Steve used to have a lid on this kind of thing, or at the very least used to be able to cover it with anger. Ever since being shot (Bucky shot him), it's like he's been on a regular overflow timer. It's the small things that set him off: basset hounds in the park (Mrs. Mueller, Bucky's next door neighbour, had a basset hound before the war); the name Winifred (Winifred Barnes died in 1961, was buried next to Bucky's empty plot, where Steve had spent many waking hours the first week out of hospital); and, for a brief but harrowing time, any sight of the Potomac, which he's bullied himself into getting over by force of will alone.
Now Steve Rogers—Captain America, downer of the Valkyrie, dubious American folk hero—is fighting back tears in the grocery store. Action figure manufacturers should see him now.
Worse than having an overflow timer is that it tends to go off for reasons beyond his capability of prediction. Steve has just passed an advertisement for a kind of gourmet chocolate he's never seen before which read:
Bucky was so thin. And so intense. When he tried to kill Steve in DC.
A new and inventive torture his so-called process has come up with has been making things that don't have anything to do with Bucky into things that do. Today's is gourmet chocolate. (Bucky had such a sweet tooth—has, he has it. Did they know that about him? Does anybody, anymore?)
Steve tries to focus on the maple syrup until the ghost of gourmet chocolate goes away.
"Anything from Vermont's head and shoulders above the rest," Sam says beside him—like they don't have maple syrup in New York. They've had maple syrup in New York. He doesn't need a syrup tutorial. They had sugar shacks in the 1850s, for Christ's sake. He's not so old that he doesn't know about maple syrup.
But, being a baby-hair's breadth from shedding actual tears over a chocolate advertisement, Steve opts to stare at the maple syrup in silence. It probably looks like he is so old that he doesn't know about maple syrup, but maybe that works in his favor. Age can be the cover what rage forgot.
Perturbed by Steve's stillness, Sam takes a can off the shelf and throws it into his basket for him.
"Thank you," Steve says, flat.
Sam frowns at him. "You pull a muscle wrong?"
"No." Steve may still be regularly subjected to physio, but when he isn't actively stretching or trying to support 300 lbs of weight, he does feel more or less physically fine. He kind of wishes he didn't. It'd help to explain his regular ocular incontinence.
But on the other hand, at least fifty percent of his reactions can probably be traced back to the fact that he's been cooped up with a Netflix queue that makes him angry to look at for the last three weeks. Not clearing Captain America for anything more intense than a 'light jog' should be classified as an act of aggression.
Now he's angry. Anger he can use. "My muscles," Steve says thickly, turning down the aisle, "are listed in more than one medical study as peak definition. You don't have to worry about my muscles."
"I'm not worried about your muscles." Sam grins in that pinched way that says he's more amused by Steve than he thinks is appropriate. "On my list of worries your muscles are, like, tenth at most. Much higher is that TJ's still doesn't have my peanut butter on the shelf. Work your magic on a stock boy, would you? Root out some of that good stuff, I bet they'd just hand it right over to you."
Sam's become a close friend to Steve in a short span of time, which annoys Steve about as much as he needs it. Today's unplanned trip to Trader Joe's had followed the daily 'light jog' for reasons Steve hadn't understood—until now.
At least it's a distraction. Steve puts the maple syrup back on the shelf—he doesn't need it, doesn't want it, it's too decadent for his tastes and not something he'll eat alone—and uses his Captain America voice on the nearest curly-haired kid when he asks for Sam's peanut butter in case it really does help.
The kid's eyes go predictably wide and she slips into the back (Bucky's hair was straight and thick as pavement, nothing like the kid's; Steve used to run his fingers through it, revel how they'd get lost when he buried them deep), and it takes her no longer than ninety seconds end-to-end to shove eleven jars of peanut butter into Steve's arms.
After Steve signs a nearby jar of preserves in thanks, Sam—who laughs almost to the point of tears on their way out of the store—finally deigns to tell him that he didn't actually mean for Steve to do it.
"Making friends with Captain America is the best thing I ever did," Sam says, thumbing tears of mirth from the corners of his eyes. "I say jump, you say how high, is that how this works?"
"I can jump six feet straight up," Steve mutters, distracted. A set of black buckles had caught his eye, but it was just a pair of leather boots. "Ten if I have a running jump."
"And how's your long jump?"
"Haven't measured. Did fifteen feet once." Getting Bucky out from Zola's lab. "Might've been more."
Steve realizes too late Sam only asked to make fun of him, but instead of pointing that out, Sam frowns at his hands. "What happened to your maple syrup?"
"Didn't want it anymore." Did they ever have maple syrup, back then? Maybe once; a special occasion at the Barnes'. Bucky would've liked it, if he'd had the chance.
Sam slaps a jar of peanut butter into his palm, as though settling up a debt. "Trust me," Sam says, clapping him on the shoulder. "You'll never go back again."
Steve's tried a lot of different nut butters over the last two and a half years, and Sam's tastes as perfectly fine as anything else. From Sam's ten-minute expansion on its virtues, Steve surmises that something about the roast of the peanuts makes this a superior spread. As he chews mulishly on his toast, Steve decides Crunchy Salted Peanut Butter From Unblanched Peanuts (Unorganic) may well mean something to peanut butter connaisseurs, but to him it's basically nuts on bread.
That said, Steve had been too distracted by his latest dead end to pay attention to the finer points of Sam's peanut butter monologue. Trying to find Bucky from the comfort of his home is hard, so Steve mostly isn't doing it from home. He is sticking to the unduly restrictive advice from his physio team, but only because he knows it's probably true that the sooner he heals, the sooner he'll be able to pursue this on his own terms.
At no point did his painstaking examination of the cordoned-off Helicarrier disaster zone require him to move faster than a light-footed patter. He'd stocked up on loose-waisted sweat pants after discovering belts irritated his wound too badly and, pairing it with an oversized hoodie and more core-strengthening workouts than he's admitting to his physio team, Steve's proven pretty good at getting out of a crime scene in the dead of night without being either noticed or injured.
(Bucky would be proud, Steve thinks—not throwing his body around to solve problems for once. Or maybe he is. He decides not to think about that too long.)
Steve's yet to find any concrete leads on Bucky's whereabouts. He's followed sets of footsteps on the shores of the Potomac only for them to end abruptly, the trail a ruse. It amuses him, in some closed-off way—it shows Bucky's thinking. A surge of pride to crest his disappointment.
Thanks to tips from his police radio, Steve's followed a number of leads to break and enters, investigating reports of stolen clothes and shoes. But it's all turned out either unrelated or untraceable to Buck; most times, he couldn't say which.
On the nights when inertia doesn't keep him glued to the sofa, Steve gets in his car at about sunset, turns the police radio on, and drives to the central areas Bucky's more likely to try to lose himself in. He opens his thermos of coffee to keep his hands busy and sits there waiting for a lead into his next dead end.
He's not giving up trying. Daytime is hardest; there's no cover, therefore no point, leaving Steve at home for deniability's sake. He sleeps a little, takes his 'light jogs'; watches Netflix, shuffles paperwork.
Sam comes over more than expected, especially for someone he's only known for three weeks. It is a genuine pain in Steve's ass when he's there, but he also can't remember the last time he felt so grateful.
As his injury heals, Steve has to face the facts. If his overflow timer isn't owing to gunshot wounds, it must be down to something else.
At least Bucky's death was final. What Steve has now are questions, paired with the certainty that all this is his fault. He let it happen. The acrid truth of it burns in his lungs, his eyes, his blood with every passing day. In the only moment it really mattered, Steve lost his faith that Bucky had lived. He hadn't looked for him, hadn't brought him back.
Steve won't make the same mistake twice. He won't give up until he's made things right. No matter how long it takes, no matter the cost, Steve will not abandon Bucky again.
"Heard from Natasha yet?"
Sam asks it through a mouth full of popcorn, eyes not moving from the screen. They've been watching a documentary on the Vietnam War for the last five hours. It feels a little masochistic for a couple of vets with 'varying degrees of trauma-informed bullshit,' as Sam puts it, to watch endless footage of a war they didn't even fight, but it's the only thing on Netflix they both wanted to watch.
Steve feels grateful for its viscerality, enough to distract him from the nausea of his failures. The sun set ages ago, but Steve, unwilling to think of a reason to make Sam leave, has sunken deep into the cushions and into inertia along with it, arms crossed tight against his chest.
It's not like he'd find anything if he went out tonight anyway. It's been deathly quiet on the scanners—almost like most of the suspicious activity is being relayed through alternate means. Something's happening underground, Steve can feel it; he just can't track down a damn thing about it. He can't help but wonder how Bucky's involved—if he's involved. If he's even still in the goddamn city.
Watching a documentary on Nixon's attempt to convince the American public that war is what's good for them just feels prescient in this historical moment. If he and Sam do this together, maybe they can't be accused of picking at scabs.
Steve hasn't heard from Natasha since he was still in the hospital, and says so. "Not in weeks."
Sam looks over. "Oh—really?"
"She seems pretty off the grid. Can't find her or Fury. Don't think we'll hear from them until they're good and ready."
"I mean," Sam says, "they are off the grid, you're right about that, but since I talked to her yesterday I kinda figured she was good and ready now."
Steve turns, surprised. "What? You saw her?"
"Showed up in my kitchen after dinner, scared the hell out of me. Said she had something for you, so I assumed she was gonna drop by."
"What kind of thing?"
"She didn't say?"
"Think I was too busy pissing myself to ask. She bypassed all my new security, you know that? Wouldn't even tell me how she got in. Figured I'd hit my maximum quota of acceptable questions with 'How did you get in here?' and 'What in everloving fuck?'" Sam shakes his head, like there's no sense trying to figure her out. "Guess she hasn't figured out how drop by without tipping off the intelligence world you're associating. Sorry to spoil the surprise."
Steve leans back to think. Natasha must have a tail—that, or Steve does. Neither would surprise him. Some combined effort from Sam, Natasha, and Maria Hill kept Steve out of interrogation rooms and media spotlights almost altogether over the past three weeks, save for a gruelling all-day session once he got out of the hospital and a few clipped questions leading up. Sticking to a few equivocating phrases out of rote obligation mostly convinced the so-called 'law enforcement'—nothing seems above Hydra influence anymore—that Steve knew nothing more that hadn't already been said, but he wouldn't put it past them to put a tail on him just in case he led them to something.
There's also always the possibility that Hydra's following him, though it seems a little strange to think they'd waste espionage resources when they could just kill Steve outright. Any one of these bodies could just as well be using Steve as leverage to get to someone else—Natasha, for example. Maybe Bucky.
Or it could be Bucky tailing him.
For all Steve doesn't want to entertain the possibility, his blood starts pumping the second he does.
Beside him, Sam sips his daiquiri. Steve's limbs might be twitching, but he's not about to kick Sam out. Sam wouldn't be spending so much time with Steve unless he got something out of it, but Steve's also not stupid. At some point, someone said something to Sam that has him paying a lot more attention to Steve than a person usually would within weeks of meeting.
Somehow Steve doubts—especially given the joy it brings Sam to roast Steve beyond recovery—that his company is motivated by admiration alone. Maybe he's meant to be a buffer—help keep some space between him and whoever's following, or backup in case Bucky decides to crash in.
