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You or Your Memory

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I know we’ve been as far apart as this before
But take a look at what we’ve got to get through

- the lucksmiths, the great dividing range

---

 

 

 

 

 

“What’s wrong with you?” Natasha says, the second time Steve walks past her apartment in the space of about half an hour.

“Nothing,” Steve says.

“You’re hanging around like the damp in my ceiling,” Natasha says, and wrinkles her nose at him. She’d opened her door to call after him and now Steve can smell something delicious. He hasn’t eaten breakfast, he should probably do that. That’s a thing he could do.

Steve sighs. “Sorry, sorry - want me to take another look?”

Natasha flashes him a wicked grin. “No, it’s been fine ever since that last time you worked on it. Clint was never any use at all.”

“Hey!” Steve hears Clint call from inside Natasha’s apartment. “I did the grunt work!”

“Sure,” Natasha says, “I’m so grateful!”

Steve smiles. Clint doesn’t say anything else, apparently placated. Natasha puts her heads to one side and looks at Steve for a minute. Steve looks down at his feet.

“But seriously, what’s up? Do you want some eggs? I’ve got, like, way too many eggs.” Steve can smell them. He does kind of want some if it’s going, but he’s on call. He scratches his chin.

“New tenant’s going to be here soon,” he says. “Didn’t really plan anything else for this morning. I’ve been checking all the light fixtures on the stairwell.”

Natasha rolls her eyes at him. “So that’s why you’re stomping around, making the ceilings shake. Wait here.” She vanishes back into her apartment, leaving the door ajar. Steve waits for a minute, tapping the little alarm in his pocket that should let him know if anybody rings the bell to be let into the building.

Clint appears at the door with a big sandwich. It smells like egg. “Natasha says you’ve got to take this and eat it. I cooked the eggs.”

“Boo,” Natasha calls from inside. Steve takes the sandwich. It’s wrapped in foil. Very thoughtful.

He takes a bite, and it’s got tomato in it too. He gives Clint a thumbs up, and then the alarm in his pocket starts to vibrate. “Ah, she’s here,” he says. “See you later. Thanks.”

Clint salutes as he starts to vault down the stairs. “Remember to tell her about the party on the roof!”

 

***

 

When Steve gets to the building’s front door the new tenant’s not actually there, just somebody trying to deliver a fridge to somebody Steve’s never heard of. It takes a while to get rid of him, and as he goes back to the building he notices a woman standing by the front door, her phone in her hand. “Hi,” he says, slightly flustered. “Are you Rebecca?”

She’s got a big IKEA bag under her arm and sunglasses pushed back, resting on the top of her head. She has long dark hair that’s half-fallen into her face. “Yeah,” she says. “Are you Steve?”

“Yes,” he says, and he’s about to shake her hand when he realises he’s still holding half of the sandwich. “Let’s show you to your apartment.”

The elevator’s working, which is good, so they go straight up. Steve usually just runs it, but the bag looks heavy, and nobody else likes walking up to the sixth floor anyway. He apologetically inhales the rest of his sandwich and then crumples up the foil and stuffs it into his pocket. “Late breakfast,” he says, and Rebecca smiles.

He hands over the keys and takes her bag for her as she unlocks the door, and then washes his hands in the kitchen sink. She takes photos of everything while he stands in the doorway. “There’s, uh, some sort of party happening on the roof tonight,” he says. “If you’re free you should come. Meet the neighbours.”

“In New York?” she asks, stony-faced for a second before she smiles. “Is this one of those weird buildings where everybody knows everybody else?”

“Uh,” Steve says, because it totally is.

“No, sounds good,” she says. “Should I bring anything?”

“Nah, you’re new,” Steve says, and rubs his neck. “Clint will be grilling up whatever, but if you don’t eat meat you might want to bring something along. Usually starts at about eight.”

“Meat’s fine,” she says. “My brother’s going to be helping me move stuff in, OK if I bring him?”

“Yeah, sure,” Steve says. “Right, anything I can do for you? Otherwise I’ll leave you to it.”

She looks pensive, and then says, “you any good at IKEA?”

 

***

 

Steve’s not much of a fan of flat-pack furniture - he likes to buy antiques if he can, they last longer - but he’s not met a set of screws and pieces of wood that he’s had too much trouble with yet (well, except the cabinet that Natasha bought last year, but she did get him drunk before setting him loose with it).

It turns that what Rebecca’s got in the bag is a flatpack bookcase. “My brother’s bringing all my old stuff over later on,” she says, “but I’ve got more space here so I thought I’d get one of these.”

Steve looks at the instructions and rubs his forehead with the palm of his hand. “Don’t worry,” she says, “I can probably do it. Just want to get it done before James gets here. He always loses the screws.”

