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Bucky closed his phone with a snap and held it to his chest, grinning madly. 

“What’s got you lit, Barnes?” Sam Wilson asked from where he lifted the top slice of bread from his sandwich with the end of his bendy straw.  “It sure ain’t the cuisine here in the caff,” he added with a grimace and disgusted shake of his head.  “I swear, they’re grinding up students and usin’ em for filler in these damned mystery meat sandwiches.”

“Dude, I’m tellin’ ya, we gotta get off campus.  Somebody’s gotta score some wheels. There’s a new froyo joint down on Main that serves the best paninis.  Seriously, they’re like a gift from God,” Scott Lang announced with a dramatic flourish.

“What the fuck’s a froyo place doin’ servin’ paninis?” Sam demanded.

“It’s what they do.  Froyo and paninis.  It’s like, y’know, yin and yang.  Tasty frozen treat, yummy smashed toasted sandwich.  Hot and cold, right?”

“How do we know you again?”

“We’ve been friends ever since Lang’s Ma made those chocolate raspberry cupcakes for our scout troop, remember?” Clint Barton answered, happily snapping back the lid to his Lilo and Stitch lunchbox, and peered in with undisguised anticipation and delight.  Sam leaned over his should to see what Clint’s Mom had packed for him, and snorted derisively when Clint drew out a stacked ham and cheese and a bag of chips.  A baggie of carrot sticks and another of grapes rounded out the healthy portion of Clint’s meal, but it was the chocolate cupcake, adorned with a towering curlicue of white frosting, packed in its own special box, that drew the boys’ attention and drool.  Clint lifted it out of the lunchbox and set it reverently on the scarred and scuffed lunchroom table.

“Damn, I gotta negotiate better meal terms with the ‘rents.  Dude, your lunch is always, like, recognizable.  Yeah,” he sighed, once again glancing at his own meager offering with mournful eyes, just as Bucky tried to take advantage of the distraction to slip away.  “Sit your ass down!  Don’t think I’m lettin’ you off without an answer.  You look like you just won one of those reality competitions, American Idol or something.  What’s got you frigging glowing, Barnes?”

Bucky thudded back down on the metal bench, and just grinned.

Clint looked up from where he was chowing down on his Mom-made sandwich, announcing around his mastication, “Barnes finally figured out how to woo Steve.” 

“Shut your mouth man.  No one needs to see your cud, dude,” Sam complained.

Clint paused to swallow what was in his mouth, and then he shrugged.  “Don’t mean I’m wrong.  Look at him – he’s wearing his, ‘stupid for Steve’ look again.”

“Yeah, that expression is pretty familiar.  So, ‘nother one of your schemes to lure Rogers to the rainbow side of the Force?”

“Dude, pretty sure Rogers at least considers it – you saw how he went all googoo eyes over Anakin Skywalker last spring!”

“And how do you explain Maria, huh?”

“Experimenting,” Barnes shrugged.  “Don’t know what you like til you try it.  Besides, I know what I like, and I’d still give Maria Hill a chance.  Woman’s a force of nature.”

“Yeah, well, she sure as hell left Steve flattened when she went back to Washington, DeeCee.”

“So, you been experimenting, Barnes?  Somebody we don’t know about?”

Bucky shook his head. 

“Nah, Barnes ain’t got eyes for no one but Steve.  You finally gonna tell him about your little mancrush, is that’s what’s got you so happy?”

Bucky drew a deep breath, then nodded once.  “It’s time.”

“Son, it’s been time since middle school.  The truth will set you free, my friend.”

“You know something about Steve that I don’t know?”

“You know, I know a lot of things.  But this one?  Nah.  He’s never said anything.  But sometimes, when he doesn’t know anyone’s looking … he totally picks his nose.”

“You’re an asshole, Wilson!”

“Yeah, but at least you always know what you’re getting with me.  So, you got a plan?”

Bucky just shrugged.  “Just gonna tell him the truth.”

“Why the sudden change of heart?”

“Like I said.  It’s time.  And yeah, you were sayin’ about wheels?  My Mom agreed to cosign my loan.”

“What about your Dad?”

Sam gave Lang a warning glare, but Bucky just pursed his lips and shook his head.  “Him and my Mom, they’re not getting along so good right now.”

“Shit, man.  Sorry to hear that.  But hey, wheels!  How soon?  Froyo and panini, man.  Food of the gods.”

“And a car means you can take Steve out on a date.  With some privacy,” Sam guessed.

“Yeah.  Yeah, that’s what I’m hoping.”

&&&

Steve had been out of school for a week with the lingering effects of his latest dance with pneumonia.  It was a regular thing, and there were times when Bucky actually felt a tinge of jealousy for the fucking disease.  But stuck at home Steve was always happy to see Bucky, glad for the distraction and more than ready to challenge his pal to a cutthroat session of Mortal Kombat, or maybe an hour or two noodling through something silly and fun, like Monsters, Inc., or action with Mario and his bro.  Sometimes, when Steve was feeling better, he’d slip in Britney’s Dance Beat, and they’d fall all over each other trying to bump and grind like the Pop Princess, making up the most outrageous choreography their adolescent minds could muster.  Mostly they’d just hang out, tell each other awful jokes, watch something on cable, and dream about a future without calculus and Coach Rumlow.

Bucky lived for lazy afternoons with Steve.  He loved to see the smile that would curve up the corner of Steve’s mouth, the slight flush that would color his cheeks, the tongue caught between his teeth as he concentrated on moving his avatar to the next level, or exploding inexplicable fruit.  He loved to see the startling blue of Steve’s eyes looking up at him, alive with mischief, through the long, lush lashes that fanned across his cheeks.  He longed to touch those cheeks, caress the skin he knew would be soft and warm under his fingers.  He’d patched up those cheeks enough times, wiping away blood and grit to dab on antibiotic cream on skin broken by fists, press ice against a split lip that he longed to kiss, hold bags of frozen peas over those blue, blue eyes swollen shut under the onslaught  of a bully’s temper.  Steve never backed down.  He always got up again.  And the sun rose in the east, set in the west, and shone out of his very cute ass.

Bucky had come to terms with his sexuality gradually.  He’d always been what girls considered “cute,” and he’d had offers of “girlfriends” starting in kindergarten.  He once went steady with Natasha for six whole days in first grade, until she dumped him for Clint, and they’d been together ever since.  Everyone around them had long ago concluded that Nat and Clint were old souls, travelling from life to life, always finding each other and coming together, a love story for the ages.  It was the only explanation for why the impeccable Natasha Romanova gave first class disaster Clinton Barton the time of day, and smiled while doing it.

Losing Nat to Clint at an early age hadn’t fazed young Bucky Barnes in the slightest.  There was always a girl ready to take her place, girls of all shapes and sizes, all colors of the rainbow, all heights and weights and personalities.  He liked them all well enough, but the one person he preferred over all others had always been Steve.

Steve had joined the gang late in the fall in first class following a stint in the hospital.  He was a tiny little guy with thick glasses, a wheezy breath, and a chip on his shoulder tall as the World Trade Center had been.  Adorably tow-headed, befreckled and bespectacled, small enough to be a ventriloquist’s dummy, Steve Rogers had the fiercest heart of Muhammad Ali, Floyd Mayweather, Buffy, and Xena combined.

Bucky had worshipped Steve from the moment he’d picked him up out of a clump of bushes lining the fence of the schoolyard after he’d been dumped there by third graders who didn’t know how to deal with the whirling dervish they’d launched when they tried to steal some kid’s lunch money.  The kid got off with lunch, and Steve had to show for his trouble a busted lip, scraped knuckles, a gash over his left eye, and a branch new crack in the nosepiece of his glasses, while his assailants had ended up with bloody noses, bruised kneecaps, daily detention and no recess for a month.

Bucky had never seen a warrior for social justice up close and personal before, and after that day, he’d made it his personal mission to see that particular warrior up close and personal as much as possible.  They’d declared themselves best friends for life by the end of the week, and that’s what they’d been ever since.

But as Bucky grew older and more aware of his body and the bodies around him – the scents, the textures, the allures, and the turn-offs – he’d become more aware of Steve.  The Steveness of Steve.  He’d dated girls, had convinced himself he was sort of serious about one for a week.  But everything, as it always did, brought him back to Steve.

He was thirteen when he’d admitted to himself that he liked boys.   It was a simple corollary that he liked Steve.  But really, it was backwards.  He liked Steve.  Steve happened to be a boy.  He honestly wasn’t all that interested in other boys, although he could look at them and decide they were attractive, or cute, or even hot.  But it was academic, where Steve … his attraction to Steve ran through every cell and nerve ending in his body, every speck of stardust that made up his soul.

He told Steve about maybe liking guys, and Steve had just shrugged, like he’d known all along.  But he hadn’t said anything about how he felt about Steve, in large part because he wasn’t really sure what it all meant.  So they just continued on, being Steve and Bucky, nothing more, nothing less.  Because really?  Being Steve and Bucky was all Bucky really needed in the world.

Age fifteen was when Maria Hill had seamlessly inserted herself into their group, and immediately stole her way into Steve’s heart.  Suddenly Steve and Bucky took a backseat to Steve and Maria, and time with Steve had been a premium.  They’d still hung out, but shorter time periods and lesser frequency meant they’d had to make their time together really count.  Steve and Maria had dated for about a year, until 9/11 had changed the world, ripped a hole in the New York skyline, set their country on the road to war, and her civil servant father had packed up the family and taken everyone back to Washington, DC.

Steve and Maria kept in touch, by letter, by e-mail, by the occasional telephone call.  Steve had tried to be strong for Maria, to show that he respected her and supported her in all that she did.  It was all very mature and romantic, but the truth was Steve was devastated.  Maria was his first love, and he’d talked about going steady, and maybe someday getting engaged, and … and then she was gone.  His everything one day, and an empty space at the table the next. Sure, DC wasn’t that far away in terms of miles, but for a sixteen year old boy, it might as well have been on the moon.

So naturally, Bucky was there for Steve.  Because that’s where he belonged, no ulterior motive.  He filled the spaces in Steve’s life, salved over the hurts, provided distraction, listened, supported, and encouraged.  And every day, he’d fallen a little bit more in love with Steve Rogers.

Somewhere along the line, the others had seen it, guessed it, finally teased him enough to admit it, all outside of Steve’s knowledge.  As far as anyone knew, Steve had no idea about Bucky’s feelings.  And that was okay.

Until the day that Steve had murmured, “Y’know, Buck?  Think I might like guys, too.  Not instead of, but, you know, plus.  Guys and girls, both.  Does that make me weird?”

“Being you makes you weird.  I like ‘em both, too.  Like boys a little more, maybe, I don’t know.  Haven’t tried it out yet to see.”

“No?”

“No.”

“How come?”

“Haven’t found the right one.  I mean, not the right one who’s interested back, you know?”

“Yeah.  Think I do.  But if you did?  I mean, found the right one, and he was interested right back at you … would you say something then?”

Bucky felt like they were on the cusp of a conversation that he’d been longing to have, but cold flashed through his nerves, and he just couldn’t say what his heart was screaming at him to say.  Instead, he answered, “Yeah, if I knew he was interested, I’d say something then.” 

And then he’d held his breath, hoping Steve would say that he was interested, but Steve just nodded thoughtfully to himself, and said, “Good to know,” and went back to playing Mario.

Was it too much to hope?

Was Bucky risking everything on a misinterpretation?

He’d never know if he didn’t at least ask.  He and Steve … they were solid.  They were friends for life.  It didn’t have to be weird.

But Bucky had to know, one way or another.

So, when he got to Steve’s apartment, he planned to ask Steve if he was.  Interested, that is.  If he said yes, then Bucky planned to ask him out for a real date.

If he said no, then Bucky would nurse his heartbreak in silence, and go back to being Steve Rogers’s best friend.  There were worse consolation prizes.

&&&

Bucky had been impatiently waiting for the school day to end, more than once considering ditching so he could hurry over to Steve’s.  But Steve’s Ma talked to Bucky’s Ma, and it wouldn’t do for Bucky to have his Ma mad at him, not with Dad the way he was these days.  And Bucky was going to need to stay on Ma’s good side if he hoped to get that car loan.  So.  AP Chemistry and lab it was.

Now he cruised through the city streets on his bike, dodging in and out of traffic, spying a courier up ahead and using his wake to slip through the cars, up on the sidewalk, and down the narrow alleyway on his way to Steve’s apartment building.  Anticipation built up in his chest, a pleasant and excited burn that made him feel lightheaded and powerful at the same time.

That burn turned frigid as he turned the corner to Steve’s block, and found himself wheel to barricade with a police cordon.  EMTs treated people on the other side, as a bunny-suited hazmat team sealed off the doorway to the building.

Suddenly Bucky was moving, squeezing between people, elbowing his way through until he reached out and grabbed the arm of an official looking dude with a badge.

“Please, sir – what happened?  I’m here to visit with my friend, he’s sick with pneumonia –“

“What’s his name kid?” the officer – probably a detective – demanded gruffly.

“Steve.  Steve Rogers.  He lives on the third floor – right there, that window where … all those people are …” Bucky trailed off.

“Kid, I think we’re gonna need your statement.”

&&&

Chapter Text

The officer in charge, a tall, lanky detective with an impenetrable cowlick and a perpetual scowl, took one look at Bucky and asked for the phone number of a parent or guardian.  Then he fobbed him off on a uniform to cool his heels in the sitting room of Steve’s super’s apartment while they waited for his Mom to arrive.  No one would answer any of Bucky’s questions, and they all avoided eye contact as they came and went, interviewing the other residents of the brownstone, taking statements from people in the adjoining buildings, and generally turning the sedate old building into something out of CSI.  He felt like any minute, Gil Grissom was gonna show up and start doing an entomological study of Brooklyn cockroach lifecycles to prove … something or other.

The whole thing was fucking surreal.  He just wanted to see Steve.  And no one would tell him where he was, how he was.

Bucky was more frightened than he’d ever been, more frightened than the last two times Steve’d gotten last rites, or that time Steve’s stopped breathing during a sleepover in tenth.  Or any other damned time he’d nearly lost him.

Because this was starting to feel real.

“Ma’am, I’m sorry, you can’t come in here –“

“My son!  My son, James – someone called and said I needed to be here –“

“Ma!” Bucky yelled, erupting to his feet to make his voice carry over the din, over all the people scurrying around and forming a blockage between him and Steve.

“Bring her through,” the officer – the detective – commanded, and suddenly his Mom was there, hugging him fiercely and murmuring Mom-things to make him feel better.  Bucky held on tight, looking over her shoulder at the officers and plainclothes men and women milling about in the corridor, going up and down the stairs carrying cases and kits and no body bags, thank God.  One guy, middle-aged and balding in a nondescript black suit with a wrinkled-looking white shirt, paused in the doorway long enough to give Bucky a sympathetic if sad look, and Bucky bit back back the urge to cry, to weep in his Mom’s arms while she stroked his hair and told him it would get better soon.

Bucky had a sinking feeling that better was something he wasn’t going to feel for a long time to come.  If ever.  He screwed his eyes shut and willed back the tears.  When he opened them, the guy was gone.

“Mrs. Barnes,” the detective greeted.  “James,” he acknowledged, nodding toward Bucky.

“Bucky.  My name is Bucky.”

“Okay.  Bucky, then.  Gonna ask you some questions, and I couldn’t do that without a parent or guardian present.  That’s where you come in, Mrs. Barnes,” he added with a brief, empty smile at Mom.

