Bucky drops in. He comes down from the roof and in through the skylight, grounding himself in Steve's open spaces. (Or.) He climbs up the fire escape and dives through the window, rolls up onto one knee with two guns drawn.
He drops by. At night, sometimes. Never on Sunday. He drops by, he drops in, and he does it often enough that Steve doesn’t bother with the security system anymore. Steve is reminded of a kid’s story; he wishes he knew who’s been sleeping in his bed.
“There’s dinner if you want it,” he says, and maybe-not-Bucky smiles and Steve wishes he wouldn’t do that. He wishes Bucky would leave the domino on when he kneels in front of him, smiling (it’s not his smile). He wishes he knew how to make him stop.
She sits cross-legged on his bed and watches him shove the last of his clothes into a duffle bag; she says, “Fury said you gave up your old place,” and he stops shoving and looks sideways at her.
“I used to know a Fury. During the war,” he says. “Sergeant Jack Fury.”
She says, “Any relation?”
“I didn’t ask.” But she could probably find out, if she was so inclined. He pokes at the tangle of books and clothes and toiletries spilling over the lip of the bag and can’t imagine them spread around like valued possessions. Put away in the closets and cabinets, on the shelves of the new apartment SHIELD didn’t find for him.
It’s easy to buy things in 2013. Click a computer key and it’s at your door in a day or two. If you don’t like it, throw it out and get something else.
“Would it make a difference?” Natasha says. “If he was.”
“If it turns out he’s Jack’s kid or grandkid or something like that?” says Steve. “I’ll stop trusting him even as far as I can see him in heavy fog.” Her laughter is startling. Rare. Steve zips the bag shut, slings it up and says, “I’ll leave my comm on. If I don’t answer, you can always come looking.”
“I will,” she says.
He can believe that of her.
He says who the hell is Bucky and Steve says all right, okay. He says who are you, and Bucky who isn’t Bucky looks at him like he’s lost it. Nowadays, his mouth shut up tighter than Fort Knox, he probably has.
Woo always drops him off half a borough away from his street, a different building every time. He raises his hand, Woo gives him a thumbs-up before the cloak kicks in, and Steve wavers in the backwash, wondering.
They’re watching him. They’ve been watching him. What they like to forget is, it works both ways.
Woo’s bird is long gone and so is the sun. From this angle Brooklyn looks like an urban obstacle course. He wonders, idly, if he can still run a mile in just over a minute.
At the top of the city, time moves at his pace. He runs, he jumps. He meets people.
There’s this kid who shoots webs out of his hands, treats gravity like a toy. The guy dressed up like a red devil is different kind of story Steve isn’t going to ask for. One talks, the other doesn’t. (Much.) They’re both good in a fight. He pauses once, twice, then he passes by, he moves along and there are others, sometimes, coming and going in his peripheral vision.
The woman in white follows her starving shadow into places Steve is afraid to watch her go at first. But only at first. She cuts up the dark places with light and he swallows them down. The city flickers around them, accepting.
The guy down in Harlem fascinates Steve. He breaks up budding turf wars with flights of angry pigeons that flock to him afterwards, bobbing and cooing. He holds out his arms and they settle, clicking their beaks while he listens.
A week later Steve learns that the man who listens to birds also flies with them. Steve is on the wrong end of an AIM explosion (it’s always an explosion with AIM) and then flight is being caught, held midair by hands that know their business. “Is that supposed to be plain clothes?” says the Falcon, later, staring at Steve’s unmarked suit. “Because the shield is a dead giveaway.”
“Thanks for the save,” Steve says. “I like your wings.”
The beautiful bird on Falcon’s shoulder preens. “Give you a lift?” says Falcon to the tune of approaching sirens, and. It’s been a year or eighty since Steve moved these exact muscles. He’s rusty, but he remembers most of what comes next.
“I hear you’ve been stepping out on us,” Stark says, sunglasses on in a windowless room. “Care to share with the rest of the class? Because I’m just saying, if you didn’t bring enough for everyone, that’s kind of rude.”
“You’d know,” says Banner, “I think you own the patent on that one, Tony.”
Barton says, “Nice one, big guy,” and pops his gum.
Banner smiles like he’s not sure if he’s being mocked and Stark says, “See, this is what I’m talking about. So where’s my stick of artificially-flavored, cancer-inducing goodness, huh?”
