'First things first,' Gina starts by telling him and the five other people in basic training. She's shorter than Natasha but her voluminous black curls seem to make up for what she lacks in height through sheer exuberance. When Steve had first arrived, she’d taken one long look at him with raised eyebrows and then turned away, exhaling a long and measured breath, and proceeded to act as if he were invisible. All things considered, he preferred it that way.
'If I was a nicer person, I might start by telling you that I value your contribution to our program, to these kids. I might tell you that every minute you spend with them, getting them back in the world after they witnessed it being stomped all over, is precious, and that you should all give yourselves a pat on the back for being such fine upstanding citizens.'
She surveys them with a challenging look that reminds Steve of Peggy so much he has to put a hand over his mouth to hide a smile. He doesn’t want to get singled out for insubordination before they’ve even begun working together.
'But I'm not a nice person,' Gina continues. 'I'm trying to get things done here on a shoestring budget and fewer volunteers than it takes to run a coffee morning at the PTA. I don't want people who are going to walk away just when I've finally started remembering all their names. If you stay for this orientation, you need to really want this. I'm not interested in people who only want something to put on their college applications. This is heavy stuff, and you all need to be prepared for that.'
She leaves a pause here, apparently waiting for people to take their leave if they've been intimidated into it. Steve isn't surprised when there aren't any takers; he recognizes the power of a speech like that. Probably they're all even more determined to prove themselves now, to demonstrate that even if it might look like it, they're not just here for the sake of their resumes.
'No takers?' she asks with the slight hint of a smile. 'Alright. Then let's get started.'
Natasha had been the one who suggested it. This was surprising to Steve at first – usually it was Sam trying to help him find new purpose – but after a while he thought he understood why. Natasha was always trying to take care of them in her own way, although she often refused to acknowledge that she was doing it, and she knew more than any of them what it meant to try and sweep up around the giant crater left by your own negative impact. If anyone was going to direct him toward a way he might be able to alleviate his own guilt while actually doing some good into the bargain, it would be her.
'Do you think they'll accept me?' he'd asked doubtfully, staring down at the flier. VOLUNTEERS NEEDED! it bleated at him in sour Hulk green, which he thought demonstrated a serious lack of tact considering it was an advertisement calling for people to work with kids left with PTSD after the Avengers levelled half their home city. 'I mean. I'm the one who caused half the mess.'
'While defending the earth from aliens,' Natasha pointed out.
Steve had frowned, tapping his fingers against the flier. There had been a documentary on TV the other day entitled Heroes or Villains? The Rise and Fall of the Avengers. Documentaries and talk shows on the Avengers were a dime a dozen but the title of this one stuck out: Steve wanted to ask who had the authority on when they’d fallen, or arguably whether they had ever risen in the first place.
The footage of the Chitauri invasion and the helicarrier crashes was even more damning when viewed in HD magnificence on the widescreen in the tower’s communal living space. When you were living it – when you were in the middle of the fight – it was impossible to appreciate exactly how much damage you were doing, damage to people and to infrastructure, so much of it that repairs weren’t even close to completion a year after SHIELD had been dissolved. There were entire blocks downtown that were still levelled and unusable, huge chunks torn out of now-uninhabitable skyscrapers that still had hazard tape mournfully strung across them as if waiting for someone to pull on the loose thread and bring the whole thing tumbling down. Steve had emailed the city zoning commission about it offering to help or contribute to the reconstruction but nobody had ever been able to give him a satisfactory answer about what was needed. There also seemed to be some confusion over who exactly owned the land and therefore whose responsibility it was to rebuild, especially after the dissolution of SHIELD and subsequent selling off of its properties and other myriad assets. Tony had thrown so much money at the reconstruction effort after the invasion that Steve couldn’t imagine asking him to do it again, give more, patch up Manhattan one giant Stark Industries-stamped hay bale of money at a time. He was probably already doing it anyway and Steve just didn’t know about it; Tony had a surprising number of charitable and non-profit bodies up his sleeve that he didn’t like to discuss or even own up to. Steve felt this was indicative of his inability to accept praise for the genuinely worthwhile things he did outside of the Avengers, while simultaneously insisting he be loudly and effusively praised for what usually amounted to a random series of explosions in the lab when he was working on his suits.
Bucky had watched the documentary impassively for twenty minutes, flashes of red and gold and acid green reflecting in his eyes before Steve couldn't bear it anymore and jumped up off the couch, announcing he was going for a run. They had already been for one this morning with Sam but after a moment Bucky had nodded and come with him anyway. Steve tried to keep a conversation going but everywhere they ran he kept seeing the footage superimposed over the flashy signs, the bustling streets of Manhattan: screaming children cowering underneath teetering stacks of drywall and brick, the guts of a Chitauri leviathan steaming hot on the sidewalk while people slipped and cried and clawed their way through the mess in an attempt to escape.
