too. Did someone go behind his back? Forge his signature or skip it altogether and hope he never found out? Why would anyone go to all that trouble?
The appraiser gestures over Bucky's form, his thick fingers skimming the page as he talks about how rare it is to see just the two of them together, Captain America and his faithful sidekick—
His fingers stick. For less than a second, but Steve sees it happen.
The poster is appraised at six thousand dollars. “But,” the appraiser says, “I honestly wouldn't be surprised to see it go for ten thousand or more.”
It's a lost cause; Steve's hands curl into fists. “It's a forgery.”
“Huh,” says Sam. Steve can't get a read on his tone, turns to look at him—but Sam is trading looks with Natasha.
“What?” Steve demands, on his feet so fast he almost knocks over the coffee table. He doesn't mean for it to be such a dramatic gesture, he just can't see them both at the same time when he's sitting, he doesn't know if they believe him.
“I mean,” Sam starts, “I don't have Matt Weiberg's number on my speed dial, personally—”
“I can do some digging,” Natasha says, tactical as ever. “He might not be the right person to contact, but he'll know who we need to talk to."
“To do—wait, what?” Steve stammers. “What do you think we can—”
“Step one: find out if the poster really is forged, in which case arrest that guy,” Sam says, pointing to the owner, shaking sweaty hands with the appraiser. “Step two: find out if they were in on it together, in which case arrest both their asses for fraud and lying to the American public on this most cherished of government-funded broadcasts.”
“And viewers like you,” Natasha supplies.
Sam nods, firmly. Steve would ask him if he's being sarcastic but he looks genuinely annoyed. “Damn straight.”
“Step three,” Natasha says, “Profit.”
“I don't want to profit,” Steve objects. “I just don't want someone else to profit off a forgery.”
Natasha shrugs. “Same difference.” She pats the couch next to her, curling her legs up so she can throw them over Steve's lap as soon as he sits back down.
Steve eases back onto the couch, jittery that they can't fight this immediately. The damage has already been done, what little damage there was; no one's life is or ever was in danger from a forged poster. But someone used his face—used Bucky's face—to lie and make money, and Steve's gut won't stop churning.
“Hey,” Natasha says, carding a hand through the back of his hair until he looks at her. “We've got your back.”
Steve leans his head back on the couch, into her hand and against Sam's solid shoulder, until he remembers that he believes her.
Matt Weiberg is smaller in real life than he looks on TV, though not as small as Pauline Kellogg, President and CEO of PBS, who comes along for the meeting.
“It's such an honor to meet you,” Matt says, shaking Steve's hand with a fervor brought on by embarrassment, as far as Steve can tell. Pauline shakes his hand as well, firmer and brief, before they all take a seat at a table meant to hold at least thirty more people.
“Yes,” Pauline agrees, “I'm just sorry it's under these circumstances.”
“I didn't realize this would require meeting in person,” Steve says, not sure if he feels glad that it did. His hair is growing out, almost too long to gel into submission, though with Natasha's help he managed to get it looking fairly close to his usual style. It's been three weeks since things like hair and clothes stopped being so important—Steve almost feels like he's back in uniform, just from wearing a blue button-up shirt. His face feels scraped raw from shaving off the few days worth of stubble he'd let build up. His tag is itching at the back of his neck.
“We wanted you to know how seriously we're handling the situation, Captain Rogers,” Pauline says, not stumbling over his name the way some people do. “And to explain.”
“We handle over fourteen thousand items,” Matt jumps in, practically treading on her heels; she flicks him a look. “Per event.”
Steve blinks. Then, when they seem to expect a response, he adds, “Wow.”
“Yes,” Pauline says. Steve thinks she might be standing on Matt's foot under the table. “Also, because we're primarily funded through government grants and viewer donations, our budget is very tight. We don't pay any of our appraisers—not only because it could be seen as a conflict of interest, but because we can't afford to. That isn't to say,” she hurries on, “that these people aren't heavily vetted before they're let in the door; each appraiser is put through a very vigorous qualification process that requires years of professional knowledge and experience. Harrison Greye,” she says, naming the appraiser for the War Bonds poster, “exceeded all of our standards, and he's been working with us for the last seven years.”
“That doesn't mean he made a correct assessment in this case,” Steve says, swallowing back the automatic 'ma'am.' He has a feeling Pauline wouldn't appreciate it.
“Of course not!” Matt cries, hands flying nervously across the table. If Steve was sitting any closer, he's sure Matt would have reached out and taken his hand. Matt seems to realize this too. “No—no one is saying that—”
“The primary source of benefits for our volunteers comes through exposure,” Pauline plows ahead as though neither one of them has spoken. “But also through a percentage of sales if their appraisal leads to the item being purchased. This,” she says, “is what we believe Harrison Greye has been doing on other appraisals, and it is not, as such, illegal.”
She flicks open a manila folder which blends so perfectly with the beige tabletop that Steve hadn't realized it was there. Inside are photographs of other World War II memorabilia, almost all of it Captain America themed. Steve shifts his hands under the table, slides them down to his knees.
“In our investigation,” Pauline says, somewhat kinder in tone, “we found eight other objects he gave low estimates to on air, then brokered deals for much higher amounts—pocketing the bulk of the money and delivering to the owners only the previously mentioned lowball amount. That is illegal.”
Steve's hands relax, slowly. “This is what he was trying to do here?” he asks. “Six- to ten-grand doesn't sound like chump change to me.”
“It is when the real value of the poster would have been closer to sixteen or twenty thousand dollars. Had it not been a forgery.”
Steve feels something pull free in his chest, the small voice telling him he might have imagined Harrison Greye's fingers sticking—up until now no one has been willing to say the poster is fake beyond a shadow of a doubt. It's all been 'allegedly.'
“I want you to know Harrison Greye's invitation to the Roadshow has been permanently revoked, and all of our findings have been turned over to the FBI. Mr. Greye is facing jail time and will be ordered to repay the money he swindled.”
“And the forger, obviously,” Matt cuts in, “Obviously he is also probably going to jail. Or receiving a fine.”
“Good.” Steve nods. His tag is still itching. “Well, thank you for keeping me informed,” he starts, getting ready to stand.
“What we would really like to know,” Matt Weiberg says, all-but leaping over the table to keep Steve in his seat, “is, uh, is how you knew that.”
“...Knew...?” Steve repeats.
“That it—that it was a forgery,” he says, fumbling for a tube that's been hidden behind the back of his chair. Steve bites back a sigh, wondering if he's already losing his touch badly enough that he can't spot office supplies, or if Matt took particular care in making sure he didn't see it until now.
Matt pulls the poster free with his fingertips, laying it out as flat as he can across the table. It looks bigger in person, the details blurrier but still loud and colorful. Bucky's eyes look bluer, where he's looking over Captain America's shoulder into the distance.
'A BULLET IN THE BARREL OF YOUR BEST GUY'S GUN' says Bucky's rifle. Steve feels like the letters are burning into his retinas.
He takes a breath. Skims his hand as light as he can across the paper—there's no residue anymore, his fingers don't catch. “It wasn't totally dry when it was being filmed,” Steve tells them, just as he finds the spot where Greye's fingertips left the smallest trace of a smudge. It's almost invisible, but Steve shows them, “Here,” and Pauline feels the slight roughness for herself.
“There's also the matter of how thin the paper is,” Steve adds. “Propaganda posters were made to be sturdy, so they could be plastered to walls on the street or inside factories—places which saw a lot of wear and tear. I mean, yes, some of them were more like tissue paper, but for the larger sizes like this they wanted a strong message that would stick around. The ink wouldn't keep its form to anything with less thickness. Also the printing techniques he used are...frankly, insultingly modern. It's pretty obvious this isn't a lithograph or photogravure. He most likely used a laser printer; with high-gloss paper it would take longer for the ink to dry.”
Pauline and Matt blink at him, slowly. “I'm surprised you know so much about poster printing, Captain—” Pauline begins.
“It was my job,” Steve says, too blunt. He reigns it sharply in, trying not to feel like Bucky's staring at him from the poster. “A job I had, once. I designed a poster that was chosen by a marketing company in a contest, before I enlisted. Part of the prize was watching your design get printed.”
“You. Designed a—” Matt gets out, sounding like he's talking through a mouth full of marbles.
“It's uncredited, which is how I'd like it to stay,” Steve says. Matt looks like he's swallowing his own tongue trying not to ask, but Steve has no desire to open that can of worms. He shifts the cardboard tube off the edge of the poster, lets it curl back into the shape it wants to be in; it rolls until Bucky's face disappears, until Captain America's eyes are covered.
“Captain Rogers,” Pauline says. “Would you be able to tell me which others of these items are frauds—if any—by looking at the pictures?”
Steve wants to go home. Meetings have never been his favorite part of the job, and this one feels endless. “I can try,” he says, not quite a sigh, and leans forward to gather the photos to sift through them.
Of the eight objects Steve spots two that seem a little off, and a third that's an outright fraud. “Monty would've shot himself in the foot before carrying a French gun,” he says, frowning at the photograph of a monogrammed pistol; in the background is a black and white photo of Monty holding a very similarly shaped gun, presumably the 'proof' of the object's provenance. “And Jacques would've held his foot in place. They had some sort of running joke about it.”
Pauline and Matt share an uncomfortably long look before they speak to Steve again. “Captain Rogers,” Pauline says, at the same time Matt blurts, “Would you like to be a guest appraiser on the Roadshow?”
“Uh,” says Steve.
“Think it over,” Pauline says, pushing a business card—Where the hell was she keeping it? Steve wonders—across the table to him. “The event is here, in New York, a week from now. Tuesday through Friday. We wouldn't advertise your presence—”
“Frankly,” Matt says with a nervous chuckle, “that's not something we're equipped to handle. Security-wise, I mean.”
“You could keep your anonymity,” Pauline continues, “And if you happen to come across some high-profile pieces we would invite the owner to a filmed appraisal in a secondary location, have them sign a non-disclosure agreement that keeps your involvement separate from the Roadshow until the event is over.”
“Won't they see me when they show me their antiques?” Steve asks, as slow as he can manage.
“You could wear a hat?” Matt offers.
“I am not a qualified appraiser,” Steve says after a split-second. “Isn't that what got you into this mess in the first place?”
“Yes,” Pauline says, “It is. And honestly, the Roadshow is going to be taking quite a bit of heat for it. I won't pretend that your presence wouldn't provide some much needed good press to get us through a rough time.” Guilt, Steve notes; she doesn't stay on that tactic for long. “But I do happen to think you are qualified, for what it's worth. There is nothing that beats first hand experience, and you seem to know quite a lot about your own merchandising from before your fall.”
“It's not difficult,” Steve tells her. “I was only Captain America for two years.”
He watches the shock cross their features, the same way it does for everyone who grew up with Captain America in their history books and in their movies, larger than life.
“I'll think about it,” Steve says, taking the card. “Thank you for your time.”
“Thank you,” Matt Weiberg says, leaping up to shake Steve's hand. Pauline stands much more sedately; her handshake is exactly the same as when Steve walked in.
Steve waits until he's in the elevator before he scratches at his neck where the tag was itching, rubs and rubs until the skin feels hot and raw.
“Huh,” Sam says.
“Fourteen thousand items,” Natasha says, upside-down over the arm of the chair she's curled up in. She is not on a break—there's a bruise above her eyebrow and a few pin-prick cuts on her hands. Steve's glad Sam convinced her to bundle up with the duvet from his room, and Steve's almost done making hot chocolate for all of them (but especially because Natasha still looks cold). “So the odds of your antique getting appraised on-air is—”
“0.014%,” Steve says, adding marshmallows.