Steve would also bet, if that's the case, that Sam's been talking to Natasha more often than he claims.
Not that Steve can throw stones. He's got secrets of his own.
"Why bring it up with you at all, then?" Steve asks.
"Hell if I know. Woman's a straight cipher. I called her by her name and she actually shushed me."
"So she just came by to tell you she's... what, getting ready to see me?"
"Well, she invited us to watch Fury's gravestone installation at Arlington on Saturday while she was at it. Must be planning to meet us there. I assume she'll give you the whatever-it-is then."
Steve feels his shoulders relax. "This Saturday?"
Sam nods. "Figure if we aim for two o'clock, we'll hit on what we're supposed to."
Struck by a sudden tide of affection, Steve looks over to where Sam's propped his legs on the table. Whatever Sam's reason for being here—recovery, protection, or plain old friendship—he's making clear he wants back in the fight. Seeing Steve three to four days a week, fielding surprise visits from Natasha, relaying information… Sam's secured himself a position in the inner circle without Steve even noticing.
Sam hasn't flinched, either. Nazis in America and all he wants is part of the action in fighting them back.
Steve gets to his feet, gesturing for Sam's cocktail glass. "Want another?"
Sam raises his eyebrows, but hands it over. "You don't mind me hanging around?"
"I appreciate it. Too quiet in here most nights."
Sam's smile pinches at the edges, like he's trying to make it his happiness smaller than it is. "Well, join in then," he says, nodding to the blender. "Weather's fine in Margaritaville."
"Alcohol doesn't affect me."
"It's the principle of the thing."
"Surprised you're not trying to limit me to clear fluids and bedrest."
"What, you got plans to operate heavy machinery later? Your water's just making me sad. Have some joie de vivre, Cap, drink a pink drink."
Steve doesn't; something about the cheery color of the strawberry daiquiri makes Steve feel even queasier than he was. But he does put a paper umbrella in his water, and Sam's laughter almost cancels out the sting when he stabs himself in the eye with it when taking a drink.
Fury meets them at Arlington—in broad daylight, for one thing, and at his own damn grave. It's almost like whoever is tailing them—tailing Steve—is meant to see them there.
That narrows things down. It's not likely to be Hydra. It's almost definitely not law enforcement—at least, not right now.
Bucky wouldn't be seen here. But Steve checks anyway, once and again. He looks casual when he does it, like he could be scanning for anyone. Letting whoever it is know he knows they're there seems like a smart move anyway. Put enough fear of the guy who took down SHIELD into their hearts and maybe they'll leave him the hell alone.
It's a bigger relief than Steve expected to learn Fury has a plan. Steve agrees to meet him in Europe, once he's done in DC. If the war still isn't finished, Europe's a fitting place to fight it. Take down Hydra in the place of its birth.
Natasha meets them, too—also in daylight, also odd given the state of her covers. Her coordination with Fury couldn't be plainer: the whole thing's a show from start to finish. But he's happy enough to see her that he forgets to object.
Sam seems unsurprised to see the folder when Natasha hands it to him, and agrees to help find Bucky before Steve even asks. Sam and Nat both knew he'd been looking and neither one of them said a word. Steve's not sure if he's more grateful than annoyed for their discretion, but it's a relief to know there's still a team at his back.
Then they disperse: Natasha with Fury, Sam beside Steve, SHIELD staying buried in Fury's empty grave. The past may have a way of tracking them down, but they still look ahead. After a month spent believing he didn't know how, it's a relief for Steve to learn he still can.
Sam's in the habit of leaving the booze he brings over, but after making no progress on the folder with beer, Steve steps out for something stronger. It's only after several tumblers of whiskey that he can bring himself to open it again, though whether because of the alcohol or white-burning fury is hard to concretely say.
That picture of Bucky, frozen in a cryopod. Christ, he can't stand it. Steve closes the folder, sets a fist over the cover, and sits sick with rage for more than an hour. He repeats the process to the same result, and on the third try he opens the folder to the second page without looking, hoping to bypass the nausea.
The second page isn't much better, but at least he doesn't close the folder again.
They knew who he was. Hydra researched the life they were destroying in excruciating detail. James Buchanan Barnes, Sergeant with the US Army: serial number, date of birth. Date of alleged death. Rebirth, they called it. Steve feels the jab, whether they intended it or not. The names of Bucky's family members—of Winifred's sister, of George's brothers. The names of Rebecca's husband and children, of all of his sisters' families, kept up to date as the lineage grew.
The addresses of the Barneses' family homes. Winifred's date and cause of death. Rebecca's, too; Eleanor's, most recent.
They kept meticulous records of almost everything Bucky came to forget. Detailed information on the Howling Commandos: current status and home addresses, for those still alive.
Hydra had more information on Steve's old squad than Steve ever discovered himself. But if there was information about Steve's last couple years, Natasha hadn't included it. His portion of the file ends at the Valkyrie. He guesses Hydra had access to all the information SHIELD had, but—
Steve's grasped a hand around the leg of the chair he's sitting on before he registers the source of the voice. Natasha steps in through his window, one leg at a time. "Chair's kind of a step down from vibranium," she remarks.
Steve breathes his relief as he straightens. "Something wrong with the door?"
"Apart from it being watched?"
"Oh? By who?"
"Right now? Hard to say. You're a popular guy."
"Case of be careful what you wish for, I guess."
Natasha smiles, knocking a knuckle against the glass of the bottle. "You sharing?"
"Help yourself." He turns in his chair as she passes, watches her pull a glass from the dish rack. "Thought I wasn't gonna see you for a while."
"You do know you have a dishwasher," she says, pointing.
"I'm not gonna waste that kind of energy on three dishes."
"You don't cook?"
"Pot, bowl, couple spoons."
Natasha wrinkles her nose. "What do you cook?"
Steve besets her with a pointed stare. "I assume you're here for a reason."
Natasha sits down across from him at the table. This kitchen doesn't hold a candle to his old one, but his old apartment's been deemed a 'risk' because 'the Winter Soldier knows where you live, Steve,' and apparently that's 'bad,' so he makes do with what he has. He's not motivated to refurnish, but he does miss the familiarity of his old apartment. Sometimes he thinks about buying an oak table for the kitchen, but he's still not cleared to lift anything on his own.
"I just need a minute," Natasha says. "Won't be long before the esteemed CIA agent figures out he's following the wrong redhead."
"So it's CIA."
"It's a lot of people." Natasha gives him a significant glance, then nods to the folder in front of him. "How's it going with that?"
Steve doesn't answer. Natasha nods, like she gets it.
...Does she? How much does she know?
"I hope what's in there is useful," she says, but this time Steve hears the wretched kindness in her voice. "But I wanted you to know before you get too deep—that's not everything there is. The show today was for SHIELD's benefit, or what's left of them."
The floor falls out from under Steve's feet. "SHIELD?"
"They're about as dead as Hydra is," she says, "that is, as a doornail, as long as you're looking on paper. Both sides are already working to rebuild. Fury's tracked Hydra to Europe, but SHIELD's still Stateside."
"What are we doing about this?"
Natasha gives him a sharp look. He's not doing anything. "From what I can tell, they're doing better than expected at weeding Hydra from their network. It's not a perfect process, but they're doing well enough that we think the potential for good outweighs the potential for danger."
"Me, Fury, Hill. The point is—well, it's kind of adorable when you think about it: Baby SHIELD is tailing us. You, me, Sam… pretty much all the main players in SHIELD's collapse. They're just one of the tails," she says, to Steve's opening mouth. "They seem to want to know whose side we're on, so we staged Arlington to show them. Hopefully now that they know we're committed to taking Hydra down, they'll reallocate resources and leave us alone." Nothing changes about her tone, but Steve feels her next words twist as sure as if she'd stuck her finger in his bullet wound: "Let you move around the city a little more freely."
So Natasha knows how Steve's been spending his nights.
If Bucky is out there, Steve's been doing nothing for weeks except leading them to him. SHIELD, CIA, God knows who else... It makes him grateful for his failures. He could never have gotten near Bucky without Bucky being made.
But Bucky's smart—he'd expect to be followed, get himself out of dodge. If he knows Steve's blind spots—Does Bucky know him?—he could track Steve in kind, stay ahead of the monitors. Wait for the right moment, when Steve's finally alone, to talk.
The hair stands on the back of Steve's neck, like he's being watched. He turns to the window, but no one is there.
Natasha watches without a word. He doesn't have to ask what she thinks. Her silence says enough.
"You should have told me sooner," Steve rasps.
"I needed all the facts."
"Have you seen him?"
"No." But through the smokescreen, Steve catches the double-meaning: she hasn't seen him. That doesn't mean he isn't there.
Suddenly Steve understands what drives people to drink. He reaches for the bottle, pours himself another glass. "The infosec and espionage landscapes are very different now than they were a month ago," Natasha says as he tops up her glass. "I think it might be a good thing that SHIELD is back. I know," she says, holding up a hand against his objection—"let me finish. Hydra's taking advantage of the chaos to reinstitute off-continent, which means they're not the only ones with an opportunity. If Hydra's organizing, there should be a scaled response in kind." She leans back with her drink, breathing out slow. "You, me, Fury, Sam… We're four people. Maria's post at Stark Industries helps, but one person as tech support can only do so much. We're positioned to infiltrate at best, maybe to organize once some time has passed. But no one could call us an army." Natasha waits for Steve's objection, but on that point, he has none. "There were a lot of good people in SHIELD who wanted to help," she reminds him. "Letting them reorganize on their own terms… it's not the worst idea."
"You know as well as I do that there is no purging Hydra from SHIELD. The systems in place—"
"Oh, I'm not touching the place with a ten foot pole," Natasha says. "Neither is Fury. He's got his contacts in place, but I don't think he'll ever recover his trust over what happened. We all learned a lesson that day." Then she shrugs, unbearably casual. "But I dunno—you're the Hydra expert, Steve. In your experience, is five people enough to take Hydra down?"
There's a sudden dagger in her stare. "The Howling Commandos did okay," he tells her.
"The Howling Commandos definitely had an army at their back. And two of you died in combat, if I have my history right."
"I think you'll find we had a perfect survival record," Steve says delicately, but the words turn sour in his mouth.
Silence batters in the room. He only sits through it until the bile rises in his throat. "You want something?" he asks, getting to his feet—
He stops when Natasha fishes a manilla envelope out of her jacket.
It stays contoured to the shape of her torso until she smooths it out against the table. "Like I said," she says, passing it over, "the cemetery was mostly for show."
Steve sets his dead weight down into his chair. He's not sure he wants what she's giving him, but he takes it anyway. "I only gave you info SHIELD already had, in case they intercepted you on your way out," she explains, when he doesn't open it. "I think you will find it useful, but Steve, you should know—the Winter Soldier's been doxxed, like every other agent of Hydra. The intelligence world knows he's Barnes. They know what Barnes became." She taps the envelope's edge with a fingernail. "But they don't know everything. They don't need to know the person he was."
Steve holds her gaze, heart pounding. Natasha's face reveals nothing, neutral as ever. Has she discovered what Bucky was to him, is to him? Does she know what's at stake?
"Where did you find it," Steve asks thickly, "if not in the SHIELD files?"