'I don't know what good I'll be,' Steve admitted to Natasha. 'I might even make things worse. I could give them flashbacks, Nat.'
'This isn't a movie, Steve,' she said sharply. 'They're not going to take one look at you and run screaming just because you were there that day. There were lots of other people there too. It’s a big city.’
He wanted to smile at that, hearing something of his ma in it: giving him hell for singling himself out yet again to take a beating. There were lots of other kids who coulda jumped in too, weren’t there? You’re not as special as all that, Steve. Let someone else take the punches for once.
Natasha watched him silently but he only looked back, unsure what she expected him to say. Yes, there had been lots of other people there. He tended to stand out, though; he’d been brandishing a fairly recognizable target at the time. Plus, he’d been one of the guys doing all the punching.
Eventually she sighed.
‘They might even remember that it was you saving them, Steve. You could get something out of this too.'
He wanted to argue that this wasn’t about what he needed but he was pretty sure that would have proved her point somehow so he stayed silent, unconvinced, until she unfolded her arms and sidled up to him. He wondered sometimes whether she knew she did that, approached people as if every conversation would end either in a fight or in sex, and then he felt stupid for wondering: of course she did.
'It'll do them good, Steve,' she said in a softer voice, as soft as she got. 'To see that somebody cares.'
'I do care,' he said. That wasn’t the issue; he just didn’t want to muscle in where he wasn’t wanted or needed. The Avengers had already been accused of treating New York like their own personal playground, and he didn’t want to compound that impression; throwing his weight around didn’t come as naturally to him these days, even now he’d finally gotten used to having more of it.
'I know you do. Everyone knows you do. It just doesn’t seem like caring from the sidelines is enough for you lately.'
He frowned at her.
'You've been spending too much time around Sam,' he told her seriously.
He'd thought about it for a long time though, after she left. Bucky came back from the gym two hours later and Steve was still sat at the kitchen table thinking about it, folding up the flier ready to toss in the recycling and then cautiously unfolding it again, the creases now forming parallel white tracks in the garish glossy background design.
Bucky looked exhausted, just punched out, which could mean it was a good day in which he had achieved a new personal best or could mean he'd wanted to make somebody hurt him, which the other Avengers and their personal trainers often had to adjust to on the fly, with varying degrees of success. There was really no way to tell except to ask, and neither of them were responding particularly well to Sam's pleas to use their words instead of their fists to communicate these days. Sam had suggested to Steve once, half a joke, that this might be because men from the forties weren’t as accustomed to discussing their emotions. Steve had ruefully nodded along with this but he didn't really think it was true. To him it seemed that actually there was far too much to say: whole paragraphs stacking up in his throat when he opened his mouth to try and say anything meaningful to Bucky – which inevitably dissipated at the blank and unforgiving expression Bucky usually produced at any sign of encroaching emotional vulnerability. Steve just had no idea where to begin. Everything that had been done to Bucky was such a violation, and warranted such constant vigilance over his body and mind even now, that it seemed intolerably cruel to ask him to share anything else. He had already had to give his past, his body, his peace of mind; how in good conscience could Steve possibly ask him for anything more by trying to start a conversation about it?
Bucky's skin gleamed with sweat as his throat worked, draining a water bottle straight from the fridge. Steve caught himself watching and looked away quickly, trying to shrug off the familiar prickle of guilt along the back of his neck.
'Natasha find you?' Bucky asked unnecessarily, eyes flicking to the flier, after a minute of silence during which Steve realized with irritation that he couldn't even open his mouth to say hello.
'Yeah,' he said, a little choked. He got up to make coffee. He didn't really want it, but he wanted something to do with his hands, which usually got too obviously jittery around Bucky, especially when Bucky had a lot of skin on show. ‘She wants me to sign up as a mentor, or – like a counselor, I guess. Volunteer stuff. For the kids who were around during the invasion.’
It’s a little more complicated than that – Natasha had explained that kids could only qualify for the program if their parents provided financial statements indicating that they couldn’t afford professional counselling, and if they had a written note from the kids’ teachers to demonstrate that their behavior was disrupting class to the extent that some preventative measures needed to be taken – but Steve could barely get his head around those details himself, let alone explain them to anyone else. It seems bizarrely cruel to insist that kids should only be allowed to apply for therapeutic help – and amateur therapeutic help at that; the group sounds more like a social gathering intended to have a positive, relaxing effect on the kids rather than a genuine therapy session – if they’ve been proven to cause a disturbance, as if the quiet ones don’t need attention just as much. It’s one of those situations that is irritatingly familiar in its baffling dismissal of those in need; it reminds him grimly of the forties, and is actually making him swing more toward signing up than rejecting the idea. These kids already have the odds stacked against them, how can he add to that? Maybe he could do something about the candidate criteria while he was there. He doesn’t mind so much throwing his weight around when it’s for things like that.
