It felt weird to be back in New York. Not a bad weird, nor a good weird, just weird.
He’d been touring for the better part of the last six months and the six months before that, he’d been in the studio upstate recording the album he just toured with. So New York City just felt ... odd.
His friend Darcy had been housesitting for him while he’d been away, so he’d come home to a decently clean place with no new lifeforms evolving in his refrigerator - a welcome change from the last time he’d let Clint house sit for him. No doubt his old pal would be happy to share some pizza and beer now that Bucky was back, but it would be fresh and hot, not old and moldy. Clint never cared, but Bucky did.
He just had to get used to thinking of the place as home. He’d gotten it just over a year ago, right before he’d started work on his latest album. He preferred to think of it in terms of the album, and not his failed relationship.
But for now, he was happy to be ambulatory, moving under his own steam rather than cooped up in a tour bus or stuck in a seat between roadies on a plane. Just being by himself was a balm to his tattered nerves.
Bucky loved what he did. He loved making music and bringing it to his fans. But sometimes he just needed to exist in his own little world and not have to be on for everyone.
So he’d dug out his most comfy jeans and a worn Clapton concert hoodie, snagged his favorite ball cap, shoved his feet into his most broken-in sneaks, and now he was wandering his neighborhood in search of the pulse, the rhythm of Brooklyn.
The day was warm, but it hadn’t descended into hell yet. It was early spring, and the roadways hadn’t built up enough latent heat to fry the soles of his sneakers. That day wasn’t far off, but for now, he could enjoy being out and about, taking it all in, and letting the melody start to play in his head.
There was definitely a song forming there, something about coming home, of finding who you are ... it felt good, the beginnings of something. He knew never to force it, that the best music came together when he let himself be used by the universe as its conduit. As he wandered, he started humming along with the music writing itself in his head, imagining a rhythm section here, a little base undercurrent there, maybe a piano riff right ... there. Vocals overlaying the whole thing, low and throaty and raw.
He felt a kind of grief well up inside, and realized it was a song not of homecoming, but of loneliness.
And yeah, he was lonely. His boyfriend of over five years, Brock Rumlow, had been unable to take the long weeks apart. Oh, who was he kidding? Brock was just a flaming pile of shit. He’d taken the first excuse he could find to start whoring around, culminating in Bucky finding him bent over the couch while his gym rat buddy with a big dick pounded into him.
Bucky had tossed him, and with Nat and Clint’s help, the entire apartment. She’d helped him find his current place, a place he loved with no associations. No memories, either. Six weeks later he’d had an album’s worth of songs. Then those six months in the studio outside of New York, followed by the tour that just ended.
He guessed he hadn’t given himself the time to mourn the relationship. He didn’t miss Brock, or the toxicity, masculine or otherwise, that he’d grown into. But he missed having somebody there, someone to cuddle at night, someone to share coffee with in the morning. Someone to make plans with. Someone to come home to. Someone who saw him.
Once upon a time, Brock had been all Those things. And yet, they’d ended in ugliness, and Bucky couldn’t help but wonder if it was fault. If somehow he’d ruined everything, with his neediness, his career, his just being him.
And as he rounded the corner and found himself face to face with a standee of one of his favorite comic heroes, he realized that’s why he couldn’t stay in his apartment. There was no one to come home to, and he didn’t really want to be alone, despite his need to not be on. He needed someone to be himself with, and for that to be okay, to be enough. He smiled wanly at the cardboard cutout of Captain America, flipped it a salute and a blew it a kiss, and slouched into the comic store.
It was only Monday, so the new titles weren’t out, but he’d been away for months, and his subscription had been accumulating the whole while. At least he could have a little pity party over a tub of ice cream and some excellent superhero storylines and some even better drawn superhero asses until he either got over it, or had enough ideas for another album. Maybe even an EP. Hell, he could do a mini-concert on YouTube if his label agreed to it.
Yeah, he needed something to keep him busy.
He nodded toward Spike, the owner of the store, as he came through.
