A chilly end-of-December wind was whipping around the corners and driving right through Steve's coat as he crouched down, peering into the cat trap that was tucked up against the back wall of a pizza joint. The air was redolent with tomato-spice-grease smells, and a nearby dumpster was overflowing onto the ground. A skinny tuxedo cat was inside the trap, staring wide-eyed up at Steve, one bronze-green eye half shut and weeping some kind of gunk. It hissed, cringing away, and Steve made a wordless crooning noise. Not that that would help, because the poor thing was scared to death. Steve hated that, how desperate and wild they got, sometimes even hurting themselves in an effort to escape.
"Okay, kitty, you're okay," Steve murmured, reaching out and pulling the rusted handle up off the trap's roof. He had the van out on the main road, stacked with full and empty traps. Last pickup of the day, the sun getting low and the wind getting an icy edge to it; too cold to leave any animal exposed in a trap overnight. "C'mon, kitty," Steve said, and slowly stood up, doing his best to keep the trap level. He turned toward the alley mouth, hunching against the chill breeze.
"What the fuck are you doing?" someone snarled, rough-voiced and furious, right behind Steve. A hard shove sent Steve careening into the wall, the trap ringing off the brick and Steve's forehead connecting with a dull thump, sharp sting in his fingertips and then knuckles as he tried to fend himself off the wall. The hand shoved him again, crushing him into the crumbling bricks, the trap digging into his thigh, the cat inside yowling in terror.
"Get off me! What the hell is wrong with you?"
A body leaned heavily onto Steve's, knee digging into Steve's thigh, dull throb of pain. The hand was twisted in the collar of Steve's coat now, in his scarf, yanking them both tight, making Steve gasp for air. "I asked what the fuck you're doing. Why are you fucking with the cat?"
"Trying to - help! We help - cats - it's my fucking job," Steve croaked. And then he pistoned his elbow back, hard, into the person behind him, kicking back at the same time, connecting with an ankle, with ribs, and the man behind him wheezed out a sharp breath, his weight lifting off long enough for Steve to get his hand under himself and shove back. The man stumbled away and Steve whirled around, wincing at the desperate noises coming from the poor cat, who was thrashing in the trap now, frantic.
The man was a few feet away, scarecrow figure in layers of long coat and ragged shirts and sweater, duct tape around cracked boot-toes and holed jeans inexpertly patched. Long, dark hair straggled into his face from under a dark, knitted cap and there was dirt under the nails of the hand that was extended - threat and warning - toward Steve. But no weapon, thank God. No knife, no broken bottle or shard of splintery wood, no gun. The stubble on his face was at least a few days old. In the blue haze of a swift, winter twilight, Steve could only see that he wasn't old, wasn't young, wasn't clean.
"Look, I don't want to hurt anybody, least of all the cat, okay?" Steve reached up slowly and gingerly touched the aching spot on his forehead, and then the matching one on his cheek. They stung and throbbed, feeling slippery - probably bleeding. "I dunno what your problem is, but you can't just...you can't just attack people!"
"They catch the cats. They...they kill them with dogs, they hurt them," the man said, and his hand dropped to his side, his gaze flicking over Steve, over the trap and the cat - up the alley and down again. His voice was raw-sounding, as if he were sick.
"What, around here? Is someone - did you call Animal Control?"
"I fucking stopped them," the man snapped, and Steve flinched away from the rage, from the way the man was standing, suddenly; chest out and shoulders braced, his hand clenching into a fist inside the frayed, fingerless glove. The other seemed tucked into the coat pocket or inside the coat, all the dark material too baggy and too ragged to make a clean silhouette.
"Look, don't- If there's a problem with somebody hurting cats, or any animals, just call Animal Control, okay? Let them take care of it."
"Fuck that, they don't care. Don't have a fucking phone, and they won't listen."
"Oh. But…." Steve stood there for a moment, forcing himself to calm down, to breathe, cold air crinkling in his nose and making his throat hurt. The cat had gone still, the thin wire of the trap-handle biting into Steve's numb fingers. "Okay, I'm sorry, just…it's their job. And you could get hurt, or the animals could, so...oh!" Steve reached for his inside coat pocket and the man stiffened, sharp little wheeze of breath in and Steve stopped.
"I'm just- I'm getting one of my cards, okay? Nothing else. Just one of my cards." Slower now, Steve reached into the pocket, fumbling with cold-clumsy fingers. He drew out a card, 'Flatbush Avenue Ferals', website, address and phone number in plain script, retro-fifties 'cool cat' lounging against a brick wall, grinning and peering over his sunglasses. "This is us, okay? And on the back, that's my number, my cell number." Steve held the card out, between two fingers, trying not to look threatening, and the man opposite him made hissing noise of pure displeasure, much like the little cat in the trap.
"Said I don't fucking have a phone."
"I know. Anybody around here, they know us, okay? They know me. I have to get permission to put the traps out. So, just, if you see anybody hurting an animal, or catching cats for...for illegal dog fights, or anything else, you show them this card, okay? They'll let you use their phone, or they'll call me, one or the other. Okay?"
The man stared at Steve for a long moment, and Steve became aware of the man's breathing; a little too fast, a little too wheezy. A lot, actually, like Steve, when his asthma would come on, or his allergies would kick in. "You okay?" Steve asked, and the man snarled, a silent rictus across his face.
"Fuck you," he snapped. He reached out - hesitated - reached again and snatched the card from Steve's fingers, retreating. He glared down at the card for a moment and then shoved it away into a pocket. "I see you. I'll- I'll find out, if you're not real. I will."
"Okay," Steve said, not really sure what that meant. Not really wanting to know, because even with the wheezy edge of constricted lungs in his voice, what the man said felt threatening. The wind picked up suddenly, rushing down the alley, kicking bits of trash ahead of it, ruffling Steve's hair and making him shiver. Jesus, it was cold. "Okay, listen, I need to get this cat back to base, it's too cold out here for the poor thing, and it's sick, it's got some kind of eye infection going on or something." The man just kept staring, more a shadow, now, in the gloom of the twilight alley. A shadow with a pale face, indistinct, cross-hatched by the strands of hair.
"I'm gonna g-go on down to the van and get it in the warm, okay?" Steve's fingers were numb on the trap's handle, his feet were blocks of ice and he could feel his nose wanting to drip. Gross. "Hey, you could- you could always check in, if you wanted. Come see it in a week, when we've had a chance to make it feel better."
"She," the man said, and, all of a sudden, his wary stance relaxed and he slid forward a couple of steps, curling down a little, looking at the trap and the cat. "She's...a she. Sorry, pishogay," he added, sounding sad. "Didn't mean to scare you,"
"She'll be okay," Steve said after a moment, and the man jerked ever so slightly, as if he'd forgotten Steve was there. "I promise, she'll be okay."
"Sure. Yeah, sure." The man seemed to just...deflate, suddenly. Hunching down on himself, his hand coming up to tug at the edges of his coat. Huddling against the cold, and Steve realized they were both, shivering, and the cat must be freezing, and he really needed to go.
"Okay, I gotta-" Steve took a few steps away, down the alley, and the man didn't move. "Are you-? Do you have somewhere to sleep tonight? Do you maybe need a ride?" Steve asked, and the man jerked again, looking up at Steve. Steve could have sworn he saw the man's teeth, a brief flash of white in his face.
"Fuck off," he said, and turned on his heel, striding away down the alley, long strides, straight back; dismissing the cold, Steve, the cat, everything. A moment later, he was gone, and Steve hustled down to the van, sliding the trap in with the others, little hisses and meeps coming out of the dim interior, the heat welcome on his fingers. He unlocked the cab door and climbed up inside and just sat there a moment, his hands in front of the heat vents, gently throbbing as they warmed, feeling all his muscles gradually relax. Now that he wasn't so distracted, his head was starting to pound, and his cheek, and his abraded fingertips were stinging fiercely. His thigh hurt, too, in the back, where the man's knee had dug in, and in the front, where the trap had done the same. Steve reached up and gingerly felt his head, where a lump was rising. It hurt.
"Jesus," Steve said softly. He looked outside, scanning the bright store-fronts. Pizza and tacos, hair salons and a tax place, discount phones, check cashing and a pawn shop and a bodega or three, everything still spangled with Christmas decorations, red and green, silver and blue. People were hurrying through the slush and muck, all of them bundled up and huddled tight in hats and coats and scarves. Steve wondered if the man had somewhere to sleep, some kind of shelter, some place where he was safe. He really hoped so. Steve dug out the little log book and noted down the cat (female, tuxedo, eye trouble) and the address, and the trap number. Then he put his seatbelt on, and put the van into gear, and trundled away down the street. He couldn't help but look back, once, twice, and a third time, but no dark figure showed itself as he drove away.
The lights were on at FAF, a cozy gold glow in the chilly winter gloom. Steve pulled gratefully into the small parking area in the back and got out, giving a little wave as the back door opened and the troops came out.
"Steve, holy shit, what happened to you?"
"Are you okay?" with anxious hands on his shoulders, turning him to the light.
"You got a lion in the back, there? You look like-"
"-something the cat dragged in," they all chorused, Steve included, and he had to laugh, even if he was still a little shaky.
"Nah, I'm okay, I'm fine, just...let's get the cats in, it's too damn cold out here."
Clint squeezed Steve's shoulders. 'Cats, then you,' he signed, opening the van doors and reaching for the first of the filled traps. "How many?"
"Twelve, this time." Steve reached for two more and then stood there patiently while Natasha peered up at his forehead, her fingers warm on his jaw as she turned his head a little. "I'm good," Steve said again, and she patted his shoulder, too, and started moving the empty cages out, stacking them to one side, out of the way.
"Twelve little kitties, all in a row," Tony sing-songed under his breath. He grabbed two cages, cooing down at the skinny, shivering creatures inside and Steve sighed a little, glad at least one member of the team wasn't making a fuss. He was fine, despite the low-grade throb from the goose-egg.
Tony was the money behind FAF; he had some patents in something that Steve only kinda-sorta got (green-energy-robotics….something), and what he didn't invest in more sciencey-stuff, he plowed into FAF. Somewhere along the way, Tony had acquired a powerful love of cats. So he had bought the small building where the clinic and cattery were housed, and he paid the salaries of the team, including their vet, Bruce, and nurse/lab tech/assistant Pepper. Clint was a tech, too - not as advanced as Pepper, but he was still in school, taking classes when he wasn't at the clinic.
Natasha did everything else, really. PR, and the books, and appointments for the public when they did their monthly low-to-no-cost spay/neuter drives. She handled their online stuff, too, and kept their occasional volunteers in check. Her dad had been a Russian immigrant turned cop, who'd died on duty, decorated and beloved by...everyone, it seemed. Natasha had done a stint in the Marines instead of the Police Academy, but she still had connections all over the city, from the Mayor's office on down, courtesy of her father's legacy and their respect for her.
