"Pierce!" Bucky croaked, sweating and shaking, strapped to the hospital bed with four-point restraints. There was bile in his throat and his muscles cramped excruciatingly.
"Barnes," Pierce said, nodding, fake as the news of McCartney's death. "Sorry things worked out this way. My, you're in quite a state."
"Fuck . . . you," Bucky managed. His throat was raw from retching so much. The torn flesh of his shoulder burned like the metal arm was on fire or freezing; he couldn't tell which, just that he was in agony.
The staff were tapering his pain relief, weaning him off too damn fast. They left him alone now as much as they could, ever since he'd hurled his puke bowl at them.
Pierce leaned over, peering at the angry red scars where the prosthesis met skin and muscle. He tsked. "Now that's got to hurt," he said, oozing insincere sympathy.
Bucky turned his face away, jaw clenched as the chills and tremors wracked him.
"Never fear," Pierce said brightly. "I've got just the thing." He pulled out a small vial and held it close to Bucky's face.
Squinting through the sweat running into his eyes, Bucky managed to read morphine sulfate on the label before his vision blurred. "Please . . . " he gasped.
"Always happy to help my star performer, Barnes," Pierce said, snapping the neck of the vial then inserting the needle of a syringe and drawing up the contents. He reached up and injected the liquid into Bucky's IV bag. "You just lie back and let me take care of everything."
As the leading edge of the morphine loosened his jaw, Bucky whispered "All your fucking fault. Bastard."
"Now, is that any way to talk to the nice man with the drugs?" Pierce asked, grinning, but Bucky was already fading, beached on a warm, dark shore of unconsciousness as the pain ebbed away.
They'd put Bucky in a private room after he punched a nurse. It was pretty damn private all right—locked, far away from other patients. Not that this surreal excuse for a hospital had many other patients Bucky'd seen.
Bucky thought Hydra most likely owned the whole clinic, and the staff. That 'nurse' he'd laid out with his new metal arm was a security goon if ever he'd seen one, and Bucky'd seen plenty since Wolfteeth's fifth album topped the charts and they started making serious money for Hydra. That was when things started to get weird.
He was somewhere in Europe, in a converted sanitorium deep in the Alps from the view out the barred and bolted windows, but Bucky had no clue exactly where he was. His memory'd been patchy since his fall at the gig in Munich. He'd lost a whole week to concussion and shock and they'd drugged him heavily, what with the surgeries.
First they said it was to save his arm but he woke after the second op with nothing there at all under the thick swathe of bandages, frantic with fear more than pain because his fucking arm was gone and how was he going to play guitar with no left arm? Sure, he was lead singer ('smoky and rasping—a voice that curls around your spine and sets your feet moving: Rolling Stone 2011'), but for Bucky, vocals and playing were inseparable. It was how he composed, how he wrote the music that'd made him and the band celebrities and brought them to Hydra's notice, eventually brought them on tour to London, Paris, Munich. Brought Bucky to that dumb fucking stunt and the end of everything.
The surgeon, Zoller or Zola or something, a runty guy Bucky didn't like and sure as hell didn’t trust, told him there was no choice. He said Bucky's arm was too damaged and they'd give him a souped-up prosthesis instead, cybernetic. He'd almost strangled Zola with his good arm, had to be shot full of happy juice before he let go of the fucker's neck. Zola was working for the music company too, for Hydra. They all were, including Pierce, Hydra's main handler for the band.
Pierce was the one who'd gotten Bucky to do the free falling stunt in Munich, even though the rest of the band had disagreed, saying it was too risky. But Hydra demanded a spectacle to boost album sales and Pierce had been persuasive, droning on about the safety precautions when all Bucky wanted was peace and goddamn quiet to write songs.
He'd caved, mostly to get Pierce off his back. Hell, it'd seemed safe enough, a great way to wow the crowd and boost everyone's energy after their first set, Bucky swan-diving down from on high, his actual fall heralding Free Fall, the massive hit they were playing next. Not so much, after the wire broke and he plummeted to the stage, left arm outstretched to break his fall, down into screams, and fear, and blackness.
And since then, this clinic, and the pain. Until now. Until Pierce and his sweet, damnable morphine.
Sometimes, while Bucky was convalescing at the clinic, he thought Pierce had engineered everything, had set up the fall. But that didn't make sense—he was worth more to Hydra undamaged, touring and recording with the band. No, Pierce had just capitalized on the accident, controlling Bucky with drugs, making sure his anger and grief festered into self-hatred. Self-hatred and despair.
He'd lost his music, lost everything. He couldn't face Nat and Sam and Wanda and he was no good to them anyway with only one good arm and a metal monstrosity. He was no good to anyone in this state, broken down and hooked on morphine. Sometimes he wished he'd died . . . but then he kind of had. He was dead inside. Frozen.
"What'd Pierce say? Same old bullshit?" Sam gave Nat a hug then went into the kitchen to get her a coffee. She looked tired.
Nat parked herself against a counter. "Yeah, the same line. 'He's making a good recovery but he doesn't want visitors.'" She shrugged angrily out of her leather jacket and hooked it over a chair. "Like we're just 'visitors'. I don't believe a word that lying bastard says, but he had some official-looking piece of paper putting it in writing. They must've faked it up when Bucky was too sick to know what he was doing."
"Damn. Can't we get our lawyers onto them?"
Nat lifted one shoulder and drank her coffee. "Our lawyers are Hydra's lawyers, Sam. They work for Pierce. And we're locked in by contract; we can't jump ship or get ourselves outside representation."
"Rebecca can't even get in to see him, wherever he is." Sam shook his head. "Still can't believe we don't even know where in hell they've got him, just that it's Europe somewhere. Plus, this bullshit about him 'making a good recovery'. We gotta do something."
The door chimed and Nat looked up. "We are doing something—Wanda's bringing Pietro over. That'll be them now."
They ended up in the living room, Wanda and Pietro on the couch, Sam leaning forward in an armchair, elbows on knees, and Nat prowling, too restless to sit.
"So, can you track him?" Nat asked, running her finger along the frame of a photo of Sam and Riley that sat on a bookshelf, along with Riley's 58th Rescue Squadron patch.
Pietro shrugged. "Not right now; he is off the grid. No electronic footprint I can locate." Pietro was the band's electronic engineer and tech expert, building and fixing their equipment. He was also a hacker, with the on-line handle 'Quicksilver'.
"This is impossible!" Wanda threw up her hands. "How can this bostáro keep us from Bucky?" She threw herself angrily back on the couch, dark red scarves fluttering about her.
Pietro put his arm around her shoulders and pulled his sister close, making soothing noises. "Patience, surată, we will find him.” He looked across at Sam, then at Nat. "Or, if we cannot track Bucky because he is not using credit cards or email, we can at least track Pierce."
He was back in the States. Pierce had brought him to LA and parked him in a Hydra-owned hotel, probably with the idea of getting Bucky back into the music industry again, somewhere safely out of the limelight where Pierce could bring him his drugs and take away the songs he hoped Bucky would write. Fat chance of that; there was no music in him any more. Sometimes he thought it had drained out with the blood from his shattered arm, or been washed away on a tide of morphine. Mostly, he didn't think at all.
He pushed the dark glasses up his nose, steeled himself, and opened the bedroom door, stepping out into the living room of the suite. Glancing up briefly, he saw them all there, and Pierce, between him and the others, looking watchful. He didn't know exactly how they'd tracked him down but Pierce had said something angrily about "goddamn hackers", so probably Pietro had helped.
Bucky looked down again and swallowed. He was sweating, his heart pounding, and he badly needed a fix. Pierce had insisted he do this and to force him into it had left him hanging, withholding his shot until Bucky went through with the damn meeting. He'd also wanted Bucky to tart himself up and "look normal", but to hell with that.
He scuffed one shoe against the carpet and jammed his hands in his pockets to hide the shakes. "Hi," he said, staring at the carpet midway between them. His voice was scratchy; he didn't talk much to anyone these days. He cleared his throat.
"What's going on, man?" That was Sam—direct and no bullshit, as usual. He sounded hurt.
"Nothing. I'm fine."
"That's unlikely," Nat said tightly. He risked a peek at her, standing with her arms folded and eyes narrowed. She looked like she wanted to hit someone. "Why didn't you let us come see you? Where've you been?"
"Convalescing." Pierce had told him to say that. He shrugged his left shoulder. "My arm's fucked. It needed a lot of work."
"How are you hurt?" Wanda took half a step forward, her hands moving helplessly, as though she wanted to pull him into a hug.
He hunched further down into himself and leaned away. She stepped back again, blowing out an angry breath and muttering something in Romani under her breath.
"Mr Barnes has received the best of care," Pierce put in, eyeing Bucky warningly. "His left arm was badly damaged, but he's had expert specialist treatment, and–"
"But you can still play, right?" Sam asked, frowning. "I mean, we knew your arm was broken, anyone could see that, but that doesn't explain–"
"I can't play," Bucky said flatly, glaring at him, at all of them. He pushed up his sweatshirt sleeve on the left, exposing the hated metal plates and joints. "Not with this!"
"Aw, jeez," Sam said, sounding gutted. Wanda gave a small cry then covered her mouth with her hands. She was the band's lead guitarist; she knew what it meant. Nat just stiffened, her mouth a hard line as she stared at his arm.
"You never told us!" Wanda rounded on Pierce, her eyes blazing. "Bucky had to go through all that, to lose his arm, and you never told us?"
Pierce stared her down. "He wanted his privacy. It was a big change, a big adjustment."
"You call that a fucking adjustment?" Sam said, his voice high, fists clenched at his sides.
Bucky battled nausea, tasting bile in the back of his throat. He couldn't take much more of this. "I'd like you to go now."
"Rebecca's been frantic," Nat said, frowning at him. "Maybe you don't care about us, but she's your sister."
Behind the dark glasses, Bucky closed his eyes. "Just go," he said. "I can't . . ."
"I think Bucky's had enough for now," Pierce said, stepping between him and the others, making to herd them toward the door to the hallway. "This has been an emotional reunion, and perhaps a bit overwhelming." He smiled blandly. "We'll arrange another time."
Like fuck we will, Bucky thought viciously, staring hard at the carpet. The pattern was blurring; he couldn't see it clearly.
"Bucky?" Wanda said. "Are you sure we–"
"Let's not make a scene now, Ms. Maximoff," Pierce said, inexorable.
"Come on, Wanda, let's go," Nat said, putting her arm around Wanda's shoulders and leading her away.
Sam walked backward, giving ground slowly as Pierce moved toward him. "We just want to help, Bucky," he called, peering around Pierce. "Anything, Christ, just call us. Don't do this!" Pierce almost muscled him out the door, the lock snicking shut behind them. Bucky could hear raised voices out in the hallway.
He stumbled back into his bedroom and curled up in a fetal ball, rocking, trying not to think. Where the fuck was Pierce with his shot?
Anyway, he'd been right. He was no good to the band and they didn't understand what he'd been through. Rebecca wouldn't either . . . but he couldn't bear to think about her. His stomach cramped and he shivered, gooseflesh springing up down his back and on his right arm.
He almost decked Pierce when he finally turned up and handed Becky the ampule. Just as well he didn't lay him out, as Pierce had to take it back off him and draw it up in the end; Bucky's hands were shaking too much.
