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A Face Built For Gettin' Punched

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* * * 

Prologue

Washington D.C., 2013

 

He had endured cold before, had endured hunger and pain, and wasn’t particularly worried about his capacity to handle them. The damage he’d sustained was significant but not critical; his right arm was more or less useless, but had slipped back into the socket on its own in all the fighting, and his fingers tingled but he could move them. It would heal. The left arm had taken some damage and needed maintenance; it made grinding noises, didn’t move fluidly, and some of the plates were immobilized. It wouldn’t heal. But he didn’t go in, didn’t go back to be debriefed and repaired and put back to sleep.

It was a long time since he had made deliberate choices. 

This wasn’t entirely a deliberate choice. His handlers were gone in the chaos. But he didn’t even go to the rendezvous point that had been set, or any of the alternates. And he deliberately waited, though the cold became brutal, until after dark before he moved away from the culvert where he’d been sheltering and went into an inhabited area to find materials to become inconspicuous. 

Sweatshirt, hat, jeans, socks, money. 

He had been wiped too recently, and too imperfectly, and he knew he wasn’t operating at anything like full, or even reasonable, capacity. Everything felt far away and like it was happening to someone else, and he knew he wasn’t presenting anything like a normal affect. People thought he was odd, crazy, unstable, but it meant they avoided him, and that was fine. 

The pain was bad, that first day, and the night that followed— his right arm was agony, and his head. He stayed out of sight as much as he could, though he had to make one foray to buy food when the pain in his stomach started outcompeting the pain in his head. His left arm didn’t freeze up entirely, and remained usable, but it hurt, it made noise, it was unpleasant. On top of that was the withdrawal— he knew they had drugged him consistently, he knew he had suffered before when he had gone too long between doses, and so he knew he could get through the shaking and nausea and convulsive pain. He knew it would pass, it just didn’t make it pleasant to bear.

But he began to try, through the pain in his head, to think. 

Thinking was hard. Thinking was bad. Thinking wasn’t something he’d really been allowed to do for a long time. But he’d known, now, for a while— maybe always— that they were lying to him, that they were hiding things from him, that they weren’t trustworthy. He’d pretty much always known, he just hadn’t had the capacity to care.

They had told him he was a hero, had told him he was a great weapon, had told him he was the tool by which history was shaped, the instrument that cleared the way for peace. He’d believed it, somewhat, but he had never really… been all that concerned with it. He was just a guy doing a job, and whether it was an important job or not wasn’t something he worried about. It wasn’t like he had time to think about it. 

For a long time he’d thought he was a robot. But he wasn’t. He’d figured that out a long time ago, and it had been a gradual process but he had slowly, through the reprogramming and the wipes and the weight of oblivion, formed the coherent, concrete thought: he was not a robot. He bled, he sneezed, he had stomachaches and occasionally had to take a shit and was often hungry, and his nails and his hair grew and had to be cut, and his flesh parts sometimes failed and sometimes changed shape and sometimes were exhausted and couldn’t be forced onward. Often he bled, sometimes his bones broke.

He knew he was human. He knew he was a weapon. 

Now he knew he’d been someone, before. And he knew, now, everything they’d said, all of it, had been lies. 

He wasn’t stupid, was the thing. He knew he had always been smarter than they’d accounted for. All along, he’d known they weren’t telling him everything. He’d just always sort of assumed that, deep down, somewhere under all of it, it made sense in some way. Somewhere in there, doubt had crept in, and he’d started to feel that there was some hollowness at the core of all of it, something that they were fighting against, something they struggled to keep concealed from him. The more brutal conditioning, the more violent mind-wipes, all seemed to be bent on hiding something or breaking something. Even fragmented as his awareness was, it kept coming back to coalesce around that central point of something, something they were hiding from him. 

And then he saw the man on the bridge, and knew him. And— 

That was it. He’d been a person, once, a regular person who loved and was loved, who wanted and was wanted, who had dreams and goals and was allowed to feel. 

That was what they’d been hiding from him, what had been behind the otherwise-inexplicable, emphatic savagery of their programming of him.

And that was gone, but now that he knew it had been there they couldn’t take that awareness away again. He was ruined for their purposes, in exactly the way they’d feared for so long.

He had been confused and conflicted about it, and angry, so angry. He’d fought the man, the man with the shield, had fought hard against him because this was his entire understanding of the world that was falling apart. But when the man had surrendered, it had made it clear that the anger was misdirected. 

So he had pulled the man out of the water, had made sure he was alive. He was still angry with him, but the anger was slowly transitioning itself over to the people who had taken this away from him, who had hollowed him out and filled him with their— with their nothing, their chaos, their violence, their greed, their arrogance. None of it was his, he wanted none of it, they had no right to put any of it into him. 

And he walked away.

And he disappeared. 

He had no good way of accounting for days, except for the need to eat. He had to eat several times in a day, and he could not go without for long. He hid for days, stealing money and stealing food and keeping himself alive, and as he stayed alive, as he went longer without having been wiped, it hurt worse and worse and worse, but he remembered. He got more and more back. The withdrawal shakes eased, he could keep food down longer now though he kept the trick of eating only a little at a time just in case— he still didn’t know how to even go about trying to sleep, still was wracked with uncontrollable muscle tremors, but they were easing, slowly, less intense and less frequent.

His name was— James— he’d gone by other names. Bucky, the man had called him, and he remembered that, his mind knew the shape of that, he remembered being that, he knew it was true. He was Bucky. He was— James. He was a— he was— Barnes, his last name was Barnes, his mother had been a Murphy, his cousins were all Murphys, he knew he— 

Steve, was the man, Steve— a kaleidoscope of things he knew about Steve, the way Steve was, but they were confusing and his head hurt so badly, so so badly— he bit his tongue and his nose was bleeding and pain, it hurt, so bad—

 

He came to himself slowly, groggy. It was the first time he’d— had he slept? He wasn’t sure. It had been days, it had been dark seven or eight times and he’d needed to eat at least a dozen times, and there had never really been sleep. He had strained a bunch of his muscles, in his back, in his neck, in his legs— and bitten his tongue, and his nose had bled and his head still hurt. But he could think now, sluggishly, and he recognized that he’d felt like this before— he’d had a seizure of some kind. 

He needed maintenance. 

He’d damaged his left arm further in his convulsions, and now the locked-up plates were impeding his freedom of motion. He managed to sit up shakily, and had to lean over to throw up— nothing, there was nothing to throw up, he’d been out for hours and what little he’d had in his stomach, he’d digested. 

He needed maintenance. 

It took him another two or three days and nights, sleepless again, shakes getting worse, to find what he was looking for. He stole a vehicle, reluctantly; he had to cover more ground than he could manage on foot in his weakened state, and so the increased profile such a large crime required was the price of that. With the vehicle his range was extended enough that he could more effectively forage for food, and adequate calories made his thoughts a little clearer, let him form a coherent plan. He had to commit another crime, risking unwanted attention again to break into a computer lab so he could access the Internet— he barely understood the technology but what he knew, what had been put into him for missions, was adequate, combined with what he had observed, to get him into a secured network where he could look for the information he needed.

He remembered some of these techs. He matched the names with the ID photos and hit on a particular one— a woman, he’d never known her name but he knew her face; she hadn’t bothered with false kindness but she had been reasonable, had been smart, had spoken to the others like she knew what she was doing, he remembered her. And she didn’t live far away. He memorized her name and address and went after her. Regina Wells.

And she was unwary enough that he got her. Alive and undamaged. He brought her to the facility, guarded now by only a skeleton crew, and managed to despatch the guards without raising any alarm. 

She was conscious when he pulled the hood off her head. She recognized him immediately, and terror blanked her face; he pulled the duct tape off her mouth and she made no sound, dumb with fear. 

“I need maintenance,” he said, and his voice barely worked. 

“They said you were dead,” she finally managed to say. 

“They were incorrect,” he said. “I need maintenance.”

“Why didn’t you report to your handlers?” she asked, and she was shaking now, pale. 

“My mission is not compete,” he said. “I need maintenance.”

“Your mission failed,” she said.

“My mission is not complete,” he said, and he must have used more emphasis, because some emotion flickered across her face and her tone changed.

“Your mission failed, soldier,” she said. “It wasn’t your fault. All of us failed.”