"Smithsonian archives." Her voice is smooth enough to sting, for all its compassion. "I don't know how much curating of your exhibit they're doing since they closed it, but this folder was sitting out. I thought you should know it exists, in case it... goes public."
That's enough for Steve. His fingers peel at the envelope's sticky flap.
Inside is a single poster: a flyer of sorts, thin, a little stiff. At first, when he pulls it out, he doesn't know what he's looking at. It looks like propaganda poster from the war—it's arranged the same way, blue stars around the border, Join the Submarine Service! emblazoned at its foot. On the one hand, it's familiar—Steve used to see these slogans everywhere. Recruiting for the armed forces had started long before the US declared.
It's what Bucky's doing on the poster he doesn't understand.
The longer he looks at it, the stranger it becomes. Even if Bucky had modeled—and he didn't, he didn't model, he wouldn't model in a million years—it definitely wouldn't have been for Navy propaganda. Bucky had vowed to have no part in the war from the second it broke out, long before the US was directly involved.
For another thing, recruitment posters favored illustrations. Muscular men engaged in action were better sensationalized, more easily interpreted in the eye of the beholder than photographs were. Steve used to study the posters as he came across them, always wondering if some military body might hire him on to make them. He would've been good at it, drawing posters like these—balancing that desire and aspiration. The figures rendered often struck him as beautiful, as was meant: strong, muscular men pulling a lever, toting bags onto ships, and fondling phallic weaponry, all set over a set of often unintentionally suggestive captions.
Steve's hopes were quickly dashed; poster work, like most tasks in the army, was usually given to enlisted men. But it'd been effective advertisement—he'd been attracted to the men and the message both. Steve had wanted his hands on them just as desperately as he'd wanted to become them.
Bucky's shirtlessness in the poster—the way his thumb sits hitched in white seamen's pants, the reveal of his hip, the flex of one saluting arm—doesn't initially register as lewd, given the facts.
Then it does, all at once.
Steve drops the poster onto the table.
"There's more where that came from," Natasha says. Steve looks at her, faintly startled to see her there.
"More of these?" he rasps. A sudden urge rises to protect Bucky's privacy; he turns the photo over on the table.
"Five, six different samples."
"Different—what? What's different about them?"
Natasha studies him carefully. "You didn't know about this."
"No." Steve picks up the picture again, just to be sure of what he saw, but there's been no mistake. "No, I didn't know about this."
Natasha has no response. "It doesn't even have a Navy stamp," he manages, showing her the poster. "What is this?"
"Are you asking me?"
"It looks like a pin-up."
"Yes," Natasha agrees. "It does."
That's what it is. Something for men to look at, all under the guise of propaganda. It doesn't seem like it could be targeted to anyone else.
"Is it fake?" Steve asks. "I mean, is it a forgery? Did someone take Bucky's face, put it—"
"See the note?" Steve looks where she points: Broadway Brevities, March 1942 scrawls across the photo's bottom edge. "Most of them came either from there or from something called the Greenwich Village Weekly News. I looked them up; they check out. I don't think they're fake."
Manhattan tabloids. Steve remembers the Weekly News—used to use it as a backsplash when he painted, taken it from Bucky's endless stack of day-old papers.
"Were you involved?" Natasha asks.
Steve looks up, startled. "With—this?"
But when Natasha only stares, Steve realizes what she means. She's become the third unwitting party to a national secret Steve thought he was carrying alone, until last month. There's no sense obscuring it now.
"He was... incredibly private," Steve mutters, photo in hand. "Even about the basics of who he was, he was always throwing up smokescreens, making up…" He shakes his head. "Us, together—that wasn't for anyone to know about. His reflex was even to hide it from me, like I wasn't right there." He shows her the poster. "This doesn't make sense. He wouldn't have… He was so private."
Natasha takes this calmly, swilling her drink. "You guys were poor, though, right? I assume it paid."
They'd had some lean times, yeah. But it was never this bad.
Another long silence passes. Natasha glances at the clock over the door. "You'd know better than me, Steve," she says, leaning on her arms. "It could be some multi-purpose parody—doubling as softcore porn and recruitment ad. Make fun of the posters by making them sexual, remind people to serve either way. It'd sell papers."
"You think this," Steve says, turning it toward her, "sold newspapers."
"It gets passed around, people buy the next one." Natasha shrugs. "Whisper networks being what they are. But like I said, you'd know better than me."
Bucky's whole family lived and worked in Brooklyn. His blue-collar colleagues weren't likely to wind up buying papers in Manhattan's arts districts. Bucky must have gotten hold of the Weekly News somehow, but the only people who might've caught wind of these posters would have some explaining to do themselves before Bucky heard anything about it.
There might have been a whisper network, but Steve would've sworn it didn't involve anyone Bucky knew. That included Steve.
How much doesn't Steve know?
"I don't know what you want to do about it," Natasha says, "but I thought the question was best left in your hands. The rest are secure in the museum—for now. I don't like how easy it was to break in. It's a matter of time before I'm not the only one who did." Steve gets the gist. They have enough tails—Steve has enough—that anyone trying to rustle up information on him easily could. "If you're serious about finding Barnes, it might be worth it for you to do a sweep of the archives anyway," she says. "I can create a distraction—hack the cameras, mess with security. Whatever you need to give you ten minutes in the vault."
Steve takes a steadying breath. "Yeah," he says, raising his chin. "Thank you, Natasha, for bringing this to me. I, um..."
He doesn't know what to say, but Natasha pats his hand swiftly enough that he doesn't have to. He doesn't know how he keeps making friends like these. He's only ever made them by accident, and they're all too nice to him for their own damn good.
Natasha knocks back the last of her drink and gets to her feet. "You gonna be alright?" she asks, but it's obvious she's leaving either way.
"Always am," Steve says, and it almost sounds true. At least she doesn't have time to call his bluff.
"If I said I was gonna break into a museum to steal back some personal items," Steve asks Sam. "Would you hold that against me?"
Sam turns to him slowly, gunfire hammering away on the television screen. "No," he says, looking forward again. "I guess I'd be surprised you hadn't taken them back already."
"Great," Steve says; then—"You wanna help?"
"I got nothing going on."
It's easier work than Steve expects. Sam distracts whoever's tailing him that day while Natasha disables the security systems. "You have about twenty minutes," she says, breathing hard in Steve's earpiece as she draws security guards away from their station.
Steve's already most of the way through the vents by then, lifting the vent cover where Natasha's HVAC map told him to. Once he's jumped down through the ceiling, he throws cloths over the cameras for added peace of mind.
Then he gets to work.
The Captain America exhibit closed not long after the fall of SHIELD. Everyone knew something major had happened in DC and that Captain America was involved, but public speculation beyond that was murky. Enough news cycles had lumped "Captain America" and "attempted terror attack" into the same sentence that the Smithsonian had thought it was best to shut things down.
You wouldn't know it looking at the vault. Steve's left looking at his own life story as told by others, grouped into piles of lies and regrets. At a glance, Steve would guess the exhibit's curators are looking for something that might exonerate or condemn him—his history already entwining with SHIELD's.
Their business is out of his hands. He should focus on his own.
It's hard to know where to start among the rubble. He wouldn't mind spending time with these files and a fifth of whiskey, but he finds the self-control needed to dance around the stacks until he finds folders about the Howling Commandos.
He'd assumed he'd find Bucky among them—and he does. Just to see his picture… God, it's hard not to derail. They're pictures Steve's seen a hundred times, casting a different light now. The look of Bucky standing half on his guard, rifle in hand, strict with his discipline even when supposed to be at ease…
His faraway look imprints in Steve's retinas as he keeps rooting around. That same expression. That removal, echoed as they'd fought in the streets of DC. Who the hell is Bucky was a mask spanning decades. Bucky had never felt present to Steve after Azanno—out of his reach in more ways than one.
But Steve should have reached him. He should have reached out just a little bit further.
Natasha did Steve the favor of keeping the posters right at hand. He throws the folder open and spreads them across the table to he can see each one. He touches them gingerly with gloved fingers: all of them different, some clearly meant to be more lewd than others. In one, Bucky poses with his hip out, lip caught between his teeth, fingers wrapped around a prop missile; in another, he's got his back turned to the camera, both hands against the wall, leaned over make-believe submarine controls.
One or two of them very nearly pass as legitimate, short only the naval seal. But he wears the same tight white pants in all of them, and nothing more. The collection's only apparent to see them all side by side.
Every photo has Greenwich Village Weekly News or Broadway Brevities scrawled at the bottom, just as Natasha said, each dated between January and August of 1942. If Steve had to guess, given the consistency of Bucky's hairstyle and the bruise at his jaw, they were probably all shot in the same day and distributed serially.
Steve does the math. Bucky'd done well in '42, but he had been unexpectedly fired in September '41, spending an unusual few months unemployed. Steve had been on his feet for most of that year, making a living, happy to pull his weight for once—until he finally got waylaid by bronchitis in mid-November.
Then Bucky'd moved quickly. Gotten a day or two of work that had turned full-time not two weeks later...
But maybe they were never connected. Maybe Bucky had this modeling work, and then gotten a job, and Steve had related them in his mind.
"Ah, Buck," Steve murmurs, taking one of the posters in hand. He's still full of surprises after all this time.
Then Steve turns, ears cocked.
It's barely a rustle he heard—fabric glancing against itself, a whisper of a sound. He'd known he wouldn't see anything when he turned. He's better at this now, usually able to pinpoint the location of a sound the first try—it'd come from the table, or behind the wall.
Or the thin metal vent coming in by the floor.
Steve ducks his head, appraising. Is it big enough to house a person? It's too small for his shoulders, but that doesn't mean...
Steve goes still as he can. It's precious time wasted, listening to the air, but he doesn't care. It'd been basically nothing, but he knows what he heard.
Steve's not alone in the vault.
Slowly, ears still poised for sound, he brings a hand to his earpiece and clicks it on. "Status report."
"Cat and mouse," says Natasha. She's lost the guards, in other words, but keeps showing glimpses of herself to keep them occupied.
"Think my guys are still on me," Sam says, much louder, talking over the wind. "I only saw the one a second ago."
"You got multiples?"
"One government; hard to say what agency. Think the other guy's SHIELD, from his equipment and, uh… call it fumbling competence. It's SHIELD that's kept on me, but he might also be responsible for shaking FBI guy or whoever. I'll loop around in a minute, see if I can't stir up some kind of showdown for America's Top Stalker."
Sam's enjoying himself, no doubt about it. "Watch your six," Steve says, scanning the vault.
"You got trouble?"
"No." He's sure his tone gives him away. "Just gauging for time."
Three tails, he thinks, switching off his comm. SHIELD guy, FBI guy…
And whoever's in the vents.
It takes everything Steve has not to hope.
It could just be coincidence. Maybe he and Bucky just decided to break into the same place on the same day, pursuing a shared history they're both scrambling to find. Maybe Bucky was already in here when Steve interrupted; maybe that's why it's been so easy to get in here.
Or maybe Bucky really has been following him. Maybe Bucky's following him now.
There's no reason to think it's him, but there's no reason to think it's anyone else. Steve's heart slams in his throat, the shake leaving his hands when he presses his fingers into fists.
He makes up his mind. Carefully, his arm half obscuring the image, he flashes one of the posters toward the vent. "Never told me about this."