“I know the type,” Steve says, and smiles as he thinks about trying to keep Clint away while he was working on Natasha’s apartment a few weeks ago. “It’s fine, I’m not doing anything else this afternoon.”

He reads the instructions over again and then opens the box and takes the pieces out. “Let’s start at the bottom,” he says, and twirls the allen wrench around in his fingers.

 

***

 

“So,” Rebecca says, as she slots one of the shelves in. “You look kinda familiar. Where you from?”

“Ah... I grew up not far from here,” Steve says. “Went to college in Manhattan, then moved here when I got the job.”

“Big traveller,” Rebecca says. He grimaces. “But... my family lived around here for a bit, I think. They moved a lot. I was away at school, mostly. Maybe I saw you around.”

“It’s a small world,” Steve says. “Around here, anyway.”

“I dunno,” she says, “seems pretty big to me.”

 

***

 

Steve leaves when they finish the bookcase, and goes up to his room on the top floor. He’d been offered the big first floor apartment when he got his job but he’d turned it down in favour of this, because he likes the view and he likes the stairs, and not everybody does. He’s got to order a couple replacement light fittings and he’s got to phone up the people about the trash collection, but he spends a few minutes staring out the window and tapping on the glass with his left hand. Rebecca seems familiar to him too, but he doesn’t think he’s met her before.

James? He thinks. High school and his childhood are starting to blur into a mass of asthma and spelling tests and sometimes trying to get detention on purpose so that he’d have an excuse to walk home later than the kids who liked to pick on him.

He finally sighs, comes away, and picks up the phone. He hates the trash people.

 

***

 

“So?” Clint asks, when Steve climbs up to the roof. He’s got a case of beer, and a book wedged under his arm because Clint always makes him turn up early and then he and Natasha spend half an hour arguing about something that Steve doesn’t understand.

Also, he’s been trying to finish this book for weeks and every time he gets into it something distracts him. He pops the top off one of the beers and settles in with it before the rest of the building turns up. A few pages in, he looks up and sees the sun setting across Brooklyn, and he can’t help but smile. It’s a good night for it, even if Clint is loudly swearing at the hot dogs in his corner, while Natasha’s setting up a little table with some bread and salad. Steve kicks the beer out in front of him so that it’s clear he’s not just hoarding it, and then reads a few more pages before everyone else arrives.

 

***

 

“Doesn’t seem like you’re in the mood for a party,” Sam says, as he eases himself in next to Steve. Steve puts his book down and stretches out. Sam passes him a burger, the bun slightly burnt on the top.

“You alright?” Steve asks. “Nice day?”

“Yeah, good,” Sam says.

“How’re the birds?”

Sam crosses his arms. “You don’t care about the birds, man.”

“Sure I do,” Steve says. “Best friends you ever had, those birds.”

“Nah,” Sam says. “They’re just work friends.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Steve says. “Nobody ever made any friends worth a damn where they work.”

“You watch your mouth,” Clint says, gesturing with his spatula slightly too wildly. Fat crackles in the air like catherine wheels, and Clint swears and retreats from the conversation to turn the burgers over.

Sam opens one of Steve’s beers and says “it’s different for you. You’ve only got work friends.”

“Depends,” Steve says, draining the last of his beer.

“On what you count as work? Yeah, you’re lazy. Always said that about you.”

“On who I count as my friends,” Steve says. He sees Rebecca appear on the other side of the roof and pushes himself up from the ground.

“Oh, that’s how it is?” Sam says, and follows him up. “That the new tenant?”

Steve nods, and waves at Rebecca, who walks over to them once she’s got a hot dog from Clint. “Is this safe to eat?” she asks. “The onions look kinda dangerous.”

“Clint’s a pretty good cook,” Sam says, “you’ll be OK. I’m Sam, by the way. Live on the fourth floor.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Sam,” Rebecca says. The roof has started to fill up, and Steve can see more people that he should probably introduce Rebecca to, but it’s a nice evening and he’s enjoying just being off-duty for a few minutes.

“You all set up?” he asks her, and offers her a beer.

“James brought my stuff over,” she says, and takes the beer. “Lots of unpacking to do, but he’s staying with me for a couple weeks, so he can help with that.”

“What else is family for?” Steve asks, and walks over to Clint for some more food. He’s just taken a bite into his second burger when he turns around in time to see Rebecca’s brother join her and Sam. He’s tall, longish dark hair, and Steve hasn’t got a good look at his face but he thinks - he thinks, maybe he does know him after all.

He walks over, Clint in tow (Natasha’s taken over the last of the grilling). “Hey,” Clint says, as he wipes his hands on his shirt. “Rebecca! You moved in ok?”

Rebecca and her brother turn around, and Sam pauses in the middle of an anecdote about the birds. He rolls his eyes at Steve with a smile, but Steve doesn’t smile back, because Steve - Steve finally gets a good look at Rebecca’s brother - James - and his stomach swoops as fast as if he’d fallen down an elevator shaft.

