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don't turn me home again

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(i)

"Oh, come on," said Bucky.

"What," said Steve, "it'll be fun, stop pulling your face. The wind'll change and you'll be stuck that way."

"You are not old enough to sound like Aunt Martha," said Bucky. "What possible motivation could I ever have to leave New York, Steve? Ever again?"

"Apart from shooting people and blowing things up?"

"We're gonna go do that?"

Steve sighed exasperatedly. "No," he said. "We're going for a ride. That's all."

"The last time you got on a bike like that you packed a shotgun," said Bucky, crossing his arms over his chest and looking mutinous. He had that stubborn set of his jaw that Steve recognised rather too well, the one that said he was feeling immovable and probably at least somewhat annoyed.

"I'm not even taking my shield," Steve protested, but Bucky didn't twitch, and he gave in. It was easier than provoking a fight over nothing. He'd just got Bucky back; he was not going to let them waste his first month off the helicarrier and out of the hands of the SHIELD medics in being stubborn at each other.

"We're going to Hartford," he said. "I wanted to catch the look on your face when I sprung it on you, but whatever. We're going to see Gabe."

All the fight went out of Bucky like the air out of a pricked balloon. "Gabe?" he repeated, half-sorrowful, half-wondering, as if he could barely remember who Gabe was, and regretted that.

Which, for all Steve knew, might well have been the case.

But then he grinned. "We're gonna give him a heart attack."

"Please," said Steve. "Who'd you think was the first person I called when I figured out who Tasha's Winter Soldier was?"

*********

It was a cloudy, cast-over autumn day; the wind was crisp and the fields and trees turning brown gold red, so that on the few occasions when the sunlight jumped through the clouds and hit the leaves they seemed to shine. When they stopped for lunch Bucky was quiet, but he was smiling. Steve remembered that look, that brand-new sense of peace, of ease, from his own meandering road trip last year. Strange how solitude on the open road had fixed what solitude in the city of his birth, the home he loved, had not been able to.

Or maybe not. A propos of absolutely nothing, Steve remembered that Tasha loved taking his bike out as much as he did.

*********

Coming on dinner time when they came through Hartford at last, pulling up at Gabe's house in a drift of fallen autumn leaves. It was built for a fairly large family; there was a swing and kid's toys in the grass, a porch swing too, lights in the windows.

"Took you long enough," said Gabe from the front door. "Seventy years, Jesus H. Only you two morons."

He was old, God, grey hair and grey beard and wrinkles, slightly stooped, and moved just slowly enough that it hurt Steve's heart to see, but he was still solid, still clear-eyed, still Gabe. Christ Almighty, it was good to see him. Bucky hid his face in his friend's shoulder and smiled to himself.

"You look like shit," he said.

"So do you," snapped Gabe. "Look at you, Jesus, a metal arm, really?"

"Not my idea," said Bucky, grinning.

"No," said Gabe, suddenly sober. "Listen."

"You are not seriously going to stand there and try to apologise to me," said Bucky.

"Should've known something was up when they never found your corpse," said Gabe bluntly. "Don't try and deny it."

Bucky sighed. "No," he said. "No." He was dishonest, but not that dishonest, and not to Gabe. There were any number of excuses, all of them perfectly justified, but in the end it came back down to the fact that Natasha Romanov had done what the Commandos had - could - not, and brought Bucky Barnes home.

Gabe smiled. He was still gripping Bucky's arm when he angled a glare at Steve, loitering by the foot of the porch steps and smiling himself. "And you, what was all that in Boston the other week, what's the point of you calling me Fridays if you never tell me anything, huh?"

"Sorry, Dad," said Steve unrepentently, shoving his hands into his pockets. "Boston was - well, Tony was being... Tony, and he and Thor had a bet on, and it all got a bit out of hand."

"Got less sense of self-preservation than Howard," said Gabe, meaning Tony. "Well, get inside, come on, there's dinner. Peter cooked for me. Sends his love. He's a good kid."

"Grandkid?" asked Bucky, grinning.

