“It’s a question of parallel worlds,” Bruce says.
“Wrong, wrong, wrong, brilliant but wrong,” Tony sings. He’s fiddling with some kind of metal device; it looks kind of like a needle and that’s the most that Steve could tell you about it.
“Dr. Banner?” Steve says. He’s found that the best way to both introduce himself to a conversation and figure out what the hell is going on is to address the more reasonable of the two. Last he heard, there’d been a break-in. Stark’s lab certainly looks trashed but that’s not too far off its natural state.
“Hi Steve, thanks for coming up. How’s, uh, how’s DC?”
“Not bad. We finally cleared out the lightning orbs.” They’d had some kind of worldwide electrical disturbances, possibly remnants of Thanos’ universe-warping influence, and someone in Baja California had demonstrated the ability to control them. Of course, then the NSA had forcibly recruited this person and Steve had to fight them when they busted free and went rogue. Once they’d surrendered he’d fought the NSA—not personally, of course, but by turning evidence over to the media.
During the war, Steve had hated the media presence around their missions, felt painfully awkward in front of the cameras; now he welcomes the oversight. Hell, it was practically the only oversight any government agency had anymore.
“What’s going on here?” he asks Dr. Banner.
“Ahhhhh,” Dr. Banner says, looking at Stark. Which means he was involved, somehow, but doesn’t want to take responsibility.
Fortunately, there’s someone else present who always wants to take responsibility.
“I,” Stark announces with all of his father’s dramatic flair, “have built a time machine. Which promptly got stolen,” he adds in a lower voice and takes a drink from the glass in his hand.
“A time machine?”
“Yes, a device that allows you to travel to the past, or the future—or, well, in this case, you could travel in distance rather than time, if you wanted. I was actually trying to create a teleportation device but apparently Einstein was actually right and if you vibrate molecules at enough speed you can use them to warp time. So. Behold! My teleportation and time machine.”
Turning, he sweeps his hand at an array of lasers that Steve had assumed was some new weapon. They’re all pointed at a central dais. “I thought you said it got stolen,” Steve says.
“The use of it was stolen. I’ve only had it for a week, I was conducting preliminary tests—strictly preliminary, I hadn’t even teleported organic material. I got a little sidetracked when Friday pointed out that random objects were appearing around the lab shortly before I attempted to teleport them. That’s when I realized the time component and called Bruce in for a consult. It’s been powered down ever since, until someone busted in and powered it up last night.”
Steve takes a deep breath. “Okay. We’re going to set aside the fact that you built a highly—”
“Oh boy, here comes the lecture—”
“—dangerous device, again, without consulting us—”
“I’m sorry, are you my mother?”
“—a device that again has been misused—”
“It was purely theoretical, it shouldn’t even have worked!”
“—and again we’re going to have to clean up your mess before it does anymore harm!”
“Is this setting things aside? Because this sounds pretty much like the opposite!”
“Guys,” Bruce says quietly, rubbing his temples. “Green.”
Steve and Tony glare daggers at each other but obey the safeword. After a minute Tony huffs. “Fine, fine. I was pursuing a theory, and I got caught up in the science of things. But no one should even have known about it, and definitely no one should have been able to break in.”
“Who did break in?”
“San-mook Sun.” Tony spins around, plucking a glowing file out of midair and opening it with a twist of his fingers. An employee ID photograph pops out: a young Asian woman smiles nervously at the camera. “Brand new Stark employee, daughter of one of the most brilliant scientists the world has ever lost, Dr. Kyeong Sun. The elder Dr. Sun was working on water purification systems before she died of cancer. Turns out her daughter was just as much a brainiac, hit all of the bells and whistles that we put up to scout new talent—she went into neuroscience, did a lot of amazing stuff with virtual reality and algorithmic projections of human behavioral patterns. We hired her to work in our medical science division, but—”
A video pops up in midair. Steve has to squint at it; he’ll never get used to Stark’s projections. It’s the same young Asian woman hurrying across Stark’s lab to the laser array. The video speeds up as she makes several adjustments to the lasers and the attached computer screen before standing in the central dais. Even from a distance, the panicked rise and fall of her shoulders is evident. She clenches her fists as the blue light surrounds her. It flares bright, and when it fades, she is gone.
“How did she get past Friday?” Steve asks.
Stark looks grim, but lets Friday answer for herself. “My apologies, Mr. Rogers, but Dr. Sun applied a complex masking program that disguised herself to my sensory input as Master Stark. Once she activated the laser acceleration array, I messaged Colonel Rhodes and Khaleesi Potts to inform them that Master Stark was performing dangerous experimentation on himself.”
“And I happened to be with Pepper at the time. By the time I activated lockdown protocol, she was already gone. Kid was smart.”
“She obviously knew the risks,” Steve comments, gesturing at the video of Dr. Sun. The display bobs a little in response and he drops his hand with a wince.
“More than risks. It’s a one-way trip for her. The particle acceleration is, well, imagine having every cell in your body shaken around a lot. Unless you’re enhanced, sooner or later everything turns to jelly.”
“So whatever her goal is, it’s worth dying for. Where did she go?”
“Not where. When. According to the calculations, she traveled in time but not space. She’s here, or hereabouts, sometime in the recent past. Well, relatively recent. She’s not out fighting mammoths or Vikings or anything. She’s in New York, a little less than a century ago.”
There’s a pause.
“Yeah,” Tony says heavily, and takes a drink from a glass that somehow appeared in his hand. Steve wouldn’t put it past him to have already tested the teleporter on a bottle of Scotch. “All her personal devices are locked down tight, so I haven’t had time to do a deep dive, but I did hack the NYPL to get her records. Did you know that the Brooklyn Public Library has a whole digital archive devoted to historical maps? Dr. Sun was especially interested in viewing the layout of Red Hook circa 1930. HR did the world’s most thorough goddamned background check, so I know she’s not working for HYDRA or anyone else who wants you dead. Can’t think of anything else she’d be going back there and then to do, unless she really wanted an authentic case of polio.”
“But if she’s out to kill me in the past,” Steve says slowly, “then I wouldn’t have lived long enough to come to the future. I’m still here, so doesn’t that mean she failed?”
“There have been approximately five thousand movies and TV shows built around that question, and absolutely no real-world tests.” Pausing, Stark widens his eyes to a theatrical level. “What’s really going to bake your noodle is: would she still have gone into the past to kill you if she’d already killed you in the past and you didn’t exist in her reality?”
“Unless,” Bruce counters, “this isn’t the reality being changed, and the differentiation in the past has created a world directly parallel to our own—”
“Nooooooooo,” Tony says, sticking his fingers in his ears.
Steve leaves the room, as he tends to do when the two of them really get going. After another fifteen minutes Stark comes out looking for him. Steve has started packing up his gear. “Good to know the endless question of time-traveling paradoxes can’t keep your, oh, okay, yes, we are sending you back. How did you know?”
“Well, Bruce would probably create a scene and Thor might create a bigger scene. So that leaves me.”
“And obviously this has nothing to do with the fact that you’ve got the chance to travel back in time to your not-so-ancestral homeland.”
“Sure it does. Means I’m already familiar with time travel and I’ll make even less of a scene.” When Stark gives him a doubtful look, Steve shrugs. “What d’you want me to say, Tony? Sure, it’ll be nice to see some places I used to know, but I didn’t leave anyone behind in New York. My dad died when I was a kid, ma passed before I turned sixteen, and the only friends I ever had, I made overseas.”
“Okay, yes, your matchstick kid history is tragic. You know if she is out to looper your past self, you’ll probably disappear? I don’t know exactly what will happen then, because you’ll have been sent back by a particle accelerator but then that will never actually have happened and frankly, at that point, the space-time continuum might decide to give us all the finger and stop existing.”
“Unless it just creates another, different version of itself.”
Stark calibrates the machine to send him back in time—“Approximately,” Stark warns, “this is all purely experimental, okay, good luck!”—to a section of Prospect Park that’s relatively isolated. It’s a damn good thing, too, because once the blinding light of the lasers has faded from Steve’s eyes and his body has stopped feeling like it’s melting, he realizes that he’s completely naked and lying facedown in the grass.
“Shit,” he mumbles, sitting up and wiping the sweat from his face. It’s nighttime, at least. Around him is a cloud of dust that’s likely the remains of his gear. At least he hadn’t brought the shield with him—too recognizable, they’d decided.
Once he shakes off the pain, the first thing Steve notices is the smell. New York always has an odor to it—too many bodies packed into too small a space, mixed with trash and the river, God, the river—but this is…fewer bodies, more odor. Less car exhaust, more seaweed.
It's early morning and as loud as ever, but the sounds have a profoundly different quality. There’s no air conditioning units, no planes roaring overhead; instead there’s the distant rattle of the L train. Which narrows down their timetable significantly. Steve remembers when the elevated train started running, he must’ve been around ten years old.
He steals duds from a clothesline, boots from a doorway, with a silent apology to both. Once dressed, he west on 9th Street. A quick glance at the paper in the hands of a young boy on the corner gives him a better date: June 23rd, 1936.
So he’s—seventeen. Or, well, past-him is seventeen.
“Hell, this is gonna get confusing fast,” Steve mutters as he merges with the crowd, hunching his shoulders so he doesn’t tower quite so noticeably. He’d forgotten how little everyone used to be. Still lean with the Depression, or from the long boat ride to Ellis Island and whatever hardships drove them across the ocean. His ear picks up the thick accents of the old country not yet smoothed into the New Yawk vernacular.
Now let’s see, when he was seventeen he lived…well, the first part of the year he was in the hospital for a bit. His landlord had given him the boot, probably thinking he was dead, and he’d had to collect his belongings from a kind neighbor who rescued them from the trash. Or maybe he’d been eighteen when that happened?
Best to start in Red Hook. Brooklyn wasn’t too big a place to hide one scrawny, aspiring artist, nor his would-be assassin, if that is indeed Dr. Sun’s objective. She’ll have the disadvantage of not being from this time period, not to mention a Korean woman in an unfriendly environment. Even before the attack on Pearl Harbor, anti-Asian sentiment was running high, with rumors of spies everywhere.
Steve can’t help but wonder at her goals and motives. Is she really out to kill him? Perhaps it’s not even something that he did: the way Dr. Banner explained it, he’s got to be careful not to change too much in this past. Apparently even stepping on the wrong butterfly can shift the course of history.
Still, Steve has a hard time imagining that his removal from history would benefit a young Korean-American woman. Without him, HYDRA might very well have succeeded in their quest for world domination, in which case the Nazi case for eugenics could have become the norm everywhere. Remembering the camps he liberated, Steve feels his stomach clench. Why in God’s name would anyone risk more of that in the world, let alone someone who would likely make the list of ‘undesirables’? It’s possible that she’s being blackmailed, but what would be worth a suicide mission that almost ensures a much darker version of the world?
Whatever her reasons, Steve isn’t about to be erased from history without a fight. He doesn’t have long. Stark had estimated that the isotope in his blood will wear off in less than a week, at which point the lasers vibrating his cells will no longer have guidance, and he’ll kind of…slide forward in time again.
That’s a better fate than Dr. Sun. Without the serum, she’ll be doing less of a slide and more of a smear.
Putting his head down, Steve lets his hands settle in his pockets and turns his feet towards the river. He’d spent a lot of time there during the summers, painting windows on storefronts. With any luck, he’ll find himself before Dr. Sun does.
In Red Hook, Steve situates himself outside the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin and eats an apple he bought off a street vendor. The old man had been struggling with crates and gratefully accepted Steve’s help unloading his truck in exchange for a penny and an apple of his own. There’ll be plenty of jobs like that, Steve knows, simple day labor that can earn him some coin for his mission.
Squinting towards the distant skyline of Manhattan, Steve takes a brief moment to enjoy the lack of Stark Tower. He might like the guy on a personal level—most of the time, anyway—but Stark sure makes the world a lot more complicated. Or maybe he’s the product of a more complicated world.
Lowering his eyes to street level again, Steve takes in the familiar sights and can’t help the wistfulness that grows in him. He meant what he said to Stark: he hadn’t left much behind when he went away to war, not enough to tempt him to stay here if he could. Still, there’s nowhere like home. The cracked window on the front door of his tenement, the smell of cooked fish (it must be a Friday), all of it…he won’t say that it was a simpler time, it sure as hell wasn’t when a block war might break out at the drop of the wrong hat. All the stuff that made the future seem insane and frenetic were already there, they just happened a whole lot quieter.
Still, it’s the city that he knows. He’s missed it without even realizing.
A sudden bolt of pain shoots through him. Steve doubles over against it, dropping the remains of his apple core. A faint blue glow hovers around his wrists and Steve curses inwardly, fumbling in his pocket for the syringe-like device that Stark gave him—a booster for the isotope, he said, to keep the machine from pulling him back to the future too soon. Presumably the pain and the weird glowing is a warning symptom.
Either that or somewhere in the city, Dr. Sun just killed the past version of him.
Depressing the plunger with a wince, Steve waits for his guts to either stop squirming around or to disappear altogether.
“You okay, pal?” a voice asks from nearby.
“Yeah,” Steve grunts, resisting the urge to spit in the street to clear his throat. He coulda got away with that in the 21st century, but not in the here-and-now. He does take the time to shove the syringe back in his pocket; two more doses.
“If you’re gonna lose your lunch, I’d advise shifting ‘round the corner to the alley. Just ‘cause you’re Atlas don’t mean the Mother Superior won’t come out with a ruler.”
Chuffing a laugh, Steve straightens up. “You speak from experience?”
“Sure do,” says James Buchanan Barnes. He’s young, maybe eighteen or nineteen years old, and shockingly slim. He smiles, and one of his upper front teeth is crooked. HYDRA must have fixed that. Or maybe the serum did. “Once a Catholic boy, always a Catholic boy, I guess.”
The serum speeds up mental processing and reflexes, but it can only do so much. Steve stares long enough that the friendly smile on Barnes’ face starts to fade. “You sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah,” Steve answers vaguely. He’s only ever seen photographs of James Buchanan Barnes—Sergeant Barnes, MIA; Bucky Barnes, holding his little sister—in a digital file on the Winter Soldier. Black-and-white photos hadn’t prepared him for this, and his mind can’t stop cataloguing all the similarities and differences between the young man eyeing him in increasing wariness and the man that Steve primarily knows as the Winter Soldier.
“Yeah,” he says, stronger. “You’re—I think I know you. You’re Barnes, right? I’m Steve Grant.”
James Barnes takes his hand, his expression shifting to quizzical rather than wary. On closer inspection he’s definitely got some baby fat around his cheekbones and Steve does some quick mental recall: his recruitment papers listed his birth year as 1917, so he’s a few months shy of his nineteenth birthday.
It was Stark who had dug up his old Army file. For a while he’d been near obsessed with finding his parents’ murderer, and while Steve couldn’t condone revenge killing, he’d done what he could to help. Together they and the rest of the Avengers had chased HYDRA out of their bolt holes one by one, and in every battle he’d been there: the Winter Soldier, faceless, wordless, a flicker in the corner of their eyes that heralded a rain of bullets. He’d kept fighting long, long after Project Insight had been thwarted, past all reason or logic. All of them carried scars that he’d inflicted, physical or otherwise.
Except, along the way that inexorable wave of violence had faltered, stumbled—and then turned on HYDRA. They’d found bases already leveled to smoking ruins, dismembered bodies, claw marks on the insides of locked rooms which were then set ablaze.
“Call me Bucky,” Bucky says with a renewed smile. “Where do I know you from, Steve?”
“Kickball,” Steve chances. “I used to live in Red Hook before my ma went to work for St. John’s Riverside.”
“Yonkers, what the hell?”
“I know, right. I barely got past the gates, they set the dogs on me.”
A lingering spasm twists in his guts and Steve can’t quite hide the wince. Bucky cocks his head and asks, “Hey, I was just headin’ down to Garfield’s, if you want to join me.”
That, Steve remembers: the hunger pangs that everyone tried to hide during the worst years of the Depression. It’d be hard to look at him now and think him malnourished, but Steve isn’t going to pass by an opportunity to feed his absurd metabolism. “Sure.”
Garfield’s Automat is a long, narrow building that smells strongly of gravy and coffee. Small tables crowd its interior; only about half are occupied. A quick glance at the clock above the counter tells Steve that they’re in that sweet spot right before the lunch rush, when the best plates are available.
Funny how he still remembers that. In the future, if a store runs out of inventory it’s cause for consternation.
“You want to grab us a table?” he asks Bucky.