Bucky was silent in response, and when Steve finished fiddling with the coffee filters and turned around to lean against the counter, he was methodically stripping the label off his water bottle, watching his own fingers move with eerie grace. He looked up at Steve and smiled a little, one knowing glance that propelled Steve back to their teenage years when Bucky had worn it most, when he’d found or done something he wasn’t supposed to have done or found. A lot of people seemed to think that Bucky had run around after Steve when they were younger, because Steve was always getting himself into fights Bucky had to pull him out of, and Steve couldn’t tell them the truth without betraying too much of the things they’d never really talked about, even just between the two of them: that it was Steve who was the follower, Steve who followed whenever Bucky beckoned and who was helpless to the siren call of Bucky’s need, even when it wasn’t directed at him.
‘You should do it,’ Bucky said unexpectedly. ‘It’ll be good for you.’
‘Yeah?’ Steve asked, trying not to perk up too obviously and apparently failing, judging by the way Bucky affectionately rolled his eyes.
‘Stop you moping around the apartment all day,’ he said teasingly, his voice so low it was almost a growl. Steve looked down at the ground, sure he was flushing. He still wished he could switch parts of his brain off sometimes, just like he had whenever any of the USO girls had flirted him into incomprehensibility, but this was probably more to do with his nervous system, which never had known which way was up when it came to responding to Bucky.
‘Plus it’d be nice to help with the relief effort,’ Steve reflected, and Bucky snorted, getting up from the table and heading toward his bedroom. Steve clamped down on the longing tendril inside him which wanted to wind around Bucky’s wrist and cling. Bucky never lingers in any communal space for very long anymore, usually retreating to his own room after a few minutes of conversation, which has had the unfortunate consequence of making Steve a little manic whenever they are alone in the same room together, determined to make the most out of whatever attention Bucky is willing to toss his way that day. It’s a supremely unfair way to think about it, Steve knows that, and so he would never say anything about it. Bucky has fought hard to reclaim his own right and desire for privacy and Steve has no right of his own to wish for more than what Bucky can give him. It’s only that Steve can’t help falling on what Bucky does give like a starving man, stashing it away for the times when he is left alone to make his peace with the pitiful fact that he will never get enough for as long as he lives.
‘Yeah,’ Bucky called back now. ‘I think you really need to worry about that, Steve. You’re ranking a little low on the martyrdom scale these days.’
Steve gave a snort of his own.
‘You’re one to talk,’ he retorted. ‘How many anonymous donations to the VA are we up to now?’
Bucky threw up a silent two fingered salute as he made his way down the corridor to his room, and Steve struggled not to sigh at the familiar sight of his broad shoulders disappearing through the doorway, head bent down, the soft click as the door closes behind him.
It wasn’t that they hadn’t tried to talk about it when Bucky had first returned to him. It seemed to have been one of the motivating instincts that led Bucky back, eventually, to where Steve had only dreamed that they might find him: back in the Smithsonian, staring at the Howling Commandos exhibit with a hunger that stopped Steve in his tracks, actually panting from how fast he had run when the museum staff’s call had finally reached him. Bucky had shown up dressed in the same clothes as last time, plus several weeks’ worth of beard growth, and stood there for hours while the room slowly emptied around him. Determined not to let him get away this time, one museum employee had gotten close enough to confirm what they suspected and they had contacted Jarvis, who immediately interrupted the call Steve was on with Tony about facilitating some kind of initiative for teenagers with superhero potential. Steve had been in the middle of a run, which he had found was one of the only ways to alleviate the tension inspired by conversations with Tony, and had changed directions so quickly to get back to the Smithsonian that he had left a screeching skid mark on the sidewalk.
Bucky had turned to see Steve as if he was not in the slightest surprised to find him there, just a minute shift of his body to acknowledge Steve’s presence. There was no reason why he should be surprised, after all; if he remembered anything of the two of them, it would be easy enough to make the deduction that Steve would have run much further to find him. Steve took a moment to be thankful that he hadn’t yet left Washington with Sam on their search, or he would have no doubt been forced to commandeer a plane to get back here in time to stop Bucky leaving again.
‘They’re all,’ Bucky started, then seemed to choke, flinching, before he swallowed and continued. ‘They’re all gone now.’