"So, I think that went as well as can be expected," Pierce said, packing Bucky's injection gear away in the room safe. "All things considered."
Bucky pulled the covers up over his head. "Fuck off," he said but without much heat. The morphine had kicked in and everything was hazy again, soft-edged.
"Get some sleep," Pierce said. "And then for Christ's sake take a shower and wash your hair: you look like shit. And write some damn music when you're lucid. No music: no drugs. You hear me, Barnes?"
Bucky didn't answer.
Bucky pulled up the hood of his sweatshirt and hunched further down in his seat, cheek against the window as the Greyhound pulled out of Albuquerque, heading east. He'd shot up in the men's room so he should be okay for the next leg of the journey. Maybe he'd even get some sleep, as long as the woman in the pink coat beside him wasn't a talker. He was pretty good at tuning the talkers out by now, though.
Pierce had thought he'd broken Bucky, but he'd been wrong. Well, no, Bucky was sure as hell broken and a lot of that was down to Pierce, but at least he'd gotten away, out of Pierce's clutches. Pierce had stopped leaving a minder with him, probably as he'd paid the hotel staff to keep watch, but Bucky'd timed it when he was feeling almost normal after a fix, well before the shakes and sickness set in again, and he'd slipped out the fire stairs. No way he was risking another excruciating meeting with Nat and Sam and Wanda.
He took his Fender with him—Pierce had got hold of it somehow, hoping the songwriting bug might bite him, but he had no use for the guitar now. Autographing it then selling it to a musical instruments store got him enough cash to live on for a while, so long as he wasn't picky about where he stayed. Turned out his fame as Wolfteeth's lead singer was still good for something, even if he and the band had fallen off the face of the planet. He told the store owner he'd won the guitar in a promo. He didn't think the guy recognized him, not with his shabby clothes, the beard, and a ball cap pulled down over his eyes.
He didn't sell the case, which was rectangular, not guitar-shaped. That was just as well—too noticeable to be walking about with an obvious guitar and Pierce on the hunt for him. Bucky used the time the sale bought him to get some ID and hit a few banks, withdrawing a good amount of his cash inside a couple of hours. It was risky leaving a record of his whereabouts by using banks, but Pierce couldn't track him that fast, as long as he didn't hang around. He hit three LA bank branches in rapid succession then got a Greyhound to Vegas and did the same there. After that, the Fender case was stuffed with cash.
He scored some heroin in LA, and again in Vegas—it was easier to come by than medical-grade morphine. More dangerous, too, when he didn't have a regular dealer he trusted, but he had no choice. He rationed it, not liking his chances of getting any in small towns; he'd have to stay longer in the cities to replenish his supply.
Bucky figured New York was far enough from Pierce, and big enough to hide in, so he left no electronic traces after Vegas and paid cash for what he needed—bus tickets and smack mostly, some booze, the occasional burger. The guitar case was too big to bring inside the bus with him, so sometimes he hitched a ride with a trucker when panic about having to leave the case in the Greyhound's luggage compartment got the better of him. Trucks made a change from the buses, anyway, even if the drivers tried to get him to talk so as to help them stay awake. One time when he was rationing the smack and feeling shitty, he offered a driver cash just to shut up and leave him in peace. That got him dumped out on a barren roadside in buttfuck nowhere. He had to walk fifteen miles to the next town and another goddamn bus.
The woman beside him put in earbuds and fiddled with her phone. Good: not a talker. Bucky relaxed into the rhythm of the road, staring vaguely out the window as Albuquerque's suburbs gave way to low, scrubby hills. The Fender case was secured with locked luggage straps, his latest dose of smack still lay easy on his nerves and his ID was safe in an inside pocket. The miles rolled past, and Bucky's eyes drifted closed. He let himself sleep.
"We cannot give up on him!" Wanda paced to and fro in Sam's living room, red draperies in agitated motion.
"We're not giving up," Sam said, trying to figure out how to reassure her when there was no good news. "We just . . . can't get hold of Bucky right now, is all."
"He's taken off," Nat said. "Pierce was furious—I don't think he was lying or hiding him away from us this time. I think Bucky gave him the slip."
"Hope he'll be okay," Sam said, frowning. "He looked pretty messed up."
Wanda stopped still and wrapped her arms around herself as though she were cold, staring down at the rug. "His poor arm," she whispered, shaking her head. "What did they do to him?"
Pietro came out from the kitchen and pulled her into a hug, stroking her back. "Hydra are bad news," he said, looking at Sam and Nat across her shoulder. "I hear things, online, what they did to other artists. You need to get out from that contract."
"Tell me about it," Sam said, blowing out a frustrated breath. "You'd think now we've lost Bucky they'd let us go. He was the big star."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence, Wilson," Nat said, frowning.
Sam raised his hands. "Hey, I'm just the rhythm guitarist and occasional keyboardist. I don't get the same kind of hype 'round me that lead singers do, and I'm real happy about that. The fans love you and Wanda, but you know I'm right; it was Bucky had that special thing going." He sighed and looked down at his hands. "Plus, he was our main songwriter."
"Not our only songwriter, though," Nat said. "The rest of us do okay." Her face took on a grim cast. "We're going to have to. Pierce wants us to replace Bucky."
Sam's head lifted. "What?" He waved a hand, incredulous. "How're we gonna do that?"
"We will not!" Wanda pulled herself away from Pietro and resumed pacing, waving her hands. "Those midžax bostári cannot make us!"
Nat shrugged, her mouth an angry line. "Actually, they can. It's in the contract. We have to audition replacements if anyone leaves the band, or they'll take us to court."
"Goddamn fine print," Sam muttered.
"Perhaps Bucky only needs time away from Pierce," Pietro said. "That man was not good for him."
"Yeah, those dark glasses were a giveaway," Nat said.
"You think he was hiding?" Wanda nodded and answered herself. "Yes, I think he was hiding from us."
"Not just that," Nat said. "He was hiding how his eyes look, and we couldn't see his arms." She grimaced. "His arm."
"What d'you mean?" Sam peered up at where she was leaning against the hallway door.
"He'd have been in a lot of pain, and he'd had surgery. More than one operation, from what Pierce said." Nat sighed. "They probably got him hooked on painkillers so they could control him. I'm betting he's got injection marks on his . . . real arm, and pinpoint pupils. He looked like he was withdrawing when we were with him."
"How could you tell all that?" Sam asked. "Pierce booted us out 'fore you could say 'knife'."
"Way he acted. With the sniffing and shivering, even though he tried not to show it. I've seen it before."
"They have made him an addict?" Wanda snatched a porcelain ornament from the bookshelf and threw it across the room. It smashed into the wall and shattered, and she burst into tears and flung herself down on the couch.
Pietro sat with her, rocking her and making soothing noises. He looked up at Sam. "Sorry, we will replace it," he said, making an apologetic face.
"No sweat, man," Sam said. "It was just a souvenir from Philly one of the aunties gave me. No loss."
"Bucky is loss," Wanda muttered semi-coherently. Her English got shakier when she was upset. "Is loss to us."
"Now, surată, that is not true," Pietro murmured. "He was back on grid there, briefly, here in LA, and Las Vegas. On the move, but I will keep watch. We will find him again."
"You think he'll stay in Vegas?" Sam looked doubtful.
"No," Nat answered. "He was withdrawing cash, and he'd know his transactions would be traced. He won't touch his accounts again unless he's forced to, and he won't stay there. He'll keep moving."
"Yeah, but where?" Sam spread his hands helplessly. "It's a hell of a big country."
"As far away from Pierce as he can get, and to a city. He was never a country boy." Nat shrugged. "Maybe he'll head home—we were from Brooklyn, originally."
Sam nodded. "So maybe we'll find him there, once he surfaces."
"It is something, at least," Wanda said, wiping her face on a scarf.
"Just a matter of time." Sam tried to sound reassuring.
Yeah, he thought to himself, less confidently, but meanwhile he's strung out and in the wind. Jeez, I might have to take up prayin' again. Barnes, you better be okay, you dumb bastard. You goddamn well better be okay.
Some kind of homing instinct brought Bucky to Brooklyn, when he finally reached New York.
He was jonesing pretty bad by then, having run out of smack somewhere back in West Virginia, but he was close to the end of his journey and detouring to Pittsburgh to score had felt like an intolerable delay. It'd be easy to get what he needed in New York, so he just hunched down into himself on the bus and pretended he had the 'flu.
He got off the subway at Grand Army Plaza on Prospect Park with some notion of getting fresh air after hours trapped in the stuffy, poorly air conditioned bus. There was a market, which he hadn't remembered, but then, he wasn't exactly firing on all cylinders.
Plums. First he'd score some plums, then the drugs. He'd always liked plums and in the band's touring days it had been a disappointment that hotel fruit baskets never included them. Apples, oranges, grapes, strawberries, but no goddamn plums. What with that and the months he'd been sick, Bucky had a whole lot of plum-eating to catch up on.
He wandered into the alleys between the stalls, finally finding the fresh produce section and the fruit vendors. Loose bills from his pocket covered the cost, and soon he was clutching a paper sack of dark red fruit to his chest, sniffling and shivering and trying to figure out where the exit had gone. Why in hell had he come in here, anyway? He needed to score.
It was crowded, and he got stuck behind a short, fair-haired guy who was packing up what looked like artist's gear, probably wrapping up a stint drawing market-goers' portraits for cash. A press of pedestrians blocked Bucky from turning away, and he was just about to tell the guy to move his damn easel already, withdrawal making his temper short, when the guy tripped over a wooden box and fell back into Bucky with a cry.
Back into Bucky's bag of plums.
"For fuck's sake" he growled, as the idiot regained his balance and pushed away, turning and gaping at the red squished mess all down Bucky's front, the paper sack torn open, dark red juice dripping all down Bucky's t-shirt. "Thanks for ruining my plums. And my shirt."
It was an old Wolfteeth one, gray with a black wolf's head logo and lettering, well-worn and soft, his favorite even if it had a few holes. He wore it inside out as the last thing he wanted was to advertise his connection with the band. It most likely wasn't ruined, but he was cranky and fed up, and in dire need of a hit.
The skinny guy had a long, expressive face, and he stared at Bucky's chest with horror as though it was the scene of a massacre. Which it kind of was. "Aw crap, I'm so sorry!" he said, blue eyes huge as he looked up, his hair falling into them. "I'm real sorry, honest, I'm just so damn clumsy sometimes." He swiveled, looking around at the nearby stalls, which were selling crafts—wooden toys, dried flowers and shit. "I, look, let me buy you some more. You remember where you got them?"
Bucky'd had enough. He dropped the sodden, torn bag and remaining mashed plums on the ground and hefted the Fender case in his gloved metal hand, straightening to loom over the little guy and get him to leave him the fuck alone. "I don't got time for this crap. I gotta go."
Completely unmenaced, the little guy grabbed him by the arm. Luckily it was Bucky's good arm, or he really would've punched him. "Hey, no, you can't just leave, not after I ruined your shirt." He started pulling Bucky along through the stalls. "That'd be a shitty thing for me to do, smash your plums and leave you all messed up. I got a place just near here. We can get you cleaned up, at least."
"I can't," Bucky protested, trying ineffectually to pull free of the guy's grasp, but he was feeling worse, woozy and weak, and the little guy was surprisingly strong, and really fucking persistent. "I don't," he tried, as he was dragged through the crowd and down a side-street. "Wait, I'm–"
"Look," the guy said, "I'm an artist." Which, what?