“Sure. See if they’ve got some meatloaf.” Bucky hands over a collection of nickels that Steve automatically takes before he heads off. Steve pauses, looking down at the coins. His brain flips between two time periods: in the future this would have bought maybe five minutes at a parking meter, but now? This is enough to cover meals for two grown men and then some.
Swallowing down his initial impulse—which is to chase after Bucky and refuse his charity—Steve goes down the line of the automat, collecting an assortment of dishes that he piles carefully on one arm. He’d spent a bit of time as a waiter, enough to know how to stack them the right way.
When he turns, Bucky Barnes is looking at his ass. It’s a discreet yet unmistakably appreciative gaze, one Steve would have missed if he didn’t have excellent peripheral vision courtesy of the serum. Which is…a surprise. All of this is surprising.
By the time he reaches the table, Bucky has schooled his expression to something innocently affable. “Hey, thanks, pal. What brings you back to the neighborhood?”
“Well, my ma passed away a few years back, so there wasn’t much keeping me in Yonkers.”
Bucky’s already got his fork in hand, but he pauses, his eyebrows drawing together. “Aw, hell. I’m sorry. Was she…?”
“She worked in a TB ward. Got hit, couldn’t shake it.”
Bucky’s eyes drop to the tabletop. They’re blue-grey in color. Steve’s noticed that before, sure: they’d been one of the few things visible over the black edge of the Winter Soldier’s mask. But they’ve never looked like this, transparently sad for a woman he’s never met.
“What was her name?” Bucky asks.
Bucky’s mouth quirks sideways. He’s got an uneven slant to his lips. They turn down at the ends and give him a melancholy expression. “My ma died when I was seven. There was a big fire in the shoe factory where she worked and she wasn’t one that made it out. Her name was Winny, Winifred.”
He offers it up like the handful of nickels, giving so freely to this total stranger. It isn’t just seduction, either: Steve remembers enough of this lifetime to know that you couldn’t hope for that sort of thing. Not that he went around picking up fellahs in automats, but he had his share of wary conversations while he tried to suss out if he’d be getting a companion for the night or a punch in the mouth if he said the wrong thing.
There’s not that hidden layer to Bucky’s words, though. He sounds genuinely sorry to hear that this stranger’s mother passed away.
For the first time, Steve wonders if the James Barnes he met in the future remembers his mother at all.
Casting about for a way to shift the conversation, Steve notices a battered magazine tucked underneath Bucky’s cap, which he’s set off to the side of the table. He points at it with his chin. “Anything good?”
Interestingly, Bucky flushes. “Naw, just some dumb thing I picked up on the cheap.” Lifting his cap, he lets Steve see the cover: Amazing Stories – The Planet of the Double Sun. In the illustration, a squadron of clunky winged robots exit a rocket ship and fly over a desert cliff. Bucky shrugs, transparently trying to play it off. “Kid’s stuff, I guess, but if business is slow there’s not a whole lot else to do.”
“Where d’you work?”
“Healey’s Antiques and Hardware. It’s got the big Indian carving out front? We sell mostly wood furniture. I rent the apartment above the store, Mrs. Healey had twins a few months back and they moved up to Clinton Hill.”
“Aw, they’re alright. Mr. Healey worked like a dog most his life, opened three stores. Mine’s the original, but these days he pretty much lets me run the place.”
“Well lookatchu, mister respectable businessman.”
Bucky shoots him a grin. He’s got creamed spinach between his teeth. Half his plate is already gone and he’s pulling a tray of meatloaf towards him. Steve has a sneaking dark suspicion that he should’ve been the one wondering when Bucky last ate.
When they leave the automat—a mountain of empty plates in their wake—Bucky turns to Steve with his paperback stuffed under one arm, his hands in his pockets, and his newsboy cap perfectly tipped. The absolute picture of casualness. “Where you off to in the old neighborhood, Steve?”
“Ah, here and there. I want to see if some old pals are still where I left them.” That’s a good enough excuse as any to be wandering the area.
“Well, if you’re gonna be around for a while, you oughta find me tonight at Hoppers.” Bucky’s walking down the sidewalk, subtly guiding Steve along with him. “It’s too small a place to dance, but they’ve got a cider that’ll knock you down.”
“Sounds good. Never been much of a dancer anyhow.”
“Aw, c’mon, guy like you?” Bucky knocks his shoulder into Steve’s. “Bet you’ve got the ladies filling out your dance card by telegram.”
And that, coupled with the physical contact, definitely has a few different layers. “I think they might change their minds after they see the first few limping away,” Steve says, but he’s thinking about last New Year’s Eve. Tony had thrown a party, of course, and sent an invitation. Steve had attended to be polite and only stayed long enough to—he hoped, in vain—stave off comments. Stark had cornered him on the way out and tried to get him to stay; when Steve deferred, Stark had called him a ‘cold fish.’
It wasn’t the first time. Bucky was right: ever since he’d popped out of Erskine’s machine, ladies—and plenty of men—have been lining up to throw themselves at Steve’s feet. He’s even taken a few up on the offer. But when it comes to relationships that don’t involve quick trysts or huddling for body warmth in a foxhole, Steve is at a loss. His ma died when he was still a teenager and he’d been an only child, too sick to be a decent playmate, so his life had been a solitary one until the Howlies had enveloped him in the camaraderie of a military unit. No wonder he’s so eager to fling himself at missions: the battlefield is the only place he’s ever found companionship.
Right now, with his shoulder occasionally brushing against Bucky’s as they walk down the street, Steve doesn’t feel cold. He’s warm all the way through.
They reach the storefront, which does indeed have a large wooden statue of a Native American chieftain right outside its door; internally Steve winces at the exaggerated, stereotyped features. Unlocking the door, Bucky turns the sign around to OPEN before he attends to the older couple that were waiting for him, looking a little put out. The considerable charm that Bucky has displayed all day gets turned up. He sees them into the store with many promises to follow then turns to Steve with his cap tucked under his arm.
Tilting his head back, Steve makes a show of examining the checkered curtains in the window above the storefront. “Guess I know where to find you, huh? Maybe I’ll see you tonight.”
And…yeah. He lets the double meanings slide under his words. Ain’t no harm in lookin’.
The smile on Bucky’s face widens, lips parting. His eyes darken slightly. All the little hints and cues that used to guide fellahs like them together, back before all the parades and Pride Months. Steve might not like the necessity of this secret dance, but oh, he likes the steps.
“Seeya around, Daddy,” Bucky purrs right out on the street in front of God and the poor Native American statue, who has probably seen way too much already.
“Shit, kid,” Steve exclaims, but he can’t help laughing as he flicks his fingers, shooing Bucky inside the store. He goes, casting a last sly grin over his shoulder and letting his hips swing a bit more than necessary.
Turning away, Steve walks down the street shaking his head. Damn, the nerve on that kid. He sure as hell was never that brazen.
Outside of Bucky’s intensely distracting presence, Steve puts his head back down and canvasses the neighborhood, dividing it into quadrants and moving through them systematically. The trouble with tenements—well, among the many troubles—is that they all tend to look alike, and Steve’s already operating from a questionable memory tinted by colorblindness and poor eyesight.
On the plus side, there’s a chance approaching zero percent that Dr. Sun knows any better than he does.
There’s still the possibility, of course, that she isn’t actually out to kill Steve. Steve mulls it over as he walks, occasionally pausing to offer his labor to painters and grocers and movers; some shoo him away but enough accept his help that he ends the day with a few dollars in his pocket. Not much, not enough for a boarding room, but it’s a start.
It’s frustrating to operate without any backup or way to communicate with Stark and the others: Steve is left having to imagine ways that someone might use this strange, one-way trip to the past to their advantage. If she took out a safety deposit box, she could hide something from this time period, but that would require resources and an accomplice in the future, as Dr. Sun is almost certain to perish without enhancements to keep her alive through the return trip back to the future. And what could she steal that would be worth dying for? The serum, maybe?
These questions ping around Steve’s head, winding him up with frustration as he passes through street after street and finds no sign of Dr. Sun. By design, the canvass search takes you back to your starting point, and that’s the only reason that Steve finds himself on Wolcott Street again, eyeing the offensive Native American statue. It leers at him. Behind it, the storefront is dark.
There’s another possibility, one that has been brewing in Steve’s mind: he’s not the only person lurking in Red Hook who someone might want to erase from history. The Winter Soldier was responsible for over fifty assassinations in the 20th century, and one day Bucky Barnes will be the Winter Soldier.
By the time Steve finds Hoppers, the sun has gone down. In the future, skyscrapers create an artificial horizon in all directions, with the only patch of sunlight being directly up; towards Manhattan, the taller buildings have already started to eat the sky. Out here in Brooklyn there’s still a proper sunset filling the sky.
Steve’s not the only one admiring the view. Kitty-corner to the front of Hoppers, Bucky Barnes is leaning against a lamppost, his head tipped back.
He shouldn’t—he really shouldn’t. There’s a big ole butterfly hovering near Steve’s foot and he’s more or less operating blind. Hell, maybe the future’s already stretched and changed into a new shape. Except, he’s still here. So, it can’t have changed that much, unless somehow his own memories have changed along with the future. If they have, there’s no way he’d know.
Fuckin’ time travel. Going forward in the iceberg was bad enough, this is ridiculous.
Shaking off the scientific quandary, Steve shoves his hands in his pockets and slouches across the street towards Hoppers. When he gets close enough, he whistles once, a rising pitch.
Bucky turns immediately, his face lighting up. “Steve! Hey, pal, how you doin’?”
“Not bad. It’s been good to see the old places again. Nothin’ quite like home.”
“Better’n Yonkers, anyway.” As Steve reaches the far sidewalk, Bucky throws a companionable arm around Steve’s shoulders then slides off like water. The skin of his forearm drags across Steve’s neck. “Damn, you’re too tall. You meet up with any of your old pals?”
“I saw a few.” It’s not technically a lie. Steve had been on passably good terms with a few guys, mostly fellow fairies who he’d walk home from the bars like the world’s tiniest, angriest bodyguard. He’d had a reputation for that: he was no one’s fellah, but everyone’s best mother hen.
Of course, none of those guys and occasional gals recognized him now. He’d paused outside Lonnie’s and watched them gather for the night, feeling like he was on the other side of a pane of glass. If he’d ever had a home outside the battlefield, it was a stained, smelly booth in the back of Lonnie’s, one eye on the door, nursing a single beer and ready to swing his bottle at the first sign of trouble. Which, really, was its own kind of battlefield, but it’d gotten him red-stained kisses on the cheek from half the queens in Brooklyn, a much better reward than any he’d received on the Western front.
The inside of Hoppers is a bit cleaner than Lonnie’s, though Steve would bet they’re a front for somebody’s money-laundering business. Bucky gets them a pair of ciders and a booth right next to the bar, but they’ve no sooner sat down than a couple of Italian guys—brothers, from the look of them—approach to say hello to Bucky. They’re a rough looking pair but seem to like Bucky well enough, clapping him on the shoulder and glancing sideways at Steve as if to ascertain his provenance, like maybe he’s the suspicious-looking one. Bucky smooths things over easily, introducing Steve as, “My pal Steve from outta town, we go way back, practically family.”
Once the Italian brothers have departed, there’s a couple of gals who’ve already been drinking. They chide Bucky for not showing up at some dance hall last weekend; Bucky clutches his chest and plays up his heartfelt apologies, his ma had a cold and he needed to visit the butcher for her. He couldn’t let his poor sick mother starve, could he?
Once the girls move off, mollified and with promises of future dates, Steve asks, “Is the governor gonna show up next, make you his running mate?”
“Shaddup,” Bucky says with a laugh, then waves at someone across the bar who’s trying to get his attention.
All the socializing, though, gives Steve an idea. Once Bucky’s finally stopped saying hello to half of Brooklyn, he says, “I was meaning to ask you, I’m looking for a friend of mine. Young Asian lady, black hair and glasses. She said she was gonna be in town around now and I was hoping to meet up, but I think I lost the paper with her ma’s address.”
“Aw, see, I knew it—you got a girl tucked away somewhere, Grant? Naw, don’t look at me like that, I don’t mind that she’s Asian.”
“It’s not like that, she’s just a friend. Think she might be in a little trouble, I’m tryin’ to keep the trouble from getting any bigger.”
Cocking his head, Bucky studies Steve’s face. “This troubled lady friend got a name?”
“San-mook Sun. ‘Bout twenty-three, yea high, Korean but she speaks fluent English.”
“I haven’t seen her. She, uh, she ain’t in a family way, is she?”
“Hell no. Not that kinda trouble. I just need to find her, quick as I can.”
“Awright, I’ll ask around.”
“Thanks, pal, I appreciate it.”
Bucky sits back in his chair, appraising Steve with a faint smirk. “Shit, you’re one of those do-gooder types, ain’cha? Always runnin’ around, rescuing little old ladies and their kittens.”
“Guilty as charged. What about you?”
“Oh you know,” Bucky says, looking away with a smile; but his eyes are shadowed. “Think the Mother Superior would have a thing or two to say ‘bout me.”
Steve thinks back to this afternoon, and Bucky calling him ‘Daddy.’ I’ll bet she does. Out loud, he says, “Well maybe I’m just gonna have to be a good influence on ya.”
There’s a moment where Bucky just looks at him. It’s the look of someone who wants to say something like, No you don’t. If this were the 21st-century, he’d probably be even more blunt and go for a line about spanking or some such. Steve always has to rein in his shock at the pickup lines he gets in the modern age, which leave nothing to the imagination. This, though, is another step in the dance: a long, heavy look across the table before Bucky lifts his bottle and, without breaking eye contact, takes a long drink. Steve swallows, imagining that he can taste the cider in his own mouth.
Waggling the now-empty bottle, Bucky pushes to his feet. “You want another?”
The swing is back in Bucky’s step as he heads to the bar and Steve isn’t the only one who notices: a dame slides over from her friend’s side to Bucky’s, riding the edge of demure as she smiles up at him. Bucky grins back, but stays on the polite side of friendly. Steve just knows what the neighborhood ladies think of Bucky: a gentleman, who’ll take a gal out on the town, buy her a drink but never too much, keep his hands above the waist while they dance, and see her back to her door with maybe a kiss goodnight. A standup guy, the kind a girl can trust.
Watching the two of them chat at the bar, Steve picks at the label of his bottle with one fingernail. This is always the part where his dates, infrequent as they are, either fizzle out or go physical. He’s a man of action, and the small talk that seems painfully necessary to fomenting deeper relationships is alien to him. Somehow, though, the idea bothers him. It’d be pretty easy for him to make the right moves to get them out the door and to Bucky’s place, just down the block; and yet…he doesn’t want to leave this bubble quite yet. He wants to talk more, he just can’t find the words, and the lack is almost a physical pain inside his chest.
Bucky slides back into the booth on a stream of perfume with another two ciders in hand. “Hey, so, how’dja like the new Dodgers lineup? Think we’ve got a chance at staying outta the bottom of the barrel?”
That’s a pretty pessimistic view, in Steve’s opinion, but only if he actually takes a moment to place the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers in their slump of the late 30’s. God, he’d love to take a second and talk about Jackie Robinson to someone who might truly appreciate the improbability of that achievement; but they’re about…what, a decade away from Robinson? Unfair.
“Well,” he says, “unless Uncle Robbie wants to come out of retirement, I think Stengel’s gonna have to figure out how to get past his own big head.”
“More like his big wallet!”
“That, too. Ain’t nothing wrong with a man wanting to get paid what he’s due, but unless they start putting up some numbers, he ain’t due much.”
“Long as we don’t wind up with three men on third again, right?”
“I was there for that game! Herman was a damned idiot, he should’ve listened to the base coach and not run for third.”
“That wouldn’ta mattered if Vance stayed at third, Herman would still have been out at second. Vance shoulda run for home when Herman first hit the ball, otherwise Hewster didn’t have nowhere to go.”
“Aw come on, Vance was a pitcher, you can’t expect a pitcher to run for shit, Herman shoulda stayed at first.”
“On a hit off the wall? Come on, it was a couple inches from bein’ a grand slam homer, they shoulda got at least a couple runs off the play. And I don’t care if he’s a pitcher, my granny coulda made it to home from second base in the time it took Welsh to throw—”
“Naw, naw, listen, that’s only a coupla blocks to throw the ball. Listen, I was in junior league right around then, we tested it, every single one of our outfielders could get the ball to home before a runner made it from second. Vance wouldn’t’ve made it, Hewster shoulda stayed at second.
“Yeah, I’m sure a buncha kids got a real accurate replay,” Bucky jokes, but he’s got a furrow between his eyes. After a beat, he says, “You were in junior league? Wouldn’t you have been kinda old for that?”