Steve drove the van. And hauled traps, and negotiated with business owners and cops alike to place traps where they were needed the most. 'Our golden boy',' Tony said. Steve had grown from a weedy, wheezy, miserable teen into a tall, pretty buff guy who could, as Tony said, turn on the blarney like nobody's business. It was kinda true, though; Steve could duck his head and grin and get people to see the beauty in helping out. Tony had him front and center in every PR thing Natasha managed to wrangle, and while it made Steve feel like a prize pig at a fair, he knew it helped to put a face to the name, and his face was kinda...memorable. Steve always made sure Natasha was right beside him, though, because her doll-fragile looks and scarlet hair were just as memorable, if not more, and Natasha never stuttered or blushed like huge dork.
Tonight, though, Steve felt like all his blarney had left him, and his charm, too. The man in the alley had really taken him by surprise - kinda scared him - and it was bothering him. He'd never felt…intimidated by the people who lived in the streets. Just sad, and wistful, wishing he could help, like he helped all the lost cats and kittens. But that guy tonight...he'd really kind of freaked Steve out.
"You sure you're okay?" Natasha said, her deft fingers lifting a trap out of Steve's hand, and Steve came back to himself with a blink and a sigh, letting her take the trap and reaching for more.
"Yup. Sorry. Here we go."
They got the van emptied and the newly trapped cats settled for the night with food and water, comfortable in nests of towels in the cages in the back. They'd do all the physicals and tests in the morning (Bruce was nursing the last of a bad cold at home), and everybody that was healthy enough would get spayed or neutered within a couple of days. When they were done, they trooped upstairs for a 'staff meeting' - beers, snacks, and a few minutes to breathe..
Clint lived in the apartment space on the second floor. They'd all stayed there overnight at one time or another, too tired or too busy to go home, dealing with really sick animals or a sudden flood of kittens that needed round-the-clock care. But Clint had mostly made it his own, with a purple cover on his creaky futon and his SCA and Ren-faire gear hung up on the walls; hand-made armor and a real long bow, quivers of fletched arrows and a hunting trophy that was a papier-mâché Orc head. It had gold rings in its wart-riddled snout.
"Oops, sorry," Clint said as they trooped in, Clint's dog letting out a hoarse woof. Clint made a dive for his futon and shoved a heap of laundry into a basket which he then slung over in the corner, poking down the edges of ratty briefs and worn jeans.
'Nothing we haven't seen before,' Natasha signed, rolling her eyes. She made a lewd hand gesture - Steve was pretty sure it was some kind of Afghani street-thing. Clint gave her back the bird, with both hands.
"Hey, Lucky, hey, pup," Natasha said, bending to pat Clint's dog, who'd been sleeping on half the laundry. Lucky yawned in her face and stretched, fringed tail waving gently. It made enough of a breeze to fan the tinsel on Clint's white plastic Christmas tree.
"Story time!" Tony said, already shoulder-deep in Clint's 'fridge, handing out beer as everyone assembled around the kitchen island on Clint's horrible purple stools. (He'd recovered them himself; the purple pleather that - he had told them more than once, and with pride - had been on sale.) Clint plopped down an oversize bag of pretzels and another of Chex Mix Muddy Buddies and then, with a look at Steve, a mixed bag of apples and oranges. Lucky stationed himself strategically and hopefully between Natasha and Clint.
"Wow, you really do look kinda fucked," Tony said, squeezing hot water out of a washcloth and handing it over. Steve settled carefully onto a stool, pressing the cloth to his cheek. Everything was definitely catching up with him, and he mostly just wanted to go home. He pulled the washcloth away, unsurprised to see blood on it.
"Yeah, I- Fuck, it was pretty damn weird." Steve did his best to sign and talk with the washcloth flopping around, mostly just to see if he could, and make Clint grin. In the quiet of Clint's apartment, he could hear well enough with his 'ears' on, but Steve liked the practice. "I was over offa Glenwood, right? Near the Bildersee school? All those restaurants over there..." Everyone nodded. Food in dumpsters meant mice, rats, and cats; prime ground for trapping. "And I was in this little alley, getting a full trap, that pretty little tuxedo cat?"
"Oh, right, with the-" Clint said, making an 'eye' sign and squinty face, and Steve nodded.
"Yeah. And outta nowhere, this guy - he just...he jumped me."
"Jesus!" Tony shoved a pretzel in his mouth, getting crumbs in his goatee.
"He didn't have a weapon or anything, he was...he was yelling about the cat. Man, he was strong," Steve said, remembering the way the man had effortlessly shoved him into the wall and held him there. Well, until he'd gotten a rib-full of elbow, but still...not a lot of people could push Steve around like that. Steve dabbed at his cheek again and Tony made a face and stood up, bustling over.
"Here, Jesus, let me. You're missing half the blood," Tony said. He tugged the washcloth impatiently out of Steve's hand and started wiping. Despite his seeming impatience, though, he was careful and gentle and Steve just let him, knowing better than to argue.
"So just some crazy?" Steve shot Tony a look, and Tony looked guilty for about half a second.
"No, just...he was homeless, I guess. He said somebody in the neighborhood had been trapping cats and setting dogs on them. He thought I was one of them."
"Fuck, really?" Natasha said, distractedly shoving a handful of Chex Mix into her mouth. Steve knew by morning she'd be tapping her connections on the force and elsewhere, trying to find out what low-lifes were using cats as bait to probably work fighting dogs up into a frenzy. A moment later, she dropped a piece of Chex Mix into Lucky's waiting, open mouth.
"Lotta homeless over there, once they put the trash out," Clint said, twirling a long pretzel stick in his fingers. Eating out of dumpsters was something Clint had confessed to doing once or twice in his 'misguided youth', as Tony put it. Orphan, runaway, petty thief, Clint had been stuck in a bad place when he'd found Lucky, hit and hurt and dying in the street. The FAF clinic had been closest, and he'd hauled the poor dog in and yelled at Bruce until Bruce had calmed him down enough so Clint could read his lips, and see that Bruce was saying that of course he'd take the dog, of course he'd help. Clint had been a little...messed up. But four years later, he was close to finishing his vet-tech degree, living clean and legal, and Steve - all of them - were proud of him.
Natasha smiled at Clint, little sway to her body as she bumped her knee into his under the island counter. "People do fucked up things with animals, so I can see that he might have thought you had...ulterior motives."
"Man, don't talk about that," Tony muttered, shuddering. Tony was currently using his weird network of scientists, government drones, ex-military operatives and 'long haired freaky people' to enact legislation to ban declawing in New York state, among other things. Tony, for all his hail-fellow-well-met personality was pretty damn squeamish when it came to animals, and cats in particular. He mostly made sure the clinic had everything it needed, used his charm to get them as much publicity as possible, and cuddled kittens like it was going out of style. But hurt animals made him shaky and teary-eyed, something he'd deny until he was blue in the face. Cleaning up Steve? No problem. Watching Pepper expertly take a blood draw from an unhappy kitten? Tony would be practically catatonic. Natasha had a picture on the bulletin board in the lobby of Tony in an armchair, draped in about fifteen kittens (including one on his head), sound asleep with his mouth open, 'Our Founder' bannered across the bottom. She refused to take it down, and Tony airly pretended it didn't exist, but that picture was Tony, through and through.
"So, anyway, that's the story," Steve said, taking a long swallow of beer and sighing, wincing as Tony pressed a little too hard on his forehead. "And I'm not hurt, just scraped up, so I think I'm gonna go on home and get cleaned up. I got some homework to do."
"You sure you're okay? Want me to take you by the walk-in?" Tony asked, tossing the washcloth at Clint's kitchen sink, where it slapped wetly onto a stack of dirty coffee mugs. Tony made Steve tilt his head to the light, trying to see if his pupils reacted evenly or something, but mostly he just succeeded in poking Steve in the eye.
"Ow! No, I'm fine. Just a little shaky. I mean, it's not every day someone accuses you of being a...a cat-killer."
"Poor Steve," Natasha said, and rolled an apple to him.
Steve caught it with a little smile, then took an orange and lobbed it underhanded at Clint. "Eat some fruit, man, I can see the tower of pizza boxes from here."
Clint looked guilty - but not that guilty - and looked at the orange in his hand with mock confusion. "So, do I grill this or fry this?"
"You shove it up your-"
"Tony, there are ladies present," Steve gasped, fluttering a hand over his heart, and Natasha looked wildly around the room.
"Jerks," Steve said, smiling. He took a huge bite of the apple and slid down off the stool. "'Night, guys," he said, trying not to spit apple bits. "I'll be by, um...around three, I think?" Clint was giving him a look, so Steve put his apple down and repeated himself in sign, chewing as obnoxiously as possible. 'FUTURE AROUND TIME-3 MAYBE ME ARRIVE' "No later than four, I gotta get some art over the bridge and then I'll be back to help with the new intakes." 'FUTURE BETWEEN TIME-3 TIME-4 ME ARRIVE. DESIGN CARRY-FROM-ME-TO-WORK THERE. FINISH ME RETURN FOR-FOR? HELP-YOU-ALL CATS'
"Gotcha," Clint said, digging a ragged thumbnail into the orange and jerking back from the sudden spray of juice from the peel. As Steve walked out, Natasha was showing Clint how to peel an orange in one, long spiral and Tony was lighting peel-juice spray on fire with a fancy Zippo, flourishing his hands like a magician.
Steve peeked in on the new arrivals; they all seemed to be settling a little, some already asleep in the warm dimness, some eating, some upright and alert, wary. He took a last few huge bites from the apple and tossed the core, then slipped out the back. His bike was there, tucked up between the van and the building, and Steve shoved his scarf into his coat and zipped it all the way up, then worked his sore hands down into his gloves. He got his helmet on but left the strap dangling; he hated wearing it, but it was too cold for a bare head that night. The padding pressed on his forehead and hurt, and Steve was already tired of that. He stood up on the starter and the engine turned over, first try, and Steve headed out.
FAF was right near the corner of Albemarle and Flatbush, and Steve's apartment was up on Fenimore, facing Bedford avenue. About fifteen, twenty minutes when traffic was behaving. Tonight, it was past seven, and the cold seemed to have kept people in; the streets weren't the usual broken-hive busy, and Steve was grateful. He really was starting to feel every ding and scrape and bump, and the cold coming through his jeans was making his legs numb.
He got home, got his bike locked up, and trudged up three flights to home. At the end of the hall, Mr. Rampersad's door creaked open, and he peered out nearsightedly, bundled in his wooly slippers and fuzzy robe and scarf, dancing reindeer on his pajama pants. Mr. Rampersad was visiting from Trinidad (or maybe emigrating, he'd been 'visiting' for six months), and he felt the cold.
"It's me, Mr. Rampersad. How are you tonight?" Steve asked, sorting out his door key and slotting it into the deadbolt.
"Better dan you, I t'ink," the man said, shaking his head, little cluck of his tongue.