‘Yes,’ Steve confirmed, standing stock still where he’d stumbled to a halt. He’d realized his hands were out as if he were hoping to ward off a wild beast and he forced them back to his sides quickly. Bucky was glancing all around him now, keeping his head low. He was holding his left arm ever so slightly away from his body, the way he had started to hold his rifle towards the end, when he didn’t want to be associated with it anymore. ‘It’s just you and me, Buck. And Peggy,’ he added, which made Bucky look up sharply.
‘Peggy Carter,’ he murmured. Then he frowned, making sudden hard eye contact with Steve. ‘Red.’
‘The red dress,’ Steve said, feeling the words come out of his mouth with no intervention from his brain. Then the impossibility of the moment overwhelmed him for a second, as sure and consuming as the vast expanse of the Potomac, and he couldn’t speak. But it was vital that he must speak: he must tell Bucky how much he’d been missed, how much he was loved, how little Steve cared what he had done in the intervening years so long as he would come back, come back home with him, and let Steve love him again.
‘Bucky,’ he said in the end, helpless to encompass everything except in the one word which had always meant so much to him; around which the world, for him, revolved.
‘Steve,’ Bucky said back, and the intonation had been a little different, Bucky’s voice raw and rusty from disuse, but the look in his eyes, for that brief unbelievable moment, had been exactly the same as it had been when Steve had pulled him off Zola’s table: just as stunned, and just as relieved.
In his lowest moments since that day in the museum, Steve has yearned for that look, and has never once seen it replicated. At first he’d been too preoccupied with the day to day essentials of helping Bucky resituate himself in the world, in helping him remember that he was a person at all, to worry about whether Bucky remembered what they had meant to each other back then. It hardly seemed relevant when they couldn’t even get Bucky to speak more than three words at a time and most of those were in Russian, and it was a good day when Bucky hadn’t incapacitated any of them or curled up on the floor having a panic attack. The only person he would allow near him when he was hyperventilating was Steve, but he wouldn’t let him touch, so Steve had to just sit there, hands clawing white and strained into his legs, watching Bucky shake and come back to himself in stages over and over again. After the fifth time Bucky reset during the night and tried to attack him, Natasha finally convinced Steve to sleep with a Taser under his pillow. He doggedly refused to put a lock on the door, though; he wouldn’t take the chance that Bucky would find it locked when he needed Steve the most, and that rejection would forever color Bucky’s willingness to reach out to him.
While the progress Bucky made was gradual, it was still progress; three months after he came back, he had seemed to be slowly coming back to himself. He was talking to a psychiatrist – or he was sitting in a room with a psychiatrist for extended periods of time. He could go outside alone, although he still wasn’t doing great in crowded public places. Definition was beginning to emerge: he liked Steve to play him the records they’d listened to when they were kids, he remembered how much he hated cooking anything more complicated than eggs. He made quiet, laconic jokes about the rest of the Avengers that made Steve grin and look down, away, because Bucky’s watchful expression was so achingly familiar; he had always liked making people laugh.
The longer Bucky was out of cryo, the more his own identity had time to reassert itself, and the harder it was for the HYDRA programming to overcome him. Steve had optimistically begun to hope that any changes in personality need not noticeably alter their relationship, if that was what Bucky wanted too – after all, he was a different man than he had been in the forties as well, having been forced to adapt quickly to the twenty first century with little or no guidance as to how he might do so without going mad. All that had made absolutely no difference to his feelings about Bucky. But however much Bucky seemed to want Steve around for ballast, he couldn’t seem to understand why. Steve could see it when Bucky looked at him sometimes, before Bucky quickly looked away – as if he was trying to remember something which he knew to be important but couldn’t quite internalize or believe. It was difficult to avoid the conclusion that Bucky’s feelings for Steve could not have remained intact, when everything else about him had been so thoroughly broken down.
And yet there were moments – incandescent moments of hope and shock in which Bucky remembered something Steve hadn’t already volunteered, in which Steve could see the shining splinters of the man he used to know poking up through the scorched earth. There had been entire days and weeks and months in which meaningful discussion of the past still seemed like a possibility; Bucky remembered in flashes, but almost everything stuck once it had appeared. There were times when Steve had gone to bed almost giddy with the progress Bucky had made that day. But it always ended the same way: Steve would wake up in the morning to find that Bucky had panicked in the night and run again. He always came back a few days later after leaving Steve nauseated with worry, slipping back into his bed without a word to anyone. More than once Steve had fallen asleep in the chair in Bucky’s empty room and woken to find him curled up in the bed, his hair tugged loose from its bun and splayed out over the pillow, face set in a snarl that sometimes eased when Steve was forced to speak, answering a call from Natasha or Sam to say Bucky had come back again.