He set his jaw, breathing hard. “I need maintenance,” he said. 

“Your handlers—“ she began. 

“They failed,” he said, cutting her off. “I will not return to them. They failed. I will complete my mission.” 

He knew better than to tell her that he wasn’t talking about the mission she thought he was. Of course that mission had failed. He had abandoned it, the only time he had ever abandoned a mission. He had a new mission, or was acquiring one as he came to understand it, and it was a mission pulled out of the fragments in his head. He had no memory of ever having done that before, but somewhere in the shards left where they’d hollowed him out were enough fragments that he knew he had. He could assign himself a mission. He knew everything he needed to know to do it. And it had a good chance of success because they didn’t know he had it in him. 

They had no idea what he had in him.

“I don’t have the training to perform the maintenance you need,” she said, and gestured toward the chair. “I don’t know how to operate the machine.”

“I do not need that,” he said, managing to control his shudder. “That is for when I am given a new mission. I do not need a new mission. I require equipment maintenance.” 

“I don’t have the training to do much,” she said. 

“You fix the arm,” he said. “I know you do, I looked you up, Regina Wells.”

She looked at his arm, hidden under a bulky jacket. “I can only do basic repairs,” she said. 

“If you lie to me or hurt me,” he said quietly, calmly, “I will kill you. I do not answer to anyone anymore and there is no one here to stop me.”

That made her tremble again, and she looked up into his face and her expression was… maybe defiant? “You’ll kill me anyway,” she said. 

He shook his head. “Not if you fix me,” he said. 

“What if it’s not possible?” she asked. 

He shook his head. “I won’t kill you if you do your best,” he said. 

“But I’ve seen you,” she said. “I could turn you in.”

“I’m not worried,” he said. “If they were going to catch me they would have.”

“They didn’t know you were alive,” she said. “They didn’t know to look for you. Listen, soldier, you need to come in properly, you need to let them fix you all the way. They can repair your programming. You must be in pain.”

He stared at her, then stood up and unzippered the coat, took it off, took off the sweatshirt underneath. He was wearing a short-sleeved shirt under that, and under that a sleeveless shirt, but he left both on. “I will not,” he said. “I require no programming.”

“I can’t fix you,” she said. 

“I will kill you if you refuse, Regina Wells,” he said, but his heart sank. He hadn’t counted on her being stubborn. He’d chosen her because he had remembered her being reasonable. There were other techs he could find, though they’d be forewarned by her disappearance— but he was about to the end of his capabilities, and he probably didn’t have it in him to successfully capture another tech. Not with his right arm injured and his left malfunctioning.

“You’ll kill me anyway,” she said again, and he could recognize that expression— that was despair. Oh, he knew that one all right.

He shook his head. “I promise,” he said, “I won’t.”

“You don’t know what a promise is,” she said. “That was never in your programming.” She was a little scornful.

He stalked over to her and grabbed her chin in his right hand, which had enough of its strength back that he could use it, at least. He squeezed the jawbone until she stared into his eyes. “I am more than my programming,” he said. “I assure you, I know what a promise is.”

She looked really frightened, then. “How do you know that?” she asked, very quietly. 

“Because I was a man of my word, once,” he said, letting go of her face. “I knew what a promise was, and I kept the promises I made. I had friends and a family and a job. I had a name. I had a mother. You people tried to take all of that away from me, but you failed.”

She looked flatly astonished. “You were— you’re a cyborg,” she said. “You were never a person.”

“My name was James,” he hissed. 

She shook her head. “No,” she said, “you—“ 

“My name,” he said, “was James. I had sisters. I was a sergeant in the Army. I had friends.” It was hard to say those things. He set his jaw and swallowed them back down. Sisters. He’d had three sisters. He knew that. He knew that.

“Oh my God,” she murmured. “Oh my— oh my God.” She looked sick. “Listen— I don’t— I don’t know where you got that idea. But you’re not human. You never were. You’re almost entirely synthetic. Your biological components were all salvage.”

Maybe she really believed that. His anger ebbed into weariness, and he pulled out a knife, flipped it end over end, and walked around behind her. She made a squeaking noise. 

“If you gotta believe that to get by,” he said, “you do that, but I know who I am.” He used the knife to cut the tape around her wrists. “I don’t care. Fix my arm. Whether you believe me or not, I do, and so I know what a promise is and I won’t kill you if you do me right.”

He stood up and walked away while she pulled her arms around in front of herself and rubbed her hands together, staring at him. “I,” she said, “it’s not a question of belief, it’s just truth.”

“I found my service records,” he said quietly. “The fingerprints match. I found photographs. The features match. I always knew there was something in there, and when the man on the bridge recognized me I figured out what it was— and I knew him, I wasn’t just saying that to get myself tortured some more.” He flipped the knife around and slid it back into the sheath, watching her as she gingerly climbed to her feet. “I don’t care what you believe, I just want you to fix my arm.”

She stood unsteadily, turning to look at him, wariness in every line of her body. “You’re a Russian-made cyborg,” she said. “They used biological components but you were never a person. There was no consciousness in the remains they used, no identity.”

He tilted his head at the tool cabinet in the corner. Power hadn’t been cut to the place, so the scanners and everything were working. He wasn’t arguing with her, it wasn’t something he particularly cared to do. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “Get to work, and I won’t kill you.”

She let out her breath sharply, and went over to the tool cabinet, pulling a few things out. He stood and watched her, making sure all of the tools looked familiar and weren’t obviously weapons instead. She booted up the monitor on the scanner, and he walked over and yanked the network cable out of the wall. He knew which one it was, it was a completely different type than the power cable. He’d been trained on that at some point, it was in the jumble of things he knew. He also knew there were wireless data connections but if a computer had the wire it was unlikely to also have wireless capability. She started to make a protesting noise, but stopped, tilting her head as if conceding the point. 

She pointed to the chair and he shook his head. He wasn’t getting anywhere near that thing. He hooked his toe through the rungs of one of the stools the technicians had always used instead, and pulled it over with his foot. 

“If you do kill me, though,” she said, as he sat down, “you’re screwed.” She pulled the scanner into position, giving him a shrewd look.

“Not really,” he said. “There are half a dozen more of you that I know of, who know well enough how to make this thing work.”

“You’d never get back into this facility,” she said. 

“That hardly matters,” he said. “There are others.” He really was bluffing— but not for the reasons she thought.  He didn’t have the strength or endurance to do it, was all.

“You wouldn’t know about them,” she said. 

He watched her pull the scanner across his arm. “Every wipe is only as good as the last one,” he said. “I know a lot of things you all think I don’t remember.” 

She jerked her head up, at that, and looked at him in some alarm. “That can’t be true,” she said.

“One of the two of us is working on very incomplete information,” he said, and his face felt odd— smiling? He might have been smiling. 

 

He let her live. She fixed his arm to the best of her ability, and seemed genuine enough about it. He spotted a blip on the scan that could only be a tracker, and pointed wordlessly to it; she removed it for him without protest. She asked him a few teasing questions about this person he supposedly was, and he answered her; she was trying to catch him in a contradiction, but she never did. 

After she closed the arm back up, explaining that he needed spare parts she couldn’t get and a new power source she wasn’t able to replace, she sat for a long moment staring at him. 

“They told me you had never been a person,” she said. “I really— I really thought you were just a robot.”

He shook his head. “I was a prisoner of war,” he said. “I was tortured and experimented on. I didn’t want this.”

“I thought I knew what kind of organization I worked for,” she said. “It was one that did what was necessary, yes, but I didn’t… I didn’t know you were a person, that we’d done these things to. Or if you were, I assumed you’d have volunteered.”

“Does it make you feel better or worse?” he asked, reaching for his t-shirt. He was shivering; he’d had to strip down to the sleeveless shirt and it was cold in here. 

“Worse,” she said. “Of course. My god.”

“Well,” he said. He pulled the shirt on; she made no sudden moves while his face was hidden, so he reached for the sweatshirt next. “I guess you have a choice, then.” He knew about choices. Remembering what choices were was what had started this whole mess he was committed to now.

“If you don’t kill me,” she said.

“I told you,” he said patiently, and fastened the sweatshirt, then pulled on his jacket. “I told you I know what a promise is.”