“Yeah,” Steve answers vaguely, doing some quick mental recalculations. In 1936 he’d been seventeen, but right now he’s…well, he’s somehow simultaneously about twenty-nine and one hundred years old, depending on whether one counts his years frozen in the ice. He forgets, sometimes. “I was sick a lot as a kid, though, got held back a few years in school.”
“Which one didya go to?”
“Hah! I almost went there. Ma had a friend, though, took her kids to St. Saviour, so we went there instead.”
“I almost went there, but my dad’s name was Joseph. Kinda tipped the scales.”
They pass a while like that, comparing places and people. Turns out they had a few in common, but never quite enough: Steve’s ma got the job in Yonkers right around the time that he and Bucky might have had class together in high school. Besides the invented kickball connection, they always just missed each other.
“Damn,” Bucky finally says, sitting back and taking a swig of his cider. “That’s a shame, I woulda liked to know you better back then. ‘Course, I’d’ve been just a pipsqueak, followin’ you around.”
“I wouldn’t’ve been much bigger.” Steve’s voice has changed while talking to Bucky, his old accent creeping in. The USO had hired an elocution coach to train it out of him: Captain America, they’d insisted, should be able to represent the whole country, not just the borough of Brooklyn. “I was pretty little as a kid.”
“What, they got magic beans up in Yonkers?”
“Somethin’ like that.”
They buy a couple more ciders to go—they can do that now, Steve remembers fondly, just walk down the street with open bottles of alcohol—and head out, ambling back towards Healey’s without really talking about it. Steve’s nowhere approaching drunk, but he’s intoxicated for sure: he’s never met someone who’s as easy to talk to as Bucky. The places where conversation would normally become awkward instead get smoothed over, and even the silences feel comfortable. He can see why half of Brooklyn lined up for their daily dose of Bucky’s brand of charm.
“What’re you smirkin’ ‘bout?” Bucky asks, an unlit cigarette bobbing between his lips as he speaks. They’re crooked, the bottom lip just slightly fuller on the left side than the right.
“You. You got half the borough eatin’ outta your hand.”
“Aw, c’mon, not really. People just know they can come to me for help if they need it.” They walk a little further as Bucky gets his cigarette lit; shaking out the match, he continues, “Everybody wanna hand up every now and then, y’know. People says New York is a hard place to live, but I’ve known some of the kindest folks around here, would give me their last dime if they thought I needed it, without me asking. The way I figure, it’s only fair that you give what you get, right?”
All night, Steve’s seen Bucky lie. Not maliciously: he lied to the Italian brothers to cover for Steve, and he lied to the two girls about his sick ma. (Or he lied to Steve about his ma being dead.) But if he’s lying right now, he doesn’t show any sign of it, and Steve’s gotten better at spotting deception. He’s had to.
“You keep talking like that,” he murmurs, “and you’re gonna have me eating out of your hand.”
Bucky tilts his head. Probably the angle of his head and the fall of the lighting would hide his face with other people, but Steve can perfectly see his expression. He’s studying Steve with a single-minded intensity. Steve lets him look. Their feet slow on the sidewalk. Somewhere behind them a car passes, and to their left a cat fight has started up. A couple blocks over someone’s ma is calling for Davey to come home.
Bucky doesn’t respond right away, just exhales a plume of smoke that catches the light shining from above him. He flicks the cigarette away; it’s still only three-quarters burned, and the deliberate waste catches at Steve’s attention.
When he looks again, Bucky’s closer to him than he was before. The skin on Steve’s neck prickles. He’s got plenty of experience with the Winter Soldier appearing at random moments and for the first time he’s sharply aware that while Bucky doesn’t normally move the same way, he could. He will, one day.
Right now, though, Bucky’s not clamping a hand around Steve’s throat or punching his lights out: he’s easing forward bit by bit, his eyes on Steve’s face the whole way. This close, Steve can hear the kick of Bucky’s heart. It’s thumping away something fierce. Like a desperate thing inside of him is knocking to get out.
Despite all the preamble, it’s still a shock when Bucky leans up and plants his mouth on Steve’s. He has to stand up on his tiptoes and he grabs Steve’s collar to keep his balance. His forearms land against Steve’s chest. Steve’s still leaning backwards slightly and Bucky sort of stretches across his front, all elbows and pulling lips. He tastes like cigarette smoke and sweat.
Desire has been a tight bud in Steve’s throat, but now it blooms hot enough to steal his breath. When he opens his mouth to speak Bucky moans straight into it and the sound rattles around inside of him.
Bucky crowds forward, bigger despite his size. Their bodies fit together from knees to chests. The brick wall abrades Steve’s back, catching on his shirt in places, and he can feel each individual knob of his spine scrape against the stone as Bucky pushes him along the wall, stumbling for the shadow of the doorway. Somewhere along the journey Bucky pulls back enough to get a hand between them.
“Christ, Bucky,” Steve mumbles, ducking his head. Bucky’s hand is way too deft at this. The darkened alcove of the doorway enfolds them but Steve still has to squeeze his eyes shut, overwhelmed.
“Language,” Bucky whispers, laughter spilling out between the words. Despite the bravado in his voice, he’s shaking. “C’mon, we gotta getcha out of the street before you shock a sister with that mouth.”
Their journey up the rickety outer stairwell to Bucky’s front door is slow and stuttering. Steve sees it all in dizzying glimpses, his hands full of Bucky’s shifting back and the dip of his slim waist. Bucky’s licking at his mouth like he knows the words that Steve has been holding back, his hidden blossoming lust, and he wants to eat it straight from Steve’s lips.
Upstairs he lays Steve out on the narrow cot of his bed. Bucky’s bedroom is too dark to see much but the streetlight of a narrow window falls across Bucky himself as he sinks down on Steve’s cock, his mouth open and his chest moving with his breath. The narrow shadows of the window slats stroke over his body as he moves and Steve grips Bucky’s hips to ground himself. He feels like he might slide right off the side of the world, floating sometime between the sleek metal spires of Stark Tower and the cold ground of a French battlefield and here. This bed, smelling faintly of pomade. This man letting Steve share his body, his narrow hips, his bobbing cock, the part of his uneven lips.
It is a strange collection of places and people and they all jumble in Steve’s mind, incongruous and impossible to knit together into any kind of coherence. The best he can do is hold on.
Bucky shuffles out of bed shortly after dawn, too early for work hours. Steve has spent most the night dozing, unaccustomed to having a body next to him and unable to relax into a deeper sleep. Bucky, though, snorts himself awake gradually, stretching and scratching his rear. He shuffles across the room for a drink of water from the creaky tap and Steve sits up to watch.
Turning back, Bucky catches his regard. He stands with the glass dangling from his fingers at his side, completely relaxed in his nudity. Steve flushes hot, feeling like he should look away but not able to do so.
“You gonna be one of those fellahs who pretends not to know me today?” Bucky asks.
“No,” Steve answers sharply. He’s known a few guys like that himself, who all too quickly shrugged Steve off once they’d got theirs. That someone would do that to Bucky—with his long, lanky frame and his dark curls—seems implausible, but there’s no denying the wariness in Bucky’s eyes.
Shaking off the blanket, Steve crosses the room. Bucky’s eyes drop, hungrily taking in his body, but Steve’s not about to get distracted: he takes Bucky’s face in his hands and kisses him. He’s not got a whole lot of experience with kissing—thanks, Natasha—but he figures the sentiment comes across just fine. He bends down and presses their lips together gently, carefully. Bucky’s only a couple inches shorter than him, but he’s lean with the Depression, and in this at least he is delicate. Last night Bucky had curled his tongue around the lust in Steve’s mouth, but now Steve gives him the rest willingly.
They tumble back into the bed, all elbow and the clash of mouths. Steve gets one of Bucky’s legs up over his shoulder and slides a couple fingers along the crack of his ass. He’s still slick and a little open from last night, though Steve knows from his other lovers that fucking him again wouldn’t be on the kind side; blessings and curse of the serum. Instead he gets two fingers crooked inside of Bucky then leans down to suckle at his cock. Bucky keens, grabbing at Steve’s head. His hips are all the way up off the mattress, held aloft by Steve’s arm hooked under his ass, and he can’t do much except hang there and let Steve suck his cock and fuck him with his fingers. He doesn’t sound like he minds.
It’s a damn good thing that no one lives below them. Bucky gets loud, whining and begging for Steve to fuck him until Steve relents, pushing back in slow and careful. Either Bucky’s not that bruised up or he likes it that way, because he gets his legs wrapped around Steve’s hips and whimpers, “Please, Daddy, please.”
And, well, what the hell is Steve supposed to do after that?
Panting in the aftermath, Bucky lets out a long, low whistle. “Damn, that was good. Think you got another round in you before I gotta get up for work?”
“Might need some breakfast.”
“Mmmm, eggs. Say, can you reach my pants? Need a cigarette after that. I think you mighta broke my legs, Daddy, you’re gonna have to carry me to Garfield’s.”
“You’re a menace, kid.” Stretching an arm to the discarded pants on the floor, Steve flips them over and tugs a pack of Luckys out of the pocket. Shit, should he tell Bucky that they cause cancer? That doesn’t get figured out for another fifty years; right now, people think they’re good for you.
A piece of paper drops to the floor as he does so and Steve leans over the edge of the bed to retrieve it. It’s a photograph, black and white: two girls, about thirteen and ten, standing in the doorway of a brownstone wearing what must be their Sunday best. They both smile tentatively.
Sitting up, Steve hands over the cigarettes before holding up the photograph with an apologetic expression. “Fell out. Family of yours?”
Something complicated happens to Bucky’s face, which he hides behind his lighter for a moment, getting a cherry burn on his Luckys. Steve considers making a crack about Luckys and Bucky to distract from whatever he’s stumbled across; it’s none of his business, he ought to give Bucky an out, and Steve’s never been good with these sorts of conversations. Personal confessions are for priests, not the fleeting lovers that Steve has between missions.
For once, though, he realizes he does want to know. Bucky is usually so easy to read, it feels wrong to let him stay shuttered. It’s too much like Barnes, Steve realizes with a funny kind of jolt. Besides the eerie moment earlier before Bucky had kissed him, he’s been able to separate the two quite clearly in his head; but right now, as he blows a stream of smoke the same blue-grey color as his eyes, Bucky looks very much like Barnes.
Then he takes the dogeared photograph from Steve and his crooked mouth softens. He smiles at the girls as he touches their faces gently, one after the other. “My sisters, Rebecca and Alice. They live over in Bushwick with my pops and his new wife.”
“Sure are,” Bucky says. His eyes stay on the photograph. Watching him, Steve can’t think of a damned thing to say, so after a moment he reaches out and rests one finger on Bucky’s knee. Somehow that works and Bucky comes back from wherever he went, smiling at Steve.
“Pop found out about me, told me to take a hike.” He chuffs a laugh, his mouth twisting. “Funny thing is, I don’t know how he knew. I didn’t know, I just thought all boys wanted to kiss their friends. Never even heard the word fairy until it was outta his mouth.” Pausing, he takes a long drag on his cigarette. Steve says nothing and eventually Bucky goes on. “He got married again, so I know the girls are okay. I walk by the house every now and then to see ‘em, and it seems like the new missus takes good care of them, so. Guess I can’t be too sore about it.”
Steve’s heart aches. “How long’s it been?”
“Few years,” Bucky says with a shrug. In the two days that Steve has known him, he’s never looked so much like the Winter Soldier. The animation that drew Steve in so quickly has dimmed, drawn inward behind a blank mask in the early morning light.
Then he looks up and hell. His eyes are so blue.
Leaning in, Steve presses a kiss to the corner of Bucky’s eye, then the fine arch of his cheekbone and the corner of his mouth. He does not say, Your dad’s a rat bastard or You deserve to be taken care of, too, but he hopes that Bucky feels something like that in the touch of Steve’s hands as they ease back down on the warm bed.
They do finally fumble their way out of bed and head down to the automat. If there’s a hitch in Bucky’s step, Steve’s pretty sure that he’s the only one who can see, and they’ve both got their collars buttoned up to hide the love bites. Fortunately, it’s lousy weather: a misting grey rain has set in overnight. Everyone’s got their eyes on the damp ground, shoulders hunched, heads ducked under umbrellas and hats. No one notices the well-fucked glow that surrounds Bucky.
If Steve has half that glow himself, he might as well register as a renewable energy source.
They eat quickly and Bucky makes eyes at him the whole time and grins like the cat that got the canary. Steve doesn’t have the heart to dissuade him like he should.
This time there’s no elderly customers waiting for Bucky’s return, but the itch of having neglected his mission for the night has set in on Steve’s conscience. Bucky pouts a bit, asking, “Will I see you tonight at Hoppers?”
He really shouldn’t, but Steve finds himself saying, “Are you married to Hoppers?”
“You got another place in mind?”
Lifting his head, Steve again glances up at the curtains of Bucky’s little apartment on the second floor.
Bucky’s lips curl upwards.
Steve does manage to leave him, then, and heads down a couple of blocks to check on his old neighborhood, and old himself. He’s right where Steve left him, seemingly undisturbed. Steve moves outward from there in a spiral, careful to keep his collar turned up. He’s borrowed a cap from Bucky—he’d had two, the dandy—and he’s grateful for it in the light rain.
He wishes to Hell he could get his hands on a weapon of some kind but his options are limited. Most pawn shops in town will have old, dented guns with rusted triggers, and buying a new one would be too expensive. He’d spend the entire week just trying to make enough money. He could knock over a local gangster—those two Italian brothers in Hoppers seem like likely candidates—but that might disturb the timeline too much.
He’s considering his next move: stakeouts always set his teeth on edge, much less stakeouts where he isn’t even sure of the target. He can’t exactly walk up to perfect strangers asking if they’ve seen a woman that matches San-mook’s description, that’d draw too much attention to both of them and he might step on one of those figurative butterflies; hopefully Bucky will have better luck asking around on his behalf. The canvassing has started to feel pointless and nearly makes him miss Stark’s ability to plug into virtually any camera around the world, ethical issues be damned.
Another option would be to find some way of luring San-mook out of the haystack. It’d have to be discreet, of course, something only she would notice if she passed it on the street. Something that people of the time would overlook.
He’s turning it over in his head and just starting to come up with a plan as he crosses onto Hamilton Avenue. Then he stops short.
There’s an empty lot to his left, overgrown with weeds. Someone must have leveled it for construction but never followed through—probably a company that went bust in the 20’s. On the far side of the empty space is the back of a red brick building, and written in white paint on the back of the brick building are two words:
H E Y S T E V E
Frowning, Steve looks around, but the street around him appears completely normal. The lot is overgrown with what Steve would estimate is at least two years’ worth of weeds. Edging closer, he peers up at the message.
Halfway up the wall, right between the two words, one brick stands out a little further than its fellows and has a smear of blue on one corner.
Heaving a sigh, Steve glances around one more time then takes off his jacket and Bucky’s cap. “This better be you, Stark,” he mutters then jumps up and catches a fingerhold in the brick.
The building is about three stories high, so he’s not in any real danger of injury; he just hates crimping. It hurts his fingernails. Once he reaches the blue brick, he has to hang on with one hand while he wiggles it free. Behind the brick is a small hole and small, square, metal object.
Steve plucks it out and springs backward from the wall, dropping thirty feet to land in a crouch. Halfway down, a door opens from the back of the brick building—not directly underneath Steve, but close to the right. When he straightens up, there’s an old man with a white, bristly moustache and large glasses standing in the doorway staring at him.
“Evenin’ sir,” Steve says as casually as he can manage.
“Evening,” the old man says. He’s stooped but has bright, sharp eyes that glance upward before peering at Steve. “Don’t s’pose you fixed the roof while you was up there?”
“Sorry, can’t say I did.” As he speaks, the metal square in Steve’s hand—which had been cold and appeared quite solid at first glance—twitches, hums, and starts to grow warm. He edges that hand around the side of his leg, out of sight, and prays to God that it isn’t a bomb.
Steve gestures to the wall. “Any, uh, any idea who painted that?”
The old man squints upwards. “Oh, that? I think that’s been there…a few years? Somebody’s idea of a joke, I guess. They must’ve had a pretty big ladder.”
“Must have,” Steve agrees, then nods, puts his hands in his pockets and walks away whistling. The old man doesn’t call after him, though Steve can feel a gaze on his back as he crosses the lot back to the road.