“What’s this all about?  Has something happened to Steve?  To Sarah?”

“I take it you know both mother and son?” he asked, as he pulled out a small notebook, and turned calmly to an empty page.  A couple of clicks of his pen, and he was ready to start taking her statement.

Her statement.

Bucky’s statement.

Oh, fuck.

&&&

The story had been slow to piece together, but it confirmed Bucky’s worst fears. 

Both Steve and his Ma, Sarah Rogers, were missing.  Neighbors heard noises coming from the Rogers apartment earlier in the day, a scuffle or possibly a fight of some kind.  The super had fielded a couple of complaints, as much worry as annoyance over the noise, and finally he’d come up to check on the Rogers family.  He’d found the door hanging open when he knocked, and when he’d stepped into the apartment, he’d found the place had been turned over, and there was no sign of Sarah or Steve.

There was still no sign of them.

The cops and their CSI team had marked things with tape and little pyramids, string, and a dusting of white powder, but given they had no context on what the place normally looked like, they were operating on guesswork alone.

Bucky moved through the apartment like he was moving against a current of frozen molasses.  His Mom pressed close, her arms wrapped around his bicep, clinging to him like somehow he would be able to protect him from whatever reality they were going to be forced to face.  One of the cops gently pried her away, asking if she’d come with him to look at Sarah’s bedroom, the kitchen, the dining area.

So Bucky was standing alone there in the living room that was as much home as his parents’ place.  Maybe more.  There was no judgment in the Rogers household, no parent who routinely expressed shame that the boy who bore his last name embarrassed him simply by existing.  Bucky loved this apartment, this room, its cozy furniture, and its laidback décor.  It’s lived-in disarray.  He moved into the center of the room, and turned slowly.

Bucky’s mouth was dry, and his head was full of static.  And his awareness was preternaturally high as he took in detail after detail.

The stack of magazines by Sarah’s recliner had fallen over again, spilling out like a pathway from the chair to the tiny galley kitchen.  There was nothing unusual about the pile tipping over, but the way the magazines were kicked in all directions, that wasn’t normal. 

Over by the window, Steve’s easel had fallen over, his drawing pad face down on the parquet floor, the box of charcoals crushed into dust by some hasty and uncaring foot.  Bucky itched to pick up the pad, smoothe the pages back, and set everything right.  Steve’s art, it was his sacrament.  It hurt to see it in disarray, treated like it didn’t matter.

The cup of tea and the brown-stained saucer were in their usual spot on the coffee table, but the amber liquid had long since gone cold, something that Sarah never allowed.  She loved her tea, and usually drained the cup quickly, then popped up to brew another in her small kitchen.  Mom often teased her that someday, she was going to float away, awash in her beloved tea.

The rug was turned up in one corner, the pile scuffed an odd way.  A smear of something traced a line across the design, brown and crusty.

He moved haltingly through the apartment, through the living room, glancing toward the kitchen where Mom looked things over, counting pieces with her fingers in the air, her expression serious and yet confused, pained.

A pause at the old bathroom, the black and white mosaic tile ancient and comforting, the old fashioned sink with the faucet built into the porcelain the nose of a wizened old man, their bathroom gnome, Steve and Bucky had decided back when they were seven.

The back of the sink was empty of toothbrushes and tooth paste, the comb that Steve used to try to tame his cowlick (he never succeeded), the pins Sarah used to contain her unruly curls (she always looked perfect to Bucky).  He peered a little closer, and thought he could see the direction swept in the fine dusting of powder, as though someone had come through here and just shoved everything off the sink.  He looked in the trash can. No combs, no pins, no toothbrushes.

He lifted his face and saw himself staring back, the wretched look on his face, the bags already dragging at his eyes, the blotchy evidence of the tears he still held at bay.  And out in the living room beyond, that guy again.  With the sad smile, and the sadder eyes, looking directly into the bathroom, into the mirror.  At Bucky?

Bucky frowned and turned around quickly, but the guy had turned away to talk to someone.  Bucky shook his head.  Imagination.  Shit.

Finally he could put it off no longer.  Steve’s bedroom.  The door was hanging open, but that meant nothing.  So many people had moved through this apartment even in the time since Bucky set foot, anyone could have opened, closed, and reopened the door untold times, and it meant nothing.

Bucky stood in the doorway and took it all in.  The bedclothes were in disarray, like Steve had leapt out of bed and run off unexpectedly.  He always tugged the sheet and comforter into a semblance of a made bed whenever he left it, maybe not military precision, but neatened up a bit at least.  A pile of soiled tissues and empty cough drop wrappers spilled out of the trash can by his bed, further evidence that someone else had been in this room, someone not a Rogers.  Steve and his Mom were scrupulously clean when it came to containing contaminated tissues, always emptying the trash can each day, always wiping it down with a disinfectant.  They always had to be so careful not to exacerbate Steve’s symptoms.

Bucky’s eyes kept sweeping, back, forth, up, down.  Registering anomalies, murmuring them so the nice lady uniformed cop could record his comments as he stumbled through a room he knew every bit as well as his own.  Maybe better.

And then the odd things crept into his vision, pinged across his brain.

The only picture that Steve had of his whole family before his Dad left – where was it?

The drawing pad and rubber-banded group of pencils and pens that Steve always kept close at hand – what happened to that?

Bucky strode over to Steve’s closet, much to the squawking dismay of the uniform.  He wrenched open the door and scanned the rack carefully.

Steve’s silk-screened Brooklyn Dodgers tee, the one he designed himself and sold for a fundraiser last fall – why was it not in his closet where it always hung?  

He closed the door gently, resting his forehead against the stained wood for a long moment before pushing off again.  He made a circuit of the room, absorbing details, committing the room to memory.

Bucky brought Steve his homework every couple of days, so Steve wouldn’t end up losing so much time he was held back.  Where were Steve’s books, his notes?  His essay book?

He stood in the middle of the room, and drew a slow, lingering breath.  This was the room where Steve lived, where he cultivated his art, read books and comic books, played video games and listed to CDs, probably whacked off to some kind of porn, every so often.  Maybe a coupla times a night if he was anything like Bucky.  There were things all around him, but Bucky was left with one overriding impression.  Everything that made Steve Steve was gone from the room.  Not missing.  Taken.

&&&

“George, go easy on him – James has been through a lot.”

“Winnie, so help me … you gotta stop coddling that boy.  There’s a reason he is the way he is, and it’s because you don’t let him get his hands dirty.”

“James is a good boy, a hard worker.  He pulls his weight in this house, and he works hard at school.  And he earns his way, George.  You should be proud of your son –“

“He’s not my son.  My son wouldn’t be like that.  And this thing with that Rogers kid – it’s not right, Winnie.  Your son is making this out to be more than it is.  So what the kid and his Ma skipped town? It’s not the end of the world.  But your baby is acting like his whole life is over.  He needs to man up and get on with things, not cry over some sickly kid who probably wasn’t gonna see 20.”

Bucky probably should have been angry at his father’s derision, at the way he negated everything that was Steve.  But Bucky just didn’t have it in him to fight back.  Hell, he didn’t have it in him to get out of bed most days.  Ma said she was taking him to a doctor, someone who might be able to help.  But unless that doctor could bring Steve back, he had no idea how that would work.

&&&

When the police released the story, it should have been a shock, but Bucky was beyond feeling anything but the candy-colored haze of the anti-depressant he’d been prescribed.  It didn’t make him miss Steve any less, and it didn’t make everything hurt any less, he just stopped caring for a while.

Mom, on the other hands, had enough outrage and dismay to make up for the placid floaty feeling that seemed to stopper up all of Bucky’s emotions for the duration.  And that was okay.  He went to school, he had lunch with the guys, he did his homework, he went to his job at the box store, and then he came home and ate his meal mechanically before going into his room to lie on the bed, staring at the ceiling.  The same every day.  Forever and ever.

He never did bother with getting that car.  He didn’t feel sharp enough to drive it.  And there was no one to share it with, with Steve being … not here.

But the story.  In time, he’d come to examine it, dismantle it, study every nuance, and draw conclusions.  But at the time, it was just a story.

Sarah had been a nurse who worked in a clinic in the neighborhood.  She’d been there a few years, and she’d seen doctors come and go.  It turned out that the latest addition to the clinic’s shingle had a second job that he’d been using the clinic to support.  The police said that Sarah had gotten caught up in it – not in a guilty way, but in an innocent bystander who got caught in the crossfire.  And Steve had been collateral damage.

The crime scene investigators had eventually found traces of blood at the scene of the Rogers apartment, but evidence on the stairway and out into the street had long since been compromised by the steady stream of officers and techs on site. 

But when they’d checked out the clinic, they’d found more evidence of blood that matched each of Sarah and Steve, of some kind of altercation, and they’d found evidence they believed proved both Sarah and Steve had been there.  Been there, and been taken away.

It’d been weeks now, bleeding into months.  Still no sign of either of the Rogerses.  Hope was dying, even as the trail grew increasingly cold, until there was nothing left but an open case file, and a closed investigation.

In the meantime, that doctor at the clinic had been arrested and arraigned.  Records found in Sarah’s safe deposit box implicated the doctor, one of the administrators, and at least one nurse in a human trafficking ring that had been operating out of the clinic.  The prevailing theory was that Sarah had uncovered what was going on, had threatened to take it to the police, and she and Steve had been abducted and probably killed, to silence them.

Bucky refused to believe it.  Couldn’t believe it.  And adamantly wouldn’t believe it.

And that determination not to belief finally pierced the fog that had enveloped Bucky’s mind since he’d started his meds.  He started setting aside the morning dose, to keep his mind clear.  And it worked.  The comfortable numbness faded, replaced by the sharp pain of loss, but he welcomed the pain now, because it helped him concentrate.

He went down to the police station to talk to the detective in charge, to demand an update and a plan, and when he got there, he saw that guy again, talking earnestly to the detective.  Bucky stood there in the station, watching, straining to hear.  The guy seemed omnipresent, and that made Bucky’s brain itch.

So many details that didn’t add up.  He felt like the cops had given up too soon, hadn’t pushed hard enough.

Ugh, the guy was coming toward him, that same sad smile on his face.  He nodded to him, and the smile grew slightly larger.  “James,” he greeted.

“Bucky,” he corrected.

“What are you doing here?”

“Looking for an update in my friend’s case,” he answered, jutting his chin toward the detective, who was making his way over to the coffee station to refill his cup.

“Ja – er, Bucky,” he said gently, in that way adults do when they want you to stop something they don’t like.  “The case is closed.”

“But they’re still out there.  Somewhere.  And how do you know – you’re not the detective in charge.”

“No, I’m not.  I’ve been consulting on the case,  And Bucky, the police don’t agree with you.  They think –“

“They’re not dead.  They’re not.  You don’t really believe they’re dead, do you?”

He pursed his lips, the first sign of irritation Bucky had seen in him, and then he shook his head. “I’m sorry, Bucky.  I know it’s difficult, but, well, you’re going to have to accept –“

“I don’t have to accept shit!  Steve’s not dead, I know it.  I feel it.  He and Sarah – they’re out there.  And I need to find them.  Steve, he’s … he’s my boyfriend.  I love him.  I can’t live without him –“

“Son, I’m afraid you’re going to have to learn to –“

“No, you don’t get it.  They’re alive.  There’s too many weird things, stuff that was missing from their apartment that no one else would consider valuable, would consider taking.  They’re not dead.  They’re in witness protection.  And I’m gonna find them.”

&&& 

 

Chapter Text

June 2014

Inspector Jim Barnes brushed his hair back over his ears, and turned his face just so to examine the result.  Satisfactory.  He grinned at himself and shrugged on his tie, swiftly manipulating it into a perfectly symmetrical knot, with just the right give so that it looked good and felt better.  Neat, comfortable, and hot as fuck.  He tugged his shirt collar into formation, and reached up to tweak a curl down over his forehead.  He never wanted to look too put together, too unapproachable, and the errant curl had proved to be a useful panty-dropper years ago, especially when combined with his aw-shucks sexy smirk.

Jim Barnes knew what he wanted, and he knew how to get it.  As often as he desired, and not a whit more.

Right now, he was still feeling a pleasant burn in his ass, and the loose, sated buzz that settled into his bones after a particularly good fuck.  Little hot spots of exquisitely precise pain trailed down over his ass cheeks, his thighs, up across his pecs, and into his shoulders.  Nowhere that could be seen, never where it could be seen, but pinging across his awareness like a repeating attaboy. 

He felt alert, focused, very present, and primed for a very good day.

“Aw, you’re dressed already.  I was hoping for another round before I left for court.”

He turned toward the voice, sultry and low, with just a hint of something that set his nerves on edge and his alarm bells on high. 

Her name was Delilah, and she was a prosecutor for the county.  Tall, gorgeous, and smart as the whip she caressed between her fingers.  She had lusciously dark skin that was perfectly highlighted by the bronze of her silk chemise and tap pants.  She’d shown him an extraordinary night in bed, on the couch, up against the door, and on the balcony.  A very good fuck, indeed.

She waited on his answer, breath half-held, with her lips curled in humor, but Jim could see the desire and the plea in her eyes.

He tilted his head and smiled gently.  “Sorry.  Got a thing.”

“Tonight, perhaps,” she suggested, taking a step closer.  He could send her hunger, her need.  See it in her eyes, the tension in her body, the expectant parting of her lips.

Too much, too fast.  Just … too much.

“Sorry.  I meant what I said – I’m not looking for –“

“No strings attached.  Just … we’re good together.  There aren’t many who can keep up with me.  You’re a … a pleasant find.”

Desire morphed into desperation.  She was a handful, a fierce and awesome warrior who needed a partner of equal ferocity and strength.  And having found one in Jim, she wasn’t ready to relinquish the match.  But Jim had been clear before he’d brought her home.

One night only.  He didn’t do relationships, and he didn’t do repeat performances.  He wasn’t cruel, but he was honest.  It hurt him when his partners didn’t believe him, and he was forced to make his intentions clearer, in a harsher way.

“Sorry.  I told you … and you agreed …”

“That was before you let me have a taste.  You should come with a warning label,” she argued, moving closer, moving sensually, moving with intent to seduce.

“I do.  I told you I don’t do more than once.  I’m pretty sure my reputation preceded me, Delilah,” he replied, letting the cold slip into his voice.  He turned back to his mirror, shrugged on his suit jacket, and twitched and tugged it into the perfect drape, laid his palm across his tie one more time to settle it into position, and turned back to her.

“I have a meeting in the office.  Have a shower, help yourself to breakfast.  Coffee’s made and there are pastries on the counter.  I’ll have Mike come up and check on you in an hour, call you an Uber on my account.”  He smiled at her, a polite smile devoid of affection that wasn’t there.  They were fuck buddies, a one-time collaboration.  Just like he’d said.

As he turned to go, she sniped, “Do your colleagues at the Marshal Service know how much you liked what I did to you last night?”

He paused, ran his tongue over his teeth, then turned and smiled at her.  “I’m known for my … catholic taste in sex, Delilah.  I’m a fan of passion.  I’m attracted to the person.  What we do?  It’s always guest’s choice.  We didn’t do anything you didn’t want to do – in fact, we did only what you wanted to do.  Do you colleagues in the DA’s office know you like to wear a harness and fuck a guy’s ass like you’re drilling for oil?  Bite like you’d tear pieces off his body?  I’m not complaining, I enjoy getting pegged and bitten – whipped, too – every so often.  But don’t make noises like you’re gonna ruin my reputation when you have even more to lose, Counselor.  We met, we had fun, we say goodbye.  Isn’t that what I told you last night in the bar?”

