It’s spring. He’s in DC.
The radio predicts rain but Steve doesn’t take an umbrella.
He gets drenched.
When he sees him, Rumlow raises an eyebrow and says “Jesus Cap, don’t you watch the news?”
Steve shrugs, scattering raindrops at his feet.
“They’re never right anyway.”
In the morning, the radio belts out a tune by someone named Carly Rae Jepson and predicts a chance of light shower. His fingers snag a flag umbrella Clint gave him as a housewarming gift.
The day remains overcast and unflatteringly grey. But there is no rain.
He raises his arm in vindication.
The weathermen are never right.
“Ooh look, Cap’s diary.”
“Huh, what’s this?” Tony shakes the small journal as though expecting something scandalous or at least a pot of gold to fall out. “You owe borrow money boy scout? What’s the interest?”
Privately, Steve hides a smile. Face stern, he plucks the small booklet from the other man’s sticky fingers and tucks it into a back pocket. It lists the number of rainy days he’s had since Bucky fell.
“Hey Steve, psst... Steve!”
July 4th, 1929. He’s twelve and it’s his birthday and it's hot and he can’t sleep. Bucky taps the window outside the fire escape until he opens up. Already, he can hear firecrackers going off down the neighborhood and he grimaces because his ma’s on shift today. For some, this Fourth of July can only end in tears.
“Bucky” Steve says, dragging his teeth through each letter. “It’s past midnight!”
Bucky’s almost thirteen. He’s got two younger sisters and one brother and both his ma and pa but he hangs out with Steve. Says that he hasn’t got a lick of sense God has given a two-year-old and has to look out for him. Steve usually sputters and protests at this point but he doesn’t mind. Bucky’s the onliest friend he’s ever had.
“I know!” The other boy says proudly, puffing up his chest. “Got you a present.”
It’s a crock-pot. One of Mrs. Barnes’ nicer ones. Bucky will catch hell for it when his ma finds out but right now, he’s as proud as a tomcat spoiling for a fight. “Go on, open it.”
Steve bites his tongue. He’s tempted to ask if Bucky filched it but he doesn’t. Cautiously, he opens it up and finds nothing? He squints.
“What is it?”
Bucky’s grin is bright.
“Bucky, I’m not gonna...”
“What’s the matter, you chicken?”
Exasperated, Steve rolls his eyes when Bucky takes his hand and sticks it on top of something clear and cold.
It’s ice. A big pot of ice and Steve has no idea how Bucky managed it since the only folks who have ice around these parts are shopkeepers like Mr. Whitlam and Mr. Ferris near the school and he suspects more than ever that Bucky stole the whole thing except neither men are likely to let Bucky leave anything near their precious ice boxes and for the ice to have formed perfectly round inside his mother’s crock-pot, he must have found one somewhere to keep it in.
Steve’s mouth forms a perfect ‘o’ and shyly, Bucky hands him a jar of strawberry preserves and says “happy birthday Stevie.”
The sun shines for one whole hour before sinking to the ground.
The next day is sunny.
Seventy years since Bucky’s death, Steve has seen exactly one-hundred and three rainy days.
The nice thing about the modern world is that people aren’t scared anymore.
Or they’re scared of many things, poverty, violence, crime, but they aren’t scared of being themselves, of being individuals. Steve’s had young women come up to him asking him to sign petitions, colored bands stretched openly around their wrists. When he asks what they are—he’s seen Natasha’s yellow, Hawkeye’s orange and Dr. Banner’s green—the girl looks surprised.
“It means I’m a mutant.”
“It means I’m different from the rest y’all.”
The blonde dame on the news says that it’ll rain again.
Steve looks outside. Not a single cloud in the sky.
He sloughs back from his morning jog in wet tee and shorts, turning heads every which way. Some are interested, others are downright predatory. None are what he is used to and the stares make him squirm like he’s got a booger on his shirt.
In the army, he stood out because he was a head taller than others. He was famous, he was Captain America but there were other guys, tall guys, fellas with claws and tails and fur and at the end of the day, caked in mud from head to toe, it didn’t matter who was big or small or American, he just wanted peace to get some shut eye. He’d have showered in the rain if Bucky had let him.
“Wow” says Kate, juggling a basket of laundry in her arms. “Why didn’t you take an umbrella?”
“I didn’t think I needed it.” He says honestly. “Weathermen are always wrong anyway.”
She snorts. “Not always. And isn’t this what they teach you in the army? Always be prepared?”
“That’s the boy scouts.” He says with mock disappointment and turns around, fumbling with the wet keys.
The war’s been over for seventy years but for Steve, it’s only been a year since he was at the frontlines fighting alongside men and women who are now most likely dead. The bed is still too soft for him, sometimes he feels like he’ll sink right through. The trenches are steeped deep in his bones and he can’t get it out. He turns around; fists clenched and ready to fight.
“Sorry” Kate reddens. “I didn’t know you had a tattoo.”
“Oh um... yeah. It’s...” Now it’s Steve’s turn to blush. It’s not her fault. His tattoo, it’s not something he advertises. He quickly hides behind his door. “You... you have a nice day Kate.”
He catches a glimpse of himself in the bathroom mirror. The thick lines visible through the tee and he pulls at it so it hangs looser on his back, giving him the illusion of privacy. It doesn’t matter. When he takes the shirt off, the phoenix is in full display, soaring across the expanse of his back.
A long time ago, someone told him that he was more than the sum of his parts.
That person is gone now.
“C’mon Steve, you’ve got to see this.”
“I’ve heard that one before.” Steve remarks, closing his sketchbook.
“Yeah, but it’s different this time.”
“So it isn’t Mary Lou and her sister?”
“Steve” Bucky whines, “Just look, one look, I promise.”
Steve looks up.
His breath catches in his throat, dazzled as sunlight catches on Bucky’s skin and sets him ablaze. He looks like a fae from the old world, something beautiful and mysterious, an ancient god in his human form, the patron saint of all that is good and gold. His grin is a proud, infectious thing as he points outside, at a double rainbow bridging the two sides of the city together.
“Now isn’t that something?” He demands, a leg swinging freely out their three-story window. Steve uses it as an excuse to pull him back, digging his fingers into the groove of his shoulders and feeling the muscles contract as though squeezing back, warm and solid and whole and real.
He swallows. Gets his throat working again.