By then the object has started to unfold with a series of clicks and whirs. “Dammit Stark,” Steve mutters, hurrying down the street into an alley. He draws it out of his pocket again just in time to watch a pair of wings and what might have been a paint spray can flip outward from the cube’s center and drop to the ground, where they spark and break apart in evident pre-programmed self-destruct.
What’s left in the cube continues to fold outward, forming a pair of sleek glasses, complete with an earpiece. Steve’s seen them on Stark employees; he slides them on.
A series of images pass over his vision as Stark’s voice comes to life in his ear. “If you’re hearing this, then you’re either Cap, or you’ve cut off Cap’s hand and climbed up a wall and stuck his hand in a random hole, which, frankly, is insane enough that you’ve earned my profound respect and fear, and you deserve to hear this anyway. You’ve been gone for a couple of days but I still remember you, so I’m guessing the mission is still live—shut up, Bruce—and there’s new intel. I’ve sent this back in time to—well, strictly experimental, not sure I’m gonna hit the same point in time, so I’m sending this back a few years early and hoping you find it.”
As Stark speaks, the glasses show Steve a succession of photographs, bright and glossy with color; Steve has another moment of disconnect, looking at those photographs in this alleyway. It used to happen all the time after he first woke up: seeing the new superimposed on the old, a helicopter flying past the Brooklyn Bridge, a kid on a Razor scooter whirring down Stone Street.
The photographs are: an Asian woman in a dress, at a counter buying something wrapped up in fabric. At work wearing a lab coat and peering through a microscope. Dying on a hospital bed.
“San-mook Sun’s mother was named Dr. Kyeong Sun,” Stark continues, “and she didn’t die of cancer. HYDRA killed her. Apparently, the senior Dr. Sun was working on a method of water purification that would have ended worldwide shortages, and HYDRA didn’t like the sound of that, so. They poisoned her. Or, more specifically our dear, dear mommy-killing friend the Winter Soldier took her out.
“You’re not the target, Cap, he is. I’m guessing she wants to kill him before he can kill her mom, but didn’t want to go mano-a-mano with the world’s deadliest assassin, which, makes sense. One thousand moral questions about going back in time to kill Hitler…anyway, she’s gonna try to kill Barnes before he becomes the Winter Soldier, which…”
There’s a pause, in which Stark shuffles around, breathing and pouring some liquid. The hairs on the back of Steve’s neck rise.
“You gotta stop her,” Stark finally says, his voice hoarse like he just swallowed half a bottle of Scotch. “He killed hundreds of people, including my mom, but he—he shaped the 20th century. Maybe HYDRA could’ve got those jobs done, anyway, and maybe in doing so they would have made a better assassin than him. There’s no way of knowing if the world without him would be better or worse. It’s too big a risk. He’s the devil we know.
“Anyway. Your mission, should you choose to accept it.” Maps and diagrams pop up in Steve’s vision. “Barnes is somewhere in New York, not clear where. Census of 1920 and 1930 shows a Barnes family in Bushwick with a son named James and two girls, but by 1940 it was just the two girls. Then he pops up in Army records, enlisted and processed through a Brooklyn recruitment center in 1942, so he must’ve stuck somewhere close to home. Your guess is as good as mine, probably better. I’m just gonna…go now. See you when you get back. This message will self-destruct in ten seconds, so take the glasses off before then.”
The audio cuts off. Steve slowly removes the glasses and bends to set them on the ground, watching as they spark and crumple to tiny pieces that blow away in the breeze.
Now that the target perimeter has shifted, Steve spends his day ambling through the neighborhood around Healey’s with a newspaper tucked under his arm. Periodically he stops to check the paper, frowning thoughtfully before going in and out of businesses. Natasha has all but despaired of putting him in undercover missions, but maybe that has more to do with his lingering cultural displacement than his acting abilities, because this is easy. He’s a regular joe looking for work, got laid off construction after those row houses on Creamer Street went up, you know the ones? Yes, sir, they’re mighty ugly ones. No, sir, I’m not the architect, I just lay concrete.
It’s a familiar-enough role, though Steve certainly never had concrete on his resumé the last time he spent his afternoons this way.
Leaning against the corner of a building near the park with a good vantage point up and down Richards Street and across the park, Steve finds himself worrying at his memories of the Winter Soldier like a sore tooth. He’s deliberately avoided them until now, and Bucky has been different enough to keep thoughts of his future self from intruding; but the pain in Stark’s voice has brought them all crashing back.
Once he’d come in from the cold, Barnes had proven himself a useful ally. He’s even saved Steve’s life once or twice. But he’s also stayed far enough away to remain a cipher. They’d known he was from Brooklyn, that he served around the same time that Steve did; but what had seemed like happenstance and the vagaries of fate now seems…strange. Two men, from the same neighborhood, plunged a hundred years into the future with the fuel of science in their veins. Looking at the story from this vantage point, Steve wonders why he’s never tried to get to know Barnes better. After all, they have a few unique things in common.
Cold fish, Stark’s voice mutters in his ear, and Steve sighs, shifting his hip against the corner of a brownstone. He’s never had close friends or anyone that he’d call a lover. The nearest he’d gotten to the latter was Peggy Carter, who had been a friend and an occasional bedmate that the newsreels plumped up as his gal. Steve is a soldier, first and foremost, and if Barnes had made himself part of Steve’s new unit then maybe, perhaps, their nearly-shared history would have bonded them together.
Instead he’d avoided all of them as much as possible, appearing only in times of dire need and/or alien invasion. That’s never bothered Steve before, but now having met Bucky…he wonders at missed opportunities.
As if summoned, Bucky appears at the door of Healey’s Antiques and Hardware, donning his own newsboy cap and turning around the sign on the front door. Steve eases back around the corner, watching as Bucky mounts the stairs to the apartment above. From this distance, Steve can see his lips are pursed, but not hear the tune he’s whistling.
Taking a deep breath, Steve pushes away from the wall and hurries after Bucky.
The stairs are plenty rickety but Bucky doesn’t turn around until Steve’s nearly caught up to him. He grins immediately. “Well, hold your horses, there, Grant. Give a fellah some time to wash up—”
“I can’t come over tonight,” Steve interrupts.
Bucky cocks his head, frowning. “All right. You want to meet at Hoppers after all?”
“No, it’s—I can’t meet you tonight, period. Something’s come up and I’ve got to leave town.” It’s not even quite a lie: Steve will still be in the vicinity running his protection detail, but he won’t be here, in Bucky’s world.
“When’re you gonna get back?”
“I’m not. Look, I’m sorry, I—something’s happened and I have to leave. For good.”
“What the hell? What’s wrong? Are you okay?”
“Yes, I just can’t be here right now. I’m sorry.”
Bucky’s a few steps above him on the stairs, meaning that he’s just above Steve in height right now. He doesn’t look it: the bright charm that usually animates him has folded up tight, small and still.
“Thought you said you weren’t gonna be one of those guys,” he murmurs.
Steve’s stomach twists. “That’s not—that isn’t why. It’s complicated, Bucky.”
Bucky studies him. His eyes are so blue. Steve wishes to God that he could find a moment to draw him: his narrow lips and strangely elegant features, the fine bones of his brow and cheekbones. They aren’t unfamiliar to him in the least—he’s seen a hundred pictures of the Winter Soldier taken from security cameras, police sketches, dossiers, and medical files—but he’s never felt this burning need to capture this face, as if he was in danger of forgetting the angle of Bucky’s jaw. As if that was even possible.
It’s only been three days. How the hell does he feel this way?
“All right,” Bucky finally says. The tone of his voice does nothing to lift the hard, heavy stone in Steve’s gut. “Guess I’ll see you around, Steve Grant.”
He turns and walks up the stairs to his doorway. Standing at the bottom, Steve watches him go until the front door shuts behind Bucky firmly.
When he’d finally come in from the cold, it was Steve who Barnes had tracked down, Steve to whom he’d offered intel on the Maximoff twins and other threats in exchange for his freedom. At the time, Steve had chalked it up to basic survival instinct: by then they’d known the Winter Soldier’s real name, found out that he was a POW captured by the Nazis and used for experimentation against his will. For Steve and some of the others, that had more than tipped the scales against Stark’s vendetta mission.
They’d been in Taiwan, ferreting out some maniac who wasn’t even HYDRA but was doing her best to profit from the resources and weapons they’d left behind. Somehow, she’d gotten hold of the Winter Soldier’s strings, his codewords, and threw him at the Avengers to cover her escape.
It had made real tactical sense for Steve to square off against the Soldier while Sam and Stark swooped after the target and Natasha rescued what intel she could from the damaged mainframe. They were evenly matched and by then they’d fought enough times to know each other’s moves and adapt, counter-adapt, switch tactics, and learn the new tactics.
It was a dance and Steve could admit that some buried part of him liked the moves, even when he was the one left off-balance.
In Taiwan, the Soldier hadn’t been dancing back. Usually he fought like a machine gun, unrelenting; but someone had forgotten to crank his wind-up and he was even more robotic than usual, his movements leaden.
Eventually Steve had simply dropped out of stance and taken a step back out of arm’s reach. The Soldier hadn’t followed; Steve could hear his breath wheezing behind the mask. His eyes still tracked Steve’s movements.
“We could stop this,” Steve offered.
A blink of the eyes. When they’d first encountered the Winter Soldier, Steve had openly wondered if he was even human. Stark had introduced the concept of cyborgs, but under the influence of codewords—which he usually was in combat scenarios—the Soldier hadn’t seemed remotely human. He’d appeared and disappeared, seeming to warp the world with his violence in a manner that, while certainly not devoid of tactics, seemed entirely unthinking. He did not stop to consider whether or not to attack his targets, merely what method of killing them might be most effective.
Keeping his weight on the balls of his feet, Steve said, “HYDRA is finished, for good this time. You helped make sure of that. There’s no base to go back to, no backup to call. It’s the end of the line for you, pal, and you know it. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We could stop.”
Another blink. The wheezing had mostly stopped and Steve half expected a renewal of violence now that the Soldier had his breath back. Instead he said something in Russian, with a questioning tone of voice.
“Natasha, translation?” Steve said into his headset while he kept his eyes on the Soldier.
A crackle. Then, audibly unwilling—she’d advised killing the Soldier on sight—Natasha had said, “He asked who you are.”
That was strange: the Soldier had known him well enough in past missions, when Steve had been either a target or an enemy combatant. HYDRA had what Stark called a ‘murder room’ on Steve, with more information than he even remembered about himself. “My name is Steve Rogers. I was part of SHIELD, now the Avengers Initiative.”
A slight shift of weight that caused Steve to twitch his back foot, setting the traction of his boot; but the Soldier only lists to the side. He was barely standing up, Steve realized. He said something else in Russian.
“He wants you to take off your helmet,” Natasha reported without prompting, “probably so he can shoot you in the head.”
Steve managed not to roll his eyes and unbuckled his chin strap, easing off the helmet. His scalp prickled as air met the sweat in his mashed-flat hair. Cautiously he lifted his uncovered face to the Soldier.
Who stared at it for a long moment in silence. And then he’d come, step by lurching step, to stand closer to Steve with his head bowed and his eyes on the ground.
Then, of course, Tony had appeared and shot at him with a repulsor blast and when the smoke cleared, the Soldier had been gone. But he’d come back later, after Steve and Tony had it out for firing on a non-hostile combatant and the rest of the team had cautiously veered to one side or the other. Steve had wearily shuffled his way into his apartment to find the Winter Soldier already there, with data logs and maps to the biggest HYDRA base they’d yet uncovered, something called the Hive.
Steve hadn’t thought to ask why me? because at the time, there hadn’t been anyone else to whom the Soldier might turn. Several world governments wanted the Soldier dead or locked away forever and those that didn’t most likely wanted to use him. So Steve conducted his own interrogation, with Natasha and Sam as the devil and angel on his shoulders.
It’d been fairly straightforward: Barnes sat rigid and still in a chair, his hands resting on his knees. He’d answered all the questions he could and stared blankly at the others. It’d only been at the end, when dawn glowed in the windows and even Natasha showed signs of exhaustion, that Steve had asked something that caused any kind of human-like reaction in the Winter Soldier:
“Do you remember anything of your life before HYDRA?”
Barnes had twitched hard enough that his chair creaked. They’d all tensed, adrenaline jolting them awake. Natasha had her gun out immediately and trained on Barnes. All he did, though, was stare at Steve.
Then he’d mumbled, “See you in the 21st century, kid.”
He said it so quietly that Steve doubted Sam or Natasha even heard him. He frowned, leaning forward. “What does that mean? Is that code for something?”
“Then what is it?”
“I don’t know.” Barnes’ eyes had already slipped out of focus again, back into the blank automaton.
They’d moved cautiously on the information he fed them, and only after it’d panned out had they revealed their source to the other Avengers. By then Tony had burned through enough of his vengeful rage to feel ashamed of his actions; none of the others liked it, precisely, but they accepted the deal on the condition that Barnes was monitored at all times. Barnes had immediately slipped the leash and dropped off the radar; but then he came back during the fight with Ultron and again for Thanos. In the latter fight he’d been erased along with the unlucky half of the universe.
By the time they got everyone back and defeated Thanos, no one really gave much of a shit about Barnes anymore. Water under the bridge, Stark would say, as if he hadn’t spent the better part of a year plotting ways to kill Barnes. Still, Steve had been more than happy to let the matter drop and Barnes had settled into place as their distant ally.
They haven’t interacted one-on-one since that first interrogation in his apartment. Steve has his team and Barnes isn’t on it.
If and when Steve lives through this without folding up the space-time continuum, he’s going to have a long, cathartic shouting match with Stark about not only irresponsible inventions but faulty hiring practices. He’d bet than it’s not any worse than the anger that Stark has already directed at himself, but Steve is self-aware enough to admit that he’s going to need someone to scream at once this is all over. It’s either that or start punching something until his hands break.
He keeps picturing Bucky’s face—the resignation and disappointment in his eyes, the way his shoulders had slumped as he turned away from Steve.
Yep, definitely some screaming later.
Right now, though, he’s got a job to do. Steve gets his head screwed on tight and re-centers his patrolling on Bucky. San-mook is probably hunting for him right now. It was just Steve’s luck—and the mistaken belief that she was here for him—that had brought him here ahead of her. Of course, it would’ve been easier to intercept Bucky at the Brooklyn Army recruitment office where he’d signed up in 1942, but from the sound of things Stark’s machine hadn’t exactly been precise.
Not for the first time, Steve wonders if it’s actually going to pull him back forward as intended, or if he’ll wind up reliving his own life from a distance, watching himself become Captain America and fight in the war and go into the ice.
If he’ll have to hear the news of the 107th infantry regiment being captured and presumably killed. If he’ll get to watch the Winter Soldier shape the century lying ahead of them. If he’ll be able to bear it.
So much screaming, later. Likely some punching, too.
Watching Bucky right now is enough of a torturous experience. To avoid detection—or having to interact with other people, something that he most definitely doesn’t feel up to doing right now—Steve sticks to the rooftops. Healey’s isn’t a big building and it’s edged on one side by a large antiques warehouse. Most of the street is furnishings of various types, which lends itself to dusty, empty spaces.
Steve passes the night propped up on a half-busted chaise lounge in the warehouse’s back room, sleeping in cat naps while he keeps watch out the window.
In the absence of Sam’s easy conversation or Natasha’s sly teasing, he falls back on the bare bones of target observation to fill the hours. Bucky rises each morning at about six, dressing and reading yesterday’s newspaper at his kitchen table/bathtub. He combs his hair back carefully, then just as carefully lets a few stray hairs slip free across his forehead. Steve can’t help but smile at the vanity, though the smile makes his face feel like stone.
When the warehouse opens its doors to Manhattanites looking for a furniture bargain, Steve climbs out onto the roof and hops through the window of a pharmacist behind Healey’s, then finds a seat in the unused upstairs office full of dusty colored bottles. He remembers his ma telling him that the color of a particular bottle used to signal an outbreak if they appeared in the pharmacy windows—yellow for typhoid, green for malaria, brown for influenza—before the days of newspapers and public service announcements. Now they sit in a spare room.
In a few years, they’ll probably get tossed out or melted down for the war effort. In a few decades no one will even know what they were used for.
From the pharmacist’s office he can watch through the back window of Healey’s as Bucky passes back and forth, setting up displays or attending to customers, ringing up order. Leaning against the battered wooden counter as he reads some ledgers. He’s not much more than a blurry, warped shape through the glass.