“You’re foolish to let me live, though,” she said. “Because I know far too much, and if you kill me they won’t find out.”

“That’s your choice,” he said. “I’m not much concerned. They’ll know I’m alive when I complete my mission anyway.”

She stared at him as he stood up, and pushed herself to her feet as well. “You’re not talking about the last mission they sent you on,” she said. 

“No,” he said, and smiled. “You’re smarter than the others, Regina Wells. I know you’ll choose to do the right thing.” He wasn’t sure how he knew that. He knew a lot of things he didn’t know how he knew. But this one, he was pretty confident in. The attention her dead body would attract if discovered outweighed what little benefit there was in the certainty that she wouldn’t talk. So whether she betrayed him or not, it didn’t matter; his choice was made.

 

* * * 

 

New York 1939

 

“Dia’s Muire dhuit,” Bucky answered politely, holding the door as Mrs. Ferguson went through it. He caught Steve’s look, and wondered which thing he was going to hear about later. Everything was always on Steve’s face, right out front, but sometimes the transparency made it more difficult to figure out what he was actually thinking. 

“Ta se fuar,” Mrs. Ferguson commented.

“Ta, ta se an-fhuar,” Bucky agreed, grimacing— it was cold, she wasn’t wrong. “Ach, ta se tirim,” he offered, looking on the bright side. At least it’s dry.

“Ta,” she conceded, “ta se tirim, buiochas le Dia.”

“Buiochas le Dia,” Bucky echoed. Thank God. He waved, and pulled the door shut behind her, rummaging in his pocket for his own key. 

“I don’t think I got more than two words of what you’ve said all day,” Steve said; he had his key out already.

Bucky shrugged. “I’ve heard you talk Irish before,” he said. 

“I know four phrases, Buck,” Steve said. “Good morning, I’m well thanks, yes please, the devil with you.”

“Just talkin’ about the weather,” Bucky said. He shrugged again. He knew fine well Steve couldn’t understand much Irish, which was why he used it for some of the business he did. 

“With your cousins?” Steve asked skeptically, unlocking the apartment door. 

“Ah,” Bucky said, “they was just passin’ on gossip. If it was anything important I’d’ve switched to English. I figured you understood enough of what you was interested in.”

“They looked awfully intent,” Steve said mildly, hanging up his jacket with some care. “And since when does Jack Murphy gossip?”

“Jack Murphy is the worst gossip,” Bucky said, and it was a lie; his youngest uncle Jack Murphy had been an IRA soldier in the War of Independence, and legend had swelled his achievements over there to slaughtering whole regiments of Black and Tans, to say nothing of his activities on this side of the Atlantic. He rarely smiled, generally did not speak unless it was necessary, and mostly followed his father like a grim shadow; absolutely none of his legend could be attributed to anything like boasting. 

Steve gave him a look, and Bucky burst out laughing; it had been a ridiculous thing to say. Of course Jack Murphy didn’t gossip. Cousin Tommy had pulled Bucky aside while he was walking home with Steve after work, and Jack had solemnly informed him that he needed the cousins to come by Patrick’s house that night about a business matter. Bucky’s cousin John O’Reilly, son of Jack’s sister Kathleen, had been there too, with a grim look that suggested he knew more about what was going on than Bucky did. Bucky hadn’t asked. It wasn’t his place to ask. And it certainly wasn’t his place to tell Steve anything about it.

Steve knew very little about the Murphys’ business concerns. The patriarch, Patrick Murphy, owned a metalworking shop where almost everyone in the family worked, including Steve. But Patrick was also involved with the local branches of the currently-reigning neighborhood gang; everyone who was anyone was. And they had a long-standing, simmering rivalry with an Italian family with business concerns in nearly-overlapping territories and who had a protection racket to boot. Bucky usually managed to keep Steve from finding out about Bucky’s occasional involvement as muscle in the enforcement of various territorial concerns, but it was tricky. 

Steve was an interloper, an outsider, in the Murphys’ extended clan, but he was accepted, because of what Sarah Rogers had done for Bucky’s little sister Kitty, who had been sickly like Steve. Pneumonia had taken her and spared Steve, one awful winter, but not for lack of effort on Sarah’s part— Kitty would have died the previous winter without her intervention. Consequently, Steve was family, though that didn’t mean he was allowed to know much about the business. Bucky was the one who had to ensure it stayed that way.

“Any of that corned beef left?” Bucky asked.

“Some,” Steve said. “Plenty of cabbage, but it’s gone a bit soggy.”

“How’s about I fry it up into hash with the last of the potatoes?” Bucky asked. “I think we got some butter, right?”

“We do,” Steve said, “a little.”

“Then I’ll do that,” Bucky said. He mentally tallied the contents of his wallet. “I think I got enough, I can pick up some butter and more potatoes on the way home tomorrow, and I know we need bread.”

“That’d be nice,” Steve said noncommittally. “But you know I have Thursday mornings free, I’m going to the shops then anyway.” 

“Yeah,” Bucky said, “but I think it’s my turn to buy.” Bucky earned three times what Steve did and had fewer expenses, and so Bucky paid the rent (the rationale being he was renting the place anyway, he just wanted Steve there to keep him company), but Steve had put his foot down and they split food expenses 50/50 despite the fact that Bucky ate a lot more than Steve did. Bucky tried to make up for it by always being the one to buy the stuff they ran out of between shopping trips, but like most of his noble intentions he usually didn’t manage to do it. “You got any homework?”

“What are you, my mom?” But Steve obediently produced his books, and set them on the corner of the table. 

“I might as well be,” Bucky said. “I promised her I’d care for you, didn’t I now?”

Steve sighed. “Awful silly thing to do,” he said, and was distracted, and let Bucky ask him about the assignment and talk it out with him while making dinner. 

But Steve wasn’t a fool, not at all. Bucky tidied up after dinner, put the dishes away, and said, “Well, I’ll be back in a bit, it should be brief,” and Steve gave him a calculating look. 

“Is this what you were talking about in Irish with the Murphy boys?”

Bucky took his coat down from the hook, and looked at Steve for a moment, feigning blankness. “Yeah,” he said. “Oh— you weren’t followin’?”

“Bucky,” Steve said, exasperated. “You know I don’t speak Irish.”

Bucky sighed, and shrugged. “You think you’d’ve picked it up by now,” he said, half-smiling. “Spendin’ all this time with all us Micks.”

“You didn’t used to speak it so much,” Steve said, a little coldly. He was touchy about that word. He was Irish too, but the wrong kind of Irish, was the thing— his family were Anglican, or had been, when there’d been anybody. Bucky figured really Steve was getting the worst of both worlds, since everybody hated Micks but nobody hated Protestant Irish more than the rest of the Irish. Steve had sidestepped most of it by his mother being a saint and himself not being far behind, but it didn’t mean nobody ever got shit for it. Mostly Bucky, though, and he was fine shouldering that particular issue. “Only since Tommy comes around so much, it seems to happen more.”

Bucky shrugged again. “Guess he likes it,” he said. “I’ll teach you some more words. It’s just more of Grandpa’s talking, now that he’s getting old, he keeps wanting the cousins to come by all the time. It shouldn’t be long.”

“Patrick Murphy isn’t getting old,” Steve said, not inaccurately; Bucky’s grandfather was one of those sturdy indeterminate men who could have been forty, could have been seventy, and wasn’t putting up with your shit either way. “Patrick Murphy was born the age he is now and will always be this age.”

“Does seem it,” Bucky said. “He insists, though.” He grinned blithely. “Maybe he’ll leave more of his fortune to me when he goes.” 

“Yeah, with all your Aunt Kathleen and Uncle Conor’s kids, you’d surely be the one he’d favor,” Steve said. “To say nothin’ of Jack’s.”

“And why not?” Bucky asked, adjusting his hat. “I’m the prettiest.” He pursed his lips slightly and cocked his head.

Steve barked out a genuine laugh at that. “That you are, Buck,” he said. “Take care of that pretty face tonight. If you’re back before ten I’ll probably still have the light on.”

“I’ll try to be,” Bucky said, with a theatrical eyeroll. “You know how the old man talks.” He pulled his gloves on and went out. 