She stood there, smoldering at him, a conflagration ready to take hold and burn down his world.  And then the heat left her face, replaced by a flush that spread across and heightened the color of her cheeks.  Her lips pressed together in frustration, but she nodded tersely, once, an acknowledgment and a laying down of arms as the fight drained out of her limbs.

“Good.  Do try the almond croissant – it’s my favorite.  The almond crème is delicious.”  He smiled again, this time perfunctorily, mechanically.  “Mike will be up to collect you in an hour.”  He didn’t say, “And check for damage,” but he felt sure the implication was there.  A person of passion could be unreasonable if denied, and before he’d made his arrangement with Mike, he’d come home to a trashed apartment more than once.  He chose not to go to theirs, because he could never be sure of the environment.  But sometimes encouraging someone to leave could be a challenge and an annoyance.  He didn’t need to add insurance claim to the mix.

“Have a nice day, Delilah.”

&&&

Inspector Jim Barnes.

High school valedictorian.

Summa cum laude BA in Criminal Justice from Northeastern University, Boston, MA.

Top of his class at the NYPD Police Academy.

Six years distinguished service in the NYPD, achieving the rank of detective in the financial crimes unit.

Top of his class at the United States Marshals Service Training Academy in Glynco, GA.

Rising star in the US Marshals Service, assigned to the Eastern District of New York (E/NY), based in Brooklyn.

In perfect physical and mental condition.  Little known fact?  Keeps himself in top shape by competitive dancing.

And sex.  Lots of acrobatic, core-intensive, and vastly satisfying sex.

Jim liked to do the rundown on his qualifications as he made his way to his office each day, reminding himself that he’d worked hard to be here, that he deserved to be here, and to give himself an extra kick in the ass that made said ass worth watching as he moved smoothly down the hallways, confident, secure, and very much at home in his skin.  His flawless, well-cared for skin.  Skincare regimen as on point as every other self-care measure he took.  Don’t take care of yourself?  How you gonna take care of somebody else?  Because at his core, Jim Barnes was all about the public welfare, caring for people and ensuring the safety and security of the people of his city, his state.  And he’d long ago demonstrated one can be a dedicated public servant, and look good while doing it.

Jim looked good, and he knew it.  Was proud of it.  His easy smile put people at ease, and his attractive countenance lulled people into a false sense of security, thinking that he was just another pretty face.  He was doing his graduate work online, and he was eying pursuing a Ph.D in the near future.  Pretty face, maybe, but backed with a body that was not only killer, but fully functional and 100% lethal, thank you very much, and a mind that processed information and drew conclusions faster than any of his peers.  And they were truly the best and brightest, so just being part of the team was a feat in itself.

People greeted him warmly as he made his way toward his office, waves and smiles, eyes tracking his progress, blushes blooming as he passed by.

Life was good.  Even though there’d been that kerfluffle with Delilah this morning, last night had been good.  Really good.  He’d be feeling the burn all day, and maybe into tomorrow.  He felt energized, well-rested, and top of his game.

And today, he was finally be assigned his own charges, a witness in a murder conspiracy case who’d need protection leading up to the trial, during, and after.  Because the whole shitshow included an abduction that crossed state lines before it turned into a multiple murder, the Feds were also involved, and he was expecting a visit from the FBI agent in charge.  But the most important thing was he’d be taking the lead, working with the USMS relocation team to develop new identities for the witness and their family members, organize relocation and re-education.  He was finally on the inside, and would be able to access records.

One step closer to knowing.

&&&

“Fuck, Nat, what’re you doing here?  I’ve got a lot on my plate –“

“With the Pierce murder.  I know.  I caught the case.  We’re working together.”

“It’s that some kind of conflict of interest, childhood best friends who dated when we were six, or something?”

“Pretty sure no one cares, James.”

“Jim.  I go by Jim here.”

James,” she repeated with a grin.

“You’re still an asshole, Romanoff,” he told her, flipping her the bird.  “So, you’re here to what?  Oversee my conduct with the witness?”

She shook her head.  “Saw you were the inspector responsible for this one.  I’ve put a lot into this case already.  Pierce was scum of the earth and completely deserved to die, but he was supposed to do that in Federal custody.  With an anonymous shiv between his ribs in Otisville, while everyone was busy looking the other way.  Dragging his sorry ass across state lines, with a witness to his murder just inconveniences everybody.  You’d think an organized crime boss would be more considerate.”

“Wow, Nat, didn’t realize you were such a caring human being.  Clint know about this side of you?”

“He fucks me hard enough, I forget about my day job, and rediscover the marshmallow within.  How about you?  Find anyone yet?”

“Had a good night last night.  A less than stellar morning.  Had to sic Mike on her to get her out of my place.  She wanted a repeat performance.”

“And that would have been so difficult?  Oh, my, the horror of it.  Someone wants your sorry ass.”

“I have a very nice ass, I’ll have you know.  And she did a really good number on it, too.  But it’s not my ass she wants.  It’s my, I dunno, essence.  Companionship, cuddling, a dog, her name on my checkbook.”

“Who has a checkbook anymore?”

“My Mom, stop changing the subject.  She’s not my type.”

“Your type.”

“Yeah.  She’s not … repeat-worthy.”

“You just say that because you don’t know her –“

“I say that because she’s not the one.”

“James, if Steve was coming back, don’t you think you would have heard from him by now?  You’ve got to accept –“

“This has nothing to do with Steve,” he snapped.  “She’s just not right.  Now, can we get back to business?”

Nat gave him a look that could have passed for pity, or perhaps it was just indigestion.  Whatever the cause, it passed quickly enough, and she and Jim got down to business reviewing the case, the logistics, and the plan.

&&&

Over the next few weeks, Jim worked hard on his case, keeping his witness secure, organizing the transition from New York accountant to Michigan math teacher.  Helping to forge new identities for the guy’s wife and two kids.  Keeping him focused on the game at hand, kind of enjoying himself as he played his part.  It was easier with Nat in tow, because he knew he could trust her to take the shifts when he needed down time, and she was as invested as he was in keeping the witness and his family safe.  He had another couple of inspectors working the case with him – no one could stand guard 24/7.  But it was Nat he trusted the most.

Finally, the case wrapped up, and the streets of New York promised to be safer until someone stepped into the vacuum of power and raised a little hell.  The witness still couldn’t step out of the shadows since there was no guarantee they’d gotten the whole organization.  Even a conviction might not be enough to terminate the perp’s influence.  So it was time to relocate.

The witness himself seemed relieved to finally get moving, but his kids were upset about losing their friends, and the wife was angry about leaving friends and family – especially her parents – behind.  With no word, just disappeared.

Jim could appreciate the frustration.  Fuck, he could sympathize.  It was that fear of not knowing, that feeling of being abandoned, that had set his feet upon the path his life had taken, starting so many years ago.  He couldn’t tell her parents where they were moving to, or what their new names were – that would potentially compromise everyone’s safety, including the parents.  But he promised he’d let her parents know that they were safe.  And that someday they hoped to be in touch.  And that would have to be enough.

It was more than he’d ever gotten.  He wondered if Steve’s caseworker had thought to pass on any information, or if it was just not something he’d consider.  He still hadn’t tracked down any information about Steve, and knew that it was definitely possible that his belief that Steve had gone into WitSec was still nothing more than a guess, maybe more of a wish.  But he also hadn’t found any evidence to refute it.  But now that he was on the inside, he was closer to finding out one way or another.

&&&

March 2015

“Here he is!  Man of the hour!” Clint raised his glass as Jim came into the bar, doing a little dance as he undid his suit jacket and whipped it theatrically back, like a matador and his cape.  The others chuckled and Jim smiled.  “Got you a beer.  Or are you too good to be knockin’ back a brew with your old buddies, Mr. Inspector Oh-Nine, Sir?”

Jim chuckled and reached for the beer, “Give it here, asshole.  I got a powerful thirst after all that talk today.”

“Oh, and it really hurts having to say thank you sir for telling me how wonderful I am,” Scott joked, knocking the neck of his bottle against Jim’s.  “Congrats, man.  Nice to see you getting recognized for what you do.”

“Actually, unless he really fucked up, he was eligible for promotion this year,” Nat pointed out languidly, taking a chip and dragging it through the salsa to shove in her mouth in one go.

“Always know where I stand with you, Romanoff,” Jim said fondly.

“Of course you do,” she agreed, and picked up another chip to nibble on.  “Congratulations, James.  I’m proud of you.  You didn’t screw up.  In fact, you did really good.”

“So is this gonna be a regular thing?” Sam asked, waving his beer bottle back and forth between Jim and Nat.  “You two working together?”

“Doubt it.  It was a fluke, really, that we both caught the same case.  Next time, I won’t be so lucky,” Jim acknowledged with a nod of his head toward Nat.  She smiled warmly at him, and sipped from her drink a dirty martini with multiple olives.

“Good way to launch your career with the marshals, though,” Scott supposed.  “Showing how good you are with interagency cooperation.”

“Yeah, yeah, I guess,” Jim agreed, scratching the back of his neck.  “We got anything other than the salsa that Nat’s gonna eat?”

They laughed and jostled, and before long they’d put together a list of items off the menu that they passed on to the waitress when she came by for the order for the next round of drinks.  They’d been friends for so long, they could each recite the other’s drinks orders, and agreeing on appetizers and food to toss in the middle of the table was an easy exercise honed to an art over the years they’d known each other.

This wasn’t just friendship.  This was family.

They’d all met in grade school, each year drawing someone new into their orbit, growing up, growing apart, and then coming back together again.  They weren’t all fresh and new, newly minted kids anymore.  They all had mileage and damage, and carefully protected hopes and dreams that they’d each held close to their heart.

Scott had been the first of them to get married, put a ring on his first girlfriend and the love of his life.  The marriage had produced a feisty, precocious daughter, and a friendly if awkward divorce where his ex was dating a cop from the same precinct where Scott worked as a lead CSI tech.

Sam, that bastion of heteronormativity, had signed up during one of the surges, and had served two tours, in Afghanistan and then Iraq.  But it was during his first tour that he’d met Riley, a rambunctious and infectiously alive young man from Georgia.  Riley and Sam had ended up in the same unit, forming a strong bond that was as empowering as it was frustrating.  Straight Sam had met his match in Riley, quite literally.  Once they served out their tours, they’d booked it home where they were finally out of the closet and out of reach of DADT.  Now Sam worked as a VA counselor, and Riley headlined a little restaurant, and the pair of them were ridiculously happy in their wedded bliss.  There was even talk of adoption, or possibly even a surrogate.

Clint and Nat had chosen each other back in first grade, and that never changed.  Not once, not even for a day.  After high school, they’d both pursued degrees and started careers, but they were never far apart in their hearts.  Now, they were married, with Natasha a highly regarded FBI agent, and Clint the owner of his own company.  He trained stunt performers and provided stunt coordination services to television and film companies across the country.  Sometimes his work took him to other cities, but he always found his way back home to Nat.

And then there was Jim.  Resolutely single Jim.  Jim whom everyone tried to set up with someone from the office, the niece or nephew of their nice old neighbor, someone they met on the job.  Jim who couldn’t possibly be happy in his single state.

So of course, it didn’t take long for the conversation to slip into “are you seeing anyone?” mode.

“So, anyone special you gonna celebrate this promotion with?” Sam asked all nonchalant over his beer.

“Nope,” Jim replied, emphasizing the P for a long moment, then he grinned and took a sip of his beer.

“You know we only want the best for you, right, man?” Sam prompted in that cajoling tone of his.

Right, I know you want the best for me, but you don’t know what the fuck that is, Jim thought to himself, but he just smiled cryptically and sipped at his beer again.

“Guy like you must be fightin’ ‘em off with a stick,” Scott guessed, tossing a chip in the air to catch in his mouth, but it deflected off his nose and bounced onto the table.  He snagged it and shoved it in his mouth with a defiant snap.

“Actually, no.  I have a very happy, very busy sex life,” Jim answered with a grin.  “I don’t fight them off.  I take them home with me.”

“Well, that can’t be safe,” Clint sputtered.

“I use protection.  And I am trained in several forms of hand to hand combat, not to mention I am, y’know, an inspector in the federal marshal program.  And an ex-cop.  With a license to carry.  Kinda think I can take care of myself, pal.”

“You know what I mean – you don’t know what kind of person you’re letting into your home.  And now they know where you live.”

“And I make sure each and every one of them leaves with what they came in with.  It’s fine, really it is.  And it’s just the way I like it.”

“Wow.  Every night?” Scott asked plaintively.

“Eh.  Some nights I’m not in the mood,” Jim shrugged.

“How can you not be in the mood?” Scott chuckled.  “You’re … you,” he said, waving his hand up and down to encompass Jim.

“Yeah, sometimes they’re a little too desperate.  For more than I’m willing to give them.  I’d rather be alone then.”

He could feel the swell of disapproval and pity from his friends, that silent judgment they passed on him because he wasn’t like them, he wasn’t part of a couple the way they thought he should be.  He knew what was coming.  He knew he could walk away.  But something in him seemed to stretch, attenuate, and snap as Sam started in on him.

“Jim, buddy, it’s time.  It’s been 13 years.  If Steve … if Steve was coming back, he’d’ve found a way, you know?  You can just keep waiting for him.”

“You can’t just keep hoping you’re going to find him, either, James.  You don’t think we know what you’re doing, positioning yourself to be part of the marshals?  All you’re doing is hurting yourself, holding yourself back –“

“What the fuck do you know? You found your soulmate at six, and you’ve barely been apart since.  You’ve never even dated anyone else, Nat.  What the hell do you know about holding back?”

“James –“

“And you, Sam.  You met Riley, and bang!  All that pussy you plowed in high school and college – forgotten in an instant.  You met your soulmate in the military, when it was illegal to love a man.  But you’re still together.  You’re so besotted over the guy, I bet you fantasize about carrying his goddamned baby, don’t you?”

“And you, Scott.  When are you gonna ask that pathologist out, huh?  You’ve been pining over her for a year, and she keeps giving you the eye.  She’s ready, man.  It’s time to step up.”

“Okay,” Sam said, holding his hands up.  “What’s all that got to do with you carrying a torch for Steve Rogers?”

“When I met Steve, something wonderful happened.  I didn’t understand it at the time, and I didn’t realize what it was, but I knew that being around Steve made me feel special, made me feel warm and safe, and unlike how anybody else made me feel. That never changed – there was always this incredible feeling I’d have around him, when I thought of him, when I heard his name.  I finally realized that was love.  It took me a long time to work it out, because it had been there all along, from the first moment I met him.”

“That’s very sweet, James, but –“

“But I have yet to feel that with anyone else.  You think I’m holding myself back from love.  But you’ve got it all wrong.  I’m looking for it.  Actively looking for it, every day.  And no one makes me feel the way that Steve did.”

“Yeah, but some of them must be worth a second look.  I mean, even if they’re not the perfect match, some of them gotta be close.  You don’t have to be alone, you could have a relationship –“

“Why? Why take myself off the market for anything less than the right person?  What if I’m in a relationship with someone I know I’ll never feel that for, and I miss out on the person who can make me feel that way again?  Who benefits from that?  Surely not me!  So no, I’m alone because I’m looking.  I’m looking for the person who will make me feel alive and special and safe.  So I don’t need your pity.  I don’t need you thinking I’m some damaged bird that needs your protection.  I just need your understanding and support.  Right, guys?  You’re my friends.  I just need you to be my friends.”