“Cancer?” Steve says, because that’s new, and Stark ignores him, which isn’t, and then Barton flicks a wrapped cube, hitting Stark in the precise center of his forehead, and there goes the neighborhood, not that it had much going for it in the first place.
“I’m pretty sure you are genetically incapable of interacting rationally with other humans,” Stark tells Barton. He says, “I like that about you,” unwraps the gum and sticks it in his mouth. Barton mutters, “Look who’s talking,” and Banner dips his head, hiding something. Stark blows a purple bubble, says, “Raised by wolves,” and Barton snorts, says, “Ran away to the circus.”
“That explains so much about you that I could have gone a lifetime without an explanation for,” says Stark. “Okay, back to Cap cheating on us with half the super-powered community in the city,” he says, which is when Natasha says, “You need to be quiet now,” and they are, they sure are.
Her face is the calm inside her storm, but around her is a moment, sketched into her profile and foreshadowing her mouth, when she is so close to being Peggy, Steve’s lungs forget to be healthy.
The second time, Bucky crouches quiet on the floor, waits for him to get it together. He stays put, good boy; he does not move. He does not walk through Steve’s rooms, learning what there is to learn, and Steve wonders-
Stark ambushes him at his building's rooftop access, saying, “You’re avoiding this. No, me. Why are you doing that?”
“He’s my friend,” says Steve, “he’s got enough on his plate.”
“But have you asked him,” says Stark, and Steve says, “Goodnight, Tony,” and closes the door in his face.
He tells Sam, “Stark asked after you today,” and Sam laughs then looks askance when he realizes Steve isn’t kidding. He says, “Hold on, I don’t remember signing on for the Iron Man fan club,” but Steve’s already worked this one out.
“It's not going to be a problem,” he says, and Sam laughs again, laughs and jumps off the building.
Steve straps his shield on and follows him down.
When Bucky is seventeen and Steve is twenty-one, Bucky comes home drunk and stinking of clove oil and tobacco, bathtub gin and his own fear sweat. He gets a hand around Steve’s throat, another around his hip, he shoves Steve up against the wall and-
Steve says, “If this is supposed to be a joke, sir, I’m not laughing,” and Fury looks at him, says, “Do I look like I’m joking?”
(He never does.)
“Then I guess you have a problem,” says Steve, but Fury says, “Problem? You think this is my problem?” and drops a file folder on the table in front of him.
“Now that, Captain,” says Fury, “is what I call a problem.”
“Oh Christ,” Sharon says under her breath, “what’s he doing here?”
Steve hears something he hasn't heard in-
There's no way to calculate this.
He breathes in through his nose, tightens his grip on his shield, and then 1943 touches down next to him and says, “You’ve aged well for a surface dweller.”
“She really doesn’t like you,” Steve says and glances at Namor, who is smirking at Sharon’s retreating back. “She is not the first,” Namor says with a shrug, "there is no accounting for some tastes." Steve thinks about letting his smile out before deciding against it. Namor needs encouragement like Steve needs another go-round with the Skull.
Although, what else are you supposed to expect of a guy who makes a habit of shouting Imperious Rex before decimating an entire Hydra battalion?
“She does have a point,” says Steve, “If I remember right, this isn't your kind of operation.”
“The look on Richards’ face whenever I speak to his wife is payment enough.”
“All right, so you’re bored,” Steve says, and Namor flashes him a mouthful of sharp white teeth. Steve feels that smile in his gut.
“Something’s wrong,” says Sharon. She’s already moving as she says, “Thirteen to all teams, Richards is not the target, I repeat, Reed Richards is not the target, revert to zeta protocol and reassess,” and then the city shivers briefly and there is a ball of fire out over the harbor. Just like that.
Two buildings away a man is running across a roof. Steve is running him down.
When he shakes off the flash-bang blindness and the ringing in his ears, Namor is hovering next to him in the air. “You’re not insane,” he says, “not yet.”
“You saw him,” Steve says, and God help him, but it’s a question with an answer.
“My sight has always been sharper than yours, Steven,” says Namor. He says, “If we'd gone with you in place of Jack Fury's rabble that day, his son would still have his ship,” and flies away.
He couldn’t have made himself leave if his life had depended on it. (Natasha says it did.) “What did you mean by that?” Steve says and she shakes herself once, one full body shudder in exchange for fifty years of denial.