Steve would watch him in these moments, sure that Bucky would want him to leave him in privacy but unable to deny himself until the guilt became too great. He would wish that he could claw himself open and let Bucky climb inside, wander around in there and explore as he pleased. He thought it might be the only way they could ever really be at ease with each other again, with no doubts over whether Bucky’s return was cherished or resented. Because he knew Bucky thought him resentful – pining for the man he used to be and, in his grief, incapable of loving the one he was now. It would have taken more words than Steve could reasonably hope to string together to explain that his love was not conditional on anything as unyielding as Bucky remaining the man he had been in their youth. In any case, all the qualities he had adored in Bucky were still there, even in these most trying of circumstances – his kindness, his generosity, his dry humor. It wasn’t just their shared history that kept Steve hoping. He was powerless in the face of what he felt for Bucky; he always had been. It just didn’t matter what Bucky had done, or whether he remembered everything or nothing at all. Bucky looked at Steve and Steve adored him. There was nothing Steve could do about it.
‘I don’t know what I’m doing, Sam,’ Steve admits, sounding a little out of breath even to himself. In theory the serum had enhanced his circulatory system to the point where hyperventilation should be completely impossible, but apparently all it took was a community center room full of scowling preteens to prove medical science wrong on that score. ‘I have no idea how to talk to kids.’
‘That is a bald-faced lie,’ Sam says down the phone, voice exhilarated and slightly too loud from altitude. He loves to split his attention while he’s flying and deliberately calls people while he’s practicing maneuvers. Tony likes to say this is because that way he can actually pretend he’s a real bird who doesn’t even have to think about it. ‘You love kids. Sometimes when they make you kiss babies on camera, I’m kinda worried you’re not gonna give ‘em back.’
‘Yeah, but these ones are all –’ he takes another darting glance through the pane of glass again, examining the group of kids sat moodily at their tables for anyone who might seem happy or even accepting of being here, but no dice ‘– scowling at me. I’m not even in the room yet, Sam, and I already feel like they’re scowling at me.’
‘They’ve been through a lot,’ Sam reminds him. ‘Wouldn’t you be scowling too?’
‘Plus, you’re Captain America,’ Sam points out. ‘I don’t think they’re going to throw rotten tomatoes at you.’
‘You’d be surprised,’ Steve says darkly.
‘Shit!’ Sam yells with no warning. Steve jerks the phone away from his ear. ‘Oh. Never mind. Sorry, thought I’d hit a bird. It’s all good.’
‘I’m going to go now,’ Steve says calmly, ‘before you give me something else to worry about.’
‘You’re gonna do great,’ Sam says, obviously trying to sound sincere to make up for nearly bursting Steve’s eardrum. ‘Just be yourself.’
‘Right,’ Steve says, and hangs up before he can point out that being himself doesn’t seem to be helping anyone else lately.
When the rest of the volunteers and Gina have arrived and they’ve all exchanged greetings, most of them also looking as if they want to puke, they go into the hall as a group, a move that makes Steve want to half-hysterically make a joke about the Avengers assembling. But he hangs back for a second in the doorway and watches the wary looks on the kids’ faces as they scope out the volunteers, more adults who’ve promised to help when the system failed to, and he loses the urge to joke. He wonders wildly how any of this is going to work at all – the kids are individually sat at around a dozen small round tables, some of them leaning across to whisper to each other but mostly staring in silence at the front of the room or out the window, the familiar blankness of someone who might be in the room physically but is leagues away in their mind. All the volunteers are lining up at the front, toting nervous smiles like they’re about to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. It’s all incredibly off-putting and awkward, and for a second Steve wants to turn around and walk away, and never have to think about doing this again. But then Gina turns around and looks at him expectantly, and he remembers what she’d told them in training – that the first session was always the worst, but that these kids deserved people who would keep trying anyway – and he takes a deep breath and keeps walking.
Which means he enters the room last, to a puzzled and then startled silence. Contrary to popular belief, it’s actually not all that difficult for him to get around in New York so long as he doesn’t talk too loudly about Avengers business on the subway or wear any combination of red white and blue. Not that many people know what he really looks like; the cowl is more effective a tool for disguise than people give it credit for, and only real history buffs tend to have read enough about him to recognize his face on sight. Besides, it’s New York – odds are, there’s something weirder going on down the street than just Captain America getting groceries.
That doesn’t mean to say people never double take when they realize what they’re actually looking at, though. He quickly fishes out his showgirl smile, which is what he reverts to when he’s so nervous he knows it wouldn’t look natural if he tried anything else less brash. It’s the usual mix of responses; a few of the kids look like they’ve been hit over the head with a board, some of them look excited but as if they’re trying to stay cool, and most of them look as if he could be doing cartwheels fully suited up and they still wouldn’t be impressed. These kids have a little more reason than most to fall into the latter category, he supposes.