He gets silence for his trouble.
"Uniform suits you," Steve goes on. "Maybe you should've joined the Navy, gotten ahead of the curve. You, uh… you really work these pants, Buck."
He's being too obvious—trying to bait Bucky into a scoff, a frustrated breath. Anything to prove he's there. But there's no movement, no sound, if there even ever was.
Steve has to get going. Natasha can only buy him so much time. He shuffles all the posters together, pulling the envelope out of his jacket. The posters may not look like forgeries, but Steve wants to be sure. He's desperate to understand how they could be real—how Bucky, private to a fault, could have modeled for gay satire without Steve's knowing.
"You looking for anything in particular?" Steve asks, assessing the other folders. He picks through them one at a time, giving himself a one-minute time limit, making sure there's nothing else he needs to take. He does give pause at the collection of letters Bucky's family sent him during the war, but Steve's read them before—seconds after Bucky, the pages passed right to him the second Bucky finished with them. Steve was always most of the way through the letter before Bucky had even finished.
He'd sooner leave it behind for Bucky. If he's here. In case there's something he's trying to remember.
In panicked contemplation, Steve fans out the folders, making their subjects visible at a glance. "In case you want to grab something on your way out," he mutters. "They'll know someone was here, but hopefully blame me. Not stupid enough to think they won't link the distraction to something." He glances to the silver vent, but still hears nothing, seeing less.
God, Steve hopes he's not making a mistake.
On a whim, he digs out that photo he glimpsed when he first walked in—Bucky with his shifted weight, rifle angled to the ground, barely at rest, barely there. Natasha's voice cracks in his ear just as he slips it into the envelope.
"Get out," she says briskly. "They're splitting up."
"Copy. Rendezvous in thirty." Steve shoves the envelope inside his coat and spares a final glance to the grate at the floor. "Buck," he says softly—"if you're there… I just wanna talk to you, see how you are. I think you know I'm not gonna turn you in. I'm not with SHIELD; I'm not with anyone anymore, I'm just…" A man's voice echoes far on the other side of the door, but it's enough to shut him up; Steve hastens to his exit point, light on his feet. "If you need me," he mutters, steadying himself—"if you need anything. You know where to find me."
One foot plants on the table, another on the wall, and Steve is up and away in seconds flat.
In the vent, he lingers—not for long. Just a few seconds. Long enough to see if anyone enters the vault. It doesn't mean much that nobody does. Bucky always knew Steve to hang back where he shouldn't be.
In his mind's eye, Steve imagines Bucky waiting until the last sound's long disappeared, then slipping in to take his files. No sound, no trace—only a moment's hesitation, eyes hanging on photographed Steve.
But it's just imagination. For all Steve knows, he'd even imagined the sound.
An artist's instincts are hard to ignore. Steve turns the barren walls of his apartment into a gallery—pins Bucky's posters up side by side, puts them to their intended use. Anyone walking in would think Steve was losing it, and maybe he is. But having something tangible of Bucky's makes more of a difference than he'd thought.
Bucky used to be obsessed with reading the morning paper. A habit first picked up from his father, in time plunging roots deep into the wells of Bucky's anxiety. Reading became a measure of prevention, though preventing what, he could never say. If he kept up with current events, Bucky reasoned, maybe he would be able to see what was coming.
He spent hours some weekends reading through different papers—different print runs when they could afford it—seeking out different perspectives. In public, Bucky always put on an easygoing, confident façade. It got him places: opened doors, let him observe things he might not otherwise have seen, but his private anxieties turned out to be right on a lot of things too. The war. Conscription. Steve shudders to think what else he saw coming. He needs only to look at that stolen wartime photo to guess.
Steve had mirrored nothing of Bucky's cover-to-cover approach with the news, only reading the front pages and what grabbed him at a glance. It sometimes wasn't until he'd already papered the walls with the day-old pages that he noticed some back-page articles. The presence of Greenwich Village Weekly News in Bucky's yellowing pile, with its occasional acknowledgement of Manhattan's queers, had always surprised Steve, but with all the papers Bucky bought, he'd chalked it down to statistical fluke.
He knows better now. Bucky was trying to stay ahead of things, same as he always did, trying to figure out what the world was saying about people like them. Another attempt to face the world with his eyes wide open.
Had Bucky seen an ad in the Weekly News and responded, simple as that? Or was it more complicated? Steve pictures Bucky loitering nervously in Manhattan, trying to track down information about the paper, learning how they knew what they knew—getting roped into something unexpected in the process. Being offered a job where he hadn't expected to find one, just because he showed up with his jaw all squared.
It's hard to know from the look on Bucky's face how he felt about these photos. His half-smile, a bit smug and challenging—even in the midst of something he only dubiously wanted to do, he has none of the vacancy of the later years. Did he know what the photos were for, when they were being taken? He must've; they had him shirtless in sailor's pants, for crying out loud.
Not even Steve knew the side of Bucky that would agree to this. The thought thrills him, delights him. Learning something new about Bucky after all this time… God, but it's comforting. Proof Bucky'd been alive and dynamic, whole in ways Steve didn't even know. It's an indescribable feeling, seeing Bucky out of the shadows again.
This is what war and Hydra took away from him.
Steve wonders if Bucky thought of him while he posed—imagined Steve watching him. If that's why he was smiling like that. Maybe he'd thought of Steve sitting naked in bed, watching him perform, making fun of Bucky as this went on. Swagger was like armor on Bucky, and Steve liked it when he took it off—liked it even better when Steve could take it off for him, with his hands, his mouth, his calamitous body.
But he liked to watch Bucky with his swagger, too. Bucky always did know how to draw the attention of a room.
Steve turns, dazed, to see Sam walking in, hands laden with take-out and beer. Had Steve forgotten Sam was coming? Does he have a key? "I thought you'd be up," Sam says, kicking the door closed as he moves toward the counter. "Haven't slept since Friday. Think I'm still too keyed up from the mission. Swear to God I used to be better at coming down from these things, been out of it too long. You ever have that kind of problem where you just—"
Sam cuts off the second his gaze finds the walls.
"Uh," he says.
"I can explain," says Steve.
Sam's eyes slide slowly, broadly across the room. "Can… you?"
"I…" Steve gestures. "Didn't make these."
Sam looks faintly concerned Steve thought that seemed likely. "Okay."
"I stole them out of the Smithsonian."
Steve covers his eyes in embarrassment. "Bucky… must have modeled for tabloids before the war. This is news to me, I'm just—"
"The Winter Soldier modeled for sexy war propaganda?"
"He wasn't the Winter Soldier at the time," Steve says, annoyed. "And I'm pretty sure it was satire."
Sam nods, incredulous. "I guess I have been pushing you to redecorate."
"I'm not redecorating," Steve says, but he eyes the wall as he says it. What is he doing?
Translating the question into body language, Sam sets one hand on Steve's shoulder and the other at his waist, guiding him back into the nearest chair. "Steve," Sam says seriously, sitting down on the coffee table in front of him. "What the everloving fuck."
Steve sighs, rubbing his eyes. "Natasha found these in the Smithsonian, wanted to give me the opportunity to pull out sensitive information on my own terms. "
"Sensitive information—sure. You wanna protect Barnes, go right ahead. But turning your walls into a '70s-theme porno featuring your assassin ex-boyfriend is a whole other thing."
Steve frowns, a bit stunned. How much does Sam know?
"Technically," Steve says, tongue heavy in his mouth, "it's a '40s-theme porno."
Sam cocks an eyebrow, eyes square. "His softcore career in your living room is not gonna help him when you got three government agencies trying to link you two together either way. This has to go."
Steve shuts his eyes, tipping his head back. "I know," he murmurs, straightening again. "I just… The last year on the front, with the Commandos, it was like he'd checked out. The way he looked on that helicarrier, that helplessness, resignation… I'd seen it before." Steve opens the drawer in the TV stand next to him, handing Sam the last picture he took from the museum: Bucky on his guard and out of his head, rifle in his hands. "He was so convinced death was coming that he saw it around every corner, never got a rest. But two years before that photo was taken, he did—this." Steve points to the walls. "It was risky for him, and completely uncharacteristic—but he did it, just so we could make rent. That's who he was, Sam. He was calculating, and… and reckless, and responsible, and brash. But he was never lost, and he was never mean. He was never mean." Steve's gut throbs feebly where he was shot, eyes hanging on Bucky's technicolor form as he talks. "I guess I just wanted to see him when he wasn't suffering, for a minute. To remember what that looked like."
The sympathy in Sam's eyes when Steve looks back strikes him. God, he wishes Sam would go back to giving him a hard time.
"This everything you pulled from the vault?" Sam asks, handing him the photo back.
"Got a safe in here?"
Sam nods and pats him on the knee—strange, too sincere. Another unaccountable kindness to bear. "Take those down before we get going."
"To get a safe, you been listening? Too many people know where you live for you to keep your sensitive information in a drawer."
"Thought this was supposed to be a safehouse," Steve grouses, but he gets up to pull the posters from the wall.
"You're too bad at this for that."
That finally draws a smile out of Steve. Back on familiar ground. "Your food's gonna get cold," he says, nodding.
"It heats up fine. Brought Rambo, if you want."
They'd finished up their documentary the day before last and spent fifteen minutes dithering on what to watch, until Sam gave an exasperated laugh and got up to leave. "Variations on a theme," Steve points out.
"Yeah," says Sam, "I know." He's giving Steve the illusion of privacy, staring into the dark kitchen as Steve moves around the room. "Guess we're both trying to work through some things."
Steve gives the movie ten minutes before Sam's asleep in his chair, but he probably won't last much longer himself. "How long have you known?" he asks quietly, pulling out another pin. "About me and Buck?"
Sam sighs, steady. "Think I started putting the pieces together pretty much right after you saw it was him."
"You'd thought about it already: how he'd died. How he could've lived." Sam still isn't looking at him. Solemnity is a strange look on him, but maybe Steve only thinks that because he hasn't known him long enough. "Been thinking about it myself, since I met you—how I'd have reacted in your shoes. If I'd never seen Riley's body and he came back a killer." He shrugs, corners of his mouth turned down. "Think I'd probably be where you are. Having the same damn faith he was in there. Whether it was good for me or not."
There's a lot Sam's not saying; there's a lot that he is. It means something to their friendship that Steve can hear both. He tries to imagine what it might have been like to watch Riley make impact—how Sam must have gotten there within seconds, to find only a body to collect. Had Riley suffered? Things Steve doesn't know.
"Was it quick?" he asks.
Sam's eyes find the floor.
"I thought Bucky was quick," Steve offers. But he's lost track of what he's trying to say.
Sam shakes his head; seems to wake himself, limb by limb. "Let's go if we're going," he mutters, twirling his keys around on one finger. "The food might heat up fine, but it still borders on criminal to let it just sit there. Plus it's Sunday, things are gonna close."
Steve lets Sam drive him; buys a mid-line personal safe, bewilderingly digital, and lets Sam talk him into a Blu-Ray player while they're at it. With the kinds of things they're watching these days, Steve's not sure if high definition is a step in the right direction, but it does open up a significantly bigger portion of Sam's movie collection, so he figures it's worth the investment.