"Yeah, I think you're right," Steve pushed his door open, gave Mr. Rampersad a tired wave, and went inside, flipping on the hall light. As he worked the deadbolt, two warm shapes hit his calves, and Steve turned, smiling down at his cats. One was all black, fluffy and big-eared, something Siamese in the huge blue eyes. The other was a tuxedo, with a nose that was half black and half pink, a lopsided mustache in black, and tidy white front paws. "Hi, guys," Steve said, and they meewed at him, the tuxedo - Charlie, after Charlie Chaplin - standing up on big, black hind paws, stretching up Steve's leg and prickling with his claws on Steve's thigh.
"Ow, jeez." Steve scrubbed his fingers behind Charlie's ears, unhooked the claws, then hung his helmet up. He stooped over a little to smooth the fluffy tufts of fur on Chim-chim's back. (He looked like a chimney sweep's brush, Steve said.) "Hey, Chim-Chim, hiya, kitty-kitty, yeah, I love you, too, Charlie, hi." After a full minute in the hall, petting his cats, Steve felt a little better. He heeled his sneakers off and hung up his coat, stuffing scarf and gloves into the pockets. He padded down the hall to the kitchen at the end, passing, on his left, the entry to the living room. The lights on his very small Christmas tree (dubbed the Christmas twig by Natasha) provided a warm, multi-colored glow in one corner. Kitchen light on, he plugged in the electric kettle. What he really wanted, besides a shower, was a big cup of hot cocoa. He rummaged out the box of mix from his cabinet while the cats cried up a storm, weaving around his legs. Steve looked down at them, laughing.
"Oh my God, guys, what? Are you out of food?" Steve went over to look in the big, stainless bowl in the corner. There was food around the edges, but the middle was empty. Crisis! "Okay, okay. I can see your ribs." Steve scooped up kibble from the bin and dumped it in the bowl, and the cats immediately started to eat as if they'd been waiting for days, not hours. He dumped and rinsed and refilled the water bowl, and then went over to the little, doorless 'closet' on the opposite side of the kitchen. It was just big enough for the flat, plastic drawer on the floor that held the two litter boxes. Steve kept the litter, food bin, Tupperware of treats and 'nip, and cleaning supplies on the two shelves above. He scooped the boxes into the lidded trash can in the corner and washed his hands. Then, blinking drowsily, he made his hot chocolate, pouring two packets of powder into his biggest mug before adding milk and marshmallows.
He sipped gingerly as he wandered from the kitchen into the bathroom, to get his shower going, the pipes groaning as they warmed, vibrating faintly. The place had been built in 1910, and Steve's great-grandpa had moved in in 1934, when the original single-family home had been chopped up into apartments. As the last Rogers in the family, State-side, at least, Steve had inherited it; noisy pipes, 1930's fixtures, rent control, and all.
Steve stripped, squinting at himself in the fogging mirror. The scrape on his cheek was bruising nicely, as was the point where his shoulder had hit the wall, a new sore spot he hadn't even been aware of. The lump on his forehead was purpling, and Tony hadn't quite got all the blood out of Steve's eyebrow. His fingertips and knuckles were scraped, too, more on his left hand than his right.
Soap and water burned in everything, but it was good to be clean and warm. Steve smeared A&D ointment around on his hands and taped gauze over the sluggishly oozing patches, and then did the same for his cheek. He sipped at his cocoa and put on his warmest flannel pajamas and sprawled out on the couch. He had art homework to do, but he was so damn tired.... He turned the tv on and found a home reno show. Just one episode, just so he could unwind a little. He loved watching an old house be transformed, plus it gave him mental fodder for the reno he hoped to one day carry out on his own place..
Ten minutes later, Steve was snoring softly, Charlie and Chim-Chim nestled on his thighs and his ribs.
A week later, the bruises more green-yellow than purple and the scrapes nearly gone, Steve saw the man again. Tony had gotten a tip about a small colony of ferals over in the old Canarsie Cemetery; somebody had been feeding them, maybe attracting some loners, and they were starting to be a nuisance. So Steve and Clint took the van out to scout out good trapping spots, and make sure nobody would mess with the traps.
It had snowed a little overnight, just enough to edge the streets in dirty white, to frost the cracks and dust the roofs. The heater in the van hissed and rattled, but the van was warm, back to front. That was one thing Tony insisted on - any animal transported would be warm in winter and cool in summer. It didn't help Clint, though, who had had a bad night with a sick cat, and was feeling sorry for himself. He huddled in his puffy coat and put his feet on the dash. He had a Hello Kitty band-aid across one eyebrow, where one of the new intakes had raked him.
"Fuck, I need a nap. I'm gonna lay out in the back," Clint muttered around a yawn, rubbing at his left ear and resettling the hearing aid that curved behind it. It was matte purple, something Tony had hunted down and presented to Clint for his birthday the second year he was at FAF.
"Sure, you have fun with that," Steve said, knowing Clint wouldn't move, because if he couldn't see out, he got motion sickness.
"Fuck you, I was up all night nursing. Slept on my damn aid, made my ear sore. Left here," Clint muttered.
"It's why you make the big bucks." Steve took a slow turn and then cruised at barely walking speed up Avenue K, the cemetery laid out on their left, grey stone and grey-tan grass and ice-white tracery of snow. It didn't seem like a likely place for a cat colony - not enough shelter, not enough food. But if somebody was feeding them…. They turned left again at Remsen and then turned into the main gates, Steve finding a parking place and putting the van in gear.
"Let's have a look-see," Steve said, zipping his coat up and digging down into his pockets for his gloves. Clint was already pulling a violently purple knit cap - with a pom-pom - onto his head. The earflaps had little arrows on them. Steve pulled on his own cap, which was navy blue with a white star on top, like a skull cap. Natasha had taken up knitting over the summer just so, Steve suspected, she could give them all weird knitwear for Christmas. Bruce's hat was lime-green with floppy kind of Yoda-ears, and Tony's had had gilt yarn mixed in with the bright scarlet, ending in a long, glittery tassel that hung down the back of his neck. Steve was already scouring the Internet to find something equally left-field for Natasha as a New Year's surprise. He'd found one with a high-relief knitted spider in black and red that he was seriously thinking about. He’d have to have it shipped overnight, though, New Years was in two days.
Nobody seemed around in the office, and so Steve and Clint set out walking, trailing down the rows of tilting, weathered headstones. Most were standard stones, nothing special to the casual eye, and a lot of them had wreaths or little bunches of Christmas-red fake poinsettias and ribbons. Up ahead, Steve could see something a bit bigger, quite a bit bigger. And that's when he saw the man.
The tall marker - eight or ten feet high, some kind of memorial, it seemed, stuck around with faded, plastic flags - was in a little grove, and Steve could see a figure crouched at the base of it, and other little figures around him. A
man, and cats. A man who, as they got closer, became amazingly familiar.
"Oh my God," Steve hissed, his hand going out automatically to smack into Clint's chest, making him stop, startled. "Oh my God, that's him!"
Clint made a face and wiggled his fingers, his hearing a little muffled with the earflaps (but they helped keep the hearing aid batteries warm and dry, so - Catch 22). Clint could read lips pretty well, but it took concentration. Steve quickly repeated himself in sign. Clint's eyes went wide.
'Him, who him? Him him? The guy who jumped you?'
"Yes!" Steve stood there, staring, and then he shook his head and scuttled sideways, crouching behind a low, white stone vault. Clint followed, looking amped up, crowding in next to Steve in the lee of the vault.
'So, what, you wanna confront him? Should we-? Do you think he'd talk to us? You?'
'I dunno, I dunno.' Steve shrugged, peeking around the granite corner, watching as the man poured out food into what looked like the lids and bottoms of take-away clamshell containers that had been ripped in half. About eight cats flocked around him, tails up, already nose-deep in kibble. He had five makeshift bowls, and what looked like a small - maybe two and a half pound? - bag of catfood. Something, Steve thought, you could slip under your coat in a convenience store. The man was petting the cats, careful little strokes down their backs.
Steve kept his gaze on the man as he signed awkwardly at Clint, half-twisted to face him. 'He's the one feeding the cats...fuck, what if he gets really pissed off, like last time? What if-?'
'What if we just talk to him and find out.' Clint shuffled out past Steve a little, one knee and his fist down in the patchy snow and dead leaves.
'I don't want to freak him out.' "Clint!" Steve gave up on signing, snatching at Clint's coat-sleeve. "You're getting too close!"
'I wanna see,' Clint signed, and then sneezed. The man froze, the cats flinched, and Steve grabbed Clint and yanked him backwards. They both toppled over.
"Shit! I think he heard you."
"No, he didn't," Clint said, struggling upright and putting an elbow into Steve's ribs.
"Yeah, he did," a voice said, and Steve squeaked and pointed frantically, making Clint whip around, staring. They both scrambled up and away. The man stood there on top of the vault, smirking, and Steve tried to jerk his coat and his dignity back into place.
"Fu- Uh, shoot. Sorry-I'm sorry."
"Sorry," Clint mumbled. The man didn't look too impressed. He also looked slightly...better, to Steve. Not as harried, not as desperate. He was still wearing layers of ragged jeans and ravelling sweaters and moth-eaten Henleys, but his face wasn't as...gaunt, maybe; his eyes weren’t as haunted. Blue eyes, pale blue-grey, staring down at Steve and Clint. He dropped off the edge of the vault as if he were stepping down off a stair, his ratty coat flaring around his thighs.
"Fuck you want? Why are you watching me?" he snapped.
"Do you- uh, do you remember me?" Steve gave a little smile, which wilted in the face of the man's glare. "From the other night? I was collecting traps, behind that pizza place over off Glendale?"
The man stared at Steve for a long moment, looking wary and a little bit angry, but then his gaze flicked to the fading bruise on Steve's forehead and cheek and his expression...changed. His mouth thinned, and his whole body seemed to draw in, hunching. "Fuck. I- Did I hurt you? That was you, wasn't it, fuck I did that, that was you, fuck, fuck, fuck-" He was agitated now, staring at Steve with huge eyes, starting to breathe hard.
"Hey, no! No, I'm okay, I'm fine, I-"
"You did hit him," Clint said, and Steve shot him a furious glare.
"Shit, shit, I'm sorry." The man backed up a step - two - and hit the vault with his heel and stumbled, falling back against the waist-high box. His right arm flailed out and Steve realized, for the first time, that the man wasn't using his left arm at all. Or maybe didn't have one, because the sagging, left-hand coat sleeve looked empty, tucked into the side pocket. "I'm really- Fuck, I'm gonna, I gotta go, I-" He looked around wildly, and Steve stepped forward, holding out both hands.
"Hey, no, please? Please wait?"
"I didn't wanna- I didn't mean that, okay? I didn't, I'm s-sorry-"
"No, I know, it's okay, it's totally okay, just...just breathe for a minute, okay? Please, I'm not mad, I just wanted- I wanted to-" Steve stuttered for a moment, at a loss, and then he glanced over the man's shoulder at the little colony of cats, who were still eating. "I just wanted to tell you about the cat, in the trap. Remember? The little black and white one you were so worried about?"