‘Alright,’ Gina says. ‘This is just a preliminary session so everyone can get to know their partners and see if we need to make any changes. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna make anyone do any icebreakers or introduce themselves or anything like that. We want you all to feel comfortable here, so just try to have fun with it, okay?’
A black girl wearing dungarees and a giant yellow bow in her hair rolls her eyes so expansively at this that Steve immediately feels a kindred connection with her. That one, he wants to say. That one for me.
But he gets paired with a short skinny kid called Aubrey who stammers so much it takes him nearly five minutes to get out his first sentence, which is a question about whether or not Steve has to get his shield repainted after every time the Avengers have to fight.
‘Not every time,’ he says, thinking back through the past year’s missions consecutively and rapidly editing content until they turn into anecdotes he might be able to tell a ten-year-old. ‘Like when those creeper vines came out of the sewers a few months ago?’ They’d spread, insidious, from manhole covers and up through subway platforms until they reached the surface and flowered into deeply poisonous but kind of pretty giant purple flowers. It’d taken them two days to track them back to the underground lab from which they’d sprung, some kind of experimental growth hormone backfiring on the long-gone still unidentified scientist. The stories where there’s no one big to fight but there’s still a lot of clearing up to do either take up more or less news coverage depending on how explosive the mess; this had been medium, and had occurred shortly after the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade so sadly all the news crews had already been present to record Banner being sucked, disgruntled and pounding his fists on the crumbling sidewalk, into a manhole, one tree trunk limb at a time.
‘Uh huh,’ Aubrey confirms.
‘Well, they needed us to clear the source of the vines,’ Steve says, ‘but I didn’t have to fight anybody, so I used my shield mostly just for chopping off the vines as they appeared.’
Aubrey nods seriously, as if he wishes he could be taking notes. Steve looks at him, encroaching panic threatening on the horizon, before he remembers Gina’s advice when they weren’t sure what to say next.
‘Just ask them stuff,’ she’d said. ‘None of you would be here if you didn’t at least have a fringe awareness of how to talk to kids, so try and let the conversation flow naturally. And remember that in the end they’re just people, and people love to talk about themselves. Ask them stuff: ask them about school and their families and their pets and whether they like baseball and what they’re looking forward to.’
‘Aren’t we supposed to get them talking about the attacks?’ Moira had asked. She was a smartly dressed psychology graduate who listened to everything Gina said with a perpetual small frown of dissent, but she didn’t usually speak up.
‘They’ll talk about it in their own time,’ Gina had said. ‘The important thing is that they get comfortable with you first. This isn’t a psychiatrist’s office; it’s a place where they can come to feel safe, and if we start by poking them with sticks they’re not going to feel like that.’
Don’t poke him with a stick, Steve reminds himself, watching as Aubrey absentmindedly gnaws on a hangnail, staring at the table.
‘So,’ he says gently, ‘what grade are you in at school?’
Aubrey looks at him and takes a deep breath, frowning.
They fumble their way through a conversation until it’s snack time, during which Steve stands desultorily next to the table with the coffee canisters and little baskets full of sweetener and creamer, trying not to make eye contact with anyone.
‘Hey,’ says a voice, and when he looks around it’s the little girl who’d rolled her eyes during Gina’s opening speech. Steve smiles, opening his mouth to ask her name but she cuts him off. ‘I know your secret,’ she says.
A few things flash through Steve’s mind at that, none of which are suitable for public consumption.
‘Oh yeah?’ he asks, raising an eyebrow. ‘And what might that be?’
‘You don’t really wanna be here,’ she says triumphantly. ‘I saw you talking to Aubrey and you looked like you wanted to run away.’ She points to where Aubrey is now sat chatting avidly and with barely discernible pauses for stammering to Celia, a spiky haired twentysomething with a beautiful sleeve tattoo of a grandfather clock overflowing and bursting open with sunflowers on her left arm. Celia collects baseball trading cards and appears to have found a kindred collector in Aubrey, from whom Steve can faintly hear the words ‘mint condition.’
‘Huh,’ he says to himself.
‘Yep,’ the girl says. ‘I think we should swap,’ she continues, grabbing Steve by the arm and propelling him with a startlingly firm grip in Gina’s direction.
‘How come?’ Steve asks, trying not to bump into anyone as she tugs him through a series of disgruntled volunteers and the other kids. ‘Sorry, sorry – do you not like Celia?’
‘Celia’s fine, but you’re Captain America,’ the girl says disbelievingly, ‘that’s how come.’
‘I don’t know if we can just –’
‘Besides, I don’t really want to be here either,’ the girl says, stopping so she can fix him with an unexpectedly serious stare. ‘We can both not want to be here together, okay?’