 

Bucky was the baby, as far as the Murphy Boys were concerned. He was the youngest adult male cousin by almost five years, and he’d only come back to them at twelve, having been raised up to that point among his father’s people out west. So they all treated him like a cross between an idiot and a coddled favorite, which got old. Like he hadn’t lived in the city long enough now to know how it worked. 

Didn’t mean he didn’t know how to bust some heads. Didn’t mean he never got into it. 

But it did mean that, that night, when it went sour, when they got into it, when one of the dagoes pulled a knife and went for Bucky with it— connected with Bucky with it— well, Jack Murphy heard the noise Bucky made, and saw the blood, and he went for the guy and he didn’t stop hitting him until Bucky realized he was going to kill the guy and managed to get up and pull him off. 

“Jack, no,” he said, his arm wrapped across his bleeding ribs, “no, Jack, it’s— no—“

The guy definitely wasn’t in any condition to fight back and Seamus, John O’Reilly’s little brother, helped Bucky pull Jack off him. “That’s enough,” Seamus said, “Jack, enough, shit— shit, that’s too far, Jack,” and they broke off and retreated.

“I thought he killed you, Bucky,” Jack said raggedly, grabbing Bucky by the back of the neck, “I thought he killed you.”

“Shouldn’t’ve pulled a knife, to be sure,” Seamus said, “but we’re in trouble if he’s dead,” and they fell back and regrouped with the others. At Patrick’s house, there was a second cousin by marriage who was a nurse, and he cleaned and stitched the unpleasant gash just under Bucky’s ribs on the left side, pronouncing it a near miss. 

“I don’t like it,” Patrick said, “it’s a messy business,” but it was all beyond Bucky’s understanding, he just went where he was told. He kissed Bucky on the forehead and told him he was a good boy, and sent Seamus with him to walk him home. 

“You sure you’re all right, now,” Seamus said, as they came up on Bucky’s street. 

“It’s fine,” Bucky said, though it hurt a lot. It had cut some of the muscle, and it was going to be a long time before it healed all the way, but at least it hadn’t punctured his gut. That would have killed him slowly. “I hope Jack didn’t kill the guy.”

“Yeah,” Seamus said, “that’d be a rare disaster. Don’t think the cops wouldn’t notice that.” The police tended not to care much if there were fights, as long as there weren’t bodies left over afterward. “But, no help for it now.”

“I gotta think of something to tell Steve,” Bucky said. At least he’d changed out his shirt for a new one that wasn’t sliced and bloody. He’d taken a shot to the face that would bruise, though, and the knuckles of his left hand were a little swollen. 

Seamus laughed. “It’s like he’s your wife,” he said. Bucky was the only unmarried one of them. Seamus was twenty-eight and had a son and a daughter already.

“Steve’s nobody’s girl,” Bucky said, a little defensive. 

“You’re awful tight with him, though,” Seamus said. 

Bucky gave him a look. “How else am I supposed to be?” he asked. 

“Aw, I don’t mean nothin’ by it,” Seamus said. “I know why you couldn’t stay with your Da in that house. And it ain’t right for a man to live on his own. You’re just lucky you got such a good friend.”

“He is, Seamus,” Bucky said. 

“Oh, I know it,” Seamus said. “And he’s a good fellow, anyone can see that. But you know he’s angel-touched, he’s not long for this world, the poor thing.”

“I don’t know about that,” Bucky said. “He’s got a lot more life in him than you’d think for someone that little.” Seamus tilted his head, at that, conceding the point, and they walked in silence for a moment.

“Just say we were dancin’ and it got rowdy,” Seamus said. “You hit a stair-rail or something.”

“I suppose,” Bucky said. Lying wasn’t so hard, but somehow it was about five times harder than it should be when it was Steve you were lying to. “Maybe he’ll be in bed.” It was ten-fifteen. 

“You’ll be even sorer tomorrow,” Seamus said, with a wisdom born of experience. 

“Yeah,” Bucky said glumly. He knew how it went. He’d never been knifed, but he’d taken his fair share of damage in fights here and there. Mostly at Steve’s instigation, actually.

The kitchen light was still on. Shit. Well. “Thanks for walkin’ me home, Seamus,” Bucky said. 

“If you’re feelin’ poorly tomorrow,” Seamus said, “you know Grandda won’t dock you if you stay home. But let someone know, and he’ll get Rory to come out and have another look at you.”

“I’m fine,” Bucky said, and embraced Seamus good-night at the building door. 

He fixed his hair a little bit, and steeled himself before unlocking the apartment door and letting himself in. He pulled his coat off so Steve wouldn’t see that it was hard for him to raise that arm, and came into the room.

Steve was sitting at the kitchen table, nodding off over a book. He snapped awake and sat up. “Oh, hey, Buck, what time is it?”

“Close to ten-thirty,” Bucky said. “You didn’t finish your homework yet?”

“Oh,” Steve said, and shut the book. “I did, I was just readin’ ahead.”

“You weren’t waitin’ up for me,” Bucky said, hanging up his hat. Maybe Steve wouldn’t notice, maybe his face wasn’t that bad yet. It was mostly numb, just starting to swell; the color wouldn’t come up for a couple of days.

“Naw,” Steve said, grinning, “why would I do that?” Bucky pushed at his hair and stepped further into the room, keeping the bruised side of his face away from the light. 

“Seamus asked after you,” Bucky said, sitting in the armchair to unlace his shoes. Oh wow, he was stiff. He’d gotten punched a couple times, he was going to be pretty miserable tomorrow, but if he took a day off Steve was definitely going to ask uncomfortable questions. 

“How’s he doin’?” Steve asked, packing his books up. “And Jenny and the kids?”

“I didn’t get much of a chance to talk to him,” Bucky said, “but he looked well.”

“He’s nice,” Steve said. He went over to the washbasin and got his toothbrush. 

“All my people are nice,” Bucky said a little sourly. Jack had pretty much killed a man for him, did that count? He couldn’t tell that to Steve, but he badly wished he could, because he didn’t know what to make of it otherwise. The man hadn’t been much older than Bucky, just an Italian kid protecting his own family, and maybe he’d been wrong to pull a knife but it wasn’t like Bucky didn’t have a knife on him too. He did, he just knew better than to pull it where anyone could see. His was plausibly just a pocket-knife, at least. And if he’d practiced and practiced with it, flipping it and handling it and learning how to drive it into imaginary targets at different angles, well, that was just a boy’s fancy. He’d never kill anybody. 

Except if Patrick needed him to, because he’d have to, and if anyone killed or badly hurt Jack or Seamus or Tommy or John or Danny or God forbid Steve of course he would, and… well, maybe Bucky was barely out of boyhood but he definitely knew that all the fine intentions in the world were pretty worthless in the face of the real world. 

He put his shoes neatly together next to the chair and pushed as smoothly as he could manage to his feet. “Your family is pretty nice,” Steve conceded, spitting out his toothpaste. 

If you’re on their good side, but Bucky didn’t say that. 

Steve did look angel-touched, Bucky reflected, coming up behind him to get his own toothbrush. The light glinted off Steve’s hair like in old paintings of angels, and his wide blue eyes in his narrow almost feminine face gave him such a sweet look. 

Bucky knew fine well that Steve was anything but sweet most of the time, except he really was, he really was that good. Steve would never kill anybody, Steve would always know when to stop. Even when his blood was up in a fight, he’d never take it too far. Even if he were strong enough to kill somebody, or if he had a knife or a gun, he’d never kill anybody. He’d never lose sight of what was right in the shifting uncomfortable confusing runaround of real life. He’d always know what to do. 

And if he did die young, Steve was definitely one person who’d go straight to Heaven. Bucky had no illusions about the state of his own eternal soul. He toed the line well, he did what he was supposed to, but he had a sneaking feeling that the road of the righteous didn’t have quite so many detours for well-intentioned compromises as he was prone to taking. 

Steve washed his face and got out of Bucky’s way so Bucky could rinse and spit, then take his own turn washing his face. Bucky checked his bruised face in the mirror gingerly when he thought Steve had gone on to the bedroom, but when he turned Steve was watching him speculatively from the middle of the room. 

He didn’t say anything, and Steve didn’t say anything, so they both went into the bedroom, and Bucky shut off the light in the main room and changed in the dark. 