“Yeah. It sure is Buck. It sure is.”
“You have to choose carefully. Every picture has a story, a hidden meaning. Once I start, I can’t stop. And these drawings. They’re forever. So please, think about it.”
During the Second World War, the United States military and its allies drafted veterans, the elderly and the infirm, men women and children to their ranks.
Entire forests were burnt down in one night. The rivers became poisoned. The German mounts and dogs turned on them. There were soldiers who swore the earth caved in and swallowed men in the middle of the night. Their success was nothing short of devastating.
But mutants are born, not made. Those graded above class 2, the ones with offensive capabilities, are even rarer.
In 1940, an artist named Abraham Erskine surrendered to the British Intelligence. He was a mutant who had a very special ability. The ability to create more mutants.
Project Phoenix was named for the monster he drew on Steve’s skin.
Erskine died soon after, devoured by Hydra and its many heads.
Clouds again. June in DC promised sunshine.
Steve connects them like dot-to-dot on his way back to his apartment.
His ma’s funeral is on a sunny afternoon.
Everyone talks about what a wonderful person she was and how tragic it is that she died young.
Mr. and Mrs. Barnes express their condolences, keeping an iron-grip on their children. Bucky stands a little ways away.
He doesn’t know what happened to them, what made Bucky’s family leave New York instead of simply kicking Bucky out. Steve can’t imagine what Bucky could have done to deserve this. Coldly regarded as though he doesn't belong. But all his thoughts are shunted off to the wayside as he swallows back the tears that threaten to fall from his eyes. He doesn’t even notice when little Rebecca breaks off from the pack with a white daisy in her hand, pressing it into his hands as she whispers “take care of him.”
Take care of whom? He wonders before realizing—take care of Bucky. And he feels a wave of resentment swell in his heart. It’s his mother’s funeral. Why does it matter if Bucky’s suffering if—oh, oh.
The bible teaches them many things. It tells them to cast the Devil out, letting Satan touch your heart is the most surefire of way of going to hell. Everyone’s always been wary of that Barnes kid. Strange things happened when he was about. Shopkeepers count their pennies more closely. Mothers keep a closer eye on their children. Fathers polish their guns.
But Bucky could be the Devil and he wouldn’t have cared. Steve’s never thought of Bucky as anything but amazing and he isn’t going to start now.
He accepts the flower.
Fury is a busy man, in charge of the largest mutant rights organization in the world. Despite its front, it’s hardly a charity. It’s Shield’s job to educate the public. But they also make sure that mutants are registered across borders and bring the nonconformists to justice.
He’s seen kids, young children, the ones that don’t know any better, slapped with a colored band around their wrists, red, orange, yellow or blue. Their future is certain, either the slammer or life as a Shield operative.
It’s like Nazi eugenics all over again.
Fury gives him the stink eye.
“You know why that analogy is crap? Jews didn’t breathe fire or have the ability to shoot lasers from their eyes. Shield takes the world as is, not as we’d like it to be.”
That’s true but neither do mutants. Not all of them are like Hill who has to wear a degasser to make sure she doesn’t fry all computers. Or Rumlow who can turn his body into organic steel. At class 1 and 2, most of them are harmless, a garden variety of enhanced senses like hearing or sight or being able to breathe underwater.
If Bucky had lived—
“This isn’t justice, this is fear.”
Steve spars with Natasha sometimes. The first time around, he makes the mistake of holding back and ends up with a black eye.
He didn’t know that she had a healing factor or how fast she could bounce back from a twisted knee. But she doesn’t fight like she is invincible, how she’s shrugged off bullets and spat them back out again when she is done. She fights like she is vulnerable, human.
“Why waste the energy?” She says. “I’m not like you Rogers, I can’t afford not to.”
Steve’s always been a sickly kid. If the mercury bounces too fast, it brings on his breathing spells. May day, 1939, Bucky is fresh from work and humming, his hair sticky with pomade. They’ve finally got enough saved up for an outing but Steve’s worried because it’s supposed to storm tomorrow.
“Aw shucks Stevie.” Bucky says, swinging an arm around his skinny neck. “Don’t you believe me? The geniuses at the radio station don’t know what they’re talking about anyway.”
Bucky is right. It’s sunny throughout. The temperature is perfect when Steve throws up all over the Cyclone.
The rainclouds move in once they’re safely home. Steve is excited; cheeks flush with color as his mouth runs a mile a minute. Fingers groping for paper and pencil, determined to commit every detail to memory even as Bucky sinks down on their communal couch, body loose and languid like a dame’s stockings.
He swallows, even as he edges closer asking what’s wrong Buck? Because he’s the sick one, he’s the one who gets tired and out of breath if they stay out in the sun too long. But today was just perfect, not too warm but not too cold. Bucky waves away his concern—I’m beat.
Next morning, rain comes down with a vengeance. Bucky’s in bed, shivering. He won’t be able to go to work today. Looking out the window, he doubts that anyone can go to work today. Thunder claps and electricity goes out. He brings Bucky lukewarm soup. Sneezing, Bucky says—
“It was worth it.”
He ticks another ‘x’ in his journal.
Steve notices it in the way the chill nips at his lungs before going down, the way people start layering cross floors instead of shedding spring colors. It’s reflected in his eyes, the grass, the rectangular pool before the Washington Monument as he runs past. The world is eerily silent, like an egg past opening. Souring from deep inside the shell.
“On your left.” He greets when he sees a familiar jogger. The wings are hard to miss. After running two more laps, he says “Haven’t seen you in a while.”
The other man catches his breath and straightens out his feathers. “Yeah” he says, “The weather’s been makin’ a friend nervous so I stayed with him for a while.”
“The weather?” And Steve blushes because that was rude but the other man waves him off. “Is he alright?”
“He’ll be fine. A couple of bad nights here and there but he’s square.” He peers up at him curiously. “How ‘bout you big guy? How’s the cold working out for your ninety-year-old ass?”
Steve rubs the back of his neck and laughs.
“That obvious huh?”
“Kinda hard to miss. You’re everywhere.”
Behind them, Natasha honks impatiently.
“Look uh, it’s nice meeting you...”
“Sam, Sam Wilson.”
“Sam” He says gratefully.
They shake hands. He has a hunch they’re kindred spirits.
“You should come down to the VA sometimes. We’d love to have you.”