“Less when you factor in how many of those filmed appraisals are actually used in any given episode,” she points out, accepting the mug Steve offers.
“Okay, math gurus,” Sam huffs. “The point is, odds of an appraiser sifting through all that trash to find a treasure worthy of television are also astronomically small. Nope, don't tell me,” he says when Steve opens his mouth.
“Fine,” Steve says, settling on the far end of the couch. “More hot chocolate for me.”
“Maybe you'll finally get an ass,” Sam nods thoughtfully.
“Now I'm definitely drinking both,” he says, taking a long, slow slurp from the mug in his right hand.
“Children,” Nat chides, but she's smiling behind her own hot chocolate. “Share.”
Sam says, “Yes ma'am,” even though the order wasn't directed at him, turns a pointed eyebrow toward Steve a second too late. Sometimes Steve wonders about those two.
“The point is,” Sam continues once he's curled around the mug Steve hands him, “it sounds like they've set themselves up for a shitshow of epic proportions. What's to keep the appraisers from lying to get themselves on air? Or, for that matter, telling someone their antique is worth ten bucks and buying it from them to sell at a hella profit?”
“Hella profit?” Steve repeats with an eyebrow of his own.
“It's math.” He takes a sip. “I wouldn't expect you to understand.”
“Do either of you realize you're casing this like it's an assignment?” Natasha asks from her cocoon. Both of them stop. “I'm just curious. You're both acting like something bad's going to happen. It already did, and you caught it. Crisis averted.”
Steve glances at Sam, who's glancing back. They both look at their mugs. Steve taps one of the melting marshmallows to see if it bobs.
“...So,” Natasha continues after a dragging moment of silence, “What you've got here is an offer to be part of Antiques Roadshow. Steve, do you want to go?”
Steve feels his stomach sink, and it's not just the sugar kicking in. “I don't know how I could. Without being recognized the way they're worried about.” He's worried about it too, fourteen thousand items and all of them accompanied by an adult.
“We can hipster you up again,” Natasha says, corner of her mouth curled up in a smile. “It worked last time.”
Steve blinks. It did work last time. And the stakes were much higher.
“When was this?” Sam asks, indignant. “Was there a Dress-Up-Steve Day and I wasn't invited? I'm hurt.”
“You could help this time,” Natasha offers, smirking wider.
Maybe Steve's stomach should be sinking again, for different reasons. A laugh bursts out of him instead, too loud and genuine and dissolving into helpless giggles that don't stop after Steve covers them with his hand. He hasn't—he doesn't know if this is going to work. If he knows enough, if he's smart enough. The serum was supposed to make him a soldier, and it did. Doing this wouldn't rely on his brawn at all.
“Yeah,” he says, and realized he's smiling at his hot chocolate. He lifts his head, smiles at his friends instead. “Yes, okay. Let's do it.”
It's his break. He's supposed to do things that make him happy. Maybe this will.
“I changed my mind.”
“Woman-up, Rogers,” Natasha drawls in his ear. He can hear her idly tapping a keyboard, going through the warehouse's security footage. For everything she said about this not being an assignment, some part of Steve hadn't been surprised when she pulled up in a surveillance van and offered to give him a ride. She's still not on a break; she'd told him this was the closest she could get to a vacation, reading trashy magazines in a van close enough to be Steve's backup in the unlikely event someone attacks Captain America at an Antiques Roadshow. “It's barely noon. Only thirteen thousand items to go.”
She's kidding. The Collectibles section of the warehouse is only going to see a fraction of that, and Steve is surrounded on either side by a whole team of volunteers giving appraisals—though not, Steve is concerned to realize, with a thoroughness the items deserve.
Debbie DuBlanc, the appraiser on Steve's left, has gone through three times as many items as Steve has, but maybe that's due to Steve only handling Captain America merchandise and some WWII memorabilia. She still almost turned away a 1905 World Series program—an event Steve's mom had talked about attending as a girl, always with so much enthusiasm it made his heart ache to remember—at an estimate of $200. (Steve directed the owner toward Sports and caught a glimpse of her later being prepped for cameras in the middle of the warehouse floor; years of lip-reading told him the program was re-appraised at twelve thousand dollars.)
“You're doing fine,” Natasha says. “I can see you worrying from across the room, even with this grainy footage. Chill.”
“There are a lot of people,” Steve hisses, and has to paste on a smile when Mrs. Dublanc shoots him an annoyed glare.
No one has recognized him yet, which is the good news. The thick, prescription-free glasses and slouchy hat seem to be working, though the garish red-yellow-black-gray striped sweater is probably doing more for keeping people from looking at him too long. The sweater is Sam's. Natasha bought the jeans especially for him, though he tried to tell her they were at least a size too small. It's a good thing he's sitting down.
“Hello,” a middle-aged woman with wispy blonde hair says, dropping a shoebox onto the table in front of Steve. “The guy at the end said to bring this your way?”
The guy at the end is Matt Weiberg, who has been hovering at a distance of fifty feet ever since Steve arrived. He catches Steve looking and gives him an eager wave.
Steve waves back, politely, before turning his attention back to the owner. “I'm Maisy,” she says. “You look awfully familiar.”
“I get that a lot,” he says, careful not to let his smile get strained. So does she, in a strange way—there's something about her face that reminds him of the girls Bucky used to talk into taking Steve on a date. Like she's here for a reason that has nothing to do with him. He clears his throat. “What did you bring in to the Roadshow today?”
“Comic books.” Maisy flips open the lid of her shoebox, and Steve sees she is absolutely exceeding her one-to-two items per ticket limit. There are at least a dozen comics in this box, some of them yellowed with age, all but one of them Captain America issues.
The Captain America comics are all well past his time, most of them from the 1968 series, worth—according to his research before the event and a quick archive search on a laptop provided by the Roadshow—between seventy and a hundred dollars each. He tells Maisy this, looking away while she swallows disappointment. Everyone always seems so let down that their items aren't worth millions. Steve tries not to think about how he and his mom used to live on seventy dollars a month when they were lucky.
The last item in the box is different. Steve tells Maisy she should really get protective covers as he picks up the remaining comic with careful, gloved fingers.
It's a Buck Rogers comic, 1929. Amazing Stories, one of them by H.G. Wells. Steve knows all of them by heart.
Bucky used to have a copy, bursting with pride as he ran up to Steve waiting for him on the sidewalk, all of eleven years old and already tripping over his feet. “Look, look,” he'd said, “Buck Rogers. Little bit of you, little bit of me,” and he'd grinned wide enough to show the gap where a bully had knocked out his last baby tooth the week before.
They'd spent the whole next year, seemed like, curled up under a thin blanket fort, just enough light to read the stories shoulder to shoulder, heads together, tracing the lines of Buck Rogers' disintegrator beam. “Wonder if the future's really gonna be like that,” was traded back and forth between them like a mantra, with whoever did the asking sitting back to let the other whisper about flying cars and houses made of food.
Lots of things different in the future, turns out. Just nothing like either of them ever guessed.
Bucky had been so careful with his copy. He said his first curse word in front of Steve when he accidentally stepped on the corner and folded it, went purple-red in the face and made Steve promise not to tell his ma. Steve turns to the page Bucky'd damaged on autopilot, runs his gloved thumb over the crease he finds there—it must have been a common enough place to damage, since Maisy's copy is folded in the same spot.
Maisy clears her throat. Steve snaps his head up, distantly aware that this isn't the first time she's done so.
“Sorry,” he says. “I just haven't seen one like this in...a long time.”
He swallows. His hands feel sweaty, and he's grateful for the gloves. “Where did you get it?” Steve asks, more for something to say than any real curiosity. When this is over he's going to have to give the comic back.
“They're all my dad's,” she shrugs. “He asked me to bring them today since he had to work. I thought they were all Captain America, honestly.”
Mrs. Dublanc, between items for the moment, starts leaning in to peer over Maisy's shoebox with a frown.
“Well, I'd say this one is worth...” Steve clears his throat, which turns into a hasty cough, and then a pointed one so strong he almost knocks off his fake glasses.
“Is that for me?” Natasha drawls in his ear as the keyboard noises triple in intensity. “I thought you were relying on Google to get you through the tough spots. Let's see...”
Steve holds up a finger and grabs a drink from his free water bottle.
“Thirty-six hundred dollars,” Natasha finishes. “Give or take.”
“Thirty-six hundred,” Steve repeats, stunned and choking on his water before he manages to cough out in a high, strangled approximation of his usual voice, “Thirty-six hundred dollars. Roughly. So, uh. Not such a bad haul, huh?”
“Not bad,” Maisy says, sounding a little more appeased.
Mrs. Dublanc huffs through her nose, loud enough to catch Maisy's attention. “You should have told staff about that find,” she tells Steve, voice dripping disdain, “They would've filmed it. You both missed out.”
“Oh,” Steve says. “Sorry,” he tells Maisy, who looks torn between being annoyed at him and annoyed at someone else butting into their conversation. “I hope you're not too disappointed.”
“Opportunities like that don't just come along,” Mrs. Dublanc says, face pinched, before she turns away.
Steve is extra careful returning the comic to the shoebox, even though Maisy picks the whole thing up and tucks it sideways under her arm. She takes the insurance information he offers with a wry quirk of her mouth as she leaves. He wonders what happened to Bucky's copy, if he'd lost it or sold it before the war. He thinks about the look on Bucky's gap-toothed face if Steve told him it'd be worth almost four thousand dollars one day.
“You're real quiet, Rogers,” Natasha says. “I don't get a thank you?”
“Thank you,” Steve replies automatically. “I appreciate it.”
These days Bucky probably doesn't remember the Buck Rogers comic. The way their elbows would get red and achy from propping their heads up as they flipped through it cover to cover.
In the grand scheme of things, it's not an important thing to remember.
“You look like someone excited to be here,” Sam says with a grin the next day, handing Steve a coffee. Steve fights back a yawn just looking at it; caffeine doesn't do much for him these days, but sometimes he can trick himself into being more awake after drinking it. He takes his first sip and stays standing, feeling stiff from sitting too long yesterday and strangely exhausted by the whole experience. Today's sweater is forest green with a black diamond pattern across the chest and it already feels too hot.
There are still a few minutes before the crowd comes in. The warehouse looks hugely empty without the press of people, rows of empty tables while lonely cameras stare at vacant film sets in the center of the room. Steve looks at them with a numb kind of dread.
“They want me to find someone to film with today,” he mutters, voice low to keep Mrs. Dublanc and any other curious ears out of it.
“That is why you're here, right?” Sam prompts, dry, like he expects Steve to contradict him. “Film a couple spots, show support to PBS and the Roadshow?”
“Sure,” Steve says. Sam keeps looking at him. Steve narrows his eyes behind his glasses. “What?”
“Definitely not here to wallow in the past?” Sam's gaze casually shifts up to the ceiling as he sips his coffee, as if he's looking at the Sistine Chapel instead of naked support beams. Steve waits him out, pushes up the sleeves of his sweater until Sam looks at him again.
One of Sam's many talents—the one that probably got him into pararescue in the first place—is his ability to shrug with just his face. “Okay.”
“So is this,” Steve says, trying to bite back annoyance, “you and Natasha keeping an eye on me? Trading off on some sort of depression watch?”