Steve looks down at her small hand, bunching up the material of his sweater in anxious, apparently unconscious movements that belie her determined tone.
‘Okay then, sure,’ he says. ‘That sounds good, but you should probably tell me your name first.’
‘Michaela,’ she supplies readily, turning away and tugging him towards Gina again.
‘Then it’s nice to meet you, Michaela. My name is –’
‘I know what your name is –’
‘My name is Steve,’ he says over her, ‘and I look forward to us working together.’
‘You’re so old,’ Michaela says, which is when they reach Gina, who turns away from what looks like a heated discussion verging on an argument with Moira to raise an eyebrow at them.
‘Yes?’ she asks.
Steve nudges an apparently now tongue-tied Michaela forward with a slight smile.
‘Go on,’ he says when she glares at him, ‘this was your idea. I’m just along for the ride.’
Bucky isn’t officially part of the Avengers, a concession they had to make to practicality when it became obvious that having more than one Soviet ex-assassin on the team was going to ruffle the sort of feathers not even Tony’s soliloquies of distracting flattery can smooth. This doesn’t make much of a difference to his presence at any and every mission the Avengers embark upon though; Tony had tried to delete him from their group conversation and restrict his access to JARVIS as precautionary measures after he’d recovered enough to start making noise about hanging around the apartment all day while Steve was out risking life and limb, but he kept showing up anyway. When Steve found out what Tony had done he had been so angry he started packing all their stuff to move back out to Brooklyn before Tony conceded and revoked the restrictions. They had all tried several times since to talk Bucky into staying away from their missions, or at least pleaded with him to stay out of the public eye for the duration – all of them except Steve, because he knew that set of Bucky’s jaw and wasn’t about to waste his time arguing with the patented Barnes stare of stubborn refusal, and also because he’d take as much of Bucky volunteering to spend time with him as he could get – by pointing out that Steve had managed not to get killed in the intervening two years in between waking up and Bucky reappearing.
‘I mean, the closest he got was the time you tried to kill him,’ Tony had pointed out, which had only made Bucky scowl harder.
‘Tony,’ Steve protested quietly.
‘Don’t ‘Tony’ me,’ Tony said irritably. ‘And quit with the puppy dog eyes. Seriously, are you not seeing the irony here? As well as the, you know –’ he gestured between Bucky and himself ‘– actual iron?’
Steve isn’t convinced it’s really about Bucky wanting to protect him as much as it is about Bucky just falling into a familiar pattern for lack of more appealing options – he’s been a soldier longer than any of them have lived, at this point; who are they to take his most finely honed skill set away from him? Steve’s presence is probably coincidental, and Bucky is only falling into old habits by protecting him so voraciously, and to the exclusion of all the other Avengers.
‘Um, no,’ Natasha had said, staring at Steve like he’d spontaneously sprouted a dunce hat when he mentioned this. ‘It is totally, definitely about you. He actually redirected one of Doom’s drones at Tony the other day, remember? Right after he picked off one that was about to land a hit on your right shoulder?’
‘He said that was an accident,’ Steve said staunchly, and while Natasha had rolled her eyes and changed conversational tack probably so as to avoid getting exasperated beyond her capacity to speak, the subject had played on Steve’s mind for hours afterward. He understood their trepidation, and he wasn’t so blinded by affection where Bucky was concerned that he couldn’t see how Bucky’s bone-deep loyalty to him was manifesting in such a way as to warp the team dynamic, but he was at a loss as to how he should confront it. The very thought of inviting that kind of attention and speculation into his and Bucky’s relationship made him want to throw up; he could tell they were all painfully curious as it was, and he didn’t want to violate Bucky’s privacy any more than he had to by explaining what he could barely admit to himself. In any case, he didn’t think he could bear to hear Bucky confirm what Steve knew in his gut was true – that it was just muscle memory; that it was just left over from the war; that Bucky wants to stop taking care of Steve but his body, his hindbrain, his instincts won’t let him.
None of this stops Steve enjoying it when they work in tandem, however. Despite a series of tectonic shifts in their team training sessions which have allowed them to work more efficiently (notwithstanding titanic clashes in ego), Steve doesn’t fight as naturally with the Avengers as he used to with the Howling Commandos. It’s not a matter of skill or even preference, just a fact as brutal as any of the others that Steve can’t let affect the day to day running of the team. Working with the Avengers is a job and one Steve is happy and satisfied to perform, but nothing is ever going to replicate the ease, the breathless exhilaration of those early missions against HYDRA, when the clockwork efficiency and chemistry of the Commandos seemed simultaneously both endless and fleeting; there had been an end in sight, and in a way that is what Steve misses most, now. Too often it feels as if all he can do as part of the Avengers is try and stem a flood that never entirely ceases, for a population that can never entirely be pleased. At least when they were fighting HYDRA for the first time, Steve’s naiveté allowed him to believe that once they were finished, the war would be over, and won, and he would be able to rest and do as he liked. Of course, in between missions he can rest and do as he likes. But the war the Avengers are fighting is of a different caliber; it is constant, its moving parts are perpetually changing appearance and severity, and it is everywhere.