“But what if you don’t find anyone like that?” Scott asked, his voice small and his eyes wide.

“Then I keep looking.  I know what it feels like to be in love.  I know what it feels like to be with the person I’m meant to be with, my person.   I can’t settle for less.  I owe it to myself not to settle for less.”

A part of Jim still hoped that person, that perfect fit, was Steve, and that someday he’d find him.  But he also meant what he said about keeping himself open for that soulmate he had to believe was out there.

It wasn’t that Jim Barnes wasn’t romantic enough to believe in love.

It was that Jim Barnes was romantic enough to believe in true love at first sight.  And he wasn’t settling for anything less.

&&&

 

Chapter Text

June 2015

The guys – and Nat – finally calmed down about the constant attempts to match-make, but they made up for it and then some by constantly trying to put Jim in situations where he’d have the opportunity to meet people.  Eligible people.  Lots of eligible people.  And it was fun, really it was.  But a part of him felt sorry for all the effort they put in, on his behalf.  It was kind of nice to know that his friends loved him, but the constant pressure to perform, to choose, and the baited breath that would follow as they all wondered, “Was this the one?” just made him feel so tired.  After a while, he started finding reasons to beg off – work, Ma, his charity work with Big Brothers, his dance competition schedule. 

They were all legitimate excuses, and often had been the engagements he’d rearranged in order to make his friends happy.  But the problem was that he wasn’t.  Happy, that is.  He was getting frustrated and out of sorts, his normally satisfying routine preempted and rearranged in the name of friendship.

The fact was, he wasn’t going to fuck one of his friend’s coworkers, and certainly not one of their extended family of relatives.  Definitely not any mutual friends. 

So after giving it a couple of months, Jim went back to living life his way, and gradually his mood evened out, his libido was sufficiently satisfied, and he felt like he was back in the game, giving where it meant something, taking care of his own.

Halfway through June, a new case surfaced.  He found himself sitting across the conference table from an absolutely stunning woman – tall, lithe, commanding, sleek dark hair and gently laughing eyes.  A mouth to write odes to.  And the faintest lilt of an accent that Jim just couldn’t place.  And perhaps one of the sharpest legal minds he’d come across in his tenure in law enforcement.

She was unutterably sexy, very much aware and in control of her power.  He’d never been attracted to a woman as much as he was attracted to her now, and the sensation surprised and excited him.

She was also thoroughly off limits, essentially the client in this case, representing the DA’s office to request security for her key witness. 

That only ratcheted up the thrill quotient.

She seemed to find his avid interest amusing, and that made her all the more attractive.

“How soon before the arraignment?”

“Judge is bumping it up.  I expect we’ll be discussing bail in the next twenty-four hours.”

“And you want your witness off the grid and out of sight how long?”

“I anticipate the trial will take at least three months. Perhaps longer.  I expect the accused is going to trot out a large number of character witnesses.”

“Any validity?”

“None whatsoever.  Man doesn’t have an ethical cell in his body.  Anyone who testifies for him is either in his employ, or under his thumb.”

“Any chance of turning any of them state’s evidence?”

“I can but try.”

“This is big.”

“Very.  I understand you assisted on the Pierce murder case.”

“More of the same?”

She nodded solemnly.  “An extension of the same family.  It’s a wonder their Grandmama Rumlow didn’t drown them all when they were small.  Vile lot.  Used to being in control, being in command.  I’m anticipating it’s gonna get personal.”

“Something tells me you know how to handle yourself.”

She smiled then, a dimple flashing in her cheek.  “Israeli military.  Required service.  Does it show?”

“Only in everything you do,” Jim agreed, furrowing his brow.  “How’d you end up in New York?”

“Columbia Law.  Dual citizenship.  Mama is from Brooklyn.  How’d you end up here?”

“Born and raised in Brooklyn.  Northeastern U criminal justice program, then NYPD.”

“Career law enforcement,” she nodded with a smile.  “I heard good things about your performance on the Pierce case.  I’d appreciate you taking this one on.”

“Already assigned.  Unless you want me removed, you’re stuck with me.”

“I can think of far worse ways to spend my time,” she told him, her eyes twinkling.

&&&

Counselor Diana Prince was a formidable adversary.  As Jim watched her build her case, coaching the witness through recollection and testimony, seeking experts to add their interpretation of evidence and events, mounting her campaign like a seasoned general, Jim was continually amazed and delighted by what he saw.  And he thoroughly enjoyed her company.

Their connection on the case, through the witness, meant they spent a lot of time together.  They caught lunches together and used the time to strategize.  They frequently ended up sitting with their witness in the evening, going over the latest developments in the case, the updates in the timelines, the blips in the schedule.  The temperature of the media and the people, how jury selection could impact the case. 

It wasn’t like they were inseparable, but Jim found himself spending more time with Diana than he could remember spending with anyone.  Not since … well, not since.  And he found he enjoyed having a companion with wit and compassion, someone who could match him, challenge him.  Make him laugh.  Make him get angry.  Make him … start to hope.

Diana Prince was a beautiful, accomplished, and spectacular woman who stepped into a place in Jim’s life that he’d kept apart, and she did it without him even being aware of it until she was there, settled in, and very comfortably a fixture in his life.

“I think perhaps we need to address the elephant in the room,” she said suddenly one evening over saki and sushi.  She speared a spicy tuna roll with her chopstick, and dragged it over to her plate, where she doctored it to suit her tastes.

“Elephant,” Jim repeated.

“Yes.  Our very obvious sexual attraction,” she replied matter of factly.

“Right.  That,” he agreed, daubing some wasabi in a little dish of soy sauce.  “And your opinion, Counselor?”

“Delilah warned me when I took on this case and put in the request for witness protection.  She had quite a lot to say about you.  I find it intriguing that you’ve never asked about her, never offered an opinion.”

“I don’t really have one.”

“No?  For an attorney, she demonstrates a shocking lack of understanding of the repercussions of slander,” Diana commented, holding another tidbit up and examining it before she shrugged and popped it in her mouth.  “Mmmm.  Good,” she murmured, and snagged another.

“I laid out the rules in advance, and she agreed.  We had a social contract.  She wanted to change the terms.  I declined.  There was nothing more to say.”

“Good at your job, and discreet.”

“I have to be discreet to do my job,” Jim told her, reaching for his teacup to take a sip.  He smiled slightly, the lines around his eyes crinkling.  “It’s not like she’s the first person to be disappointed.  I know my requirements are not intuitive to many people.”

“And yet you maintain them without prejudice.  I admire a man with standards.”

“And how does that impact our elephant, hmmm?”

“You’re not without warmth.  You’re very sweet in your way.  Kind.  I imagine you’d be an exemplary lover.”

“But?”

“But you hold yourself back.  You withhold yourself, is perhaps a better way to say it.”

“I don’t offer false hope.  I offer a night of pleasure, and nothing more.  I know going into it that I’m not going to find my ever after. But it doesn’t mean we – my partner for the night, and I – can’t enjoy ourselves thoroughly.  Longevity is no guarantee of sustained happiness.”

“And when the endorphins fade … ?”

“I get on with my life,” he shrugged with a smile.  “They get on with theirs.”

“Our professional relationship would preclude a physical one.”

“I’m not offering a relationship.  I don’t do relationships.”

“Pity.  I don’t do one night stands.”

“Then I guess we have an irreconcilable conflict, Counselor.”

“I suppose we do.  May I ask why?”

The question surprised Jim.  No one had ever asked him that.  Even his friends had just made assumptions, and he’d had to volunteer his truth to them.  But not one of the people who’d graced his life in single nights of passion had ever asked him why he chose to live his life like that.

So he rewarded her courage in asking the question by telling her the truth.

&&&

“Do places like this remind you of him?” she asked one Saturday afternoon when they had met up for coffee and a stroll through a small gallery in the Village.

“Yes.  He loved to draw, always had smudges of pencil or ink on his hands, his nose.”  He shook his head fondly.  “I remember having the strongest urge one day to lick the charcoal off the tip of his nose.  He was so frigging cute. But I didn’t.  I let the opportunity slip by.”

“Does this make you sad?” she asked, gesturing toward the canvases hung strategically around the small space.

“Art in general, or this piece specifically?  Because I’m really not sure what the artist was getting at, other than using up some leftover green paint.”

She paused to look at the piece, tilting her head to one side, then stepping back and tipping it to the other, and finally she laughed, a soft, almost tinkling sound.  “I think you are right.  Perhaps there was a sale,” she added with a giggle.

They walked around the corner to another alcove where large canvases hung suspended from the ceiling.

“The case will be wrapping up soon, I think.  My team is starting to draft closing arguments for me to look through.  I like to have the organization, but I’ll talk off the cuff on the day.”

“So I can start on preparing to relocate your witness, hmmm?  And then what?” he asked, finding that he really was curious to hear what she had to say.

“Then I think we will have time to think about that.  Together.  Hmm?”

&&&

November 2015

The witness was safely installed in their new identity in an up and coming neighborhood in Portland, Oregon.  A nice house, an interesting job in a field they had to learn, a solid backstory, and impeccable credentials, and voila, reboot one more life.

And now he was on the return flight, making his way back to New York.  He felt a sizzle under his skin, a buzz.  Excitement made his leg bounce, made him impatient for the flight to be done, so he could land, and …

See Diana.

He shoved himself back in his seat with a whoosh.  It had crept up on him without him being aware.  Not there at the outset, but building over time.  Growing in intensity, in meaning.

He liked her.  He liked Diana.

As a friend, sure.  But possibly as more?  He’d never entertained the idea before that moment.  Yes, there was sexual chemistry, unresolved tension.  But that was quickly dispensed with by having a really good fuck. But the way he felt excitement at the thought of seeing her again, of seeing her laugh.  The thrill of the idea of holding her hand – nothing more, just holding her hand. Moments and events, milestones and goals … all of it sounded so wonderfully routine and yet unbelievably exciting.

Is this what it felt like?  To fall in love gradually, rather than at first sight?  Rather than not at all?

Well, shit.

&&&

She was standing there, waiting for him in the baggage claim area, dressed in form-fitting jeans, butter soft leather boots, and a vintage bomber jacket she’d explained was her grandfather’s, the one he’d worn when manning a gun turret over Europe.  A tufted scarf finished the ensemble, giving her a decidedly hipster vibe, but the electric current that flared through his body when he saw her there, smiling just for him … she could have been dressed in burlap and twigs, and she would have looked just as beautiful.

His suitcase rode forgotten on the carousel, going round and round and round as they kissed, ignored by the New Yorkers who milled around them.

He did eventually grab his bag as they headed back to his place for the first of many nights.

&&&

January 2016

“Jimmy?  Jimmy, I think you should come over, honey.”

“What is it, Ma?  Di and I have plans this afternoon –“

“And honey, I’m happy to see you happy.  But this is something I really think you ought to see.  In person.  You can bring her with you if you think it’s okay.  You know I'd love to meet her.  But, honey, I think maybe you want to do this alone.”

Cold settled in his gut and fear lanced along his nerve endings.  “Is it …” he swallowed, then again because there was something huge and immoveable in his throat, “is it about Steve?”

The silence on the other end of the line was all the answer he needed.  “I’ll be right there.”

&&&

He didn’t mention Diana to his friends.  He'd chosen not to introduce her to his Ma or sister - not yet, he'd claimed.  She never took him home to meet her family, either, to sit Shabbat or to light the candles over Hanukkah, to share salt and bread and water.  He didn’t invite her for Thanksgiving or Christmas with the fam.  What was between them was still too fragile, too unexpected. 

In a lot of ways, nothing really changed.  They’d been spending so much time together being friends that when their relationship changed, it just added more without changing the general shape of their relationship. They kissed.  They fucked.  They still met for lunch in the commissary at City Hall, and they still wandered little galleries while she quizzed him about his tastes and whether or not Steve would have liked that painting, or would have ever tried that style.  They met for Chinese and beers over a conference table to strategize, even if it wasn’t their shared case anymore – they were each a good foil to the other, and they each appreciated the other’s mental agility.

In another lifetime, another career, they would have made exceptional partners.  There was a fleeting moment when she’d even considered suggesting it, taking on private practice, investigation and security for him, and legal representation for her.

She’d tried not to feel jealousy for the boy that he’d lost so many years earlier.  After all, that loss had helped to form who he was today, and she liked that man of today.  But it had the potential to always be a question mark hanging over their relationship.

Until it wasn’t.

&&&

Jim stared at the envelope in his hand and swallowed, hard.  He’d recognize that loopy cursive in his sleep, the doodle on the back of the envelope, the smudge of pencil left behind on the flap.  There was no return address, but there didn’t have to be one for him to know where the envelope originated.

The question was why was he getting it nearly 15 years too late?

“Your father’s gone into hospice,” his Ma was saying gently from where she stood at the stove stirring hot chocolate in a saucepan.  “So your stepmother’s been going through his things, trying to get them sorted out before, well, you know.  The end.”

“God knows why that bastard’s still alive,” Jim spat venomously.  His parents had divorced in his senior year of high school, and he knew that his sexuality – or rather, his father’s interpretation of his sexuality – was a major cause.  But the reality was the marriage had been rotten long before, and he’d become a bitter, unhappy, and cruel man long before the paper dissolved the marriage.  He and Becca, his older sister, had gone out and tied one on at O’Malley’s the night the divorce was final.  They’d taken Ma out to dinner the next day.

“Well, he’s not long for this world.  Anyway, she’s been going through his things, his papers and such. And she found that.”

“It’s been opened.”

“I’m sure he did it.  Eileen’s not the type to pry.  Lord knows I’ll never understand why she married your father – she’s a nice person.  He’s not.”

“So, what?  He opened my mail, saw it was from,” he choked and covered his mouth with a shaking hand.  “And then what?  He was gonna punish me?  Let me wonder all these years?”

She lifted one shoulder and shook her head.  “Who knows what went on in that head of his?  But the letter.  At least now you know for sure.  That’s a good thing, isn’t it, Jimmy?” she asked, ladling out the hot chocolate into mugs.  She dropped a few tiny marshmallows in, and shook the can of whipped cream so she could add a towering curl of cream to the top.  She handed one mug to Jim, and licked at the whipped cream of her own for a moment.

Jim had to smile. Ma needed this to be a good thing, needed it to provide some closure. Jim knew that Ma had felt bad all these years that Jim had been waiting and searching.  So to have proof – irrefutable proof – that Steve was still alive, it was a good thing.  It was, wasn’t it?

Six months ago he would have had no question about that.  But six months ago, he hadn’t fallen into a relationship with someone who just might … well, who just might.

“Have you read it?”

She shook her head.  “I recognized his handwriting.  That funny way he looped around his Ts and curlicued his Rs.  Got enough cards from that boy over the years, thank you notes, and stickies, I recognize it.  Your father might’ve too.  But he opened it to make sure.  Sick old bastard.”

“Yeah,” Jim agreed, the fight bled out of him as he stared at the postmark.  Santa Fe, New Mexico.  November 2002.  A month after he disappeared, Steve had risked everything to get in touch with Bucky, to let him know he was okay.  And Bucky’s asshole of a Dad had confiscated the letter and hidden it away so Bucky would never know that the boy he loved was still alive.

“So the Alzheimer’s has finally caught up with him, huh?”

She nodded again.  “Eileen had to put him in permanent care before the holidays. She’s been sifting through his crap ever since.  It was kind of her to send that on, don’t you think?”

“Kind?  Yeah.  Yeah, it is.  I’ll send her a thank you note,” Jim answered distractedly.