“Welcome back, dude. I’ll get your sub ready. And hey, there’s a new book in the gold room you may wanna take a look at. Fine copy of ‘Agent Carter vs. the Red Skull’. It’s a beaut.”
Agent Carter vs. the Red Skull was one of his top wanted comics, a classic tale of Captain America’s partner, Agent Peggy Carter of the SSR. Agent Carter had been right up there with Moulton’s Wonder Woman during World War II, a role model and hero to girls, a lesson to boys who might discount them. Only she’d been real, a major in British Intelligence, the liaison between the US Army and the scientists who developed the super soldier serum that made Captain America. Bucky had a reprint from the ‘70s resurgence when Peggy Carter had had her own TV show, but he’d always wanted an original. And like most comics from the golden age, copies were always in short supply, and decent quality even rarer. A fine copy was a grail of rare and wondrous joy. And to be in a position financially where he could actually buy her? Priceless.
Grinning, he hurried into the gold room, a walled off part of the store that Spike had to buzz him into. He was so intent of putting his hands on Peggy that he barely noticed the wall of muscle standing between him and his quarry. “‘Scuse me, fella -“
The guy straightened, one hand moving over his face while the other clutched Peggy. He was holding Peggy in his sweaty damned paw! Without thinking, Bucky made a grab for her, only to find a slab of a hand flattened against his chest.
“That’s my -“
“I’ve been hunting for this for a long time. I’m sorry, it’s mine.”
“No the fuck it isn’t! Spike’s been on the lookout for me for the past year -“
The guy shook his head, pulled his hand back, and moved past Bucky, muttering, “Sorry, I’ve been searching longer.”
Bucky whirled to follow him, and suddenly realized he was an absolute brick shit house, with an old Brooklyn Dodgers ball cap pulled down low on his head, a baggy hoodie over a skin-tight tee, and incredible legs hermetically sealed in tight jeans. And oh, what an ass - angels wept over its sculpted perfection. His brain fritzed out, giving the guy a chance to get to Spike at the counter, whip out a black Amex, and have the book scanned before Bucky could move.
“No! I -“
“Sorry, Buck. First come, first serve. I’ll check my contacts to see if I can track down another, okay?” He handed the credit slip over to be signed, and the guy who was stealing Peggy right out from under his nose bent down to sign, and quickly handed it over. Spike slid the Precious into a paper bag with the store logo printed on it and handed it to the Peggy Thief.
The guy turned and favored Bucky with a sad smile, a brief lift of the corners of his mouth before he turned to exit the shop.
Okay, so first of all, the Peggy Thief was gorgeous. Bucky wasn’t usually into beards, but this guy’s was beautifully maintained, and looked to be soft as spun gold silk. And his lips ... ugh. Bucky immediately had ideas for those lips! He’d only caught a glimpse of shimmering blue eyes under the bill of the cap, but they were arresting just the same. His nose wasn’t perfect, a little bump that looked like a break at some point, and that just made him look even more attractive. And when he turned to go? Yeah, Bucky would be lying to himself and God if he didn’t admit that pert ass gave him ideas. And the start of an inappropriate boner that he immediately quashed with thoughts of the first concert he gave at an elderly care facility.
But he was getting away with Peggy! Bucky suddenly found himself in control of his body again, and he rushed out of the shop as Spike called, “Don’t you want your sub?” He wasn’t letting Peggy go without a fight. Or at least a counteroffer.
“I’ll pay you double what you just paid,” he shouted. And the guy stopped, just stopped. Bucky thought he might have a chance. He’d have to drag the man to an ATM to grab the cash, maybe even the teller at the branch, but he knew he was good for it. He rarely spent much on tour since the label picked up the tab for everything. So his bank account was feeling pretty damned healthy right now.
Peggy Thief turned his head and said, “You don’t know what I just paid for it.”
“Don’t care. I need that comic. I can pay.”
“I’m sorry. I need her more.”