She says, “He never engages when the job doesn’t call for it,” and Steve stares at the image frozen on her computer screen, says, “And this one didn’t.”
“No,” she says, “it didn’t.”
Bucky’s waiting for him in his apartment, black domino rings around his eyes. His hair is wet through and every window in the place is open. The bathroom fan is still on; Steve thinks he should be surprised.
He’s not surprised and Bucky is walking toward him. He stops in front of Steve and-
Steve says his name and Bucky pulls back, swipes the back of his hand across his glistening mouth and says, “Still don’t know who that is, pal.”
“It’s you,” he says, “It’s always been you.”
Bucky grins like he’s getting away with something. He says, “Nothing doing,” but Steve is nothing if not determined. He says, “Who are you?” and Bucky shrugs, says, “Hell if I know.” He hooks his fingers through Steve’s belt loops and yanks him back in.
“Wait,” Steve says, “Wait just one damn minute,” and Bucky hovers his mouth against Steve’s mouth, breathes and doesn’t press. “If you don’t know who you are,” Steve says, Bucky’s face a close inch away, Bucky’s breath souring on his skin, “why are you here?” He digs his fingers into flesh and metal and feels something give. Bucky grunts and Steve tightens his grip, says, “What are you after? Who sent you?”
Bucky says, “You got me, buddy,” and rolls his shoulders, jerks himself free. “If I knew that I’d probably be long gone,” he says, then he grabs Steve by his shirtfront at the same time Steve grabs for his right wrist. It’s all push and pull until Bucky gets Steve's arm twisted around, gets the upper hand and shoves Steve backward, hard. They both fight dirty and that’s old news, but Bucky fights silent, which isn’t. Elbow to the diaphragm, legs tangled up in knees, he pushes and pushes some more and they’re across the room on the couch.
Steve is out of his mind. He must be because Bucky gets down on his knees and bows his head and Steve lets him.
The metal arm isn’t as cold as it looks. The problem with that is: Bucky’s arm didn't used to be metal but it is now. He curls his left hand around Steve’s dick and strokes and Steve knows, even as he comes, that there is a wrong thing in this picture and he is it.
Fury’s flying ship is at the bottom of the harbor and the tower is not an option. Currently, they’re sitting in one of his old bolt holes in the Bronx; a partially deconstructed LMD of Maria Hill is sprawled across what used to be a conference table. Half of her face is blown away, but her remaining eye stares sightlessly at Steve.
Natasha looks from Steve to LMD Hill to Fury and back to Steve. The corner of her mouth curls up. Steve doesn’t flinch.
“They’re still dragging the harbor,” says Sharon, “but we’ve got a partial of a failed incendiary device. No question about the remote detonation.”
“How did he get them onto my boat, is what I want to know,” says Fury, and Natasha stops staring past Steve’s shoulder, says, “Different people, most of them agents. They didn’t know what they were doing.”
Sharon and Natasha exchange a look. “Three days ago,” Sharon says, “a couple of local kids found the body of one of our in-house psych guys dumped near an abandoned factory outside Framingham. We’ve got him on camera leaving SHIELD regional headquarters yesterday at approximately twelve-forty pm.”
“Shit,” says Fury.
“Hill backtrailed his email and online activity,” says Natasha. “She got a hit for one of Faustus’s old aliases half an hour ago.”
“Faustus?” says Steve. “Like the play?”
“His real name is Johann Fennhoff,” Sharon says. “Aliases include Dr Faustus, Edward Marlowe, and any number of other names I won’t go into now. He specializes in mind control.”
“Hence his ability to mess with my people and almost get away with it,” says Fury. “Well, children,” he drawls, “I’ve heard and seen worse, but don’t take that and run with it. Yesterday we lost too many people. Today I will be spending my evening explaining to the council and the American president how bad you all fucked up and why, and allow me to tell you, that’s the good part. I want this soldier in my brig yesterday, ladies and gentleman, along with Faustus and whoever's running this dog and pony show.”
Steve clears his throat and Fury stares at him. "Something you'd like to add to this discussion?"
“No,” Steve answers. “Nothing.”
Sharon gives him a hand up. “I shouldn’t have been able to land that punch,” she says. “Your timing’s off by a mile.”