"I don't see–"
"I get paint and ink all over my clothes, always have. Used to drive my Mom crazy." He looked up at Bucky and grinned, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he was dragging along a total stranger he'd literally just bumped into. "So believe me, I know all the ways to get stains out of fabric. We'll get you cleaned up in no time, I promise." Bucky stumbled on, bemused. What was this guy, a dry cleaning franchise operator?
It was almost the last coherent thought he had for a while. He'd left it too long, way too long, and now he was hanging out so bad he couldn't think straight any more. The cramps were wracking him and he barely got up the stairs to the guy's cheap-ass apartment before falling to hands and knees on the floorboards and vomiting up the one plum he'd managed to taste before blondie trashed the rest of them.
"Oh my God, are you sick?" the guy asked, shocked, helping him up and into the bathroom. It was small and crappy as well, but at least it was clean, which was good, as Bucky moved right in and took up residence on the cracked linoleum by the toilet, huddled there clutching it, shaking and retching in a heap of perfect misery.
He lost some time there for a while, vaguely aware of the blond guy hassling him out of his stained clothes into a new ones, cleaning him and the bathroom up when he missed the bowl, and forcing him to drink sweet, salty, lukewarm water, despite his retching.
Bucky slept in there too, in a nest of blankets. The guy tried to move him to a bed or the couch or something but Bucky'd staked a claim to the bathroom and he wasn't shifting for anything. He didn't know what the guy was doing if he needed a piss, and he didn't care.
The little guy was a stubborn bastard but that only made Bucky more desperately irritable, snapping at him like a helpless wild animal disturbed on its death-bed. Not that he was coherent, his voice mostly a raw croak after the vomiting, but although he was foul-mouthed in every sense, his carer—or captor—ignored his weak flailing and groaned curses.
The ruin of his voice seeped through the general wretchedness at one point in a brief spike of panic about never being able to sing again. Then he remembered his musician days were over, and collapsed back into the sweaty pile of blankets, too shattered even to weep.
Days and nights blurred together in an eternity of aching cramps, nausea, and a craving for release so intense that only the fact his legs wouldn't support him kept him from crawling out into the streets of the city to try and score.
Some indeterminate time later, on what he eventually learned was the third day (surely it'd been longer?), Bucky realized he might be able to keep something other than water down. He staggered out of the bathroom then screwed up his eyes against the light—he'd mostly kept the light off in the bathroom; it hurt his eyes. Everything was too much, too bright, too loud. Not that the room was brightly lit, but even the single light hanging over the table was too much for him. He turned away, a hand over his eyes.
"Oh, are you better?"
Bucky squinted through his fingers. "No, I'm fucking not."
Unperturbed, the guy went on. "Only I made chicken soup. It'd be good for you, if you can manage some."
Bucky staggered over to a sagging couch and lowered himself gingerly down, weak and shaky as an unstrung puppet. "Probably puke all over you," he croaked, voice still hoarse, but when the guy brought him a chipped mug half-full of hot soup, he drank it gratefully, in small, careful sips.
"Sorry I've been such a dick," he muttered, then frowned. "I don't even know your name."
"Steve," the guy—Steve—said. "Steve Rogers."
There was an expectant silence, in which Bucky drank another mouthful. "Oh, right. I'm B–" Wait, he was hiding. Apparently Steve hadn't recognized him, which was a stroke of luck. "I'm James," he finished, avoiding eye contact by focusing on the mug of soup. "James . . . Buchanan."
"Nice to meet you, James."
"Yeah, I . . . look, why'd you do this?" Bucky set the mug down on a small packing case that seemed to serve as an end table for the couch. He waved a hand encompassing the bathroom, himself, the whole damn mess. "You don't even know me."
"Well, I know you a little better than I did three days ago." The guy, Steve, was smiling almost apologetically, but it made Bucky want to throw up his soup. He must have seen Bucky's arm. Christ, he must have seen pretty much all of Bucky, and cleaned some godawful crap off him. Literally.
He slumped into the corner of the couch, hot with shame, throwing his good arm across his face. "Didn't ask you to. Shouldn't've had to." After a pause, he managed to add, " 'm sorry"
"Look, don't be. I'm sorry, too, that you had to, um, let me help you. I did ask if I should call an ambulance, but you kept muttering 'no hospitals, no doctors' and you got so worked up about it, I just couldn't. Then I saw your, your right arm, and, well . . . I figured out what the problem was."
"Yeah? Figured out I'm a drug addict?" He squinted angrily across at Steve who was perched on a wooden chair by the table on which sat his own mug of soup.
Steve shrugged. "Well, yeah. I knew the withdrawal wouldn't kill you, as long as you didn't get too dehydrated." Bucky opened both eyes to stare at him, and Steve sighed. "I go to art school. I've helped friends before; I'm not a total innocent." His jaw tightened and he gave Bucky a challenging look. "And I know what it's like to be sick and need to be taken care of. I get bad asthma, sometimes."
"Bully for you," Bucky said tiredly. He rubbed his forehead, behind which a headache was building. "Sorry, I still feel like shit." He blew out a breath. "I should go."
Then he jolted upright, peering around wildly. "Wait, my guitar case, where's–"
"Hey, hey, it's okay!" Steve was up and dragging the Fender case—still trussed in its straps and padlock—out from over by one wall. He blew out a breath. "Jeez it's heavy. What you got in there, gold bricks?"
"None of your fucking business," Bucky snapped. Then he groaned and rubbed his face. "Sorry, sorry. I'm, shit. I'm still pretty messed up. I'm not usually . . ." But what was he usually? What was he now? He had no fucking idea.
"You're gonna feel crappy for another few days, y'know," Steve said quietly. "You're through the worst, but you're not over it. You go out there now and you'll just wanna score again."
It hit him like a tsunami. Christ, but Bucky wanted to score. It flooded through him, the craving clawing at him like an undertow, sucking him down. He gritted his teeth. "Don't . . . don't talk about it."
"Right," Steve said. "Yeah, sorry." He pushed his bangs back, looking frustrated. "Anyway, you should stay here. Lie low."
"What d'you mean, lie low?" Bucky glared at him suspiciously. What did he know?
"Hey, wow. Just a turn of phrase, James."
Man, that was weird. Only his mom had ever called him James, and only when she was pissed with him. James Buchanan Barnes, you get inside right this minute! She'd never say that to him again; she'd been dead of cancer these past three years. Tears welled up in Bucky's eyes and spilled over. He wiped at them with his sleeve, hating himself for being weak and stupid and for letting this guy see what a fuck-up he was.
Then the guy—Steve—was there, offering him a handkerchief. Not tissues, a real old-fashioned white cotton handkerchief. "I didn't mean to upset you," he said gently. "I'm guessing your feelings are kind of on a hair-trigger?"
Bucky nodded and took the handkerchief, wiping his face and blowing his nose. "Yeah, sorry." He had to stop saying that, but it felt like he had a whole mountain of things to apologize for. "I can pay," he said, unsure what to do with the damp handkerchief. He made to hand it back.
"For the hankie?" Steve grinned and waved it away. "I got more. You keep it."
"No, asshole, for the inconvenience," Bucky said with a wry grin, and for a moment it was like he was back bantering with Sam or Nat again. He bit his lip against the stab of pain and pressed on. "I mean, for letting me stay until I'm through the worst. You were right about it being too soon to go back out there."
"Well, sure. 'course you can stay, James. You're welcome."
And weirdly, Bucky thought he actually meant it.
Bucky shifted slightly, trying to ease muscles gone stiff without breaking his pose. He was half-crouched, down on one knee with his good arm raised for balance, steadying himself with the outstretched metal fingers of his left arm braced on the floor, as though he'd just jumped down from a height. The tutor, Angelique, had grinned as she'd arranged him, calling it "superhero landing pose."
Angelique noticed his discomfort now and looked up at the wall clock, clapping her hands. “I think we’ll give Mr. Buchanan a break,” she said. “Take half an hour and get yourselves a coffee.”
The students began chatting, cleaning brushes, milling about, and drifting toward the door. “Thanks, James,” Angelique said as he straightened, stretched, and pulled on one of the cheap velour robes the art school kept on site for models. “That’s not an easy pose to hold, but it’s good practice for them.”
“Yeah, no problem,” Bucky said. “I’m okay.” His face was a little sweaty under the black bandana he always wore across his mouth and nose when modeling; he’d welcome a chance to get it off for a while. He tilted his chin at the dressing room the school provided for their life class models. “I’m just gonna . . .”
“Sure,” Angelique said. “See you at two-thirty.”
Steve had found him the part-time modeling plus janitorial job at the art school. After Bucky was through withdrawing, he’d made vague noises about moving on, even though he'd had no idea of where to go or what in hell he planned to do with himself. He felt lost, unmoored. He was free of Pierce, but he hadn’t figured out who or what he was, now.
Before, he’d been Bucky Barnes, bad boy rock star and lead singer of Wolfteeth. All that was gone and he had no idea what was left. He’d always been all about the music, ever since he was a teenage punk hamming up lyrics and playing bad rhythm guitar in Nat’s mom’s spare room, with Nat banging away on a second-hand drum set. It seemed like another life, another universe.
He and Steve had settled in pretty well with Bucky sleeping on the couch, which pulled out. He’d seen that Steve kept his cash for food and rent in an old coffee can on the kitchen counter, and he slipped a wad of cash in there, more than Steve needed, but when Steve tried to get him to take some back, Bucky’d stubbornly refused. “All I got to offer is the cash,” he’d said, setting his jaw.
“Yeah, I don’t think that’s true, pal,” Steve had said, frowning.
Bucky’d toned it down the next week, finding an amount Steve seemed to think was acceptable. What the fuck did Bucky know about rent? Hydra had paid for his classy apartment and for hotels and tour buses. It made him sick now, realizing how much control he’d let the music company have over his life, how he’d coasted on his fame, thinking about nothing but music, parties, booze and fucking. None of it’d mattered to him except the music. That, and Sam, Wanda and Nat.
One thing he’d had no choice about was handling the constant compulsion to sneak out and score. Steve’s place was small and not too expensive, being on the top floor with access only by stairs, but the neighborhood wasn’t crappy, not the dingy, dangerous type of place Bucky’d been used to finding in cities when he needed smack. Parks and subways were always risky, though, and if he’d really wanted to, he knew he’d have found a source not far away. He didn’t want to.
Memories of shooting up were more than tempting, coiling around him like a seductive viper with its fangs sunk in his spine, but the lure of the drugs was inextricably bound up with Pierce’s hold over him, and he never, God, he never wanted that again, or to go cold turkey.
As soon as he’d gotten his energy back, he started running every day, and climbing the zillion damn stairs to Steve’s place was a workout in itself. God knew how Steve managed it; he had asthma which sometimes flared up if he pushed himself too hard.
Once, Steve'd had to stay home from school for a few days after a head cold, wheezing and coughing and sucking on his inhalers a lot more than usual. Bucky’d hovered over him anxiously, bringing him hot drinks and soup that Steve had tried to sip, in between catching gasping breaths. Steve hadn't needed a doctor that time, but Bucky worried whether Steve could even afford a doctor, or the hospital. Well, he thought firmly, he still had most of the Fender case of cash, if it came to that.