Erskine draws the eyes first because the eyes are the windows to the soul. He says that he wants Steve to always remember where he comes from. He nods and nearly bites through his tongue when the body slopes down his spine, then the wings, the legs, the talons, the feathers and the crown. Each gives him strength, endurance, courage, wisdom and hope. The last thing the man draws the heart, a five sided diamond buried in the feathered breast. Erskine dies finishing it.
“You know me Steve, I’m just a cube. Never understood all this fancy art stuff.”
He puts his shirt back on.
“It’s one of a kind. Mr. Erskine drew it before he died. It’s well.” Steve spreads his arms. “Everything.”
Bucky scoffs loudly. “Don’t be a pill Stevie, that’s not what makes you special.”
He flicks his chest, right above the heart. “This is.”
They never discuss it.
It’s like loving a fella like you would a dame—it isn’t done. But looking back, he can remember on more than one occasion when the sky had been blue when it ought not to be. While he saw black thunderheads rolling across the horizon, Brooklyn remained sunny on the days they wanted to sneak into the theaters or had an appointment Steve had to keep.
He remembers a time when Bucky got sick. Really sick and neither the cold showers nor the blankets helped.
New York had been in the middle of the worst storm on record and Bucky, face flushed and surly as a bear with a toothache, puffy-eyed and his nose dripping like a bust pipe, cajoled, threatened, pleaded then downright bullied Steve when he refused to stay home.
“It’s only a block down the road Buck.” He soothes, feeling the sickly heat through the sheets. The flu could be contagious but at that moment, Steve doesn’t care. Bucky is what matters. All he wants to do is to smooth the crease between his best friend’s eyes. “I’ll be fine.”
Dissatisfied, Bucky whines “Steeeeeve” and tries to get out of bed. He only manages to flop over which is good because he doesn’t know how he would get Bucky back in bed by his lonesome. “’s probably closed.” Bucky slurs through his swollen lips. “Stay?”
“Mr. Whitlam lives on the second floor. I’m sure he’ll help us out.”
He piles another blanket and wool coat on top when Bucky’s teeth chatter. “No, no...”
“Take the coat Steve.”
Bucky sounds awful like words are being scratched on his voice box. He coughs wetly into his pillow, clumsily knotting his fingers around Steve’s skinny wrist. “You’ll catch your death going out like that.”
“It’s only a block.” Steve repeats. “And I’ll only be gone for a little bit.”
“Promise me you’ll turn back if the weather gets worse.”
Steve doesn’t bother pointing out that the weather couldn’t possibly get worse.
“Okay, okay, I’m...” He croaks. “’m gonna wait for you.”
“Rest Bucky.” Steve says kindly. “It’ll be fine.”
He tucks Bucky in and tiptoes out of their shared apartment. The winds abate when he sets foot outside, the flurry of snow circling around him like a living thing before veering away. For a moment, he stands baffled at the sight. The eye of the storm centered directly on him. It’s almost warm in the middle, the scarves and blanket heavy around his head.
He runs to the store. It’s closed but Steve pounds on the door until Mr. Whitlam peeks out with a salt-and-pepper eyebrow. He is understandably surprised when he sees little Steve Rogers instead of his friend Bucky Barnes. Shakily, the old man opens the door. He keeps his eyes on the horizon as he hands him the medicine.
Natasha’s on the edge. He sees it on the not quite quirk of her mouth, the way the sky casts a grey pallor over her oval face. Her hand strays to her hips more than once and he thinks—gun, there must be a tail.
But when he checks the rearview mirror, he finds nothing. It doesn’t stop her from taking the most convoluted route back to the Triskelion.
“Strange weather we’re having.” He comments idly, trying to lighten the mood.
Immediately her gaze snaps to his, the bold face of fear rearing in her blue eyes.
It’s wrong because Natasha’s one of the strongest, most intelligent people he knows. She’s quick to mask it, a blink-and-gone expression under polite blandness, but now that he’s seen it, he can’t let go. As loathed as he is to admit, it has him nervous. It makes him afraid.
“So” She drawls, her knuckles hard over the steering wheel. “How do you feel about Amanda from HR?”
“I’m not being paranoid.”
“Most intelligence communities think he’s a ghost. You’re saying he’s real.”
“I’m saying I’m not the first one to know something like this to happen.”
Hydra sets up shop on a mountain side, like a fat tick gorging itself on deer blood.
Every fifteen minutes, a pair of guards round the perimeter, shooting everything and anything that crawls out of the woodwork. Tiny corpses litter the ground along with skeletons of dead soldiers and prisoners they didn’t even have the decency to burn.
Dernier’s sole contribution to the gene pool is his forked tongue but Morita’s got eyes like an eagle. He make out the distant shapes beyond the blacked out windows. He counts twelve soldiers in rotation, all young, healthy and eager to prove themselves. They’ve never seen war. The only thing they know is this compound and how to point and shoot.
Jones whistles through the teeth, when a moth gets shredded for being too bright.
At this distance, Steve can do little more than to knock off their hats.
“It’s going to be hard to stay undetected.”
He turns to Bucky.
“But that’s not a problem right Buck?”
Bucky puts on his killing face and creeps forward. On his elbows and knees, he curls his fingers until it looks like he squeezing a ripe tomato or daring a call-girl for a kiss. Mist rises from the ground, subtle at first, just enough to wet the tip of the leaves. As the second hand on the clock face turns and turns, it becomes thick as molasses, enough to bathe in and for fish to feel right at home. He can hear the German soldiers converse in confusion, unable to see further than the width of their palms. But they have Bucky.
Erskine dies but the project lives on.
He’s just a one-off. There is no way the experiment can be replicated but it doesn’t stop people from trying. A little girl is flown in, sniffling as Agent Carter explains that she can mimic just about everything. Her tiny hands slap his pecs but nothing happens. She screws up her face and begins to cry.
Steve feels like a failure. He gets down to his knees, trying to think of what Bucky used to do with his little sisters. At the thought of them, the matched pair, Rebecca and Rachel, in their Sunday best, she stops and looks up at him with her blotchy face. She screws a fist in her eye and asks wetly, “Who are they?”
His thoughts immediately bounce back to Bucky.
Agent Carter comments, “She can also read your mind.”
“Oh um” Realizing that the girl is still waiting for an answer, he says “He’s my best friend. The only one I ever had.”