The next morning, Steve installs a chain on his front door. He doesn't want to lock out everyone; spends longer than he should weighing the benefits against the risks. But it's not like Bucky's likely to use the door, anyway.
Steve doesn't put the posters back up on the wall. But he doesn't lock them up, either.
Sam was right. It was unusually reckless, even for him, to put sensitive material up in his living room. Acknowledging the error in judgment doesn't change how much he wants to look at them, doesn't change how the need to see Bucky manifests physically, so Steve strikes a compromise: finally buys that better kitchen table, round, oak, way too big for the space, and tucks it behind the kitchen's partial wall. If he leaves the posters on its surface, they stay out of view from any window's line of sight. The fridge may only open halfway anymore, but it's a small price to pay for information security.
He locks up the posters when he's not in the house; even he's not that dumb. But he doesn't account for everything.
The posters are back on the table when Steve gets home, Bucky sitting behind them in the evening dark.
Steve stops dead in the doorway, breath caught in his chest. Bucky's not here to kill him, Steve sees that right off—he is probably armed, but Steve can't tell how. Maybe his prosthetic is meant to be a threat, clenched into a fist against the table.
He looks better than expected: hair still long and tucked behind his ears, a little frizzed on the left. The hood of his sweatshirt—dark green and comfortable—bunches high around his neck, like he'd just slipped it off.
But it's his expression that gives him away. Even in the dark, Steve can see the caution plain on his face. He might be trying to look menacing, but there's no anger in it. Only questions.
"Hi," Steve breathes, groceries clutched tight to his chest.
Bucky stares, saying nothing. He must be waiting for Steve to show his hand. Slow, sliding one bag of groceries onto the counter, Steve reaches an arm to flick on the light.
Bucky doesn't flinch, but as Steve steps level, his pupils go sharp, chin raising an inch. Recognition, or remembrance.
His eyes are still sunken, but there's light in them now.
"How are you?" Steve asks, breathless.
Bucky stares at him, holding his gaze. Then, with an almost imperceptible flick of his wrist, he sends the posters splaying across the table.
"Is this everything you took?" he asks, hoarse.
So he was in the vents. Relief floods Steve's veins. "No."
"Where's the rest?"
Bucky clearly broke the safe, but Steve can't see anything else he disturbed. If anything, the apartment looks better than when he left.
"Did you check 'Hats'?"
Bucky furrows his brow. "What?"
"The box labeled 'Hats', in my closet. There's a picture, just one, of you during the war. World War Two," he clarifies, in case Bucky needs it. It's hard to tell from his expression how much he knows—it's an affected neutrality, like Natasha's. Not as dead-eyed as it was. "You've got a rifle in your hand, you're standing…" Steve hesitates. "Well, you know."
Maybe he doesn't. When Bucky shifts, he looks briefly as he did then—wary, exhausted. Miles yet to go.
"That, and this," Steve finishes, gesturing to the posters. "That's all I took."
Bucky assesses him, silent. Steve's heartbeat gallops with inexplicable pride. Bucky's free, and he's here; he's shaved in the recent past, washed his hair by the look of it. He's still too thin, but he's alive. Bucky always did know how best to survive.
"It's in 'Hats'," Bucky repeats, voice cracking.
Steve smiles, shrugging gently. "No one wears them anymore."
"Not like we used to."
"No," Bucky says, but he looks unsettled to admit it.
God, it's good to see him. Steve takes mental inventory of what's in the fridge, but he'd gone grocery shopping for a reason. "Do you have... somewhere to stay? Need anything? Can I… I bought an oven lasagne, if you can stay a minute. It's not bad, but it's—"
"Did you make copies?" Bucky asks abruptly.
It takes Steve a second to figure out he's talking about the posters. "No," he says, bewildered. "Why would I make copies?"
It used to mean something different when Bucky looked at Steve with this kind of intensity. "Why did you take these?"
"You never told me about them."
The skin tightens in the corners of Bucky's eyes. "You broke into the Smithsonian because you wanted to see something I never told you about?" There's a hint of familiarity in his voice—like he knows who he's talking to, knows enough to be annoyed.
"I figured my hands were safer. Buck, I don't want to talk about—"
"Your safe sucks."
Steve coughs out a laugh. It turns out he doesn't actually care what they talk about. "I know," he says ruefully. "I should've put them in 'Hats'."
It's not that Bucky smiles. It's more that something loosens around the eyes.
"Will you let me fix you something to eat? A glass of water, cup of coffee?" Steve intuits that he's pushing his luck, but he doesn't need particular answers as much as he needs something to hold. To hear Bucky keep talking, to find out what he knows; to reach out and touch him, if Bucky allows.
But he doesn't answer. When Steve makes to move anyway, Bucky shakes his head and points Steve back where he was.
Steve goes, obedient. From the pinch of Bucky's gaze, he learns he's failed a test. "The last thing I want is to push you away," he explains ardently; and the slightest of changes in his eyes tells Steve they're alright again.
For a volatile few seconds—five, ten—neither one of them moves. Bucky established Steve's supposed to stay where he is, but Bucky doesn't move either. Steve realizes then that he won't. Oh, God, that doesn't seem right. Time slips by in the space left between them. Steve can't stand just looking from across the room. He should just slide across the counter, make clear what he—
A distant beeping sounds in the room.
In the space of a blink, Bucky's gotten to his feet, shuffling the posters together with a foreman's authority. He folds them in half, tucking them inside his hoodie as with a newspaper; zips his hoodie up over the works.
"Out of time," he says, raising his hood.
"Time for what?" Steve asks, but Bucky pulls back a sleeve to reveal a plastic watch—digital, ten years old, Mickey Mouse printed on a yellow felt strap. Before Steve can ask him anything else, Bucky's shut off the alarm and set into the bedroom, throwing himself out the window without a second glance, disappeared before Steve can so much as stick his head out after him.
Bucky wouldn't have taken the posters, Steve reasons, if they weren't legitimate. Maybe that's wishful thinking, but he's having a hard time thinking up an alternative. Bucky had both his arms in the photos, for one thing. These things can be faked, Steve knows, but between his research, Bucky's reaction to them, and the fact Steve didn't find them in a folder labeled 'fake,' he's convinced himself by now.
Steve's also pretty sure he's never going to see the posters again. Not unless he can find Bucky, and there's no indication that he can. A month trying to track him and the only time Steve's seen so much as a trace of him is when Bucky sat down at his own kitchen table.
Not having something tangible of Bucky's annoys him—Bucky'd left the Hydra file in the safe but taken the photo, so Steve's truly bereft—but in three short days, Steve had managed to memorize every detail of the pin-ups that mattered: every cocked-hip pose, every sultry glance. He stares at the ceiling while trying to sleep, re-creating them in his mind: thinking on Bucky's features longer than he should, on the feel of them, on wanting him, until his hand's under the covers tempting sin.
Now he's putting the posters to their other intended use. Steve chastens himself and gets out of bed, spending another restless night drinking burnt coffee at a diner.
He's the first person in the art supply store when it opens. He's not sure how he got there or what he's doing, but if he's going to be thinking about Bucky this way, he'd better have something to do with his hands. Steve's barely held a pencil in the last four years—hasn't often been able to bring himself to it, especially on this side of time. He'd rendered a sketch here or there during the war, but it was a far cry from what he used to do: photorealistic portraits, or as close as he could get them, mostly for low-budget advertising campaigns. His meagre contribution to Bucky's breadwinning wages.
Steve can afford a nicer sketchbook these days, but he opts for a simple drawing pad—something big, canvas-like, the pages light and easy to flip. He's following instinct without much reason; buys a high-end set of graphite pencils, a proper eraser.
It's slow going, at first, when he settles in at home. His lines are shaky after all this time; the pencil feels too small in his hands. His form is poor, eliciting harsh sounds of frustration from the back of his throat. He tears through eight pages, ten, before finally starting to feel like he knows his shapes—and then finds his stride. Hours pass. He learns about limbs again, how to render the caps of knees, the point of an elbow. He breaks only to order food and still bends over the counter as he eats, dropping lettuce on the page, brushing it aside with barely a glance.
Mostly he draws in the living room, one socked foot resting on the coffee table, pad of paper propped against his thigh. It feels oddly familiar: trying to draw Bucky in a barren apartment, waiting for something to start making sense. He works on perspective, remembers expressions; draws the same featureless head again and again, gives him a downcast grin, a wide-eyed frown. The sun sets; the sun rises again, almost twenty-four hours lost to the haze of technique.
Steve's worked long enough that his wrist actually threatens fatigue, unused to the nuanced movements of art. He's asleep from the second his head hits the pillow, dreaming only of Bucky—young again, shirtless, standing alone in a smoky room. Every time Steve reaches him, Bucky disappears, showing up again another ten feet away. Steve can never quite touch him, can never get him to show him his face, but Bucky's turned to him halfway with a whimsical smile, like he's hiding a secret he can never admit.
When Steve wakes up, he's determined to get him right. He's not about to let dreams win. His jaw is an easy remembrance, mapped so many times by Steve's lips, his hands; it's his eyes that give him trouble, those dark and smoky wells. Steve tries, erases, buys a new pad of paper to rightly destroy—rips out the pages to lay at his feet until finally he gets his eyes just right, the cheekbones beneath them. The heart in them, the bravery. Always looking for signs of things greater than himself.
Steve's hands start to recreate the posters, then, without his conscious thought. The poses in them. The halfway tilt of Bucky's mouth. Steve's memory serves the project well, but his instincts yield portraits: just Bucky, no borders. He's never been good with backgrounds, too concerned with people to care what's behind.
It's good to know he can still do this, after all this time. He finds ease in re-creation. Bucky's thumb in his waistband, exposing his hip—God, how Steve had loved to hold him down, to watch his fingers bend against unyielding bone. Bucky used to buck his hips when Steve sucked his dick just right, used to moan when Steve held him down. Bucky always tried to goad Steve into leaving a mark, and Steve complied, pressing hard, downright determined to treat him right.
Steve adds his own flourishes—bends the waist of Bucky's pants down a little further, leaves his fly undone. Thinks of shoving his hand in to wrap around Bucky's cock, knowing just what it'd feel like in his hand. He can almost remember its taste on his tongue—he turns the page, draws Bucky with both hands on the wall, backside on display in his white Navy pants. The way his ass felt under Steve's palms, between Steve's teeth when he sunk them in. The high, desperate pitch of Bucky's moan. The way Steve would bury his own cock deep and hold him still, just to be able to hear Bucky beg.
He'd hate to draw Bucky cradling a warhead, after all this; seeing him with that rifle is bad enough. He re-creates the pose, but replaces the missile with a potted plant instead. The flex of his hands is hard to get right, but it's sensual work. Steve would watch Bucky's hands with erotic intent. The way he'd move objects from place to place while he cooked; the precise way they wrapped around a mug; the fold and strain of his knuckles, card-shuffling becoming a new form of art. The way, later, those fingers used to hold at Steve's jaw, turning it aside so Bucky's mouth could suck marks into his neck. The strength in them, where they were worn from work. The way his fingers wrapped around Steve's cock; the way they plunged into him, covered in slick.