Gabe was unperturbed. "Some of us made it to thirty without being experimented on, I'm not ashamed of that, six grandkids is a respectable number, but no, Peter's my youngest, he runs a restaurant in town. Julie's a professor." He grinned. "French literature."

Bucky shouted with laughter.

*********

There was stew, and then pie, and cans of Guinness in Gabe's comfortable dining room, dim lights and laughter. They didn't talk much about the others, except that Falsworth's boy had just had a daughter, and Jim Morita's middle girl had opened that bookshop in San Fransisco that she'd been talking about for ten years or so, and was doing well with it. The others were gone too: Dugan only recently, within months of his wife, Jacques in the sixties, with cancer. Howard's wedding was the last time they'd all been together when still healthy and whole.

"Saw Tony a time or two when he was a kid," said Gabe. "Probably doesn't remember. That boy." He sighed, thoughtful. Bucky and Steve exchanged a glance, both amused and terrified by the way Gabe was so much older than they were now.

"He and Howard didn't get on," said Bucky.

Gabe glanced at him sharply. "No," he said. "Not since Tony was small. Personally I think they were so much alike most of the time that they couldn't understand the ways they were different. And Stane - not a one of us ever liked Stane, either. But there you go." He took a drink, pursed his lips. "Might've been different if Maria had been different."

"What was she like?" Steve asked quietly.

"Beautiful," Gabe said quietly. "Brave, sharp. Tony's - what did Monty used to call it, Tony's gift of the gab, he gets it from her. But not - not whole. I think, if she'd known how strong she was... but she didn't. Don't think anybody ever told her. She was Frank Carbonell's kid cousin - you remember him. Came to base that time, pissed Philips off even more than Howard used to... took her in after her parents died. Not a guy to trust a kid to if you ask me. Clueless, and clumsy." At last he smiled. "Howard adored her though."

Lull in the conversation then, at the sound of the quiet regret in Gabe's tone. Bucky was thinking of Howard, how they'd liked one another up to a point but never been close, and what kind of woman Maria would've been, how awful a thought it was that you could not know your own strength; that you'd always be one step behind because you didn't think you could push any further, even though you could. Steve was thinking of Tony, mercurial but somehow unflappable, never perfect but always capable, and how Tony pushed at his own limits precisely because he knew so well what they were...

Gabe coughed. "Speaking of dames," he said, and pointed a gnarled finger at Bucky. "What about this Russian girl?"

"Natasha?" said Bucky, unable to resist a smile. "It's... complicated."

"That's like an official relationship these days," said Gabe. "She sounds like a good kid."

"She is," said Steve straight-faced. Gabe had been Bucky's friend years before he had been Steve's, but Natasha's secrets were her own.

"Next time, you bring her along," Gabe ordered.



(ii)

It was dark when Steve pulled the bike over, but the house was lit up, and the front door was open, and without knowing how he knew it he knew he was expected.

His hands shook as they had not while he'd been riding. There was that lump in his throat again, the ache in his gut. Should he be doing this? Should he be here? Shouldn't he, rather, be moving on, leaving this part of himself behind, concentrating on the future?

But look where that had got him: judgemental, self-righteous, too scared of falling out of the comfort of familiar patterns to think for himself until Howard's son had - figuratively speaking - socked him in the face and shouted reason at him while they were both reeling from the impact.

Someone was at the door, had heard his bike pull up.

"Steve?" Gabe Jones called across his own front yard. "Steve, get up here, Jesus, where the hell have you even been? Howard looked for that plane for years and the first thing you do is trash New York, Christ Almighty, Cap -"

Steve stumbled up the well-paved path and half-fell into the light; Gabe said "Jesus," again when he saw the bruises, and then he said, "Welcome home," and after that, as Steve was leaning against the railings and laughing near-hysterically, "Does Carter know? You better call her. You call her right now. Come on. Come on in."