Steve was shorter than Bucky and slender. You could see from his bones that he'd have been a bigger, taller guy if he hadn’t had asthma all his life. He made Bucky feel weirdly protective—and confused, 'cause there was nothing weak about Steve. He was a stubborn ass when he thought he was right. Sometimes, Bucky thought Steve was the strongest person he knew.
The weeks had slid by, and exercise hadn't stopped Bucky’s cravings but it helped clear his head. He'd wondered one time if the cravings would ever stop. Probably it would take a long time, but being around Steve helped. He was like some sort of weedy, blond antidote to Pierce and the drugs—it was baffling, but hey, whatever worked.
“Guess I should be movin’ on,” he told Steve nonetheless, a few weeks after the shakes had gone, glancing at him sidelong.
Steve’s brows had drawn together. “You got somewhere to go?” he’d asked, sounding worried.
Bucky'd just shrugged—he could get a cheap hotel. His cash would run out sooner that way though, so the idea had bothered him; he couldn't risk leaving an electronic trail again. “Can’t freeload on you forever,” he'd muttered, not meeting Steve’s eyes.
Steve had snorted. “You’re not freeloading, jeez. You leave me too much money, if anything.”
“Still . . .” Bucky bit his lip. “I’m just dicking around, not doing anything useful.”
“I, look, I like the company,” Steve had said, running a hand through his hair. “I mostly haven’t lived by myself. Used to live with my mom until she died a few years back—we’d lost Dad when I was ten; he was killed in Desert Storm, so Mom and I were real close. I'd been thinking of advertising for a roommate before I, um . . .”
Tripped into my plums and into my life, Bucky'd thought. “I’m sorry,” he'd said awkwardly. “About your mom, and your father. I lost my own mom three years ago, too—she had cancer. Never really knew my dad. He was a drunk, and he’s dead now, anyway.”
Steve had screwed up his face. “That sounds tough. Look, us orphans should stick together, right? Why don’t you stay?” He'd looked away, flushing. Then, softly: “I’d like you to stay.”
Bucky hadn't been able to think of a good reason not to, except that Steve was pretty damn cute and he was finding it hard not to watch him surreptitiously and feel wistful. His sex drive had started coming back now that it wasn’t being hammered with drugs and abject misery but his track record on that score was bad, what with groupies and drunken post-gig parties. He didn’t want to use Steve like that.
Bucky'd mentally rolled his eyes at himself. Yeah, right, like he'd be fending Steve off with a stick any time now! Like he was such a prize these days, an addict whose puke Steve had cleaned up only a few weeks ago, a useless addict with just one arm and a scary damn prosthesis. Get over yourself, Barnes, he'd told himself.
Which was how he'd ended up as Steve’s roommate, and how Steve came to mention the modeling job at the art school.
Bucky freaked right out when Steve first suggested it. Steve obviously had no idea who Bucky was, and that was fine with Bucky; in fact, it was great. Steve didn’t pay any attention to rock music or celebrities, hell, he barely went on line except when he was doing a project and hunting down art references. Mostly, when not at school, he occupied himself sketching or painting at the table or down in the market, making money doing portraits and selling watercolors of scenes around Brooklyn and Manhattan. Steve was more oriented to the visual arts, not the music world, and his friends sounded the same. Not that Bucky'd hung out with Steve’s friends—Steve seemed to know other people would weird him out at this stage, and hadn’t brought anyone home.
Bucky was maybe a little too interested in the stories from art school Steve told him over dinner, listening carefully for any mention of a girlfriend, or a boyfriend. There was nothing, but perhaps Steve was just a goddamn gentleman who never kissed and told—he had an old-fashioned way about him sometimes, maybe as he'd lived with his mom so long. Bucky found it endearing, for fuck's sake. He was starting to think he might be in trouble.
So Steve mentioned the job over ramen one night—Bucky was an expert at ramen these days, fixing up packaged noodles with vegetables from the market, and spices, even peanut butter (an unexpected success). He'd had to justify his keep somehow and taking over the cooking was one thing he could do, at least. As soon as Steve raised the idea of modeling, Bucky's heart rate went up. They might be visual arts students, but there was a whole college full of them. Some of them would be music fans, and would know his face, even with the beard—drawing accurate likenesses was what they did.
"I can't," he croaked, shaking his head.
"Hey, look, I know it's a big thing, letting people see your body if you're not used to it, but it's . . ." Steve was flustered, hands waving, trying to reassure Bucky without touching him. "Is it your arm?" he asked, brow wrinkling with concern. "Because, honest, they'd love your arm. It'd be amazing to draw, really cool."
"I, no. Well, maybe a little," Bucky muttered. He hated the fucking arm and it wasn't fucking cool. "I don't want . . . I don't want them seeing my face."
"Oh." Steve chewed that over. "So, like, you're shy?"
" . . . yeah," Bucky lied. "It's a thing. I don't mind so much with the rest of me, just my face." Were there phobias about letting people see your face? He had no idea, but Steve probably didn't know either.
Steve frowned. "Well, I dunno . . . hey, maybe you could wear a veil, like in Muslim countries?"
Bucky narrowed his eyes. "Like the women in Muslim countries, you mean, Rogers?"
Steve pulled an apologetic face. "Yeah, bad idea—that was pretty culturally insensitive; Mom would've clipped me over the ear." He ate some more noodles, thinking, his brow furrowed.
Bucky stared down at his plate. He'd kind of lost his appetite, thinking about exposing himself to class after class of students.
Steve snapped his fingers. "Wait, I got it. Wear a bandana around your face like an outlaw—you know, like the Lone Ranger."
Bucky glared at him. "The Lone Ranger wore a fucking domino—an eye-mask, Steve."
Steve blew out a breath. "Well, I dunno, like Billy the Kid then, or something. Like a cowboy."
"Yeah, and that ain't gonna look weird, or nothin'," Bucky said, piling on the sarcasm. He was kind of tickled by the image, though. Naked except for briefs or even naked as a jaybird, with a black bandana across his face. It had a certain . . . style.
"They don't care about weird at the school, and they're always looking for figure drawing models. And you got a good . . ." Steve flushed, the tips of his ears bright pink.
Bucky grinned. "I got a good what, Rogers?"
Steve cleared his throat and waved his fork sheepishly. "You know. Muscles, and all." He blushed some more, and fuck, that was cute. Bucky was in goddamn trouble, for sure.
Then Bucky remembered that Steve knew what he looked like as he'd seen way too much of him when he'd been withdrawing. He'd had to sluice Bucky down in the damn bathtub. He winced and put his fork down, not hungry again.
"Anyway," Steve continued, eyes firmly on his plate, "the modeling's only part of it. They're looking for an assistant janitor as well, part-time."
"I dunno," Bucky said doubtfully. "I never, um, did a lot of cleaning up for myself. Not for years, anyway.”
Steve eyed him curiously, but didn’t ask what he’d been doing all that time. Bucky gritted his teeth. He probably thought Bucky’d been wasted, a junkie. “Well, there’s a separate cleaning service, and Dugan’s the main janitor, so he’d show you the ropes. It’s just to cover him on weekends, more of a watchman, to keep an eye on the place, really.”
“Maybe," Bucky said, after a pause. "I'd still need to wear the bandana, even on weekends."
"Long as you did the work, that'd be fine, I reckon. I'll ask them, okay?"
He'd managed the interview without any camouflage, hoping Director Phillips would be fooled by the beard and wasn't into alt rock, but luckily he was an older guy who looked like more of a Sousa fan, so that was fine. Bucky'd muttered an embarrassed explanation about his anxiety problem, and the guy'd been sympathetic. Steve had vouched for him, and here he was.
It was strange at first, a different kind of attention from when he'd had fans screaming up at him in crowded clubs and concert halls. A cluster of focused, frowning faces, looking up and down again. Looking intently but not seeing him, just his shape, his form. Measuring him objectively and setting the lines of his body down on paper or canvas. In a way it was freeing, an escape. And hell, it wasn't like the rock fans had ever seen him, not the real him. This was more honest, somehow.
Steve got him used to it at home, before the first time, drawing him sprawled out on the couch, or leaning in a doorway. Drawing him bare chested, just in jeans. He hadn't risked stripping off entirely for Steve, too worried his interest might be obvious, but the rest he'd managed.
It was safe with Steve, who'd seen him at his worst. Bucky was almost back to his old weight now, not skinny and pasty like he'd been when he arrived. He still went running every day to help keep down the cravings and stop his head going to bad places. He still climbed the stairs and he did exercises in the living room, to build up his strength. After a few weeks of decent food with fruit and vegetables from the market and working out as best he could, lifting soup cans from the cupboard, doing push ups and crunches, he was looking pretty good.
Even the injection marks had healed. Bucky hadn't been on smack for long and Pierce had been careful not to let him get too messed up, probably not wanting to ruin the merchandise. Bucky found he liked showing himself off to Steve. He liked it too much.
He’d never been body-shy, and although at first it was hard exposing the prosthesis, in time, the students’ quiet focus on drawing the planes and joints accurately helped him start accepting it as well. To them, it was a study in shadows and reflections, not the ruin of his hopes. He appreciated their lack of pity, even of sympathy, and in time he sometimes caught himself thinking of it as his arm, not the arm.
He also started letting Steve get closer, letting Steve touch him. Small things at first, the brief pressure of a hand on his shoulder, on his back. It was dangerous, of course, but Bucky sometimes caught Steve watching him with open longing. He was pretty sure he wasn't the only one in trouble here.
Steve kept on drawing him at home, when he was napping, chopping vegetables, doing push ups—any damn time.
“Don’t you get enough of this at school, man?” Bucky asked, shaking his head.
Steve shrugged. “Can’t get too much practice, James. It’s second nature for me to draw all the time.” It still felt weird to be called James, but he was a little more used to it.
“You better not follow me into the can,” Bucky warned, knowing that’d get a rise.
Steve blushed. “I wouldn’t, James, I would never–” and Bucky grinned, then there was whopping, and a scuffle, and, yeah, they almost had a moment where Steve was staring at Bucky’s mouth and Bucky was leaning in, until they both blinked and pulled back. Bucky thought his own cheeks might be a little flushed, after that.
Steve took to sitting with him on the couch when they watched Steve's ancient TV. The couch had just been Bucky’s turf before, but now, when he was worn out from finishing a portfolio on deadline, Steve sometimes slid down beside him, his head on Bucky’s shoulder, snoring slightly. Always against his good shoulder, as Bucky always sat with his metal arm at the end of the couch. Bucky would carefully slip his right arm around Steve and rest quietly, enjoying the closeness and Steve's warmth. It had been a very long time since he’d been hugged. Not since the old days with the band.
He thought about them sometimes, wondering what they were all doing. They might have replaced him, but he'd used Steve's decrepit old computer to search on line once or twice and the music press were silent about Wolfteeth reforming with a new lead singer—that would sure as hell've made headlines. Maybe they'd split up, all off doing their own thing? Sam had played jazz piano for a while back in the day, and Wanda'd wanted to compose more. Nat . . . well, he wasn't sure if she'd stick around. Her folks had immigrated from Russia in her teens and she'd always been more of a loner, in high school. He hoped they were okay, hoped they'd moved on and written him off. It was what he deserved.