He knows him.


“This is my brother James,” she says to Clint. “Oh, and this is Steve,” she says, as an afterthought, knocking her brother with her elbow and indicating towards him. “He helped me put that bookcase up earlier.”

James looks at Steve, and doesn’t say anything.

Steve can’t read his look. “Uh,” Steve says, and puts out his hand.

“We actually know each other,” James says. He’s not talking to Steve. “New Rotterdam High, class of 2005.”

“I knew it!” Rebecca says with a whoop. “I knew he looked familiar!”

James doesn’t shake Steve’s hand, so he awkwardly puts it back in his pocket.

“Ah,” James says, “I doubt it. We didn’t hang out much.”

Steve doesn’t say anything.

Rebecca frowns slightly, and then offers James a can of the mango juice she’d brought up with her. He takes it and pops the top, and then says, “so what d’you say we say hello to the rest of the building?”

Sam offers to take them round to everyone, so they leave Clint and Steve by themselves.

“You want to talk about it?” Clint asks, after a minute.

“Never,” Steve says. He feels like somebody punched him in the face. Or the chest. He doesn’t understand how he’s still standing. Clint claps him on the shoulder.

Of course his real name was James. He can’t believe he forgot that.

He looks really different. He looks exactly the same.

“High school sucks,” Clint says, with feeling, and Steve realises he can’t look as bad as he feels because that’s - that’s not - that’s not it at all. “Hey, you’ve got a beer left.”

Steve takes it because it’s there, and then he lets himself be pulled along to where Natasha’s starting a game of bridge, even though he can never remember the rules and she’s given up on trying to teach him. He waits until the first couple of people have left the party, and then he excuses himself. He picks up his book and the empty bottles, and he waves goodnight to Sam, and he goes down to his apartment. He doesn’t turn the light on, and he kicks off his shoes and lies on top of his bed. He doesn’t close his eyes or get under the covers, or get washed and changed out of his clothes, for a long, long time.

 

***

 

Here’s how Bucky looks different:

Long hair, less facially expressive, he’s got a prosthetic arm, he stands differently, he doesn’t meet anybody’s eyes. Stubble.

Here’s how Bucky looks the same:

Eyes, nose, mouth, chin. Same height. Same voice. The shapes he makes when he speaks.

 

***

 

Natasha finds him the next day as he’s fixing a pipe in Jessica and Luke’s apartment. Their baby’s crying, and Luke’s singing to it, and Steve didn’t get any sleep and he’s got a headache already, so he could really have done without all of this. Natasha’s useful, though. She passes him the tools he needs and doesn’t say anything.

“I’m fine,” he says. He decides to go with Clint’s thing. “Nobody had a good time in high school.”

Natasha looks at him. “I always thought that people who look like the homecoming committee moulded them out of clay probably did fine.”

Steve makes a face. “We didn’t have a homecoming committee,” he says, “and until twelfth grade I was five five on a good day and I weighed about a hundred pounds.”

“I learned everything I know about American high school from old John Cusack movies,” Natasha says. She pauses as Steve tightens up the new piece of pipe he’s put in.

“But, so, what? He beat you up behind the dumpsters?” she says. “Want me to set his school bag on fire for you?”

“Nothing like that,” Steve says. “It was a long time ago.”

She gives him a look. “Last night Kate seemed interested, but if he’s bad news I’ll warn her off.”

Steve’s stomach clenches. “No, don’t say anything about it,” he says. “If anything, I think I was the jerk back then.”

Natasha laughs, and stands up to go. “I don’t believe you, Rogers,” she says, “but Kate wouldn’t listen to me if I told her anything anyway.”

 

***

 

Steve’s got the afternoon off (which means that Clint’s on call instead of him, so he hopes that there’re no maintenance emergencies) so he gets the subway into Manhattan to get a coffee with Peggy, who’s got some job for the UN that he’s not allowed to know about.

They talk in Russian and then German for the first half an hour, and then Steve laughs and scoops up the last of the froth from his drink with a spoon and licks it off. “So, how’re you doing?” he asks.

“Can’t complain,” Peggy says, with a smile. “How’s your class?”

Steve puts his head to one side. “I don’t know,” he says. “I like the reading.”

“Well, give it time,” Peggy says. “Anyway, I got an interesting text last night.”

“Yeah?” Steve says. He wonders about getting another cup of coffee.

“Yeah,” she says. “Sam says you’ve got someone from high school staying in your building and that you looked like you wanted to throw up on him.”

“Oh,” Steve says, and scrapes a hand across his face. “That.”

“Yes, that,” Peggy says.

“Bucky’s sister moved into my building,” Steve says, wearily. “Bucky helped her moved her stuff in, and I didn’t realise who she was or who he was until they appeared at the roof party last night because I’d managed to forget that his real name was James.”