He started to walk away, but Bucky found a well of energy and darted forward, grabbed him by the wrist to spun him around. “You don’t understand, I need that comic. I’ve been waiting -“
And then he realized that what he’d assumed was an embarrassed blush was actually the heightened color of an ugly crier. “Dude, what’s wrong -“
“I’m sorry. She’s not for sale. I have to go,” he added, shrugging off Bucky’s grip like it was smoke, and then he was hurrying away through the crowd until Bucky could only see his head towering over the populace.
“Shit,” Bucky swore, then went back into the shop to collect six months’ worth of subscriptions. At least he wouldn’t lack for things to read while he burritoed himself away and sulked.
“What the hell?”
“Nice to see you again, James. You’re looking well.”
“And you’re looking out of place, Coulson. I repeat, what the hell?”
Phil Coulson stood in Bucky’s doorway, looking as put together and unflappable as always. He looked like an uber-bland accountant type, but he was in fact one of the sharpest intellects Bucky had ever known. In his previous life. The life he left behind before he met Brock, before he devoted himself to music. Before he decided he wanted a life worth living. Before the Incident.
“You gonna let me in?” Phil asked with a vague wave toward the interior of Bucky’s apartment and a hopeful arch of his eyebrow.
“Why would I be doing that, Phil?”
“You know why. I have a job for you.”
“I don’t do that anymore, Phil.”
“Understood. This one’s different. It needs your current skill set.”
“Repeat, I don’t -“
“Do that anymore. Yeah. I got it. And I’m not asking you to do it anymore. I’m asking you to help me get someone in who will.”
Bucky stared at Phil for a beat longer, then stepped aside, throwing his arm up in capitulation. “You’ve got five.”
Phil breezed in, looking unruffled in his suit and tie, then stood in front of the sofa awaiting an invitation. Bucky nodded and waved him into the seat.
“Thanks. I like your music, by the way. Audrey wants me to take her to your next performance here in town.”
“Thanks. Remind me and I’ll have the venue set aside tickets for you both. Give my love to Aud. How is she?”
“Still remarkable and amazing. And I still can’t believe she married me. She’s on tour right now with the orchestra. She’ll be back in a few weeks.”
“That’s good. She’s talented. But you didn’t come here to talk music.”
“Actually, James, that’s exactly what I came here to talk about. We’ve picked up chatter that a billionaire with more money than morals wants to reboot the planet with a mutagen that will reverse the effects of the industrial revolution.”
“Well, that’s a good thing? No?”
“Not when it wipes out human life in the process, no. Not really.”
“Ah. And on repeat, I don’t do that anymore.”
“Not you. I need you to help us get near him. Or more specifically, my operative. This eco-terrorist is hosting a big music festival on his private island off the coast of England -“
“You’re talking Nash Weldon’s SlayerFest,” Bucky surmised. “Weldon’s an eco-terrorist?”
“All that money from his vampire TV shows, the residuals, his directing and writing gigs - he’s invested his money well. In companies that develop cutting edge technology to repair the environment. Which is proving to be a lucrative business model in itself. But what we’re hearing is that the current technologies and policies are moving too slowly to suit him.”
“So he’s going to hit the reset button and start over? Won’t it defeat the purpose if he’s caught by the mutagen, too?”
“Well, we suspect he’s got some kind of antidote or counteractive for himself and his followers. We also suspect his base of operations is right there on his island. The one that’s withstood invaders for over a thousand years.”
“So why me?”
“He’s a fan. And you’ve been invited to perform at his festival.”
“Um, no I haven’t.”
“Yes, you have. You just didn’t know it yet.”
“Your agent was my best agent, James. You both may have gone public sector, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have the occasional chat.”
“Yes, chat. Sometimes over coffee. Maybe a drink. Audrey loves having her over for dinner, you know. Enough to put up with Clint.”
“Is Clint narking on me, too?”
“You know the only way Clint keeps a secret is under torture. Offer him pizza and he’ll tell you more than you want to know. Even Nat doesn’t tell him anything unless she wants it to get around.”
“Yeah, true. Okay, so you want me to get your guy onto the island. What then?”