Bucky kept thinking about the music, though, humming chord sequences and runs of notes. One night he pulled a chair up to the table and grabbed a used page of Steve's drawing paper with a rough sketch of a market stall on one side. He turned it over and stared at the blank sheet, picked up a pencil, and began noting down the tune he'd been humming all day. Bass strumming for this part, a slow, throbbing beat with the drums very soft, then the keyboards kicking in, then a guitar riff . . .
Two hours later he looked up. Steve was standing there, head tilted curiously. "I said, I'm off to bed. Got an early class tomorrow."
"Oh, right." Bucky blinked; he should hit the sack as well. Tomorrow was Wednesday, so it was sculpture with Ms. Pfenniger for Steve, and as Dugan was away this week he had to get there first, to open the place up. He looked down at the table, covered with several of Steve's discarded drawings, all with musical notation and scraps of lyrics scribbled on the backs. "Yeah, um . . . I better . . . as well."
He got his own paper from a music store on the way home the next day, and a couple of cheap pencils. Erasers he borrowed from Steve, who seemed real happy that Bucky'd found something creative to do. Bucky figured Steve couldn't imagine a life without that, the way he drew all the time.
It went well for a while, and he even slept better, but after a few weeks he found himself wanting to hear it, to get the music out of his head and into the world in some form.
He lay awake, Steve long since gone to sleep, then turned on his side and stared bitterly at the shadows hiding the Fender case. There was no point regretting selling the guitar; he couldn’t play it, and Steve didn't have a musical bone in his body—he was as awed by Bucky's bent for music as Bucky was with Steve's talent for art.
Keyboards, maybe? He'd learned piano early, and he'd sometimes used a keyboard to compose, back in his Wolfteeth days. He lifted his metal arm and stared at the fingers. Maybe if he padded the tips? It wasn't as responsive as his good arm, so he'd have to write simpler stuff for the bass clef. A good keyboard would cost a lot, but maybe he could program the bass line electronically and just play with his right hand.
Bucky threw off the blanket and got up, pulling the guitar case out into a pool of bright moonlight shining in through the window. He hadn't checked his cash in quite a while and he used the case to store spare clothes as well, so it was all jumbled up in there. It took him a while to find all the bills and count them, and he was taken aback to find there was less left than he'd thought. His job at the college mostly paid for his share of rent and groceries, but he was used to dipping into the case and pocketing some extra cash without thinking too much about it.
So much for that. There wasn't enough for a keyboard, nowhere near enough. Anyway, he needed one that'd interface with a computer and Steve's ancient PC wasn't up to the job, so that meant getting a laptop and a bunch of expensive stuff. Bucky sat back on his heels and sighed—he was going to have to hit a bank again. He considered going out of state but he didn't want to take time off or have to explain his absence to Steve. Anyway it had been months—there was no way Pierce was still tracking him.
Even so, he went to a branch way the fuck out by Columbia Medical Center, and when they insisted he update his personal details he gave false ones, for the student district near the university. He stashed the cash away in a duffel; he hadn't brought the Fender case with him this time, too conspicuous. He'd store it in the case once he got back to the apartment.
Steve raised an eyebrow when he finally got home laden with his new gear. Bucky shrugged. "I still got some savings," he said, in partial explanation. He unpacked the keyboard, then the laptop. "Used to do this, before. Play music, I mean." He raised his metal arm, twisting it to and fro. "Not sure how it's gonna go with this, though. Figured I might be able to stick some padding on the fingertips."
Steve sat down beside him and took his metal arm, lifting it and examining the hand carefully. "Can you feel anything with it?"
"Nah," Bucky said. "I got some motor control, but no feeling. That's what'll make it hard to play. I'm just gonna use it to compose, though, not perform. I can muddle through."
"There's foam and felt and stuff at the school, in the fashion department," Steve said. "I'll bring some home and make you something. A padded glove, maybe?"
"Yeah, that'd be cool," Bucky said, grateful. A glove was a better plan than his idea of taping pads onto each finger. Steve patted his hand, not that he could feel it, just the vibration echoing up into his shoulder.
Steve made Bucky the glove in a few days, sewing it from thin, supple black leather, with padding built into the fingertips. It looked cool – better than the old woolen one he'd used before to hide his hand when he was outside the apartment.
The padded glove helped some, but it was still hard to play well. Bucky taught himself to use the electronic program, which took some time to master. He decided not to compromise, not to write simpler bass clef music for his semi-useless hand. If he couldn't play it, maybe someone else would, some day. Sam, maybe, if Bucky ever found the courage to make contact again.
The electronic keyboard had the advantage of adjustable volume and he used headphones anyway, so he didn't piss Steve's neighbors off unless he got carried away with belting out new lyrics. The elderly neighbors liked Steve and thought he was a nice, polite boy, even if they still looked askance at Bucky, so they only grumbled a little when he slipped up and let rip.
Time passed quickly, with music back in his life. Sometimes, Steve would look up from painting at the table, watching Bucky standing at the keyboard or typing notation into the laptop, and catch Bucky's eye, smiling.
"What?" Bucky said one time, rubbing his neck and rotating his shoulders. He'd been hunched over the laptop too long.
"Nothing'," Steve said. "Just, this is nice. You with your music and me doing art. It's . . . it's cozy."
Bucky snorted. "You're a sap, Rogers," he said, but he figured Steve could tell he agreed from the way he was grinning.
It got colder again, the nights crisp, the wind sharper. Bucky wore gloves on both hands, and he made sure Steve was bundled up in a scarf and warm jacket, what with his chest.
One night, Bucky jerked awake to find himself sprawled out on the couch, his head in Steve’s lap and Steve’s hand in his hair. He hadn’t been sleeping well, the last few days, his nights disturbed by bad dreams.
Steve’s hand left his hair as he blinked awake and Bucky levered himself upright, shaking his head. “Sorry,” he muttered. “Didn’t get much sleep last night.”
“You okay?” Steve looked troubled. “You were muttering something. You sounded freaked out.”
Falling, another dream of falling, already hazy and slipping away even though he was still sweating, heart pounding. He rubbed his face. “What month is it?” He mostly didn’t keep too good a track of that stuff, now he was off the grid. He'd been working at the art college for a few months, but he wasn't sure how many.
“It’s fall, almost October,” Steve said, watching him carefully.
Fall. A year since Munich. No wonder he was having nightmares.
“I, the accident.” He touched the metal arm and shivered. “It was a year ago. I hadn’t realized.”
Steve screwed up his face, looking pained. “Aw, hell, James. I’m sorry.” He hesitated, then asked, “Was it, um, a car crash?”
They’d never talked about it, but they were friends now, and friends were supposed to share things. “No, I fell.” He shook his head, bitterly amused. “Christ, that’s a sick joke. I fell in fall.” Fell like a dead, useless leaf, fell from grace. And yeah, there was his Catholic upbringing putting the boot in.
The nightmares settled after a few weeks, or at least they got less frequent. He and Steve had gotten used to hanging out on the couch a lot more by then, though, and that didn't change. Bucky would wake up, panting, from one of the bad dreams, and Steve'd be there, pulling him into his lap and letting Bucky curl around him until he drifted off again.
Sometimes he woke in the morning and they'd slid down, tangled together like puppies with Steve's slender body half on top of him. He didn't always get around to pulling out the couch and making a bed; sometimes he just crashed on it, metal arm wedged into the gap where the seat cushions met the back. There wasn't really room for two, but neither of them complained.
"It's true, then?" Nat barreled through the door to Sam's place, her cheeks flushed.
"Well, hello to you, too," Sam said. Wanda leaped up and hugged her.
Pietro leaned back against the couch, looking smug. "Yes, it is true. The bot I had running pinged—he made a withdrawal. New York, as we guessed. Not Brooklyn, but a bank near Columbia Medical Center."
"Which don't mean a lot," Sam put in. "Not like he'd go to some bank 'round the corner from where he was living, right?" Nat nodded.
They'd gone to New York back when Bucky first gave Pierce the slip, found a hotel in Brooklyn and hung out there a few weeks, searching the streets and parks. Hell, Sam had even tried talking to some shady-looking dealer types—that hadn't gone so well. Pietro had done what he could online, but Rebecca had moved away to live in Manhattan years ago and the address where she and Bucky'd grown up in Brooklyn was a parking lot now, their old building long since torn down.
After a month with no sign of Bucky they had to go back to Los Angeles. Even with Pietro's skills in covering any electronic trails they might leave, they risked leading Pierce to Bucky—if he was in Brooklyn or heading there—if they stayed too long. Anyway, they had to get on with their lives—they'd all explored individual projects with the band on hiatus. They had commitments on the West Coast and Pierce was still pressuring them to replace Bucky with a new lead singer, demanding meetings and getting suspicious about their so-called vacation.
Sam shook his head: like replacing Bucky was ever gonna happen. They'd argued with Pierce for hours about it but he'd only backed off from the damn fool idea after Hydra canvassed the fanbase to see how they'd react. Badly, was how. Even Pierce had finally seen that Bucky's fall, and his and the band's mysterious disappearance from the public eye had sparked a mystery, elevating Wolfteeth to cult status. Trying a comeback with a wannabe-Bucky replacement wasn't gonna cut it with the fans. It'd kill sales, and that was all that mattered to Hydra.
"Maybe it took him a while to get there," Wanda said. "And now he is running out of money. The cash he withdrew," she paused uncertainly, looking around at them, "it would not have lasted this long if he were still using drugs, would it?"
Nat grimaced. "He might have . . . other sources of income."
"Like what?" Wanda asked plaintively. "What job could he get, in a strange place, and with his arm?"
Sam winced. Bucky'd always been pretty damn focused on the music. He didn't really have other interests, or any other training Sam knew of, and the alternatives, if he hadn't kicked the habit, didn't bear thinking about.
Nat shook her head impatiently. "We just don't know. Anything could have happened."
Wanda's eyebrows lowered stubbornly, and she set her hands on her hips. "Well, I am going to believe Bucky gave those nasty drugs the boot like he did Pierce." She glared at Nat, who shrugged and made a whatever gesture.
"So, what do we do now?" Pietro asked. "I accessed the bank's records and he gave them a street address not very far from that branch."
"Yeah, right," Nat said. "Like that's going to be the actual place he's living."
Sam scratched the back of his head. Goddamn Bucky, why'd he have to be so paranoid? But he knew why: Hydra were bastards, and Pierce was worse. It just hurt that Bucky'd cut himself off from the band, from his friends and Rebecca. Sam didn't know whether to hope Bucky was still fucked in the head or not. Just, if he wasn't, it'd be a damn sight harder to forgive him. Sam sighed. "Maybe not," he said, "but it's a place to start. And we can check out Brooklyn again. Maybe he was lyin' low before. Maybe he'll have surfaced. I can get free next week. Anyone else want to come?"
"If you think you are going without me and Pietro, Sam Wilson, you have another think coming," Wanda declared.
Pietro rolled his eyes. "Yes, yes, surată, we will make it happen."
"Okay," Nat said. "I can't come until next Friday, but we should travel separately, in any case, or Pierce'll get suspicious. Pietro, can you–"
"Of course, nukkidai. I set up that joint Swiss bank account for this very thing. I will purchase tickets for us all discreetly, and rent an apartment, yes? Less obvious than a hotel."
"Spaseeba, darling," Nat said.
"Is nothing." Pietro waved a dismissive hand.