“You’re telling me,” Sam says from Sharon’s weight bench. “Had to catch his fool self twice last night.”
“That must get really heavy, really fast,” Sharon says, grins, and Sam says, once again with feeling, “You are telling me.” Steve’s shoe catches on the mat and he staggers, one hand reaching out for the wall, and suddenly they’re both staring at him while he stands, head lowered, fear like asthma tight in his chest.
“Cap?” Sharon says. Her hand settles on his shoulder and he wants to shrug it off; wants to, and that’s why he doesn’t. He says, “Sorry, I should probably make an early night of it,” and Sam says, “Hey. You okay?”
“Fine,” says Steve, “I’m fine.” He is, he isn't. (He will be.)
He goes home and the lights are on. The blinds are open. The windows are closed and the apartment is empty of life.
He goes home and the lights are off. The windows and blinds are wide open. Every charcoal and pencil drawing he’s done since 1941 is scattered across every available surface in concentric circles that narrow eventually into Bucky, sleeping naked at their epicenter.
He climbs out onto the fire escape and calls Natasha.
“You could get into a lot trouble for this,” he says slowly, and she shrugs, says, “You can owe me. Fury expects us to find him and there are things he's not saying that you should know." She drops down over the side of the fire escape, ignoring the stairs. Steve already knows he’s going to regret this someday soon.
“Steve?” she says, looking up at him from below. She blows a strand of hair out of her eyes; in the gloom of the alley her face is a stark white oval. “I looked up Jack Fury. Three kids, Nicholas Joseph is the oldest. Food for thought,” she offers, smirks, disappears before he can answer.
He sits on the fire escape with his laptop and Natasha’s flash drive and reads all three files in full, front to back, before he reads them all again. When he finally goes back inside his eyes are on slow burn and his mouth tastes like something died in it seventy years ago.
His line drawings are stacked in neat piles on the coffee table; they’re categorized by year and subject matter. Bucky is gone.
He goes home early, goes up to the roof and waits. He doesn’t have to wait long. He says, “I’m surprised you’re still here,” and Namor settles next to him at the railing, amused scorn in his eyes.
“Where is your vaunted optimism, Captain Rogers?” he says, and Steve leans his forearms on the rail, says, “Maybe seventy years on ice froze it for good. Maybe you’re right. Maybe I should have invited you and Jim along for the ride in ‘44.” The back of his throat tastes bitter, like the dried remnants of every bloody nose he earned on the end of someone else’s fist from the age of six on.
“He and the boy lasted longer than you and Barnes, though not by long.”
“Toro?” he says. “But he was,” a kid fighting a war, and not much younger than Bucky. “When?”
“Does it matter? He’s dead. There's a memorial at Arlington for both of them.” His hand closes around Steve’s wrist and Steve looks up, startled. “Do you know what this country’s government wanted to do with Hammond's body? I was in no position to interfere then, but now he's moved every few years to keep the scavengers away.”
His grip is crushing; if Steve was-
If he was-
“We’re human, damn it,” he mutters, and Namor curls his lip, drops Steve's arm, says, “Speak for yourself.” His eyes are distant, always looking out to sea, wherever he is. “What we are,” he says, “is a scattering of relics, holy or not. When we forget, we will be reminded.”
The thing is, he’s never sure who’s going to crawl through his window. That kind of not knowing does things to a person.
Sharon says, “God damn it, Steve, if you can’t talk to me-”
Sam says, “What’s got into you, man?” and Steve-
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A supersoldier, a spy and an assassin walk into an evildoer’s secret lair. The soldier says-
Nothing here is different. Open windows, closed door. Nothing about this room is different. But something else is.
Steve is not different and the gun is not different, and Bucky, Bucky is less different than he was yesterday, and that’s a difference worthy of note. He says, “I'm what's left, Steve, he left me for last,” and his eyes are wet but his gun hand is steady, pointing him at Steve.
It’ll be a pair of double taps: to the head, to the chest, and Steve isn’t the Hulk. He isn’t Bruce. He won’t spit them out.
“You said Steve,” he says, and Bucky snaps, “It’s your goddamn name, Cap.”
“I know that,” Steve says, “but you don’t. You didn't.” He says, “Bucky,” and this is Steve Rogers, telling nothing but the truth for the first time this century.