The man was still breathing kind of hard, but he was looking at Steve now, instead of all around, as if he expected an attack. He reached up and dragged the knit cap off his head and shoved his fingers back through long, dark-brown (maybe black?) strands of hair, scrubbing. Then he shoved the cap away into his pocket.
"The…ndzhelkei? The little girl?"
"Yeah, yes, she was in the trap."
"Is she okay? She was...you said she was sick."
Steve nodded, and took another slow step forward, and the man didn't move, but his shoulders went tense. Steve stopped. "She has an infection in her eye, probably from a fight or something, but she's on antibiotics. She had some parasites, so we're treating her for those, and she...well, she's been fixed. You know?"
The man hesitated and then nodded his head, biting at his chapped lower lip. "But she's okay? She wasn't-? You didn't have to p-put her down?"
"No, no, of course not, no." The man nodded again, breathing nearly normal now, and Steve half turned, checking with Clint and signing a quick summary of the conversation, knowing the man's agitation had probably made it hard for Clint to follow along. That and Steve had automatically stepped between the two, human shield, part of his nature.
"We almost never put our rescues down," Clint said, and the man's gaze flicked to Clint, narrowing a little. "That only happens if they're really, really sick, or hurt, and suffering. If trying to help them will be worse than just...letting them go easy."
The man studied Clint for a moment, and Steve wondered if he thought Clint looked just a little nutty, with his purple-arrows-pom-pom hat and pink Band-aid. He didn't look threatening, at least. Steve hoped he didn't, though the man himself seemed to carry an aura of sharp-edged wariness about him, the tight-strung awareness of the predator. He looked back at Steve, finally, and Steve tried another small smile. The man relaxed all at once, his shoulders rounding and his eyes going shut for a moment, his head bowing down. He heaved a sigh, and Steve heard the rattle and wheeze of his lungs, no better than they had been a week before.
"You could come see her, if you wanted," Steve offered, and the man shook his head, sharp little jerk to one side and the other.
"No, I won't...do that. But..she's okay. They're all okay?" He looked sharply at Clint for a moment, then back at Steve, as if suddenly remembering something. His gaze was piercing, the steel-blue of his eyes vivid in their red-socketed rims. "Why are you here today? Were you following me? Why'd you come here?"
"No! Not following," Steve said, and got smacked in the arm by Clint when he moved, once again, between Clint and the stranger. "Jeez, sorry. We got a call about...about the cats. Somebody said there were cats here, and somebody was feeding them, said...said they were a nuisance."
The man hissed between his teeth, his expression hardening to one of anger. "Fucker. Fucking asshole," the man said, scowling, his right hand tightening into a fist at his side. "Kill that fucker, I told him-"
"Whoa, wait, hold on, hold on," Steve said, and the man glared at him.
"It's the fucking manager, he think's he's king shit. He was shooting a fucking pellet gun at the cats; he fucking threw shit at me!"
"Okay, yeah, asshole," Clint said, and the man's mouth twisted in a tight little smirk.
"He'll wish he hadn't," the man said, and the look on his face made Steve falter for a moment.
"Well...but...we came out here to see what was going on and- We could help them, you know? It's what we do. We could get them back to the shelter, have our vet look at 'em, feed them, keep them warm-"
"And what if they're too sick, what if they don’t like it there?" the man snapped.
"Then we bring them back. Mostly what we do is trap-neuter-release. A lot of the cats are too feral to ever be adopted, and it would be cruel to try. So we bring them back to where we found them and let them go again. But they're fixed, and they've had shots and stuff, so they won't fight as much, breeding, and there won't be tons and tons of kittens being born and maybe starving or getting attacked by dogs or raccoons or whatever."
The man listened, his gaze boring into Steve's, and Steve deliberately tried to turn on the charm, use his 'gift of the gab' and make the man believe him. He was, conveniently, telling the truth, but that didn't mean he'd be believed.
"We really can help them, and some of them might end up being adopted. But...it's up to you. It's your choice." The man glanced over his shoulder at the cats, who were still eating, bodies tense, ears swivelling at every sound, then back at Steve and Clint, assessing. Steve could feel himself holding his breath, hoping, just...hoping. Hard.
"You won't hurt them, will you? Catching them?" he said finally, and Steve let his breath out in a whoosh, feeling his mouth stretch in a huge smile.
"No! Not at all. In fact, we've got a bunch of carriers and stuff in the van, and wet food. If you wanted, you could take some of the food and get them to come up to you, and put them in the carriers yourself. They trust you, right? You're feeding them."
"Yeah," the man said, after a long silence, obviously thinking it through. He looked up at Steve, and Steve felt a wholly unexpected little jolt, right in his belly. Because the man was smiling back at him. Not big and wide, but a small, crooked kind of smile, that just lifted the corner of his mouth. It made the skin around his eyes crinkle a little, and it curved the wide bow of his lips. It made Steve suddenly see him, as more than a problem or a possibly homeless drifter or a maybe-criminal. Steve saw that he was too thin, and that there was a bruise on his collar bone, showing through the open neck of his wash-faded Henley shirt. That his coat was too light and his jeans were fraying and that he was holding himself as if he hurt, somewhere, maybe inside.
"Hey," Steve said, softly, and the man's eyes fastened on him, clear and assessing and huge in the deeply-shadowed sockets. "My name's Steve Rogers. I've been with Flatbush Avenue Ferals for almost four years. I promise you, we would never hurt any animal, ever, and we'll take care of these cats like they were royalty."
The man considered him, hoarse, wheezy breath sliding in and out of him, his chest working too hard to pull in air. And then he nodded, a sharp jerk of his head. "Okay. How-? How do you think we should catch them?"
"Okay," Steve said, and he felt light, he felt almost giddy. He felt ten feet tall, and all because this wary, weary man had consented to trust him. "Okay, well- Oh, this is Clint, by the way, Clint Barton, he's one of our vet techs, he knows more about taking care of cats than me."
"Pleased ta meet ya," Clint said, holding out his hand in the cracked, fingerless gloves he'd used for years on the Ren Faire circuit. The man hesitated, just as he had when taking Steve's card, and then he slowly held out his own hand, ragged nails and crescents of dirt and fraying knit gloves, chapped knuckles showing through the rents. Clint took his hand and squeezed just a little; brisk and professional and over quickly.
"I- You can call me Barnes, okay?" he said, but he wasn't looking at Clint, he was looking right at Steve, and Steve was looking right back.
"Well, that went better than I thought it would," Clint said, and Steve made an agreeing sort of noise. But he was mostly preoccupied with looking at Barnes in the side-view mirror. Barnes was sitting on the ground under the tall marker - "It's a Civil War memorial," Barnes had said - looking small and cold and...lost. He looked lonely, without the little colony of cats, and sad, and Steve wanted to get out of the van and go back to him and try to persuade him, one more time, to come with them.
"Just to see the cats settled. We can bring you back here or...or anywhere you want, after."
But Barnes had refused, shaking his head, looking away from Steve and Clint and the van, chilly breeze blowing strands of hair across his face. "Better not," he'd said. He'd carefully poured the leftover cat food in the clamshells back into the bag, Fancy Cat brand, the cheap stuff sold in discount stores. He'd offered it with a kind of belligerent wariness, as if they would reject it. "This is what I been feedin' them. They're used to it."
"Okay, thanks, it's...that's good, they'll need something familiar, that's great, thanks," Steve had babbled, until Clint unceremoniously jabbed him with an elbow and he'd stuttered into silence. Barnes had snorted, that tiny tick of a smile coming and going. And now they were going, driving slowly off the cemetery grounds, and Steve just kept looking back at the small, huddled figure in the mirror, until he couldn't anymore.
"He's gonna be okay," Clint said, breaking a long silence as they crawled through stop-go-stop traffic and lights up Flatlands Avenue.
"Yeah, sure," Steve said, and ignored the look Clint was giving him.
"You can't force a guy like that to do...anything," Clint said, putting 'anything' out there with his hands, unconscious emphasis, though he didn't usually sign at Steve while he drove. Steve glared at the UPS truck that was trying to edge in front of them, and hit the horn a couple times.
""Jerk." Steve sighed. "I know. I just...I mean, he cares about the cats! He's not a bad guy, he just needs a little help."
"I cared about Lucky," Clint said, smoothing the earflaps of his cap over his knee, picking at invisible lint. "But you couldn't say I was a good guy."
"Of course you were," Steve said, throwing Clint an incredulous look. "A bad guy wouldn't have picked Lucky up at all. Or stuck around after. Or even tried to get clean, not to mention get back in school. You were in a bad situation, Clint, but you were never a bad guy."
"Lot you know," Clint muttered, but the tips of his ears were pink, and he refused to look at Steve, staring out the window and twisting the ear-flap ties around and around his fingers.
"Remember Kant," Steve intoned, in his best 'Tony' voice. "We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals."
"That doesn't work as well without a couple of kittens hooked to your sweater," Clint said, but he was smiling a little now, and Steve smiled back. And then made a furious, surprised noise as the UPS bastard cut right in front of them and slammed on his brakes, double parking. Steve had to do the same, and the carriers slid a little in the back, all the cats complaining. Clint swayed forward, jerked to a halt by his seatbelt.
"Hey, you big mook!" Steve yelled, and hit the horn again.
"Mook, Steve? Really? Mook?"
"It's a perfectly serviceable word," Steve said, looking into the side mirror into the next lane before pulling around the truck. The driver was halfway down the side steps, box and clipboard in hand as they passed, and Clint furiously rolled down his window, giving a vigorous 'Italian Salute' and shouting 'Vaffanculo, idiota!'. The UPS guy flipped them off. Clint added some extra curse words in ASL, twisting in his seat to glare back at the guy.
"Clint, not in front of the kids!" Steve said, trying to sound horrified, and on cue, one of the cats in the back made a hideous wailing noise of pure disapproval. Clint rolled his window back up and snatched his hat off the floor.
"Oh, cazzo me," Clint said, lips curling, and then Steve snorted and Clint started laughing and by the time they finally got back to FAF, Steve was feeling a lot better. But the image of Barnes, alone and maybe lonely, under a war memorial, stayed with him.
That night, when he finally got home (after helping with intake on the cemetery cats, and listening to Pepper's update on the twelve cats Steve had brought in a week ago, and enduring Natasha's pointed questions about Barnes, and Tony's pointed suggestions), Steve made a huge pot of spaghetti and meat sauce, and some frozen garlic bread. He was tired, but his brain was going a mile a minute. He turned on the TV and distractedly watched some Antiques Roadshow while he shoveled spaghetti into his mouth (and batted little hooking cat paws away from his plate). Then he turned the TV off again and got his desk set up.
The apartment was long and narrow and small, and there wasn't room for an art studio, or really even an art niche, but Tony had helped Steve design and make a drawing table and art storage cabinet, inspired by Murphy beds. So all Steve had to do was unlatch the desk and lower it down, the little braces on either side unfolding smoothly. Behind it was storage space and outlets for his laptop, if he wanted to use it instead of traditional pens and pencils.