“You okay, Bucky?” Steve asked in the dark, once they were each in their beds. It wasn’t cold enough yet for them to push them together, ostensibly for Steve’s benefit but really for Bucky’s. Bucky was always too cold, Steve always ran hot unless he was sick— and the first symptom that Steve was really getting sick instead of just feeling poorly like he normally did was if he wasn’t radiating heat. That was Bucky’s signal to make Steve stay home and pile himself up with hot water bottles and drink all the hot tea he could stand. 

It was only autumn yet, though, not time yet. 

“Yeah,” Bucky said, “I’m okay.” 

“You let me know if you’re not,” Steve said, and Bucky felt like a heel, worrying so much that Steve would nag him like an old lady. That wasn’t Steve’s way at all, and Bucky should’ve known that. Did know that. It was a sign of a guilty conscience that he had worried so much— and what did that say, that he felt guilty for discharging family obligations? 

“Course I will,” Bucky said. 

 

He was too sore the next morning to pretend he wasn’t. He dressed quickly so Steve wouldn’t see the stitches and the bruises, but he couldn’t hide it when he moved. And his face had bloomed up into an obvious bruise, still a dull red but clearly swollen all along the cheekbone. 

“I guess I ain’t gonna ask,” Steve said, eyeing him over the breakfast table. 

“You know I’d tell you if I thought I could,” Bucky said tiredly, pushing his egg around his plate. He wasn’t hungry, but he knew he had to eat. 

Steve shook his head. “Sure,” he said, “but I don’t get why you can’t.”

“Family business,” Bucky said. He glanced up, catching Steve’s baffled look. “I know you’re family, you are, Steve. But there’s family family, and then there’s business, and I can’t talk about business.” 

Steve shook his head slightly, a line appearing between his eyebrows. “Okay, Buck,” he said. “If you say so.” 

Bucky looked back down at his egg, completely failing to come up with any words that made any kind of sense in the face of the thing lodged in his throat that was the way he felt about Steven Rogers. It was a strange, dumbfounding kind of thing, like getting hit in the face with a frying pan and like getting off, all in one. How it was possible to know somebody so well you could pretty much tell whether they’d love or hate any given thing you encountered, and yet be continually astonished by their reactions to things, Bucky didn’t know. But he knew he generally saw the world through a filter of wondering what Steve would make of it, most of the time, and that was probably weird but it was the only way he knew how to live.

He’d figured out by noon that he really shouldn’t have gone into work today. It hurt to move, it hurt a lot to move, and while this wasn’t the most physically demanding job in the world, it wasn’t exactly a desk job. He was collecting himself to get up and get back to work after lunch when his father sat down across from him. 

“Jimmy,” Jim Barnes said. 

“Hey Pop,” Bucky said. 

“You look like somebody beat you up,” Jim said. 

Yeah, somebody besides you, Bucky thought but did not say. He shrugged instead. “I’ve had better mornings,” he said, “but I had worse too, so I ain’t complainin’.”

“My only son,” Jim said. “My only son and he’s a goddamn thug.”

Bucky shoved to his feet, a little too fast. “Well, at least I ain’t a drunk,” he hissed viciously, and stalked back toward the shop. 

Jim stood up sharply, and suddenly Jack Murphy was standing directly next to him, expressionless, silent. Jim blinked uneasily at Jack, looked over at Bucky, and looked back to Jack. 

“Bucky,” Jack said quietly, stepping away from Jim to follow him. “You look sore.”

“I’m pretty sore,” Bucky agreed. Jim looked furious. That was the thing; he was happy to use his fists on someone who was smaller than him, like his wife, or on someone who wouldn’t fight back, like Bucky, but he wasn’t stupid. He’d never even so much as consider taking a swing at someone like Jack, who wouldn’t hesitate to put him on the ground or maybe even under it. The only reason Jack hadn’t already, he’d made quietly plain, was that it would hurt Bucky’s mother, Jack’s sister. 

“Go home, get some rest,” Jack said. 

“I’m all right,” Bucky said. 

“You’re only saying that because you’re nineteen years old and have no goddamn sense,” Jack said. 

“I’m twenty-two, Jack,” Bucky said, affronted. 

Jack shrugged. He was in his early forties. His wife Nora was as terrifying as he was, in a different way, and his two sons and three daughters were all highly enamored of Bucky and insisted he play with them whenever he was around. Bucky’s relatively isolated position age-wise meant spent a lot of time at family gatherings liberally bedecked with children in general, but especially Jack’s kids. Bucky was old enough to be an adult, to them, but young enough to be accessible, and it meant he was the most fascinating person they knew. Steve was more of a mascot to them, but Bucky was their idol. 

“My point stands,” Jack said. 

“There’s only four hours of work left,” Bucky said.

“My point,” Jack said. “We got it. Go on.”

Steve came by in the afternoons, that was when he did most of his part-time clerical work. He’d notice right away if Bucky wasn’t there. But he’d also notice if Bucky was there and not behaving normally. “I don’t like missin’ work,” Bucky said peevishly, knowing he was beat. He couldn’t operate the sheet metal cutter like this, it hurt too much. He’d been trying all morning and it hurt like hell. 

“I don’t like seein’ you like that,” Jack said. “Go on home. I’ll make your excuses.” 

Bucky chewed his lip. “If you say so,” he said. 

“I say so,” Jack answered, and that was that. 

 

“Bucky?” It took him a long time to claw his way up to being awake, and he blinked gritty eyes, too hot and awfully sore and really disoriented. “Bucky?”

“Steve,” Bucky said, orienting himself. He managed to find a hand at the end of one of his arms, and rubbed his face with it, uncoordinated. “Hey. Timeizzit?” It was almost dark, but given the season that didn’t mean a whole lot. 

“I just got home from work,” Steve said. “Jack said you weren’t feeling well and went home. Are you sick?”

“No,” Bucky said, understanding the question— if he was sick, Steve would have to avoid him to keep from getting sick himself. “No— Steve, no, it’s— I’m just, I’m real sore.” He was really sore, worse than before, a hot sharp ache that tugged at the stitches in his side. 

“What happened?” Steve asked. “Your dad—“ He bit it off. 

“Didn’t do it, this time,” Bucky said. He felt hot, which was either a bad sign or a sign that he’d piled himself with too many blankets before he fell asleep. He pushed himself up gingerly, and shoved his sweaty hair out of his face. Steve was standing in the bedroom doorway, looking worried in that broody way he had. 

“No,” Steve said. “He just… he said to me, he said he was surprised I didn’t have a problem, an upstanding citizen like me, with sharing a room with a notorious gangster.”

Bucky rolled his eyes exaggeratedly for Steve’s benefit. “Christ Almighty,” he said.  “I don’t think he could be any more of a hypocrite about any of it. He’s just jealous I’ve started getting beat up by other people now.”

Steve came in and sat on the edge of the bed, mouth tugging down with unhappiness. “Who did beat you up?” he asked, and his fingers were cool and dry as he traced along the edge of the bruise on Bucky’s face. 

“Ahh, some wop didn’t like my face,” Bucky said dismissively.

Steve’s eyes were in shadow in the dusky room, no lights on yet and the light from the window failing, but it was still easy to see his expression. His mouth tugged to one side. “Funny how many people find your face objectionable,” he said. 

“I guess that’s not new,” Bucky said with a laugh. 

“People besides your dad have always beaten you up,” Steve said, and he moved his fingers to push Bucky’s hair back. Bucky closed his eyes, enjoying the coolness of his fingers and the gentleness of his hand. A lot of people touched Bucky, he had a life of easy physicality, but he liked Steve best. He wasn’t a baby to Steve, wasn’t a means to an end or a symbol of anything, wasn’t a thing to use or control at all. Even the girls he went with sometimes, they touched him because they wanted him to do things with them. But to Steve, he was just himself, and it was unusual enough that he treasured it. 

“Even you sometimes,” Bucky said, and it was true, Steve had taken a swing at him a time or two. He’d never hit him back, would never hit him, but he didn’t mind if Steve hit him. Usually, he’d pissed Steve off and deserved it. He’d scuffled with him plenty, he’d just never thrown a punch. 

“You got a face built for gettin’ punched,” Steve said, putting a hand either side of Bucky’s jaw. Bucky opened his eyes, and Steve was frowning thoughtfully. “You’re awful warm, Buck.”