“That’d be nice, Jimmy.  I think I might invite her to come for a visit. I never held anything against her, and now he’s gone … maybe she could use a friend who understood, you know?  Well, I’ll leave you to it.  I guess you want to read Steve’s letter in private.”  She turned to go, and he reached out and snagged her wrist, pulling her close, drawing her into a hug. 

“Thanks, Ma.  I think I’m gonna go home and read it there.  But first, let’s drink our hot chocolate.  Have a seat,” he told her with a smile.

&&&

Chapter Text

August 2015

“Hey, Lil, take her, would you?”

“Hey, Bean, come on over here, kiddo,” Lily crooned, reaching for the squirming toddler. 

The little girl with curly brown hair and sky blue eyes reached out her chubby fists, making grabby hands at the slight woman with short electric blue hair and wide brown eyes, and giggled as she tumbled toward her.  “Catch me!” she cried, giggling anew as Lily leaned in and did just that. 

Lily curled her arms around the child and held her close.  “You’re getting big, Bean!”

“Big like Daddy!” Bean crowed, pumping both fists in the air and grinning madly.  She looked up at her Dad and giggled again as she wriggled out of Lily’s arms and slid down her body to seat herself down on the carpet, where she promptly started pulling toys out of the basket where her father had been collecting them.

“She’s growing like a weed.  I gave in and started shopping for clothes at the thrift store.  But I’m too sentimental to trade her things in.  Kinda wanna memorialize them all in bronze, y’know?” he said, smiling fondly at his daughter as he half-turned away to deal with straightening up the living room that looked like a four-year-old had blown through it.  He’d already written that basket off as a lost cause for now, at least until they found another way to distract Bean.

Lily chuckled, making scootchie noises at Bean and tickling her tummy.  “I hear that wears off by the second or third kid.”  He looked up sharply at her, his eyes wide with alarm.  “Just sayin’, is all.  Most parents loosen up when they have another, and figure out the first kid survived despite all their ‘special’ actions, not because of ‘em,” she chuckled as she settled on the floor with the giggling girl, surrounded by soft floor pillows and an alarming array of liberated toys.  “And Bean is doing great.”

 “Yeah, okay, I get it.  Doesn’t mean I hafta put it to the test,” he chuckled, busying himself with picking up after the little girl while Lily played with her.

“No, but you know you want more.  Guy like you, Steve, you need to be surrounded by a brood of doting daughters.”

He stood then, holding onto a fluffy sheep whose nose had been chewed off, lovingly restitched, and chewed again.  He shrugged, and smiled.  “Well, I wouldn’t mind a son or two in the mix, too.  But, yeah, I could see myself with my own baseball team someday,” he agreed wistfully.

“What’s stopping you?” she asked seriously, glancing up at him through a fall of brilliant blue hair.

“Gotta find the right partner,” he answered simply, and went back to collecting toys and a remarkable number of scrunched up tissues.  He shook his head fondly, and bent to his task, while Lily entertained the love of his life with funny faces, goofy noises, and all the affection he could hope for.

&&&

“Honey, let me,” his Ma complained, batting away his hands as he tried to do up the buttons on her cardigan.  She grabbed his hands then and held them up in wonder.  “Just look at them,” she murmured.

“Ma-a,” he whined, blushing.

“Big hands, big heart.  But you always had a big heart, even if it didn’t always work right,” she told him with a fond smile.  “You’ve always been a miracle, baby, but I look at you now … we made the right decision, didn’t we?”

“It’s kept you safe all these years, Ma.  ‘Course it was the right decision.”

“I mean, for you.  I know it was difficult, leaving your life behind, leaving … well, leaving,” she corrected herself, but he knew who she meant.  He felt the familiar clench of his stomach, the wave of pain as he thought of … him … but he swallowed it down and smiled at her, and nodded his agreement.

“We might never have found out about Dr. Erskine’s program otherwise.  It was worth it,” she added, pursing her lips and nodding decisively.

“Yeah, Ma, it was worth it,” he agreed, bending down to press a kiss against her temple.  The skin was cool and papery, more age spots seemed to appear daily, and her hair was thin and brittle.  He glanced down at her forearm, tending toward emaciated, and marred by long lines of deep red – scratches where the blood had risen to the surface.  Her skin was flaky, dry.  He’d have to ask Lil if she could arrange a makeover for Ma, something to pamper her, help alleviate the dryness so she wouldn’t scratch so deeply.  One thing about the Southwest was there was little humidity, and dryness was a perpetual problem for a couple of transplanted New Yorkers.  But for a woman who was on a cocktail of chemo and experimental drugs, too deep a scratch could compromise her already fragile immune system and create “challenges” none of them were in a hurry to face. 

“Where’s that granddaughter of mine, anyway?” Ma was asking, her face tilted to regard him in that eerie way of hers that saw down to his soul.

“Lil’s playing with her in the living room.  Bean’s giving her a run for her money.”

“Kid takes after her father – you were a handful at that age, too, Stevie.  But I see more of Peggy in her every day, too, and not just her hair,” she added gently, her fingers gently touching the back of his hand.  “She’d be so proud of you.”

“I miss her,” he said simply, but behind those three words, there was a lifetime of joy and sorrow.

“I still miss your Dad.  I always will.  I think … I think the important ones, the ones who change us … we never stop missing them when they’re gone.  Peggy was the love of your life, baby, the mother of your child. Of course you’re gonna miss her, sweetie.”

“I don’t ever want to stop missing her, y’know?  I don’t want to forget her.  And I want Bean to know her Mom.”

“Oh, honey, she will!  She’ll know her through your love for her.  In the meantime, I need some cuddle time.  Push me to the living room?”

&&&

Steve sat at his computer in his home office, the door ajar so he could hear Lil and Bean and Ma in the living room, his mind only partly focused on his work.  Truth was, he didn’t have to work if he didn’t want to. 

He didn’t have to work another day of his life if he didn’t want to.  Thing was, he liked to work.  He liked to feel that he was contributing.  And working helped him forget the Peggy-sized hole in their lives, even for a little while.

Their mad dash from New York to New Mexico had resulted in Ma being safe from the human traffickers who’d used the clinic where she’d worked for their evil business, but it had nearly put an end to Steve’s life.  The stress, the sudden change in environment, the overriding pain of separation, all had contributed to Steve ending up in ICU for several weeks, and a few more months on the ward.  His compromised immune system seemed to have given up entirely.

Ma had fretted and fumed, threatened to withdraw her testimony if the Marshals didn’t do something to ensure Steve’s survival and good health.  His Ma could be a formidable force of nature when riled, and Phil Coulson had not banked on Sarah Rogers in full mama bear mode.

So Phil Coulson had found Dr. Abraham Erskine.

And Dr. Abraham Erskine had been looking for someone just like Steve.

It was a partnership that changed both their lives.

Steve had moved into Dr. Erskine’s facility, and Ma had signed on as a nurse in the program – against WitSec protocols, since she wasn’t supposed to have anything to do with her old career.  But the security at ReBirth had been absolute, and as an employee, she’d been able to live at the compound while Steve underwent treatment.  Even Coulson had been forced to admit that it was the perfect solution to all of their immediate problems.  And with Steve under Erskine’s care, Ma was willing and able to make the trips back to New York to testify as needed while the case worked its way through the court.  It had taken more than eighteen months, but they’d finally nailed the bastards, and she’d been able to come back to New Mexico for good, no longer Sarah Rogers, but Siobhan Fitzgerald.  The Fitzgerald was his Dad’s Ma’s maiden name, a fact no one outside him and Ma knew since Dad had been born back in County Mayo, and emigrated after he graduated college back in the ‘70s.  She’d picked Siobhan because she got a kick out of people murdering the name.

So, he’d spent his senior year and then some first as a terminal case, then as a lab rat, being home-schooled by a series of tutors that ended up giving him a better education than he could have hoped for in the public system.  By the end of twenty-four months, he’d emerged an entirely new person.  Healthier, yes.  Taller, much.  Alive, definitely.  And Steven Grant Rogers, five foot nothing petri dish of all human maladies became Grant S. Fitzgerald, six foot two super human.  Professionally, he was Grant Fitzgerald, but in private space, with the closest of his companions, he’d made sure that he went by the S – for Steve.  It never felt right for anyone to call him anything but who he really was in his own space, his own home.  His own life.

Dr. Erskine had posited that Steve’s body might actually have created new antibodies, considering all the illnesses he’d been exposed to and survived, and the treatment.  He’d continued to take blood samples at regular intervals, convinced that Steve’s blood held secrets yet undiscovered, right up to his death two years ago.  Once Abraham was gone, Steve had put a stop to the draws, the experimentation, withdrew his consent, and got on with his life.

Another special person Bean wouldn’t get to know.  Steve’s Dad had passed away when he was young, and he had only sketchy memories of Joe Rogers.  Abraham Erskine had stepped into that father role pretty easily, and the fact that he and Ma had become such good friends had helped.  Abraham had been Bean’s godfather, and Peggy’s cousin Sharon her godmother.

Ma stopped being a nurse after the treatments were over, and got her real estate license.  It took an extra couple of years or so, but they finally settled into their new identities, and began life anew.

Steve’s tutors had been searching for a new career direction for Steve, since he couldn’t pursue art as he’d hoped.  Once they started teaching him programming languages, he’d demonstrated a facility that was honestly shocking.  It had made his future easier to divert from art – there was no question about Steve pursuing a career in system design. 

And college had been good for Steve.  He’d no longer been the sick kid who missed more school than he made.  He was tall, broad-shouldered, infuriatingly healthy, and just a tad older than a lot of freshmen.

He’d made new friends, he’d done well.  He’d started to date.  He’d tried to forget the boy with gray-blue eyes and a smile that promised equal parts heaven and hell.  Sometimes he’d even be successful, for short periods of time.  He never forgot.  He suspected he never would.

While in school, he’d met Tony Stark, the wunderkind who graduated MIT at 16, and decided on Steve’s college for his master’s work.  Even though there were several year’s difference in their ages, that meeting would forever change the course of Steve’s life.  MySpace was all the rage, and Facebook was trending (and, Steve learned later, Zuckerberg was one of Tony’s personal nemeses).  Instagram, Vine, and Snapchat were in the future.  Steve and Tony fucked around with ideas, code, design.  Tony was the hardware guy, designing entirely new generation servers and encryption protocols.  Secured, locked down privacy, unhackable machines.  They ran a closed environment on campus to test their theories and solidify the interface, eventually expanding further into the local social space, even considering the political landscape with an eye toward tinkering with building totally secure and reliable voting machines. 

It was during that time that Steve had met Peggy Carter.  They’d met in the local Obama campaign office in summer 2007, excited and energized by charismatic Senator from Illinois.  Peggy had actually come in to join the effort there from New York, where she’d graduated from Columbia with a Masters in International Affairs, looking for some practical experience before she went on to law school.

It wasn’t love at first site.  They’d immediately loathed each other, and everyone in the office held a front row seat to their verbal battles and childish pranks on each other.

She’d been a few years older and considered herself worldlier and far wiser than the nerdy beefcake that was Steve Rogers.  He’d considered her to be snooty and artificial.  They’d snarked and snarled at each other for weeks, sniping, and baiting, and generally driving everyone else in the office nuts.  Finally, the local campaign chairman had given them an assignment that would take them both out of town, into the far flung suburbs, bunked down in a local Holiday Inn while they canvassed the neighborhoods, met with local chapters, high school and community college groups, all to pump up the energy level for the wave of Obama support.

Their first suburb had turned out to be a Republican enclave, and they were clearly not welcome.  They’d knocked on doors that remained steadfastly closed, met with youth groups who were either dangerously apathetic, or affluent and white enough that they were pointedly not interested in hearing anything positive about Senator Obama.

By the second day, they were both already getting worn down, sometimes stunned into speechlessness by the responses they got.  Wordlessly, they’d seemed to agree to work more cooperatively together, focused on the work and keeping each other going. 

By the third, exhausted from talking with folks who felt there was no point, that one party was no different from another, steeped in apathy or pickled in laziness, or worse, convinced that no good would come of voting for a black man, a Democrat, or a man who must be a Muslim, the pair of them had decamped to a local pub, and drank away their frustrations and anger.

By the time they got back to the hotel, they couldn’t keep their hands off each other.  They never slept alone after that, and everyone in the campaign office was smugly relieved that they’d finally acted on the sexual tension neither of them had realized was there.

Steve had asked Peggy to marry him the day of Obama’s first inauguration.  She’d made him wait until Obama’s 100th day in office before telling him that of course she’d marry him, because he certainly needed a keeper, and she was uniquely qualified.

He’d never told her how much those words stung, how much they dredged up memories and feelings he’d tried to bury in his passion for her.  His Ma and Winnie had both often said that Buck was his keeper, because the only person strong enough and dedicated enough to do it was Buck.  But he never told her about Bucky.  He loved her with all his heart, but he couldn’t bear to share the pain he still felt when he thought of his old friend, his first love, his first loss.

And all during this period when his life blossomed and love finally found him, he and Tony had been crafting and refining their brainchild, and shortly after Obama took office, they launched JARVIS (Just A Rather Very Intelligent System – Tony’s idea as an homage to the family retainer who’d pretty much raised him).  Steve was the code guy, and he coded an environment that was unlike anything anyone had seen before.  All of Tony’s money went into the physical space, so Steve took his salary mostly in shares in the early days. 

Within eighteen months, Facebook was a distant second, and JARVIS was adapting to its users’ needs like artificial intelligence, without the crazy, and without breaching privacy.  Fully customizable experience, no complaints about why don’t my settings stay, or why am I getting these stupid ads.  The Feds came sniffing around looking to co-opt the technology, but Tony’s girlfriend, Pepper, had everything neatly covered in unbreakable patents.

They just kept getting richer.  Steve’s shares were soon worth billions.  They hired lots of precocious programmers, lots of hardware types, incredible customer support staff, and the company just kept growing, getting better, delivering for its customers, the users.  Add-ons and extensions thrived, giving the platform even greater flexibility and new uses.

Somehow, they’d managed to change the world.

The wedding had followed two years after the proposal, and six months after JARVIS put Facebook in the rearview.  It had been a quiet affair at Westminster Abbey.  Ma had loved all the pomp and tradition, Steve had felt wholly cowed by the sheer size of the cathedral, and even more so by the guest list for Ms. Margaret Carter’s wedding. 

He hadn’t banked on media coverage, or the social media coverage on his own platform taking off the way it did, but he’d been grateful that both he and Ma had changed so much since leaving New York that it was highly unlikely that anyone would recognize either of them, and connect them back to the case that had changed their lives.  It was a good thing, because both their faces were plastered over the airwaves and internet, and at one point, the shell-shocked look on Steve’s face had become a meme of its own.  Phil Coulson had screamed at him on JARVISCHAT for a solid thirty minutes.  Steve had told him after he caught his breath that maybe it was time they rethought the whole witness protection thing.  Then he apologized for not inviting Phil, and had a complete set of wedding swag, including a bottle of rare champagne and a whole array of British snacks and treats, hand delivered the following day to Phil via Tony’s private jet.