The front door shut behind him; it was the sight of Gabe's grey hair, of his lined, worn face and hands, of the faint tremble in his fingers, that brought Steve back to himself more than anything else had since he'd woken up."I can't stay," he said, shaking. "I have to go back - Loki - I have to go back."

"All right," said Gabe. "It's all right. Whenever you need to." And then, as Steve caught his hands, like children on a playground, like brothers, like dearest friends, he said it again: "Welcome home."



(iii)

"Look, no," said Natasha. "I don't want to intrude. He's your family."

"So are you," said Steve. "Come on. It'd mean a lot to Bucky."

She gave him a look that suggested she knew exactly what he was doing, but wasn't pissed off enough to keep on trying to get out of it.

*********

Gabe crowed like a kid when he saw her. "Hah, you did it! I'm amazed. Holy shit, you are a looker. Welcome to Hartford, Agent Romanov."

Almost reluctantly, and feeling considerably out of practice at allowing herself to be charmed by a ninety-year-old ex-member of the Howling Commandos - although, knowing this lot, they probably had some kind of saying about once a Commando, much like the Marines - Natasha smiled. "Please," she said. "Call me Natasha."

Clint would laugh his ass off if he knew how anxious she was (trying not to be) for the last living member of James and Steve's family to like her.

"It'd be a pleasure," said Gabe. "I'm Gabe."

"Well, thanks for having me, Gabe."

He waved her off impatiently, turning into the house; she saw the tremble in his legs and hands, watched as both Steve and James ignored it. They'd pretend, these three, that they were still equals until the day Gabe Jones died of old age. Anything else would probably kill them all three. "It's not a favour, Natasha, I wanted to give you my condolences in person for putting up with the Hardy boys over here -"

"Hey," chorused the Hardy boys indignantly.

"Holmes and Watson then," said Gabe, grinning. "Only less intelligent."

"Than Watson?" asked Natasha, and he chuckled.

*********

When they left at lunchtime the next day Natasha felt pleasantly full of delicious food, warm and welcomed in a way she couldn't remember ever being outside of Avengers Tower. Gabe's daughter Julie had come by earlier, shook hands and kissed cheeks and made them promise to come again.

"I haven't seen him smile this much since Mom died," she'd said quietly to Natasha in the kitchen. "That was five years ago, you know. She was eighty-two, just slipped away in her sleep." She sighed.

"I'm sorry," Natasha had said, acutely aware that she was probably around that age herself.

"No, it's OK." Julie had smiled. She was in her fifties herself, grey in her own hair. "Just come back."

"I will, if the boys will let me," said Natasha. "You can't imagine how much blackmail material I'd collected after ten minutes with your father."

Julie had shouted with laughter.

Now Natasha was standing on the front porch; the boys were at the gate, loading the bikes, and she was saying goodbye to Gabe.

"Arthur and Lancelot, possibly," he said, grinning.

"Not exactly," said Natasha, puzzled.

He was watching her with a faint grin; slightly wary, and more than a little vicious.

Ninety and more, yes. Howling Commando, also yes. "As long as you're not Guinevere," he said.

Natasha stared. Then, suddenly, she smiled. "I always thought the problem with Arthur and Lancelot was that they never did work out that they loved each other as much as she loved each of them," she said.

"Hah!" said Gabe. "Point to you. I hope."

"I'm very rarely wrong," said Natasha.

"And when you are?"

Natasha grinned this time, and thought - hoped - he saw something of who she truly was under this weekend's carefully-displayed charm. "Well," she said. "That's the fun of being an Avenger. When you're wrong, there's always someone in the near vicinity who can smack you down." She thought about this for a minute. "Unless you're the Hulk, that is."

Gabe laughed the same loud, easy laugh his daughter had earlier, and saw her off with a handshake and a sketch of a salute.

"Know who she reminds me of?" she heard him say to James.

"Carter, of course," said James.

Natasha felt flattered.



(iv)

"I hope you appreciate the extent to which you've terrified my niece by making me do this, Captain Rogers," said Peggy dryly.

"I'll send her an apology card," said Steve, straight-faced. "I tried, Peggy, they wouldn't let me out of the country."