Sam makes eye-contact and holds it. Steve's seen him do the same with veterans before; it's what he does when he needs someone to pay attention to what he's saying, not what they think they're hearing between the lines. “Nat and I are here because we're your friends, and we want to support you. You do realize this is the first thing you've shown actual engaged interest in since you were fished out of the Potomac? I mean, other than finding your friend.”
Steve ducks his head. The coffee looks small in his hands, the way everything looked small immediately after the serum. When he'd gone back to his apartment he almost knocked his head on the doorway, kept staring at the furniture and feeling like he'd fallen into a dollhouse replica of the space he and Bucky used to share.
“Listen,” Sam says, angling his body closer as the doors start to open across the warehouse floor. “No one is expecting you to be clairvoyant about this. Everyone here has laptops and I bet you dollars to doughnuts they use 'em, too. All you need to do is verify, which is what you're good at. And if you need to step away because there's too much noise, too many people, you do what you gotta do.” Sam's loose fist comes up, rests solidly against Steve's shoulder. “Okay?”
Steve makes himself meet Sam's gaze, eyelashes brushing the glass of his spectacles when he nods. “Okay.”
Sam holds his arms out. “Bring it on in for a hug?”
Steve's glad Sam offered, because he never would have figured out how to ask. Sam's hugs are some of the best in the business, his free-hand wide and solid across Steve's shoulders. It's brief, friendly. Mrs. Dublanc still purses her lips at them like Sam dipped him in some scandalous dance move right across her appraising table.
“Knock 'em dead,” Sam tells him, clapping Steve on the back as he pulls away. “I'm gonna go wander over by Arms and Militaria.” His eyebrows show what he thinks of the name as he backs away, grinning as wide as he can.
Steve drowns his sigh in coffee and moves back behind his table, ready for the first pushy owner to trip up to him holding out a mass-produced paper mask of Steve's own face. For a split second Steve wonders if he's being asked to sign it. Then—
“I got it at a garage sale for a quarter,” the man says. “It looks super old, right? It's black and white.”
Sam must leave for a while, because when he comes back he brings sandwiches. “Thank god,” Steve blurts, startling the woman who'd been trying to convince him her Howling Commando trading cards weren't cheap reproductions.
“Rough day at the office?” Sam says, tossing him a sandwich. The heft of the bag tells Steve that there are at least three more inside, and Steve makes plans for half of them. “Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt.”
“We were just wrapping things up,” Steve says over the woman's faltering splutters. “I'm sorry, ma'am. You should absolutely take it up with Ebay customer service.”
“Is that even a thing?” Sam asks, kicking back in Steve's chair, which Steve gladly hands over in favor of standing.
“I have no idea,” Steve says around bread and cheese and turkey. He makes himself swallow. “I hope so.”
“Nothing big yet?” Sam prompts once Steve has plowed through one sandwich and is ready to take on a second. He notices Sam isn't eating, and when he quirks an eyebrow Sam nudges the whole bag his way. “They're all for you. I ate in the car to make sure I had a sandwich at the end of all this.”
“Thank you,” Steve says, mouth even fuller than before. “And no.”
“My mama's gonna drive up from Washington to smack you for talking with your mouth full,” Sam tells him, shaking his head, but he doesn't ask any more questions until after Steve's plowed through the rest of the turkey and finished off the ham.
“Well it might not happen today, right?” Sam points out. “Not your fault if people keep bringing in duds.”
“Right,” Steve says, even though it doesn't feel like it's not his fault. He drags his hands over his face, trying to stretch out a kink in his back. “Matt Weiberg's been watching me from across the room all day. I think he knows I let a good one go by yesterday.”
“How dare you,” Sam says, voice flat, “on your first day of being an appraiser—”
Mrs. Dublanc makes a strangled noise over an ugly vase.
“At the Roadshow,” Steve says loudly.
“Uh-huh,” Sam drawls, unconcerned. “Hey, why don't you go stretch your legs for a bit? Go wander around. I can hold down the fort, make sure nobody is too bored waiting for you to get back.”
“Are you sure?” Steve makes himself ask, like his legs aren't itching to run a mile radius around the warehouse at least a dozen times. He even got up early this morning to get in an extra workout and he still feels like he's ready to crawl out of his skin.
“Go, man,” Sam waves him off. Steve doesn't need telling three times.
Not that he can go very far very fast. The warehouse is packed, snaking lines and too-close chatter, elbow to elbow with strangers. Steve's too big to sneak through what few gaps appear between people, forcing him to ask and apologize when he knocks into shoulders and hands and—
“Oh no, oh no,” Steve gasps as he hears something clatter to the ground. Thank god it doesn't make any other noise like a shatter or a crash—it sounds plastic, the same noise Steve's glasses made when he forgot he was wearing them last night and knocked them off his face.
He still scrambles to pick it up, apologizing to the owner, a gangly dark-skinned man with long thin braids tumbling down his shoulders. “Thanks,” the man says, cheerfully relieved. “Wouldn't want to lose it.”
“That's,” Steve says, looking down at the plastic casing in his hand. “That's a Dodgers ticket.”
BROOKLYN DODGERS EBBETS FIELD, the ticket says in bold, purple font. 1941 World Championship. Game 5.
A creeping sensation at the back of Steve's neck wants to tell him he's being haunted by this goddamn game. As if it wasn't bad enough being there when the Dodgers lost to the Yankees, someone decided it had to be the first thing he heard when he came to in the 21 st century. Even though the series had played out four years before Steve went into the ice. He woke up knowing he was being lied to. Maybe Fury's idea of a test.
“How'd you come by it, if I can ask?” Steve says, turning the ticket over in his hands. “It must be a pretty hard find.” Has to be—everyone around Steve in the stands had torn their tickets up with slow, pointed disgust after the fifth inning, when Whit Wyatt and Joe DiMaggio tried taking a swing at each other on the mound and it did nothing to change the long painful slog to Brooklyn's defeat.
Steve might've followed suit except Bucky'd held onto his ticket, and he mostly just felt hot and tired and sad. They'd saved up months for those seats, eleven bucks together and might as well've been a hundred for Steve's bad chest sapping money from their pockets that spring.
He never did find out how Bucky found the cash last minute, too caught up in the feeling of being able to sit as close to Bucky as he wanted, with the excuse of thousands of their closest neighbors beside them out for victory at the start, only to claw their way through the last inning on their hands and battered knees. Fucking Yanks.
Worse because it was the Yanks, worse because the press called it the “Subway Series” on account of them both being New York teams without knowing what that really meant—that the Yankies fans, already better off, took this as a sign from on high to spit on Brooklyn boys and call it God's work. He and Buck broke up no less than three fights outside the stadium, and the fourth earned them both split lips before Bucky chased the gang off with a mean right hook.
“I won it, actually,” the man says, chin up and head tilted, honest but surprised. “Over a game of pool last night. I was going to bring something else to the Roadshow, but...this seemed more interesting?”
“Definitely,” Steve nods, turning the ticket over again. Section 19. Steve doesn't remember what section he and Bucky were in, but it feels...it feels very strange, knowing that whoever held this piece of paper shared that same moment in time, might have seen Bucky laughing or Steve flicking peanut shells at his face. Knowing whoever they were, that person is most likely gone now, or very, very old.
“Hey,” Steve says, lifting his gaze. “Do you want to be on TV?”
The owner's name is Tommy, and he goes light-headed with delight when Steve removes his glasses and hat in the little studio room Matt Weiberg ushers them into. “Captain America,” he laughs, gesturing to Steve with his expressive, gangly arms. “Captain America.” He's so happy Steve can't help grinning back.
Even when the cameras roll and he tells Tommy about the game, the dust and the smell and the crushing frustration of getting kicked in the teeth by the Yanks—throughout all of that he feels himself smiling, remembering the weight of Bucky's arm over his shoulder as they staggered home, sore and weary but damn glad to spend the day together all the same, smiling with blood in their mouths.
Bernie MacMillan, the Sports appraiser they pulled in to help Steve with the actual worth of the item, spends the whole time off-camera staring at Steve like he's Joe DiMaggio brought back from the dead. Steve diligently repeats the estimate Mr. MacMillan provided—twelve- to thirteen-hundred dollars—and Tommy looks floored.
“Wow,” he says, pressing his hands to his face. “Wow. Oh my god. Wow.”
“What did you bet against it in the pool game?” Steve asks, something strange bubbling up from his chest.
“A drink?” Tommy laughs out, borderline hysteric. He shakes his head. “The guy looked like he might need it. But oh my god. If I see him again I'll buy him two. Hell, I'd even buy him a case. Twelve-hundred dollars? Wow.”
It's roughly one fourth of what Maisy's comic books are worth, but anyone looking at his face would think he'd been told twelve-million dollars instead.
“Aaaand cut,” Matt says, shattering the moment with his applause. Steve has to work hard to keep the look on his face steady, not like the rug's just been ripped out from under him. “Bravo. That was just stellar, both of you. Fantastic.” He can't seem to stop looking at Steve.
Steve looks at Tommy, who shrugs back, still grinning ear-to-ear.
“Let's get you back out there, Ste—Mr.—Captain Rogers, sir,” Matt tumbles out. “I can feel you're on a roll, I can feel it!”
Steve has knocked out Hitler over two hundred times—seven days a week and twice on weekends—and he can't remember how he managed it. He's not entirely sure he did.
Steve goes to bed early that night, staying up just long enough to eat pizza with Sam before collapsing. It takes a long time for him to fall asleep. His head feels full, and his legs keep twitching, and his chest is heavy like that concrete wall fell on him anyway and he just took this long to notice.
He wakes up before dawn, not sure if he managed more than a doze all night, and throws on his running clothes. He might be able to do fifty laps of his usual route if he pushes himself.
“Hey, soldier,” Natasha says. Steve jumps so hard he cracks his head against the top of the fridge, denting it a little. “In my defense,” she says while he curses a blue streak, “that was really hilarious.”
Steve glares at her.
“Also, I really did think you knew I was in here,” she adds, sliding down from her perch on the back of the couch. She's wearing Sam's sweats and one of Steve's shirts, both items Steve knows were in the dryer last night. Her hair is half-dried and wavy, flat only on the side where she'd been sleeping on the couch. “Something on your mind?”
Steve shakes his head and rubs it at the same time, wincing. “I'm fine,” he says. “It's just early.”
“Sure.” Her eyes are tired, but Steve has no doubt that she's as alert as ever. She'd probably have to be half dead to not notice another human being in the room, and even then Steve wouldn't bet on it.
Natasha takes a few steps closer until she hits the kitchen counter, leaning over the fold of her arms. “So,” she says, “you gonna be okay without me or Sam as backup today? He's got the VA and I'm being pulled in for the kind of work that happens outside a van.” She smiles, the little one that tugs at the corner of her mouth.
“I'll be fine,” he says, not sure if he should be annoyed or amused or fond of both of them. He doesn't know. He doesn't know what to do with this unsettled feeling in his stomach, the restless, useless gnawing in his chest.
“Call us, if you need us,” Natasha says, strangely insistent. Her head tilts, that smile creeping back. “Hey, even if you don't. I'll only let it go to voicemail if I have to.”
“I'm really fine,” Steve tells her, pausing in pouring out juice to meet her eyes. “Really.”
“Doesn't mean I don't want to hear about your day,” she says, voice teasing even though the sentiment is sincere. She steals a piece of his toast.
“No promises,” Steve says, stacking the rest of his breakfast so he can eat it on the go. Her hand, gentle on his arm, makes him stop. “I will,” he says, not looking anywhere but at his toast. “I'm fine. It's just two more days.”
She hesitates, but then her grip tightens before she lets go. Steve finishes his juice in three swallows and leaves, eating breakfast all the way down the stairs.