“Then you play your set, make nice, schmooze, do whatever it is you do at these things. My operative - and I - will take care of the rest.”
“New tour management. Can’t send my guy in without support.”
“You’re asking a lot.”
“This could be dangerous.”
“I know that, too.”
“I’m really serious about not doing that anymore.”
“I am aware. And I am not asking you to.”
“Okay. So long as it’s clear,” Bucky said doubtfully. Seriously, he didn’t trust Phil Coulson in this regard. With his life in a fire fight, yeah. But to be honest about hoodwinking him badk into the field? Not a chance. And he and Nat were going to have to have words. Big ones. Possibly angry ones. Definitely words.
“Crystal. I suggest you talk it over with Nat,” Phil added with a raised eyebrow. Damn him and his pseudo psychic mind powers.
“Yeah, I will.”
“Oh, and Weldon’s going to vet your team, so you’re going to have to go back on the road for a bit so me and my guy can integrate into your team.”
“I just got home. I don’t have any other tour dates.”
“Well, that’s not exactly true. Nat will provide the itinerary.”
“Phil, you need to stop fucking around with my life.”
“You’re already showing signs of separation anxiety and depression, James. Getting back on the road for a couple of weeks before the festival will be good for you. Plus, I suspect you’re already tinkering with new song ideas. A mini-tour is just the thing to give you some space to try out some new material. Am I right?”
And yeah, the rat bastard was right. “My band, my support team - they deserve a break, though.”
“I know. Your next tour date is in two weeks. Little festival in Pennsylvania.”
“You got us onto the Billy Penn Folk Fest?”
Phil shrugged. “I know that not all your music falls into that category, but enough that you qualify. You’ll do an acoustic set on the Moffitt Stage on Sunday night.”
“That’s a prime slot. That’s ... Jesus, that’s amazing, Phil.”
“I have access to some connections even Natasha hasn’t cracked yet.”
“There are intelligence people involved in the Billy Penn Folk Society?”
“No. College roommate.”
“Yeah. He usually let’s me hang backstage anyway, so I’m just going to put that to work. They’re really excited to have you.”
“Wow. Okay. Well, I guess I need to break it to the team -“
“Natasha’s on it. James, I don’t want to disrupt your life any more than necessary. I get that you’ve retired. You earned it. And you certainly deserve it. I wish there was some other way to launch this op, but you’re our best hope of getting in.”
“And getting out?”
“There’s a plan for that, too.”
“This one counts, James.”
“Counts for what?”
“The red in both our ledgers.”
You work together long enough, you get to know enough about someone’s back history, their concerns, their worries, and it can all get distilled into a few words that sound simple to an outsider, but convey a lifetime of pain and regret to someone who knows.
Bucky knew. He had red of his own. And he knew how deep Natasha’s red ran. This was important to her.
“Do you trust this operative Coulson wants to put in?”
“He’s never shown me any reason not to trust him completely. More importantly, Coulson has faith in him. Enough that he’s going on the op with him.”
“That could be he doesn’t trust him to behave without oversight.”
“No, he trusts him with his life. With our lives.”
“And the festival goers?”
“Them, too. Stark’s on the tech side.”
“Not on the ground.”
“No, he’s too variable for an op like this. But his tech is sound.”
Bucky drew a deep breath and nodded once. “I trust you. If you’re okay with this, I am, too.”
“Okay. So the mini tour has four stops over two weeks - we start with the Folk Festival, then up to Rochester for a two-night gig that’s part of a fundraiser -“
“We donating the gate?”
“We can, if you approve.”
“I’ve got enough from the tour. Let’s do that. The team gets paid, the band, the money from the venue goes to the fundraiser.”
“Good. I was hoping you’d agree. Now ...”
The band got together the following weekend to dust off their instruments and jam a little. Nothing rigorous and nothing demanding, just making some tunes together in the comfort of the recording studio attached to Bucky’s loft. Soundproofed to avoid ticking off the neighbors, it was light and airy and nothing like the crowded, funky confines of a tour bus. And it held no memories of Brock because he’d never been there, and he never would be.