At night Bucky closes up the shop and goes to Hoppers, and Steve follows in the shadows with his stomach twisting. There must be a merciful God after all, though, because Bucky doesn’t pick up any other fellahs: he dances with a couple of dames, including the perfumed working girl who’s clearly looking to dissuade some of the rougher elements of the bar. Bucky dances with her and buys her a drink and kisses her out on the sidewalk; it’s all absolutely polite, the kind of date a guy takes a lady out on instead of a prostitute. It’s just enough of a performance to tell the roughnecks that somebody might miss this gal, after all, if she were to go missing.
The target observation isn’t enough—or rather, the target isn’t doing much more over the course of two days than what’s clearly routine—and Steve’s mind starts to wander. It’s the worst kind, the sort of stuff that bothered him after he first showed up in the future, before he got recruited by SHIELD: the what-ifs and what-could-have-beens if he hadn’t been frozen in the iceberg, if he’d succeeded in escaping the plane like he’d tried, and found his way back to the States. Except now it’s, What if Bucky and I had met years ago?
What if I’d met him when I was young and he was young?
It’s genuinely hard to imagine. Steve’s childhood had been quiet—not the good kind born of peace, neither, just the empty kind. He can’t imagine what would have drawn someone bright and beautiful and charming like Bucky to a scrawny, mean half-cripple like his younger self. So instead of that his brain supplies him the fantasy of a whole life here, with Steve as he is now and Bucky, nineteen and whole and untouched by HYDRA. They’d live in Bucky’s apartment and get a real table; Steve would find real work laying concrete or something else; they’d go to Hoppers and protect the working girls with kisses and they’d go to Lonnie’s and protect the queens with their fists.
It’s just a daydream, but it feels more like a bruise.
Bucky’s on his way back from Hoppers. It’s late, almost three in the morning. Steve’s tracking him along the rooftops, but he’s doing his best not to daydream. He’s watching the street corners, the windows around him, the road behind Bucky. He’s not watching Bucky walk down the street with his head down and his hands in his pockets, going home alone after he spent half his Saturday night carousing with every available gal in Brooklyn.
A sudden burst of pain rips through Steve, shooting up his spine. A familiar blue light, the color of Stark’s laser beam array, glows in his veins like an internal aurora borealis. He gasps, stumbling, and nearly goes over the side of the rooftop. Then it happens again and he does, pinging off the side of the building as he goes and landing hard on the pavement of the alleyway next to Healey’s. He barely notices the hard landing, too preoccupied with the horrible sensation that’s filling him. Vibrating molecules, Stark had said, and that’s exactly what this feels like: it’s an all-consuming pain, not localized in one place but battering every cell in his body. He writhes, unable to escape it.
Through the haze, Steve senses rather than sees Bucky drop down next to him, kneeling in the dirty alley. Steve’s too far gone to resist curling into him, pressing his face against Bucky’s thigh like a cat trying to hide. The strange blue glow has spread through his body, pulsing in time with the sensation of his body trying to rip itself apart one molecule at a time.
“Steve, Jesus Christ, what the hell is—hold on, buddy, I’ll get help!”
Flailing out, Steve manages to grab Bucky’s arm. He can’t quite get a breath in, but he shakes his head until Bucky relents and drops down to get his shoulder under Steve’s chest.
They stagger upstairs, bouncing off the railing of the stairwell and into each other and back. Halfway up, the pain lessens and Steve sags in relief, letting his head drop to Bucky’s shoulder. Their progress slows for a moment and then he feels Bucky’s hand on the back of his head, briefly cupping his skull.
Once inside, Bucky eases Steve down to sit at the battered kitchen table, which is really just a plank of wood set on top of the bathtub. Steve leans forward, letting his head hang between his knees. The glow around his wrists has stopped and he can feel the itch of his body repairing itself; he can’t help but feel a pang of sympathy for San-mook Sun, wherever she is. If she’s even still alive, without the serum to keep her going.
A glass of water appears at in his vision. Huffing a breath, Steve accepts it.
“So,” Bucky says after a long minute in which Steve takes careful sips, “are you a Martian, or something?”
Steve manages not to choke on the water. “No, I’m not a Martian. No other kind of alien, either.”
“Vampire?” There’s a quirk in Bucky’s crooked mouth, but he’s watching Steve’s face and keeping his distance.
“No. I can’t—please don’t ask me too many questions, there’s stuff I can’t tell you. I really am from Red Hook and my ma passed a few years back. But then I—traveled, accidentally, to the future. The 21st century.”
“Accidentally? What, you tripped?”
Steve chuffs a laugh. “I’m here now because—someone else came back first, lookin’ to change the past. You remember that woman I mentioned, San-mook Sun? I came back in time to stop her.”
“Now I know you’ve gotta be kiddin’ me.”
Setting aside the glass and rising, Steve holds out his hand. “Come on. I’ll show you.”
Outside on the street, folks are just waking up, and through the open windows Steve can hear the tink of silverware and low conversation. He walks quickly and Bucky keeps pace, his cap pulled low. From under the brim he shoots sideways glances every so often at Steve but neither of them speak.
They turn the corner off the Blessed Virgin and Steve’s feet nearly stumble. His mind wants to fill in the gaps with buildings, airplanes overhead, self-driving cars; at the same time he can’t help feeling like he’d imagined waking up in the next millennium and fighting aliens, because this is home. He knows the sidewalk cracks and the bent streetlight that doesn’t turn off even during the day. It feels more real than anything has in the last few years, but at the same time it seems like a mirage. Like if he rests his hand on the side of the nearest rowhouse it will ripple and melt like one of Tony’s projections.
Then a door opens across the street and Steve snaps back to himself, backing quickly into an alley and putting his back against the brick.
When Bucky follows his gaze, he jolts. “Holy moley. That’s—”
“Me,” Steve confirms.
His past self shuffles down the steps of his row house, probably heading down to the automat himself for breakfast. Today must be a rough one for his back, because he’s limping a little. He wears a brown suit—jeez, Steve remembers that brown suit. The back of his neck itches in memory of where the stiff collar used to rub against his skin. This must be when he was working at the newspaper, drawing illustrations for stories not important enough to merit a photograph.
Bucky’s looking back and forth between them. He even steps closer and touches the bump of Steve’s nose then the whorl of his ear, periodically glancing at the smaller figure moving past them across the street. “Okay,” he finally says. “Okay. They got magic growing beans in the future?”
“Something like that, yeah.”
They’re standing close in the alley but it’s still dark enough that not many people are out on the street yet. Bucky tilts his head. He’s beautiful in the half-dark, his pale blue-grey eyes almost glowing. “You were right there, two blocks away. Hell, I probably have met you before. We’d have to have seen each other around, right?”
“Maybe.” Steve doesn’t remember it, but he’d been half-blind back then. Even a goodlooking fellah like Bucky would’ve been a blur passing on the street. “I didn’t lie about any of the stuff I said. Just…about how old I was. Am.”
“You said this lady came back to change the past—what’s she gonna change?”
On the walk here, Steve struggled with this question—but he can’t be with Bucky every second of the day. “Bucky…we think she’s here to kill you.”
“Me? Why the hell would she wanna do that?”
“I can’t tell you that part. No, Bucky, I really can’t. Things happen in the future that involve you, during the war, and they—fuck,” Steve swears, his stomach clenching up. It isn’t fucking fair. None of it is. Bucky shouldn’t have to face the things that Steve remembers from the Winter Soldier files. This bright-eyed young man in front of him who loves science fiction and eats like a horse should never have to suffer that way.
Before Steve can betray everything, though, Bucky puts up his hands. “Okay, don’t. What can I do? Should I get outta town?”
“I don’t know. It might change something else.”
“Well, what does this gal look like, again? Asian lady, with black hair? You’re here to protect me, great, but I’m not gonna just hang out like some dame in a dick novel waitin’ for this woman to—wait, does she have a ray gun? Do you guys have ray guns in the future?”
Steve can’t help but laugh at Bucky’s alarmed expression, even if the sound echoes bitterly in his mouth.
They’d been on a mission in Delhi. Barnes had brought them a lead on a weapons expert who’d contracted with HYDRA before going into the private sector, which had been significant in and of itself: his customary MO was to leave them nothing but a smear on the pavement.
The envelope had actually arrived in Sam’s mailbox, which had raised Steve’s eyebrow until Natasha had pointed out that Sam was the most public alternative to Stark, who has five hundred levels of security surrounding him at all times, all of whom know the Winter Soldier and would treat any communication as potentially dangerous. Sam owns a brownstone; he has a publicly-available address.
“Not that he doesn’t know all of our addresses,” Natasha pointed out casually. “By sending it to one that’s public, though, he’s indicating non-aggression. Look, he even put a stamp on it and sent it through the mail. It’s kind of cute.”
“Adorable,” Sam growled.
They had set up to rendezvous with Barnes in Kolkata. He’d had a safe house already, though he didn’t greet them when they arrived. Natasha had spent half an hour prowling the premises before she settled in to clean her guns, while Steve and Sam argued strategy over plates of curry that both of them silently refused to admit was way too spicy to eat.
“Listen,” Sam said, swiping a hand across his brow. “If we’re gonna need a face, you’re a helluva lot more recognizable than I am.”
Please just admit that this is too hot to eat, Sam’s pores begged.
“I know that,” Steve replied, blinking back tears. “But you—they’re looking for a high-level weapons dealer from Australia and I’m not saying you can’t pull off the accent, I’m just saying that the Crocodile Hunter needs a new star, if you’re interested.”
Dear god, Steve’s tear ducts moaned, please tap out so that we can stop eating this.
“Aw hey,” Sam said, leaning on the table like he might be getting woozy. “That was a pop culture reference. I’m real proud, dude.”
Then he’d shoveled half of his plate in his mouth in one go.
They’d gone back and forth like that for a while before they circled onto other topics. The warehouse deal was pretty straightforward, or it would be if they didn’t have to account for stuff like magic maybe being involved. Privately Steve hated when magic got involved.
Sam was saying, “I still say we should have a couple rounds of non-lethal crowd control, in case they’ve got any mind-whammies in their—gah.”
Steve had looked up sharply at the interjection then turned to follow Sam’s gaze over his shoulder. Standing directly behind him, not even two feet away, was the Winter Soldier—except not. He’d been wearing a suit, the cut off which was old-fashioned…or, well, it was what Steve had to remind himself was old-fashioned for the 21st-century. Steve had seen Barnes in civilian clothes a few times before, but those had been non-descript and it had always very obviously been Barnes wearing the clothes.
Now, Barnes had a smile on his face. He had his hands in his pockets and his shoulders were relaxed and he was standing far closer to Steve than he should be. It was if a completely different person had materialized in the room with them.
The façade held for a moment—but then like sugar in water, it dissolved. Barnes stepped back far enough to be out of arm’s reach and stood with one foot in front of the other.
“Potential detection flags?” he’d asked.
Steve had looked at Barnes’ short hair, slicked back to hide the ragged edges—he must have cut it himself, Steve couldn’t imagine him letting a stranger do it—and the clothes worn like a costume. The coat strained to hide Barnes’ wide frame.
What he said, though, was: “Arm. I can hear the machine parts.”
Barnes frowned, looking into the mid-distance. “Serum-enhanced hearing. I’d estimate for anyone else, I could get within close range and not be detected.”
Steve had glanced sideways at Sam, who still looked alarmed, then at Natasha, who looked…something. Her guns sat in her lap; she wasn’t even touching them. “You volunteering as a face?” he’d finally asked Barnes.
Barnes hadn’t answered or shrugged, just waited. “All right,” Steve finally answered. At least that way Barnes would be in all of their sights.
Barnes had nodded and walked out of the room without another word, presumably to sharpen his knives or do some other prep. Sam exhaled noisily. “How is that guy even creepier in civvies than full gear?”
“You nervous, Wilson?” Natasha had asked playfully, but when Sam scoffed and turned away she gave Steve a significant look that he didn’t understand.
The charade had worked on other people just fine, and Steve couldn’t help feeling a little disgruntled as Barnes waltzed right into the casino with a smile and an alias. “You gonna tell me to start taking undercover pointers from him?” he’d asked Natasha.
Who had reached over and plucked the piece from Steve’s ear before removing her own.
That had piqued Steve’s attention, though he’d glanced through the binoculars against just to be sure. He might not like the guy, but Barnes had put his faith in them to watch his back.
“I’ve asked you before,” Natasha had said in his ear, “whether you knew Bucky Barnes while you were living in Brooklyn. I’m asking again, not because I think you’re lying, but because I think Bucky Barnes knew you.”
Steve had jerked his face away from the lens and frowned at her. She’d let him see the consternation in his expression, the worry. A worried Natasha was never a good sign. “What makes you say that?”
“When he walked in like that, he was looking at you. He barely glanced at me or Sam. He was watching your reaction.”
“Is that why you let him get so close to me? Because you wanted to see my reaction, too?”
“Yes,” she’d answered without apology. “And I believe you when you say you don’t remember meeting him back before the war. So you understand my concern.”
She hadn’t waited for a reply, just popped their earpieces back in and resumed the mission as if nothing had happened, flirting with Sam and even cracking a few jokes at Barnes, who hadn’t so much as twitched in reaction. When they’d returned to New York, however, she’d taken Steve straight to see Wanda. Natasha had plenty of experience with hidden or false memories: she and Wanda had spent hours sifting through them all, like archaeologists of the self. In Steve, the only unusual thing they’d found was the long, cold silence of the iceberg, which must have registered somewhere in his unconscious. They’d even dug into his past, hunting through the corners of his memories for Barnes—but there had been nothing.
Natasha had been mollified but wary. “He came to you,” she’d reminded Steve. “In terms of threat level, you’re a pretty high risk, but you’re the one he chose.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, Tasha. Maybe I met him a long time ago before ma and I had to move to Yonkers, but if I did, I don’t remember. If it happens again, I’ll ask him about it.”
But it never had. Shortly after that, Barnes had brutally tortured and assassinated an Australian government official with ties to HYDRA, and landed squarely on the red list of non-allies again.
By now there’s little point in returning to the rooftops. If Steve has fucked up the future beyond repair then he’ll be the last to know.
It’s also such a relief to be honest with Bucky, though it comes with its own complications. There are about seventy cheap science fiction novels stuffed under Bucky’s bed and he’s dying to know which one is most accurate.
“Robots?” he asks over breakfast. Steve slept out on the couch, still feeling awkward about the whole thing.
“Flying cars?” he asks at lunch. Steve’s been sitting in a nicely upholstered dining chair, part of a set on display in Healey’s front room; he’s read the newspaper twice and cringed every time an editorial reminded their readers about the dangers of taking in Jewish refugees, or how America should be grateful that their president is keeping them out of this foolish war.
“Amazons?” Bucky demands breathlessly as they leave Garfield’s, and Steve can’t help but give him a funny look at last.
“Amazons? Ain’t that a Greek thing?”
“Yeah, but…space Amazons.”
Despite everything, Steve tosses his head back and laughs.
When he looks again Bucky has his eyes averted. His cheeks are pink. Steve’s still not used to people getting that way about him and so he doesn’t recover in time; when Bucky darts his gaze over, they both get caught for half a block, and by the time they stop making moon eyes, Steve’s honestly not sure if someone saw them or if San-mook Sun walked by his fucking shoulder.
It's dangerous, and so, so stupid. If Natasha could see him she’d have her head in her hands at his complete incompetence, no doubt. But it feels right, somehow, to be here. Steve isn’t quite arrogant enough to think that God’s taken enough of a special interest in him to guide his steps, but sometimes Steve can still feel His presence, or what Steve chooses to interpret that way. Or maybe it’s the serum, and the telepathy that SHIELD tested him for repeatedly to their disappointment.
Somehow, he just knows that it’s right for Bucky to know the truth about him, to let Bucky see him.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that he has to satisfy Bucky’s endearing and endless curiosity about the future, and he hedges his answers or stays outright silent. Bucky huffs at him indignantly and takes off back to work. This time instead of lurking around the shop like a vagrant or a bodyguard, Steve decides to give Bucky some space and heads upstairs; the apartment has good sightlines up and down the street, and it gives him some distance, too.
Not that he spent half the morning peeking at Bucky over the top of his newspaper, or anything.
The clean perspective is good: it’s been three days now and Steve can’t help but wonder where San-mook Sun is. Stark had to have been pretty sure that Bucky was the target in order to risk sending a robot back to warn Steve—and even without the possible risk to the timeline, he obviously believed it. His expression in the video message told Steve as much. Frankly Steve is kinda surprised that Stark warned him at all: Tony has never had trouble with playing God before, and his mother is a sore subject.
But if Stark is right and San-mook Sun is hunting these streets for Bucky, she’s taking her sweet time.. San-mook sun is operating on the same restricted timeline as him with the added difficulty of the gradual degeneration of her body’s cells, without the serum to hold her together.