He almost calls both of them three times. New York is running out of Captain America merchandise, it seems, or if they aren't they're choosing to bring in other items instead. Matt Weiberg starts pacing after noon, when the most exciting thing brought Steve's way was a Dum-Dum figurine from the eighties worth less than a hundred dollars, and a few Bucky Bears roughly worth what the owners paid for them at the convenience store.
One o'clock rolls around, then two, and they're edging up on three when Matt asks him to start making rounds of the warehouse with his eyes open for anything more like the baseball ticket he saw yesterday. The World War II memorabilia coming through is all from battles before or after Steve's time, the Dolls tables are unsettling and Prints and Posters seem to be struggling under an influx of prints from the seventies.
Matt's hair gets wilder every time he runs his hands through it. He starts eyeing the few appraisers filming on the floor with an expression Steve hates on sight.
“I'm going back to my table,” Steve tells him. There's a hardness in his voice that makes Matt flinch, guiltily. “Let me know if you find anything I can help with.”
He leaves before Matt can stammer out a reply, hands shoved as far in his pockets as the too-tight jeans will allow.
Mrs. Dublanc is still tearing through collectibles with enough ruthless efficiency that she doesn't notice Steve's return for several minutes. When she does—and takes in the non-existent line to his table—her eyes snap to him.
“Excuse me a moment,” she says to the next owner, bundling her knitted cardigan across her chest as she stands and leans into Steve's space. “What exactly is your specialty?” she hisses, surely loud enough to be heard down her entire line.
Steve is too tired to be angry or insulted. “Howling Commandos memorabilia and collectibles with a specialty in Captain America and WWII,” he rattles off on an exhale, exactly the way he's practiced saying to anyone who questioned his being there. He's a little surprised it took three days for anyone to ask.
She tisks, slowly shaking her head. “That's your problem, you need to branch out,” Mrs. Dublanc tells him. “Especially—” She stops, abruptly enough that Steve stops counting down the number of seconds until this conversation ends. Her eyes narrow, considering him this time instead of judging. Steve holds himself very still. He can't tell if his glasses are trying to slip down his nose.
“Do you mean Steve Rogers,” Mrs. Dublanc says. Steve starts counting the exits. The closest one is behind him. “...as well as Captain America?” she finishes. “Or are you only interested in the superhero and not the man?”
“I,” Steve starts. Her line is getting restless, and Steve can't be sure but he thinks the young woman three people down might have recognized him—she's squinting at him hard enough to be mentally erasing his glasses and hat. “Of course I specialize in Steve Rogers as well, he's an integral part of—”
“St—Mr. Carter!” Matt Weiberg says as he swoops in, barely remembering the name Steve gave them to use while he was on the floor. “Mr. Carter, good news! We've found something for you!”
“What,” Mrs. Dublanc sputters, “What—”
“I'm sorry,” Steve says as he stands; his chair leg catches on his shoelace and almost sends him toppling, but he manages to catch himself in time.
“I've been an appraiser here thirteen years—”
Matt doesn't seem to hear her, too busy whisking Steve across the warehouse and into the room where they filmed yesterday. The same camera crew is there, the same makeup artist who pulls Steve into a chair and gets to work on his face while a second person tries to straighten out his hat-hair. But there's no one else there, no item to appraise. And Matt has disappeared.
The crew sets him up at the appraising table like a doll, adjusting the lighting around him while Steve drags his hands down the top of his thighs. Outside the sweater was barely tolerable; in here, he starts to sweat. His wrist bumps against his phone in his pocket. He wants to call Sam, or Natasha. He doesn't know what he'd say—nothing bad has happened.
It's only a few minutes before Matt bursts back in, grinning like he might explode. “I'm so happy for you, for this,” he says, his arms out wide—there's someone trailing behind him, but Steve can't see who it is. “This is so exciting!”
A young woman, Asian and early twenties, steps out from behind Matt looking about as impressed with him as Steve is feeling. She's holding onto the strap of her messenger bag where it crosses her body, black hair pulled into an efficient ponytail at the back of her head. She flicks her eyes down Matt in one sweep before dismissing him—when she turns to Steve she freezes.
“This is Janice Blaire,” Matt says with a broad sweep of his hand. “The granddaughter of your old army buddy—”
“Jim,” Steve finishes. “Jim Morita. You look like him. You have his chin.” He drags his knuckles across his own jaw. Jim used to refer to his head as a cement block; Nazis never could knock Jim out with a punch, no matter how hard they tried.
Janice smiles at him, tentatively. “I wish I'd known him better,” she says, barely managing to get the words out before Matt is herding her into the chair opposite Steve. The makeup artist descends on her as Steve tries to catch Matt's eye and, when that doesn't work, his arm.
“What's going on?” Steve asks, then over Matt's excuses, “I don't like being kept in the dark.”
“It's a surprise!” Matt promises, all-but patting Steve's hand. “Don't worry, we can edit around any long pauses.”
Steve clamps down on the response he wants to give—All you'll have is one long pause if you don't tell me what's going on—because Janice is out of makeup and smiling at him, a little confused but seemingly happy to be here. Steve lets Matt go.
“Ready in five...four...” the lead cameraman starts, and counts the last three numbers silently on his fingers.
“Hi,” Steve says automatically, and then his voice dries up.
Thank god for Janice. “Hi,” she says, flashes a grin that somehow sums up just how awkward this situation is and laughs at it. “It's really good to finally meet you. Grandpa used to tell me stories as a kid, but...it's really nothing like seeing you in person. Thank you, by the way,” she adds, leaning forward to rest her hand over his; she has her grandpa's hands, too, square and hard-working, “for everything you've done to protect this country.”
“Thank you,” Steve says back, probably too quiet for the mics to catch if Matt's frantic thumbs up is anything to go by. “I couldn't have done it—any of it—by myself,” he tells Janice, not much louder. “Everyone else did just as much without a super serum to back them up.”
It's nothing he hasn't said in the interviews after the Potomac Incident, but it feels smaller, truer, with just the two of them. Even though Janice shakes her head and says, “Nope. Don't believe it for a second,” with so much conviction it almost gets Steve to laugh.
“What did you bring in to the Roadshow today?” he manages to scrape together when she pulls her hand away. It sounds a lot like his Captain America voice. He can't remember if he sounded like this when he was on camera yesterday.
“Oh!” she says, blinking as she sits back. “Well. I brought it to the Met this morning—I was hoping they'd have someone on staff to authenticate it, because I have no idea where it came from...” She flips open her messenger bag and pulls the item out carefully, setting it up on the inclined platform left on the table, exactly the right size to prop it up for the cameras.
Steve drags a hand over his mouth and leaves it there.
“It's a sketchbook,” Janice says, though Steve knows it is. She opens it, fingers gentle on the leather cover, even though it's rough, scarred and peeling at the edges. “And it says, I mean, it says property of Steve Rogers right here on the front.”
Matt Weiberg is biting his knuckle, bouncing on the soles of his feet.
Fury wells up in his chest, thick and cloying and useless, spilling down his ribs to pool in his uneasy stomach. His hands are fists; he doesn't remember moving; worse, he can't remember how to move at all. This is a long pause, he thinks. His mouth feels like stone, like one of the statues brought for appraisal. They're going to have to cut all this out.
Janice looks uncertain. Maybe even worried. Steve wonders cruelly if they've hired her. But she looks so much like Jim. “And I was wondering,” she says, faltering a little, “if it's...yours.”
It's history, Steve realizes, to them. I'm history.
“It's mine,” he says, barely remembering to lower his knuckles from his mouth.
“It is?” she breathes out, stunned and relieved and—baffled, all at once. “But it—where did it come from?”
“I ran out of pages in '43,” Steve hears himself say. The cover page is just that: his name, an address to return the book if found. Steve's fingers itch to turn the pages, or shut the book. He knows every inch of this book by heart; he doesn't want to look at it, and he can't tear his eyes away. “I don't know what happened to it. The army boxed up my things.”
Which means someone dug it out of there, at some point. Someone pawed through it, someone sold it. Sold it to Jim Morita's family. Was it hush money? Is there something in the pencil lead lines of Bucky's face that spilled Steve's biggest secret?
“No, I mean,” Janice says, “it showed up in my dorm room this morning. I have no idea how it got there.”
Matt gasps so loud there's no way the microphones didn't pick it up.
Steve can't tell if it's theatrical, for his benefit. But if that's true, then they wouldn't have had time to get this book, and leave it with someone who happened to bring it to a museum on the day Antiques Roadshow was looking for Captain Rogers memorabilia. All they had time to do was put Steve in a room and surprise him with it. In front of a camera.
He stands before he remembers he's wired—it catches on his chair, and he yanks off the sweater to get at the tape pinning the wire to his t-shirt. “I'm done,” he says. The tape strips off, one two three. “I don't know how much it's worth,” he tells Janice, because she seems nice, it's not her fault.
“I don't want to sell it,” she says. Good, maybe she can get it insured. “I wanted to give it back to you.”
Steve stops in place, breathing harder than he should.
“It's yours, isn't it?” Janice says, voice kind. She hasn't once looked at the cameras; Steve doesn't know why he only realizes now. “Property of Steve Rogers.”
Steve picks it up. It feels small, and old.
No one else in the room moves when Steve bends down and scribbles his phone number on a scrap of paper from his too-tight pocket. “If you want to talk about your grandpa,” Steve tells her, pressing the paper into her hand and not meeting her eyes, “or if you ever need any help.” He doesn't like the way the cameramen are staring at the napkin and his pen, like everything he touches turns to gold.
Matt doesn't do anything until Steve starts down from the platform with the sketchbook bundled in his sweater, and then he applauds. “That was great,” Matt says, hands still clapping, “That was so great. Can we get a few stills of the inside to show our viewers? This is going to be so huge.”
Steve pushes past him, even when he starts to squawk. He grabs his hat and glasses as he goes, but he can't bear to put them on. His skin is crawling. Maybe people will mob Captain America and he'll—and he'll—
In true New Yorker style no one gives him the time of day, even if they do recognize him. When he's outside the warehouse he makes himself put on the hat, drag on the sweater. He hooks the glasses on his collar and holds the sketchbook tight to his chest. Then he goes home.
Sam looks at the sketchbook like it's a bomb.
“She found it in her dorm room,” he says, not for the first time. “She found it.”
“Yeah,” Steve says, arms braced on the table, not touching the sketchbook. He still hasn't opened it. “Which means someone left it for her to find.”
“Who the hell,” Sam starts, but abruptly cuts off to run a hand over his face. He takes a breath. “You think it's your boy?”
Hairs stand up on the back of Steve's neck, even though he knows Sam doesn't—he doesn't mean it like that. He calls Thor and Tony “your man” and Peggy “your lady” and Natasha “our girl,” and it doesn't mean anything. But more than that—
“No,” Steve says, as hard as he can. And then, just as hard, “I don't know.” He sinks down, puts his head on the table too. “I can't rule out the Roadshow for having this as a contingency plan. They can't film me if there's nothing for me to appraise.”
“Steve,” Sam says, his voice sharp, edged in a way Steve hasn't heard in a long time. Steve lifts his head to look at him. “Did you sign anything with them?”
Steve blinks. “What?”
“Did you sign—do you even have an agent?”
For a moment Steve can't think of anything other than Agent Carter, Agent Barton, Agent Romanov. But that's not what Sam means. “I,” he says, “What, you mean like a Hollywood star? Like a film agent?”