Tonight, he wanted pencils. Soft lead pencils to give him wider, fuzzy lines as the graphite caught on the tooth of the paper. Steve really loved texture, and how the edges of the pencil lines would come out rough, like a paintbrush running out of paint. The rasp of the pencil over the paper was hypnotic and soothing, a soft hiss. He tidied up and pushed aside the sheaf of art he'd been working on for the last few weeks. He was the lead concept artist for Helix-Parmenides Gaming. Just then, he was working on space Marines and space monsters and space fairies, a weird kind of mash-up of Starship Troopers, Lord of the Rings, and Alien. Helix was kind of out there, but they suited Steve and Steve suited them.
And out in the cemetery, talking to Barnes, watching him move, how he was with the cats, the way his coat and his hair and his hand had moved and curved and hung, Steve had got inspired. He'd been happily detailing the other characters, but he'd needed a Trickster kind of figure, one that wasn't quite a trooper or a monster or a fairy, but kind of was, too, sort of. Barnes...had given him ideas. Hell, Barnes had sparked a whole cascade of images in Steve's head, and now all he wanted to do was get it all down on paper, get it all out there; make it real.
And if it gave him an excuse to obsess over every minute of both encounters, over and over in his mind, well, that was between Steve and his 400 pound cold press tablet, and nobody else.
January was slush and slush and more slush, with soaking wet, miserable cats and a surprise batch of underweight kittens that Steve, Natasha and Clint all carried around in hoodie pockets and shirt fronts for two weeks, keeping them warm, feeding them every few hours and generally getting the full-on, new-mom experience.
Halfway through the second week, Pepper came into the cattery with the cordless in one hand and a clipboard in the other, looking for Steve.
"Steve, there's a call for you," she said, and Steve carefully tucked a sleepy kitten into the sheepskin bed with his two brothers and got up, taking the phone.
"Thanks, Pepper. They say who it was?"
"Nope, just asked for you by name. Do you know where Clint is? We've got some meds to give."
"Went up to change, he got some kitten-poo on him."
"Lovely," Pepper said, with a little grin. She was tall, willowy, strawberry blonde, and the most organized person Steve had ever met. She was also dating Tony, most of the time. She waved the clipboard and headed out, shutting the door of the kitten room behind her, and Steve went to sit on one of the carpeted benches that lined the walls, lifting the phone up to his ear.
"H'lo? This is Steve Rogers." There was a long silence on the other end, and some background noise Steve couldn't really identify. An impact wrench, maybe? Why would a tire shop call him? "Hello?"
"Ss. Steve," someone said, so quite Steve barely caught it, but he knew. He knew exactly who it was.
"Yeah, I-it's me. Is that...you?" Steve said, and then felt his cheeks burn. Stupid question. There was a quiet huff of almost-laughter on the other end.
"Yeah. I wanted to...ask. Are they-? H-how are the cats?"
"They're good. They're really good. We only had to take three back, they were really unhappy, but the rest are still here. They'll be up for adoption in another week or two, once we're sure they'll be okay. Your little tuxedo girl, she's doing just fine."
"Oh," Barnes said, and Steve was sure he could hear pleasure in that tiny word. The background noise got a little louder, and there was another voice, accented, too low for Steve to make out. "I have to- They need this. I just wanted to...find out."
"Oh, okay. Uh...I'm glad you called. I was-" Don't say worried. Don't say thinking about you, Jesus! "You can come by any time, and visit her," Steve said, in a rush.
"I- Thanks, for talking to me," Barnes said, and after a moment of silence, the line went dead. Steve clicked the handset off and sat back against the wall, staring at nothing. He stayed that way until Natasha came in, looking for the phone.
The last week of January was absolute chaos. An elderly woman had died, and her grand-niece had discovered that grandma had about fifty or so feral cats living with her. So the FAF had spent almost a week trapping and transporting hysterical, sick cats from a semi-detached house in East New York that looked like it had survived the blockbusting of the '70s by the skin of its teeth.
Probably the last time it was cleaned, too, Steve thought, and then shook his head at that uncharitable thought. The woman's grand-niece had been there all week with them staring at the mess over the face masks Tony had handed out, getting scratched by cats and bitten by fleas just like the rest of them. Brave as hell, in Steve's estimation, and completely devastated.
"I only met Auntie Faye three years ago," she'd confided to Natasha. "My mom and her, they don't - didn't - get along. But she sent me birthday cards, and little stuff...just little junky things, but...she tried. She never forgot." The niece, Jametta, was in school in DC, and had come up when the police had contacted her as the next of kin. She'd inherited the ruin of a house, the compacted mass of hoarded belongings inside, and a mass of starving, flea-covered, unhealthy cats that wouldn't let anyone touch them, let alone be moved. FAF had been her third call, and the only shelter that had said yes.
So now they were crammed to the gills with cats, and Jametta had sadly decided that the house had to be bulldozed, and Tony, who had been lazily going about collecting paperwork to buy the building next door to FAF for the last couple of months, had exploded into a whirlwind of spending and activity, because, he said, the FAF needed expanding, and now.
The new cats had to be quarantined from the ones already in residence, and they'd erected temporary chain-link enclosures in every bit of free space, and were frantically checking, inoculating, flea-, worm- and mite-treating everything in sight. It was exhausting, and Steve's allergies were bothering him, and he had just gotten the go-ahead on the latest art he'd turned in (the Barnes-inspired Trickster sketches had been praised to high heaven) and he knew he would have to cut back on his hours there soon, and knuckle down on getting this new, huge art commission organized and started.
So Steve was harried, sweaty, a little bloody from a frantic cat, dusty with litter-dust and wheezing hard when the door to FAF opened for the millionth time (contractors, volunteers, random publicity Tony had baited into covering the new additions and building) and Barnes walked in.
Actually, another man walked in first; tall, black, and handsome, dressed in casual jeans and an olive-drab quilted coat with blond-brown fur edging the laid-back hood. He stood for a minute, looking around, taking in the E-shaped benches in the waiting area, the cat trees and cat toys scattered around, and the long, chest-high counter that divided the 'public' area from the cattery and clinic. The entire left-hand wall was glass, showing the kitten room and two other rooms, both a bit crowded at the moment.
He took in Steve, too, who was leaning on the counter and looking through an inventory file, inhaler halfway to his mouth, and Natasha, who was on the phone with a contractor or an engineer or something like that, from the bits of conversation Steve was getting. When his gaze landed on Steve, the man grinned, wide and white, and Steve smiled back. He couldn't help it.
And then the man made a little gesture with his hand and Steve straightened up fast as that guy, that guy, walked into FAF. Barnes, not in his ragged street clothing but in plain, dark jeans and a fitted pea-coat and decent boots. Barnes, with his long, dark hair clean and shining under a navy-blue watch cap, a soft-looking cream and navy scarf twisted under his chin.
He'd shaved, and his eyes weren't so sunken; his cheeks had actual color, and he looked...hell, he looked good. He looked really, really good. Steve yelped as Natasha's pointy fingers dug into his ribs.
"Earth to Steve," she whispered, and Steve made a face at her, rubbing his side. And then Barnes and his friend were walking closer, Barnes' gaze skittering around the room, never resting anywhere for longer than a few moments, the hand in the (still-fingerless) glove clenched into a fist. The other guy seemed to be completely ignoring just how on edge Barnes looked, and Steve could feel himself puffing up a little, wanting the guy to notice; to say something or do something or just…acknowledge whatever the hell was going on. Barnes was nervous and maybe scared and what the hell...?
"Hi, can I help you?" Natasha said, and Barnes' gaze jerked to her, then back again to Steve, and then to his friend, something like desperation in his eyes. "I...I, um…." His voice was a little scratchy and his eyes were huge and Steve wanted to hug him.
"Did you want to see your cats?" Steve asked, and Barnes huffed out a breath, looking down and away, reaching up to snag the watch cap off his head and shove his fingers through his hair. "The ones from the- where you were feeding them? We can- You can take a look at them, if you want, see how they're doing. Oh, and, the little tuxedo girl, too, she's still here, her eye's all better, you can see her, too. If you want," Steve said, all in one breath.
Natasha made an amused little noise, and Barnes' friend was smiling that big, pretty smile, and Steve could feel his cheeks getting hot and his neck flushing. But Barnes...was smiling, just a little, looking up at Steve through long lashes and strands of dark brown hair, and Steve suddenly noticed that his left eye was a little wider than his right, and it made him look a little mischievous and Steve...really liked that.
"Yeah, okay," Barnes said, quiet, and Steve grinned - Jesus, like a total moron, but he could not help it - and shoved the file of inventory receipts at Natasha.
"Great! Okay. Um...just, here, we'll just go in the back? And I can show you...and you can even get in the room with them, it's just...we're really crowded right now, we're not usually this crowded-" Natasha poked him again and Steve snapped his mouth shut, made a 'walk this way' gesture, and Barnes', with that little, crooked smile still on his face, did just that.
Steve could hear Natasha saying something to Barnes' friend as they went through the connecting door, but then it shut and there was just the sounds made by lots and lots of cats who don't necessarily want to be where they are. Barnes was looking a little wide-eyed at the temporary pens and the wild-eyed cats, and Steve led him past the enclosures to the smaller, quieter room where the cemetery cats and about ten others were living. There were cat trees and carpeted benches and boxes to hide in, and toys and scratching posts and a row of litter boxes. Steve sniffed and coughed and rubbed his wrist under his nose and noticed, with a little frown, that he was still holding his inhaler.
"Here’s your cats. I mean, the cats you were feeding. We put them in with these cats from over near DUMBO that we rescued a couple weeks ago." Barnes was looking in through the rabbit wire that made the door, and a couple of the cats, one of which had been at the cemetery, leaped on the mesh and climbed up, meowing for all they were worth. "Hey, guys, hi, c'mon, get down and we'll come in. They really like visits," Steve added, looking at Barnes.
Barnes was smiling, looking at the cats, his fingers pressing into the mesh. "Pish-pish-pish, pish-pish-pish, he said, low and sing-song, and two more of the cemetery cats hurried over, meowing. "They remember me."
"Of course they do. C'mon, wanna go in?" Barnes nodded, and Steve unlatched the door and eased it open, fending off cats with his feet. Barnes slipped in behind him, and while Steve got the door shut, Barnes folded gracefully to the floor, cross legged. Three cats climbed into his lap, head-butting and kneading and talking, and Barnes...laughed.
Steve felt a little pole-axed. He settled onto a bench and was immediately mobbed by cats. He stroked backs and scrubbed behind ears and carefully unhooked errant claws and tried really, really hard not to just stare at Barnes, who was curled down over the cats in his lap, murmuring softly, petting clean fur and getting his face and neck scent-marked like crazy. Another cat - the oldest cemetery cat, a grizzled grey and white tom - climbed up Barnes' back and settled on his shoulder, pushing his nose into Barnes' ear, and Barnes' snorted in surprise, turning into the touch, making a kissy noise. "Hey, old man, how're you doing? They treatin' you right?" Barnes said, and the tom butted in closer, purring so loud that Steve could hear him.