“Oh, Steve,” Peggy says, and offers him some of her cake. Steve shakes his head, so she spears a chunk of it on her fork and eats it thoughtfully. “It’s been a long time.”

“Yeah,” Steve says. “He wouldn’t even look at me.”

“Well, you did break his heart,” Peggy says. “He always was one to hold a grudge.”

“Hey,” Steve says. “I didn’t break his heart. You told me it’d work out best... if I broke it off before he went away.”

“No,” Peggy says, and points her fork at him. “You can’t blame me for this.”

Steve puts his hands up. “Hey, I made the decision. It’s on me.”

“All I said was, make sure you’re both in it for the long haul, and if not it’d be better if you broke up before he left.”

Steve groans and hides his head in his hands. “I know,” he says. “I remember.”

“Oh, do try not to worry about it so much,” Peggy says. “You were very young.” Steve pulls a face, but at least Peggy buys him a second cappuccino before she has to head back to work.

“Don’t say anything to Sam?” Steve asks Peggy, as she sorts out her scarf. “Who do you take me for?” she asks, mock stern, and then kisses him on the top of his head. “Cheer up,” she says. “You’ll barely see him.”

 

***

 

Steve buys takeout for himself and Sam on his way back to the building (Sam has a persuasive way with emoji), and he bumps into Clint and Kate on the stairs. They’re arguing about something to do with archery - Kate’s an olympic hopeful, and Clint’s her trainer, or at least he helps her train sometimes - but they stop to say hi as Steve goes past.

“Enjoy your afternoon off?” Clint asks, and gives Steve back his buzzer.

“Yeah, I went for coffee with Peggy,” Steve says. “We spoke German to each other.”

“Romantic,” Clint says, and waggles his eyebrows. Steve sighs and closes his eyes, and it’s only when he opens them again that he realises that Bucky - James - is walking towards them. Great.

“Hey, James,” Kate says, lightly touching him on the shoulder. He stops. “We’re going to have some drinks on the roof later, you should come!”

“I don’t get what it is with all of you and your roof,” James says, but he smiles at her. “I’m still helping Rebecca to unpack, but I’ll see what we can do. Just running out for some food.”

Steve bought way too much takeout - as usual, he can never decide what he wants - and he almost offers to share (he’s got some great duck in plum sauce and Bucky’d always loved that), but he doesn’t say anything. James smiles at Kate again and then ducks his head and continues on down the stairs.

“You should come too,” Kate says to Steve, a hand on her hip. “You left too early last night.”

“I could have other things going on,” Steve says, defensively. “I’m a busy guy.”

Kate looks pointedly at the plastic bag in his hand. “Yeah, I’m sure you and Sam have a lot planned.”

 

***

 

Sam makes Steve take the food up to the roof anyway - “I don’t want you eating duck in my apartment, what’s wrong with you,” - so they’re already up there when Kate and Clint emerge. She’s got her bow and some arrows, and she spends a few minutes shooting apples on the other side of the roof before she comes to settle down with them.

“Why not shoot something on the next roof over?” Sam asks. “More of a challenge.”

“You think I’m made of arrows?” Kate asks. “I wouldn’t be able to get them back.”

“Hey, I can totally jump that far,” Clint says, and flexes.

The rest of them stare at him until he deflates. “Well, I did manage it that time,” he says.

“Please don’t remind me of anything you’ve ever done,” Kate says. Steve wordlessly hands him a half-full box of rice and he eats it quietly.

“So, what d’you think of Rebecca and James?” Sam asks, after a few minutes. Kate sits ramrod straight and looks to see if they’re coming. “Calm down,” Sam says. “I’m not gonna say anything bad, are you?”

Kate blushes and looks down at her hands.

“Thought not,” Sam says, and eats the last spring roll. He turns to Steve and says, “Hey - last night, James said you looked so different that he hardly recognised you.”

Steve feels like someone just stabbed him in the stomach. “I, uh,” he says, “I get that a lot when I see people from high school. I used to be... smaller.”

“Aren’t you a bit young to be after James?” Clint asks Kate, who scowls at him.

“I’m not after anyone,” she says. “Anyway, I’m 21 and he’s, what? Can’t be older than 30.”

“28,” Steve says. He can’t help himself.

“There you go,” Kate says.

“Smaller how?” Sam asks, ignoring Clint and Kate.

“Oh, you know,” Steve says. “Have I never shown you the photos?”

“No you have not,” Sam says. Steve sighs and gets out his phone. He finds a few pictures that he’d put on there the last time he’d had this conversation - Peggy and Natasha need to never be allowed to meet again - and passes it over to Sam, who laughs like a child.

“This is not you,” Sam says, shaking his head. “I don’t believe you. Kate, look at this!”