Steve could fill a book with Bucky's hands alone. He very nearly does—finally sets the pad of paper aside only out of frustration, shouldering into the shower with his clothes halfway gone. When he comes, it may as well be not of his own hand: born purely of memory, of Bucky's cock against his palm, of Bucky's fingers around Steve, wrapped together in the thick summer heat. Steve can remember just the way Bucky's eyes flickered closed when Steve took his sweet time, can almost hear his voice, breath given form: God, Steve, he'd say, barely a whisper, God, Steve, would you please—
The poster re-enactments turn out well, Steve decides the next day, though he's at a loss for what to do with them. He still wants to look at them—damn near feels compelled—but having now rendered these images himself, what he wants has taken a different form.
It almost feels cheap, to have drawn Bucky the way he used to be. Isn't he right out there?
Isn't he still out of Steve's reach?
Steve had realized with a pang last night while trying to sleep that he'd just spent hours drawing a left hand Bucky no longer has. It's a facsimile of Bucky that Steve's putting to page—an idea, a memory, a combination of both, his sketchpad a photo album of his own making. A visual memorial: something to leaf through for nostalgia's sake and little more.
This isn't really about Bucky; not as he is. It's just that all Steve knows to soothe his weary soul is to bring back something of their life left behind.
When Steve is finally cut loose from physio, having regained almost all of his strength, Sam brings tiramisu to celebrate.
"You know you're not introducing me to everything," Steve says, mouth full, as they lean over the counter eating the cake whole by the forkful. "I've had tiramisu before."
"You haven't had this tiramisu," Sam says.
"How is this different?"
"Your friend Sam brought it over."
"You're saying it's better just because you brought it."
"Half the magic of cake is the vessel of transportation."
"That's a new one."
"You eat a whole cake all by yourself, that's just sad," Sam explains. "You eat a cake with a handsome friend, that's a nice time. Makes the cake taste better. You savor it more."
It's hard to argue with that. "Guess it tastes better for you too, then."
"Why? You didn't bring it to my home."
"No, but in terms of handsome friends to eat it with…"
"You're not him," Sam says flatly, and Steve grins into the cake. "I got enough handsome friends, I don't need more. You're my trouble-comes-knocking friend. You're my human-shield kind of friend."
"Human shield, huh?"
"Now that we know what you can survive," Sam says, and taps their forks together in something like cheers. "Congrats on your recovery, Cap, let's go beat some bad guys."
"With me taking your bullets, is that what you're saying?"
"You said it," Sam says idly, putting another forkful of cake in his mouth. "I mean, I'm sure as shit not getting shot on the job."
Sam doesn't push the issue once he's made the suggestion, but neither one of them's fooled; they both know Bucky's the only reason they haven't already left for Europe. Steve does think about it—about leaving, about taking up the shield.
He thinks about Bucky, trying to take stock of what he has. Observed only when he wants to be, not knowing who to trust. Waiting for Steve at his kitchen table and being faintly surprised by what he sees... Steve doesn't know what he's doing here, but he knows he's not done.
Hydra can wait; he's not sure Bucky can.
Maybe part of moving forward is giving shape to the past.
Steve finally throws caution to the wind—buys blackout curtains for the bedroom, keeps them pulled shut. It's overdue. He really should've bought them the day he got out of hospital, but it's a maladaptive measure in more ways than one. It doesn't exactly encourage Steve to sleep normal hours when there's no light in his room no matter the time, but on the other hand, he's learned to be thankful for any sleep he can get.
He buys a new doorknob for the bedroom, too—something that locks. Sam, too observant for his own good, notices it the second he gets up to use the bathroom.
"You got something to hide?" he asks, gesturing to the door.
They've moved on to a documentary on prohibition, mostly so Sam can watch Steve react to inaccuracies and exaggerations in real time. Sam seems to be spending more time watching Steve than paying attention to the screen, so Steve, in retaliation, lets his stare last a little too long.
"There a reason you want access to my bedroom?" he asks, idle.
"No," Sam says, bewilderment plain on his face. "There a reason you don't want me in there?"
"It's not just for you." That's mostly true, though it won't do more than slow anyone else down. Sam, on the other hand, is too good a man not to accept the hard boundary of a locked door.
"Who else you got in h—" The sentence dies in Sam's mouth, jaw dropping in realization. "Oh, no."
"It's not what you think."
"You would tell me if there was an assassin in the house, right?"
Steve smiles; he can't help it. "Bucky's not here," he says affably.
Sam shakes his head unhappily. "It does not inspire confidence that you said that with a smile on your face. In the five weeks I've known you, you have smiled a total of twice."
"Come on. I've smiled at least four times."
"That's great," says Sam. "Once you're in witness protection because you're too big a dumbass to survive, you can pursue stand-up."
"You want me to open the door? I'll prove he's not in here. You're not gonna like it, but if it sets you at ease..."
Sam raises his hands, turning away. "When I come back," he calls behind him, "we're gonna have a talk about when we do and do not harbor known fugitives."
"I'm not harboring anyone!" Steve protests, but he's pretty sure Sam's figured out what he's hiding by now. Sam doesn't know Bucky took the posters; he doesn't know about Steve's drawn re-creations decorating the bedroom walls, and Steve wouldn't tell him if paid. It's good to have his secret, though his old problem remains: anyone who happens to walk into his bedroom will see the illustrations plain as day.
When Sam sits back down, he throws popcorn at Steve's head and wastes no time in telling him to find new porn. "They got all kinds of different sites for that now," he says, while Steve throws his head back and laughs. "There's a whole genre for celebrity lookalikes, if that's your kind of thing. Gotta be someone called Captain Americock out there fucking a brown-haired kid in uniform. Have you checked? Don't answer that. Just branch the hell out, see what else is out there. Give the old-school spank bank a rest."
"Would you pipe down?" Steve says mildly, pulling popcorn out of his hair. "I'm trying to watch a documentary."
Steve's gallery of tireless hope grows creeping tendrils—starts expanding into the hall, once he's drawn enough portraits that he wants to keep. His art has taken on life of its own: he's stopped copying the pin-ups and started divesting Bucky of his pants. Sometimes he's clothed—the collar of his shirt undone, tie loose, hair tousled, his head thrown back in unseen ecstacy. But Steve, giving up on his own restraint, has moved back into the easy habit of often drawing Bucky nude: cock in his hand, jutting out erect, or—facing away from the camera—a mere shadow between his legs.
The drawings in the hallway aren't nearly so bad—palatable, at least, should Sam burst in with his latest bad idea. But if Steve hadn't let the collection take its own course, he swears he wouldn't have seen Bucky at all.
He's soundless when he moves. Not even the opening of the bedroom window had roused Steve from his work. He might've been here half an hour and Steve wouldn't have known.
Bucky stands in the hall with his hands in his pockets, looking at the portrait on the wall. Outside, it rains. The only light in the room is from the lamp by Steve's chair, warm and candescent, casting Bucky into more shadow than he needs to be in. His hood is still up—the same green hoodie as before, made darker by the rain.
Bucky must know Steve is watching. Steve had stopped drawing the second he walked in. Bucky doesn't look at him, only studies the picture in front of his face: his drawn lips around a cigarette, his head tipped forward, two lovingly rendered hands cupping the match.
Steve should be embarrassed. Bucky must have seen everything in the bedroom—but he hasn't left, and hasn't torn them down. But he hasn't looked at Steve or uttered a word, either.
This time, Steve waits. If this is how Bucky wants to spend their time, he'll let him.
"You remember this?" Bucky asks, voice low in the dark.
Hope soars in Steve's chest. So Bucky knows that much. "I remember."
He stares a minute longer. "It's not me."
What can Steve say? Hasn't he realized the same thing himself? Bucky's had to rebuild himself from the shadows left by what others have stripped—shadows Steve's casting, too. All Bucky's trying to do is find himself among them. Like Steve in that Smithsonian vault: surrounded by versions of his life as told by others, only Bucky's unable to compare them against his own.
It's not that Bucky's shivering. It's just that Steve thinks he looks cold. "I can throw your sweatshirt in the dryer, if you want," he says. "You can borrow one of mine, or you can wait, or—pick it up next time. It might be a little big—"
"Don't change the subject."
Steve smiles faintly, heart in his throat. Bucky still hasn't looked at him.
"It's how I remember you," Steve tells him. "Doesn't have to be how you were."
Bucky finally looks over—a sidelong glance. "And how was I?"
"Generous. Kind, and... passionate."
"Young," Bucky counters, looking back at the picture. "Careless. Naive."
"Is that so bad? What I wouldn't give some days to get those things back."
Bucky stares at the drawing, face obscured by his hood. "This isn't me," he repeats, soft as the rain.
This time, Steve understands what he means—understands what he wants. Careful, sure it's a risk, Steve turns the page and draws what he sees.
Bucky doesn't move an inch. Steve makes a show of studying him, letting his hand sketch without watching. His eyes linger; Bucky takes his time in turning, but he looks at Steve head-on when he does.
By then Steve has already rendered the heavy weight of the hood around his eyes. He works quickly. Time always runs short with them, but by now can draw the shape of his face, his body, on instinct alone.
Bucky's jaw is locked tight, the hands in his pockets surely clenched into fists. Every break of the wind against the panes makes him start. Steve wishes Bucky would just sit down—wishes he'd push his hood down, come in from the storm, let himself get warm.
But if Bucky could do it, he would. For now, this is what they get. Steve draws him. Bucky lets him. Steve has no idea why this is allowed, this, a physical record of Steve having seen him—but he'll take what he's offered. Steve still knows the shape of him; it's only the shadows left to learn. He obscures Bucky's eyes, keeping his hood pulled low; gives shape to the tip of his nose, the hollow of his cheeks, the growth of stubble over his jaw.
Then he turns it to show him—the only question he thinks he's allowed.
Bucky steps forward, tentative, feet barely disturbing the carpet when he moves. He studies the picture, stopping just shy of arm's reach.
The rain batters outside. Bucky's grey eyes flit over the page until, stepping one foot ahead, he extends a slow hand and rips the page gently free.
Steve doesn't move; he doesn't dare. Bucky's eyes find his, searching and dark—the heart in them, the fear. Always looking for signs of things greater than himself.
In the cradle of the storm, it almost feels calm.
Then Bucky's watch beeps, like it knows what to break.
Steve resists the sharp urge to lurch forward, to keep Bucky here. "What is that?" he asks instead. It won't buy him much time, but he'll try anything. "Why the alarm?"
Bucky turns it off and looks at him plain. "It's the time it takes the average guy to run full-tilt from where I left him, give or take a minute."
Bucky's tone is so clean, so matter-of-fact, that Steve has no idea if he's joking. "You actually move them?"
But a voice sounds unexpected in the hall outside the door. For a heartbreaking second, Bucky's body pulls tense, his face flashing with loathing and terror—then it seals away again fast as it came. Bucky drags his feet back, eyes disappearing under the hem of his hood.
"I gotta go," he says quietly, slipping away.
Steve doesn't follow. The picture had trailed behind him from between two fingers, a parting phantom in the light, and Steve knows he needs a second before stepping outside; doesn't want to scare him again. He hears folding paper, just for a second, before the sound of a shape moving through the rain—and then nothing but the wind.
Hoping he at least pocketed a dry pair of socks on his way out, Steve sets his pencil calmly back to page.
And then, for a long time, there's nothing.
"Steve," Sam says, both hands braced on the counter. "We should move on."