Pietro was on drums, that look of a manic glee in his eyes that always promised trouble. Bucky shook his head and reminded everyone that the Folk Festival was going to expect folky stuff, not heavy metal. They could break loose the catalogue at the next venue, but for the Festival, they needed to keep it down.
Sam was on keyboards where he was running scales to loosen up his fingers. Scott sat in the corner, holding his violin and bow loosely, waiting on the cue to start. Loki stood with his base, swaying slightly as he listened to whatever soundtrack was playing in his head. Over at the soundboard, his brother Thor frowned over the tablet, gently adjusting levels on the touch screen. Thor took care of the tech side and commanded the crew that helped them get from venue to venue.
“We’re not really gonna record anything today,” Buck said as he slung the strap for his guitar over his shoulder.
“I know. It’s just that we’re going to very different venues over the next couple of weeks. I want to get a sense of how I need to adjust for each space. We’ll have a quick rehearsal in place, right?”
“Well, won’t the acoustics change as soon as you put people into the space?” Loki asked as he let his hand slide down the neck of his base.
“Yes, of course it will, but I don’t want us to sound too loud, too out of balance for the volume in the space.”
“Okay, well, yeah, I’ll ask Nat to make sure we’ve got what - half hour? to rehearse and calibrate at each place. You’re worrying about this more than usual, Thor.”
“Being invited to two world class festivals in the same 30 day period doesn’t make you nervous?”
Bucky smiled. “Can’t let it. You do you, but I gotta focus on the music and nothing else. And we got three other tour dates before we fly to England. They’re all important ‘cos people are coming to hear us play. What makes me nervous is anyone thinking it wasn’t worth coming out to hear us.”
“Well, all right then,” Pietro replied and clapped his sticks together. “Let’s folk this rock!”
No one ever really knew what Pietro was talking about, so everyone just smiled and started playing.
A few days later, Coulson walked up the ramp to the loading dock and thrust out his hand to Bucky. “We’re here to help.”
“We?” Bucky asked, took Phil’s hand and gave it a single shake.
“Me and you know who. He’ll pitch in and help with packing up the gear, make himself useful.”
And just then, long muscular legs topped off with a chest to die for and shoulders Bucky had the urge to drape his legs over came surging up the dock. An old Brooklyn Dodgers Cap was pulled low over his face, and Bucky recognized that body, that wheat colored hair, that silky beard. “Him?”
“He” looked up, and removed his sunglasses with a groan. “Shit,” he swore softly.
“You two know each other?” Phil asked.
“Guy stole Peggy right out from under me,” Bucky groused, tossing the guy the stink eye.
“A, that comic was not set aside for you personally. And B, I paid good money for it, so there was no theft involved.”
“Peggy?” Phil repeated, and there was an odd gentleness in the way he repeated the name. Peggy Thief nodded once, and Phil’s expression morphed to something that looked ... sad. Well, this conversation just kept getting weirder.
“Well, I’m glad you two have met, but I’m sorry you met competing for a grail. That gonna be a problem?”
“We haven’t formally met, actually,” Peggy Thief corrected, and he came closer with his big meat slab of a hand stuck out for Bucky to take. “Steve Carter.”
“Carter as in Peggy.”
He shrugged, a light blush dusting his cheeks - right below the illegally long lashes Bucky could now see.
“No shit - are you related?”
“Let’s just say that Steve’s connection to Director Carter is more personal than not,” Phil put in, glancing back and forth between Steve and Bucky, and then pointedly at Steve’s outstretched hand.
Bucky took the hand then, noting how big and warm it was, smooth in some places, but mostly calloused on his fingers and thumb. Working hands. This guy did more than ops for Coulson and comic store theft. A sad little smile twitched at Steve’s lips when Bucky squeezed back, and when Bucky let go, he stepped back, almost falling into parade rest before he caught himself and deliberately adjusted to a civilian posture.
“Okay. Welcome to the crew, Steve.”