Steve’s phone does the round, and as Clint’s laughing at it meanly (and he’s definitely seen those photos before), Rebecca and James appear on the roof with a pitcher of lemonade and a stack of plastic cups.

“James!” Sam calls, and he takes Steve’s phone from Clint. “Steve was just showing us some old photos - is this really what he looked like in high school?”

Steve can’t stop himself from grimacing as James takes the phone, and swipes through the album of old school photos. Rebecca peers over his shoulder. Steve watches him intently from under his eyelashes. James doesn’t react for a while, and then he hands the phone back to Sam.

“Yeah,” he says, “looks about right.”

“I definitely recognise you,” Rebecca says, and sits down next to Steve. She eyes him thoughtfully. “You look so different now. But kind of the same.”

“Everybody grows up,” James says, and lies down a further away from them, propped up on his elbows. “For example,” he says, “when I was nineteen I wouldn’t have been this tired from just unpacking books and rearranging Rebecca’s fifteen lamps all day.”

Steve takes his phone back and puts it into his pocket.

“When you were nineteen you were doing heavy lifting on a boat somewhere,” Rebecca says, and she leans over to lightly punch his foot. “Now you’re an old man.”

He stretches and looks at her over his sunglasses. “You never actually listened when I told you about what I did in the Navy, did you?”

She twists her mouth to one side but can’t stop herself from laughing. “I’m sure you lifted something,” she says.

“Hey,” he says, and flicks a bit of lemonade at her. “Show some respect for your armed forces.”

“Hey,” she says, “I made that lemonade.”

He grins and finishes off his cup.

It’s the most Steve’s heard him speak since - since before what feels like the beginning of time. He seems - Steve’s relieved that he’s only monosyllabic and gloomy when he’s being made to address him directly. He’s glad that he seems happy.

He feels kind of sick when he thinks about what that means, but that’s ludicrous. It’s been almost a decade.

Kate pours herself a cup of the lemonade and lies back near James, but not quite touching him. She holds her hand over her eyes “So, how long are you staying?” she says. “You live nearby?”

He looks over at Rebecca, who throws up her hands. “Not sure,” he says. “Rebecca’s got a futon and I’m between places. Got discharged a few months ago and my physical therapist’s nearby, so here’s useful. But if I’m around for too long Rebecca’ll want to kill me, so...”

“Ah,” Clint says. “I’m sure we can work something out before then. There’s the apartment on eight that Steve’s been fixing up, could probably let it to you cheap since it needs replastering.”

James looks at him until he realises what he’s said. “Oh!” Clint says, and sits up. “I own the building. Did Rebecca not say that I own the building?” He puts out his hand and makes James shake it.

“This fuckin’ building,” James says, and he shakes his head.

 

***

 

Kate spends about half an hour making them all throw pennies into a cup from further and further away (she, Clint and James are all good, Steve and Rebecca are terrible), and then it starts to get dark and Steve thinks that maybe he should go and finish some of his reading before bed.

Rebecca’s just finished telling them some awful story about her ex-boyfriend - apparently he’s a photographer at the Bugle and all he ever wants to discuss is Spider-man - when it happens.

“So,” Clint says, as casually as he can manage, lobbing a penny at James. “You seeing anyone, now that you’re here for the foreseeable?”

Steve wants to groan, but he doesn’t. He hates everyone. He hates his friends. He hates this building. He hates his boss. He hates his life.

From the look on Kate’s face, he bets he’s not the only one.

James stretches. “Nah,” he says. “Had a girlfriend a couple of years when I was in the Navy, but it didn’t really stick. Was seeing a guy I met out there for a while when I got back, but I dunno. Wasn’t really happening.”

He pauses and throws the penny at the cup, which is by the edge of the roof. He misjudges it, for the first time that night, and the penny falls off the building.

“Just having fun, I guess,” he says. “What right have I got to expect anything better?”

“Bucky,” Rebecca says, reproachful. “Come on.”

Steve stares up at him and doesn’t know what to say, but he wants to say something.

“Yeah, yeah,” Bucky says, and stands up. “Maybe you can go and tell the eligible ladies and gentlemen of New York that they’d be lucky to have me, cos you’ve already told me that and it ain’t helpful.”

Steve doesn’t say anything.

“Come on,” she says, and gets up too. “We’re gonna call it a night. Might make him watch some Oprah before I let him sleep.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he says, and mock-salutes them. He doesn’t look at Steve, but he doesn’t avoid looking at him either. It’s like they never knew each other. “See you around, kids.”

“Well, that could’ve gone better,” Sam says, once James and Rebecca have gone inside. Kate throws a cup at Clint’s head, but he catches it.

“Hey,” Clnt says. “It’s a normal enough question. And who the hell is Bucky?”

“His nickname,” Steve says, and then sighs deeply. “Only name he went by at school. Thought James was too stuck-up, I guess.”