"They're all doing great," Steve said, and then coughed, a wheezy, phlegmy thing, and Barnes' looked up, brushing a black tail-tip away from his nose.
"You're not," Barnes said, frowning, and Steve just stared at him. "You sound bad. You sick? Should you maybe be using that?" he asked, and waved his hand toward the inhaler Steve was still stupidly clutching.
"Huh? Oh! Oh, no, I just- We got a lot of cats this week. There was this woman? She died, and she was kind of...hoarding stuff. And cats. Her house was a mess. So I've been over there all week, trapping the cats. That's why we're so crowded right now; we don't usually cram this many cats together, it's better if they have some room…. " Steve stopped and breathed and coughed again. "Anyway, there was a lot of cat pee, you know, and just...I mean, the woman was really old, and she had a lot of...stuff in her house, uh...dirty stuff, and then we had a lot of cleaning and moving around to do over here and-"
Barnes was looking at him, little grin on his face, one eyebrow up, and Steve took a not-quite-deep-enough breath, his lungs wheezing and squeaking.
"Sorry. Info-dump. Anyway, my asthma's kinda acting up. I should use my inhaler."
"Yeah, I really think you should. But...you're not sick?"
"Nah. Not like when I was a kid. I'm fine." Steve smiled back, ducked his head and shook his inhaler up and then used it, breathing deep and holding it. His chest kind of hurt, right in the center, but it eased off as he let the air out of his lungs. He breathed in and out, and he wasn't quite as squeaky and wheezy as he had been. He petted a fat, marmalade lady who had climbed up next to him; she rolled on her back and nearly off of the bench. "Not like you were." Steve looked back up, and Barnes' expression was neutral, now, a little shut down. He was concentrating hard on petting a slim, fluffy tabby. "You sounded pretty bad, that first time we- That first time. You better now?"
Barnes huffed, looking around, away, anywhere but at Steve. "Yeah, I'm...I got walking pneumonia, I'm fine now."
"Oh. That's good. I've had that. It really just wears you down." Steve winced as the marmalade lady rolled again and dug in her claws, pulling her fat self up onto Steve's thigh. "Jeez, let go, you're gettin' close to the bone, there, Ethel."
"She's got a voice like Ethel Merman. Natural mezzo-soprano," Steve said, and Barnes snorted, smiling again, and damn, but Steve really liked that smile. A lot. "So do you wanna see the little tuxedo girl?"
"Yeah, that'd be great." Barnes divested himself of cats and stood up smoothly. Steve did the same, sort of; he got a new set of claw-pricks on his wrist and he almost squashed Ethel, trying to step around the pear-shaped cat as she rubbed against his ankles. Ethel gave Steve a disapproving look and opened her fanged mouth wide, belting out the loudest, most operatic meow ever heard.
"Wow," Barnes said, staring down at Ethel.
"Told you," Steve said. "Okay, I'll get the door open, you slide out. Ready? One, two, three- Oh crap! Ethel!" Like all good performers, Ethel was light on her feet.
They got Ethel, eventually, and Barnes got to see his tuxedo girl, and Steve had to use his inhaler again, but it was worth it. Every new claw-prickle and tuft of shed fur and puff of litter dust was worth it to see Barnes sitting, cross legged like a kid, with a kid's huge smile on his face as the little cat all but hugged him around the neck and licked the tip of his nose and pushed her head under his coat-flap, vibrating to a purr that was hilariously loud for such a slender little thing.
Barnes sang pish-pish-pish at her, and made kissy noises, and dangled the fringed edge of his scarf for her, and looked like he was, just a little bit, in love. Or maybe a lot. Steve surreptitiously watched him while scooping litter boxes and refilling water bowls and trying very hard not to stare like a dork. But wow, was it hard.
Eventually, there was a small chime of music from inside Barnes' coat, and he fished out a phone and frowned down at it. He tapped out a short text one-handed and then tucked the phone away before standing up in a single, smooth motion, cradling the tuxedo cat against his chest.
"You got a phone, now?" Steve said, and then blushed, because..that wasn't his business.
Barnes made a kind of rueful face, looking down at the cat. "Yeah, I...I lost it for a while. Uh...I gotta go. Sam- that's my ride, that I came in with? Sam Wilson. He's got a...thing at four and I gotta...go." Barnes leaned over, trying to put the cat down, but she made little, pathetic mews and clung to his jacket with her claws. That's when Steve really, actually registered that Barnes only had one arm.
"Fuck, can you-?" Barnes asked, looking up at Steve, frowning, but his eyes were huge and maybe a little wet. Steve stepped up and carefully unhooked the claws, holding her while Barnes went to the door and slipped out. Steve followed, tossing her gently away and sliding out, fast, shutting the door firmly. Barnes just stood there as the cat climbed the door and wailed, and Steve knew exactly where this was heading.
"You could adopt her, you know. I mean, Tony'd waive the fee, if you needed, and she's already fixed and everything, and she- I mean, she likes you, obviously, so-"
"I don't...I don't know," Barnes said. He patted at the cat's nose through the wire mesh and then cleared his throat, stepping briskly away. "I'm not sure I can."
"Well, just-just think about it, okay?" Steve walked with him, back through the door and into the waiting room, where a mom and a couple of kids were dragging a feathered string for two brother cats that FAF wanted to adopt together. They were making a lot of noise, exclaiming over the cats, and Barnes flinched, but set his jaw and stalked up to the front counter, pushing through the swinging partition that separated it from the waiting room. Sam was still there, leaning on the counter and saying something to Natasha, who was...giggling. Steve almost tripped over his own feet, staring; feeling a distinct urge to say something snarky.
One of the kids shrieked and Barnes jolted. Sam winked at Natasha and then stood up, suddenly serious, smoothly professional.
"Hey, my man. How'd the visit go? Did you see your cats?"
"Huh?" Barnes blinked and then focused on Sam, reaching up to comb his fingers back through his hair. "Yeah. Yes. I saw them. They're doing- They're fine. You- Did you need to go?" he said, and even Steve could hear the edge in his voice, the unexpected and unwelcome upset.
"Yeah, got a group at four. You gonna come with?"
"Sure, sure, I- Yeah, sure."
Sam turned back to Natasha and Steve while Barnes got his coat buttoned back up and his hat back on, looking distracted and jumpy, fumbling with his half-gloved hand, but still able, so very able. Steve tried hard not to stare at the strand of satin-dark hair that fell down beside his jaw, and the way his chin had a little cleft in it, right under the fullest curve of his lip….
"Steve," Natasha said, and Steve jumped.
"Yes. What? Yes, I'm here."
"I wasn't taking attendance. Sam was asking about volunteer opportunities here?"
"He was?" Steve looked at Sam, who lifted his eyebrows and made a little gesture with his chin, barely, at Barnes. "Oh, right, um. Well, we can always use volunteers, any time. We're open from eight until six, but after hours is fine, too, there's always something to clean, and...and we do trap runs and rescue runs and...and it's always a circus on Neuter Drive days-" Barnes looked slightly desperate and Sam looked impatient and Steve snapped his mouth shut.
"Here." He leaned and snagged a volunteer application from behind the counter, and held it out to Barnes. "This explains everything. Just...just fill it out and bring it by some time and then we can- you can start. I'm sure you'll be cleared to volunteer and you can come...any time. Okay?"
Barnes hesitated, wary all over again, and shot a slightly scowly look at Sam. But his hand lifted and took the paper from Steve, folding it unevenly against his chest until it was small enough to shove into a pocket.
"And don't forget...what I said. That little girl would love to go home with you, Barnes."
Barnes looked up at Steve and opened his mouth, then closed it with a sigh and shook his head. He smiled, just a little, not quite looking at anyone. "I'll think about it," he said. And then he turned and walked away, heading for the door, and Sam shot Natasha a huge smile and gave Steve a nod before jogging to catch up, calling out as they went through the door.
"James Buchanan Barnes, are you gonna be a cat-daddy? I knew this was gonna happen-"
The door swung shut, and Steve stood there, staring out at the street. "His name is James," he said softly, and jumped when Natasha poked him. Again. "Hey!"
"Oh man, are you one smitten kitten."
"I am not," Steve contradicted, pure reflex. But really...it was a lie.
"Such a damn lie," Natasha said. She looked down at her phone, a little secretive smile curving her lips, and Steve reached out and snatched it, looking in delight at the new contact, and the name Sam Wilson and a picture that had obviously been taken right there in the FAF; and damn, but Sam Wilson had some bedroom eyes.
"I'm smitten? Look at you and your ‘cat that got the canary’ smile! I know that smile."
"Sam's no canary," Natasha said, and she hip-checked him into the counter, dragging at his arm. Steve stumbled, laughing, and caught the shocked look the mom was shooting them.
"Maybe he's a peacock-"
"Maybe he's a rooster," Natasha grunted, all but hanging off Steve's arm, and Steve was laughing now, that feeling in him again, giddy, and light, and happy.
"You mean he's a big c-"
"Don't go there, Rogers," Natasha said, but she was grinning and so was Steve and everything was just so….
James Buchanan Barnes. James Barnes. James, Jim, Jamie…? "No way, not Jamie," Steve muttered, distracted, and Natasha's fingers closed around her phone with a little cry of triumph.
"Sam called him Bucky," she said, straightening her rucked shirt with a jerk and flipping her hair back out of her face. "You didn't get his number, though, did you?"
"Bucky? His num-? Oh, hell!"
For two weeks, Steve did his best to bury himself in work and cats, and not think about Barnes. James. Bucky. He thought he was pulling it off, too - the not thinking thing - until one crisp, February morning, when Natasha stalked through the door in a hot-pink coat and olive jeans, her scarlet hair ruffled by the wind and her whole face flushed and all but glowing, a brilliant note of spring-like color in soft shades of the lobby.
"Hey, Sad Sack," she said, pushing through the swinging door and shoving her pocketbook up under the counter. Steve looked up from where he was half-heartedly perusing cat trees online. Geez, the price of the things. He was sure he could build one for half that.
"I'm not sad," Steve said, on a sigh, and Natasha laughed.
"You are so sad. You are pining. It'd be cute if it wasn't so fucking depressing. Tony and Clint are trying to think of ways to cheer you up, by the way, and I'm pretty sure one of them involved strippers, so you might wanna knock it off right quick." She shrugged out of her coat and hung it on the coat-tree behind the counter, revealing a pale-pink, tailored blouse with cream and olive piping.
"Wow, you look like a pistachio and strawberry sundae," Steve said absently, his artist's eye distracted by the amazing things the blouse did to her wind-flushed complexion.
"Thank you. I enjoy looking like foodstuffs. Why don't you just call him?"
Steve clicked out of the cat tree sites and started shuffling paperwork, destroying the neat piles Natasha had sorted them into. Natasha snapped her fingers at him, glaring, and he stopped, slumping.
"I don't have his number. I don't know if he's interested. And in case you didn't notice, he was basically homeless, like, two months ago, and the last thing he probably needs right now is me...harassing him."