Particularly in New York.
‘Are you even keeping track of your arrows anymore, Hawkeye?’ Tony taunts as he pulls out of a dive just in time to yank a shaking businessman out of the way of an oncoming slathering wolf creature with glowing red eyes. They haven’t figured out exactly what percentage of the wolves are cyborg yet, but Tony had been almost overjoyed when they got the call. ‘Wolf robots!’ he had yelled. ‘Wolfbots! Wolf! Robots!’
Clint loudly says nothing as the arrow he’d implanted in the back of the shuddering alpha wolf finally bears fruit and causes it to fall, twitching, to the ground in a dead faint.
‘Gotcha,’ Natasha says quietly as she slams and straddles the suddenly wildly shrieking man camped out in a nearby skyscraper surrounded screens and remote control panels.
‘Can we try and stay focused here, people,’ Steve says, as usual feeling as if he is shouting into the void, ‘we still got a dozen of these things roaming around and they’re still programmed to attack civilians.’ The ghost of hard metal lands briefly in between the rigid line of his shoulders as Steve stands from knocking out one of the creatures with the shield, and he has to stop himself smiling foolishly, too widely for it not to be heard in his next words: Bucky lands gracefully, almost silently in front of him. Well, he’s trying to stop himself smiling; he doesn’t think it’s working, from the way Bucky is looking at him. Even with the mask on, the returning smile is there in the fine lines around his eyes.
‘Yeah,’ Tony says, sounding bored, flying over them so low Steve ducks automatically with a curse, ‘we should really all stay focused on the mission, huh, Cap? I’d hate it if any of us were to get distracted from our mission objectives by something like –’
Thankfully, Clint grabs onto Tony’s left foot to hitch a ride downtown and startles him enough that he doesn’t finish his sentence. Bucky’s already gone when Steve spurs himself into action again; he never speaks over the comms on missions, presumably as part of the fiction that he isn’t really on them, but if he did, Steve is fairly sure Tony would have to find a way to disable his microphone out of sheer self-preservation.
By the time they’ve rounded up the rest of the wolfbots Bucky’s mask has gone astray, hanging from his fingers in two pieces still connected by a fine torn thread; the wolves’ claws must be cybernetically enhanced. Steve lands not two inches away from Bucky at the end of a pirouetting twirl, bringing his shield up to deflect a final snarling leap meant for Bucky while Bucky simultaneously slingshots a throwing knife into the paw of the creature to pin it to the ground, where it gives a howl that fizzles out into electronic stutter and eventually falls silent. Steve doesn’t pay any attention; he and Bucky are staring at each other, standing so close they’re in danger of stepping on each other, both breathing hard. Bucky gives a faint smile, eyes flickering down quickly to Steve’s mouth, and Steve returns it with elation. Whatever else may be wrong between them, this pleasure remains intact. Steve’s blood is rushing with the exhilaration of the fight, the joy of the violent collaboration; no one has ever fought with him the way Bucky does, as if they are attached to the same nervous system, just folding parts of the same machine, especially now he uses his body just as readily as a rifle. Bucky was always beautiful when he fought, but this is more than simple beauty; it is perfection.
‘Jesus,’ Tony mutters over the comms, and Steve drags his head up finally, breaking Bucky’s gaze with reluctance.
Then there is what sounds like a brief but fierce whispered argument. Bucky raises an eyebrow and Steve shrugs, mystified, unable to pick out any specific words, everything melding into hissing noises.
‘Nope,’ Natasha says firmly, after a minute. ‘We have them all rounded up and the crazy guy with the controls is cuffed.’
‘Yeah,’ Tony interjects, at which point Bucky sighs and steps away from Steve slightly – who naturally feels the familiar lurch of rejection at Bucky moving so far out of his personal space that he can’t hear his individual breaths anymore – ‘so if you could just carry on what you were doing, with the staring and the – it’s all very poignant, I understand, very Brief Encounter –’
‘You wouldn’t understand if it hit you right between the eyes, Stark,’ Steve says wearily, and Tony makes a wounded noise, so loud and distracting and demanding of Steve’s attention that Steve doesn’t even register the way Bucky stops at his words, his hands hesitating as he fiddles with the straps of his mask, his eyes following Steve as he traipses across yet another street become a battlefield, hastening toward the group of civilians clustered next to the bank, clamoring to be released.