Escaping from HYDRA the second time was hard.
But not nearly as hard as finding out Mary Parker was dead.
It felt wrong, on a deep, molecular level, like someone had told him the sky would never be blue again, or that the sun would now set in the east. It felt like something intrinsic to his own being had been ripped away, and Bucky was no stranger to feeling like that.
And still, he didn’t cry, just swallowed the painful lump in his throat and asked, “What happened?”
The man standing in Mary’s doorway regards him with sympathy. Bucky’s sure he must look a wreck, having only escaped from the chaotic battle of his latest mission hours ago, and immediately headed to the old brickstone Mary lived in - used to live in - where they fell in love.
“Some kind of car accident,” the man says, apologetically. “Miss Parker didn’t make it, but her son did.”
He never got to see the baby. Mary had only told him she was pregnant days before HYDRA found him again. He wasn’t there for any of it, not to raise his son, not to get him through his mother’s death. But he could be there for him now.
“Her son,” he says, pleadingly, “What’s his name?”
The sympathetic look on the man’s face only seems to deepen at the tortured sound of Bucky’s voice.
“His name is Peter Parker.”
He didn’t have much to go on. Just a name, an approximate date of birth, and the assumption that he’d be staying somewhere in Queens. It’s the middle of the night when he finally finds a match - and knows, without a doubt, that this is Mary Parker’s son. He has her big, dark eyes, her waves of brown curls in his hair, her petite stature. He looks nothing like Bucky at all, but that doesn’t bother him one bit.
He waits until the morning to knock, takes that extra time to clean himself up so he doesn’t look like the newly-escaped prisoner of war he is. He wonders, distantly, what Mary told Peter about him, if she ever told him anything. He never got to say goodbye. And Mary never got to find out the truth about him, about his past. But he’s grateful for that. Mary probably thought he ran out on her as quickly as he had come, but at least she never got involved in this.
Doubt flares up in him. Maybe he shouldn’t be doing this - maybe he should leave well-enough alone. Peter may not have parents, but he has an aunt and an uncle, and a modest apartment in a good, safe neighborhood. He’s probably better off without him. Bucky would just be putting him at risk, waltzing into his life like this.
But then he sees the boy walk past the window, his messy, unbrushed curls flying every which way, the way Mary’s always did first thing in the morning, and the kid grins and says something to someone out of Bucky’s field of vision, and he climbs the stairs to the front door and knocks before he can stop himself.
It’s like time slows down, when Peter opens the door, when their eyes meet for the first time. His son. Fifteen years old, already almost a man, and yet the paternal surge that shoots through Bucky’s whole body at the sight of him is as powerful as if Peter were still a newborn. This is my son, his mind says, the warmest thought he’s had in almost a hundred years. My flesh and blood.
“Hello, Peter,” he says, too awkwardly. He clears his throat, realizes dimly that his eyes are damp. “I know you don’t know who I am, but - “His hands fist at his sides, his legs going numb. “I’m your father.”
Peter is a little shy at first, quiet and wide-eyed as Bucky sits awkwardly at the Parkers’ kitchen table, stiffly introducing himself to Peter’s aunt and uncle as best as he can without delving into the whole ‘century-old ex-brainwashed assassin’ bit. He says something vague about being unexpectedly pulled back into service and being underground (all technically true), and thankfully the Parkers don’t question him too hard on that.
“You fidget too,” Peter says suddenly. His uncle cuts off in the middle of what he was saying and they all watch as Peter leans over the table and takes Bucky’s hand in his. “With your knuckles.” Peter taps at each of Bucky’s knuckles, indicating where he’s been twisting and popping his joints, a nervous reflex he hadn’t noticed in himself. “I do that too,” Peter says in awe, flexing his hands and demonstrating sheepishly as he mimics exactly what Bucky’s been doing.
“Mary hated that,” Bucky says, and Peter nods, a little smile on his face.
“She made me wear a rubber band - ”
“ - It doesn’t work though,” Bucky finishes, and Peter laughs in surprise, his dark eyes crinkling in joy. He looks up at Bucky and gazes at him through thick, dark eyelashes, like he’s mapping out every line in his face. It’s a little daunting, being stared at like that, but it’s the first time the kid’s ever seen his face, his father’s face, so Bucky sits still and lets him look him over.
“You could never…” the boy starts, shyly, like he’s choosing his words carefully. “Never even…call? Or write?”