“I know,” Bucky said. “I think I was all tangled in the blankets. I don’t usually sleep when it’s light out.” He was in his underwear, a grungy singlet and shorts, and the back of the undershirt was all soaked in sweat. 

“You just got bruises, or is the skin broken anywhere?” Steve asked. Steve had no medical training but his mother had spent his whole childhood patching up the whole neighborhood, so he knew a thing or two and it had been useful in the past. 

“Skin’s broken,” Bucky said, seeing where this was going. 

“Show me,” Steve said. 

Bucky sighed, and lay back and tugged up his shirt, showing the bandage. Steve gave him a long look, and Bucky bit his lip and unpinned the edge of it. 

Steve’s fingers were deft and cool as he unwound it, and he hissed as he peeled the dressing away where it was all stuck down. “This is big,” Steve said. “Bucky! There’s a lot— what happened?”

“Knife,” Bucky said. “Rory cleaned it up.”

“How the hell did you get knifed at your grandfather’s house,” Steve groused, but it wasn’t really a question, so Bucky didn’t make any effort to answer. Steve went and got a bowl of water and a washcloth, and got the dressing un-stuck with gentle care. Bucky bit the insides of his lips so he wouldn’t flinch or make a sound, but it was Steve who gave a pained hiss as he got it peeled away. 

“Jesus,” Steve said, stunned. “Jesus, Bucky!”

“He got me pretty good,” Bucky said, looking away. Rory had put seven neat stitches in with black silk thread. The skin was all angry and red, and it was starting to swell up, bruised all around.

“You get him back?” Steve asked, looking up and waiting patiently, in a familiar gesture, until Bucky met his gaze. 

“Jack did,” Bucky admitted. “We— we hadda pull him off him, he got real mad.”

“Did he kill him?” Steve asked. 

It was hard to look at Steve for too long, and Bucky looked down and away. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I think we stopped him in time.”

“I heard a rumor that there was a fight last night,” Steve said, and now he wasn’t looking at Bucky, he had turned away to pull the medicine box out from under his bed. It had a lot of his mother’s things in it, and Bucky worked pretty hard on keeping it stocked to Steve’s tastes. “Joe Ciccaroni got his skull broke, they said. He might die, they said.”

Bucky swallowed. “I don’t know a Joe Ciccaroni,” he said. 

“His mother’s sister used to work with my mother’s friend Dolores Parker, remember her?” Bucky didn’t, he’d never known her. “Joe’s her second son, he’s a little older than us. Works at the docks, decent guy, never really had any enemies. You wouldn’t know why he’d be in a fight like that.”

“I wouldn’t,” Bucky said. 

“They said it was a gang thing, maybe about drugs,” Steve said, calm as anything. He set the medicine box on the edge of the bed and rummaged through it. It smelled sharply of herbs and chemicals, and made Bucky think of frightened nights staying up listening to Steve struggling to breathe. “You wouldn’t have anything to do with that, though.”

“I wouldn’t,” Bucky said, and he meant it. He had nothing to do with any of that. He was just occasional muscle. He honestly had no clue what the local gangs even got up to, drugs or booze or gambling or what.

“And I know,” Steve said, crossing a line into being too calm, “you wouldn’t lie to me about a thing like that, Buck.”

“I wouldn’t,” Bucky said, setting his jaw. 

Steve gazed at him for a long moment, coolly impassive, and Bucky returned his gaze unflinchingly. It was hard, but he managed to last until Steve looked away to fish the salve out of the medicine kit. “This’ll sting,” he said, no warmer than before, and while he wasn’t rough applying it, he wasn’t as careful as Bucky was used to him being. 

Bucky kept his teeth locked, stubborn, though it hurt like the devil. It felt like Steve was pressing really hard, but he could see he wasn’t, it was just that tender. “If it still hurts like that tomorrow morning we’ll have to see a doctor,” Steve said. 

“Okay,” Bucky said. Steve wiped his hands off, rebandaged the wound, and put the medicine kit away. 

“I got dinner on the way home,” Steve said. “You wanna come out and eat?”

Bucky sat up. He felt kind of shaky, and his arms were heavy. Putting a shirt on would be an awful lot of effort. “No,” he said, “I, I’m not hungry. I slept all afternoon, I don’t think I need anything right now. Thanks, though.”

“Okay,” Steve said, “I’ll wrap yours up for you.”

“Thanks,” Bucky said. He lay back down, rolled over, and fell asleep. 

 

 

Steve wasn’t afraid of Jack Murphy. He was the only person he knew who wasn’t afraid of Jack Murphy. (Bucky didn’t really seem that afraid of Jack Murphy, but he said he was. Steve was probably the only person who had noticed he was lying, possibly including himself.) 

Steve had both good and bad reasons for not being afraid of Jack Murphy. The bad reasons were that there was very little Steve was really afraid of, when it came to his personal safety. His own body was trying so hard to kill him that he didn’t really give external physical threats the respect they deserved, ever. He didn’t have a deathwish or anything, he just was kind of resigned to it in a way most people, he’d noticed, weren’t.

The good reasons were that he had noticed that Jack Murphy wasn’t vicious or cruel. He wasn’t even predatory. He generally watched everything with pale quiet eyes, missed nothing, only got involved when it was needed. Steve had never seen him be violent. He knew he was capable of it, sure, but he’d seen that same look in Bucky’s eyes, and knew, though he doubted Bucky had figured it out yet, that he was capable of it too. 

So he asked Jack what had happened to Bucky. Just went straight up to him at the end of the work day while Jack was locking up the machine room, and asked who’d stuck a knife in Bucky.

Jack considered him, light shifting behind his pale eyes. “What’s Bucky told you?” he asked. Steve had left the troublesome individual in question at home that morning, too feverish and shaky to come to work, too stubborn to let Steve stay home with him.

“Precious little,” Steve said. “Family business, he said. And I can see how that’s none of mine, but Bucky’s my concern and if he’s going to get killed I want to know why.”

Jack’s eyes narrowed a moment, but then he tilted his head as if in acknowledgement. “I’ve had this conversation with several wives over the years,” he said, and it took Steve a moment to recognize that the strange tone in his voice was amusement. “I suppose this ain’t so different. You’re as much family as them.” 

“It ain’t like that,” Steve said uncomfortably. He was dimly aware that he and Bucky were closer than friends tended to be and some of the things they did together were maybe a little over the line, but it really, it wasn’t like that.

“Oh,” Jack said, “that ain’t my business, tog bog é.” Steve didn’t understand the phrase exactly but he’d heard it plenty as an interjection. “Point is— well, come walk with me a minute.” He jerked his head, and led Steve back into the office he’d just come out of. Everyone else was gone, and the lights were mostly out. Steve knew better than to think Jack was trying to intimidate him. Jack didn’t bother with that sort of thing. 

“It’s a good kid you are, Rogers,” Jack said. “And you’ve been good for Bucky. The reputation you’ve got, though, for bein’ kind of a goody two-shoes? You tell me. You probably got your suspicions as to what’s going on. You tell me what your reaction is goin’ to be.”

“I heard a rumor the Murphy Boys run moonshine,” Steve said. 

Jack raised both eyebrows at that. “Boyo,” he said finally, “I almost wish it was that simple. No. Nobody runs shine anymore. You can just buy liquor at the store now, there’s no reason to break the law.”

Swallowing embarrassment (Jack was right, smuggling booze was the stuff of sensational news stories from Steve’s childhood), Steve said, “Anymore.”

Jack inclined his head slowly. “We used to,” he said. “It’s not us, particularly. We really are what we say we are on paper. But we’re also a part of a community. And a part of the community has always been the gangs.”

“It ain’t that I’m a goody two-shoes,” Steve said warily. “But I don’t like bullies.”

“Neither do I,” Jack said. “And that’s our issue. It’s too greedy most of the Irish gangs were, during the Prohibition, too involved in all that craziness. Wiped each other out, the devil with them. Now the Italian mob is expanding. Want to run their protection rackets in this neighborhood.” Jack shook his head. “We don’t want a war or nothing like that. But we don’t want them here either. We can protect ourselves, thanks. And so we do.”

Steve considered that uneasily. “I don’t know that I understand,” he said. 