But thankfully, most of the interest was focused on Pegs and her family.  Because Peggy wasn’t just incredible and amazing.  No.  That was her birthright.  Her father had been British ambassador to the US when she was in college, and her mother had been a president at one of Cambridge University’s colleges.  Peggy herself could actually count how many steps away from the throne of England she stood.  He’d married royalty, for God’s sake.  Or at least gentry, or whatever it’s called.  At least they’d gotten some fun roleplay out of the deal – he’d never forget Peggy in white stilettos, her lacy bra and satin garters, with a Marie Antoinette powdered wig, a black velvet choker with an antique cameo, and a gilded riding crop …

He’d happily paid out every cent and shilling to cover the wedding that Peggy wanted, and her parents had been ridiculously grateful about it.  They might hold impressive titles, but they’d also held incredible debt thanks to inheritance taxes over the generations whittling away at the family fortune.  The infusion of his tech money had helped them a lot, and they’d finally been able to start enjoying their retirement.

Despite their royal, political, and academic connections, the Carters were wonderfully down to earth, warm and welcoming to Steve and to Ma.  Even now, more than a year after Peggy’s death, they remained close, and most importantly, kind.  He was happy to gift them with airline tickets so they could come visit every so often.  He was grateful they never made any noises about taking custody of Bean.

Peggy and Steve had returned to the US, to the little town in New Mexico where Steve and Ma had settled, and somehow she’d stayed, happy to do her thing (finishing up her law degree before joining the staff of the ACLU), happy to let him do his (code and plan and dream).  And go back to laying low, to escape the ire of Phil Coulson. 

But Steve wasn’t just the code guy, he was The Code Guy, a hero to nerds and a fabled get for tech and finance interviews both.  He’d cultivated his mysterious persona, eschewing most interviews except those conducted by e-mail or occasionally JARVISCHAT, which eclipsed Skype in its first year.  He didn’t want the spotlight, it wasn’t the right milieu for him.  The code spoke for itself.  And he didn’t want a repeat of Phil’s marathon yelling anytime soon.  He wasn’t important, and he wasn’t very interesting.  At least that’s what he believed.  Occasionally – no, every day – Tony would forward memes people did about him on their own platform, on Tumblr and Insta – and he’d just shake his head over them.  Phil was not amused.

But no one had ever connected Grant S. Fitzgerald to Steven Grant Rogers.

Eventually, they were so settled into the whole happily married thing that one day Peggy handed him a white stick, and nodded toward the plus sign.  She’d broken into the biggest smile he’d ever seen, and he’d felt his heart, no longer the defective traitor of his youth, simply burst with love for this woman.  Bean was born eight months later.

Two years later, Peggy had been diagnosed with inoperable glioblastoma.  Bean had been three and a half when they’d buried Peg.  Sometimes she still woke up in the middle of the night crying for her.

Sometimes, Steve did.

Bean was edging up toward five now.  More than a year had passed in his Peggyless existence.  Lily had come into his life as a caregiver for Ma, whose own health continued to deteriorate, despite his best efforts and the massive amounts of money he could throw at the problem.  He and Tony had been discussing funding clinical research with their friends Dr. Banner and Dr. Ross.  But he knew in his soul that anything they funded now was too far from being able to help Ma.  So he watched her slip a little further away each day.

Lily had proved to be a godsend, and she and Bean had taken to each other immediately.  Lily had just adjusted her schedule, and added caregiver to Bean to her job, never asking for a penny more in compensation.  Steve made sure her salary was doubled.

So his life settled back into a routine.  They still lived in their little house in their little town.  Neither he nor Peggy had been interested in the trappings of the wealthy.  Steve’s money went to keeping Ma and Peg’s folks comfortable, to funding research into cancers, global warming, sustainable farming, to endowing scholarship programs.  There was more than enough money set aside to buy a college for Bean, maybe even Cambridge if she wanted to carry on the family tradition.

He had money, he had his charities, he had his family.  He had his job, such as it was.  There were enough geniuses on payroll to keep the system running and expanding without him ever touching it again.  He and Tony still had brainstorming sessions, but nothing had stuck lately.  So Steve was feeling a bit unmoored, adrift.  A bad situation for a man still mourning his wife.

Maybe disastrous for someone who often felt like he lived a shadow life.

There were only so many cat memes he could watch, and only so many podcasts he could listen to.  As the Code Guy, he could access the information of any user in the system.  He chose to never breach privacy, and only looked at public profiles.  But he’d be lying if he didn’t admit to a little cyber stalking, checking out what was happening with his old friends back in New York.

One in particular, whose relationship status never changed from “Open to possibilities,” who posted photos of his Ma and his sister, and sometimes of the old gang.  The occasional selfie, out and around New York.  Cat memes and political commentary.  The odd recipe or retweet from Ryan Reynolds.  But never a photo or mention of a significant other.

He wondered how he was really doing, underneath the superficial public postings.  He looked good.  Hell, he’d always looked good, even during the deadly Summer of Acne.  He closed his eyes as he felt the inevitable wave of pain wash over him at the thought of Bucky – of Jim, apparently. 

As always, the next wave was grief, pure, cold, and crippling.  He let it overtake him, felt it completely encase him as it rose, crested, and crashed back inside him.  He let himself get lost in it for a moment, and only the sound of Bean shrieking with laughter was able to pull him back.  The smile that spread across his face was wan, tired, but genuine.  He loved that little hooligan like crazy, and there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for her.

Whatever had happened in the past, whatever pain and loss he’d experienced, all of it had led him to this moment, captured in the crystal purity of his daughter’s laughter.

And it was worth it.

Right?

&&&

 

Chapter Text

January 2016

“James?  James, let me in.”

She leaned her cheek against the cool of the wooden door, straining to hear if there was any sound inside.  Silence greeted her, and she grimaced tightly, huffed out a breath, and rapped on the door again.

“James, I know you’re in there.  You called out sick.  Your unit is concerned,” she called out, eyes glancing toward the ceiling as she spoke, her hand laid lightly on the doorknob.

Still nothing, yet she knew he was inside, could somehow feel his held breath as he waited for her to go away.  Well, fuck him.  If he wasn’t going to let her in, she was going to barge in.

And since they hadn’t got to the point of exchanging keys yet, that either meant picking the lock – a handy skill she’d learned in the Israeli Army when she worked counterintelligence – or playing dirty.  Also a skill that had come in useful in counterintelligence.

“Your mother called me, James.  I know about the letter.”

Her grimace morphed into a sort of smile at the sound of something crashing, followed by a string of expletives and the sound of someone … hopping?  On one foot?  Her fingers closed over her mouth to muffle the chuckle that threatened to erupt.  She could just picture James dropping something on his bare feet, and –

“That’s a low blow, even for her,” he growled, wresting the door open and nearly sending her sprawling into the apartment.  She let go of the knob so she didn’t catapult into the living room, and found herself looking at some homeless person who bore little resemblance to the man she’d been having sex with the past two months, and with whom she’d become friends with over the past six.

“Oh my God, what’s that smell?” she demanded, bringing her hand up to shield her sensitive nose.  “Is that … is that you?”

He stared at her open-mouthed, that mouth that could be so intensely talented working silently as his listless eyes grew wider.

“Did you just tell me I smell?” he demanded, brows furrowing in confusion.

“Yes, you smell.  And you look horrible.  When was the last time you bathed, James?  Or brushed your teeth?  Or looked in a mirror.  My God, I didn’t think it was possible to let one’s self go so quickly.”  She peered around him at the ruin of his apartment – fast food bags everywhere, clothing haphazardly perched on odd surfaces, bottles – many empty bottles – littering the coffee table and floor around the couch, and she’d swear she saw a couple of burnt out joints in an ashtray she didn’t even know he owned.

“And this apartment!  Where’s James Barnes and what have you done with him?”

“James Barnes is gone.  Bucky’s in mourning,” he told her sullenly, stepped back to let her walk into the apartment, then close the door quietly behind her.

“Who the hell is Bucky?” she asked him, feeling her own eyebrow shoot into her hairline.  What a ridiculous name –

“Me.  I’m Bucky.  Steve gave me the name when we were kids.  I stopped using it after he disappeared.  But that’s who I am.  That’s who I’ve always been.  Underneath.  The real me.”

“James –“

Bucky,” he insisted.

“Bucky, then,” she nodded.  “Okay.  Well, Bucky, you stink.”

“I, uh, what?”

“You stink.  To high heaven.  And you are very … yucky,” she added, gesturing vainly in his general direction.  “And this place … this will not do, Jam – uh, Bucky.  This will not do at all.”

“I don’t mind.  It’s what I deserve.”

“Ah, well, that is debatable.  But frankly, that’s not the point.  It’s not what I deserve.  So here’s the plan.  You’re going to shower.  Twice.  And you’re going to brush your teeth – three times.  And while you’re doing that, I’m going to … ugh, I’m going to clean up a bit, okay?  So we can sit down and talk.  I don’t care to share a seat with your used boxers, if you don’t mind.”

“I’m not wearing boxers.”

“Briefs?”

“Commando.”

“Yes, well, that will make getting into the shower all the easier, won’t it?  Now go.  Before I call your mother to come help me.  I have her number now.  And I’m not afraid to use it.”

He looked like he might balk, but then he just frowned sullenly and turned toward the bathroom.  He was nearly to the door when he turned around and asked in a small voice, “How did she find you?’

Diana shrugged.  “She called the district attorney’s office and asked to speak to Diana.  Eventually, she was connected to me.  She’s very nice, and she’s very worried.  You’re very lucky to have a mother who cares so much.”

“She’s bossy and she’s nosy.  She did that because I haven’t introduced you two yet.”

“She did it because she was worried.  And it’s clear she had reason.  Now, shower.  Hot as you can make it.  And lots and lots of soap and shampoo.  I don’t want to see you again until you’re pink and clean, Bucky.”

He nodded and shuffled into the bathroom, flicking on the light and pulling back the shower curtain.  He didn’t even bother to close the door as he dropped his pants and pulled his shirt over his head, standing there naked for a long moment before he remembered to turn on the water.  Once he was safely in the shower under the spray, Diana crossed the room to close the door, and then turned to stare at the disaster that was the Barnes abode. 

Winnie had just said there was a letter, from Steve shortly after he disappeared.  She didn’t know what was in it.  But whatever it was, it had broken James in a way nothing else had.  Diana had not met any of James’s friends, but judging from the way he’d completely fallen in on himself, it was time she introduced herself.  This was more than she could handle on her own.

She had no compunction in locating his phone, thumbing open the lock screen where she typed in his code – because of course she’d made note of it the first time he’d entered it in front of her – and brought up his contacts.  She checked over his texts, and found that he’d ignored numerous texts from someone named Sam, another batch from Nat, still more from a Scott, an emoji-filled rant from someone named Clint, and the list went on.  She quickly put together a group of all of them, and sent out a message to the group.

JAMES:  Hello, this is Diana.  I am a friend of James.  He has had some news.  He is in a bad way.  I may need your help to care for him.

It took only a few seconds for the little icon to start spinning, showing multiple people typing.  She smiled to herself.  Whatever else was going on in James’s life, he had a support network of friends.  And she was not above using whatever resources she had to deal with the current crisis.

SCOTT:  dude! we bn so worried wait what

SAM:  who is diana and why u have jims phone?

Well, that was an interesting question, she thought to herself as she moved quietly around the room, picking up dirty clothes and dropping them into a basket she’d found in the bedroom.  She’d also found a clean towel, which she had wrapped around her hand as she picked up said dirty clothes.  She wasn’t interested in picking up more than she needed to …

Who was Diana in context of James Barnes?  Of Bucky Barnes, for that matter?  And how would his friends react to find out that she existed, here, inside his life?

They hadn’t defined their relationship, not before they started sleeping together, or since.  They were both happy to just be whatever it was they were, and enjoy the ride.  She suspected they could be something significant, given the right circumstances.  Perhaps.  But for now, she shared his journey, and his bed, for a time.

But she knew by his own admission when they first met that this was highly unusual.  In fact, never done. 

They might not even believe her …

JAMES:  We see each other. 

For a long moment, there was silence, not even the icon indicating anyone was responding.

Then the screen exploded in multiple questions, responses, emoji, question marks, and exclamation marks.

She barked a laugh at the onslaught, not even trying to keep up with them all.  But one caught her eye especially.

NAT:  UR d8ing?  James?

JAMES:  We don’t have a name for it.  But we have been seeing each other for several months.

NAT:  More thn once is a record.

NAT:  We must meet.

NAT:  I dont believe u exist.

And then another that lanced through her.

SAM:  What news?

She thought about it a long moment, not sure how much to reveal.  James might not appreciate what she’d already shared, and if she shared more … but these were his friends.  If anyone could understand what he needed right now, they would. 

JAMES:  Letter.  From Steve.

She felt she could actually hear the stunned silence.  After all, these were people who’d known Steve.  James had told her so many stories about Steve and the gang from high school, sometimes she felt like she’d been part of their group so long ago.  And yet, this was the first time she was meeting any of them, over a chat on another person’s phone.

SAM:  Hes alive?

JAMES:  He was, 15 years ago.

NAT:  Son of a bitch. All these years, James was right.

SCOTT:   whr is he?

JAMES:  I don’t know.  I haven’t seen the letter. Only know it exists.  James in a bad way after getting it.

NAT:  We’ll come over.

JAMES:  Not yet.  Let me find out more.

NAT:  Meet us all for drinks tonight.  Please.

Diana could feel the anguish through those simple words.  They’d all lost someone when Steve went missing.  Maybe not someone as special to them as he was to James, but a friend nonetheless.

She nodded to herself as she typed out the words.

JAMES:  I’ll be in touch.  James should be out of shower soon.  I am straightening up his apartment. A mess.  I need to get some food in him, get some of the story out of him.  I’ll text you when I can make plans.

A flurry of thank yous and thumbs-up emojis filled the screen.  She sent one last message, sharing her own phone number, and signed off.  She put the phone back on the dining room table, and went back to picking up.

&&&

James – Bucky – really was quite pink when he finally exited the bathroom some time later.  He showed off his teeth with a rictus grimace to demonstrate he’d brushed his teeth, and held up three fingers, defiantly glaring at her.  She quirked a smile, and then nodded regally at him, then glanced at his bedroom.  She’d already straightened the room up, stripped the bed, and disposed of an alarming number of candy and preservative heavy snack packages.  James would be detoxing for weeks off the crap he’d been consuming over the past five days.

Had it only been five days?  He’d gotten the call from his mother on a Friday evening, and he’d gone radio silent over the weekend.  That in itself was unusual, since they’d taken to spending the weekends together – excursions, dinner, wine, long hours mapping each other’s bodies in the comfort of his bed or hers.  It hadn’t mattered before where they ended up, so long as they were together.  They’d been so in synch the past few months, the disharmony between them now was disturbing and discordant.

Weekend, then he’d called out from the office, and now they were at Wednesday.  In five short days, the accomplished, dynamic, very well put together Inspector Jim Barnes had become this shuffling husk, living in carb-loaded squalor, awash in his own manstink.

At least the place smelled better already.  His bed was freshly made, and he was freshly washed.  If he didn’t look so stricken – even more so after he’d peeked into his room – she might have taken him to bed right then.  But something told her that he was still too emotionally fragile for that.  She could only hope he’d share so they could get past it.  She smiled encouragingly at him as he stood there, looking lost in the doorway to his own bedroom, and he nodded numbly and turned back to the room, closing the door behind him.

Well, that was interesting.  He’d shown no concern for modesty when he’d gone into the bathroom, but now, clean and perhaps a little more settled in his own skin, he sought a bit of privacy.  She took it for a good sign, and turned back to her campaign against the disaster that was his apartment.