Bucky swallows the lump of guilt that’s made its home in his throat. “I wanted to,” he says, although that’s sort of a lie. He would have wanted to, but he hasn’t been himself since the day HYDRA stole him away again. “But I work for a very…covert part of the military. I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone about my deployment, not even family. And Mary…I loved her, Pete, but we only knew each other for six weeks before I got shipped off again. If she had been my wife, maybe I could have told her, but I didn’t have time to even pop that question to her before they f - before they sent me back.”
Peter gazes at him solemnly, his shoulders slumping. “She was always worried something bad happened to you. She said that you were the nicest person she ever met, and that you never would have just left without saying anything. She always hoped you’d come back someday.”
“Believe me, Pete, leaving you and your mother was the last thing in the world I wanted to do.”
The way Peter looks up at him, then, makes Bucky feel like something in his face must betray just how much he means that statement. His son looks at him with such a heartbroken, soulful look, the kind of face Mary used to make when Bucky would jolt awake from his nightmares in the middle of the night.
“Honestly, they - they pretty much had to drag me back overseas. Mary had only just told me she was pregnant with you. And like I said, we had only been seeing each other for a few weeks, but she was the light of my life, Pete. I didn’t - I didn’t have a home when I came back from overseas, and not a dollar to my name to find somewhere to live. Mary took me in, treated my wounds and nursed me back to health, but I loved her the moment I saw her.”
“Mom was like that,” Peter says, smiling warmly. “Always helping people. She loved working at the hospital. She said the best part of being a nurse was that no matter how bad someone was injured, there was always something she could do to make it better. But uh, she never took anybody in, like she did with you. She said you were a special case.”
Bucky honestly doesn’t know if it’s grief or joy that has his eyes welling up again. “Did she?”
“Yeah.” Peter smiles again. “She said you were in really bad shape, but still helped her get her car out of the ditch and didn’t expect even a thank you in return. She thought you were really selfless, and tough, and funny.” Peter’s cheeks go a little pink, flushed with embarrassment. “And uh, handsome.”
Bucky barks a quick laugh, the humor chasing those tendrils of grief away. “I think your mother managed to hit every ditch and pothole she ever drove by in all the time I knew her.”
“She never changed then, because I had to learn how to change a tire when I was like, four.”
Peter’s uncle, Ben, cuts in with his own laughter and says, “She was like that her whole life. Magnetic Mary, we used to call her. Crashed our dad’s car so many times he bought her her own.”
They all share another laugh. It feels good, Bucky realizes, sitting around a table with Mary’s family, reminiscing about their time together, how much she meant to all of them. But it feels better with his son sitting across from him, his hand still resting on Bucky’s own. Bucky occasionally catches him looking up at him and smiling and feels a warm, peaceful feeling spread through his whole body. An aching sense of loss sits heavy on his chest, realizing what he’s missed out on for the past fifteen years, but more than that, he wants to give Peter the love he deserves, to make up for lost time in whatever way he can.
The weeks that follow are the best Bucky can remember in his life. He rents a motel room and promises to see the Parkers every day, and he does. May and Ben are nothing but kind to him, welcoming him into their home with open arms - Ben insists he stays for dinners and May finds him a temp job as a custodian at her hospital so he can get back on his feet, make a life for himself.
He lays low, cycling between the hospital and the Parkers’. His body heals, he feels more and more like himself. He knows he’ll never really be the same, but he’s okay with that. Peter makes him feel okay with that.
Peter asks him one day, shy and a little abashed, if they can go to Coney Island. Bucky’s heart does a painful little squeeze and he says, as evenly as he can, “Sure, kiddo.”
As soon as they reach the long boardwalk, Peter clings onto Bucky’s elbow and says with an infectious grin, “I always wanted to do this with you. Well, I didn’t know you, but my dad - you know what I mean.”
“I do,” Bucky says, and HYDRA’s taken almost everything from him, but he has this.
Peter makes Bucky go up the Cyclone with him (“Father-son bonding, right?” “If I hurl, it’s your fault.”) and as they totter out of the roller coaster exit lane, Peter leans heavily on him, laughing at Bucky’s pinched expression. “I thought you were like a badass soldier or something? Don’t tell me you can’t handle a wooden rollercoaster!”