It’s possible, of course, that the process has already run its course. Two bouts of intense pain and that strange blue glow have wracked Steve; maybe either of those were enough to incapacitate or even kill Dr. Sun, and someone somewhere is going to find a pile of human-shaped goo in a back alley of Brooklyn. With any luck they’ll write it off as the detritus of a butcher’s shop.
It’s a lousy way to die. Despite everything, Steve can’t help feeling pity for San-mook Sun, prepared to throw her life away if it means preventing her mother’s early death. Even Stark hadn’t been willing to go that far, and he spent most of a year moving Heaven and Earth to kill the Winter Soldier.
Steve sets up a chair near the front windows of Bucky’s apartment, a much more comfortable arrangement than the warehouse last night. The place isn’t much, just a front room with a couple of chairs that were clearly salvaged from downstairs, a battered sofa on which Steve spent the night, the bathtub/table, then a half-wall separation into the bedroom. There’s not even a sink or an icebox; Steve doesn’t remember much of the Brooklyn tenement where he and his ma lived before they moved to Yonkers, but he definitely recalls a small kitchen. This isn’t much more than a glorified upstairs office space—and yet Bucky has made it homey, with his mirror nailed to the half-wall post, and his dogeared paperbacks piled on the table and stacked underneath the sofa.
He feels pity for San-mook Sun; but if he spots her in the street below heading towards Healey’s door, there’s gonna be Hell to pay.
The sounds of the store closing up are familiar by now: Bucky brings the Indian statue inside, along with a few other items that he arranged on the sidewalk outside the windows. It’s early in the day yet, half past five, but it’s looking fit to rain and Steve isn’t going to complain about Bucky getting behind a locked door sooner rather than later.
He goes down the outer stairwell to meet Bucky, just as the drizzle starts. Bucky jogs up the steps to meet him, the day’s newspaper held over his head, though he quickly shifts it to cover Steve’s as well—or, he tries, at least. It’s a pretty ineffective gesture, but Steve can’t help smiling at that, too.
Hell, he’s in trouble.
“Woof,” Bucky says once they’re upstairs, making a show of shaking off his shoulders. “Hope it doesn’t pour buckets tonight. You hungry? We could eat someplace better’n Garfield’s for once.”
“Not unless you wanna get vaporized by a ray gun.”
Bucky points at him. “You said no ray guns. And come on, I can’t stay cooped up here all night, I got people who might come ‘round looking for me. I owe Maddie Halloway a dance and she’s the type to come knockin’ on a man’s door if he stands her up.”
Steve frowns, arms crossed. “Maddie Halloway can find somebody else to dance with for the night. Listen, kid, I know all this must sound pretty far-fetched—”
“Naw, not really,” Bucky says with a shrug and a smirk. “I’ve read weirder.”
Steve rolls his eyes. “Fine. So take it a little more seriously, why doncha?”
“I am! I’m just sayin’, I can take care of myself—look, I got this a while back, for the shop,” Bucky says, and he pulls out a gun.
Steve has to fight the instinctive urge to immediately grab the weapon, to take Bucky down hard and fast. It doesn’t help that Bucky’s handling is terrible: he’s got the gun turned sideways in his hand, with his finger on the trigger and the muzzle pointed at the wall.
“It’s not loaded,” Bucky protests. Apparently Steve’s face showed everything.
An incomplete list of items that the Winter Soldier has used to attack Steve include: a Sig Sauer P220ST pistol, a Skorpion sub-machine gun, a truck, an M4A1 machine gun, a Gerber Mark II knife, an improvised blade made from broken glass, a chair, an M203PI grenade launcher, a metal rod, the dead body of a police officer, a garrote that he stole off of Natasha after he split her skull open on the ground, a ray gun that they never quite determined the origins of, and the anchor of a small ship.
Swallowing down the deep swell of unease that he feels at seeing a weapon, any weapon, in Bucky’s hands, Steve steps forward and gingerly takes the gun from him. Bucky lets him, his eyes on Steve’s face. It’s a revolver, probably Colt in make. “You ever shoot it before?” Steve inquires, trying to keep his voice calm.
“A couple of times. Pops took me to the beach, had me shooting cans off the rocks.”
Steve checks the chamber but it’s empty, after all. The revolver’s got a few scuff on the stock, some wear on the grips. “You buy it secondhand?”
“Well, yeah.” Bucky juts his chin out. “Not like I can afford a new one. I’ve had it under the counter for a year, after the warehouse next door had a breakin. You gonna tell me it’ll shoot crooked? I got it from Tony Antelli, he’s as honest as any Italian can be, he swore up and down that he’d kept it in good condition.”
So far as Steve can tell, that’s the truth. He closes the chamber and puts the gun down on the table. Bucky’s still watching him, tense like he’s gearing for a fight, but Steve can’t bear the idea right now. The sight of Bucky holding a gun has breached some kind of barrier inside of him, between Bucky and him. The Winter Soldier.
There’s a lot that happens in between. Barnes was captured by HYDRA while serving with the 107th and declared KIA shortly thereafter. No rescue operation was ever even attempted. After extensive experimentation that killed the rest of the prisoners, Barnes was transferred deeper into enemy territory. Fortunately, the transport of a “high-value item” had kicked up a buzz of communications on all HYDRA channels: the Allies intercepted messages about the item being moved on a train, accompanied by its creator Armin Zola, and the Howlies were sent to track him down.
They had managed to capture Zola, but in the fighting the transport train had been derailed. Barnes, who by now had been drugged and placed in a cryogenic freeze, went off the side of a mountain.
He was right there. It’s horrifying to think of, now. He might have been only a few feet away from Steve on the freight train while they fought Zola’s bodyguards. If Steve had found him then—but he hadn’t, Barnes had gone into the ravine, and then the Russians had stumbled across him instead.
And when HYDRA had spread through the KGB ranks, they’d recovered their lost ‘item.’
“I just wanna keep you safe,” he says to Bucky, but he didn’t. He can’t. It’s entirely possible that without the buzz of a successful Übermensch, the Allies wouldn’t have tracked down Zola, and thus wouldn’t have gotten the intel they needed to intercept the Valkyrie and its bombs. Forget the Winter Soldier, if Bucky doesn’t get captured and given the serum, the Nazis might have conquered the whole damn world.
Steve feels sick. He doesn’t even want to guess what his face looks like, now.
“Yeah, so you said. Why’s this dame so hot to kill me, anyway? Naw, I know, you can’t tell me, I got it.”
He goes to move past Steve with his shoulders up, but Steve catches his wrist. Steve’s neck still prickles but he can’t bring himself to stop: he frames Bucky’s face with his hands and kisses him. Despite his anger about the gun, Bucky responds instantly, crowding into Steve’s space to press their hips together. He’s always so quick with his affection. Like a cup, brimming over.
They part for breath, though Bucky stays close, tipping their foreheads together. “You said no,” he complains softly. “You said stop.”
“I know. It’s…dangerous.”
Bucky rises up on his tiptoes to press himself against Steve from ankles to shoulders, just for a moment, then rocks back down on his heels. “I’m safe with you. How much longer has she got, anyway?”
“I don’t know, St— my, uh, friends in the future, she’s working on a pretty short time limit.”
Bucky peers up at Steve through his eyelashes. “And how much longer have you got?”
Steve has no answer for that, either, and so he pulls Bucky into the bedroom. If this were someone else, he’d be barking at them to get their head on straight, he’s on a fucking mission right now, but all of that fades into the feel of his fingers skimming over Bucky’s chest as he pulls his shirt out of his trousers. It used to frustrate the hell out of him to watch movies where characters make terrible mistakes because of sexual desire; he’s never felt anything that strongly, certainly not enough to ruin his whole damn life, let alone jeopardize the space-time continuum.
When Steve bites down on Bucky’s shoulder, he gasps loudly in his small bedroom, his narrow body arching up against Steve’s, and Steve thinks, Yeah. He gets it, now. He thinks he’s been missing Bucky his whole life without even knowing him.
The next day is Sunday, and Steve wakes up without even thinking about it. It helps that there’s loud church bells ringing somewhere nearby. They’re probably still the tallest buildings outside of Manhattan.
Bucky’s already up, putting on his Sunday best. Guiltily, Steve pokes at his stolen duds; they’re unmistakably the clothes of a laborer and not something he’d wear to church.
Catching the gesture, Bucky leaves off preening for the mirror and comes over. “You got church in the future?”
“’Course. I even go to the same one I did before we moved—Blessed Virgin.”
“No shit? So Brooklyn is still here in the future, huh?”
Steve rolls his eyes. “You’re a real terrier, huh, kid? C’mon, get back to it, I bet you wanna fix your part.”
Bucky’s smirk falters. “What’s wrong with my part?”
Rolling his eyes, Steve pushes him out of bed. Bucky goes, laughing, though he does check his hair in the mirror.
Steve does escort him to the church and hovers uncomfortably outside. It’s not just the rough and ill-fitting clothes; he doesn’t feel right about going in and taking communion, giving confession. Not when he doesn’t know exactly how badly he’s sinned. It’s one thing to lie with a man, and Steve will square that with God one day if he needs to but to do what he’s done and risk so much…he doesn’t know the bill, yet, and no priest in this time can properly name the price. It’d be cheating to get forgiveness in the here-and-now.
He does pray, quietly, as he paces the sidewalk outside. “Dear Lord, I am calling upon you today for
your divine guidance and help. I am in crisis and need a supporting hand to keep me on the right and just path.”
There’s some low talk across the street about war and Steve pauses to listen in. Two old timers, probably old enough to have fought in the trenches with Steve’s da, are chatting as they limp across the street to the church; it’s not more shit like the paper editorials, thankfully, or else Steve might have to restrain himself from arguing with his elders. One of them men asks the other, “Your boy Tristan’s signed up then?”
“Aye,” his friend answers grimly. Judging from his accent he’s not long off the boat. “Tey’ve sent him off to somewhere called Minnesota. What kind ‘a name’s that, eh? He’s to be a corporal once he finishes, on account ‘a his schoolin’.”
“Ah, well, an officer! That isn’t so bad. Better than a private, anyhow—they’ll take better care of him.”
“Not much better. Mark me words, it’ll come to trenches before long wit te way that German bastard talks, and then it’s squad leaders first over te wall.”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”
They pass Steve where he has frozen on the sidewalk like a rock being swamped by an invisible wave. It’s all going to happen soon—all that suffering, all that bloodshed. The shells from the sky, the men cut in half while they stormed a hill, and the camps, God, the camps. And everything beyond that, too—the bombs in Japan, the meaningless war in Vietnam, all the twisted intrigue of the Cold War. The fighter in him—that boy with the twisted spine and bum heart—grips him by the throat, demands that he Do something, dammit.
Once, they’d been on a mission in Afghanistan, rescuing a villageful of young girls who’d been kidnapped by the local warlord. Except the warlord had been working for a Russian expatriate, an elderly blonde woman who looked at Natasha with a smirk and spat out a few words that had her sweating and struggling to keep her grip on her guns.
She’d fought it off and Steve made sure to gag the woman before turning her over to the makeshift Afghani police, who were really just a few local men gutsy enough to stand up to warlords; Steve still wishes he could have talked some of them into leaving the country, but they waved away his offers. They were born in this country, they’d die there whenever that time came.
Natasha had smirked at him, not unkindly. That kindness had faded a little when he’d cornered her afterward and asked about the trigger words. She’d told him to leave it, that it wasn’t his business, but Steve had persisted. You’re on my team, ‘Tasha, I’m responsible for you—
You’re responsible for how I operate on your team, and it didn’t affect my ability to perform.
You’re my friend, too. Friends trust each other, they help each other.
Not with this.
She’d spun on him, then, with something like real fury in her eyes. You’re a real piece of work, you know that, Steve? You think that you’re the one who always knows best, and everyone just needs to listen and fall in line. Go ask Alexander Pierce how that turned out for him. When Steve recoiled, she’d softened a little. You’re a good man, one of the best—if someone put a gun to my head and made me choose someone to be in charge of everything, it’d be you. But no one should be that person, Steve. You’ve gotta learn when something isn’t yours to fix.
Now, Steve repeats to himself, It isn’t mine, it isn’t mine, until the little runt of a fighter loosens his hold on Steve’s neck.
By the time he opens his eyes again, the steeple’s ringing out nine o’clock and Bucky is standing a couple yards away on the sidewalk, watching Steve intently. He’s so handsome in his trousers, white shirt, and coat; his eyes are so blue.
And God help him, Steve wishes this were simpler. That he could just go to Bucky and kiss him in the street. That there wasn’t a war looming, and destinies to fulfill, and friends in different places to whom he owes so damn much. There are three different worlds in him: the one he grew up in, the 21st century, and this one, now, where he knows too much and not enough.
Instead he dredges up a smile. Follows Bucky down the street and lets their shoulders bump together.
Without speaking they set off on a meandering path that takes them down to the waterfront. The rain has stopped and there’s sunlight on the water. Waves lap at the shore. The Lady’s standing as straight and true as ever, her torch reaching for the sky like she means to replace the sun. Stark makes fun of him, calls him a stereotype, but Steve has always loved seeing her determined, solemn face.
“What’s Yonkers like?” Bucky asks.
“More open. Wider streets, bigger sidewalks. You see more ‘a the sky. While we lived there a lot of Black folks started moving in and the councilmembers got all up in arms—and most of the damned fools were Irish, too, only ten years before they were the ones gettin’ run out of town on a rail. You’d think they’d have a little more kindness.”
“’Course they didn’t. If micks start yelling about how much they hate negroes then they get a leg up. People always want something to hate, and they want other people to hate the same things along with ‘em.”
“Pretty cynical way of seein’ the world, kid.”
Bucky merely shrugs in reply. They walk a little further. The air is cool coming in off the water.
“I used to come down here with my Ma,” Steve says. “She’d tell me stories about Ellis Island and the old country. She came from Ireland when she was just a kid. In the future, people zip around all over the world—they don’t think anything about it, I know a fellah who flew from Australia all the way around the world on New Year’s Eve, just so he could keep celebrating. But back then, coming across the ocean was pretty much a one-way trip. She never went back…not that most people wanted to, the famine was over but things were still pretty bad in Ireland. There’s this other fellah I know in the future, I guess technically he’s an alien.”
Bucky lifts an eyebrow. “Technically? That seems like something you’d know for sure or not.”
“You’d be surprised.” Steve doesn’t feel like getting into the particulars of whether or not Asgard counts as space, mostly because he doesn’t understand it all that well, himself. “The place he’s from got destroyed, just completely demolished. He doesn’t talk about it much but I know he misses home. I dunno what made me think of it, just—being here.”
Bucky’s watching him, squinting a little in the light reflections beaming in off the water. “It’s home,” he guesses and Steve nods.
“I never thought I’d see it again.”
“And now you’ve gotta leave it behind again,” Bucky adds and there’s real strain in his voice. He avoids Steve’s gaze.
They’re in public—not a whole lot of people around, just a few fishermen tying up their dingy, but it’s open in all directions—so Steve doesn’t hold Bucky the way he wants. Instead he says, “It’ll be harder, this time. When I joined up, I didn’t know I’d never make it back. Even if I had, there wasn’t much keeping me here. Not like now.”
“Ha. You sure now how to talk a fellah up.”
“Not really,” Steve admits with a shrug. “Just you, I guess.”
Swallowing, Bucky casts a quick look around then tugs Steve towards the closest building, an old brick warehouse. He gets them tucked into a corner and kisses Steve until they’re both breathless and shaky, groping each other through their clothes.
“Say that again,” Bucky mumbles against Steve’s mouth. He’s got his nice church clothes all rucked up, his hat knocked off. Steve’s never seen anyone more beautiful.
He drags Bucky’s leg up by the knee, hooks it over his own hip. “You, just you,” he repeats.
They head up to Bushwick to walk past Bucky’s childhood home. “I go by every so often,” Bucky says with a shrug as they ride the Green Line. He doesn’t quite meet Steve’s eye and Steve wishes to Hell he could think of a way to fix this for him that doesn’t involve spiriting him to the future—but even there, fathers turn their sons out for loving men.
Instead he comments, “Kinda surprised you haven’t landed a long-term fellah, y’know.” Normally he’d choke before he brought up this sorta conversation in public, but the Green Line is pretty empty on a Sunday evening, and Steve’s feeling the tick-tick of an invisible clock in his blood. He doesn’t actually know how long he’s got. “A good-looking kid like you, ya gotta have some offers.”