Clint nods, and Kate gives Steve a look that says, we are going to have words.

“Think it’s time for me to turn in too,” Steve says, and stands up.

“Hey, me too,” Sam says, and between them they pick up all the trash strewn around. There’s like three dollars in loose change that Steve drops into the cup that Clint’s still holding.

“See you later,” Steve says. “I’ve got class tomorrow afternoon, so don’t break the building while I’m out.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Clint says, and waves them off. “You know who’d be footing the bill if we did.”

 

***

 

“Do you want to talk about it?” Sam says, as they rinse the takeout containers in Steve’s sink.

“Why does everyone keep asking me that?” Steve says.

“Just never seen you so quiet,” he says. “Natasha says you said he didn’t beat you up or anything, but when he talks you look like you want to cry. So? You ask him to prom and he never showed up?”

“Nope,” Steve says, and claps Sam on the shoulder. “I’m just worried about this class I’ve got tomorrow. Gotta talk about this book I haven’t even finished yet.”

He pointedly looks down at where it’s resting on his couch.

“OK, OK,” Sam says. “Well, you know where I am.”

“Yeah,” Steve says, and he kicks back with the book. Open City. He’s got like half of it still to go.

 

***

 

The next week passes - Steve doesn’t fall asleep in his class, the weather’s good enough that they spend a couple more evenings on the roof (Steve makes a pie one time and everybody loves it), and nobody else asks him “Do you want to talk about it?” which is, well it’s not the making of a good week but it’s at least a sign that this week is better than the last.

On Tuesday evening, he ends up alone on the roof with Kate after Natasha and Clint leave, and he thinks she’s going to try and talk to him but he’s tired and she’s in a bad mood because she’d twisted her ankle during training that morning, and they end up sharing the last of the bowl of cherries. They get competitive over how far they can spit the stones. Steve can spit them farther, but Kate can actually aim them. They decide on zones and points. It’s like playing darts.

When he leaves to go to bed, Kate puts her hand on his arm and makes a serious face like she’s going to say something, but Steve blanches and she sighs. He goes to bed and resolutely thinks about nothing except pipes and aircon units and garbage men.

 

***

 

On Thursday evening, he’s hanging out in Sam’s apartment while Sam makes potato soup when there’s a knock. He opens the door, and Rebecca’s there.

“Hey,” she says. “Hot water’s not working. I know you’re not really on duty in the evening, but.”

Steve grimaces. “No, it’s fine,” he says. “I’ll come and have a look. You need it done now, or can I come along in half an hour?”

He’s really hungry and he’s just cut a lot of bread up.

“Half an hour should be OK,” she says. “I just want to have a shower before I go to bed.”

She nods and opens her mouth to say goodbye, but Sam says “Wait! Have you eaten?”

All three of them stare at the very large pot of soup that Sam has made for dinner.

“I could eat,” she says, and walks through the door and collapses into the chair next to Steve, her head in her hands. She finally sits up when Sam places a bowl of soup in front of her.

“You OK?” Steve says, kind of alarmed. She gives him a thumbs up and a wry smile.

“Moving is just way more stressful than I remember,” she says, “plus I got this big last minute job from a client I can’t afford to turn down so I got about four hours sleep last night.”

She dunks a big chunk of bread in the soup, chews, swallows, and then sighs. “And I can’t stop worrying about James, which doesn’t help because if he senses that anybody’s worried about him he gets really angry at them. And then he gets angry at himself.”

Steve nods, as if he knows, and she narrows her eyes at him.

Steve eats his soup in silence.

When they finish eating, he traipses to her apartment and spends the rest of the evening fiddling with the pipes. By the time he leaves he’s sweaty, covered in rust and dust and probably other types of filth that he doesn’t want to investigate further, and he smells, but at least Rebecca and James won’t freeze if they try and shower.

James and Rebecca are sitting in the living room, which Steve has to walk through to leave. “Uh, it’s fixed,” Steve says, kind of unnecessarily.

“Thanks!” Rebecca says. “I’d hug you but you look like you need a shower yourself.”

James lifts a hand in what’s almost a wave, but it comes out closer to the gesture drivers make when they let you cross the road ahead of them. Steve guesses it’s at least a positive acknowledgement, and then tries his best not to think about Bucky as he takes a long shower to get all of the grime off.

 

***

 

On Friday afternoon, Clint comes to find him as he’s working on the new door for the apartment on the eighth floor. “Hey,” Steve says, wary. “You’re not here to help, are you?”

“Don’t worry,” Clint says, and he doesn’t even look particularly offended. “Looks like James wants to have a look around the apartment, he might take it for a few months. Could probably help you with the plastering, too. Should I send him up to see, or is now a bad time?”

“Sure,” Steve says. “Door’s almost in.”