“I’ve been on planes falling apart that were a smoother ride than that,” he says, letting Peter link their arms together again. “Man, last time I rode that thing was…decades ago,” he thinks out loud, looking up at the rickety structure. “I made Steve - my friend - go up with me. Poor kid nearly puked up a lung.” He laughs, soft and a little regretful. “Guess this is karma, huh?”
Peter tilts his head, looking up at him curiously. “What…happened to Steve?”
Bucky shrugs a shoulder. “Lost touch.” His heart constricts painfully in his chest again with the sense of grief. “I haven’t seen him in - ” he almost says a hundred years, “ - a really long time.”
“You should call him,” Peter says, like it’s nothing, no big deal at all. “Or send him a friend request on Facebook.”
“I don’t think he owns a Facebook.”
Peter wrinkles his nose adorably as he laughs. “Ew, Dad, don’t say it like that, you sound so old. Nobody says owns a Facebook. We say on Facebook.”
Bucky’s heart does a funny somersault in his chest at Dad. He squeezes Peter into his side, warmth spreading up his spine. “On Facebook? You kids and your jargon, no wonder nobody ever knows what the hell you’re talking about.”
Laughing again, Peter grabs his hand, starts dragging him towards the duck-hunting booth. “Come on, Pops, let’s put those Secret Spy skills to work! I want that stuffed dog.”
“Wow, kiddo, when did you get so spoiled?”
Peter shrugs, already requesting the toy rifle from the carnie across the counter. “I dunno. Like…four weeks ago, when you showed up?” he says, giving him a cheeky grin.
Bucky shakes his head. The kid is right - he has been spoiling him. But as he takes the offered toy gun and shoots ten rubber ducks perfectly in a row, winning the giant stuffed dog that Peter fawns over excitedly, his son looks up at him with his grinning, bright, perfect little face, and Bucky really can’t bring himself to care about anything else in the world.
Peter doesn’t drop the Steve thing.
He casually mentions it now and then over the next few weeks, pretty much any time they’re making plans to go out and do things together. “We should invite Steve,” he says one night as they’re making plans to tour the museum the following Saturday. “You said he liked art stuff, right? I bet he’d come.”
“I don’t know how to get a hold of him,” Bucky finally admits, hoping that’ll be enough for Peter to just drop it. It’s not doing either of them any good to pretend he can ever be friends with Steve again. “And really, Pete, it’s been so long that I bet he’s forgotten all about me by now.”
“My mom never forgot about you, and she only knew you for six weeks,” Peter says, more seriously than Bucky’s ever heard him sound. “You said Steve was your best friend. And you still remember lots about him. There’s no way he’s forgotten you if you guys were as good of friends as you said.”
“He might not even live here anymore,” Bucky tries, lamely. He knows for a fact Steve is in Manhattan with the rest of Peter’s superhero idols. “And I tried pressing 4 on the telephone the other day and it didn’t even take me to an operator.”
Peter hunches over in a fit of laughter, almost falling off the couch before he regains composure. “Oh my god, Dad, no.” He reaches over and picks up his laptop from the floor, then turns it on and pushes it into Bucky’s lap on the other end of the couch. Bucky peeks at his son over the top of the laptop, then stares blankly at the open white and blue screen in front of him that says facebook in the top left-hand corner. “Here, use this. Just type his name in the search bar at the top and click on the profile with his photo.”
Bad idea, Bucky’s mind says to him, but still, he numbly lifts his hands and begins typing, one key at a time. There are several results for Steve Rogers, but Bucky knows his is the one at the top, the celebrity one, with the profile picture of Captain America’s shield.
“Okay…” he says, reluctantly. “…Now what.”
“Well, you can send him a message, or you can click on the ‘About’ tab, sometimes people have their phone numbers and email addresses listed there.”
Choosing the second option, Bucky clicks the tab and feels his mouth go dry. “There’s a phone number.”
“Oh my god!” Peter cheers, grinning, already pulling out his cellphone. “Call him! Please, please Dad, call him! This is awesome, you have to!”
He tries to push the phone at him over the top of the laptop screen, but Bucky shakes his head. “No, Pete, I - I can’t right now.” He cringes as Peter’s face falls, the boy’s shoulders hunching in disappointment. “But…” Bucky adds, already knowing he’ll regret it, “…hand me a pen. I’ll write it down.”
Grinning triumphantly, Peter rests his chin in his hands and watches Bucky jot down Steve’s phone number. “I’m proud of you, Dad,” he says, and Bucky just grumbles in response.