“Is he good? Like you?”
“Better” Steve says hoarsely because it’s been a while since he’s heard from him. He imagines that there are letters lost in transit somewhere, waiting to be sent home. “You would have liked him. I should introduce you.”
She shakes her head.
“You have to go.” She says, eyes shifting everywhere but on him. “You have to save him.”
They measure everything from his reflexes to his latent telekinesis.
After being frozen for so long, the most he can do is push a ball across the floor. There is not much dexterity to what he does though he gets better directing the ball through an obstacle course. His healing is better. He can bench-press at least a thousand pounds.
When a head doctor looks at him, she wrinkles her nose as though she gets a migraine just from looking at him. She tells him to turn it down because he’s projecting too loud.
He’d never liked that part of his power set. It seemed too much like what Schmitt wanted for himself when he canvassed the mythical hydra across his immortal hide. His doctor seems less than sympathetic. “Suck it up.” She suggests and makes him go through a series of exercises for better control.
“Trust me” She says. “This shit will save your life.”
“Does that mean the Captain can hear what we’re thinking?”
“—It really doesn’t work like that Monty.”
“Hey Rogers! Guess what I’m thinking right now.”
“He doesn’t need powers to figure that out you old bastard, get down from there!”
“I’m thinking of a number between one to fifty...”
“Gentlemen, I really do not feel comfortable doing this.”
“C’mon Rogers, live a little.”
In the middle of his protests, Bucky returns with beer. One look around the table has everyone looking guiltily away. Setting the drinks down he asks “You fellas giving Stevie a hard time?”
“Good” Bucky says simply, kicking back in his chair. “Because I damn guarantee whoever it is will find ice cubes in their sleeping bag if they don’t knock it off.”
A little embarrassed, Steve knocks their mugs together.
DC in June is cold enough for him to revert to the prohibition era mindset when the best way to keep warm was to stuff paper in their shirts and sleep on top of each other.
But that doesn’t matter now because the bathroom in his new apartment is bigger than the space he shared with Bucky, too big even then, with water on both taps, central heating and a stove that doesn’t need a match to light.
After the Chitauri invasion, he went back to their little apartment and saw that there was nothing left. Everyone he knew was dead. What idle hopes he had of recovering some of the lost recollections evaporates at the sight of the streets and the paved sidewalk, chain link fences and neon graffiti. He’d run straight back to DC, tail between his legs, begging for a place to stay because he couldn’t face the idea that the letters he received, the bullet, pressed leaves, his drawings, the assortment of possessions they hoarded over the years were gone.
The letters returned eventually. The drawings too, donated graciously by the Smithsonian. But there were so many things missing. Bucky was more than the stories, more than the hero who gave up his life in the service of his country. No one but Steve would know Bucky would take the long way around every night just to visit a stray that had taken liking to him. They wouldn’t know that he hated nuts, hated the way they’d get stuck between his teeth. That he would foist them off on Steve when he could, swallowed them whole when they became a part of everyday rations.
A hand lands on his shoulder.
He throws Kirkland to the floor.
“Jesus Christ” the other man squeaks and he hurriedly helps him up.
There is a cut on his brow that seals up as quick as it had been made.
“I’m sorry.” Steve apologizes, his breath fogging the air. “I just...”
Surprised, his frustration with Fury is momentarily forgotten. If he didn’t have a calendar built into his clock, if he didn’t have people reminding him every hour of every day what year, month and date it was, he would have said that they are on the cusp of winter, when last leaves of October gives way to November winds.
This is more than just funny weather. It’s the kind of cold that wants to climb into his bones and lie there. He feels the creep of fine hairs on his back like someone’s tracing his tattoo. The disorientation continues until he’s inside. Even then, he can tell.
Something is wrong.
Bucky is fifteen when his family leaves him, right around the time his ma starts getting sick.
Steve doesn’t notice, not for a while, not until he drops by for a visit because his ma made too many cookies and wanted Bucky to have some too. At first he thinks that Bucky’s been robbed. His apartment was never very big but having six people under one roof made for a very cluttered living space. Now there is nothing, the furniture, wall hangings and the TV, all gone. Bucky looks surprised when he mentions it.
“Granddad wanted some help with the farm.” He says lightly, pouring Steve a glass of milk.
He knows his friend is lying.
Idle hands make the Devil’s work; idle hands will draw plush lips and lazy eyes, the curve of Bucky’s wrist bones and the arch of his feet.
Steve buries himself in work and other people, at parks, the museum, and the stores. Young people. Old people, couples, singles, children, dogs and pet cats. But his eyes skirt away from the band around their wrist.
In the twenty-first century, he is an Avenger, he is a mutant icon. But he doesn’t wear the colored band that denotes who he is, what he is. His power comes from the tattoo Erskine inked into his skin. He doesn’t have the x-gene; there is no way he can pass it on.
He’s not a mutant, he just has powers of one. Critics say that Captain America is not a good mutant role model. Is he a mutant or not?
Steve feels ashamed when he thinks—everything that’s good about him came out of a bottle.
He folds his notebook and tucks it under one arm. He takes out his phone and types tattoo.
Gabriel Jones wasn’t a mutant. Like him, he was plain old human.
After the war, he went home. He finished his education and became a professor at Howard University. When asked about the war, Captain America and his Howling Commandos, Sergeant Buchanan Barnes, the sixty-year-old gets a faraway look in his eyes as though remembering something sweet.
He is real quiet as he says “—you’ve got to understand. We were at war. We didn’t ask for much but when you’ve been trudgin’ thirty miles through German mud, you lose perspective. You start to forget how long you’ve been walking and what you’re fighting for. When that happened, Barnes would gather a bit of sunshine just for us. Didn’t matter rain or snow; he’d stop and make the clouds go away. The prettiest thing I saw over there wasn’t the girls, or the French Riviera. It was that ball of light.”
“He was a mutant?”
The shock is audible, even through the decades old recording.
Eyeing the camera pityingly, Gabe answers “Can a man be just one thing? Barnes was a good soldier; he was a good leader and a damned good friend. He was a good man our sarge, may he rest in peace.”
Steve hurries back to the apartment. He thinks it’s been fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. But when he walks through the door, he sees a bed piled with blankets and pillows and sweaters and coats. But no Bucky. It’s like Bucky’s disappeared into thin air.