Bucky preens even as he rolls his eyes. “Yeah, I’m a regular debutante, a real Jean Harlow. Listen, you ain’t half as clever as you think you are.”
“Don’t give me that innocent look, pal.” Bucky kicks his legs out in front of him. They’re sitting opposite each other in the train car; the only other riders are a woman and her two hen-pecked kids who just want to get home and read Buck Rogers. Not for the first time, Steve wonders what it would have been like if he’d met Bucky before, in Brooklyn or Yonkers or even in the war. If he’d have been drawn in as quickly, if every glance between them would have given him the same lickety-split thrill of connection.
“I know what you’re thinkin’,” Bucky continues, his normally-animated face set in serious lines. “You’re shipping out pretty soon and you want to know if you should be worried about leaving me on the homefront.”
Well, apparently Steve hasn’t improved at undercover work. “Well, should I?”
“Whaddya want me to tell you? That I’ll move right on, have a new guy in my bed by Saturday?” Steve winces and looks away; Bucky laughs, but it isn’t unkind. “Didn’t think so. I won’t, anyhow. Could you—could you stay, if you wanted to?”
Bucky nods. “So it is what it is.”
“I would.” Steve can’t bring himself to look Bucky in the eye, even though it’s not Bucky he’d be doing wrong. God help him, Stark was right to worry. “If I could, I would.”
“Good-looking guy like you,” Bucky says softly, but his teasing fades. “Nobody back home?”
“Naw.” Just you, he’d said, and right now, with Bucky sitting there watching him with his blue-grey eyes, Steve can’t imagine feeling this way about anyone else. Never has. Didn’t even know to want it or miss it from his life. It feels unfair, that he’s found it in the one place he can never stay.
“Should I worry about you, out there in the future?”
“Sure, if you want. I’ll be okay.”
The rowdy kids bust free and take a run down the middle of the train car like they’re going for home from second base, while the harried mom yells at them in what sounds like Polish. Steve leans back automatically, pulling in his legs to let them pass. Bucky just keeps looking at him, swaying with the motion of the train.
By the time they reach Bushwick it’s getting late in the day. They walk close together, shoulders bumping, their hands in their own pockets and their heads down. The air here smells different, less like the ocean. There are even lawns leading up to some of the front doors. Steve hates lawns with a passion: all that wasted, decorative space, just to show off your front door a little better.
The house is a nice one, a regular Sears catalog number 52 on a corner lot, elevated from the street by a terraced lawn divided from the street by a thick stone wall. Lights are on in what must be the family room downstairs, shining through the lace curtains, and out on the front porch. The upstairs looks like it’s got two bedrooms and an attic.
“Bet you lived up there,” Steve says, indicating the topmost window.
“No bet,” Bucky answers. He hasn’t slowed his pace and he’s got his cap pulled down firmly around his ears. Steve wants like Hell to put his arm around Bucky as they walk, but that’d certainly draw attention without Bucky even needing to be recognized.
“So what now?” he asks in a low voice. “We really just gonna walk on by?”
“Yup.” Bucky lifts his chin but keeps his gaze forward, looking at neither the house nor Steve.
There’s a copse of trees on the corner. Steve lets them reach it them slows to a stop. Bucky does as well, shoving his hands in his pockets.
“That’s it?” Steve asks. “Buck, have you even talked to your sisters in—how long has it been?”
“Leave it alone, Steve.”
It’s not yours. But Steve can’t quite manage to back off. “Why not knock on the door? At least so the girls know you came by. Or write a letter?”
In the twilight under the tree branches, Bucky’s eyes are shadowed. “And say what? Lookat you, you wanna go in and slug my pops in the face, huh?”
“Maybe I do.”
“You’re sweet. But it ain’t worth makin’ a scene, Steve, that’d just upset the girls. It’d be selfish, see? ‘Cause I wouldn’t be doing it for them, they’re fine. I’d be doing it for me, and that ain’t right.”
Steve can’t help but groan. “Dammit, Bucky! You’re too nice, don’t you want to go in and slug your pops in the face? Don’t you wanna see your sisters and tell them you didn’t just disappear? It ain’t selfish to care about someone and want them to care about you back.”
“Sure it is,” Bucky says, his gaze and his voice steady. He looks too old for nineteen. “If having me around would make trouble for them, then what kinda big brother would I be if I barged in there? Sometimes the kindest thing is to stay away.”
Steve resists the urge to shake him by the shoulders, or kiss him senseless. Maybe both.
Right on the edge of Steve’s hearing, there’s a metal click.
Instantly he’s got one arm around Bucky’s waist and he’s swinging him around. Steve’s never been a dancer but in combat his body knows exactly what to do. He gets Bucky behind him and instinctively starts to lift his arm before he remembers he doesn’t have his shield. He is the shield.
Twenty feet away, San-mook Sun’s gun-handling skills aren’t a whole lot better than Bucky’s was. She also doesn’t look so good: her face is sweaty and slack, her flesh pitted with edema. Now that Steve’s listening he can hear her labored breathing.
She stares at Steve and mumbles, “What?”
“Dr. Sun. I’m gonna need you to put the gun down.”
“Steve!” Bucky exclaims, grabbing at his shoulders.
“What are you doing here?” Dr. Sun asks.
“It’s okay, Bucky, just stay behind me! Dr. Sun, put the gun down. I understand why you’re doing this but I can’t let you.”
She doesn’t appear to even hear him, just shuffles closer, the gun in her hand bobbing with her movements. It’s another revolver, looks pretty banged up, like she might have found it on the side of the road or something.
The expression on her sweaty face is one of bewilderment. “I changed it so that you two never met each other. You shouldn’t even know him. Why are you here?”
“Stark sent me back, from the future.”
“I know that! Obviously! But why? You shouldn’t have wanted to. Mr. Stark should have wanted me to do this. I ran the projections a hundred times, I calculated—the algorithm—all I had to do was keep you from meeting him when you were kids, and then—then I could kill him. I should have when he was a kid, but I, I couldn’t do it. But I can kill him now and you shouldn’t want to stop me, and all those people—”
“Wait,” Steve says, “when we were young?”
“And Mom!” She’s close enough now that Steve can smell her; it’s the stench of sepsis. Fluids seeping into tissues and turning necrotic. “He kills Mom! He kills so many people—why are you stopping me?”
Steve swallows, aware of Bucky’s rabbit-fast heart behind him. “You don’t know what it could change. Neither of us do.”
“Yes I do!” she shrieks, phlegm gurgling in her throat. She’d be a pretty girl; Steve thinks of her Stark Industries ID badge photo and remembers a young woman with big eyes, bigger glasses, and her long black hair pulled back in a braid. “I ran the behavioral projections, I know—it would work, it would all be okay, it would be better!”
“You don’t get to make that choice, Dr. Sun.”
“Then why do you?”
Behind Steve, there’s another click.
The air cracks open on a gunshot. Steve recoils, but there’s no shock of pain to his own body.
Instead, San-mook claps a hand to her chest, where a red hole has appeared on the front of her shirt. Blood seeps out through her fingers. She grimaces, sucking in a ragged breath. The bullet must have punctured her left lung. Steve looks at the wound and for an uncharacteristic moment of hysteria all he can think of is his mother, coughing blood into a handkerchief, her throat filling to the brim until she drowned on dry land.
Then San-mook starts to lift her own weapon, seemingly on reflex, and two other bullets spear through her. Steve snaps to the left, his mind full of sniper nests and a half-century of eliminated targets—but what he sees is Bucky, nineteen years old, holding the gun Steve gave him. His grip is all wrong, but the gaze he levels on San-mook is steady and clear-eyed.
He fires once more and Steve doesn’t stop him. It’d be pointless by now.
San-mook drops to the ground, choking audibly. Bucky’s shot her through the left lung, the hip, and twice to the middle of her gut. She tries to lift the gun again but it must pull at injured muscles because her face twists and she slumps back, staring upward and struggling to breathe.
Bucky lowers the gun and looks at Steve. Whatever he sees there makes the calm certainty slide off his face.
All around them, doors are opening. Voices turn in their direction. Steve should go to San-mook, even enemy soldiers deserve medical attention and she’s not much more than a girl who lost her mother too young.
Except then the blue-green pulse in her wrists and throat gets stronger and her hands begin to blur. Bits of her seem to stretch and melt grotesquely. A pile of meat, sure to be someone’s unsolved mystery. The night of bangs and blue glows.
Turning away, Steve says, “Come on, we gotta,” and they run. Steve leads and Bucky follows, pale and silent.
They head west towards Brooklyn, zig-zagging to throw off any pursuers. Steve scales a wall then reaches down to lift Bucky up one-handed; he almost drops the gun that’s still in his hands and for a terrible moment Steve tries to remember when fingerprinting was invented—but Bucky recovers and hangs on, though he looks wide-eyed at Steve’s demonstration of strength.
They pause at the Gowanus Canal, loitering on the 9th street bridge. Bucky actually digs out his cigarettes and lights one, though his hands shake so bad that he almost singes his eyebrows. Steve, who’s always been shit at undercover work, just grimly waits until there’s a break in traffic and no other pedestrians; once the coast is clear he hisses to Bucky, who’s already digging out the gun. It drops over the side into the black water, likely not the only murder weapon disposed of in the Gowanus.
They continue at a slower pace. There are sirens in the distance but there are always sirens in New York and they don’t seem to be heading this direction. Bucky flinches at every loud noise and keeps his heads down, shivering despite the warm, humid air. They don’t talk.
At Bucky’s front door, Steve has to take the key from Bucky’s hand after two unsuccessful attempts to get it in the lock, and he hustles Bucky inside, checking behind them; but the rain’s got everyone inside with their windows closed against the damp.
When he turns back, Bucky’s standing next to his little table/tub, dripping heedlessly on the floor. He’s rubbing his hand over his face and through his hair, like he’s trying to dry off but has forgotten to grab a towel. He flinches when Steve touches his shoulder.
“C’mon, pal,” Steve says. “Best if you strip, don’t want you catching cold.”
“Why?” Bucky asks.
Steve feels worn down, still running through his memory of the scene in his head. Trying to figure out what he could have done differently. “Fine, if you wanna get sick.”
“No, I.” Bucky turns. He’s pale to his lips. “Why do I matter so much? Steve, what was she talking about? The stuff she said about me—”
“You know I can’t—”
“Don’t fucking bullshit me! I just…I shot her. I killed her. Jesus Christ, Steve, I killed a lady!”
He lifts his hands to his face, at first pressing them over his eyes then yanking them away to stare at his palms. Steve knows what he’s smelling: cordite and metal, the memory of what he’d done still covering his hands.
Catching him by the wrists, Steve pulls Bucky against his chest. Bucky comes easily and tucks his nose into the hollow of Steve’s throat. They fit together so well. Steve had spent so much time in the sickbed as a child, he’d never learned the easy physicality of other children, the way their affection became something that flowed against one another; but no part of Bucky’s body feels strange or unfamiliar against his own. Even his breath, hot and wet against Steve’s skin, feels like his own breath.
“She had a gun,” Bucky says. “She had a gun pointed at you. She went near the girls.”
“Yeah,” Steve answers. Pointing out that San-mook was about to die anyways—and probably in a far more painful manner—isn’t going to help anything right now, and opens up a lot more questions than Steve knows how to answer. Instead he slides a hand onto the back of Bucky’s neck and feels him shudder, pushing closer. He’s hard against Steve’s hip but that doesn’t mean anything: when he’d first gone into combat Steve had worried for a while that there might be something wrong with him that the heat of battle so frequently left him aroused. “You’re okay.”
Eventually Bucky starts to notice his prick and pulls away, his face shuttered and his shoulders hunched. “It’s all right,” Steve tells him. “That happens, in combat. C’mon, you want a smoke?”
Bucky huffs a laugh, wiping at his face. “Yeah. Guess I’d better get used to this sorta thing, huh?”
No, Steve thinks but doesn’t say. He lights Bucky’s cigarette and sits with him near the window. His heart feels turned to stone. Outside, a car passes on the street. Steve keeps an ear out for sirens but none come their direction. Across from him, Bucky’s hand shakes as he ferries the cigarette to his lips; watching, Steve numbly wonders if it’s not already too late. If somewhere in the distance, cities have reformed and people have melted. If, again, he’s going to return to a world utterly changed.
He wonders if it would be worth it.
It seems insane to even contemplate—and if he pauses long enough to remember Natasha or Sam or Sharon, the stone in his chest crumbles to shame. It wouldn’t be as though they lived on after him like Peggy and the Howlies; they all just might never exist at all. Or they might be entirely different people, reshaped by the vagaries of fate, while the versions of them that he knew simply never came to be. A billion stillborn possibilities, all to save one man from the crucibles in his future.
When he looks again, Steve realizes that Bucky is watching his face while he smokes. Steve tries to smile; he knows it’s a pitiful effort.
“I die, don’t I?” Bucky asks. “The way you’re looking at me right now—you want to tell me something, but you know it’s gonna hurt. You said combat, and everybody knows we’re gonna get into the war somehow, so I’m guessing I wind up fighting somewhere and getting my mick ass killed.”
Steve’s shaking his head. “No. You live.”
Bucky looks down the street. “Just—tell me it’s worth it, huh? Tell me I die doing something important?”
Pushing away from the opposite side of the window, Steve crowds into Bucky’s space, holding his cheeks in his hands. “Listen to me, Buck. I can’t tell you certain things, but wouldn’t lie to you about this. You live. It is gonna hurt—and I wish to God there was something, anything I could do to stop that from happening. But you do survive it, and you go on. You live to be a hundred years old—no, I’m telling the truth, you do. You see the 21st century, Buck. They don’t have flying cars, but they do have little tiny boxes that can send messages all around the world. They put a man on the moon—two of them, I think. There are aliens; some of them are bad, some are good. There’s even gay marriage—that’s where two guys can marry each other, legally. Or two girls.”
“Now I know you’re bullshitting me,” Bucky says shakily.
“I swear on my Ma’s grave that I’m not. I met you there, in the future.”
“What, when I’m a hundred? You hang out with a lot of hundred-year-olds?”
“Just one,” Steve says but it’s a lie. In the future, he and Barnes are ships in the night.
If Bucky hears the dishonesty he doesn’t show it: he lets Steve pull him to bed, divesting them both of clothes as he does so. Here, at least, Steve cannot hurt him, though all they do is lie together, skin to skin, with Bucky’s head on his chest and their legs tangled.
Steve wakes up to the sensation of something soft tracing over his back, light and ticklish. He huffs, twisting, and Bucky pulls back enough to let Steve roll onto his side.
“Hey Daddy,” he greets softly.
“Fuckin’ A, kid. It’s too early in the morning for that shit, don’t you got an off switch?”
Bucky grins, wicked and slightly snaggle-toothed in the weak morning light. He’s still got dark smudges around his eyes and his hand frets at the skin of Steve’s hip like Stark squeezes one of his many, many stress balls. But he’s here and he’s whole.
You don’t get to make that choice, he’d told Dr. Sun, but isn’t that what he’s doing right now? Is one man’s suffering worth the world? All night Steve rolled it around in his head, desperately seeking some kind of moral rationalization that would let him sleep.
He can’t. Not when the lamb being sacrificed is going blind to the altar.
So: “I gotta tell you something,” Steve murmurs, tracing a line over Bucky’s cheekbone. He can see sharpness underneath the baby fat; the places where the Winter Soldier lurks below. “You weren’t wrong before. You do important things, in the future.”
“I gotta, Bucky, I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t give you this much. There’s a war coming and you fight in it, but it’s after that matters. Terrible things happen to you—you survive them, but you come out the other side a different man. And I don’t know if that man would look back on the things he’s lived through—the things he’s done, what’s been done to him—and want to leave them unchanged.
“But I don’t know that changing them would make anything better. If I tell you not to join up, there’s a good chance that the Nazis are gonna tramp bloody all over Europe and the rest of the world. If I tell you how to avoid the terrible things that happen to you, then you might fucking die in the war. I’ve got no idea what telling you could change in the future. You might unmake or remake the whole world. Hell, you might unmake me. But if you want to know, I’ll tell you everything. I couldn’t live with it if I didn’t let you choose. So. Do you want to know?”
A breathless silence falls over the little bedroom. Bucky spends a moment studying Steve’s face before his gaze drops away, falling to the folds of the blanket. Steve watches him, feeling a little sick but at the same time lighter than he has all week. If Bucky asks him for the whole truth, Steve will give it to him; but he can only hope that he does get unmade by the revelations: if he goes back to the future only to discover that Sam or Natasha had ceased to exist or the Nazi flag fluttered above Stark Tower, Steve knows he won’t be able to live with that, either.
