Chapter 1: Improvements
The man who may yet be Bucky Barnes tries to do something for himself.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
No I don’t want to, you think, and hunch over, face in pillow. Dark there, and warm. Cosy? I’m cosy.
You grin into the pillow, and in its quiet comfort you can admit to yourself that the leaking of your eyes is more than just early morning wateriness, though you don’t know why you’re crying.
Don’t want to. Don’t have to. So warm. So -- cosy? Nice with the sun baking my shoulder. So sleepy. ‘Mnot going to move. Steve can’t make me neither he’s too little an’ - oh.
Steve is Big Steve. And this is too quiet to be Brooklyn. But it’s a good place. You know this. A warm one too. Which place? Arm’s too hot for flesh in the sun. Metal. Now you know.
But this morning you stay calm. This is the Steve place, and the room Steve gave you to make your own.
You remember Steve three nights ago, over spicy eggs - no Steve I don’t care if you think they sound gross, the eggs you cook are a goddamned waste of the work the chickens put into laying them - asking if you’d feel more at home if you personalised the room.
For a supersoldier, Steve is very stupid.
The room is secure now, the windows impossible to open from outside, a bolthole established in the crawlspace above the wardrobe in case of crisis, beautiful art deco fireplace not only blocked but rigged to stun intruders.
Little, reliable weapons - knives, I trust knives, never run out with a knife unless you throw it - are within arm’s reach of every position in the small room, and the bed is invisible from the window. Not that you sleep in it.
So yes, the room is personalised, you think, as you burrow still further into the nest of bedding on the floor. You lie there, your body almost relaxed, your mind loose and unfocused. Images drift across the pink-tinged backs of your eyelids in soft focus, and they’re kind. There are no Chairs, no guns. Muted laughter and a hand in your hair, a broad bare chest and some shushing noises. Then suddenly, you find yourself looking at a clear-edged picture, sharp and defined.
The swaddled form of Little Steve is sitting in a stained, mushroom-colored wingback chair, his delicate face with its sickly flush the only parts of him visible. He’s feverish and babbling. As hoarse as he sounds, the voice is still too big for the tiny head poking out from a pile of blankets, coats, towels even.
“One day, Buck,” and you flinch, uncomfortable with the name even in memory, “one day we’ll have big apartments and the walls won’t blister and we’ll be able to paint them. And I’ll decorate yours all fancy, and you can come do the ceilings at mine and keep an eye on me, make sure I’m not suffocating on paint fumes.”
You can hear the fluid in Little Steve’s lungs as he speaks. His eyes are glassy and delirious, his voice fading in and out of strength or maybe it’s the memory failing because soon you feels the warmth of the morning glazing the arm, and hear a much bigger Steve striding across the hallway downstairs. The front door slams.
You get into the shower, and think for a minute as the unrestricted cascade of clean warm water winds across your shoulders. The good memories - the ones which are only the natural cold of poorly-insulated winters - come easier in the mornings, before you’ve put yourself together for the day.
Little Steve was sick. But it’s a good memory? No, not good. What’s that thing, shit. Nostalgia? Yeah. What’s the one that’s the opposite, then? Like forward nostalgia. But fizzier.
It’s anticipation, the name for this feeling you’ve lost. You’d associate the word with violence and tactics if you heard it, not with this light feeling that settles in your chest as you assign yourself a mission for the day.
Gonna paint the room. Big Steve will like that.
Standing under the powerful shower, you plan quickly. Objectives: visit hardware store; purchase paint, brushes, a rolling thing. Steve. Make that two rolling things. Required equipment: clothing, footwear, canvas bag, house key, money. Ten minutes’ walking, familiar streets, no threat anticipated. Necessary interaction with salesclerk, slight risk, acceptable. Choosing paint - you feel a clench in your stomach. Choosing is still difficult. Physical threat analysis, null. Psychological risks can be overridden - use choice parameters other than personal preference. Risks neutralised.
Satisfied with the plan, you get out of the shower, squeezing the excess water from your hair and wrapping a towel around it. Looking in the mirror, you laugh at the face that stares back, cocooned in fluffy white. Bathrobes are on the list of Good Things, with hot showers, sleeping in, and spicy food.
