To say Steve Rogers was unlucky was an understatement.
His life was ruled by a series of cruel twists of fate. Awful lungs and a bad heart meant he was next to useless when it came to anything more strenuous besides pushing a pencil across a piece of paper. Little to no growth spurt even as a teenager ensured that he was always an easy target for those who enjoyed feeling powerful. No amount of stubborness or will power would heal all the ways that his body had failed him.
When his mother slipped away after months of struggling against her own body, Steve had considered it the latest devastation in a life filled with disappointment. Without her, he was just another scrawny face in the endless crowds of New York, lost and lacking all motivation against the crushing tide.
But Sarah Rogers had never had much patience for Steve’s bouts of morosity and the memory of her stubborn expression -- the mirror to his own -- was enough to ensure he continued to get out of bed each morning and moving forward. He decided long ago that spiting the world by continuing to survive its’ attempts to destroy him was as good a reason to keep breathing as any.
His history of awful luck was enough to ensure that he was never truly surprised when some new obstacle appeared in his path.
Case in point: the masked gunman that was currently shouting at him to hand over his wallet while the other patrons of the convenience store cowered nearby.
Steve resisted the urge to roll his eyes at the way the man continued to jab him with the end of the gun. All he wanted was to eat the now-cold sandwich he still held in his hand and catch a few episodes of Forensic Files before collapsing under the weight of a long shift at work. He never had much patience with the thugs that roamed around Brooklyn ruining the city’s good name and scaring the wits out of anyone unfortunate enough to attract their attention.
Instead, he gritted his teeth and took a breath so his voice would remain even. “Alright, there’s no need to get violent,” he said as he slowly fished out the cheap wallet he used to store his metrocard, rewards card to his favorite coffee shop (only two coffees away from a free drink!), and a couple crumpled ones. “I don’t have much cash anyway.”
The gunman snatched the wallet roughly from his hands and kept his gun against Steve’s chest as he flipped it open. Steve’s library card nearly fell out of the thin pouch with the motion, proudly displaying that Steve Rogers was one of their loyal members in faded green ink.
Abruptly the scowl on the gunman’s face was replaced with a wide-eyed look towards Steve that made the smaller man frown in surprise. Like some unknown switch had been flipped, his assailant stared at Steve with what could only be described as fear in his light brown eyes.
“You’re Steve Rogers?”
Steve scowled with no small amount of petulance, “I certainly didn’t steal his wallet.”
“Shit,” the gunman said and practically threw the wallet back at Steve. “Shit -- sorry, man -- I didn’t… Just take it back.”
Without another word, the man scrambled out of the store, leaving Steve gaping at his retreating back with the rest of the shocked customers.
It was common knowledge in the City that the streets were not always kind to people who decided to wander down dark alleys at night. Steve was no stranger to the dangers of his hometown -- the bizarre exchange with the gunman notwithstanding -- and he was usually careful to walk back with Clint or Sam so he didn’t run into one of the shadier residents of the area.
Unfortunately, Sam had called in sick that night and Clint was out of town for his sister’s wedding so Steve was forced to take the long walk back to his loft alone. With two of their servers gone for the night, Steve had been forced to pick up the slack and leave the relative safety of the bar for the crush of loud college students looking to drink off their midterms. Normally his boss, Nick, was careful to keep him out of the crowd in deference to his asthma, but not even Darcy’s indefatigable energy could keep up with the endless stream of drink and food orders.
His feet throbbed in protest with every step and it took all of his focus to keep from weaving like the drunks ambling near the bars nearby. His stomach grumbled out a weak protest and Steve sighed when he thought about needing to cook something when he got back. He’d been hoping the ramen in his pantry would last him until payday, but if he didn’t eat soon he’d get sick and be forced to lose more hours. At least the tips had been good that evening -- maybe he could splurge and buy something at the bodega on the corner.
He was so focused on his meal that he didn’t notice the men in the darkened alleyway to his left until he heard the pained yelp of a distinctly feminine voice and the muffled sounds of a struggle. Instantly all thoughts of food vanished with the heady rush of adrenaline that came with the knowledge that someone needed help, that someone was in trouble and no one else could help them. Steve glanced down the empty street once before he spun on his heel and raced into the dark.
A few feet away from the mouth of the alley way, huddled group of men and the struggling girl in their midst. Thinking quickly, Steve snatched up one of the trashcan lids nearby and slammed it into the largest man before they realized he was in their midst. He collapsed with a groan and Steve managed another glancing blow before two of the men grabbed him by his arms and threw him bodily against a brick wall.