Ten minutes later Steve’s dusting the door down and he turns around to see James leaning against the wall, watching him. “Uh,” he says. “Hi.”

“Hey,” James says.

“I need to put a new lock in, and Clint told you it needs plastering, but otherwise it’s pretty much ready,” Steve says, and dusts his hands on his jeans. “Want to take a look?”

“Sure,” James says, and Steve steps aside to let him in.

“What about the people on the other side?” James asks, and places his hand on the dividing wall.

“Oh, that’s where Marc lives,” Steve says. “He’s pretty weird, but he’s quiet and nice enough. He works nights, mostly.”

“Is it weird for you?” James asks, abruptly, and rubs at his eyes with the back of his hand. “Not Marc. I mean. This, uh, whole thing.”

“Oh,” Steve says. “Not sure weird is the word.”

He scowls and looks away.

“No,” Steve says. “That came out wrong. I just mean - it’s nice to see you again, Bucky.” He pauses. “Or - are you just James now?”

“Bucky’s fine,” he says. “Don’t really mind. Just - it’s nice to not have people call me by my surname.”

Steve doesn’t really know what to say to that. He’s just showing Bucky where the majority of the damage is (the bedroom walls, and no, Steve didn’t ask what happened there, he was mostly just relieved when Hank and Abigail moved out) when there’s a knock on the door. He jogs to the apartment door and opens it, and it’s Peggy.

“Hello,” she says. “I’ve got the afternoon free, so I thought I’d bring you over that German dictionary I keep promising you. Clint said you were up here.”

“Thanks,” Steve says. He takes the dictionary. It’s heavy, and the brown cover is real leather. He runs a hand over it. “Fancy getting dinner tonight?” she asks.

“Oh, sure,” he says. “I’ll be here for a bit longer, but then I’m free. You can wait upstairs if you like.” He passes her back the dictionary and gives her the key to his apartment.

He hears Bucky come into the room behind him, and moves so that he’s not blocking the door. “You remember Peggy?” he says. Peggy smiles, slightly strained.

“Of course I do,” Bucky says. “Right, all looks fine to me. See you.”

He walks out of the apartment and down the stairs, and he doesn’t look back. Steve hadn’t even got to showing him the bathroom, but he can’t bring himself to call after him. As Bucky vanishes from view, Steve realises he’s never seen him use the elevator. “Uh, right,” he says to Peggy. “I’ll just lock up here and then we can dump this in my room and go out.”

“It’s early,” she says. “I thought I’d pop in and say hi to Natasha first. You can finish up here.”

She leaves him with his key and dictionary, and Steve stands alone in the empty apartment for a few minutes before he goes upstairs to change into a nice shirt and some slightly less grubby shoes.

 

***

 

On Saturday morning, Steve wakes up early and walks down the block to get some coffee from the shop on the corner. He’s got his own coffee maker, but he’s out of beans and milk, and he’s too tired to actually sort that out and make something himself.

He’s not been sleeping well.

He sits in the corner and sips at his drink and scrapes the foam off the side of the cup with his spoon, and he reads a magazine that somebody else left behind. He’s in the middle of a long review of a book he’s never going to read when he looks up and sees Kate and Bucky at the counter. They haven’t seen him, or maybe they’re pretending that they haven’t. Kate’s saying something, but Steve only catches the odd word - Natasha, don’t, safer.

At one point, he swears he hears his own name. He looks up, on reflex, and they stop talking. They must have seen him now, he thinks, but they don’t come over. They both look as tired as Steve feels, and Bucky’s wearing the same clothes he had on the night before. Steve looks back at his magazine, but his head won’t stop buzzing until they leave.

 

***

 

Clint’s got a band-aid over his nose and another one near his temple when Steve sees him that evening, but he doesn’t ask about it. Stuff like that just seems to happen to him. He’s on his way up to his apartment, but Clint stops him. He leans on Natasha’s door, and keeps his voice low.

“Hey,” Clint says. “You seen anyone weird hanging outside recently?”

Steve pulls a face. “It’s Brooklyn,” he says, but Clint just looks at him.

Steve sighs. “Not that I can think of,” he says, and then thinks again. “Day Rebecca moved in a guy seemed really insistent that he had to deliver a fridge to somebody whose name I didn’t recognise, but I managed to get him to leave.”

“What did he look like?” Clint asks. “And what was the name?”

“Ahh, I don’t know. Bald. Black sweatpants. Had a white van.”

“You see him again, or anyone else like that-”

“What, making a delivery?”

Clint rubs a hand over his face. Steve ducks his head.

“Just, let me know.”

Steve nods, and puts a hand on Clint’s shoulder. He looks so tired. Is he the only person who got any sleep last night? “Are you OK?” he asks. “What’s going on?”

Clint smiles at him, and says, “Nothing, I was just talking to a friend who told me they’d had some trouble recently a few blocks over, similar kind of building to this.”