Twenty minutes later you’re downstairs, wallet in metallic hand, looking for your jacket. The time between the mirror and now is lost, but nothing’s broken and you don’t have that hot, nauseous feeling that was inescapable in the first few months after the riverbank.
Happiness does this to you sometimes. You feel something good, and then lose the time afterward. It’s becoming rarer now though, the missing periods counted in minutes, not days, and you come back from them calmly now.
You put on the dark blue double-breasted jacket that had made Steve’s face go red and crumpled - why? - when you tried it in the thrift store, and walk out of the door.
thanks for reading - i'd love to hear any kind of feedback - positive, negative, queries!
Chapter 2: Home
Steve is paranoid and highly-strung and has far too many emotions when it comes to Bucky Barnes, but we knew that already.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The front door is ajar. Steve sees it as he’s unhooking the plastic bag from the handlebar of his motorbike, and his hands tingle as adrenaline surges through his body. Instantly he breaks into a panicked run, hot sweet coffee slopping out of the cups in the bag and burning his hands. The bright April day feels sinister suddenly, as his soldier’s mind begins to scan the dappled, disorienting shadows. The streets are peaceful, but suddenly the silence is oppressive.
He spins through self-recrimination as he sprints toward the house, furious with himself for leaving Bucky sleeping, scared someone's found him, more terrified still that he's run. His pounding, rhythmic strides slap violently through that quiet as he bolts toward the dark green door and up the six steps. With no concern for his own safety he barges it fully open, mouth dry, heart pounding. He’s halfway to the kitchen when he catches a snatch of sound and a familiar chemical smell drifting down the stairs.
He pauses, breathing heavily. It almost sounded like… He hears it again. A man is definitely singing. The voice is strong and a little husky and Steve’s ragged breath catches in his chest as though he’s surfacing from a dive because this, this is the sound of summer evenings spent sketching on a fire escape, a sound from a simple time that is lost to him forever, and he sinks to the foot of the stairs, his throat swollen shut, because somewhere in the house, Bucky is singing. His fear dissipates, the adrenaline melting into something soft and warming.
The song conjures a smoky nightclub with a piano or maybe a small band, and suddenly Steve recalls a particular evening in London with a gorgeous singer performing this very song pointedly in the direction of their small posse. He recalls one of the men jabbing their Sergeant in the ribs, asking with a cartoonish leer why the woman on the stage was scowling so directly at him, remembers exactly the self-deprecating shrug that undercut Bucky’s smirk with a note of genuine embarrassment. He’s reminded of a faint surge of anger at the slander, friendly and otherwise, that his friend used to accept. Because Bucky was never the feckless womanising waster of the song, he’s always been one of the hardest workers Steve knows and one of the kindest men and as for womanising, well - there was a venue behind the National Gallery that could have told some very different stories.
Steve finds himself startled abruptly back to the present as the voice breaks off with - was that a chuckle? - and then rips into a bloodcurdling rendition, complete with accent, of that confounded song from the woman in the fruit hat that Bucky’d been so very fond of in the months directly before the bombs had fallen on the harbor. The sound carrying down the stairs is - there’s no other word, really - gleeful. Steve groans instinctively, and the singing breaks off.
“Steve?” comes the voice, “Is that you?” Bucky sounds faintly embarrassed.
“Yeah, it’s me,” he calls back, a laugh in his voice. “What’re you up to?”
“Come see,” says Bucky’s voice, sounding more like his old self than he has since he came back. Steve stands, a little shakily, surprised at the crashing tide of emotions - relief and apprehension mingled - and walks up the stairs. The chemical smell is stronger now, and there’s a distinct breeze flowing through the house as he steps onto the landing. He turns and sees his Bucky framed in a doorway.
The man standing there isn’t the weapon he faced, and he isn’t the terrified angry shell he found with his arm in a vice, and he’s not the cocky young soldier who left Steve to fight for his country and never came home. He’s all of those things and so many more, but right now all that Steve sees, even with his long hair grazing his stubbled jaw and the sun flashing off his metal forearm, is his childhood best friend and a man he has loved in so many forms. He catches hold of his wildly spiraling emotions, and looks at Bucky, who’s holding a long-handled paint roller and looking a little self-conscious under Steve's gaze.