He panics “Bucky? Bucky!”
Steve swears. Drops the plastic bottle on the floor where it rolls away under the bed. Bucky is sitting on the window sill, knuckles white against the white-washed frame. With a retching sound, he blearily unglues his head from between his knees, blue eyes sunken and unfocused, snowflakes teasing the damp locks of his hair.
“Bucky” he swallows, feeling a little like trying to herd a pack of kittens back to their mother. “Buck, what are you doing there?”
“Stevie, hey” Bucky waves. “You’re back.”
He lets out a nervous laugh.
“Of course I’m back you sap, where would I go?”
“I don’t know” Bucky breathes. His breath comes out as frost. “You were gone. I told you not to go and...”
“Bucky, you’re sick.” Steve says firmly. “Come back inside or Betsy is going to be real sad she decided going dancing with you.”
“Betsy” Bucky repeats as though it’s novelty, eyes big as saucers and Steve edges closer, just in case, just in case. “Betsy, Betsy, Betsy...”
“And her friend. Agatha.” He throws in as Bucky sways on his perch, fingers loosening around the frame as though he is about to take flight into Neverland. “Buck, you’re scaring me.”
Bucky’s eyes snap to him with frightening focus, the color of glass, the color of snow and the sky and the storm. He tilts his head and asks in an odd voice “would you go dancing with me Stevie?” and he sounds so serious that Steve can’t help but say yes. A delighted grin splits his face, bruised eyelids closing as he falls backwards into the white.
Steve reaches out.
He never makes it.
“How do you do it?”
“How do you draw?” Bucky counters, stubbing out the cigarette when he sees him.
Steve frowns thoughtfully. “I suppose, I first try to think of what I want to see.”
“What you want to see—hmm... I like that. Go on.”
“Then I pick up a pencil and draw. That’s it.”
Bucky snorts with laughter. “I’ve seen you draw Steve. And I’ve seen me draw and let me tell you pal, it’s not as easy as you make it sound.”
“No really...” Steve protests, turning pink around the ears.
Fondly, Bucky presses a nicotine-stained finger to his lips. “Shush, you... you have talent Steve. You really do. When I draw, I think of what I want and go for it. It’s like having so many pages and charcoal and pencils you don’t know what to do with it all.”
His cheeks are hot.
“Um, so did you get what you wanted?”
Bucky flashes teeth.
“Made you smile didn’t I?”
Legally, he can’t wear a band. But that doesn’t mean he can’t wear one.
The gauze around his wrist itches and he pretends that he twisted it sparring Natasha while waiting for the ink to set in. The first person to notice is Clint who crows “Alright Cap!” as though he’s been waiting for just this moment.
With his ability, maybe he has.
The other man slaps him hard across the back.
“Welcome to the club. Shirts optional.”
It’s beautiful outside.
Out the window, he can see the Potomac and people scattered throughout its length. Some people are content to marvel from afar, others feel the need to control it somehow.
The tattoo on his back, it’s never been his. It’s part of him, it’ll always be a part of him but it isn’t his. It was Erskine’s last painting, the brainchild of the US military and British Intelligence.
He can never see it clearly. Even at an angle, it appears to him grey and unfocused and maybe that’s just memories from before and after but it feels like the portrait has lost its magic, the diamond losing its luster every time Steve calls to it for help.
Maybe with Erskine dead, it’s fading at last. It’s not an ordinary tattoo. It’s ink but it is imbued the other man’s soul.
The doctor makes an inquisitive noise when the cup on the far side of the room refuses to even rattle.
Heart pounding suddenly in his ear, he asks “Is something wrong?”
Because he is nothing without the tattoo, just a dumb kid from Brooklyn who’s never won a fight.
“No, no” Dr. Allerton says. “You’re readings are a little low though. Has something happened? Just to be on the safe side, I’m going to run a blood panel. Follow me please Captain Rogers.”
Without it, who is Steve Rogers?
Rain again, rain, rain, rain.
Bogged down in mud, he and the Commandos have nothing else to do but sit tight and wait it out. They could have asked Bucky to wipe the sky clean but there are some things that a man can do that a god cannot. He sits down on his bunk, pillows his best friend’s head against his lap and presses a glass of water to his lips.
“Please tell me you’ve got something stronger than this.” Bucky begs, even as he gulps the liquid down greedily. Steve is not sorry. He should have told him he was getting tired.
“Nope” he says, popping his ‘p’s. “You’re still pretty dehydrated. Alcohol is probably not a good idea.”
Bucky falls back with a groan.
“Horsefeathers Steve, you’ve gotta give me somethin’.”
“You can’t fix the war all by yourself Buck” Steve reminds him. “You’ve got to let me help.”
“Whatcha’ talking about Steve. I ain’t doin’ nuthin.”
“We’re soldiers. We can handle a little rain.” He points out.
“Well maybe I don’t want to.” Bucky says feebly.
“Bucky” Steve tells him. “You either stay put or I will make you stay put.”
Bucky squints at him. “Is that a threat I hear Stevie?”
“If you want it to be.”
The other man hums.
“Gonna make you a deal Steve. You get some shut eye and I’ll stay right here next to you.”
“Is that your final offer?”
Bucky wiggles his eyebrows.
“Alright Bucky, you stay and I stay.”
“Just wait, ‘s gonna be a beautiful day tomorrow Steve.”
“Already is a good day.”
“You make it beautiful.”
The weather gets worse and worse. Even the Strike team, arguably the toughest guys he’s ever served with, seems uneasy.
More than ever, he feels the weight of the tattoo. June is in full swing but it feels like the world is preparing for winter, spring leaves shriveling until they’re brown, park squirrels skinny as they fight pigeons over scraps of food.
A few days later, a fog rolls into town and cloaks the entire city.
One of the Howling Commando’s favorite tactics was to lie in wait as the weather turned on their targets. On the receiving end, it’s not as fun and he understands why Dum Dum mocked the Nazis when they fled at the sign of a little mist seeping from the ground.
Steve starts carrying a gun.
Kate looks up from her unending supply of laundry. He has no idea how she finds time or energy after shifts at the hospital. He remembers his own mother, putting her feet up at the end of the day because they were so swollen. But inside a pair of slippers, Kate’s feet are pretty and neat, painted with a glittering shade of teal.
“Always be prepared remember?” He quips lightly.