The kitchen was a bombed out shell.  There was literally nothing edible left in the cabinets, and the refrigerator was home to an alarming array of alcoholic beverages and little else.  She wondered briefly how long ago he’d run out of provisions, and just when he’d acquired all the alcohol and junk food.  No matter, she was going to restock with healthy actual food, and without delay.  She pulled out her phone and pulled up the app for her favorite grocer, tapped in an order, and set the delivery time for two hours from then.  She should have everything in order by then, and the activity of unpacking delivery crates and organizing his cabinets would probably be a good exercise for James.

She grinned at herself.  She just couldn’t get past “Bucky.”  There was no way she was calling a grown man, a grown man who could make her feel the way he did, by such a childish name.  He’d just have to deal.

Finally, he emerged from his room, and stood in the middle of the living room, blinking in wonder.

“How -?”

“I’m nothing if not efficient.  I have a grocery order on its way.  I also ordered a pizza – it should be here shortly.  When was the last time you ate anything that didn’t come out of plastic packaging or a bottle?”

“Hmmm … sometime this week, I’m sure.”

“James, it can’t be that bad –“

“Bucky.  I told you, my name is Bucky.”

“It’s really not.”

“It really is.”

“Okay.  Bucky, then.  Help me understand.”

He looked her in the eye then, his own shining with tears about to spill over.  Wordlessly, he handed her the page of loose leaf paper.

“Is this …?”

“Read it.  I’m going to go lay down until the pizza gets here.”

&&&

November 20, 2002

Hi Buck – I guess you’re wondering where I got off to, huh?  I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you anything – it all happened so fast.  Ma’s work had some bad shit happening, and she reported it to the police.  Turned out there was major crime, international shit, fucking human trafficking, Buck.  Kids, women, all fucked up.  But because of Ma, it’s gonna end.  But we had to get out of there fast.  Before somebody got to her.  Hurt her.  Jesus, Buck, somebody might’ve killed her.

We’re in witness protection.  I’m not supposed to contact anyone from our previous life.  But Buck, I can’t lose you.  You’re the most important thing in the world to me, after Ma.  And there’s so much I haven’t told you.  I gotta tell you, while I still have the chance.

Inspector Coulson told me he met you, in the apartment after we left, and again at the police station.  He said you took it hard, but you were fighting, demanding information.  He said you figured it out, that we were in the witness thing.  But he told me I couldn’t contact you.  But Buck, I gotta.  I gotta let you know I’m here, I gotta let you know where to find me.  I can’t come to you but maybe you can come to me.

See, I’m in the hospital now.  I died twice already – my heart stopped and they did the paddles and compressions, and shit my chest hurts.  But it’s bad, Buck. I know we always thought I was living on borrowed time, but I think this time there’s nothing left to borrow.  Doctors think I might have a couple more weeks, and then pffft.  I don’t wanna die.  I sure as fuck don’t wanna die without seeing you again.  Without telling you how I feel.

I waited too long, I know it.  But maybe you can find some corner of your heart for me, huh? Because, Bucky Barnes, I’m in love with you.  I think I always have been, but it took Maria telling me that I needed to pay attention to what was right in front of me, that her leaving was the best gift she could give my sorry ass.  And you know something? She was right, because after she left, I realized that it was you.  It’s always been you.  And I had to tell you.  I was gonna tell you right after school on Monday.  And then we were grabbing stuff and shoving it in suitcases and racing out of the house and getting on a special plan, and then I’m here and I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe without you to help me count.  Ah fuck, Buck.  I miss you so bad it hurts.  It hurts to breathe, it hurts to just be, not having you here.

I don’t know if you feel the same way.  I hope you do.  I pray you do.  And if you do, please write back.  I’m not supposed to tell anyone where I am, but I’m here in a hospital, and I’m probably never leaving this place. So write back and tell me you feel the same way, huh, Buck?  And if you don’t, just write to me anyway.  I miss your mug and I miss your hugs and I just wanna sit on my bed back home with my head on your shoulder and listen to you sing along with Avril while I beat your ass at Mario.

Write back, Jerk, please.  I can’t wait to hear from you.

Your friend (and more?)

Steve

&&&

“This is good!  Steve’s alive, just like you suspected all these years.”

“Steve was alive.  You read the letter.  He wasn’t expected to survive.  That was over 13 years ago.”

“Well, maybe they were able to provide some form of treatment –“

“You don’t get it.  Steve’s a fighter. He would never admit that his body could beat him.  But he says right there that he expects to die.  Expected it.  The Steve I knew would never say anything like that unless he really believed it.  No, Steve’s gone, and he died thinking I didn’t love him –“  The sob tears out of him like his organs are being wrenched up through his mouth, and Diana doesn’t fight the urge to gather him into her arms and hold him fast while he clings to her, weeping.

It all made sense now.  Not just grief.  Guilt.  Loss and complicity, however misdirected.

“Well, we’ll just have to verify, won’t we,” she announced decisively, nodding to herself.

“Verify?”

“This Inspector Coulson Steve mentions.  You never had a name before.  Now you do.  And you have the case identified – human trafficking in 2002.  I can look up the casefile information at my end, you can research Coulson at your end.”

“I, um, yeah, okay.  But why?”

“James, I like you, I really do.  I like us.  I think we could be remarkable together.  But not when Steve stands between us.”

“But you’ve known about him from the start, it’s never been a problem before, has it?”

“Before, he was a dream, a fantasy.  Something you might finally be able to let go of, something that you could put to rest.  But this?  No.  This is no adolescent romantic memory.  This is a ghost, a ghost that will haunt us every day until it drives us apart.  I can’t compete with a ghost.  That’s why you have to know for sure.  And if he really is gone, you need to mourn him properly.  And if he’s still alive … well, you need to find closure, one way or another.”

“How can you be real?”

“I’m practical.  I know what I want, and what I don’t want.  And I don’t want to see you suffer unnecessarily.  I can’t stand by and watch that.  And I don’t want to suffer, either.  And frankly, you need a mission, something to focus on.  And you need the truth, one way or another.”

He stared at her in silence for a long moment, and then a smile, small, tentative, and fragile, formed at the corner of his mouth.  He inclined his head, just once, and leaned over to kiss her on the cheek.  He sat back and just looked at her like she was something precious, something indescribably wonderful.  She smiled at him, feeling her heart breaking just a little more.  Something told her it wouldn’t be the last time this beautiful man would break her heart.  But she knew neither of them would make it if they didn’t know.  And she feared that once they did, any hope of a future together would be over.

So she closed the space between them, and pressed her lips against his, and he met her with a hunger equal to her own.  Their time together might be limited, but they would make the most of it while they could.

Who knew what tomorrow would bring?

&&&

Chapter Text

November 2015

Steve looked out through the sliding glass doors of the sunroom into the fenced-in backyard, and up into the starlit sky arcing above, and sighed.  He’d been in New Mexico nearly half his life now, had settled in and built a life – a damned good life, at that – and still he missed Brooklyn.  A sky that was smudgy with starlight swallowed up by the light pollution that was New York.  Streets that were never truly silent, people that moved with purpose and life and all that made them New Yorkers.  Brooklynites.  Urban and eastern and everything that was home.

He could live anywhere he wanted.  Have any life he chose.  There was nothing stopping him – not money, not fear.  His role in building JARVIS, his fame among the nerd community, hell, even among the not-nerds, guaranteed him a certain level of protection that little Stevie Rogers could never have claimed.  Even if the creeps who’d driven him and Ma into hiding connected the dots, they’d have to be desperate to do anything to him and his, and eager to have their mugs shared incessantly across the instant news cycle.

And yet, here he stood, cradling a mug of hot chocolate against his chest while he looked out into the crystalline night, the air soft and mild, and he found that taking that first step was … impossible.  He knew that something was holding him back, holding him in place.  Tony kept after him to move west, to take advantage of the pile of money he’d amassed, and buy a vineyard, maybe an island off the coast of California.  Maybe California itself.  Anything but this small house in a suburb of Santa Fe, with its quiet, friendly neighbors, and its growing families, and its very not glitzy or glam lifestyle.

But Bean had recently turned five, and she was slaying it in pre-K.  He’d wanted to get her into kindergarten, but the age in New Mexico was five before September 1 – she was an October baby.  So she had another year of pre-K before she debuted on the kindergarten stage.  In the meantime, she made friends, she forged alliances, then she happily turned away to entertain herself with art, or crafts, or composing little songs or telling little stories.  She was incredibly creative and Steve’s proudest achievement.  Peggy would be so proud of their daughter.  But he was starting to think that his little corner of heaven might not be big enough, or enough enough, to contain the blazing star that was his little Bean.

And then there was Ma.  He could see that the latest round of therapy was taking its toll on her just as much as it was keeping the cancer at bay.  Most cancer therapies worked by being toxic to the explosive growth of cancer cells.  Some of the newer therapies less so, but they were also narrowly tailored to genetic traits that Ma didn’t necessarily share.  She was fighting.  She wasn’t winning.

Cancer’s a funny thing.  People still had the atavistic fear that it was somehow catching, and once she’d been diagnosed, her few local friends had stopped by a few times, and then found reasons to be elsewhere.  If it weren’t for Lily, Ma might be consigned to looking at his mug every day without respite.

But would Brooklyn be any better?  Would Winnie remember her gal pal from high school?  Were any of Ma’s friends still around, or would moving back be more depressing than staying here, a world away?

And suddenly Steve had an idea.  It happened sometimes, and sometimes they panned out, he reminded himself wryly.

Happy.

Happy Hogan was JARVIS’s head of security.  He’d been Tony’s minder back in college, a member of his Dad’s company staff who’d been given the “shit job” of watching over the family scion.  But when Tony had turned his back on the family biz, when they’d formed JARVIS, Tony had made Happy his major domo, his Chief of Everything Not Code or Hardware.  And as JARVIS had grown into the international behemoth it became, Happy’s role had solidified into Corporate Chief of Security.

Steve had never known anyone who loved his job as much as Happy did.

Steve had written programming protocols for Happy so he could conduct employee audits without infringing on civil liberties.  It was cutting edge code that they were looking to encapsulate into modules that could be added to existing systems, overriding invasive routines that went too far. 

Another way that JARVIS was changing the world.  There was a way to be secure without giving up freedom.  It just took a little more time, and a few more million lines of code before he could slice it down to a lean and mean routine that sat on the top of the stack using little in the way of resources, but locked systems down so they were no longer Big Brother, yet did their job to keep systems and companies secure.

And for JARVIS, Happy sat at the center of that routine sitting on the top of the stack, observing trends and initiating queries into suspicious activity.

Happy loved research.

Happy loved finding things.

Happy loved being helpful.

Steve would ask Happy to track down Ma’s friends, see who was still around, who’d passed on, and – provided it didn’t invade anyone’s privacy – track down publicly available contact information.

Steve needed to know if going home to Brooklyn would be good for Ma, or make her more lonely.

And if Steve slipped into the pile a few names of people who weren’t yet eligible for Medicare, well, who was to know?  He already knew their public images through their social media, and he wasn’t looking for information that wasn’t in the public domain.  If he wanted to cyberstalk anyone, he could do it with ease, and without leaving a trace.  But Sarah Rogers didn’t raise her son to be a creep, so he’d contain himself just to the public record.

&&&

Happy had accepted his mission with ill-contained glee.  There was little Happy enjoyed more than snooping with a purpose.  His only disappointment was Steve’s reminder that everything had to be legal – Happy had been angling for some time to take some of Steve’s research tech out for a spin on the net to see what he could excavate, but so far, Steve had been able to keep him engaged with fully legal tools.

Tony thought the whole thing was screamingly funny, although he did arch one perfectly sculpted eyebrow at Steve over the whole Brooklyn thing.

“That’s where you’re from, isn’t it?”

“What makes you say that?”

“All these years, your voice sounds almost like home.  Dad’s from the Bronx originally.”

“Don’t compare Brooklyn with the Bronx, Tone.  Not if you don’t wanna start a turf war.”

“Yeah, I thought so.  So why the sudden interest in the old stomping grounds?”

“Thinkin’ maybe it’s time to take Ma home.”

“Coulda done that at any time over the past 10 years, Grant.”

“You know I prefer Steve.”

“I’m pretty sure you’ve been holding out on me all these years, Grant.”

Steve looked at his partner, wondering why he’d never told him.  Tony was the one person he’d spent the most time with in his early 20s, building JARVIS from a crazy idea to a global phenomenon.  He’d known Tony almost as long as he’d known … well, he’d known him a really long time, and he knew that there was no reason why he couldn’t trust him.  None.  And yet, he’d never told him.

And now Tony was looking at him with an air of betrayal, like he’d just realized that Steve had a secret he’d never trusted Tony to share.

He’d been playing the part for so long, he’d forgotten to be honest.  Hell, he’d never gotten around to telling Peggy the truth about who he really was, and how he’d ended up in New Mexico. 

Other than Ma – and Phil – no one knew that he’d ever been anyone but Grant S. Fitzgerald.

And when Ma was gone … Steve shook his head.

“You’re right, Tony.  There’s a story to tell.  I couldn’t share it with you for a long time.  But now … now I think it’s time.  Let’s go get a beer.”

“Make it a Scotch, and you’re on.”

“Sure thing, Tone.  You coming, Happy?”

Happy looked up, startled, from his PC, where he’d already started working on Steve’s project.  He shook his head emphatically.  “You two gents swapping secrets?  Gotta wash my hair tonight, fellas.  But you have a good time gossiping, huh?”

“How insultingly heteronormative of you, Happy.  I’ll let it slide this time.  I’ll have you know I spend more time on this coif than Pepper ever spends on hers.  And I’m a much bigger gossip.”

“Yeah, yeah, have a good time, boys.  Glad you’re finally getting over yourselves.  I’ll have a report for you in a day, two at the tops, Mr. F.”

“Happy, for the last and three thousandth time, it’s Steve.”

“Sure, Mr. F.  Don’t let Tony convince you to do those flaming shots he likes.  Stick to the top shelf, you should be fine,” he added with a chuckle over Tony’s squawk. 

Steve shook his head and huffed a laugh of his own.  “I’ll bear that in mind.  So, bar?” he prompted Tony, and Tony grinned ferally at him, gesturing for him to follow.

&&&

“Well … fuck me,” Tony announced, downing his drink in one go.  He knocked the glass back on the bar, pointed two fingers into the interior, and waited impatiently while the bartender refilled it.  Then he drank that, and reprised the entire thing.

Steve watched him with eyebrows climbing his scalp, a worry furrow between his brows.  “Um, thanks but no thanks?”

Tony paused in his alcohol abuse long enough to regale Steve with a disparaging glare, then put his undrunk drink back on the bar with care, tenderness even.  “Not literally.  Figuratively.  Well, maybe literally.  If I wasn’t in a monogamous relationship with Pepper, you just became totally my type.”

“What, tall, blonde, and nerdy?” Steve snorted softly.

“Bad boy on the lam.”

That made Steve sit up straight, shaking his head emphatically.  “Um, no.  In Witness Protection because of Ma.”

“She’s always been badass,” Tony agreed sagely, picking up his drink again to sip more calmly.

Steve shrugged, whooshing out a breath.  “You have no idea.”

Tony looked at him for a long time, silent, considering.  Then he sighed, a little defeated, and put his glass down again.  “Still, all this time?  It never occurred to tell me?”

“I never told Peggy,” Steve replied, his attention focused on the glass in front of Tony.

“Shit,” Tony swore, slumping back against his seat.

“Yeah.”

“And you didn’t think that getting married on a global telecast in front of Queen, God, and countries might have been a tad bit … well, fucking with fate?’