What kind of trouble? But Steve doesn’t ask.

“There are no buildings like this,” Steve says, instead, and Clint smiles again.

 

***

 

The thing is, it’s true. Steve’s never seen or heard of anywhere like it.

Steve was taking an evening class the year after he dropped out of college to look after his mother when he met Natasha for the first time. It was a life-drawing class, and they sat next to each other.

The first time they spoke, Natasha said, “I like your drawing.”

The second time they spoke, Natasha said, “hey, don’t you help teach that self-defence class on Tuesday evenings?”

Steve had said yes, and then asked if she was thinking of coming along. He didn’t ask how she knew that he taught the class.

Natasha had smiled and said that she was thinking about it.

The third time they spoke, Natasha had asked Steve something about a story in the news (well, she’d asked him who he thought Iron Man really was), and he’d said, “you know what, I try to keep up, I read all the politics pages and the op eds, but all this superhero stuff?”

“What,” Natasha had asked, amused, “you don’t want to be just like Iron Man when you grow up?”

Steve had rolled his eyes.

The time after that, they’d talked about art. Natasha’s big into early 20th century European painting, and mid-century modern art. Steve likes the impressionists, mostly, but he’s open to anything.

Natasha had taken him to see some Cy Twombly paintings at MOMA one afternoon a month or so after that, and he hadn’t been able to explain to her how he felt, but he stood in front of each of them for a long time. His mother wasn’t going to be able to keep her apartment anymore - she needed hospice care - and he needed to look for somewhere to live but he hadn’t been able to yet.

When he started to think about it, it was like his head short-circuited itself.

There were so many red strokes on this painting, and they didn’t add up to make a shape. Pink and dark red too. Like blood, or the inside of a body.

 

***

 

After they’d left MOMA, Natasha had said to Steve, “let’s grab a coffee,” and had taken him to an unmarked hotel bar a few blocks over. The room was only half-lit, but the coffee was good, and Steve didn’t ask how she knew about it. It was quiet, and cool, and he was glad to not be somewhere with lots of other people.

That was the summer he turned 22, and it was the worst summer of his life.

“Hey,” Natasha said, after a while. “I don’t know if you’re interested, but my friend just bought an apartment building. He’s looking for a kind of... live-in caretaker. Bit more hands-on than your average superintendent, but, that kind of thing.”

Steve flopped back in his chair. “When’s he need them to start?”

He’d been an RA his last year of college before he had to leave, so it didn’t seem too much of a leap.

Mostly, he just didn’t want to worry about his own life anymore. It felt so small.

He hadn’t thought about the details of what “more hands-on” meant until later.

 

***

 

Steve goes up to the roof on Sunday evening, but nobody’s really around. He texts Sam to see if he wants to hang out, but he’s tied up for another hour at least, he says. It’s OK, Steve’s got the next book for his class.

He doesn’t really feel like reading, though, and not just because it’s one of those books where nothing happens. It’s not a bad book - it’s about a guy in Madrid, which he’d like to visit. But it’s just not the right time for it. He sits on the roof for a while and stares out at the sky as it starts to get dark, with red and pink streaks in the clouds. It’s nice. It’s nothing special.

It starts to spit with rain and the moon is hazy, half-covered by clouds. Steve’s about to call it a night and go in when Sam appears with some beer and a tin that Steve hopes has some cake in. One of his arms is wrapped in a long bandage, and he moves it very gently.

“Hey,” Steve says, alarmed. “What’s up?”

“Oh,” Sam says, and looks down at his arm, “This? One of the new birds doesn’t like me much. Some nasty claws on that one, let me tell you.” But he doesn’t sound amused. He looks up at the sky and blinks as the rain runs into his eyes. He doesn’t move to put down any of the things he’s carrying.

“Time to go inside,” Steve says, after a while.

They pass Bucky on the stairs, and he nods to them. Steve thinks about asking if he wants to join them for a drink, but by the time he turns around he’s already vanished out of sight.

 

***

 

He sits in Sam’s apartment and eats two slices of cake, and he thinks about everything he doesn’t normally let himself think about.

His eighteenth birthday. Bucky lighting the candles and saying it didn’t hurt when he burnt one of his fingers, and then kissing him when he was in the middle of blowing them all out. “My wishes are ruined now,” Steve had said.

The time he told a stranger where he worked and they said, “you’re a braver man than me.”

His mother, the fall after he moved in here, and then.

The blood he often has to mop up from the stairwell.

Bucky never wrote back.

Why does nobody he knows just have a normal job in an office or something?

Natasha’s never taken another evening class.

The night a few nights before he’d - before he said, “I don’t know if this is going to work out.” Bucky telling him about the sea. On the roof. Another building. Bird shit everywhere.

“I wish you were coming with me.”