Panting, Steve dragged himself back onto his aching feet and shook his head to ease some of the dizziness. “Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?”
Cruel laughter echoed off the bricks in a familiar prelude to inevitable pain and frustration. They edged closer to him, herding him away from the mouth of alley so any passing pedestrian wouldn’t hear the exchange or be able to identify his attackers. Steve was careful not to let his eyes track the cornered girl’s path to freedom as she took advantage of the distraction and raced for the relative safety of the street.
“You ain’t even close to our size, kid,” the one he’d hit with the lid snarled, “especially when I’m done ripping you into tiny little pieces.”
A vicious punch seemed to come out of nowhere and sent his vision scattering in bright bursts of red and black spots. His glasses made an alarming crunching sound and he added broken frames to list of ways tonight sucked ass. The familiar taste of blood filled his mouth and he spat a glob of the liquid onto the ground. Strong, cruel hands latched themselves around his biceps and hauled him to his feet so they could knock him down again.
There had once been a time when such a situation would have made him search the shadows for dark hair and flashing eyes coming to his rescues. But that had been a long time ago. Steve knew better than to expect help from the boy who’d broken his heart.
Now, he settled for struggling when he could and spitting curses each time one of them paused in their attack. His mind fell into the familiar pattern of cold focus that came with inescapable pain. Pain was an old friend when your body tries to quit on you even without the kicks and jabs of others.
After what felt like years, he was left gasping on his hands and knees on the dirty concrete. He supposed that meant the thugs had gotten tired of beating up an already bloody and tired target, but couldn’t manage the energy to feel grateful that the hits were no longer raining down on him.
“Had enough yet?” he panted.
The man closest to him landed a kick to his ribs that sent the air in his lungs out with a whoosh.
“Hand over your wallet and phone,” the man on the left ordered.
What were the odds that he could go eight years without any sort of trouble only to get held up twice in one month? Grumbling through his swollen and bleeding lip, Steve reached into his pocket to pull his wallet out into the dim light and mentally said farewell to his tips.
This time Steve was able to watch the shock and horror spread like a sickness through his assailants.
They took a step away from him to whisper among themselves and Steve took the opportunity to drag air back into his abused chest. The alley was too dark to make out the expressions of horror on their faces, but Steve could recognize the signs of panic in their too-sharp hand gestures and the way they kept looking around for any witnesses.
“There’s no way--”
“We didn’t know who he was!”
“He attacked us first! It’s not our fault!”
The man who’d held him down for the worst of the beating raked a bloody hand through his hair, “Holy shit! I thought the list was a myth.”
“What are you talking about? What list?” Steve cut in, trying to sound firm despite the way he could feel his face beginning to swell to truly epic proportions.
“Sorry, little man. Nothing personal,” the leader started to hand back the wallet and Steve felt his fragile hold on his temper snap.
“Tell me what the fuck you’re talking about or I will make a point of telling every person I see that you robbed me,” Steve snarled.
Wide eyes met over his head in a silent conversation. Before Steve could do more than tap an impatient beat on the dark pavement, the unofficial spokesperson of his would-be attackers spoke up.
“The thing is, kid,” Steve congratulated himself for keeping his mouth closed at the unwelcome moniker, “there are certain people that are untouchable for anyone who doesn’t want trouble to come their way.”
The idea of being noteworthy enough to garner someone powerful’s protection was laughable and unimaginable. The kind of story that would suit the dime store romances his ma used to read when she became bedridden.
“Why? Is there some kind of newsletter I don’t know about?”
“No, but we all know who to avoid. No one wants to piss off the Winter Soldier.”
Steve frowned. “Who the hell is the Winter Soldier?”
The man looked uneasy, his eyes flickering back to the alley entrance like he was contemplating running and Steve felt a new wave of exhaustion wash away his ire. “Look, I’m just trying to understand why I’m being targeted like this.”
“The Winter Soldier is just his call sign,” the leader finally said. “His real name is James Barnes--he runs Hydra in these parts.”
And just like that, Steve wasn’t tired anymore.
It was surprisingly easy to track down the headquarters of the local gang. All it took was a few questions for the shadier residents on his street and he had an address for the Italian restaurant where one James Barnes held court.
Despite the temper that had filled his veins like a familiar drug at the mention of the boy from his childhood, Steve was forced to wait for his next day off to make the trip. He didn’t want to risk the confrontation when he was exhausted from a double shift or before he managed to identify all the reasons why he wanted to rip into the next person who asked him if he was okay. It definitely wasn’t because he desperately needed to do laundry and get a haircut before he was ready to face Bucky Barnes.