"Well, I'm gonna put a celebratory pot of coffee on," Sam said, and went to do just that.
Behind him, he heard Wanda ask softly, "But if we find him, what then?"
Sam leaned on the kitchen counter and sighed. Trust Wanda to ask the 64,000 dollar question.
The Columbia student housing address was a bust, of course. Even Wanda wasn't all that disappointed—it'd never been likely. They based themselves in the apartment Pietro had rented in Brooklyn Heights and started wandering the streets, each taking a different beat to cover the most ground. They focused on coffee joints and music stores because those had been Bucky's favorite haunts, back in the day, and they stayed mostly in the area where Rebecca and Bucky's old building had been. Nat liked the markets, so she checked those as well.
It was hard not to feel they were pissing in the wind—there were only four of them and Bucky could be anywhere. Brooklyn was a big place, Sam told himself, trying not to get his hopes up. Bucky might not even be in Brooklyn at all, and if he was there was no real reason he'd stick close to where he'd grown up. Pietro kept looking for more electronic traces to pin down Bucky's actual address, but nothing registered on the search bots.
Two weeks passed, then three, and they were all avoiding the inevitable decision. Wanda was irritable and downcast, her red scarves drooping despondently as she picked moody tunes out on the acoustic guitar she always traveled with while Pietro cast anxious glances at her. Nat was tight-lipped, bringing fruit back from the markets but no good news. Sam eyed the bowl of fruit on the table—apples and pears, dark red plums. Bucky'd liked plums, so maybe that was why Nat hung out there.
They didn't discuss it, just caught each other's eyes and shook their heads briefly when they got back to base and sank down in an armchair to rest weary feet.
The season turned further toward late fall, cold winds and rain making their wanderings unpleasant, sometimes closing the markets and driving them to find refuge in the cafés they stalked.
Sam did another round of the music shops but although some of the staff had changed there was still no one who remembered a guy with a metal arm.
"It's Bucky Barnes I'm looking for, the singer," he told the scrawny kid with an ill-advised goatee who was manning the sales desk in a store that specialized in electronica. Sam had a hoodie pulled half down over his face, hoping no one would recognize him.
"Who?" the kid was bored, chewing gum.
"Bucky Barnes, the lead singer from Wolfteeth," Sam explained, gritting his teeth and pulling out one of their CDs to show him. Bucky's face filled the cover, staring at the camera, red-lit and raccoon-eyed.
"They broke up, didn't they?" the kid said vaguely, scratching a pimple on his neck.
"Kind of," Sam said. "I heard he might live around here, these days."
"Doubt it," the kid said, probably wanting to be rid of Sam so he could get back to watching porn on his smartphone. "No one cool lives around here."
So much for being recognized, Sam thought ruefully, pushing his way back out the jangling front door into the blustery cold, dead leaves swirling around his feet from the park a block over.
He hoped to hell they found Bucky soon or they'd have to head back to LA a second time, having failed. The taste of it in his mouth was as bitter as the wind.
"C'mon, James, you gotta get some fresh air. You been head down writing music for days on end now."
"What?" Bucky blinked up at Steve, pulling his head back with some difficulty from the resonant chords and haunting lyrical line he'd been immersed in.
"Come for a walk with me. The sun's even shining—it's not a bad day, for a change."
Steve had kind of a pleading look, and Bucky felt guilty. He'd been writing furiously, caught up in a song series about loss and pain and rage and longing, writing all the shit he'd been through out of his system. Well, trying to. But it was intense and sometimes overwhelming, and Steve was right: he should take a break. Plus, he'd been crap company and he felt bad about that.
"Yeah, sorry, I'm . . . I get caught up. Sorry."
Steve spread his hands. "Hey, I can be the same, with painting. I'll expect you to call me on it though. So, walkies?"
Bucky made a face, but he got up and stretched. " 'm not a damn dog, Stevie."
Steve had been staring at his exposed midriff. He flushed, coughed and turned away. "Yeah, no, I realize that."
Bucky grinned, and followed him out the door.
They walked a few blocks to the park, and Steve had been right: it was good to be outside for a change. There were plenty of people on the sidewalks, some shopping, some striding along grimly on mysterious urgent errands, some out for a stroll, same as him and Steve. He made Steve stop at a street vendor and got his usual bag of plums, because plum season was almost over.
Steve tilted his head at the paper sack and smiled. "Brings back memories."
Bucky offered him a plum and took one for himself. "What, of our meet cute?"
"Our what?" Steve's eyebrows scrunched like a couple of mating caterpillars. His mouth was red from plum juice.
"It's a thing they say, Steve. Y'know, 'kids these days'." Bucky managed to resist making air quotes. "Those contrived meetings between romantic couples you get in the movies."
Steve frowned. "I didn't do it deliberately, James."
Bucky suppressed a smile. "Hey no, pal, I know that. And I was in no state to contrive anything."
That shut them both up for half a block, Bucky grappling with the craving that always loomed up whenever something reminded him of the bad time, of going cold turkey. He went for long stretches now without thinking about it. Getting lost in the music had helped, but it was always there, lurking and ready to claw him down again. He figured it always would be.
Finally Steve cleared his throat and shot him a sidelong glance, flushing a little. "So maybe it wasn't exactly a meet cute, but, um . . . romantic?"
"Oh yeah," Bucky said dryly. "With the puking and the sweating an' all. Real romantic."
"No, you jerk," Steve said, exasperated but dogged. "I mean, you think we're . . . like . . . a couple?" He'd flushed a dark pink, Bucky saw, stealing a look.
They'd reached the park so he steered Steve inside and found them a bench. Steve sat forward, elbows on knees, not making eye contact.
"You gotta admit, we're pretty much married," Bucky pointed out. "We sleep together half the time."
Steve made a noise that wasn't quite a laugh. "Yeah, but that's just . . ." He grimaced.
"It bother you, if we were?" Bucky asked after a pause. "If, ah . . . with me, I mean? With another guy."
He'd fooled around some, back in the day when he was an honest to god rock star. It was expected. There were always young things of either sex eager to throw themselves at you, and with the adrenaline rush after concerts . . . He liked it fine, but he hadn't sought anyone out, not for over a year. That was the injury and the drugs, sure, but there were plenty of art students who'd given him the eye and he hadn't been tempted once.
Around Steve, though. Well. That was a different story.
"No," Steve said, still staring at his hands. "It's not about that, for me. It's about the person."
Bucky shivered, looking up at the sky. Gray clouds were rolling in and the sun was fading. In its absence, the wind was chillier, that wintry edge back again. Shit, and all they had were jeans and t-shirts, not even their jackets. He stood, grabbing at Steve's arm. "Steve, we gotta go. The weather–"
Steve rose, but he clearly didn't give a fuck about the weather. He had that stubborn look on his face again, his jaw set, mouth a determined line. He turned to Bucky. "How can we be married when we ain't even kissed?" he demanded, and before Bucky could drag him off to a café or someplace warm, he reached up and pulled Bucky's head down.
There was some fumbling until they got their mouths and noses lined up right, and Steve's nose was cold against Bucky's cheek. His lips were soft, though, long fingers cool against Bucky's neck and against his jaw.
Bucky made a small, desperate sound, then their arms were around each other and Steve was devouring him like he was starving and Bucky was the last grilled cheese sandwich in the world. Bucky's mouth opened and he stifled a moan, clutching Steve's slender frame tighter.
He might not ever have stopped, except Steve was shivering. His hands weren't warming up on Bucky's skin; they were getting colder. He didn't have as much meat on his frame as Bucky, and their timing was fucking terrible, out here in the open with a storm coming in and them in nothing but summer clothes.
Bucky broke away. "Stevie," he gasped. "I wanna, but it's too cold out here. You'll catch your death."
"Yeah," Steve said, that fierce look on his face again. "We gotta get home. There's a bed there."
Bucky laughed helplessly, hustling Steve back toward the park gates. It had emptied out with the sun gone, the day darkening as rainclouds loomed. Really bad fucking timing.
The first drops hit them as they crossed the road outside the park. Bucky wanted to duck into a coffee place or something and wait it out, but Steve wouldn't be side-tracked; he was on a mission to get them home and get Bucky into bed.
There was no arguing with him when he got like this, but Bucky steered them under awnings or doorways wherever he could. Still, by the time they made it back to the apartment they were both drowned rats, freezing and shivering, and Steve's skin had a worrying bluish cast.
The bathroom wasn't heated and the hot water had been mostly lukewarm for a couple weeks, so hot showers were out. The landlord was supposed to fix the plumbing but he hadn't, yet. Bucky got towels and dried Steve off, since Steve was shivering too hard to manage it himself. He dried himself as well, stripped them both and threw a couple extra blankets on the bed, pushing Steve in under the mound of covers and curling around him. Skin to skin: that was what you were supposed to do for hypothermia. He'd read that, somewhere.
So much for consummating this . . . whatever they had. Steve was shivering so hard against him Bucky had to watch that his head didn't butt up under Bucky's jaw and make his teeth crack together. He tucked Steve into the curve of his body and got his legs and arms up against Steve's skin wherever he could, one thigh between his legs and a hand cupping Steve's groin where his balls were drawn up tight. You were supposed to put heat packs in the groin and armpits. He stuck his other hand in Steve's clammy armpit and pressed him down into the mattress, holding on tight. Christ, Steve was cold.
It seemed to take forever before they warmed up enough that Steve stopped shivering, the bed finally cosy around them.
"Ordinarily," Steve muttered, his voice hoarse. "I'd think you were comin' on to me for sure, where you got your hand." He laughed weakly. "But I'm guessing it's some survival course you did at summer camp, right?"
Bucky went to withdraw his hand, but Steve grabbed his wrist. "No, don't. I'm not up for any hanky panky just now, but it's nice. Comforting."
"Hanky panky?" Bucky snorted into his shoulder. "Sometimes you sound like you're from another century, Stevie."
"Well, hold that thought." Steve shifted, arranging their legs more to his liking. "I gotta sleep now if I'm gonna stave off a head cold, but after a nap I might just give you some of that old fashioned lovin'."
"Cheesy, Rogers," Bucky whispered into his neck, but he was drowsy too, used up from the cold and all that shivering, and from warming Steve. He let himself drift off to the sound of Steve's rapid wheezing breathing, the beat of his heart fluttering in his chest under Bucky's palm.
Steve was worse when Bucky woke. He was sitting up against the headboard wrapped in a blanket, leaning forward over his knees and wheezing audibly, every breath a struggle.
"Asthma," he said with difficulty, when Bucky scrambled up wide-eyed, unsure what to do. "In . . . haler."
Bucky ran to search the contents of the bathroom cupboard, hands shaking. He grabbed two inhalers in different colors and clambered back onto the bed, showing them to Steve. Steve waved at the blue one and Bucky put it in his hand. Steve's breathing was easier after he used it, but still wheezy. He used the second inhaler as well but that made no difference Bucky could see.
It got worse from there. The asthma didn't ever entirely let up, even with Steve using the inhalers. Bucky worried that he was using them too much, but what did he know? More worrying was the fever Steve developed, his forehead and too-thin shoulder hot to the touch. He was sweaty, and more out of it, drowsy and sometimes confused. Once he called Bucky "Mom".