But it’s not his to choose. No one should make this choice for another person.
“No,” Bucky finally says and Steve feels his heart just split right down the middle. Out spills the shameful relief of absolution and all the love he’s never given anyone else: Stark was wrong, Steve has never been cold, he’s been carrying this around in him all along without even knowing himself and now that it’s been let loose it floods him. He’s drowning in it.
He pulls Bucky down to him and kisses his crooked mouth again and again. Murmurs, “I love you,” for all the good it’ll do. Like his broken heart is the kind of sustenance that will keep Bucky alive through the things that come next, the things that Steve is letting him face alone.
Bucky kisses him back, murmurs, “I love you, too.” Looks at Steve like he means it, wide-eyed and scared but still wanting. “You’ll be there, right? I’ll see you, in the future.”
Gently Steve touches his thumb to the divot in Bucky’s chin. “Yeah. I’ll see you in the 21st century, kid.”
Steve half-expects Stark to demand a full debrief, if to satisfy his own scientific curiosity than anything else; but the whole thing about ensuring his parents’ death happened seems to have him rattled, because he disappears upstairs in a hurry.
Thank Christ he does, because Steve has no idea what the hell he would say.
Dr. Banner does a full physical examination, and Steve can tell that he’s got plenty of questions, too; but he must pick up on Steve’s disquiet, because he keeps things strictly medical.
“Well,” he finally says, squinting at the tablet in his hands, “all of your readings seem normal. I’ll spare you the MRI machine, unless you start to have headaches or blurred vision I don’t see any need for imaging.”
“Thanks.” Steve has never liked the MRI machine; too loud, too enclosed.
“Well, then—congratulations, I guess. So far as anyone knows, you’re the first person to successfully travel in time. I’ll, uh, I’d really appreciate it if we could sit down and chat about it, once you’ve had some time to, um, relax. I know Tony doesn’t want any information leaking to the public, if this kind of tech fell into the wrong hands again it could be catastrophic, but for my own interest…”
“Sure, yeah, of course.”
Dr. Banner nods, very clearly attempting to mask his eagerness by re-examining Steve’s medical info. Steve can’t really blame him: unless you’ve got a dead mother or left your whole world in the past, the concept of time travel must be pretty thrilling. Like killer robots, and space aliens.
Steve says, “Dr. Banner, I was wondering—before, you and Tony were arguing about…time loops versus alternate realities.”
“That’s the gist of the debate, yes. Why, do you, uh, do you have any insights?” Adjusting his glasses, Dr. Banner peers at him with interest.
“Is it possible that someone in the present might have memories of a past that hasn’t…happened yet? Say—say someone in the past meets someone who came from the future, and then that person goes through time and meets that traveler in the future, but before they traveled back in time.”
Dr. Banner blinks several times, then says, “I’m guessing that in this scenario, you’re the traveler and the past subject is—that one person who I’m not supposed to know about?”
The Other Guy doesn’t like Barnes, having fought against him too many times; there’d been one particular incident with a flamethrower that had thoroughly tested the regenerative limits of Banner’s brand of serum. These days even mention of him can set off a green alert. Wincing, Steve nods.
“Well,” Dr. Banner says, visibly monitoring his own response before he shrugs. “Like Tony said, it’s all experimental. There’s been a lot of speculation in the scientific field so if you’ve got any revelations then I’d certainly be interested to hear, uh, a testimonial. What you’re talking about, though, sounds a lot like predetermination.”
“Something like that and while I’ve got a few doctorates, none of them are in theology.”
Steve smiles politely for long enough that Dr. Banner turns away.
The bike ride from Manhattan to DC passes in a blur. The best that Steve can say is that he makes it to his door without crashing into anything.
When he walks in his front door, there’s a strange echo to the place. Everything’s exactly where he left it, minus the dishes that Natasha used when she came by to snoop through his things and drop off food for him, which she’s undoubtedly left stacked in neat containers in his icebox. She doesn’t trust him to cook for himself, not after he described the lard and sugar sandwiches that his ma used to make for dessert. To be honest, Steve was mostly faking his nostalgia for the sandwiches in order to get her to feed him; she makes the best pierogis Steve has ever tasted.
Right now, though, he’s not thinking about food. He stands in the doorway looking around his apartment for a long moment.
Then he gets his shield out of the safe in his room, puts it in the pizza box-like pack that Stark made for him, and goes straight back out the door.
The apartment in Romania is empty, too, but in a different way. Steve was deliberately unsubtle in his approach. There’s a mattress on the floor and newspaper print over all the windows. The fridge has nothing in it except basic fruits and vegetables; they look rough and misshapen, like the kind Steve remembers buying from vendors. On top of the fridge are protein bars and a small journal. Steve doesn’t touch it.
The place smells like him. Like Bucky. Steve hadn’t even noticed that he had a particular smell, but it’s here. There’s a small pile of clothes near the door, unmistakably bound for the wash, and Steve resists the urge to march over and do something creepy like sniff them.
Instead he goes outside and finds a bench. Sits there for a while. When the sun goes down he gets up and wanders through the marketplace. It’s an old-fashioned place for an old-fashioned city still shucking off its tangled history; there isn’t much about his long sleep that Steve thinks of fondly, but he is grateful for having avoided the tangled mess that was the Cold War. Bucharest and the rest of Romania is clearly still attempting to navigate the transition to capitalism without much in the way of infrastructure. He sees it in the market, which is by turns poorly-lit but teeming with fresh produce and meat hanging in the open air. It reminds Steve of the pushcarts on the lower East side, though the purveyors here are a bit less aggressive in their pitches.
He tries desperately not to read too much into the similarities there, and fails.
Just as he’s beginning to feel foolish, like he’s unwelcome and intruding on something he has no right to…he feels a prickle on the back of his neck. Turning sharply, he peers through the crowded market.
Between the stalls of fish and bread and strands of swinging lights, there’s a broad back moving steadily away from him and Steve hurries after.
Barnes leads him away from the crowds at an unhurried pace. Bucharest has the winding streets typical to a city that developed before the advent of cars, when people were a lot less concerned about a foreigner being able to find their way around; but here and there are stumbling attempts at organization, likely constructed during the Communist era, which really only serve to make the city more confusing. The wide boulevard where the market is held doesn’t actually connect to any of the surrounding highways except by narrow, one-way bridges where the car mirrors scrape along the sides.
Here, Steve loses his quarry. He dodges out of the way of a honking van and when he looks up again, there’s no sign of Barnes. Looking in all directions, he sees nothing but apartment buildings and walkways full of chickens and trash. To his right there’s a construction barricade and a sheer dropoff into darkness; he can see the glimmer of lights reflected on the surface of water, one of the city’s many canals.
Steve hesitates a moment then puts one hand on the guard rail of the bridge and vaults over the side.
He falls further than he expected. For a split-second he wonders if he’s going to keep falling and hears Natasha lecturing him in his head—but then his feet hit wet pavement. He’s in some kind of railway station that’s under construction, the tracks running perpendicular under the bridge. To one side, the concrete pillars open up to look out on one of the city’s many lakes, and distant city lights glint on the water. The workers have clearly gone home for the day, because the place is deserted.
Except not entirely.
He’s standing near one of the concrete pillars. Steve would bet there’s another drop over the side onto a pedestrian walkway along the waterfront. Perfect place to stash a boat or hide a body.
In the dim light, Steve can’t see much. Barnes is wearing a dark jacket and a baseball hat. He stands with his hands at his sides, no visible weapons on him; but there’s a pack securely strapped to his back. He says nothing, just looks at Steve and waits.
There’s a person in there and it’s Bucky, or what’s left of him. What survived.
Steve forgoes any greeting. “If I said, I’ll see you in the 21st century,” he says, his voice echoing slightly off the concrete walls, “would you know what the hell I was talking about?”
Barnes blinks; other than that, his blank expression does not change. “No.”
“Liar. You said that to me, once. When you surrendered and offered intel, I figured that you thought I’d be least likely to shoot you on sight.” The quality of the tension in Barnes changes and Steve puts his hands up; he’s still maybe ten feet away, not close enough to be sure of a capture if Barnes bolts. “I just want to talk.”
Licking his lips, Steve says, “I—I went on a mission this week. Stark built a time machine and I had to go back—back to 1936, in Brooklyn, to stop something from happening. And I met you there. You were eighteen and I…”
He can’t quite get the words out. I fell in love with you. It was a fucking week, but even that short a time of knowing Bucky had shifted something inside of Steve. All the things about Steve that had been off-putting to other people or made relationships difficult, Bucky had blown right past. He’d slipped in under the wire somehow.
The blue-grey eyes of the man standing in front of him are cold and sharp; his hair, still growing out from the cut he gave himself, curls slightly against his cheekbones. For a long moment he stands unmoving, and Steve feels the edges of grief start to fold around his heart. Maybe the kinder thing would have been to stay away…
Then Barnes says: “You didn’t remember.”
Steve’s full body breaks out in shivers. Jesus Christ, this whole time. Not an alternate reality, not a time paradox. “There wasn’t anything to remember. It hadn’t even happened for me, yet. But it did for you, didn’t it?”
“I wasn’t sure. It’s just pieces, in here.” Barnes twitches his head to the side. “When you didn’t remember, I thought—implanted memories. Or you’d been wiped. Or I just imagined the whole thing.”
There’s maybe the barest quirk of a wry smile. Remembering how expressive Bucky was—how Barnes used to be—Steve can’t help but feel a pang of loss. “You met me outside the Blessed Virgin and asked me if I wanted something to eat. We went down to the automat—”
“Garfield’s.” Steve risks a few steps closer. “You were working at Healey’s and you—Hell, you called me Daddy right out in the street. I about swallowed my tongue.”
“That ain’t all you swallowed,” Barnes retorts, and the tone is pure Bucky but it sounds like a recording. He’s looking someplace far away. “What was her name? The woman I killed.”
Steve can’t help but wince. “San-mook Sun.”
“I tried to find her in their files. When they sent me to kill her mother, something about it felt like an echo. I knew that she was my first, but…I could never find her.”
“She was dying anyway.”
Barnes focuses on him in an instant, like the lens of a sniper rifle finding its target. “You think that matters?”
It does and it doesn’t, not in the ways that count. Steve licks his lips. “God, I’m sorry. We all knew what had happened to you, but none of us…we didn’t help you like we should have. I’m sorry you went through all of that alone then had to deal with us doubting you left and right instead of—”
“I’m sorry we couldn’t see past what they made you into.” He takes a step forward, then another when Barnes doesn’t immediately run for it. “You deserve better.”
“Pretty sure San-mook and Kyeong Sun would have something to say about what I deserve. Don’t,” he interrupts when Steve starts to reply. “Don’t say it wasn’t me. I was Bucky when I killed San-mook, and if you’re going to say that I’m Bucky now, then I’m the Winter Soldier, too.”
That halts Steve in his tracks, but not for long. “Okay. You are. You were Bucky and you became the Winter Soldier. I was there when it happened, so I know Bucky didn’t want to kill San-mook Sun. Did the Winter Soldier want to kill Kyeong Sun?”
“I didn’t want anything.”
“Everyone wants something.” Another step and then Steve is within arm’s reach of Barnes, of Bucky. “I hear water’s the second most basic necessity of human life. Everyone wants to drink, eat, have someplace to put their head down at night. To be loved. What did the Winter Soldier want?”
Blue-grey eyes go unfocused again, visiting places that Steve has only ever read about. “To sleep,” Barnes says eventually. “If I was in the cryo tube, then I wasn’t hurting anyone and no one was hurting me.”
Yes, they were. Every second they held him, HYDRA hurt Barnes—but his judgment of injury goes beyond anything that Steve is capable of understanding. Steve has thought, before, about what he might have done if he’d suffered similar captivity: he’d imagined enduring, escaping, never giving in.
Now Steve remembers the sweetness of Bucky’s smile, the way he’d held the picture of his little sisters. Now Steve isn’t so sure.
He says, “The Winter Soldier deserved better, too. I read all the things they did to keep you from breaking their hold on you, but in the end you still managed it, with no help from any of us.”
He’s edging closer, just by shifting his weight from side to side and shuffling his feet. From the look on Bucky’s face, that’s closer than anyone’s been in a long time, and it seems like it’s costing him deep not to bolt. But he doesn’t; he stays put, breathing short and even.
And Hell, maybe it’s a purely selfish thing…maybe he’d be better off if Steve left this be. He knows next to nothing about Barnes’ life these days, beyond the scant intel reports that Natasha habitually accumulates. There’s a restaurant that Barnes frequents, a Catholic service that he attends while never taking communion. That little apartment, so carefully structured to limit points of egress and booby-trapped to the extreme. He has no idea if Barnes is happy in that small life.
He thinks that Bucky would have found it horribly lonely. But he only knew Bucky for a week.
It’s Barnes who closes the gap, reaching up unexpectedly. Steve jerks back. He can’t help it. Barnes reached with his metal hand and Steve’s felt its knuckles break his eye socket, collapse his windpipe, nearly gouge out his left eye.
Barnes pauses, his metal hand hovering in midair. Waiting. When Steve huffs in apology, he completes the gesture and lets one cold forefinger rest on the bump of Steve’s nose. He’s gone unfocused again, struggling with something, and Steve holds still. After a moment Barnes shifts to trace the whorl of Steve’s ear, raising goosebumps across Steve’s neck and shoulders.
“After you left,” Barnes says, “I think I…watched over you. The—little guy. I wanted to introduce myself but I didn’t know what would happen. What kind of world I’d make. If we’d have been friends, or. If you’d be different.”
“I would always have wanted to be your friend.”
“You didn’t, before now.”
And Hell, shit, and damnfire, Steve wants to argue that but he can’t. He’d looked at the blankness in Barnes’ eyes and never thought to dip beneath those still waters. Barnes had been an enemy who became a sometimes-ally, and despite the similarities in their pasts, Steve had simply never bothered to breach that gap.
“I should’ve. S’pose I just saw what HYDRA wanted me to see—a machine, a tool. But you were in there the whole time, weren’t you?”
“Pieces,” Barnes says, and somehow manages to make it sound like a warning, even with no inflection and his expression still blank.
“Yeah, well, I’m not who I was a week ago, neither.”
Barnes’ head tips back. “A week.”
“You just came back.”
“Yeahhh?” Steve answers slowly.
Steve blinks, retracing his flight from Dulles airport to Bucharest, the ride down from Manhattan, Dr. Banner’s brief exam. “Maybe twenty-four hours ago? Probably less than that. Why?”
Barnes is staring at him, for once not looking through some hidden window. Then he’s reaching out and grabbing Steve by the shoulder—Steve manages not to flinch this time—and turning him sideways. With his other hand he grabs Steve’s coat and shirt in one grip and yanks it upwards.
A moment of stillness and tremendous confusion follows. Barnes appears to be intently examining a spot on Steve’s lower left back and Steve, bewildered, allows him to do so.
Barnes makes a strange noise low in his throat and it takes Steve a moment to realize that he’s laughing.
“Well,” he says, “you ain’t lyin’.”
Twisting around, Steve can just barely make out a smudged black spot on his lower back, small enough to be mistaken for a mole, except Steve knows his body better. It’s pomade, he realizes when he pokes it with his fingertips. The touch makes him remember waking up to fingers tracing over this exact spot, yesterday morning. Or eighty years ago, or however long it’s been for Barnes.
“You little punk,” Steve exclaims. “Why’d you do that?”
“I was gonna write my initials but you woke up too quick. I wanted…I figured if you weren’t lying then you’d come back to the future and I’d be a hundred years old in a wheelchair. Probably not much I’d be able to do with you then, but maybe, maybe I’d see the mark on you somehow, and I’d know that you just came from my bed.”
He looks up at Steve and there, there it is. A little slyness, a darkness around the pupils. It’s an open hand asking for a dance partner, as silent and secret as a hidden mark on skin, carried from one century to the next. He’s still got hold of Steve’s shirt and Steve slowly turns into the curve of his arm so that they’re closer, standing almost chest-to-chest in the dark of the railway, while traffic rattles by overhead, not that much different a sound from the L train.
“Hey, kid,” Steve murmurs. He touches a thumb to the divot in Barnes’ chin, careful to keep his other fingers back. It might never be more than this, but he’ll take what he can get.
Barnes huffs. “Think I might be older’n you now.” His voice has changed a little bit, the vowels going flat. Steve remembers a conversation over ciders in a bar that doesn’t even exist anymore, and wonders if the change is as automatic for Barnes as it was for him.
He hopes so.