"I know," she said, more softly, and came to sit beside him on Gabe's porch in the sunlight. "I suppose I'm just glad I haven't got some more debilitating disease - don't roll your eyes, my father had dementia. It was awful."

He took her hands in his the way he'd held Gabe's, his bruises faded, his knuckles scarring and calloused. Soon those too would be gone. It was hell on earth sometimes, the way his skin never hardened for long, always breaking open and then healing perfectly, pink and soft. Peggy had used to wrap his hands in bandages before his put his gloves on sometimes during the war, one of the few ways they'd allowed themselves physical contact.

"Thanks for coming, Director Carter," he said, smiling.

She drew a hand out of his to press it to his cheek. She'd cut her white hair short - probably as soon as it started thinning; he could almost see the look of indignation on her face as she'd decided to hack it off. He watched her eyes instead of her face, the deep scouring of the lines around her mouth and eyes.

Then her words registered properly. "More debilitating?"

"Old age, Steve." She sighed. "Old age and cancer. Lung cancer. Six months, if I'm lucky. Knew I should have kicked the fags." She grinned.

"Peggy," he said, but there wasn't any grief left in him, not really. He'd torn himself up with it already. If he tried that again he'd never come back from it. She could see that in him as much as the love and the regret. She'd always seen him so very clearly.

"Not a word," she said. "Not one. You're not to think about it. And I insist you call me, often, but you're not to try and visit me, or anything like that. This is the worst you'll ever see me looking."

"OK," he said quietly. "OK." Then, with a sudden spark of humour, "Not unlike Judi Dench, I suppose you did that deliberately."

Peggy was startled into a laugh louder and warmer than he remembered from during the war. Over on the street, Gabe was talking to a blonde woman Steve assumed was Peggy's niece Sharon; at the sound of Peggy's laugh, they both looked over. After a moment, Sharon even smiled.

Gabe already had been.



(v)

"Holy shit," said Gabe, grinning as he leveraged himself up on the pillows of the hospital bed. "Tony Stark himself. Well, you've gotten taller since you were nine."

"Smarter too," said Tony, shaking hands. "Didn't you give me that model tank with the water pistol that -"

"Yeah, your mother never really forgave me for that," said Gabe. "Said she wouldn't have minded if you'd just let it run loose in Howard's workshop and not the front hall. What're you doin' up here, kid, been abducted?" He nodded at Bucky and Steve, both of them hovering and trying not to look like it. It was pathetic, it really was. Tony was managing to act like he met dying old men who'd fought in the War with two of his closest friends every day, settling on the side of the bed and drawing his sunglasses off before he assumed a tragic expression. "Banished," he said. "Exiled. Thrown out of my own home. Well, one of my homes. Well, my main home. Where all the bots are. D'you know how much hassle it is to transport three semi-sentient robots from Malibu to New York?"

Gabe, in turn, assumed as much of a stern look as he could still manage without going off into a coughing fit. "Done something to that girl of yours? That's a good thing you've got going there, Tony, I can tell that just from reading the papers."

Tony's tragic expression slid into something gleeful and disbelieving and immoderately, impossibly happy, with a clear side-order of terror and worry. The boy had a ridiculously expressive face, thought Gabe. Like Maria.

"Knocked her up," he proclaimed, lasciviously proud of himself.

"Ah," said Gabe, and smiled, soft and sad. "Isn't that fitting."

"I should've come sooner," said Tony. "I'm sorry."

"No, you shouldn't," said Gabe. "Got enough relics of your old man in your life. Time to do something new, eh? Done damn good at it too. Guess I did." He did cough now, and let himself, and for the first time since Steve had appeared on his doorstep nearly three years ago, beat to hell after what had happened in New York but otherwise utterly unchanged from the man Gabe had followed into fire and battle seventy years before, he let Steve steady him, let himself be helped, the way he would have done all those years ago but had far too much pride for now; the way he had helped Steve, three years ago. "Guess we all did."