Bucky tried to get fluids into him—he even made chicken soup. From a packet, but hey, chicken soup was chicken soup. Steve had trouble drinking when the wheezing was bad, and he stopped sweating after a while. Was that a bad thing? He still felt hot, burning up. It was probably a bad thing.
He didn't feel able to leave Steve at all, not even to go to a drug store and get medicines. What would he get, anyway? Aspirin? Eucalyptus lozenges? Steve was well past those; he probably had a chest infection.
Bucky paced the living room, trying to decide what to do. He knew Steve didn't have health insurance, nor a regular doctor. He'd mentioned using the ER a few times in the past for the asthma. Bucky didn't trust doctors and he worried Steve'd be shunted aside in a busy ER and overlooked on some gurney until he stopped breathing entirely. Okay, that was most likely paranoia; Bucky and doctors didn't have the best of track records, not since the arm.
He could pay for Steve's treatment, and for an ambulance. He'd have to go back on the grid to do it, though, and stay out there, exposed and traceable. Being tied to Steve when he was stuck in hospital wasn't like that bank hit and run he'd done up near Columbia U. Bucky bit his lip, but there was no choice. He had to get Steve treatment.
He hunted for Steve's old, out of date mobile phone; Bucky didn't have a phone himself and there was no landline in the apartment. He found it, finally, but the battery was flat of course; it never held a charge unless Steve plugged it in every day, and Steve had had other things on his mind the last couple days.
The charging cord wasn't there. With a sinking feeling, Bucky remembered Steve saying something about needing a back-up as he'd left it somewhere—the art school? That had been the day they'd gone walking, the day they'd kissed. Cursing, Bucky ransacked the apartment, but there was no cord, not anywhere.
They had neighbors! Bucky felt like kicking himself; he was an idiot. The young guy on their floor worked long hours so he'd be out, but the old folks upstairs would help, surely? They must have phones to call their families and they liked Steve, even if they still gave Bucky dirty looks.
Bucky went back to Steve's bedside, anxious about leaving him even to go upstairs. Steve's eyes fluttered open, unfocused, and he coughed weakly, every breath a struggle. "Becca . . ." he gasped. "Mom said . . ." His eyes flickered shut again. Bucky thought maybe his lips were the wrong color. Not blue, but not pink either, for all the hectic flush in his cheeks.
"I'll be right back, Stevie," he promised. "I gotta call an ambulance." Steve just lay there fighting to breathe, seeming not to hear him.
Bucky left him reluctantly, looking back one more time as he left the bedroom. He was terrified he'd come back and Steve would be still and pale, lifeless. Steve was a fighter though; he never gave up. "I can do this all day," he'd wheezed at Bucky yesterday in a lucid moment, grinning weakly between bouts of coughing. Bucky blinked away something stinging his eyes and sniffed. Such a punk.
He stood at the door, clenching and unclenching his fists. "Okay, Barnes, in and out, make nice, use the phone, get right back here. He'll be okay. You can do this." He raised his hand to the deadbolt.
There was a knock, and for a disoriented moment Bucky thought it was the ambulance already, that he'd jumped through time or the damn paramedics were psychic or some shit. The knock on their door came again, louder.
"What!" he snatched it open.
"Whoa, man," said Sam, lifting his hands. Nat, Wanda and Pietro were behind him in the dingy hallway. "We just dropped by, no need to yell."
"Oh thank fuck," Bucky said. "You got a phone, right? One of you must have a phone?"
"Hi to you, too," Nat said, frowning. "We all have phones. It's the 21st century, Barnes. Everyone has a phone."
"Why do you need one?" Wanda asked. "And also, where the hell have you been, you bastard?" But she handed hers over, a red metallic thing Pietro had most likely customized.
"Call an ambulance," Bucky ordered, pressing it back on her. "I'll explain later, just call them. It's an emergency."
"You are hurt?" Wanda asked, peering at him anxiously and not fucking well dialing.
"Okay," Sam said, punching numbers into his mobile. "911, it's ringing, but you gotta tell them what the emergency is." He handed Bucky the phone, frowning at him.
Bucky turned and strode back to the bedroom. Steve was still breathing, wheezing and coughing. The others followed but Bucky had no energy to spare for them. He sat on the bed, one hand rubbing Steve's back, and gave the ambulance service terse information.
"He a friend?" Sam asked softly.
Bucky nodded, swallowing. "Steve. My roommate. He gets asthma."
"More than that, I think," Nat said, resting a palm on Steve's forehead. For a moment Bucky thought she meant the kiss in the park, then she went on. "He's feverish. Pneumonia, most likely."
Bucky bit his lip. "Yeah. Started as asthma, but it got worse. We got drenched in a rainstorm a couple days ago."
"I know," she said. "It's when we finally found you. I followed you back here."
"Then we took a while arguin'," Sam said ruefully. "About what to do."
"But we have been searching, Bucky," Wanda put in, lifting her hands in frustration. "We were not about to leave without speaking to you."
"Even though you are, it seems, doing just fine," added Pietro. He waved a hand. "A place to live. A friend. Apparently not a rent boy."
"Muk bikkonya!" snapped Wanda, glaring at Pietro. "We do not speak of that."
"I never said he was one," Nat said, looking annoyed. "Just that he might be, if he was still using."
Bucky rolled his eyes. "I'm not still using. Also, not a rent boy. A part-time model, but not a rent boy."
"Riiight, good to know," Sam drawled, eyebrows raised. "So why in hell haven't you called us? You know how hard it's been to track you down? It's been a whole goddamn year."
Bucky turned back to Steve. "I didn't. Didn't think you'd want . . ." he took a breath. "I can't deal with this."
"Yeah, okay," Sam said. "You get a pass for now. But just for now." Bucky pulled a face and Sam squeezed his shoulder.
Then there were paramedics and questions, an oxygen mask over Steve's face as he was strapped to a stretcher and maneuvered expertly through the door. Bucky started after him, then turned back at the doorway, torn.
"Go," Nat said. "We'll bring a bag with his stuff."
"The Fender case," Bucky said. "To pay for–"
"Just go, we'll take care of it and see you there," she said.
Bucky slipped a small key on a chain from around his neck, threw it to her and ran for the stairs.
"His friend is an artist," Wanda said, looking at the drawings and watercolors pinned to the walls. She picked up a folder on the table and opened it.
"Ah, maybe we shouldn't poke around too much?" Sam suggested.
"Nonsense," Nat pointed to the wall where a dark rectangle sat in the shadows. "Give me a hand with the Fender case, Sam. Put it on the couch."
"Yes, ma'am." Sam flipped her a mock salute, sighed and went to heft the thing over. "Whoa. Heavy."
"He still plays guitar? How is that possible?" Pietro had found a battered duffel in a cupboard. He set it on the table and leaned over Wanda's shoulder. "Huh. So many drawings of Barnes."
"They are lovers," Wanda said slowly. "Or at least, this one loves Bucky. What was his name? Stephen?" She traced a finger over the paper. "Look at the way he has captured Bucky sleeping—this is not how one draws a roommate."
"Steve Rogers," Nat said, lifting some receipts she'd found. "His name. It's on the rental agreement."
"Guys, guys," Sam pleaded. "We really oughtn't to–"
"He doesn't get to vanish for a year then shut us out again," Nat said fiercely. Sam raised his hands in submission, lifted the case up onto the couch and snapped open the latches. "There's a locked strap," he said.
"He gave me the key." Nat handed it over.
Sam opened the case and whistled. "Guess he hocked the guitar. There's a whole lotta cash in here."
"Bound to be; he's living off the grid," Nat said, coming over. She turned to Pietro. "Can you find something opaque to pack some in?"
"Why does he not use the joint Swiss bank account I set up?" Pietro protested. "That is what it's there for." But he went and rummaged in the kitchen area, returning with an empty plastic ice cream container.
"Too proud," Nat said, stacking bills in the container. "And his friend Rogers has never met us. He's not going to let us bankroll his treatment."
Wanda bent over and lifted some clothing from the other end of the Fender case. "Bucky will need a change of clothes as well. He will most likely sleep in a chair at the hospital." She stopped and sucked in a breath. "What is this?"
Sam turned to see her holding a wad of pages covered with penciled-in musical notation. Lyrics and scribbled notes in Bucky's distinctive hand filled the rest of the page. "He's been writing?"
"So it seems." Wanda flicked through at the pages. "This is new. It's all new work."
Pietro emerged from the bedroom, the duffel now sagging with clothes and toiletries for Steve. "Is an electronic keyboard in there," he said, gesturing behind him. "Also a laptop. Although why anyone would purchase an HP?" He shook his head at such folly.
Wanda was humming lyrics under her breath, eyes half closed. Something about a 'Winter Soldier'.
"It any good?" Sam asked. Wanda was the best of them all at sight-reading. Sam needed to hear a tune first, then he was all over it.
"I think," Wanda said slowly, "it may be the best he has ever written."
"James." Steve's voice was a lot stronger, but still a little husky. Bucky steadied the glass of water for him and nudged a bendy straw at his cracked lips. Steve sucked from it then rested back on the pillows. "Thanks," he said, his voice easier. "Better."
"Yeah, you are." Bucky set the water aside and took Steve's hand, the one without the bandage where an IV had tissued. "You're a punk, y'know? You had me pretty scared there, almost dying on me."
Steve scowled. "It wasn't intentional. Just bad luck."
Bucky managed something like a grin. "I know. So much for fresh air. I'm gonna keep you wrapped up inside from now on."
Steve scowled. "Like hell you are. Just 'cause I got a weak goddamn chest, you don't get to mother-hen me. I been dealing with this shit all my life." He coughed, waving Bucky off as he found a tissue and blew his nose.
"You don't have to deal with it all alone any more," Bucky said, leaning forward. He waved a hand at the hallway visitor seating where the band were hanging out fooling with their phones. Once he'd had enough time with Steve they planned to take him out for coffee—Nat wouldn't drink the hospital vending machine swill. "The others've been beating me up about going it alone and cutting them off, and I'm not about to let you do the same."
Steve looked away. He slipped his hand out of Bucky's and fiddled with the sheet. "Well. But you'll probably go back there, I guess. To Los Angeles. Wanda said that's where they live."
He'd met them all, as Bucky'd set up a roster so Steve wasn't ever alone. Problem was, Bucky didn't know what they'd told Steve in the times across the past week when Bucky'd had to go back to the apartment to crash, worn out by those sleepless days nursing Steve, terrified he was dying.
Bucky was twitchy, back in the public eye in the midst of his bandmates. His ball cap and beard stubble weren't working too well as disguises now he was hanging out with Wanda and the others. A couple nurses had already asked for his autograph and the hospital'd had to get security to evict some paps only yesterday.
"I'm not going anywhere," Bucky insisted. "Brooklyn's where I was born and I'm not planning to move."
Steve didn't look convinced. "But the music. I didn't realize you were such a . . ."
"Dick?" Bucky lifted an eyebrow.
Steve snorted, finally turning to meet his gaze. "Yeah, that too. You're a rock star, James. You’re gonna to want to make music again, go touring, all that stuff."
"Yeah, right," Bucky said, lifting his metal arm and frowning at the fingers. "Maybe I should get a xylophone. Wouldn't even need a hammer."
"Maybe you should!" Steve was breathing faster, a little wheezy again. His cheeks were pink. "Whatever it takes. You got talent, which I knew, by the way. You gotta get back out there and use it!"