Steve breaks his reverie with a laugh, and walks into Bucky’s room. For four months it has remained entirely impersonal, one spare set of clothes folded on the desk but otherwise bare and white. It isn’t white any longer. Random patches of wall are a shockingly vibrant blue, a color which summons images of flowers and oceans and early August evenings. Steve’s a little startled, but he feels his face crack into a grin.
“What do you think?” asks Bucky, with the slightly bashful cadence of someone who desperately wants approval but is secretly ashamed of the desire.
“Nice color,” replies Steve, the smile spreading throughout his body. “Not exactly finished though, is it?”
Bucky shrugs. “I only started an hour ago, and I don’t know what I’m doing. Never painted a room before, I don’t think.”
The words cut Steve deeply. Bucky had painted their old apartment nearly 75 years ago. Steve had been in the hospital with one of his last bouts of pneumonia. It was November of 1941 and within two years he'd be rendered absurdly, permanently healthy. Bucky had met him when he’d been cleared to leave, buzzing with some strange, shy excitement. He’d insisted Steve sleep at the Barnes family home for a night, where Mrs Barnes had given him a full meal, far better than what he and Bucky could afford. By the time they returned to their apartment the next day, the paint fumes had dissipated and the walls were a clean flat white that made the little rooms seem twice the size.
He’d cried a little, he remembers. The oppressive, mouldering wallpaper had always bothered his artist’s heart as the damp it held bothered his lungs, but they didn’t have much money to spare for fresh paper. In that moment, walking into the fresh canvas of their apartment, Steve had felt warm, cared-for and full of possibility.
Now isn’t the time to share that memory with Bucky - but a similar warmth floods his chest as he looks over at the man he once again shares a home with.
“What made you want to do it?”
“Dunno, Stevie. I just. This morning I woke up and it was sunny and I - I liked it, I think? I felt it. The warmth. Like I knew it was a good thing. And I wanted to do something. Needed a project. Remembered what you said over dinner the other night. That I should do something for myself. I guess I thought I’d try this.”
Steve’s chest feels swollen. This isn’t Bucky as he was, but this is a person making his own decisions and wanting things and being proactive. And the singing. That’s his Bucky, through and through. He chuckles a little, and looks at the floor.
“Buck, that’s great. That’s really great.” He pauses, hearing the thickness of emotion in his voice and noticing that the other man hasn’t flinched at Steve using the name he’s still not comfortable with. “You got a second roller?”
The pleased, shy grin flits across the dark-haired man’s face again as he proffers it. For a short while they paint together in silence, focused on the work. It’s initially a little strained, then eases into comfort. After a time, Steve hears Bucky begin to hum another familiar tune.
this was meant to be a super-speedy scribble to finish off an idea i came up with while painting my own place a few weeks back.
and then i got stuck thinking about songs i'm familiar with that they'd have known, and went down a whole musical rabbit hole looking into possible earworms that would've stuck with Bucky (whose pre-War incarnation is always singing in my head) through 70 years of brainwashing and violence.
so. the first song i had in mind was this one . the 1942 version by Peggy Lee is the most famous, and was featured in 1943 propaganda film Stage Door Canteen, so he might have heard it before he shipped out. even if he hadn't, though, the original version of the song was released in 1936 and in 1941 Lil Green recorded a fantastic version that was commercially successful.
other snippets of information i spent too long researching:
- in Steve's memory, he and the Howling Commandos are at the Bouillabaisse Club on New Compton Street in Soho. i have no idea whether it was the kind of venue that had live music, but in all other ways it's just perfect so we're going to pretend that it did.
- the venue behind the National Gallery is the Arts and Battledress Club, which opened on Orange Street (within easy walking distance of the Bouillabaisse Club) in 1941. though it changed locations a couple of times, the A&B was still running in the mid-'70s, making it a landmark of London's queer history.