Seventy, sixty, maybe even fifty years ago, you would have gone to see what the noise was. Why it sounded like it was right outside or maybe next door. You would have turned off the radio and put down your newspaper (as opposed to your phone or your ipad or your television remote) and crawled out of the woodwork, blinking the artificial night out of your eyes and looking for a body.
Now, it could be anything. Car backfiring, kids screwing around. Superheroes superheroing. Any damn thing, anywhere, because this is New York, tonight.
It could be anything.
But the thing is, he just doesn’t know. Until he does, and that kind of knowledge is-
“Winter is coming,” Stark intones, rolling his eyes. “Jesus,” he says, “don’t you SHIELD lemmings ever get tired of your own bullshit?”
“Don’t you?” says Natasha.
“Point aaaaaand match,” says Barton.
Steve tears up another line sketch and tucks it into his belt.
So stop me already if you’ve heard this one. A supersoldier, a spy and an assassin walk into an evildoer’s secret lair and none of them say anything because they are now dead, because that’s what happens when you walk into an evildoer’s secret lair without doing the math first.
Oh, so you haven’t heard this one. Well, surprise. This is comedy misrepresented as history and right here is the part where you’re supposed to laugh. You should start laughing now.
The upshot of the serum is, he doesn’t get thrown to the wolves. He throws himself.
Later, he gets Bucky back, not safe but shoulder to his shoulder behind enemy lines in a dying forest. Backs shoring up the same tree, the sky cleaner through the gaps than it has any right to be. “Nights clear up fine,” Bucky says, “when there’s no artillery or antiaircraft fire in the way.”
“Or rain,” says Steve. “They're clearer in Nebraska.”
“Nebraska,” Bucky repeats, “Is that where you’ve been all this time? Guess I know why I never got any letters back.”
“I’ve been around some,” Steve says, and Bucky knocks his head against Steve’s helmet when he nods. He says, “Remember those stories? The ones where the soldier who’s gonna die in a few pages is looking up at the stars, wondering if his girl’s doing the same thing somewhere else.”
“What about them?” he says, and Bucky leans in, smelling of smoke and bodily waste, says, “Couldn’t think of any dame in particular, so I thought, screw this. Then I thought, it’s New York City. When’s the last time anyone saw a real star in the sky over New York City?” He tips his head back, smiling, and in the dark, his burns and bruises erased, he almost looks the way he used to, on wobbly bar stools and rooftops covered in Brooklyn soot. “It looks to me," he says, "like Nebraska was a brand new ballgame for you, Captain.”
Sweat fills the ridges on Bucky’s forehead. It drips from his hairline down to his chin and lower, leaving wet patches on his black t-shirt. His muscles clench and twitch and his left arm hangs limp from his shoulder. He’s shaking all over, except for his right hand and the gun in it.
He swallows convulsively, says, “Not her fault. Tell her.” He says, “Tell her,” and Steve says, “Sure, Buck, I'll tell her.” He says, “Who?”
“Natalia,” Bucky says, teeth chattering. “This isn’t about her.” He says, “This is about Kronas,” and the tablet in Steve’s hands snaps in two. He drops the pieces without looking at them. He’s looking at the raw edges of Bucky’s lips; he’s chewed them bloody.
“Remember Kronas, Steve? That place, all those kids, he -- he wanted me to remember,” Bucky mumbles and jerks, water flying from the ends of his hair. “Wanted me to know what I was doing. He figured if I survived, maybe you were still knocking around somewhere, too, and he wanted to know.”
Steve says, “Know what? Bucky?” he says, and he has to stay still, he knows. He has to, but he can't; he takes one step and Bucky's hand tightens around the gun. Bucky blinks more sweat out of bloodshot eyes and says, "Don't. Remember who got all the stupid? Wasn't you." He bares his teeth, says, “He wanted to know how fast you really are,” and Bucky is faster than fast. A lot faster than he used to be, and he was never slow. The gun isn’t pointed at Steve anymore, it’s jammed up under Bucky’s chin. Steve wants it turned back the way it was. He wants everything turned back.
“So,” Bucky says, grinning a rictus, “mile a minute laughs, that’s us. How fast can you go, Steve-o?”
When Bucky is twenty and Steve is twenty-four, Bucky goes to war and Steve goes to Camp Lehigh. At this point it’s too little too late for crying wolf.