"Oh, my God. he's not homeless, and Sam would give you his number if you asked him."
"Do you and Sam talk about him?"
"We have better things to do," Natasha said with a wink, and shooed Steve out of her chair. "That cat magazine is coming by today, so please, for the love of little kittens, make sure Clint isn't wearing something too weird and take Tony's coffee away."
"Yeah, sure," Steve mumbled, and headed for the back. He almost ran over Dr. Banner, who was yawning over a chart, head down and oblivious as he wandered toward the surgery. "Sorry! Sorry, Doc."
"That's okay, Steve. So-" Bruce looked up at Steve, blinking behind his smudged glasses. "Did you call him yet?"
"Oh my God, no! I don't have his number."
"Why don't you have his number?" Bruce asked, and Steve sighed again.
"Because I'm a total loser who doesn't have a clue. I dunno, it seemed...pushy."
"Hmmm," Bruce said, his gaze already back on the chart. Bruce had his own relationship with another doctor, Betty, and her overbearing shouldn't-he-be-retiring-soon military father, and tended not to get too involved in the various goings-on at FAF. At least, not obviously. He always knew the latest news, though. Steve suspected Tony, who looked on Bruce as a kind of cat-whisperer and therefore was sometimes seen to be tagging along after him, like a kid after his favorite, 'cool' older cousin.
"Got some neuters today?"
"Hrmm? Oh, yes. Four. And that cat that was shot with a dart? Or whatever the hell it was? I think she's going to lose that eye."
"Oh, jeez. Don't tell Tony. That cat magazine is coming today, Natasha said, so head's up."
"What cat magazine?"
"I honestly have no idea. I have to go make sure Clint isn't in his Ren gear."
Bruce snorted, grinning, and ambled off, and Steve took a little tour of the cat holding areas, just generally checking things over. The new addition that Tony had fast-tracked in January was nearly done, with a special room for birthing queens, an 'intensive care' suite, a kid's learning area and, on the second floor, permanent living space for cats that were too tame to be released and too feral, too awkward, or too...something to ever be adopted. It would have outdoor areas protected by alarms and rabbit wire, with live plants, skylights, dozens of roosts and nests and cat trees, and a dozen more little spaces to snuggle, or hide, or just chill. Tony had been dreaming about it for ages, and was prone to rhapsodize at the drop of a hat.
The cat magazine would definitely be getting their money's worth.
Steve changed out some water bowls, swept up litter and kibble, petted cats and cuddled early kittens and checked in on post-surgical and injured cats. And still no Clint.
Washing up in the back bathroom and taking a hit off his inhaler, Steve wandered upstairs to Clint's place, pushed the buzzer - that also flashed a light - and waited.
"Come in!" Clint yelled, sounding a little breathless, so Steve went in. And stopped, bemused, in the doorway. Clint was on the couch, partly dressed in some of the stuff - garb - he wore to the various Renaissance festivals he worked. (His group, Yeoman of Renown, put on an archery show at various festivals up and down the coast, starting in April and going until October.) He was in his leather jerkin and the arm and hand protectors he wore, muscled biceps on display as he attempted to wrestle himself into a pair of purple leggings.
"How in fuck...does Tasha...do this?" Clint panted, half on and half off the futon, the leggings pinning his knees together.
"Well, to start, she weighs about fifty pounds less than you do," Steve said.
"Are you calling me fat?"
"Fat-headed, maybe," Steve said, grinning. He walked over, grabbed the bottoms of the leggings and yanked. Clint let go of the waist with a groan and the leggings slid off and twanged back into Steve's chest. "Nat said specifically no Ren gear. And she's gonna kill you if you fucked these up."
'They're spandex, they'll be fine,' Clint signed. He sighed, and made a muscle-man pose from his slumped position on the couch. "But they're gonna love the guns!"
"No guns. No gear. Just normal-people stuff."
'Fucking boring,' Clint groused, and hauled himself upright and off the couch. The jerkin rode up and Steve found himself staring at Clint's naked ass.
"Fuck's sake!" He pulled the leggings back in one hand and let them snap across Clint's ass. Clint yelped. "Why are you not wearing underwear?"
'Panty lines!' Clint signed, unfortunately turning around to make the sign at Steve over his naked junk.
"You only get those with panties! Oh fuck me, my eyes," Steve said, hands up in the 'stop now' position as Clint opened his mouth, a devilish look on his face. The doorbell buzzed and the light flashed and they both froze.
"Clint? Get out here now!"
"Shit, it's Nat-"
"Not decent!" Clint yelled, and Natasha shoved the door open. And glared.
"Are those my fucking leggings? My brand new leggings?"
'No, of course not!' Clint shot a wild-eyed look at Steve and bolted for the bedroom.
"Can't heeeear yooou!" Clint yelled from the bedroom, and Natasha rolled her eyes. Steve dropped the leggings as unobtrusively as possible in a heap behind Clint's ratty recliner.
"The cat magazine people are here, and Tony's got some poor volunteer with him, I could hear him babbling about it in the back somewhere. Please get down there and distract the paparazzi with your amazing pecs and rescue whoever it is Tony is currently torturing."
"Yeah, sure, I'll go do tha- Amazing pecs, Nat, seriously?"
"Don't pretend you don't flex for yourself in the shower," Natasha smirked. "Now scoot. Clint! I'm comin' in!"
"And I'm getting out," Steve said, and 'scooted' while the scooting was good.
Down in the lobby, Steve could see a small huddle of 'cat magazine people' - it looked like three or four, a couple men and a woman, at least - and Tony's dark head, along with another person, apparently the volunteer, who was still in their coat. Their shoulder were hunched and they looked...really tense. Really tense. Steve looked a second time and fuck, he recognized that coat, and those rigid shoulders He all but vaulted over the counter, skidding on the linoleum of the lobby floor and fetching up half against Tony and half against the volunteer, who flinched violently away.
Barnes, Bucky, was looking a little freaked and a lot wild-eyed, scarf still up around his throat and his coat half-unbuttoned, his right hand clenched in a fist.
"Oh, hi, hey, this is Steve, he's one of the staff here-"
"Small cat emergency, need Bucky, he's our kitten guy, sorry, guys, we'll catch up. Bucky? You wanna follow me?" Steve got the lie out fast, knowing he'd blush or stammer or elaborate if he had to take more than five seconds saying something, and Bucky took one look at him and nodded sharply, spinning on a booted heel and marching away, fortunately, in the right direction.
A moment later, they were pushing through the door behind the counter and into the relative quiet, warmth, and vaguely ammonia-scented fug of the holding area. Bucky wavered to a stop and Steve could see he was breathing too hard, his gaze flicking from here to there to there to there. Afraid, maybe; definitely pushed past what he was comfortable with. Steve stood there for a moment, his own thoughts skittering wildly.
What should he do? He didn't want to make it worse, and he didn't want to pretend there wasn't a problem, but just...what was the right thing to do? What would be okay? "Okay, fuck," Steve whispered, and took a long, deep breath, his lungs only creaking the tiniest bit.
Okay, so, Steve dealt with terrified cats all the time. A freaking-out person was probably kind of the same. Don't be loud, don't move fast, and give them space. He could do this. And Bucky was unlikely to claw, bite, or shit out of sheer terror. Hopefully. He'd about given Steve a concussion, the first time around. Fuck. Okay.
Steve took another breath and took a couple of steps to the side, so he was in Bucky's line of sight but not crowding him, or blocking the door. He lifted his hands and, out of sheer habit, signed while he spoke. "So, hey, are you okay?" he asked, and Bucky's gaze snapped to his hands, up to his face, and then he lifted his own hand, fist closed, an abrupt gesture that Steve couldn't interpret, exactly, but felt like stop. Then Bucky closed his eyes, forcing himself to slow down, to breathe more deeply.
Steve found himself counting along with Bucky's breathing - in, one, two, three, hold one two- fuck, out one, two, thre- in, damnit, help him!. "Hey, okay, Bucky, hey," Steve said quietly, and Bucky's eyes came open, so damn wide and startled and unhappy. "With me, okay? I do this all the time, when my allergies are kicking in, c'mon." Steve breathed in, audibly, slowly, held it and then breathed out, mouth a little open. Again, and then again, and then Bucky was matching him, his gaze on Steve's chest. His breathing started to even out, to slow down, and he finally gave a kind of hitching sigh, and his shoulders came down, and his fist, still clenched, flexed open. His eyes were very bright.
"Okay, yeah, that's good, you good?" Steve asked, and Bucky blinked, jerking his head in a kind of shaky nod, his hair half in his face from the sloppy tail he'd had it in. He scrubbed his fingers across his eyes and then back through his hair, yanking it a little and looking...angry..
"Fuck. Sorry. I'm- I just…." He made a frustrated gesture toward the front of the building, toward Tony, the magazine people, all of it. "Fucking...stupid, I- I'll just...go, I need to go."
"But- No, okay." Steve stopped himself, fast. If Bucky needed to go, then...he needed to go. But he was right there, and his eyes were so damn wide, still, and his hand was shaking and- "Listen, I just- I'm sorry about Tony...doing that. But I really, um…. There's a coffee shop, just down the block? It's pretty quiet, and they have these amazing soups, I was gonna have some lunch, maybe you could - we could - have lunch?"
Bucky looked at him for a long, long moment, unmoving, unblinking. And then he sighed, and shook his hair back out of his face. "You know it's only nine in the morning, right?"
Steve blinked, nodding. "Yes. Of course. Nine, that's- We can- Second breakfast?"
Bucky huffed out a little laugh, an actual laugh, and his shoulders came all the way down, and he twitched his head to the side again, tossing his hair back. "Jeez. Nerd. Okay, we can...okay. Second breakfast." He reached up and tugged the hair-tie down out of his hair and Steve watched, fascinated, as he shook his hair back and gathered it up and got it back into a ponytail again, leaning against the door frame as an assist.
"Wow, that was neat."
"We goin', or what?" Bucky said, but he was smiling, that little smile that crooked up the corner of his mouth. Steve grinned back and darted away to grab his coat and scarf and gloves, scrambling to get them on as he led Bucky out the back way.
In the steamy warmth of Babka's, they ate sweet pierogies with cherry and blackberry and blueberry-lemon filling, smothered in a nutmeg-spiced sour cream sauce. For once, Steve didn't feel weird about ordering more, because Bucky cleaned his plate and did the same, making pleased little noises over the pierogies and the fluffy, scrambled eggs with bits of green herbs in them, and the crisp, savory potato pancakes with some kind of sweet, soft cheese, scallions and bacon.
Bucky seemed...okay, even though he'd maneuvered to get the chair that put his back to the wall, and even though he leaned away from the bearded, yawning man who'd taken their order and stomped around behind the counter with pots of tea and coffee, muttering and spritzing Windex everywhere. He ate neatly with one hand, practiced and totally unselfconscious, which Steve couldn't manage with two hands; focusing on the food like a hungry kid. Steve felt himself relax into that, into just enjoying the good food, the warm air, the sweet-spicy-savory smells that wafted in from the kitchen or up from their plates.