“Not just for film,” Sam says, frowning at him, worried. He leans forward on his elbows. “Someone who looks out for you, keeps people honest, manages your publicity. Makes sure no one ever tries to fuck with you like that in front of a camera again.”
He shakes his head, genuinely angry on Steve's behalf. “Didn't Tony Stark talk to you about this? Or one of SHIELD's guys?”
“Tony and I don't really get along,” Steve points out. “Miss Potts handled all of our publicity. And SHIELD had their own PR team.”
Sam drops his head down with a short groan, holds his hand out with a sharp grabbing motion. “Give me your phone,” he says, “Give me—who should I talk to, I'll do it.”
Steve is pretty sure he's joking, only he lifts his head and glares at Steve until the phone is in his hand. “Pauline Kellogg?” he says, still half-sure Sam is bluffing. Sam's thumb skims through his limited contacts; Steve had saved her information more for another name in his phone than any real expectation that he'd need to call her.
Sam holds up his finger when he connects the call. “Hello, Mrs. Kellogg,” he says, and stands when Steve's mouth drops open. “My name is Sam Wilson, I represent Mr. Steve Rogers. Are you aware of the incident which happened today...?” He walks off before Steve can think of the words to protest, going to his room and shutting the door.
Steve puts his head back down for a moment, wood cool and solid beneath his forehead. His fingertips brush the sketchbook.
He sits up and drags the book closer. There used to be a gold seal in the corner. The paint's all gone now, leaving only a rough impression there was ever any decoration. He opens it, careful of the leather trying to pull free at the seams where the glue has gone old and brown. His name leaps out from the first page. Property of Steve Rogers, but it's not his handwriting. It's Bucky's.
The note tucked into the folds of the book is long gone, Bucky's messy scrawl lost sometime after Steve unwrapped the package—stamped by three different countries and several military seals, all-but dropped on a doorstep in the worse part of Brooklyn. Steve can still see the words like they're printed on his skin:
Found this for you. Looked like it had your name on it so I made sure it did—maybe this way the postal boys won't 'lose' it if they know it's going back to a Sergeant's best friend. Yeah you read that right, promoted me all official this afternoon. They keep telling me I'm due for leave in a few months. Maybe you can draw me in my uniform so I'll have something to show the girls here when we're all covered in mud and
bl worse. Or maybe you could do one of your own face, huh? So when I talk about all the trouble we got up to as kids they know I ain't making you up.
Stay safe, Stevie
For Bucky's sake Steve had tried drawing himself. The first few pages are attempts at his cheekbones, his jawline, his mouth—most of them failures, awkward pieces of his face. Drawing his hands went better, the bony knobs of them, and one page where he almost caught his profile with the help of an old mirror. Mostly he drew Brooklyn, the movie theater and the ball park and the shop Bucky used to work at after school. The cemetery where his ma was laid to rest. The new ice cream parlor on the corner. Later, the World of Tomorrow as it was being put up, piece by piece.
Bucky came home by boat, and Steve was there to meet him at the docks. He remembers seeing Bucky for the first time in a year and feeling like he was taking Buck apart piece by piece with his eyes, ready to put him back together on a page. He remembers the way Bucky grinned to see him, like he was doing the same thing right back to Steve.
Steve only got a chance to try drawing Bucky after he met Erskin. By the time he got home he'd felt like he was flying, felt like he'd been filled up bigger than his skin. He filled every last page in his sketchbook with Bucky, waiting for him to get home from the girls and the dancing—Bucky's smile, Bucky's eyes, the breadth of his shoulders in uniform and the strength in his arms with his sleeves rolled up, the way his hips moved when he danced, the way he'd looked in the alley with that trashcan lid clutched in one fist. Steve had meant to give the whole book to Bucky when he left.
But he fell asleep before Bucky came home, and in the morning Steve was so caught up in the things he wasn't telling him—almost as huge, almost as dangerous as loving him—that he forgot. Then Bucky was going, Bucky was gone, and two hours later Steve got on a four o'clock train out of town headed for basic training. The only time he ever thought about the sketchbook after that was with a faint pang of regret that Bucky never got to see it.
Steve turns to the last page, now, dry paper slipping through his fingers. This was his last-ditch attempt at something like his own face, though he only managed it by drawing Bucky in the frame, with his arm slung over Steve's bony shoulders. Even then his head is down, laughing, while Bucky grins with him, looking away.
Sam comes back into the room quietly, keeps his voice down even when he says, “It's handled. I don't think she knew about what Matt did—and she said herself if she finds out he planted the book he's fired. Janice Blaire is legit, though, if you were wondering,” he adds when Steve sits back with a sigh, locking his hands behind his head. “I googled her. She's an art student at NYU. The only post unlocked on her facebook is one honoring her grandfather from last veterans day.”
He leaves Steve's phone within reach on the table, doesn't come any closer or move farther away. Steve can feel him looking at the open page. “So you loved him, huh?” Sam says, and Steve feels it like a fist in the back of his throat.
“Yeah,” he says, like it's simple, like his voice doesn't break humiliatingly at the end. He smiles. His eyes are wet. “Yeah, I did. I do.”
“Steve,” Sam says. He sits down on the other chair, leans forward on his elbows to catch Steve's gaze. “He won't be who you remember.”
“I'm not who he remembers, if he even remembers me at all,” Steve points out with an exaggerated twist of his face. Trying too hard. He's always trying so hard— “Bucky loving me back,” Steve gets out, because this is important, Sam needs to understand this, “has never been a requirement. Or even a possibility.”
“Did he know?” Sam asks, unblinking.
“God,” Steve laughs, but it's broken and he ducks his head, “I hope not.”
Sam doesn't say anything. After a moment his hand settles on Steve's shoulder, rubbing soothing circles over the tense knot of it. Steve can't tell if it makes him feel better. It doesn't make him feel worse.
“I hate feeling like this,” he hears himself say.
Sam's voice is calm and easy. “Like what?”
“Like I'm,” Steve starts, but he doesn't know how to say it—worse, it feels like if tries it'll come out small and stupid. Laughable. “Heavy,” he says, “all the time.”
“Lonely?” Sam asks.
Steve drags in a breath. “I've got you and Natasha—”
“Yeah and everyone else you ever knew is gone,” Sam says with a gentle shake of his head. “Man, it must feel like Rapture happened and God left you behind.”
“Sometimes,” Steve says. It's been a long time since he's been to church, not since his mom died. But he remembers the stories, the guilt, when people talked about sin. He never had any delusions about going to Heaven.
Sam drops his head down a moment. Then, quieter than Steve's ever heard him, “Steve, I've been where you are. Not to those extremes, yeah, you've always got to bite off more than you can chew.” He smiles a little, enough to show the tiny gap between his front teeth. “But, ah, after Riley died. It was hard to get up in the morning. Felt like...breathing was harder, because he wasn't there any more. And all those what ifs rolling around in your head like, 'why didn't I jump first,' or 'why didn't he fly just a few feet to the left or right or up or down...' Why didn't I make a move when I had the chance?” He shrugs, a slow roll of his shoulders. “I always thought there'd be more time.”
“Yeah,” Steve says. It feels like a sore tooth being pulled, pain and relief all at once.
“And you've got more time,” Sam says now, fiercely. “By some miracle, you've got it. But you've got to take care of yourself too, man, you deserve it. You deserve to find something that makes you happy. Outside of all of this, outside of Bucky. You've got to make sure there's something of you left for him to come home to. Even if he doesn't love you like you want—and yeah, I said if,” Sam pauses to drawl, “—there's no way you're gonna tell me there's a version of this guy out there who doesn't want you to be happy.”
Sam's tipped his head toward the drawing, tracing the lines with his eyes rather than his fingers. Steve doesn't know how to tell him if Bucky looks like he loves Steve more than a brother it's because Steve drew him that way and didn't realize it.
“I was wrong,” Sam says without lifting his eyes from the page, “when I said he wasn't the kind you save. All these Hydra bases he's been leaving us breadcrumbs for—and I know we haven't talked about it, but there were a handful of times when guys went down in those fights and neither of us got the shot off. That's not someone you stop. Hell, he might not even be the kind who needs saving. And I don't think that's someone who doesn't remember you.”
“I just wish,” Steve starts, but he's used up all his wishes for his lifetime. “I thought we'd hear something by now. About where he wants us to go next.” He never expected a break to last this long.
“He might not know,” Sam points out. “Or. He might need a break as bad as you do.”
Steve reaches out and turns the last page until Bucky's smiling face disappears, shutting the book. He feels like he just fought the battle of New York all over again, with no bruises to show for it. “I don't know how much more resting I can take,” he mutters, wincing afterward—he doesn't mean to sound ungrateful about Sam's idea. It's just...so much easier to stay out of his own head when he's at a run.
But if Bucky needs it...
“You know you don't have to go back tomorrow,” Sam says. Steve looks up. “Pauline Kellogg would understand. Even if someone tries to keep you there, they don't have a leg to stand on without a signed contract. If it doesn't make you happy—”
“Then I'll leave,” Steve cuts him off.
“Okay,” Sam says. “Natasha's still on a mission and I'm scheduled to be at the VA until late tomorrow, but if you need—”
“I'll be fine.” Tension prickles under his skin, knotting up the muscles at the back of his neck. He doesn't mean to be snappish, he only—he feels like he's hit a wall. Like if Sam pushes any more he'll be crushed.
“In about two hours,” Sam says, “I am going to make the largest vat of mac and cheese you have ever seen in your life.”
Steve doesn't have words to describe the relief he feels at the excuse to flee. “That sounds really good,” he gets out, already on his feet.
“I'll let you know when it's done,” Sam says, waving him away with good humor. “Go on, do what you gotta do.”
Steve stays frozen another moment longer, wishing he knew how to—to ask, to just know the way Sam seems to, when it's alright to reach out for—
Sam blinks at him, and then a real smile steals across his face. “Oh,” he says, and stands, arms out. “Hug?”
“Thank you,” Steve says, sighing at himself as he trips into Sam's embrace. It really can't be as simple as Sam makes it look. Sam's arms wrap around his back and squeeze, maybe a little tighter than he usually does, and Steve relaxes muscle by muscle as he pulls Sam in closer; he wonders if Sam needed this too, after talking about Riley.
“They not have hugging in the 40s?” Sam asks against his shoulder, not releasing his grip. “You're good at it, you know, if that's what you're worried about. Dorito-proportions and all.”
Steve eases back and away, before it starts feeling like too much. “Not too many people wanted to hug a scrawny kid,” he says. “I was all elbows and fists and...sick a lot. Just didn't come easy to me.” He takes a breath; might as well say it, Sam can probably read it on his face. “Bucky was good at it.”
Sam nods. “And then the serum kicked in and I bet everyone wanted to get a piece of that. I bet they didn't do too much asking beforehand, either,” he guesses, eyes narrowed again. “Well, I'm always on offer. Any time. And if it's too hard to ask, go ahead and tap my elbow—I'll know.”
God, Steve could hug him again. “Thank you.”
“Go on,” Sam says, “T-minus one-twenty minutes on mac.”
Steve goes to his room and shuts the door. Then he climbs out the window onto the fire escape and takes the iron steps two at a time, heading for the roof. The railing one floor up feels warmer on one side, like someone was holding onto it—or, Steve realizes, because the sky is still sunny in patches, and heavy metal holds onto the heat.
Maybe it's because it's the last day and all the appraisers are riding high on exhaustion, but Steve thinks there's more laughter in the warehouse. More people making friends in line, showing each other their treasures and wishing each other good luck. Steve's line is slow to come—he can sit back with his coffee and watch excitement and nostalgia play out on the features of people in the crowd, the soft smiles and traded stories.