It had been too long since he’d let himself think about Bucky.
Bucky Barnes, the boy who’d been the closest thing to a brother he’d ever known. Bucky Barnes, the boy he’d loved with all the strength in his tiny, broken body. The boy who’d grown into the teenager that made Steve’s heart race and his mouth go dry. As far as Steve had been concerned, the sun rose and set around Bucky’s crooked smile and slate grey eyes.
Until the day he’d broken Steve’s heart and disappeared without a trace.
It was insulting and infuriating to realize that after all these years of wondering and wishing for some kind of explanation, Bucky had only been a few blocks away. That he’d known Steve was still in Brooklyn after all this time. How else could Steve explain his name on this infamous list?
So, he’d stewed in the quiet rage that shielded him from crueler, more vulnerable emotions and waited for Tuesday to come. He dressed in a worn pair of jeans that an ex-boyfriend once told him made his ass look great and a soft, tight shirt that made his eyes look large and intense. The perfect counterpoint to the dark lines of ink with bright splashes of color that scrolled down the lean muscles of his arms.
Though he’d never be a large or intimidating man, Steve was satisfied with the weight and muscle he’d managed to put in since he began working at SHIELD, the latest hipster bar in a city filled with them. He was grateful for the way his job had introduced him to people like Peggy and Sam, who liked to sneak him leftovers from the kitchen and kept him grounded in the years after he lost his mother. He’d earned his place there through dogged determination and the same gritty perseverance that tailored his life since his first visit to the hospital.
Not for the first time, Steve wished his reflection in the mirror didn’t look so much like the scared, hurt boy he’d been the year he’d lost everything. He would always be thin, but where he was once starved looking, years of work and good food had finally shifted him from emaciated to lean. His features too had shifted away from the haunted, gaunt look of the perpetually sick to the strong jawline of his father and the expressive features of his mother.
A few months ago, Peggy had teased him into trading his usual high and tight hairstyle for a more modern undercut that emphasized his strong jawline and brought a few appreciative gazes his way at the bar. The mixture of tattoos and scattered silver-bright piercings through his ears and one nostril felt like an odd juxtaposition against his too-large eyes and the smattering of freckles across the bridge of his slightly crooked nose from one too many fights in his youth.
But it would have to do if he wanted answers to the questions that circled endlessly in his mind. He grabbed the worn leather jacket he’d found left behind at the bar by some drunk patron to ward off the crisp autumn air and made his way to the street below. Brooklyn was all crisp winds and weak sunlight that promised a bitter winter to come. He scuffed his leather boot against the sidewalk to dislodge a piece of discarded newspaper that was the closest thing to autumn leaves he would find around here.
It only took him forty five minutes to find the address he’d carefully copied onto his phone. He told himself that he wasn’t delaying the inevitable by choosing to walk instead of taking the subway or the bus. The walk had the added benefit of solidifying the cold fury that he used like a shield and the fuel he needed to keep his spine straight and expression stoic.
The address led him to a simple hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant that could pass for a million other mom and pop places in New York. Steve stared at the window advertisement that promised homemade pizza and forced himself to shove away the memory of nights spent eating pizza and talking for hours on the rusty fire escape outside his apartment. He clenched his fists once, twice, to steady their need to shake before he reached for the cool metal of the door handle.
Inside felt dark and gloomy compared to the mid-morning sunlight outside and Steve scanned the simple decorations curiously. It was quaint and well-maintained, if a little dusty in the corners. A young girl was perched behind the hostess’ stand with her eyes fixed on the phone in her lap with the single minded focus that indicated she was texting someone important.
Behind her, he could see the edges of several empty tables and could hear the gentle sound of conversation somewhere beyond. His heart gave a painful lurch at the thought that Bucky was only a few feet away. He was here. Steve would have to face the person responsible for one of the most painful moments of his life and pretend like he wasn’t agonized by it. Maybe even get a few answers to the questions that still haunted him.
“Can I help you?”
He blinked, startled at the unfamiliar voice and returned his attention to the hostess. She arched an eyebrow at his dazed expression and he felt himself flush. Damn, Irish genes. He cleared his throat. “Erm, yes. I’m looking for someone.”