Steve knows they should. "I just need another month," he says—and Sam gives it to him.
"Steve," Sam says seriously, when that month has passed.
Steve, interpreting his tone, groans and leans away.
"I am saying this because I care about you."
"I really wish you wouldn't," says Steve.
"Unfortunately for us both, you've earned this. You're not escaping discomfort in the course of this conversation. I'm gonna be uncomfortable, and I'm sure as hell not gonna suffer alone."
"You need to let this go."
Steve sets a hand over his eyes and sighs.
"This has gone on long enough," says Sam. "I'm done turning a blind eye to your Bucky shrine. I'm done waiting around for what's not gonna come. You want to be there—I get it. No amount of staring your dead boyfriend in the face convinces you any less that someone's gonna knock on the door telling you there's been some kind of mistake. But there is a limit, and we have passed it. Take this as the kick in the ass you need: I'm packing a bag, and I'm going to Europe. I plan to help take down Hydra whether you're in it or not."
"I just…" Steve rubs his eyes, then forces himself to meet Sam's gaze. "He doesn't know who he is."
Sam nods, glancing around. "Okay. I don't care."
Steve sets his mouth, rigid.
"Look." Sam pulls out a chair and sits down, meshing his hands together. "I stuck around because I thought you had a plan. But from what I can tell, you're not even really looking for him anymore. I think you're stuck. I think you're aware that your tails are making this impossible, and," he says, talking over Steve's objection, "I think it's gonna be one hell of a lot easier for us to move around overseas, so Barnes is probably gonna be able to approach you a lot more freely, too. Right?"
Steve was ready to object to Sam's overt use of manipulation, but there's a lot of loyalty in the fact that Sam's not trying to protect him from Bucky anymore. He's leaving Steve to it. Sam's taking a lot on faith. "And if he's as good as everyone says," Sam goes on, "it doesn't matter where you are. He's gonna find you if he wants to find you, for better or for goddamn worse." He shakes his head, like he can't believe he's saying this. "It's not even like you're trying to disappear. You're gonna use your real name, tell the authorities you're leaving town. Aren't you? See what the hell they plan to do about trying to extradite Captain America when he's doing his job?"
If only to avoid his smile, Steve petulantly pulls at his lip with his teeth.
"The fight against Hydra's in the works," Sam says. "I dunno about you, but to me, it seems like you should be a part of it. I didn't know Barnes, but it kinda seems like he'd think so, too." Sam shrugs, clearly resigned. "And when Barnes does find you, if what you have to say is, 'Hey, by the way, I killed the sons of bitches who did this to you?' I feel like that's only gonna work in your favor while he's deciding whether to kill you or not."
Steve stares at him, thinking. He's been so concerned about Bucky being able to find him… but in spite of all this traffic, of all the authorities who know they're connected, in spite of moving houses just to get away from his reach—Bucky's found a way through it without getting caught.
Nothing Sam says sounds wrong to him.
God knows how long he's been itching for a fight.
"Give me a week," Steve sayss, making his peace. Sam's fist pumps the air. "And then I'll come."
Three days before leaving for Kiev, as though Steve had summoned him—Bucky is standing by the bedroom wall.
Steve laughs when he sees him, in sheer relief. He looks better, clearly more out in the open. He's ditched the hoodie in the humidity of June, looking still comfortable in long cotton sleeves. He's a little unkempt, with his beard full and wild—but he's whole, he's here. Still free and still standing, in spite of it all.
It's Becca this time that's caught Bucky's eye—Steve's branched out with his subjects in the last six weeks, in case Bucky wants to see more than what's in the mirror.
"Bucky," he breathes. "It's good to see you." But when Bucky doesn't turn toward him, Steve matches his stance. Hands shoving into his pockets, he studies Becca in kind. "I'm leaving—town. I was worried I wouldn't get to—"
"You got her eyes wrong," Bucky mutters. He points where he means. "She had Ma's, I think, but you drew her with mine. Hers were more..."
Bucky's right, of course. Bucky's a dead ringer for his dad, but the girls favored Winifred overall. Eyes like those were how Becca managed to wrap Bucky around her finger—and Steve for that matter. Round and eager, big as the moon.
"I'll fix it," Steve says.
"No," Bucky protests, tired or resigned. For the barest of seconds, he'd set his hand on Steve's arm, pulling him back. "I'm not being critical, just calm down."
"Okay," Steve says, smiling.
"It's just… she did have Ma's eyes. Right?"
"Yeah, yeah, you're right. I drew them from memory, I guess… yours were on my mind."
"They were… brown."
"Yeah, big and brown. She always looked at you when she wanted something, like—"
"Ah, yeah," Bucky says, smiling broad. It's a bittersweet thing, but unmistakably joyed. "Ah… God."
Then he falls silent, smile dropping fast.
"I'll be gone in a few days," Steve tries again.
Bucky cuts him off with a look. "I know. I've been in here a lot," he explains, when Steve looks over, "looking for bugs. CIA, FBI, FSB... less from them these days, mostly mine. I can't believe you actually bored them that much, but… good strategy, I guess."
Steve can't stop looking at him, even as Bucky's still staring at the picture. He can't drop his grin, either. "I can't say I planned it."
"Just a talent, I guess." Bucky flits his gaze to one of his nudes. "Got a lot of talents."
Steve's smile cracks wider—until he realizes—"Oh my God. They were planting bugs… in here? FBI…?"
"They don't care," Bucky says, eyelids flickering dismissively. "They already guessed you were obsessed with my dick, pal, nothing new under the sun."
Steve still can't tell if he's joking or not, but Bucky's caustic tone, his ease of speech, is like music to his ears. "You should be careful," Bucky goes on; Steve fights to pay attention. "That's all I'm trying to say. Wilson can help you get the equipment you need to check for bugs yourself, and you should. Especially if you're talking about…" Bucky narrows his gaze and waves a hand. "Things. Private, tactical, I don't know. Just be careful."
"Okay," Steve tells him. "I will."
Bucky nods and falls silent, apparently satisfied. "I'll keep paying rent," Steve tells him, "if you—"
"Just if you need a place to stay. Somewhere with a stove, somewhere—"
"You want me to stay in your safehouse, like that's not obvious?"
"Do they really think you'd be that dumb?"
Bucky squints at him, faintly incredulous. "They think I have a child's capacity."
"Well, they haven't seen you here yet."
"They just can't prove it." Then he deflects. "You seem awfully concerned about the things I have no problem with."
If Bucky aimed to goad him, he's managed his goal. Steve turns to him, earnest. "Then what do you need? I've been here for you, Bucky. All I've wanted to do was to help. If you keep coming here, it seems like maybe there's something you want from me."
Bucky looks at him out of the corner of his eye, at first, then slowly turning until he's seeing Steve head-on. The fold in his brow, the set of his mouth, the way he swallows turns Steve's blood cold.
"You're not right," Bucky says, a shake in his chin. "You're not—none of your files are right. Your photos, they're—" To Steve's surprise, Bucky fists a hand in his shirt. It's not menacing, but imploring—a plea in his eyes. All of a sudden Steve understands what he's been seeing every time Bucky looks at him. "They have me on file," he whispers, "the way I used to be, before… before. But they don't have you. How can that be? Steve, I—" Bucky's voice cracks; it might be the first time in years he's uttered Steve's name. "Am I what's wrong?"
All this time, Bucky was looking for him. Steve knew, but he hadn't… he hadn't put it together, he hadn't known.
"No," Steve promises, lump in his throat. He takes Bucky's hand gently where it grasps at his shirt. "No, you're not wrong. I used to be… shorter. I was skinny, sick. They gave me a serum… maybe you remember. It turned me into…"
But Bucky's leaning away, nodding already; his fist unknots and slips away. "Captain America," he says. "I remember. You were..."
He points at Becca's portrait. "And she was…"
A thin sheen of confusion again. So it's not quite all clear. Steve's not completely sure what Bucky's trying to say, but the spirit is there.
"We all were," he reassures him, and fights the instinct to take back his hand. "We were all real."
Bucky nods again. He's gone back to studying Becca's face—her inaccurate eyes, her half-assed curls. "These institutions want me," Bucky says suddenly. "But they also want you. You should be careful."
"They want me? What does that…"
"Same as what anyone else wants from you—they want part of the action. You are the action, so they want you. It's smart to keep moving. Don't let them keep you. Trust your instincts, get out."
"I still don't know what... they want me to what, Bucky?"
Bucky glances at him, annoyed. "You've seen how deep Hydra goes. They tried it the easy way; you didn't comply. Now comes the rest." He checks his watch. "I have to go."
"No," Steve says—an awful reflex. He's too eager, he knows, but it hasn't even beeped.
And then it does.
Steve reaches out—what he's wanted all this time—and wraps a gentle hand at Bucky's wrist, imploring him to stay. "Wait a minute. I just want to—"
But the look Bucky's giving him forces Steve silent. He doesn't want to fight; neither one of them does. That same lost look is back in his eyes, his brow pinching in pain, and—oh, God, did Steve cause it?
"You smile easy with me," Bucky says, quiet. Gingerly, he touches Steve's face—runs a thumb at his brow, fingers dancing along the ridge over his eyes. "You always did."
"Yeah," Steve agrees. His heart hammers in his chest; he lets Bucky touch him, doesn't dare to move. Bucky's fingers grasp loosely over the knobs of his nose, a smile hitching on his face when his thumb crosses his lips, falls down to his chin.
"I remember that," Bucky murmurs, and lets his hand fall free. God, the pull is monumental; Steve could hold him still, try to coax new remembrance using his mouth. But Bucky pulls away from him—steps back toward the window, and Steve forces his limbs steady, a sting in his eyes.
"If there is anything you need, Bucky," he says—an awful goodbye, but damn if he's going to use that word now.
"No," Bucky murmurs, and shoots him a fragile smile. "I wouldn't give them the satisfaction of a home base, if it were me, but it's not. Just do me the favor of checking for bugs if you do keep it, alright?"
"Wait. Bucky, what—"
But Bucky slips off the ledge, fingers grasping and then gone, leaving Steve's question withering on his tongue.
Bucky answers his question, whether he heard it or not: the night before Steve leaves, he comes home to bare walls. Every drawing he'd done, every scrap of supplies—disappeared. It only takes a glance at the bedroom window to guess what went on.
Against his better judgment, Steve digs in his heels—grabs a black felt marker from the mess of his things and pulls a cardboard box apart until it's flat on the floor. Stubbornly, with far less finesse than usual, Steve roughs out a sketch of himself in his smaller form, his shoulders thin, with less of a jaw. He draws himself smiling impishly outward, a saluting hand at his brow; then he reconstructs the box and fills it with clothes.
It's the most innocent thing Steve's drawn so far, and by far the most concealed—a fitting farewell to an unsuspecting gallery. Even if Bucky never finds it, Steve knows it's there: meaningless to passers-through, a subtle joke to them alone. Esoteric, but comforting. It feels good to have something to leave behind.
Fury insists he doesn't get his hands dirty anymore, but the trail of explosions speaks for itself. Natasha'd said he doesn't trust people, and now Steve realizes why he asked them here in the first place. He can respect Fury's desire for plausible deniability, and it's not like he himself wouldn't have exploded things too; if it's Hydra they're after, decimation seems warranted.