It also helps that Pauline Kellogg met Steve at the door with a promise that Matt Weiberg won't come within a hundred feet of him or attempt to contact him in any way for the remainder of the event—“Or ever, if he knows what's good for him,” she added, and held up a hand when Steve opened his mouth to say...something. “No, he's lost that privilege. Let's hope he sees it as a reminder to take personal history into account as well as factual.”
Sam was right about Pauline understanding if he didn't want to come back—she'd offered it, point blank, in a way that almost made Steve uncomfortable when he insisted on staying.
Then Pauline had touched his arm, brief and feather-light, and told him, “My mother was an army nurse. She used talk about the men you brought home, how they'd light up talking about Captain America coming in to save the day. You've done a lot of good.” She'd nodded, swallowed twice like she meant to say more before pressing her lips into a mostly-steady smile.
Steve had hesitated. Then he'd reached out and took her hand, clasped it in a way that would have made Peggy proud. Pauline laughed, startled but pleased; at least her smile looked less watery. “Thank you,” she'd said. “It's been fifteen years since she passed. You remind me of her, a little.”
“That's a high honor,” Steve said, feeling it down to his core.
Now Pauline is somewhere in the crowds, searching out people and items she can send Steve's way. And Steve is at his table, more often than not watching Mrs. Dublanc sift through a seemingly endless sea of chipped collectible tea cups. Sometimes she sneezes, and it sounds so much like a swear word that Steve has to look away to hide his grin.
A pair of Captain America dolls come his way, then a signed handkerchief he remembers from his touring days (mostly because it was his first time signing cloth, and the pen kept catching on the fabric). The owner, a sweet girl in her twenties, is so thrilled when he feels confident it isn't fake that she bounces on her toes, exactly the way her grandmother had when Steve struggled to get a curve on his 'C.'
“This is so awesome,” the owner says, “This is so awesome, I always believed Nana met him in person, oh my god.”
“If you send a photo of it to the Smithsonian they'll authenticate it for you,” Steve promises her, making a mental note to contact them himself. “They'll also have a better idea for an estimate, if you—”
“I'm never selling this, are you shitting me?” she yelps, before Steve can finish with, “—if you want to get it insured.”
That only brings her up short for a moment; then she's shaking her head, dark hair tumbling into her eyes. “If it gets stolen or damaged or lost, that's not... Money's not going to make it better. And it doesn't matter anyway—this is a symbol,” she tells Steve earnestly. “I loved my Nana more than anything in the world and I don't need this hanky to keep loving her or to know that she was right. You feel?”
Steve nods. He has to clear his throat before he can reply. “I feel.”
“But that authentication thing sounds cool,” she says, tilting her head side-to-side. “You got their address on you?”
Steve doesn't, but when he goes to look it up on his laptop she waves him off, already pulling out her phone. “Nah, don't worry about it. Thanks, Mr. Carter,” she says with a glance at his name tag, flashing him a grin that seems entirely too knowing. An answering smile tugs at Steve's mouth, teasing it into something that feels bigger than he's been capable of in...a long time.
She disappears into the crowd without looking back, and Steve has to turn his attention to the man who'd been waiting behind her in line—he has a creased, frowning face and the kind of plaid shirt that says he drove in from out of the city. “Hey,” he says, frowning even harder, then, “I'm Jeff,” as if he's not sure of the protocol.
“Hi, Jeff,” Steve says, smiling behind his glasses. “What did you bring in to the Roadshow today?”
Jeff's eyebrows stay knitted together when he looks at Steve, then looks in the cardboard box clutched in his hands. “Well,” he says. “I don't think it's worth much.”
“Should we take a look?” Steve prompts, after a moment.
“But I was asked to bring it by, and here I am, so here were go,” Jeff says like Steve never spoke, and lifts a Bucky Bear out of the cardboard box.
In the four days Steve has been at the Roadshow he's seen twenty Bucky Bears. None of them first run, which dropped their value down to less than a hundred dollars each—the bears have always been popular and mass-produced to match. The second edition onward was where the production team tried to work out a superhero costume for 'Cap's Best Friend' after realizing sniper greens and browns weren't appealing to small children. Steve's done his research, but why they put large red circles across Bucky Bear's chest he can only guess at; the design was settled on years after Steve crash-landed in the Arctic.
But the first run. The first run was just a soft brown bear in a simplified uniform, 'Bucky Bear' stitched over the chest pocket and Captain America's shield patched onto the arm. It had a little hat sewn on between its ears, arms and legs on a button-swivel. There were only a couple hundred made before they tried a new outfit, one with a mask and a cape, like Bucky Barnes wasn't enough of a superhero on his own.
The bear Jeff puts in Steve's hands is missing its hat. One of the ears is scorched off, just a lump of melted fur, and when Steve squeezes the mangled left leg he feels—he can feel—
"I'll buy this from you," he hears himself say, but only barely. He's standing, and he doesn't remember getting to his feet. His ears are ringing. He might be sick.
“What?” Jeff says.
“Excuse me!” Steve tears his eyes from the bear to see Mrs. Dublanc trying to fight her way out from behind her table. She looks almost purple in the face. “You can't do that. Appraisers are forbidden to purchase items they appraise at the Roadshow, you can't.”
Her voice is shrill, drawing attention. Pauline is probably being notified, if she isn't already on her way over. Steve's hands tighten on the bear.
“I never signed a contract,” he says, and feels like he's realizing the weight of that statement all at once. No one even ever brought up the idea of a contract, because he's Captain America, and he always does what's right. Unselfishly, and to his dying breath.
“What?” Mrs. Dublanc sputters, brought up in her tracks.
“I have five hundred dollars in my wallet,” Steve tells Jeff, whose eyes are wide as his drooping lids will stretch. Steve hasn't touched the bills all month—it had been Sam's idea to carry money to get more familiar with how much things cost, but his card is always so much faster. “Will you take it?”
"Uh," Jeff says. Steve doesn't know what he'll do if he says no. Drive Jeff to a bank and start withdrawing funds until he runs out. Jeff scratches at the back of his neck. “I don't know,” he says, and then, “I don't think it's worth that much.”
Steve yanks the wallet free from his too-tight pocket and has to stop himself from handing Jeff the whole thing, credit cards and all. “It is,” he says, pressing the crisp hundred dollar bills into Jeff's hand. “If you decide you want more, ask the woman who sent you over here for my information—tell her I said to give you my phone number—”
Steve is backing up, too aware of the eyes on him, the people gathering, Mrs. Dublanc elbowing through the crowd to get one of the security guards stationed at the edges of the warehouse. No one has their phone out yet but it's only a matter of time.
“It wasn't a lady,” Jeff says, frowning at the money in his hands.
“Matt Weiberg?” Steve guesses absently, scanning over the muttering cluster of people closest to them. He has escape routes planned thanks to habit and Natasha, all he has to do is run.
“No,” Jeff says with a slow shake of his head. “Guy outside the warehouse, says he lost his ticket and can't get inside. He wanted me to get the bear appraised and keep it, I told him that didn't seem right...”
Steve sees his window in the press of bodies and he takes it.
It makes sense, he thinks as he hits the emergency exit and pushes through into the muggy air outside. It makes sense.
“Hello?” Steve hears the moment the call connects, and he feels his heart lurch.
“Peggy?” he says, “Peggy, are you okay?”
“I'm quite alright,” she says, and then, “Who is this?”
He swallows, free hand too tight on the handle of his motorcycle. He isn't driving—he pulled over as soon as he was sure he wasn't being followed from the warehouse—and the engine is still settling between his legs. The bear is wedged between his ribs and the leather of his riding jacket, pulling it tight across his chest. “Steve,” he says, bracing himself. “Steve Rogers.”
“Steve,” Peggy repeats, voice flat. “I should've known it was you. Are you being melodramatic again? Or do you really suppose the dozen highly trained operatives waiting on me hand and foot have simultaneously dropped dead of boredom and left me perfectly defenseless?”
Despite everything Steve feels a laugh huff against his lips. “So you're really alright?”
“Of course I am,” she promises. “Should I not be?”
“No,” Steve says, and then, “I don't know. Peggy, do you remember Bucky's bear?”
It tears at something in him, saying those words—she seems to hear it, or she really does remember, because her voice is endlessly gentle when she says, “I do. Did you want it back?”
“You still have it?” Steve hears himself say, but no, of course she doesn't, he's all-but holding the bear. Which means all those operatives might as well have been made of paper for what good they did when the Winter Soldier strolled in and went through Peggy's things.
“...won it in the auction, didn't I?” Peggy is telling him. “I'll have the boys dig it up for you. Steve? Are you alright?”
It's on the tip of his tongue to say yes, he's fine. He's fine, he's fine, he's always fine. “No,” he says. “No, Peg, I'm not. Not yet, but I'm gonna work on it, okay?”
“Good,” she says after a moment, caring and strong and certain and always his best girl. “That's very good to hear.”
“Hey,” Steve says, wishing his voice was steadier, “don't worry about the bear, okay? I just caught myself wondering about it today, that's all.” He breathes in, feels the firmer shape of its head push against his ribs.
“Curious the kind of things we find ourselves remembering, isn't it?” Peggy says quietly. “Or not remembering, in my case. Do you know,” she adds before Steve can say anything, “I've completely forgotten who sent this lovely bouquet of flowers? It wasn't you, I don't think—your arrangements always look more like happy accidents.”
He can hear her smiling, teasing him; Steve focuses on that, over the numb feeling in his fingers, and gathers up a laugh. “Maybe I'm just stepping up my game. What do they look like?”
“Zinnia. Yellow and pink and red. My mother...” He can picture her so clearly in her room, trailing her fingers over the petals. “She might have grown them, once.”
“Not from me,” Steve admits. The bouquet he ordered has sun flowers in it and shouldn't arrive until tomorrow. He thumbs at the knot of stitches on the bear's nose. “Secret admirer?”
“Hm,” she says faintly, and he can feel her slipping away.
His second call is to Natasha, and he doesn't make it until he's parked outside his apartment. She picks up on the second ring.
“Did you know?” he asks, legs still tense from riding and his hands gone stiff from gripping the handlebars too tight.
“Know what?” Natasha asks. He can't tell if the gunshots in the background are from a film or if she's close enough to a firefight for the phone to pick up the sound. She said she wouldn't answer if she was in danger, Steve reminds himself, said she would always pick up the phone if she could; he takes a breath and tries again.
“Do you know where Bucky is?”
It's quiet on the other end, beside the faint pop-pop! of bullets flying. “Steve,” she says, “I told you I'd tell you if I heard anything.”
Steve knows how hard she's trying to be a person he trusts. And he does, he does, but—
“Have you heard anything?” she asks, suddenly sharp.
“I need you to tell me,” Steve says, hunched under an awning a block outside. The bear digs in under his arm. “Do you know where he is?”
“No,” she says. This, he can trust. She hasn't once lied to him since DC—talked around things, yes, prevaricated and flatly refused to answer, but never lied. “I haven't been looking for Barnes. He's always been the one to find us.” Steve lets a breath out slow, hoping she can't hear it down the line. “Steve—” she starts again.
“I don't know,” Steve answers her question. “I—maybe.”