When he finally pushed his scraped-clean plate away with a little groan of pleasure, he looked up to see Bucky watching him, his expression mildly curious, faintly smiling.
"That was- Did you like that? That was really good," Steve said, and Bucky nodded, smiling wider, looking down to where he was toying with the scatter of torn-open sugar packets, five of which he'd emptied into his coffee.
"Yeah, pretty good. You come here a lot?"
"Tony sends out for stuff about three times a week, and I usually come by here on Sunday. I can cook, but, I like to go for a walk, clear my head when I've been working half the night." A siren became faintly audible, somewhere outside, and Steve saw Bucky turn his head, as if he were searching for the source.
"Nights? With the cats?"
"Oh, no. I, um, I'm an artist, I work for a gaming company. So I mostly do that at home when I'm not at the FAF."
"Artist, that's...that's cool. I can see that," Bucky said. His pale gaze slid to meet Steve's for a moment and then was off again, darting around the room, out the window, possibly. His shoulders were starting to tense up.
"Yeah? Most people think I'm in construction. Or a football player," Steve said, huffing a little laugh. He sucked at sports, and he'd been too asthmatic as a kid to even try. Before his big growth spurt, at seventeen, he'd been too skinny, too wheezy, too uncoordinated. Art had...been a bit of a saving grace, for him.
The siren was louder now, rapidly approaching, and Bucky was sitting upright, completely still, his hand clenched into a fist at the edge of the table, his eyes wide, staring over Steve's shoulder. Steve craned around, catching sight of vehicles pulling to the side, making way for whatever was coming. The siren was cycling through a couple different sounds, piercing-loud, and Steve turned back around to Bucky just as it let off a blast of noise like an air-horn, warning some hapless motorist to get out of the way.
Bucky visibly flinched, a leg or foot somewhere under the table moving and shaking the whole thing, rattling china and utensils, making the water glasses slop over.
"Fuck," Bucky muttered, and Steve scrunched some paper napkins down in a puddle of water, trying not to...what? Just...to not react too much. Too strongly. Wrong.
"I really hate how loud they are," Steve said. Bucky looked at him, his mouth compressed into a hard line, muscle in his cheek ticking, breathing hard. "You wanna-?"
Another siren blared, seemingly directly behind Steve, and this time Bucky was on his feet, his chair skittering sideways, the table rocking hard. Steve stood up, too, without thinking, reaching out and then snatching his hand back.
"I gotta, I need- I'm gonna go, I need to…fuck, okay, it's nothing, it's okay, it's, just...I need to go, I-"
"Can I-? Can I do anything? Can I help?" Steve asked, feeling stupid as hell and damn useless, and Bucky flinched again as the door came open and the bell jangled and sunlight, reflecting off glass or chrome or steel, flashed across his face.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck, Jesus, okay, okay." Bucky started to move out from behind the table, turning back to snatch at his scarf and coat. The coat was tangled on the chair and he yanked, hard, sending the chair clattering to the floor.
"What the hell?" the guy behind the counter said, loud, and Bucky shot him a furious, frantic glare as he freed his coat with a jerk. The scarf was twisted around the chair back and Bucky made a grab for it, missed, and left it. He didn't even attempt to put the coat on, he just moved, with a startling fluid grace, eeling between chairs and tables and out the door. Steve grabbed his own coat, held up money and dropped it on the table, over-paying, over-tipping, whatever, he didn't care. He grabbed Bucky's scarf and followed, fast.
Outside, the wind was gusting hard, cold as ice and whipping grit into Steve's face. He looked right and then left, scanning the sidewalk, and caught a glimpse of Bucky's coat flapping as he made a hard turn between two buildings. Steve sprinted after, dodging pedestrians, skittering through the last sad, stained remains of snow that was still piled here and there in dirty grey piles.
He spun around the corner he'd seen Bucky take and stopped. A long alley, shadow, no Bucky.
"Shit," Steve muttered. He jogged up the broken pavement, avoiding ice-edged puddles. Passing a dumpster, he caught movement in the corner of his eye. He turned, and there was Bucky, half-crouched, head down near his knees, panting like he'd run a marathon. His knuckles were bloody, his fingers still clutching the shoulder of his coat.
"Oh, fuck just- don't, don't, fuck, don't...see me, just g-go, g-et-"
"No, hey, don't-don't say that."
"Jesus fucking Mary and Joseph, stoppit," Bucky moaned, and Steve snapped his mouth shut. He moved away, up the alley, crossing to the other side, in Bucky's line of sight and then crouched down, leaning back against the chilly brick behind him. He closed his mouth, tried to breathe quiet, didn't move.
Didn't watch, just leaned there, his coat across his thighs, scarf and gloves bulging from the pockets, and the soft cream and navy checked scarf Bucky had been wearing twisted in his fingers. He just breathed, in and out, counting in his head, watching a couple of pigeons on the ledge forty feet up as they ruffled their feathers and preened their wings in a little beam of sunshine just for them. The light kept hitting patches of iridescence on their throats: green and purple and peacock blue, and Steve worked out in his head how he would paint that, watercolors first and then acrylics. He was starting to think about oils - he didn't really like them, but that was mostly because he wasn't much good at them - when a shadow moved in the corner of his eye, and he blinked and looked around.
Bucky was standing there, his coat on and buttoned up, his hair out of its tail again. He looked mortified, and a little angry, and really sad.
"Hey," Steve said, and Bucky's mouth twitched up at the corner into the tiniest of smiles.
"Hey." He held his hand out - blood dried on his knuckles, trembling - and after a moment, Steve took it, and let Bucky haul him up out of his crouch. Steve's knees popped, and his ass was frozen, and his back was numb where it had been pressed into icy brick. He didn't care. Bucky's hand was cold and dry and callused. Strong. He let go reluctantly, and shrugged his coat on, clumsy with cold, and then held Bucky's scarf out.
Bucky took it, wrapping it around and around his throat, leaving the fringed ends lying against his chest. He pushed a long strand of hair out of his eyes and looked up where Steve had been looking, at the pigeons who were now fluffed up and hunkered down, just watching. His gaze tracked down, slow, and finally came back to Steve, and fuck, his eyes were pretty, Steve thought. He was so damn...pretty.
"I, uh...I don't actually...know what to say?" Steve said, and Bucky's whole face shuttered, expression wiped away. "I mean, I feel like I'm gonna either say something really stupid or really...insensitive or just so fucked up and wrong you'll never wanna talk to me again. So I just...I think...um. We got a really nice first-aid kit at the rescue. We should maybe clean up your hand?" Steve watched as Bucky took in what he'd said; watched him close his eyes for a long, long moment, and then open them with a shake of his head, as if he were throwing off water, or a weight.
"I remember you, in that alley, the first time," he said, and Steve felt his heart give a little double-kick, his breath cut short. "Not...not really clear or anything. Just this...big, blonde fucking…hero," Bucky said, and his voice cracked a little. "Telling me about rescuing cats and you didn't even...you didn't fight back. You just kept talking about the cat, my little pishogay."
"I was- I just wanted to help," Steve said, and Bucky huffed, a choked kind of sound.
"You should have run like the fucking wind! Jesus, I could have killed you."
"No, no way, Bucky, don't even- That's bullshit. You were scared for the cat, you weren't- There's no way."
"Christ, you have no fucking idea."
"Yeah, I do. You were out rescuing cats, yourself! You were feeding those cemetery cats and you want to volunteer at the rescue, Bucky-" Bucky was shaking his head and Steve dared a step closer - another - until he was close. Close enough to smell damp wool and a faint tang of smoke and something that might be aftershave, or shampoo. Faintly citrus.
"Look, I don't know...everything. You were scared and...and cold and you thought I was a-a fucking cat murderer, but you weren't going to hurt me. You're not going to hurt me."
"You can't know that," Bucky said, his voice thick, his eyes too bright. He scrubbed his hand back over his head, pushing at hair that fell forward again, anyway, curving around his cheeks. "I don't- don't f-fucking know that."
"I don't know what any particular cat's gonna do when I find it," Steve said, and Bucky looked at him, angry, maybe, or desperate, or...needing. "Some of them hiss and spit and claw you, some of them run and hide, some just...freeze. But they only do it because they're afraid. But if you go slow, and you take your time, and you're patient...they figure it out."
"Figure what out?" Bucky asked, barely a whisper, and Steve felt like his heart was shattering, his throat aching so bad he had to swallow hard before he could speak again.
"That you're not going to hurt them. That it's okay to be scared, but that they don't need to be, because they're safe, and they have someplace to go that's warm and where...people care for them. But it's still okay to be scared, and nobody's gonna be mad at them for it." Bucky just looked at Steve, for long enough that Steve could feel his cheeks heating, blood beating into his face with every wild thump of his heart, so damn sure he'd completely fucked it up. Forever.
"You know I'm not a cat, right?" Bucky said finally, wobbly, his smile small and crooked but there.
"Well, I don't know. I'll take your word for it, I guess," Steve said, and then he sniffed and sneezed and sniffed again. "Jeez, it's cold."
"Yeah, it is." Bucky dug down into his pocket and handed Steve a rumpled, still-folded handkerchief. Steve took it with a little grin, shaking it open. It had a B embroidered in the corner in white thread.. "My ma thinks Kleenex are tacky."
"My ma always had a couple shoved up her sweater sleeve."
"Ah, fuck that, we can't be friends now," Bucky said, and he turned, gesturing with his whole body, heading up the alley. Steve fell into step beside him, grinning like an idiot, rubbing at his nose with the handkerchief. It smelled slightly of bleach and mostly of tobacco and mint, and he huffed, amused, when Bucky pulled a pack of Wrigley's gum out of his pocket next and stuck a piece in his mouth. He offered the pack to Steve, and Steve slid one out, peeling back the foil wrapper.
"My ma wouldn't let me chew gum 'cause I couldn't breathe through my nose half the time and I'd have to chew with my mouth open. She said it was like being with a cow."
"Jeez, you're a real winner, ain't you?" Bucky said, but he was grinning, too, and he gently bumped Steve's shoulder with his own as they turned out of the alley and onto the sidewalk. Steve bumped back, and looped his scarf around his neck, got his gloves on and the coat zipped up, glad the wind was at their back, now.
"Let's go get your hand cleaned up. Tony keeps the break room stocked with all this gourmet hot chocolate mix, and there's a batch of kittens somebody dumped on us last week, just starting to open their eyes. They're a Siamese mix."
"Cats and chocolate, that all you got?" Bucky said, and Steve smiled down at his shoes and then up at Bucky.
"I think you got a soft spot," Steve said, and this time Bucky laughed right out loud, bright and wide and fucking gorgeous, and Steve felt as light as air, as warm as toast. I think it's gonna be okay, he thought, watching Bucky stride along beside him, his hair whipping across his face, his cheeks pinked from the wind.
Really, really okay.