“Thought that was the boy scouts.”
He smiles at her.
“See you later.”
According to the news, it’s the coldest June on record. Natasha mentions that Moscow is actually warmer at this time of the year. Cocking his head, Clint jokes that maybe she should go on a vacation somewhere warm. Wear a bikini. Show off her thighs. Avoid the color white.
There is a brief debate about whether global warming is real before the screen cuts to Edward Snowden.
He doesn’t know, he doesn’t remember how he carries Bucky up all those stairs.
His screams summon the entire apartment building but no one comes. McAllister and his brothers hate Bucky for all that they don’t do anything about it. Widow Johnson, so sweet when Steve helps her carry groceries, thinks of Bucky as a no-good scoundrel who should be locked up in the big house. Opinions don’t differ much from door-to-door. It’s only by grace and charm Bucky hasn’t been thrown out of the building already and that he’s good for rent. Their landlord doesn’t really care about anything except the tens and fives that land on his desk.
Miraculously, Bucky is still alive after his tumble. The snow must have softened his fall. He’s a little banged up and has a mean goose egg knotting the back of his skull. But he’s alive. He’s whole. Steve tries to drag him back to the apartment but has to give up after all of three steps. He swears Bucky wasn’t this heavy when he helped him into bed.
The wind’s picked up again and it’s like the storm is trying to claim him for its own. Steve clings stubbornly to his friend’s side, just holds on tight, squeezing his fourth and ring finger every so often even when his knees grow numb from the cold and his teeth chatters.
All this time, he thought it was him who needed Bucky the most. Bucky’s always been popular; the dames couldn’t get enough of his dark hair and curling mouth. If he wanted to, he could have had a girl every night and they would have loved him for it. Never mind the strange rumors surrounding that Barnes boy. The stories gave Bucky an air of mystery and allure.
It never occurred to him that Bucky might need him as much as he needed Bucky.
Eventually, Mr. Ridgeway, their landlord comes out from the basement. In his late fifties, Mr. Ridgeway is still plenty strong with a straight back and hard muscles. He clicks his tongue when he sees him and Bucky huddle in a pile and pries them apart, tells him to get his fool ass back in the apartment before he freezes to death.
Mr. Ridgeway lays Bucky in the tub and turns the water on. The water gushes cold and Steve steps forward to shut it off but the older man stops him, tells him it has to be this way or the heat would kill Bucky.
Steve sits down on the toilet determined to keep watch as the landlord works his magic, rubbing life back into Bucky’s frozen limbs.
“Your boy’s a tough one. He’ll live.”
He nods jerkily.
His back aches and his toes are frozen. He thinks that he should grab something, maybe a coat or a spare blanket but he can’t bring himself to move. Bucky is all he has. Even when he had nothing, he still had Bucky.
Mr. Ridgeway places a hand on his shoulder and says “you’re a good un.”
Steve feels better. Like the old man proved that Bucky is someone special.
Before he leaves, Mr. Ridgeway reminds him to get something warm in him.
Bucky’s in bed, skin as white as sheet.
“Bucky” Steve says, shoulders shaking. “I... I... I’m so sorry.”
Bucky jumps wide-eyed from where he’d been crouching.
“Geeze Steve, you just scared the piss out of me. What’s the matter with you huh? You that desperate to catch a bullet between your eyes?”
Another person might not have noticed but he’s known Bucky too long for that tactic to work. Steve spies his left arm, shining with a glaze of ice and frost at his finger tips and gasps “What happened?”
Bucky shakes his head, retreating further. At his feet are chunks of ice and a blunted knife. “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. I just... I found it like this.” He said helplessly, waving around his frozen limb. His fingers still move, like he has a glove on. “I can’t get it off.”
“Did you try warming it?”
Bucky’s laugh is high and hysteric.
“Did I—I put the damned thing in the fire.”
“Can you...” He says carefully. “Can you feel anything?”
“I can feel everything.”
Steve thinks back on past conversations, burning rubber before the other man cuts his fool hand off. Almost unconsciously, he reaches out and he can feel the frenetic speed of Bucky’s thoughts spinning against his. Slowly condensing into one solid color that is as contrary as the rest of him.
His back feels warm. He’s noticed that his tattoo glows whenever he uses his powers. Lifting Morita onto a better perch, shoving Dum Dum out of the way, telling Jones where to go or reporting to the ‘paths at allied bases. It’s a helluva thing to keep out of sight when they’re tracking Nazis.
He remembers that using his powers is like drawing—you have to picture the end result.
“Tell me if I’m doing something wrong.” He breathes, coaxing Bucky’s arm from his side.
The other man flinches but the ice isn’t cold, mostly. It’s cool and smooth, almost like glass in its clarity.
Steve brings his lips to his wrist and kisses it.
Steve is sent to South Africa to investigate the murder of a prominent politician. Everything seems to be fine. The air is clammy but that could be the hour. They try to puzzle out the maid’s words as she gastrulates wildly with hand movements.
All signs lead to suicide. The maid says differently and Shield concurs. Fury’s got an eye for mutants, pun entirely unintended. Even separated by an entire ocean, this one was strong enough to catch his attention.
Rumlow thinks it’s a waste of time. Natasha agrees. He wouldn’t have stayed.
Steve knows better than to question her judgment. A scrap of cloth can tell her every detail down to the last caloric intake.
“Call it in. We have a ghost in play.”
Nick Fury bleeds out on the floor of his apartment.
He gives a chase and slips, narrowly escaping getting decapitated by his own shield.
The entire rooftop is covered in ice.
Hydra is alive.
It keeps repeating itself in his head.
Hydra is alive.
What does it all mean? This is not the country he died for.
It’s July 4th.
It’s his birthday.
Sitwell screams before it is cut off. He probably knew from the very beginning who the Winter Soldier is, what the Winter Soldier is and he never said. Natasha opines that he got off very lightly and that is true. When this is over, neither Shield nor Hydra will remain. Steve will make sure of it this time around.
“Steve, you’re bleeding.”
So he is. He should have healed up immediately but he’s bleeding. It’s odd. The blood is warm and sticky down the side of his face. He wipes it away but more trickles under his collar.
Without the goggles, the Winter Soldier doesn’t look nearly as tough; he almost looks human.
But unlike the men shooting at them, he is distracted by something in the palm of his hand. A lone snowflake, many armed and delicate.