Natasha's curses sound worse in Russian, punctuated by a flurry of gunshots close enough the hair stands up on the back of Steve's neck. “I'm in чертов Tajikistan right now,” she snarls. “Shit. Fuck. Can you get to the Tower? Get Stark, stay low, I'll be back—”
The last gunshot is so loud that Natasha must have been the one to fire it, and someone goes down with the sound of breaking glass and a groan. “Natasha?” Steve says, alarm making his voice loud in the empty early afternoon.
“Okay, that got a lot closer than I expected,” she says. He can almost picture her shaking glass out of her hair. “Steve—”
“I'll be okay,” Steve tells her, as firmly as he knows how, “I'll be okay and I'm hanging up so you don't get shot.”
He hits end call.
The street seems even quieter now. There's one lost bee ambling through the air looking for window flowers, its faint buzzing matched with the rumbling from the air-conditioning unit to Steve's left.
He doesn't want to go into his empty apartment. And he can't call Sam, can't take him away from veterans who need his help more than Steve—all Steve has is a ruined teddy bear pressed against his chest.
It might be a...coincidence. It might not be the same bear. Steve hasn't checked the leg again. He can't check on the street. The bear is pulling his jacket tight, making it hard to fill his lungs all the way.
He goes inside his apartment, takes the stairs one at a time all the way up. The key fits in the lock; there's no one home, there wouldn't be. The kitchen is exactly the same as this morning. The sketchbook is on the table where Steve left it. He sits down, heavier than he means to but his legs give up on holding him. He unzips his jacket, and the bear comes tumbling out.
One of its eyes has gone threadbare and plucked. Steve can't remember knowing how or if that happened. But the leg—his fingers find the lump again, hard and rectangular. He didn't imagine that.
The uneven stitching on the leg comes free with a tug. Steve's hands are shaking when he reaches inside, when he pulls out blackened metal. He feels the air go out of him like its been sucked from the room.
Bucky's dog tags rest in the center of his palm.
The night they burned had been blisteringly cold, Dum Dum's mustache frosty white and dripping icicles, Monty's nose gone painfully red. It felt even colder inside the old barn than not. When Hydra found them bedding down it was almost a relief to move again, forcing blood to pump through their extremities.
Steve turned in time to see a Hydra agent slash a knife at Bucky's throat—he saw something shimmer in the air, a shout caught in his chest at what he thought was Bucky's blood until he realized it was his dog tags and chain tumbling to the ground. Bucky got the agent with a right hook and a kick to his head once he was on his knees; the man stayed down, and the next thing Steve remembers is the smell of old straw burning in air almost too cold to hold a scent.
After, after the whole barn came down, after all the Hydra operatives were dead, Bucky fished his tags out of the wreckage himself with the dead Hydra agent's knife, half-groaning at the smell. He'd joked, "Am I some kind of phoenix now? Rising from the ashes?" and some of the guys had laughed but Steve hadn't.
Bucky tried to push the tags into his hand that night, tried to get Steve to keep them. Steve barely managed to get out, "I can't, Buck, I can't," before Bucky's face went blank.
“Oh,” he'd started, low, and Steve felt a wrenching in his gut that he'd made Bucky sound like that. “Ah, don't listen to me,” Bucky said, stuffing his dog tags deep into his pocket. “I'm just sore my bonafied Bucky Bear got caught in the fire.” He'd tried to smile. That was the worst of it.
Bucky'd moved his feet, nudging at a blackened shape near his pack with the toe of his boot; it rolled, and Steve saw the charred remnants of its ear, the soggy cotton fur where it'd been doused with snow instead of water.
“No one's gonna want it now,” Bucky shrugged, like the bear had put itself out, walked the hundred feet from the smoldering wreckage and tucked itself near Bucky's pack. Like he hadn't carried it with him all across Austria and France, ever since it showed up in Steve's mail and he'd given it to Bucky to sign off on production back home, all proceeds gone to the war effort. Like Bucky didn't talk about auctioning it off after the war whenever folks looked at him funny for being a grown man with a teddy bear, like he wouldn't tell anyone who'd listen about how he was going to take every fool penny and donate it to the orphans and widows fund. Like Bucky didn't sleep with his head pillowed on its cotton-stuffed belly, or prop it up sometimes around the campfire during dinnertime because it gave the boys a laugh.
But all that had filtered in after—after Steve snatched up the bear and snapped, “I do. I want it,” and glared Bucky down. “Just because it's a little beat up doesn't mean it's not worth anything.” It's worth everything, Steve had bitten back, hard enough his teeth ached. You're worth everything.
And maybe some of that had shown through on his face, because Bucky seemed to lighten up before his eyes. “Yeah?” he'd said. Steve nodded, holding the bear pressed over his heart. Bucky's smile started slow, lopsided and indulgent, playing to the crazy pal he'd saddled himself with when he was too young to know better. “Gotta get that money for the widows and orphans, huh?”
Steve could tell Bucky didn't believe him, and it killed him a little, the way every bitter winter before the serum used to shave another few years off his life.
"I stole your next of kin letter," Steve burst out then, teeth too sore to hold it back. The words had been burning a hole in him all those weeks out from finding Bucky alive in that Hydra base against every single odd. "Wasn't gonna let your ma hear it from anyone else. If I couldn't bring you home."
Bucky'd pushed him back, just enough to look Steve dead in the eye—Steve hadn't realized he'd been standing too close. "Hey," Bucky said, every word ragged at the edges like it cost him more than he knew he could pay, "I'm always gonna come home. Always. As long as I can walk or crawl or find someone to drag my sorry carcass back to Brooklyn. You and me, Stevie, you gotta believe it."
“And I'm always gonna want this,” Steve countered. Let Bucky think he meant the bear. “Always gonna want you around.”
“Punk,” Bucky had said after a moment, gave him a jostling shove, bumping their shoulders together. But at least his smile looked real that time, cheeks reddened from the fight and the cold.
“Jerk,” Steve said back because this was how they danced, and for a moment in their scuffling he thought he felt Bucky's hand close over his, over the bear, and hold tight.
Steve carried that bear with him almost to the end.
One day he'd caught Bucky sewing up the leg where it'd been torn, but he hadn't wanted—didn't dare—look into it, too scared to take it as some kind of sign of Bucky patching himself up. He hadn't pushed, Bucky never said anything, and the next day they'd ziplined onto a moving train. Steve never got a chance to ask.
He'd been too raw to cry for days. Couldn't touch the bear, couldn't touch any of Bucky's things, knowing that Buck—that nothing was ever going to be the same again. Knowing that there wasn't going to be an after-the-war for the person who deserved it most. And when he did finally get the courage after Peggy found him in that bombed out bar, three bottles in and nothing more than a sick stomach to go with his sick heart, the first part of the bear he'd touched had been the leg Bucky had stitched up. He'd felt the hard metal lump inside and his legs went out. Cried until he heaved.
Steve gave it to Peggy for safekeeping. But also because he couldn't look at it any more. Couldn't see the broken toy and know that Bucky would never get a chance to fix it. He told Peggy if he didn't make it she should auction it off, widows and orphans, and when she'd looked at him Steve had realized he was both, now. Widowed and orphaned.
But that was a long, long time ago.
Steve shakes himself off like sloughing off snow, drags his hand over his face and air into his lungs until he can't feel the ice closing in around him any more. He feels as old as his birth certificate, dry and thin and pressed between glass at the Smithsonian exhibit.
He needs to think, to plan. Security in Peggy's care facility is top of the line, but Steve doesn't doubt for one second that the Winter Soldier—the Ghost—Bucky took what he needed without leaving a trace. Or witha trace, if he left those flowers. It is a message? Is he a threat?
Steve doesn't know why he jerks around, hair at his nape standing on end. There's no sound, no shift in the floorboards. Just sudden awareness that he's not the only person in this room.
Bucky is standing by the window. It's closed, unlocked but shut, not that it'll slow Bucky down if he needs to leave in a hurry. He's standing with his metal arm angled away, long hair tied back away from his eyes. His shirt is gray and plain, his jeans are worn. He looks...he looks alive, and real, and Steve almost drops the bear. His hands have gone numb.
Steve can't read Bucky's expression. It makes his skin crawl, like the first time he looked in a mirror after the serum and tried to find his own features in the person staring back.
Bucky's eyes flick to the bear. He doesn't move to speak, doesn't even look like he knows how.
He's here. After months and months of searching, of nothing but glimpses, starving for scraps. Bucky is in his living room.
“Do you remember this?” Steve asks. His thumb drags down the worn fur of its cotton belly. He wishes the leg didn't look so mangled, stuffing poking out of the seam. In his other hand, the melted dog tags are threatening to cut into his palm. There's something hot and bitter under his tongue, metallic enough to make his jaw clench. He's angry, he realizes, so angry he could spit. Bucky handed this bear to some stranger who thought it was trash. “It's yours.”
Bucky shakes his head. Steve still doesn't expect him to speak, opens his mouth only to be cut off. “It's yours,” Bucky says. For a moment Steve wonders if he's parroting back what Steve said, then, “I gave it to you.”
His voice is rusty, like he hasn't done much talking since the hellicarrier went down. Then again Steve's voice isn't much better, and he has no excuse.
“You remember that?” Steve gets out, ragged.
Bucky doesn't move, doesn't blink. He's not quite looking at Steve, not really looking anywhere else. He could mean—Steve swallows down disappointment and makes himself finish the thought—he could mean he gave the bear to Steve today.
“The other things,” Steve says. “The sketchbook. Was that you?”
Bucky's head tips down a fraction.
“The Dodgers ticket?” Another nod. Steve remembers Tommy saying he won it in a pool game. Had he been talking about going to the Roadshow loud enough for Bucky to overhear in a bar? “What about the comic book? Buck Rogers, do you remember that?”
Bucky doesn't say anything for a moment. Then, “She said she had Captain America comics. I put it in her box when she wasn't looking.” He pauses again. “I can get it back.”
Steve shakes his head. He doesn't need the comic back, and he wouldn't take the Dodgers ticket away from Tommy. It doesn't— Steve feels something give way in his chest. He recognizes the way Natasha doesn't answer questions.
He stares at the toy in his hands. It's old, dusty. Half-mangled bits of cloth sewn together. “It doesn't matter,” Steve says. He looks up, finds Bucky still there, still alive and in his living room, and suddenly it's the easiest thing he's ever done to reach out and leave the bear on the table. He looks at Bucky, asks, “Are you alright?”
Bucky blinks. Steve gets to his feet, chair scraping back against his legs. “Are you injured at all? Do you have somewhere safe to stay?” He thinks of the leftover mac and cheese waiting in the fridge and swallows. “Are you hungry?”
“What do you mean,” Bucky says, not a question.
Steve feels his stomach drop. That's not...That's not good.
“Hungry,” he starts, “it means, when you eat, when you need food—”
Bucky takes one step forward. The chair skids back against Steve's knee when he kicks a leg back to brace himself, when he tries to keep that half-foot of distance between them. “Wait,” Steve says, hand out to stop Bucky from coming closer; it feels so empty without the bear. “I'll fight you. That's what you came here for, right?”
He can feel it bubbling up through his arms and legs, the feeling he's been missing for so long, the feeling of fighting for a reason. He'll fight because Bucky needs to fight him. He'll fight to protect himself, because—because some part of Bucky needs him to do that too.
“Only,” Steve says, and somehow he's smiling like his lip is already split and bloody, “It's just that Sam really likes this living room, so we should take it outside.”
Bucky is staring, now—at him, not through him—at his closed fist. Steve realizes with a jolt that he is already bleeding, drops of blood slipping between his fingers where the dog tags sliced into his palm.