“We’re not a gang,” Jack said. “But we’ve got connections to ‘em. And when they need us, we go along.”

“And break people’s skulls,” Steve said, almost reluctantly; he understood, he thought, what Jack was getting at, and he could almost sympathize, but…

Jack breathed out a little sharply, and looked over Steve’s shoulder, face tight. “I did that,” he said. “That was me. It wasn’t to kill the kid I was after, but I wasn’t tryin’ not to, because he wasn’t tryin’ to miss Bucky when he went for him.”

“He ain’t dead but they don’t know that he’ll make it,” Steve said. 

Jack’s pale eyes focused on Steve’s for a moment, silent and considering. “And how’s Bucky?”

“Poorly,” Steve admitted. It was just a simple infection, but there was nothing to be done if Bucky’s body couldn’t fight it off. There were chemicals that could stop bacteria from growing, but nothing that could dislodge them once they had taken hold. Bucky was young and strong and otherwise in good health, but Steve knew bitterly that that wasn’t always enough. 

“You don’t bring a knife to a fistfight,” Jack said. “Once you take that kind of step all bets are off.” He shook his head. “It’s not a game. There’s no points for showmanship and no do-overs if you misunderstood the rules.”

Steve nodded. 

“And you can say to yourself, I won’t involve myself with organizations that are outside the law,” Jack said, “and maybe it’s fortunate enough you’ll be, that you’ll never have to come up hard against the realization that the law itself is corrupt and there is no higher authority. But it’s the truth on it: all you have in the end is your own two hands and what you can protect with them.”

Jack wasn’t the type who talked with his hands, he kept them by his sides or in his pockets. But he held them up now, palms up, out in front of him, and they were dirty and callused and scarred because he was a metalworker. They looked just like Bucky’s, down to the shape of the long, broad thumb. 

“There have always been gangs in New York,” Jack said. “We Irish especially, we’ve always banded together, because if there is one thing we know, as a people, it’s that there is no limit to human brutality. So you throw your lot in with people you think you can understand. And you show up when you’re asked. And you do what’s necessary. There are two kinds of people, Rogers. The kind who know what they’re capable of and the kind who lie to themselves. That’s the only difference.” 

He looked up from his hands, pinned Steve with a pale-eyed steady glance. “So that’s the truth of the Murphy Boys. And if you wanted to stay the second kind of person you should have asked Tommy, not me.”

Tommy, Bucky’s cousin, oldest of his uncle Conor’s children, was a notorious bullshitter, who could charm the mortar out of a brick wall. Almost nothing he ever said was based in fact but it was always said so prettily no-one ever minded. He generally ran all business negotiations. Steve distrusted him but couldn’t find it in his heart to dislike him. 

“You know that’s not my style,” Steve said. 

“It’s not,” Jack agreed. He put a hand on Steve’s shoulder— he wasn’t a handsy sort; most of the Murphy clan were (including Bucky, who didn’t seem to be able to converse with someone he wasn’t in physical contact with in some way), but not Jack— and gently steered him out of the office. “And it’s not really Bucky’s style either, though he will if he has to, for now. God willing he leads an easy enough life that it doesn’t get beat out of him, go dte se un cead.”

“What?” Steve gave him a sidelong look. He’d heard the phrase before, but had never been able to place it.

“Go dte se un cead,” Jack said. “May he reach a hundred. You don’t speak Irish.”

“Cupla focal,” Steve muttered— a couple words

Jack tightened his fingers on Steve’s shoulder. “You’re a good friend to him,” Jack said.

“I never had a brother,” Steve offered, though he really didn’t know if that even came close to covering it.

“If you did,” Jack said, “it’s a disappointment he’d be, next to what you have.” They were at the front door of the shop now, and he gave Steve a tight nod, releasing his shoulder. “Off with you now, and you send for us if there’s aught you need.”

“I will,” Steve said. 

“I’ll send Declan by to check up on you before night,” Jack said. Declan was his oldest son, a gangly fourteen who thought Bucky the most glamorous person ever to have lived. “But send word if there’s something before that.” 

“I will,” Steve said again, and Jack nodded curtly and walked away. Steve watched him go a moment, then headed for home.

 

The lights were out, though night had fallen. Steve turned on the kitchen light and spotted a piece of paper on the kitchen counter. He picked it up, recognizing Bucky’s mom’s angular writing. 

Steve

Came by for a bit— left you some food in the icebox— that’s for both of you— Rory says the important thing is to keep J’s fever down but I don’t have to tell you how to do that— R also says if J falls asleep and won’t wake send for him right away— I’d have stayed longer but J was very out of sorts and saying cruel things— I will stop by again first thing a.m. if I don’t hear before— love to you both— MB

She was a tremendous fan of the long dash as all-purpose punctuation, Steve thought fondly. It wasn’t hard to guess what sort of things Bucky might not be feeling well enough to keep from saying, and they were probably all about Jim Sr. Bucky spent a lot of effort on a daily basis bottling up things he badly wanted to say about his father. Steve had been dumb enough to say something about it being better than not having a father but that had happened precisely one time, and it had been before he’d seen for himself quite how much damage the elder James inflicted upon the younger. He and Bucky had both wound up crying by the end of that conversation. It wasn’t an experience Steve ever wanted to repeat.

Steve rummaged in the icebox and found, to his satisfaction, that Mary Barnes had brought over her truly excellent oxtail soup. He put the saucepan of it on the stove and turned on the burner, then went in search of the patient. 

“Bucky,” he said, and turned on the lamp in the bedroom. Bucky was curled loosely on his side on his bed on top of the covers, skin flushed and hair damp, wearing only underwear, but at least it was a different set of shorts and singlet than he’d been wearing that morning so he’d been out of bed at some point. He didn’t react to Steve, and Steve frowned, sitting down on the edge of the bed to put his hand to Bucky’s forehead. It was startlingly hot, a very bad sign. “Bucky,” Steve said again. Mary shouldn’t have left him alone like this. 

“Yeah,” Bucky said, blinking vaguely and stirring. He visibly took a moment to register who Steve was, then smiled a little. “Hey. There you are.”

“Sit up, c’mon,” Steve said. “You eat anything today?” He’d noticed last night’s dinner still wrapped up, but with everything Mary had brought over it was impossible to tell if she’d managed to stop defending her idiot husband long enough to actually take care of her son. 

Oh, Steve had very little love for James Barnes Sr.

“Dunno,” Bucky said, and his face moved almost comically slowly into a parody of a determined expression as he gathered himself to sit up. Steve helped, manhandling him upright. Bucky was much bigger than Steve was, and bigger every time Steve paid attention. He’d reached his maximum height a year or two before, just a bit short of six feet, and he was filling out now from the rawboned gangly youth he’d been. He wasn’t a big man, but he was solidly-built and powerful, not broad but sturdy. Steve wasn’t jealous, exactly, just dumbfounded every time he took in how much more adulthood changed Bucky’s body than his. He himself was pretty much the same shape he’d been at fourteen, just a little taller and a little broader but not much. (The doctors had said his body wanted to grow more but had reached the limits of what his heart could power. His mother had admitted his dad had been six feet tall. Steve didn’t exactly feel cheated, but he sometimes wondered what that would be like.)

“Your mom brought soup,” Steve said, helping settle Bucky’s back against the wall. Bucky rubbed at his face and blinked at him. His bare arms were heavy, bulky, and the heat of his fever had the blue veins all dilated along the pale skin of the undersides of his arm, standing out along the cuts of muscle that were bigger, sharper-defined every time Steve noticed them. No, Bucky wasn’t a boy anymore, at all. 

“Soup’s okay,” Bucky said. “Your hands are freezing. Are you sick?” He peered suspiciously at Steve. 

“No, Bucky,” Steve said gently. “You got a fever.”

“Oh yeah,” Bucky said, with a faint air of revelation. Steve shook his head and went to get a bowl of cold water and some washcloths, and to stir the soup.

He came back and Bucky was listing markedly to one side, unfocused and sleepy. Steve climbed onto the bed and sat astride Bucky’s lap to pull him back upright, knowing he hadn’t the strength to do it from any other position. Bucky blinked at him and flinched as Steve put a cold washcloth around the back of his neck.

“Cold,” he said, but didn’t protest beyond that as Steve put another washcloth on his forehead. 