Rumlow yells at him to move.
The Winter Soldier crushes it inside his fist.
“Steve, Stevie, hey, wake up.”
He curls up automatically before squinting open one eye.
It’s morning. The sun shines brilliantly across the frosted glass, painting winding murals across the wooden floor. Beside him is an impression of warmth, the sign that Bucky had been there until very recently and his hand clenches over the soft creases as though he might trap the heat and keep it there.
His eyes close.
Steve stumbles out of bed, sliding to one knee before he finds a balance with his stilt-like legs. His heart leaps to his throat when he sees Bucky sitting by the window, his handsome face set alight with the morning sunlight, dark hair edged fiery-gold.
In the good book, the phoenix was a mythical bird that perished in the fire and was reborn over and over and over again from its ashes. Bucky is a heartbreaker, that’s true. But not until this moment has Steve truly appreciated what a skirt sees when they lay eyes on Bucky. Against the square of whiteness that is Brooklyn after a snowstorm, he looks breathtakingly new.
His eyes water.
It’s hard, hard not to say anything else.
Steve shivers, feeling the bone-shattering chill lick his back. Every step he takes is superseded by glaciers that erupt tall in his shadow. He is easily class 4. Maybe even 5. He is the one man the Black Widow fears and refuses to engage, simply empties her cartridge trying to push him back into the shadows.
The northern winds skirt around his heels like a purring cat. His eyes, narrowed and glowing, begins to edge into black.
“Who the hell is Bucky?”
In the modern world, everything has a label. Every mutant is classed from 1 to 5, whether they’re strong, fast, dangerous or blue.
Hawkeye wasn’t named for his eyesight but because his aim is true. He can see things no one else can, things that haven’t happened, things that may come to pass. The Black Widow can bounce back from anything you throw at her. He’s seen her grow back an entire foot after it was blown off.
The road fissures from the sudden drop in temperature. He can taste the ozone funnel down from the atmosphere, the dying heartbeats of people caught in the crossfire. Steve has never seen Bucky use his powers offensively. Seeing this, seeing how Hydra perverted his best friend, he wishes he was the mythical phoenix setting fire to the new world.
“Look at that.” Bucky says excitedly, waving a hand out the window. “Ain’t that something?”
Steve doesn’t look.
Not this time.
This time, he grabs Bucky by the shoulder and yanks him back in.
Their heads collide, knocking them both to the ground. In a square of sunlight, watching the New York skyline, Bucky raises his hand and scrawls I love you in the blue. Steve hisses and punches him in the ribs “someone could see that jerk” and Bucky laughs and says “you don’t want to go dancing with me Stevie?”
Steve groans “I promised you one dance. What would a guy like you do with a guy like me?”
Bucky chastely presses his mouth against his temple, his eyes, his cheeks and his neck.
“I don’t know.” He says wonderingly when Steve doesn’t move away. Steve does raise an eyebrow when he stops.
“Well then” He says with diplomacy. “Let’s find out.”
The phoenix scar burns. That’s how he thinks of it now. It’s not a tattoo, it’s a scar. It’s something he asked for but also something he survived.
He, Natasha and Sam take shelter behind an overturned bus. They’re trapped. They can’t do anything.
Sam can’t fly in this weather. His wings would snap if he tried.
Natasha grimly tells them she’s out of bullets. She doesn’t think she can get close enough to kill him.
Steve opens up his mind, searching for whatever threads of his friend he lost in the storm. But there is nothing but instinct, a series of instructions that chills him to the bone in a way June in DC never had. It beats at him to get out, get out, GET OUT, STAY OUT and he gasps, bleeding from his nose as he knocks his head back against the bus.
Beside him, Sam grips his arm and demands “Steve, Steve, are you alright?”.
It’s the right words, the right tone, but it’s not Bucky.
Through people’s eyes, everyone’s eyes, Steve sees the city caught in the grips of a maelstrom. From his vantage point on the Triskelion, the Potomac freezes over, trees and plants and animals are struck dead where the sky unfolds like a cotton flower. There are people trapped in homes. People who will die if they don’t do something.
“Steve stop! It’s suicide!”
He gets out from behind the bus. Everything is white. He could be walking on sky and he wouldn’t know it. The only good thing is that the Strike team too is buried in the snow. One less thing to worry about. Steve takes his first step.
The winds sizes up its new challenge, taking the shape of a shared monster. But Steve is not afraid. Not anymore. Scars are proof that he survived, that Bucky could survive. They are emblems of their life and rebirth. Without Bucky, there is no Steve Rogers.
“Leave me alone!”
And he’s thrown back, bleeding from the temple when the skin splits against shards of ice.
He drops his shield.
Steve is disoriented. There is frost in his lungs. The fading tattoo offers scant protection. Erskine was wrong after all. This is not forever.
He feels small.
At this point, he might as well be wearing nothing the way the cold slices past the wet khakis and shirt. But Bucky is his friend. They could have been more given enough time. And this time—
—This time he won’t get distracted. He will make sure they have enough.
Enough to grow old and grey together.
Till the end of the line.
Strength fades from his limbs. The crown is lost and the wings are closed. The phoenix turns away.
Bucky stares at him as though incredulous, a thin glaze of ice splintering as he blinks, a snowflake caught in his eyes.
And it feels like the earth trembles at his command. He can imagine the storm spreading like laughter, like an infection. Maybe it’ll grow to consume the earth and the mammoths will return from the old world. Steve wonders how many winters Bucky saved up just so he could see Steve smile.
“Bucky, it’s me.”
“I don’t know you.”
It’s cold. He’s just Steve now. Scrawny Steve Rogers. The dumb kid who never knew when to back down.
A blast of icy air steals his breath but he keeps going.
His teeth chatters.
Skinny arms wrap around the Winter Soldier.
“Then I’ll tell you.”
Bucky tastes like his birthday, shaved ice, strawberries, back when they were twelve and twelve, 1929.
He thought he had stolen the ice. Along with everything else, he had taken it for granted. Didn’t realize it had all been for him.
Everything stops. From the wind to the chill to people dying in the snow. Distantly, he realizes he can see the sky again. It’s sunny out. It’s a good day.
“Who am I?”
“Your name is James Buchannan Barnes. You are my friend.”
Hill finds them just as the last of the reeds in the riverbank bloom.