Bucky is across the room in an instant, and a bruise immediately forms and fades when Steve's hip smacks into the heavy table. It itches fiercely, Steve's free hand goes to cover it, and the next thing he knows Bucky has his injured hand cupped in his palms, prying Steve's fingers away from the dog tags one at a time. Steve freezes.
Bucky is very close. Close enough to make Steve feel small again, when Bucky used to curl over Steve's hands and clean the gravel out of his cuts. There's soot staining his palm, even when Bucky drags at it with his thumb. This close Bucky looks—different. He's missing the terrible blankness from before, or maybe it's only that Steve is close enough to get glimpses of something shifting underneath it.
Bucky picks up the tags between two metal fingers, and Steve has to grip the table to keep from snatching them back. But they're Bucky's—they're Bucky's they're Bucky's they're Bucky's—and destroying them won't erase what they mean. It's a symbol, Steve thinks. Bucky drags his right thumb over his name, smearing it over with soot and blood.
“I remember these,” he says. “You didn't want them.” He sets them on the table next to the bear.
His grip tightens on Steve's wrist and pulls; Steve goes, easily, letting himself be lead by a man who moves like he hasn't just turned Steve's world upside down.
Water from the sink hits the cut on his palm, snapping Steve back to himself. Bucky's turning Steve's hand back and forth under the spray, thumbing away the soot marks and cleaning the wound with a small dab of soap from the dispenser. Steve bites back a, “You don't need to.” Bucky more than likely knows it's unnecessary and he's doing it anyway.
“I didn't not want them,” Steve blurts out instead.
Bucky doesn't slow down a tick. “You didn't take 'em, either.”
Steve stares. Tries not to, gives up. He hasn't heard that accent, that voice in— “You wanted me carrying around something that by all rights should mean you died on me?” His own accent is coming on thick, thick enough that Bucky flicks his eyes up at him before turning to grab a paper towel to dab at Steve's already-closing cut with.
“Well,” Bucky says, and honest-to-God lifts his left shoulder in a shrug. “I did die on you.”
Steve gapes. He can't help it, his jaw might as well be on the floor.
His hand finds Bucky's shoulder, palm fitting over the metal curve of it to drag himself closer—and he stumbles, all-but falls against Bucky's chest, free arm up to lock around any part of Bucky he can find in this embrace. His whole body is shaking, tremors racing up and down his back, but his face is buried against Bucky's neck and for a moment everything is still, everything is terrible but it's going to be okay.
Then Bucky's hands come up—right first, and then his left—and settle feather-light at Steve's waist. “Shit,” Steve says, and starts to pull away. “I should've—” asked, he means to say, but Bucky's arms cross over his back and pin him in place, left around Steve's waist and his right across Steve's shoulderblades and so tight there's no room to breathe. Steve doesn't need it, drops his head back down to where Bucky's scent is strongest.
“You're here,” Steve hears himself say with wonder in his voice, and they're pressed so close together he can feel Bucky's eyelashes on his skin when Bucky squeezes his eyes shut. “You're safe. You're here.”
“I've been trying to remember,” Bucky says, so quiet Steve almost doesn't hear him. He says it like an apology.
It hurts to pull back, but Steve needs to see his face. Bucky blinks at him, blue eyes clear. And suddenly it all makes sense—Bucky leaving offerings at Steve's feet like promises, when Steve never...he never needed anything like a promise from Bucky.
Somehow his hands have found their way up to cradle Bucky's face, and Steve looks for anything—anything—in Bucky's expression that says this isn't okay. “It doesn't matter,” Steve says, wishing he had time to make his words less clumsy, “It doesn't matter to me what you remember. You know me?”
He waits for Bucky's nod, warily given. It pulls something loose in Steve, a hard knot he's been carrying in every bullet hole the Winter Soldier left in him.
“You know me,” Steve breathes out.
“Stevie Rogers,” Bucky says, dropping his eyes but chucking his knuckle up under Steve's chin. “The dumbest punk in all of Brooklyn.”
“Jerk,” Steve laughs, almost. He drops his head down the scant inch between them until their foreheads bump together, eyes falling shut. When he was small his head barely came up to Bucky's shoulder, would've thunked in the middle of his chest if he'd tried to do this. Bucky might not remember that, might never remember. But Steve can remember enough for the both of them.
“Hey,” Steve says, voice rough and his eyes a little wet. He turns his face away out of habit, and Bucky follows him, leaning into his hands. Steve leans right back, and for a moment his mouth almost brushes across Bucky's forehead like a kiss.
“Hey,” he tries again, and this time he manages half a step back, nerves gone staticky up the back of his arms. “Did you ever,” he starts, and he's smiling, he feels like he might never stop. “The sketchbook was for you. Did you get to look at it?”
Bucky shakes his head, arms gone limp at his sides. Steve stops with his hand still on Bucky's arm, above his elbow. “You okay?”
Bucky looks at him, and for a moment Steve is sure he's going to hear, Course I am, Rogers, with a shrug meant to get Steve to drop it.
“Better,” he says after a while. Steve feels his heart clench. “Better than I was.”
“Yeah,” Steve says, feeling it echo through him. He sees the movement of his thumb dragging over Bucky's skin before he realizes he's doing it. He stops.
Bucky follows him willingly to the table, lets Steve nudge him into a chair. The bear is slumped over on its side, watching them with stitched together eyes. Steve finds himself gibbering, talking about all the different stamps on the package when it showed up on his doorstep and the note inside. “Turns out I'm no good at drawing myself,” he laughs, showing Bucky the first few pages, the pieces of himself that never fit together.
He feels Bucky's hand touch his knee and turns instantly toward him. “Did—” he starts, Did you change your mind about food? But Bucky's hand is against his cheek and Bucky's mouth—
Bucky's mouth is on his.
It's gone in an instant, ripping a sound from Steve he's never heard before.
“I've wanted,” Bucky says, his eyes down, on Steve's mouth, “I wanted.”
“I,” Steve says, because Bucky looks like he's bracing for something horrible, like he thinks he'll be hit. “I wanted too,” he stammers out, clutching at Bucky's soft, worn shirt. “I want.”
Bucky looks up at him, and Steve holds himself as still as he possibly can while he's shaking out of his skin.
This time when Bucky kisses him it's warm, lingering, and Steve gets to kiss back.
Steve couldn't say how long they've been kissing when he hears a jingle of keys in the lock and Sam's voice saying, “Hey, got a call from Natasha, she sounded pretty—oh. Oh.”
When Steve turns around Bucky's hand closes over his, and he knows he's grinning wide enough to light up the whole room.
Sam watches Bucky sometimes, though not the way Natasha does out of the corner of her eye—like she's a cat, and he's a dog, and it's only a matter of time before he bares his teeth at her. Until then she pretends she isn't walking through the house with her back up, every muscle tense. She came back from Tajikistan with bruises on her shins and cuts on her hands, and five days after she finds Bucky on the couch and he doesn't attack her she stomps into the living room to announce, “Fine, a break, I'm taking a break too.” Sam looks really proud of her, even though she's glaring.
Bucky says, “Okay?” because most of the glaring seems aimed his way. His hands go still with the needle and thread, whatever project he's working on tucked away in the blankets on his lap. He might be fixing up the hole he cut in the gray tank top he borrowed from Steve, the one that Steve never wore because it shimmers faintly in sunlight.
Natasha turns her glare on Steve. For her sake Steve tries to stop grinning, but it's a lost cause. Some days he even wakes up smiling, his cheeks a little sore with it but Bucky's hair fanned out across the pillow next to his, battered bear tucked up under his chin.
She throws herself down on the chair Steve's thought of as hers for a long time now, kicking her feet out over the arm and nearly dislodging a stack of Steve's latest drawings—the Empire State Building in the rain, a dog Bucky made friends with in the park while its owner talked with Natasha, giraffes eating at the Bronx zoo with Sam practicing sticking out his tongue just as far.
“What are we watching?” Sam asks, not even slowing down as he sheds his keys and shoes at the door, making a bee-line for the sofa.
“One guess, with two ninety-year-olds in the room,” Natasha deadpans, flicking her bare toes against Steve's drawings.
“Awesome,” Sam breathes out, collapsing on the other end of the couch from Bucky. “My favorite.”
“Rough day?” Steve asks, reaching for the hot chocolate as he takes in Sam's exhausted sprawl.
“Every day's a little rough, every day's a little easier,” Sam shrugs, accepting the mug Steve hands him with a grateful quirk of his mouth. “Thanks, man.”
“Do you want company, next time you go?” Steve asks as he settles on the floor between them—not quite enough room on the couch for three grown men to sprawl comfortably. Anyway, Steve likes being able to lean against the line of Bucky's leg, knowing he's there without having to look.
Sam's grin when it comes is brilliant, wide enough to light up his whole face. “Yeah,” he says. He leans over, knocks his knuckles against Steve's shoulder. “Yeah, hell yeah, man, that'd be great.”
Steve feels his face heat, but it's good, it's a good feeling. It feels like a step in the right direction after years of running in circles. There's a lightness in Steve's chest he wants to protect, fiercely, with everything he has. Bucky's leg presses harder against him for a moment, there and gone.
“If this show weren't on at ten in the morning,” Natasha mumbles after a moment. “Next time I say we DVR this and take a shot every time we see an ugly vase.”
“Or a creepy doll,” Bucky offers.
“Or a creepy doll,” Natasha agrees, more vehemently than she probably means to.
“Is there such thing as a doll that isn't creepy?” Steve wonders. Familiar chimes sound on the tv, shifting the scene from a violently purple vase to a cloth doll with features the size of a penny on a head the size of a softball.
“No,” all of them say in unison.
Steve feels something soft against his cheek, and turns his face into it with a smile. He expects Bucky's hand, or maybe the tank top Bucky was working on—instead he finds himself nose to nose with Bucky's bear, and reaches up to hold it. Bucky lets it go when Steve has a good grip, and Steve's breath catches in his throat.
The left sleeve of the little uniform jacket is gone. The arm that used to fill it is now made of neat stitches and gray cotton, shimmering a little in the morning light filtering through the windows. Bucky took the shield patch off the uniform and sewed it to the shoulder of the bear, where the red star on his own shoulder should match.
“Looks good,” Steve croaks out. He hears Sam stop mid-sip of his cocoa, sees Natasha's foot stop swaying out of the corner of his eye. “Looks real good, Buck.”
It's still missing an ear, still slightly singed. The new arm is stuffed with—might be tissues inside, something different from the worn padding in other places but still soft. He drags his thumb over the threadbare nose, follows the seam of its belly down to the leg Bucky stitched up again. He doesn't have to touch it to know this leg is heavier than the other.
“Work in progress,” Bucky says, holding out his hand for Steve to give it back. Steve almost doesn't want to, but Bucky cards his left hand carefully through Steve's hair where it's getting too long; Steve leans into his touch instead.
“Say,” Sam drawls, not even bothering to hide his teasing grin behind his mug, “isn't rule number one of Antiques Roadshow not to restore anything yourself? Decreasing the value all over the place, man.”
Steve reaches over to pinch Sam's leg. He fits his other hand around Bucky's ankle when Sam yelps, easy as anything. Bucky nudges his knee into Steve's shoulder until Steve tips his head back against it—and there, he can see Bucky smirking down at him, hair in his eyes but impossibly here, safe, alive. Real.
“You're not taking into account rarity of the item,” Steve tells Sam without looking away. Bucky's smile only grows.
When Natasha makes a faint gagging noise Steve lobs a pillow at her without looking, and someone on screen finds out their treasure isn't worth much, but it's still priceless to them.