"Whoa," Bucky said. "Stevie, don't get yourself worked up, it ain't good for your–"
"Quit it with the mother-hen schtick, James. I mean it!" Steve glowered at him, but he lay back and focused on calming his breathing. He was way better now, with the antibiotics and other shit the doctors had given him, but he was still convalescing.
He'd been so sick, Bucky'd put off telling him, but he figured he'd better come clean. "Yeah, about the James thing, Steve. I, um, I kind of go by Bucky. I mean, James is my name: James Buchanan Barnes. But only Mom ever called me James. It's kind of weird when you do."
"So we're both acting like Moms, huh? Well, at least you got around to telling me. I was wondering how long it'd take you."
Bucky frowned. "You knew?"
Steve smiled faintly. "Wanda let it slip. She was very cut up about it." He looked over at Bucky, still smiling. "Thing is, you could've told me you were Bucky Barnes and I wouldn't have had the first clue who you were. You know me—I'm not really into music, and I'm tragically square."
"Yeah, I could tell that on account of you using the word square," Bucky said. Steve threw the tissue box at him. "Ow! That thing's got sharp corners."
"Us squares gotta stick together," Steve said, grinning. "Go on, go have coffee with the band. I need a nap."
"I'm not coming back to LA," Bucky said when they'd found a good-sized booth at the back of the diner. He stirred his latte, staring down at the cup as the foam pattern dissolved.
"Did we say you were going back there?" Sam spread his hands and looked around the table, brows raised. "No we did not. We all been doing our own thing, this past year."
Bucky pulled a face. "Yeah. Sorry I never . . ."
"We were so worried, Bucky," Wanda said, reaching across the table to touch his hand. "That bostáro Pierce, when he let us see you and you were–" She stopped, shaking her head.
Bucky hunched his shoulders and stared at his coffee. "I was messed up."
"But you got away, man, and you kicked the habit. That's what matters." Sam ate the marshmallow off his saucer and stirred his hot chocolate. "Steve told us he helped you through it."
"Yeah. I couldn't've done it . . . not without him."
"You had any professional help yet?" Nat glanced at him, sipping from her espresso.
Bucky set his jaw. "I don't want to talk about that crap and rake it over. I don't need that. I got Steve."
Her gaze narrowed. "Addiction counseling's not some Freudian horseshit, Barnes. And you're putting too much on Steve. He shouldn't have to be responsible for you staying clean."
"He's not!" Bucky glared at her. "I never said that."
"Yeah, you did, kind of," Sam said. "Look, you know I used to do counseling, before we got into the touring. I'm betting you get triggered sometimes, still get the cravings? Counseling'll give you some tools to use for that, so you're stronger."
"We can help you find someone good. Someone who won't put up with your crap," Nat said, giving him a shark's grin.
Bucky shook his head, but he let the corner of his mouth curl up. "I'll consider it, long as it ain't some kind of LA crystal-waving fuckery."
Nat snorted. "Yeah, as though any of us are into that."
Wanda tilted her head. "I like crystals—they're decorative. I like when they make rainbows on the wall."
"Sure, surată. But when you get a sore throat you go see a doctor like a sane person," Pietro said, smiling at her.
Wanda shrugged. "Of course. I am a professional. I need my voice, even if it is no match for Bucky's."
"Yeah, and speaking of that," Sam said. "You still got the voice, man. Don't be giving us that nonsense about being no use to the band since you lost your arm. Plus, we know you've been writing, and Wanda says it's good."
Bucky shot Nat an accusing look and she shrugged. "You gave me the key to the Fender case. What'd you expect?"
Bucky shook his head. "It's pretty dark. It's about all the stuff," he waved a hand. "With Pierce, and the arm, and all."
"Rage an' pain, just what the kids like," Sam said, with a crooked grin.
"But it is not exploitation," Wanda said, leaning forward, intent, tapping the table. "It is legitimate. It comes from a real place and it speaks to their own hurts." She sat back again, beaming. "Besides. We are cult heroes now, especially you, the mysterious vanishing and reappearing Bucky Barnes. Also, the band is reunited and you have found love, yes? So you will write happy songs as well and we will do another album and be a huge success."
Bucky blinked at her. "I'm still not going to LA," he said after a while.
Pietro lifted a shoulder. "There's this thing called the internet. We will videoconference."
"Plus, we should have a base here on the East Coast as well," Nat said. "An apartment, a practice space, an agent. We can't stay in hotels forever."
"Yeah, but what about Pierce," Bucky said dubiously. "And Hydra."
"Your guy, Steve, he's got some ideas 'bout that," Sam said.
"He does?" Bucky looked around the table. They'd taken to Steve straight away. In fact, he was starting to realize they were all thick as thieves. "He's coming home tomorrow. I mean, he's still gotta go in for check-ups, but . . ."
"He is much stronger," Wanda agreed, nodding. "And we will help you find him a good physician."
Bucky rubbed the back of his neck. "He's kind of touchy about bein' helped. He might not take it too well."
"Well, I got no idea what you two see in each other, then," Sam drawled. "On account of how different y'all are."
Bucky harrumphed, and drank his coffee.
"He what?" Bucky bared his teeth in a snarl. "Pierce hassled you at the hospital while we were out yesterday?"
"Calm down, J—Bucky," Steve said, wriggling about in a nest of blankets on the couch until he had them arranged to his liking.
Bucky was pacing—well, he'd been fussing over Steve, but now he was pacing. Sam was making coffee in the kitchen, Nat was propped against a wall, and Wanda and Pietro were sitting at the table. "The fucking nerve!" Bucky said venomously.
"We knew he might track you down here, with us hanging around attracting paparazzi, and you covering Steve's medical costs," Nat said.
"Yeah, he was lookin' for you," Steve said. Bucky felt sick. Escape plans bounced around inside his skull like buzzing flies. They could leave, him and Steve. Get more cash. Hit the road. Go overseas.
"Jesus, sit down before you pass out," Nat said, pushing an old armchair over by the couch and him down into it. "This is what we meant about triggers."
Steve took his hand. "C'mon, breathe. The guys told me about Pierce, about what he did. I was happy to see him, actually. Well, not happy, on account of not having the strength right now to punch him in the nose. But it was better he met me than you."
Bucky took a deep breath. "I'm not gonna let him hurt you."
"Yeah, right back atcha, pal," Steve said, squeezing his hand. "We're a couple of jerks, aren't we? All caught up in each other and me with my art, you with your music. We never really talked."
"About what?" They'd talked plenty. About shows on TV, comics they both liked, goings on at the art school, left-wing politics.
"About ourselves." Steve raised an eyebrow. "Like for example that you're a big old rock star, and I got a law degree. I never did make much of a living at it, always did too much pro bono work, but I know my way around the law. After Mom died I was a wreck for a while—I turned to art to get through that, never went back to the law."
"A lawyer?" Bucky squinted at Steve, but yeah, he could see it. See Steve, hair combed down, serious in a cheap suit slightly too big for him, defending some righteous cause. He'd be stubborn and eloquent, winning over juries with the dogged honesty that shone from every part of him.
Sam brought over mugs of coffee and put cream and sugar on the table.
Steve picked up a mug and shrugged, a little sheepish. "I used to go on protest marches, so I studied it so's to defend my friends. I worked two jobs and put myself through law school. Kind of a waste these days—we may as well get some use out of it."
"What d'you mean?" Bucky stirred sugar into his mug, frowning at Steve.
"You need to get free of Pierce and Hydra, right? So you need a lawyer—one who's not in their pocket. I already warned him off, and Pietro'll help."
"Pietro?" Bucky turned to stare at him.
"Hello, yes," Pietro waved a flash drive. "I have hacked Pierce's accounts, of course. He's embezzling from Hydra, and they probably do not know he supplied you with morphine all that time. The evidence is there, or well, it's also here, now."
"We all want out of that contract," Nat said. "Pietro's been collecting evidence on Pierce and on Hydra for months."
Bucky shook his head, looking around at them all. Wanda was smiling brightly and Sam looked satisfied.
"You've only known Steve a week, and you're all in cahoots already," he said, shaking his head. "I'm in trouble."
"You sure are," Sam said. "But all you gotta do is get some help, get over yourself and start playing again. Ain't nothin' wrong with your voice, and you can take over keyboards with a program for the bass-line—your right hand works fine. I'll do rhythm guitar. It'll be a blast."
"Plus, you gotta let me do cover art for the next album," Steve said. "I got some ideas."
"No nudes," Bucky warned. Some of Steve's figure drawings made him blush.
"It would certainly sell CDs," Wanda said brightly.
"No goddamn nudes" Bucky repeated, glaring until she shrugged and sighed.
"Don't worry," Steve said. "I'm not ready to share you with the world," and he drew Bucky down with a smile.
Behind them, Bucky heard whistles and applause. He reached back and flipped his bandmates the bird, then put both his hands on Steve's face and kissed him breathless.
"A great set, my friend!" Thor bellowed at Bucky above the thrash metal of the current group, Banner and the Ironmen, playing on the stage at the far end of the hotel ballroom.
Wolfteeth had performed earlier and it had been fantastic, the audience screaming their appreciation. Bucky was still on something of a high, even if he had been forced to calm down, shower, and stuff himself into a penguin suit, ready for the after-party with a bunch of rich donors.
Thor leaned in and yelled. "I like your new Winter Soldier songs very much!" He touched the shoulder of Bucky's rented suit, its seams straining from the metal arm underneath. "And the arm is excellent, most warrior-like. A pity to conceal it!"
"Yeah," Bucky yelled back. "I hate these damn suits, but Steve insisted."
They were gathered for a charity concert organized to fundraise for the ACLU, which their new agent Nick Fury hoped would help get them back in the public eye again. Thor was lead singer for Mjölnir, an Icelandic rock group. He had a great booming voice, and his brother Loki was almost as magical on guitar as Wanda.
Bucky looked around for Becca, his sister, glimpsing her talking to Wanda and Nat on the far side of the room. At least they were enjoying the chance to wear glittering gowns, while he had to put up with this goddamn starched collar that felt like it was trying to choke him.
Loki appeared in green leathers, dragging a teenage boy by one ear. "An interloper!" he announced.
"What is your name, boy?" trumpeted Thor.
"Peter Parker, Mr. Thor!" the kid shouted. He had a red t-shirt with SPIDEY on it in blue. "I just, I'm a fan of you all, of course, but I wanted to see Mr. Stark up close."
Loki sniffed. "Another agent of chaos. Ragnarok is upon us."
"We were all young once, brother!" Thor yelled cheerfully, clapping Loki on the back.
Loki winced. "Speak for yourself!"
"Hey there, Thor, Loki!" It was Steve, here at last after extricating himself from a knot of sponsors. "I'm gonna steal Bucky for a moment. I need him."
"And I can well see why!" Thor boomed, his eyes twinkling.
Steve blushed, but grinned and dragged Bucky off to a quiet corner behind an enormous potted plant. He had a penguin suit on as well, and Bucky revised his ideas about dressing up. Steve looked positively edible.
"Don't you gotta go make nice with more bigwigs?" Bucky asked, as Steve backed him up against the wall. Bucky in a suit was clearly having a similar effect on Steve.
"Yeah, but they can wait," Steve said, reaching up to kiss him. He slid his arms around Bucky's waist. "I got more important things to do."