Bucky growls warningly until he tells her she’s a friend.
The deputy director stares at his friend with unflattering eyes, her features pinched like she’s starting to get a headache.
“Can I count on you for your cooperation?”
Bucky tightens his grip. Steve answers for him.
Fury’s alive. He feels stupid for thinking that he wasn’t. But now, stripped of his powers he can do little more than to watch as Fury, Hill, Natasha and Sam squabble amongst themselves. Bucky nudges him when he notices him watching. In a soft voice, rusty with disuse, he says “it’s not like you to be so quiet.”
“It’s not just Hydra.” Steve says with helpless rage. He sees the metal, the shiny finish and the red star on the deltoid. “Shield too. Everything’s got to go.”
Bucky accepts this with a nod.
“I’ll help you.”
Later, Tony will rage at him for failing to capture the moment Bucky threw a snowball in Fury’s face.
In the end, it’s not as dramatic as Steve wanted it to be.
Bucky freezes the river and Project Insight is destroyed from within.
Director Pierce is dead, Hydra disbanded for now. And while Natasha and Hill deals with the fallout of leaking classified information, Bucky disappears.
Steve finds a new apartment. It’s not worth the trouble filling in the bullet holes. If that means he has new neighbors, neighbors that are not Shield or Hydra or whomever it maybe, that’s okay too.
Sam brings him back from the hospital stocked up on inhalers, something called an epi-pen and a metric ton of medication. After Captain America, it’s hard being the small guy again. The one who has trouble breathing. He gets a potted plant as a consolation prize and thinks of where to put it. They don’t realize they’re not the only ones in the apartment until Bucky strolls in with bags of groceries, cursing under his breath.
“Holy” Sam bites off, shoving Steve behind him.
Steve thinks he’s overreacting. He needs to let the steering wheel incident go.
“Hey” Bucky says, seeing past the other man. “You’re back. Welcome home.”
And still, Sam doesn’t let go of him. “Sam, stand down.”
But Sam ignores him. Wings bristling he threatens “If you’re here to cause trouble...”
Bucky sets down the bags and raises a hand.
“No trouble. Figured Steve needed someone to watch his back.”
Sam lowers his wings but regards Bucky with suspicion. Finally, he holds out a hand.
There is only slight hesitation in Bucky’s voice when he says “Barnes, James. You probably know better than I do.”
“You’re a hero.” Sam challenges.
Steve punches him in the kidneys, just because. The other man doesn’t even act like he feels it.
Bucky begins to put the food away.
“I’m not. Just a guy from Brooklyn, following him.”
Whatever answers Sam was looking for, he must have found it because he lets him go.
“Bucky” He breathes, hugging him around the waist. Getting noogied for his efforts when he doesn’t get out of the way fast enough. He yelps and Bucky jerks back.
“I... is that allowed... ‘m sorry.”
“It’s fine.” Steve assures him, smoothing his hair back down. “Where’ve you been? You disappeared. I thought” He swallows because he hadn’t known what he’d thought. His powers were gone. Bucky was gone and he knew even with modern intervention, he wouldn’t survive the search.
Bucky shrugs easily, rolling his shoulders. The metal arm is gone. The empty sleeve pinned up neatly.
“Just some stuff I needed to do.”
“And you couldn’t leave a note?” He demands.
“I could have hurt you!”
Sam steals an apple from the counter. “This is all very nice and all but are you sure this is safe? You’re an Hydra assassin and Steve couldn’t fight his way out of a wet paper bag right now.”
Bucky answers wryly “Oh he’ll fight. He’ll lose, but he’ll fight.”
Steve is offended.
Sam slants his head and declares “I like you Barnes, James. You’re alright.”
Bucky’s attention slides back to him and he suddenly jumps back as though bit before fussing over him like it’s the prohibition era, hisses in place of familiar words, pushing him into a chair and piling him with a thick duvet. “What have they been feeding you anyway? You’re skin and bones for Christ’s sake. Jesus Steve, can’t leave you alone for one minute...”
Sam, the jerk, just laughs.
They spend their mornings lazy in bed. They’re both early risers but they find little reason to get up early when they have each other. Steve is effectively retired and whoever wants to get at Bucky probably has a death wish anyway.
It’s storming outside but they don’t care, complete with lightning and thunder that makes Steve jump with each clap but makes the touches that much sweeter. The other man presses an indulgent kiss against his spine, his eyes still closed and sticky with sleep. He hums and it does all sorts of interesting things to his dick that Steve thinks hard about. Steve ruts against the mattress when Bucky takes too long, laving lovingly the center of his back.
“Bucky...” He huffs, twisting away to dislodge him. Bucky holds firm and rubs at the spot with his thumb. “Hey, that tickles. What are you doing?”
The other man doesn’t answer. He doesn’t really expect him to. Bucky doesn’t say much these days. He’s accepted that on top of everything else. He’s just really happy to have Bucky again.
Bucky leaves and then comes back.
“Steve” He says hoarsely. “Look”
“I’m not falling for that again.” He grumbles but looks in the mirror Bucky holds in his hand.
Bucky slants it so he can see at an angle where his back protrudes in a bony ridge.
At first, he doesn't see anything. "What am I looking at?" Faint stripes bisect the skin like old scars he's forgotten, ones that never went away. But he sees nothing to warrant the fierce concentration Bucky pours into chasing those lines. His back looks odd without the tattoo. It feels like he spent a good half the war and a chunk of the twenty-first century trying to get an eyeful. He understands now that the marks weren’t what made him a hero but well, he misses being able to throw Bucky sometimes. "I don't get it."
Then he sees it. It feels like Bucky is sucking hickies into his flesh but he's not. His back burns not unpleasantly as the scars flourish into bruises, darkening until a familiar shape winks at him like an old friend.
The phoenix is a symbol of hope, of rebirth and renewal. It is of a promise he made when he was young, the sunshine Bucky's been saving up just for him.
And at its center is a five-sided diamond, the way that it was meant to be but was never finished.
Steve thinks he could get used to the rainy days. And the snowy ones. The less perfect ones that make daybreak that much more beautiful. The phoenix takes flight and he rolls over, hiding it from view.
The phoenix doesn't get to have this. He's never needed phoenix for this. Steve kisses Bucky on the side of his jaw, smoothing the worry-lines away.
"Now" he says "Where were we?"