She opened her mouth to respond, but they both paused when a new man stepped inside the front lobby. His dark hair was cut in a military style that was complemented by the stiff set of his shoulders and the promise of violence lurking under his skin. He looked like the dictionary definition of a bully and Steve felt his hackles raise instinctively. The man gave him a slow once over that ended with a wicked, predatory smirk that made Steve’s eyes narrow in warning.
“Who’s this?” he asked, leaning against the hostess’ stand and ignoring the way the teenager curled herself as far away from him as possible.
Steve drew himself up to his full height and let out a slow, steady breath. “I’m here to see the Winter Soldier.”
The man blinked, surprised enough to drop his cocky attitude for a moment as he stared at Steve again. He looked back at the hostess like he was checking to see if this was some sort of joke. Then he frowned back at Steve, trying to regain his control of the situation.
“You got an appointment?”
“I need to speak to him.”
The bouncer/soldier/bully sighed, back to looking bored. “No appointment means no meeting.”
“Rumlow, let him by.”
Steve’s heart—the traitor—pounded against his ribs like it was trying to reach Bucky through his chest at the sound of the familiar rumble. It was deeper than he remembered, beautiful and raspy as the old blues singers they’d listened to on Steve’s ma’s ancient record player. The sound made the muscles in his stomach clench in anticipation. He ignored it to bare his teeth in a fierce smile aimed at Bucky’s bouncer and shoved past him into the dining room beyond.
The room was as empty as his first glance had indicated aside from a large booth covered in paper and a few leftover pieces of pizza. Two figures hunched close to one another, pointing to something on the sheet between them and speaking in a low murmur. He took the time to note that the other person was a red-headed woman who looked slightly familiar before he followed the pull of gravity in the room to fix on the dark-haired man beside her.
Eight years had done wonders for the lanky, loose limbed boy who’d abandoned Steve. Broad brushstrokes of muscle filled in a powerful frame that strained against the thin grey Henley he wore like its presence offended them. If Steve wasn’t running on righteous indignation and adrenaline, he’d be offended too. Instead he allowed himself only two seconds (okay eight) to look over a body designed for sin and wicked fantasy before he marched himself in front to the main table.
His fingers trembled at his sides--to reach out or to strike he wasn’t sure. Steve took a breath and watched the boy he’d once loved slowly shift his focus away from his work to stare up at him. Bucky’s eyes were the same shade of slate grey he remembered, curious and wary in a way that clashed with the memories of a bright, smiling boy. Now they were clouded with confusion and curiosity that only grew with the thundering silence in the room.
He didn't even recognize him.
“Can we help you?”
The woman’s voice was enough to make him startle out of his thoughts and jerk his eyes away to focus on her. She was striking in a way that made him surprised that he’d overlooked her in the first place, all soft curves and steely eyes.
She was also a regular at SHIELD.
More pieces of the puzzle that was Bucky’s supposed list and what he was doing on it trickled into place. He narrowed his eyes at Natasha--if that was her real name--and watched her wince at his expression with satisfaction.
“Yes,” Steve fumbled and clenched his hands into fists to keep from fidgeting. “You can take me off your damned list.”
Bucky stared at Steve with a shocked expression, his mouth opening and closing soundlessly in a way that would have made Steve laugh in any other setting. Now, it just made him want to hide away in his tiny apartment and pretend he’d never found out that Bucky Barnes was still in town.
Natasha looked over at Bucky who was still gaping at Steve before she spoke, like she expected the brunette to respond to Steve’s demand. “What list?”
“The list that has every criminal in Brooklyn scurrying away from me like I got some kinda disease!”
Natasha looked like she was about to laugh when Bucky finally spoke up after clearing his throat. “Shouldn’t you be thanking me for keeping them away?” he asked and the familiar smirk on his lips made Steve want to punch him.
“I don’t want your charity and I don’t need your protection,” Steve snarled, prowling forward to jab a finger into the stack of paper laying in front of Bucky. “You don’t get to show up and pretend like you give a damn about me because we both know that’s not true.”
Bucky flinched like he’d been struck and made an aborted attempt to reach out to him. “Stevie…”
The familiar nickname and desperation in Bucky’s voice had tears burning in Steve’s eyes, but he shoved the pain away with the ease of long practice and glared at the other man. “Take me off the list and go back to pretending I don’t exist,” he bit out, “It’s what you’re good at.”
Before Bucky could do more than wince away from the acid in his voice, Steve spun on his heel and walked out. He pretended he didn’t feel the weight of Bucky’s eyes on his back as he left.
“Well that went well,” Natasha murmured as Steve stalked past Rumlow towards the door.
“Shut up, Nat.”