“You’re too hot,” Steve said. “Gotta keep the fever down so your brains don’t cook.”

“No great loss,” Bucky managed wryly, and Steve shoved down a flash of irritation at James Sr., because while it was one thing to knock Bucky around—  everyone did it and Steve was guilty of it himself on occasion— it was quite another to have convinced Bucky he wasn’t very bright. It was the farthest thing from true, but the conviction was unshakeable in Bucky’s mind. 

“I need your brains,” Steve said, and pressed another cold cloth to the middle of Bucky’s chest, right over his heart. “You’re not much good to me without ‘em.”

Bucky shivered, and brought his arms up around Steve, embracing him like they were in this position for other than practical purposes. “Hey,” Steve said. 

Bucky gave him a crooked grin, one of his flirty ones. “Hey,” he said. “You wanna sit on my lap, you can do that anytime. You don’t gotta wait until I’m sick.”

“Well,” Steve said, “I sure ain’t doin’ it for my health.” He turned the washcloth at the back of Bucky’s neck so the cooler side was against his skin, then pressed his thumb to Bucky’s lower lip. 

Bucky looked up at him, all feigned innocence. “Could you eat?” Steve asked, rather than letting himself get distracted. 

“Sure,” Bucky said, with a shrug. Steve climbed out of his lap and went to the kitchen.

He poured the soup into a couple of mugs, figuring they were easier to deal with than bowls. He wasn’t going to try to get Bucky out of bed; he was coherent for the moment but if he got to the kitchen and then couldn’t get back to bed, Steve wasn’t going to be able to get him there. He’d always been able to carry Bucky, or at least drag him, but by now Bucky probably had 75 pounds on him and he just flat couldn’t anymore. 

“Did you go to class?” Bucky asked, frowning at him as he came back.

“I did,” Steve said, “and to work. Your mom left a note, was she here a while?”

Bucky took the mug in both hands and frowned at it, not looking at Steve. “Yeah,” he said. His shoulders hunched a little. “She mostly just wanted to yell at me.”

“What’s she got to yell at you about?” Steve asked disdainfully, though he was putting it on for Bucky’s benefit. He knew fine well. He wasn’t much better, himself. Bucky didn’t deserve that much of a hard time from everybody. 

“I can’t make everybody happy,” Bucky said, staring fixedly down into his mug. His shoulders came in even tighter, which Steve hadn’t expected would be possible. “I can’t make anybody happy.”

“Drink your soup and I’ll be happy,” Steve said. Bucky’s eyes darted over to him, at that, and gave him a strange look, but he complied. 

Steve took the mugs back to the kitchen when they’d finished, and came back with the medicine box. “Let’s have a look.”

It obviously hurt Bucky a lot. Rory must have pulled out two of the stitches earlier, Steve noted, to let the infected part of the wound drain. It was ugly, but Steve had seen worse, so he rebandaged it as delicately as he could. Bucky wasn’t making any noise but his breathing had gone ragged. 

Steve helped him spongebathe away some of the stink of a day and a half of fever, and made him change into clean underwear before letting him lie back down. Bucky was shivering by then. Steve pulled the covers up over him, and went to leave the room but Bucky caught at his wrist. 

“Don’t look at me like that,” Bucky said pleadingly. “Not you too, Stevie.”

“I’m not looking at you like anything,” Steve said quietly, using his free hand to smooth Bucky’ s hair back away from his forehead.

“You are,” Bucky said. “You’re mad at me.”

“I’m not mad at you,” Steve said. 

Bucky studied his face intently. “You always know what’s the right thing,” he said, soft and hoarse. “What’s that like, Steve?”

“No, I don’t,” Steve said. 

“If you was me,” Bucky said. “You’d know what to do. And even if it made my mom and my dad and my grandpa and all my cousins mad, you’d know what the right thing was, and you’d do it anyway. And I don’t know what that is. I don’t know what the right thing is. I never do.”

“Bucky,” Steve said, something twisting in his chest. Bucky looked so desperately sad. 

“You’d know,” Bucky said. “And you’d do it, and you’d stick to it, and whatever happened at least you’d know that. But I don’t know what that would be. I just know, whatever I done, it was the wrong thing but I don’t figure it out until after. I just try to be good and I always do the wrong thing.”

“No, you don’t,” Steve said. 

“I do,” Bucky said, and his eyes were tear-bright now. “I always do. I don’t think you can understand, Steve.”

“Bucky,” Steve said. “I do. I understand.”

Bucky shook his head. “You got, like, this bright shinin’ light in you,” he said. “I don’t have that. All I got is shadows. And I look at ‘em and I’m like, this one’s brighter, that’s probably the right way, and I go there and I get there and I realize it’s not really all that bright at all.”

“You’re not making any sense,” Steve said, smoothing Bucky’s hair down. “Buck. It’s okay. Just go to sleep.”

“No, I know what I’m sayin’,” Bucky said, agitated. 

“Shh,” Steve said. “We’ll talk about it in the morning, then. Okay?”

Bucky stared at him. “Okay,” he said, looking betrayed, and Steve walked away feeling like a heel. 

Steve checked on him every few minutes, changing the cold cloths on his neck and forehead. Bucky slipped into a confused half-sleep, mumbling forlornly at him. Steve finished the drawing he was supposed to do— text layout really, not at all his favorite thing, but so obviously useful it was hard to resent— and Declan stopped by and dropped off yet more food. Steve told him there wasn’t much change in his cousin’s condition, and he nodded solemnly and went home, very clearly impressed with himself at the seriousness of his errand. It was sort of a new feeling for Steve to feel old, but he would probably get used to it if he lived long enough.

He didn’t have a lot of illusions about how things would go if Bucky didn’t make it. He wouldn’t have a clue how to live in a world without Bucky in it.

Steve shoved his bed over next to Bucky’s. It wasn’t winter yet, wasn’t cold enough for their usual self-justification, but this way he could check up on Bucky without getting up. Bucky sighed and rolled over, curling into Steve’s space, and in the dark, Steve leaned in and kissed his mouth. 

“Steve,” Bucky murmured.

“It’s gonna be okay, Buck,” Steve said. 

“It hurts real bad, Steve,” Bucky said, almost in a whisper. 

“I bet it does,” Steve said. “I’m sorry for that.”

“It better not kill me,” Bucky said. 

“It better not,” Steve agreed. 

“If I die I won’t ever see you again,” Bucky said. 

“Course you will,” Steve said. “Catholics don’t really go to a different Heaven.”

Bucky shook his head, a movement more audible than visible in the dark, his weight rustling against the pillowcase. “Ain’t that, Steve,” he said. 

“Then what?” Steve asked. 

“You’re so good,” Bucky said. “And I’m not. And I tried, but, I’m just not. I can’t figure out how to fix it.”

“You’re not going to Hell, Buck,” Steve said. “Cut that out.”

(New York, 2014)

“I am, though,” Bucky said, desperately sad. “It ain’t— I’m not like you, Steve.” 

“None of this is your fault, Bucky,” Steve said. 

The pain was like fire, running all through his veins, the fever high— his shoulder— when had he hurt his shoulder? “Steve,” Bucky said, then opened his eyes in confusion. It was bright— had he slept? It was morning. Daytime. Outdoors. Steve was holding him, looking down at him. “What,” he said, blinking. 

“It’s gonna be okay, Buck,” Steve said. 

“It hurts real bad, Steve,” Bucky said, bewildered, disoriented— was Steve crying? Where were they?

“I bet it does,” Steve said, “I bet it does, Bucky. I’m sorry for that. Not much longer. Help is coming.”

It was windy, there was a helicopter. People were shouting. “Where,” Bucky said, blinking. “Where are we?”

“We’re still on the roof,” Steve said. “Shh. It’s okay, Bucky. It’s okay. We won. They’re gone.”

“Who,” Bucky said, frowning— sky— couldn’t move his left arm— Steve’s shoulders were so broad they shaded him as he hunched over— when had Steve gotten so big. “I thought you were smaller,” he said, dazed. 

Steve made a noise that was either laughing or crying. “I was,” he said, “seventy-five years ago, Bucky.”

“I,” Bucky said, and stared up at him, mind ticking over slowly, “seventy-five,” and he thought about it for a moment, then gave up and passed out.