It's just that he wishes the blame wasn't placed on them for the things Fury gets up to that he won't share.
"You seem kind of intense about this," Sam points out after Steve's groused about it long enough that they've cracked some beers. They've been in Berlin only for a few days, but already the spate of dead-ends and missed connections feels awfully serendipitous.
"I think I have reason to be concerned," Steve says. "I don't like working at cross-purposes with someone who's ostensibly on our side."
"I don't think we are working at cross-purposes," says Sam.
"But we're the ones getting framed for… Look, I don't know about you," he says, gesturing to Natasha. "But I just don't have enough information about how Fury operates to trust that he's not going to wind up throwing us under the bus. He doesn't trust us? I'm not sure I trust him. We have no way of knowing what he's actually doing, but we're gonna wind up shouldering the blame for it, whatever it is."
"Is this still about the Lemurian Star?" Natasha asks, head askance. "I thought we were past that."
"We are," Steve says, gesturing between them. "Fury? No. You and me are a team. Fury's operating at a different level, not bothering to loop us in."
Natasha sighs, leaning forward. "I actually share your concern," she says reluctantly, holding up a hand when Steve opens his mouth. "For different reasons than you, but it's hard to deny the optics are bad. I know you're not good with authority figures—" she ignores Steve's withering stare—"but any unhappy side-effects of the fact that we are field agents—a normal part of operations, by the way—can also be mitigated by us. We might have lost our US-based tails, but there are other orgs that are not so restrained, ones that might take issue with a pattern of explosions they can't trace. They probably need to be alerted that we're on the same side, so now we have errands." She hands a sheet of paper to each Steve and Sam, both frowning as they accept. "It's simple: meet the rendezvous at these locales, have these conversations, walk out. We're operating under the assumption that public meetings are going to be easily monitored—"
"It just says my contact is 'Skye'," says Sam.
Natasha shrugs. "You're just 'Falcon'."
Sam's eyes narrow, but it's Steve who speaks up first. "Who are these people, exactly?"
"They're agents," Natasha says vaguely.
Sam and Steve exchange a look. "Of SHIELD?" they say at once.
Natasha sits back and sighs. "You got a better idea?"
Steve rubs his face with his hands. "I'm just not sure this is a good one."
"They're working with us," she reminds them, "as a separate organization, at my request, after I reached out with a bit of information they needed for a case. They're doing good work! They're filling a void, and we could use them as occasional allies. It's the safest available option," she concludes, seeing the dubious look on Steve's face. "We stage these talks, prove that we're friendly with the right people, and hopefully word travels through the grapevine about what kind of fight we're in here, exactly. Same thing as at Arlington, just a different venue with similar gains. I'm doing one, too. Broad daylight meetings, public cafes."
"The kind like where Bucky assassinated a good half of his victims in the eighties?" Steve asks.
Natasha's gaze turns shrewd when she answers. "Are you expecting that?"
Steve clenches his jaw and keeps his mouth shut.
"If anyone wanted to kill us, they'd do it right here," she goes on, and the look on Sam's face suggests he's already written off sleeping tonight. "We'll keep each other on comms, be able to hear it if something goes wrong. This is the reality of a small operation; we just don't have the support. That's what I made these meetings to fix. With any luck, we'll gain ourselves an ally with more organizational power, so we don't have to take these kinds of risks all the time."
Sam sighs, rolling his neck. "Is this just our lives now?" he asks, looking at Steve. "Is there gonna be a time ever again when we're not being tracked?"
"Apparently not," Steve deadpans.
"We all knew what we signed up for when we took down SHIELD," Natasha reminds them.
Steve holds up the page. "Not meeting with them again."
"I'll give you that," she says sweetly, leaning back with a smile. "Now are you done complaining that I agreed with you?"
"I didn't think there'd be work involved."
"Your life is so hard," Natasha says. "You have to eat a croissant in public."
"It's been a long year," Steve objects. "Bucky shot me. Hydra's alive. They took down my exhibit," he says, gesturing, "at the Smithsonian."
"Yeah," Natasha says. "I bet you're really bummed about that."
"Has he always been like this?" Sam asks her. "Or just since I met him?"
"He used to do a whole Captain America voice," Natasha says cheerfully, propping her feet in Steve's lap. "It was intolerable."
"I didn't do a voice," he protests, but he kneads his thumb into her sole. "Not when I knew you, anyway. Bucky could tell you—"
"So that was just your personality?" Natasha asks.
"Are you gonna do me next?" Sam asks, pointing at his feet.
Steve shoves Natasha's feet off his lap as their laughter erupts, warming the room. "I should've gone into advertising," he mutters, full of brutal affection for them both.
Steve hadn't been wrong: Bucky does have a habit with public venues.
Steve only glimpses him—a shock of eye contact, the high tie of his hair. Then he disappears behind passers-by.
Even from three blocks away, Steve knows him when he sees him. He freezes in momentary shock, breath stalled in his chest.
"Doing alright there?" Agent May asks, stepping up beside him.
Steve lets out a breath. "Yeah," he says, managing a smile. "Thanks again for the meeting."
"Sure," she says. She gives Steve a once-over as he pushes into the crowd, but he doesn't especially care what she thinks. He's not a hurry; if he knows Bucky—if this is what Steve thinks it is—Bucky will hang back long enough to let Steve follow at a natural pace.
He reaches the place where Bucky disappeared and looks down the cobbled street—catches sight of the same coat tails disappearing left. Steve pursues; catches him ducking into an alley. Then he presses a finger to the comm in his ear.
"I'm going dark for an hour," Steve mutters, then shuts the thing off before waiting for reply. Natasha's not prone to panic, and Sam probably knows what he's up to whether he wants to admit it to Steve or not.
Bucky leads him around another three corners, down an alley, through a crowd; Steve almost loses him, then does lose him around the next bend. But then he sees a door propped open, a crack of light beneath a butcher shop, and Steve approaches the old steel door, listening closely on approach.
There's no sound from inside, only a faint pall of light. A wall covered in posters is barely visible within. They are patterned strangely, Steve notices, organized to a focal point—but as he steps slowly in, comprehension dawns.
Steve's looking at his own art on the walls. Not just that—his drawings, the pin-up posters, and more. For every graphite image of Bucky pinned to the wall, there's another beside it Steve's never seen. It takes him a moment to understand—
Bucky's drawn an answer to every portrait Steve made.
In an angular style, Steve's form equally nude, Bucky's layered his art with Steve's in conversation. For every image of Bucky with his head thrown back, Bucky's drawn one of Steve: his shoulders tense, expression intent, clearly delivering the pleasure Steve had drawn Bucky to have. In one, where Bucky is more clearly posed for an observing Steve, Steve has been drawn: notebook in hand, sketching Bucky from a distance in kind. Every one of Steve's drawings has been given a pair, together forming snapshots from their life.
They didn't have the photos to prove what they'd lived—but they do now. These paired-off memories together create what neither one of them made alone.
Steve blinks mist out of his eyes, fast overwhelmed. Some of Bucky's answers are fiercely creative. The pin-up posters themselves border the sides, but it's Steve's re-creations of them that have earned a response: for every open fly, for every muscular ass, Bucky's drawn Steve—big again—in his Captain America uniform rendered the same. His shoulders broad, without a shirt, dog tags loose against his chest… one piece in particular has Steve cracking a laugh, the head of Steve's cock visible over his pants.
He flushes to think of Bucky drawing this, trying to enact some kind of sensual revenge. Is this how Bucky'd thought of him—during the war, or now?
In the centre of the collage is Steve's final cardboard farewell, and one of Bucky's pin-ups is there alongside. Both of them salute, their expression the same. Steve hadn't realized what he was channeling when he'd sketched the thing out.
Looking at the whole collage, Steve hacks out another laugh, voice thicker than he expects. "Ah, God. Bucky."
"I didn't know how to tell you."
Steve turns to face him, grin broad on his face. Bucky's watching from a few paces back, just ahead of the basement's only light. His face is still cast in shadow, but the hope there is clear. Steve notes that he's cleanshaven—that he looks like he belongs on the streets of Berlin, a number among its disaffected youths.
"Tell me what?" Steve asks, barely processing the words.
"About the photos." Bucky nods to the wall; Steve follows his gaze to the pin-ups. "I knew I was being hypocritical, when I did it. Always telling you, 'Don't do this,' 'Be careful.'" Bucky shrugs. His hands are in his pockets, the way they always are; another masking sign, Steve understands now. He's barely seen Bucky's prosthetic since Bucky'd used it as a tacit threat. "How could I explain myself? I didn't know what the hell I was doing, I didn't…" He shakes his head. "I wasn't thinking it through."
"If I know you, Buck, you were thinking it through. We were almost broke."
"We were past broke," he admits.
Steve looks back to their two-part snapshots. "I can't say if I would've understood then," he says. "But I understand now."
Bucky's mouth tries at a smile. There's a heaviness in the room—the way he's staring at Steve, the way he stands in the light, halfway in, halfway out of it. The grey-blue of his eyes. It makes Steve weak with care, brings him close to breaking down.
"I thought you missed those days," Bucky rasps. "All that passion and youth."
"Not so much, anymore."
Bucky holds his gaze. His expression holds pride, a strange sadness mixed in.
"I love your style," Steve tells him.
"It's not a style," says Bucky.
"It is. It's—"
"I copied yours off the box, and then my arm is a bitch."
Steve coughs out a laugh. He always did smile easy with Bucky. "It's very—"
"Yeah. I really like it."
Bucky doesn't reply. Something in his gaze makes Steve feel wild, like he could run a thousand miles.
"I didn't know how to tell you," Bucky says again, and swallows.
Steve finally knows what he's trying to say. He knows what he meant, what it would've been to talk about the photoshoot then; what it means that he did this, that he made this response, that he made this art on the walls. Steve knows what he's saying, knows the words that he lacks.
"You just did," Steve tells him, and closes the space.
Bucky takes a surging breath the second Steve steps near and Steve takes his prosthetic hand in his, meshing their fingers. He slides the other hand around Bucky's back and kisses him through that shuddering breath; feels Bucky grow tense and then release in his arms, feels him grab Steve in kind, his feet shuffling back.
Steve leans him gentle against a cellar pole, kissing him deep when Bucky pulls him close. Bucky kisses the same—just the same as Steve remembers, the same as he'd thought through those long summer nights.
"God," Bucky whispers, breaking away. He sets his mouth at Steve's neck. "Jesus, you…"
"You want a break?" Steve asks, but Bucky's shaking his head.
"Just gotta catch my breath."
"We can take a break," Steve says, grinning broad. "We could sit back and draw all this out first. Make sure we've well-documented our reunion..."
"Oh my God, shut up."
"You don't think we should commemorate this?"
"I think you preemptively commemorated this a dozen times."
"Right over there."
"Mm." Steve mouths at his jaw. "You got a favorite one?"
"Uh…" Bucky's hand grips in his hair. "Is 'all of them' too big an ask?"
"You got any alarms about to go off?"
Steve deftly unclasps Bucky's fly; teases his fingers against his cock, and shuts his eyes in gratitude against Bucky's hitched sigh. "Then I think we've got time," he mutters, and dutifully sweeps him off his feet.