“No.  I was a tiny, sickly stick of a kid with bad eyes, bad heart, stooped shoulders, and bent spine.  Some days I think my own Mother wouldn’t recognize me if she hadn’t been there with me through the whole thing.  But yeah, the inspector assigned to Ma’s case grated about 70% of my ass off for that.  But there was no way I was gonna deny Peg her day in the sun.”

Tony nodded solemnly, and clinked his glass against Steve’s, and together they knocked back a shot.  “Amen to that.  Gotta say, Steve – you’ve got taste to rival the best.  She was one in a billion.”

“Yeah,” Steve agreed, nudging his glass forward slightly with the tip of his index finger.  Tony made a circling motion to the bartender, and a bottle magically appeared to top off both their glasses.  Tony emptied his and motioned again, and again it was filled.  “Leave the bottle?” he asked, pulling a large bill from his breast pocket.  The bartender nodded, and reached for the bill as he added, “And keep the change.”  The bartender’s grin spread, the bill disappeared, and the bartender followed suit. 

Tony sipped this time, quiet as he absorbed all that Steve had told him.  WitSec.  Abraham.  Now his secrets kept back from the mother of his child.

“So, from the cells out, huh?  Wow.  I’d love to meet this miracle worker.”

“I’d love for you to meet him.  But Abraham passed away a couple of years ago.”

“Did he know?”

“Yeah.  He was located by WitSec, by our liaison.  Ma laid down the law – get someone to make me better, or she walked, without testifying.  Like you said – badass.”

“Go, Mom.  So what now?”

“Now, I’m thinkin’ it’s time to take Ma home.  The treatment’s not working –“

“It will.”

“It’s not.  She’s getting weaker.”

“Bruce has something he wants to try, something to keep her strength up and the cancer at bay while the primary med does its thing.  This kind of stuff needs to build up in the system, but the toxicity can get too much before it has a chance to do its thing.  He’s found another drug that will keep her going while the drug builds up to peak effectiveness.”

“You really think that’s gonna work?”

“I think you have the best minds on the planet working on it.  It’s worth a try.  Now, Bruce could fly to New York if that’s what you want –“

“No, we’ll stick it out a little longer.  If you really think this has a chance.”

“I do.  I wouldn’t snow you, not at any time, and especially not on something this important.  I love your Ma like she was my own.  Hell, for the past umpty years, she’s been my mother, too.  And I’m as jealous as you are of the time we get to spend with her.”

“You should visit more often.”

“I should.  I will.  I promise.  Pepper loves your Ma, too.  Look, maybe it’s time for me to make a bigger splash here at the home office.  Let my face be seen a bit more.  I know you’re not into it – and oh, another penny dropped.  Fucking raining.  That’s why you liked being off the radar.”

“That, and I’m not comfortable being the center of attention.  I love what I do, what we’ve done together.  I don’t need to be in the spotlight for it, too.  I’m happy you’re happy basking in it.”

“I am, aren’t I?  And every time some pundit claims I’m the mind of the next millennium, dear old Dad’s teeth gnash just a bit more through his gum line.  You know Stark Industries is looking to restructure?  Thinking maybe JARVIS needs to make a strategic investment.  What do you think?”

“I think I finally understand your nefarious plan, Tony.  Create a software that changes the world for the better, all so you can take over your Dad’s company and what?”

“Make it better, of course.  It’ll be fun, Steve.  With me?”

“Til … yeah, with you.  Why the hell not, huh?”

&&&

Bruce was as good as Tony’s word, and he showed up at the house a few days later to talk to Ma about introducing another drug into her regimen, this one designed to strengthen her immune system and keep the cancer at bay while the primary drug built up to a critical mass. 

“What, a souped up vitamin pill?” Ma challenged.

“No, Sarah.  This is a cancer drug, too.  It’ll keep fighting the cancer with less toxicity, so the main drug has time to do its work.  The vitamins are separate.  I have some ideas for your diet, too,” he added, glancing at Lily and Steve.

“No sprouts,” Sarah commanded imperiously.  “None of that macro-micro-shit.”

“No, nothing weird.  There’s a protein shake I’d like to add to each meal, and I’d like to see you eat more fresh fruits and vegetables.  More high quality proteins.  But no macrobiotics.”

“Hamburgers?”

“High quality beef, sure.  Lean, low in fat.  Try to slip some fish and chicken in there, too, but yeah, you can have your burgers.”

“You’re on,” she promised with a sly grin.

Bruce looked over her head and caught Steve’s eye, grinning brightly.  Steve felt something unknot inside, and a he took a freer breath than he’d taken in quite a while.  Okay.  He’d try this, see how it worked.  The idea of a life without Ma … well, that just wasn’t something Steve was ready to face.  Not so soon after losing Pegs.  Not ever, even though he knew he would have to face it.  Just … not today.

&&&

December 2015

“They’re both out for the count,” Lily announced quietly as she came into Steve’s office and dropped down on the couch with a heavy sigh.

“Even with this new stuff, the chemo knocks it out of Ma.”

“And Bean seems to know when her Gram is feeling poorly.  She snuggled right up and wrapped herself around Sarah.  Both of ‘em were out in seconds.  Hope you don’t mind – I didn’t have the heart to drag her to her own bed.”

Steve shook his head gently, a small smile spreading across his lips.  “They’ve got a special bond, grandmother and granddaughter.”

“Did she have a good relationship with your wife?  Sarah, I mean.”

“The best.  I miss the pair of them ganging up on me.  It was dangerous for me when they put their heads together.  Two of the most brilliant, badass women in the history of the world, and they were both mine.  And they were both dedicated to making my life … ‘interesting’.”

“That’s nice.  I don’t see my Mom.  Not since she remarried.  My stepdad … well, he’s not the most brilliant, badass guy in the history of the world.  He’s the worst thing to happen to it, if you ask me.”

“I’m sorry, Lil.  I know I’m lucky to have someone like Ma in my life.  You know you’re part of our family.  Hey, speaking of –“

Lily perked up slightly from where she was slumped, boneless, on the couch.  “Yeah?”

“Christmas.  Spend it with us?  Not as a caregiver, but as family?”

She grinned at him, rolling her head to look at him.  “I wasn’t angling for an invitation.”

“I know you weren’t.  We’ve been talking about it, though.  You really are a part of the family.  We’d love to celebrate the holidays with you.”

“That’s sweet.  But you remember Derek?”  Steve nodded.  Derek was Lily’s boyfriend of about six months.  They hadn’t quite moved in together, but Lily had been making noises for weeks about asking him to move into her place with her.  “Well, we were talking about having a little holiday celebration of our own.  Just the two of us.  Y’know?”

“You gonna pop that question, Lil?”

“What, marriage?”

“No, moving in,” Steve chuckled. 

She shrugged.  “If the moment seems right.”

“He’d be crazy to pass on the chance to live with you, Lil.  Just don’t forget us if he says yes, huh?”

She nodded, smiling, and then they fell into a comfortable silence as she pulled out her phone and he turned back to his computer.  About ten minutes had passed when she asked softly, “Hey, Steve?”

“Hmm?” he responded, not looking up.

“You know you can never get rid of me, right?  I mean, not in a stalky way.  But I think of you as family, too.  You, and Sarah, and Bean.  I feel like you’re kinda stuck with me.”

“Good,” he answered, swiveling to look at her.  “You’re kinda stuck with us, too.  And if you change your mind, you’re welcome to bring Derek for Christmas.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.  Gotta get in some practice with the shovel talk before Bean’s grown,” he grinned at her, and she threw a throw pillow at him.  She had excellent aim.

&&&

Christmas Day, 2015

Steve opened the door to reveal Lily standing there by herself, practically vibrating with energy, her fists shoved in her pockets but pumping back and forth in agitation.

“Lil?” Steve prompted, looking over her head to find her boyfriend. “What’s going on?  Where’s –“

“Gone.  Fucker’s gone.  Can I come in?  Am I still invited?” she added in a small voice.

“You’re always welcome, you know that.  Bean and Ma will be thrilled to see you.  Bean’s got presents for you – not sure you’ll really want ‘em, but they’re yours – and I know Ma is always happy to see you.  Better than my old mug.  Come on in.”

Lily followed him into the foyer, where he gently took her coat and hung it in the closet.  She was still swinging her arms, occasionally grabbing at her elbows to try to contain herself.  “Um, you wanna go in my office for a minute first?”

“Steve, honey, who is it?”

“It’s Lil, Ma.  She’s gonna join us for Christmas after all.  We’ll just be a minute, okay?  Can you get Bean’s hands washed in the meantime?”

“Sure thing, honey.  Merry Christmas, Lil!”

“You, too, Sarah!” Lily called as Steve ushered her into his office and closed the door carefully behind them.

“What happened?”

She practically catapulted onto the couch, and the force with which she launched herself told Steve that whatever happened, it was bad.  It took a long moment for Lil to answer, but when she did, he was left gaping open-mouthed in shock.

“I’m pregnant.  And Derek bailed, the fucker.”

“You’re, uh, what?”

“Pregnant.  Six weeks.  It’s his, I know it’s his.  I don’t screw around.  It doesn’t matter.  He doesn’t want that.  A family.  Responsibilities.  He told me to do whatever I wanted, but he was out.  And then he grabbed his stuff and walked out.  Didn’t forget to take the gift I gave him, cheapskate left without giving me mine.”   She scrubbed her hand down her face and blew out an extended raspberry against her palm.  “Merry fucking Christmas to me.”

“Lil, I’m sorry.  I know you thought –“

“He was the one.  Yeah.  The one who bailed.  I never would’a guessed.  He seemed so steady, so committed.  He said he loved me, Steve.  He told me we’d be together forever.  I thought … I thought he was gonna ask me to marry him.  Maybe he would’a if I wasn’t preggers, but I am.”

“And what’re you gonna do?  About the baby, I mean?”

“I don’t know.  I mean, I believe in a woman’s right to an abortion, but I don’t know if I can do that.  I guess I could put it up for adoption, but I’m not sure how I feel about my baby being raised by a stranger, y’know?  Shit I don’t know if I would’a kept it if Derek hadn’t run.  I’m just so confused.  So fucked up.  So fucking knocked up,” she added bitterly.

Again, they sat in silence, but it wasn’t comfortable, and it wasn’t easy.  Lily was a live wire of pain and anger and hurt.  She cried quietly and only nodded when he handed her a box of tissues.  Steve felt out of his depth and unable to help, a feeling that he found profoundly unsettling.  Lily was so good to him, so good to his family, he hated to see her suffer.  Hated what lay ahead for her. 

Gradually, an idea revealed itself to him, presenting itself as a thought, then an idea, then a hope, and finally a desire so strong, he thought he’d break if she said no.

“Lil?  Would you consider … would you consider letting me adopt your baby?   You said Bean needs a sibling, I need more kids.  Maybe … maybe this can work out, for all of us.”

“You mean, you adopt the baby, and I, what?  Get to be its nanny?”

“Their Mom.  It’ll be my kid, and you have a place in their life.  But you can leave whenever you want.  Have a life of your own.  Or stay.  Whatever you want.”

“You’re serious.”

“Yeah, I am.”

“Workin’ on that baseball team, huh, Steve?”

“Yeah, I guess.  You don’t have to make a decision now.  It’s on offer – “

“Yes.”

“Yes?”

“Yes.  I’m not ready to be a Mom, and I might never be ready to have my own kids.  But I can’t think of anyone I’d trust more to raise my kid, love it with all their might.  You mean it, right?  You’re not shitting me, yeah?”

“Yeah.  I mean, yeah, I mean it.  Not shitting you,” he told her earnestly.

“Okay, then.  So, yes.”

“Okay.  Well, then, merry Christmas to all three of us – you, me, and the baby.  How about we don’t say anything to Ma or Bean just yet?  Let’s just have a nice family Christmas for now.  And we can figure everything else out later, okay?”

“Okay,” she replied, the tension drained out of her, replaced with a lightness, a confidence that was so much more her style. 

Another child.  Steve could barely contain his excitement.  This would be good for them all.  A new beginning. 

Maybe he’d drop the idea of moving back to Brooklyn after all.  With another child, Ma wouldn’t be so lonely after all … and maybe he could convince Lil to move in with them full-time.  So he could look after her, for once.  Bean would be over the moon, looking forward to a little brother or sister.  And Steve?  He could look forward to growing his little family, holding it together.  And maybe that would finally be enough.

&&&

Chapter Text

Early February 2016

A week after the Great Stink Intervention, Diana found herself sitting on a stool in Conway’s Brew Pub, her hand curled around a frosty glass of a surprisingly nice pear cider, facing a semi-circle of James’s oldest friends.  She felt like a bug under a microscope, the way they all stared at her, waiting for her to clue them in.

Waiting for her to give them entree into the most private parts of James’s life.

But these were people who’d known him longer, more intimately than she did, despite the way their bodies fit together so seamlessly.

These were the jagged edges of a life lived, not the polished surfaces of carefully curated Instagram moments.

“So,” said the beautiful man with skin like burnished mahogany and the incongruous gap between his front teeth.  “You and Buck - you’re dating?”

The incredulity in the question made her smile.  She knew how unlikely the concept was based on her own research on James and the delicate way he navigated time spent together - enjoyed in the moment, with no promise of tomorrow.  She shrugged, feeling the soft knit of her sweater shift over her shoulder.  “We ... are keeping company,” she answered simply, and sipped at her cider.

“We’ve never known James to see anyone more than once or twice.  Never a third time,” the pale woman with the large eyes, deep red hair, and a pouting mouth added then, her eyebrow arched as though it had a grievance with Diana personally.

“I gather.  James has a ... reputation, shall we say?  Not ‘love ‘em and leave’ em,’ but ‘enjoy the moment there won’t be another’,” Diana replied, looking directly into the green eyes of the woman.  

Lines crinkled around her eyes then as a smirk slid into place on her elfin face.  “Now that sounds like James.”  

“She seems legit,” the dark blond man sitting next to her said then, nodding toward Diana.  He quirked a crooked smile at her, and she felt like she’d just been given a vote of confidence. Which was completely undone in  the next second.

“So why you?”the pink-cheeked man with the wavy dark hair blurted then, and immediately clapped both hands over his mouth, his eyes going comically wide as he blushed with mortification.

The woman elbowed him sharply, hissing, “Scott!” while the others swallowed chuckles under their breaths.

“Scott, is it?” Diana said, slotting each of them into their identities.  “That would make you Nat, right?” she nodded at the woman. “And you are Sam?” she asked Blondie.

“Clint,” he replied, grinning.

That left the lovely man who’d first spoken to hook a thumb toward himself, and announce, “I’m Sam.  Sorry, we should have introduced ourselves first.  I think we’re all just so ...”

“Shocked?” she offered with a wry grin.  “I think I understand just how unusual this is. Right now James and I ... friends with benefits is probably the closest description, although I think it may be more than that.  It has the potential to be more.”

“But?” Sam prompted gently, and the expression on his face told her he thought he knew the answer.

“But there is the matter of Steve.”

“There’s always the matter of Steve,” Nat said then, with a vehemence and underlying emotion that was both surprising and confusing.  Anger, frustration.  Pain.  “James has never let that go.”

“And now we know that he had reason not to,” Diana pointed out reasonably, and her calm words were like a shock of cold water on Nat’s simmering anxiety.

“Yeah.  I guess we do,” she agreed grudgingly, a little breathlessly, as though Diana had landed a blow.

“So Steve ... he’s alive?”

“He was.  In 2002, he wrote James a letter.  It confirms James’s belief that Steve went into witness protection.”

Sam whistled low through his teeth.  “So Bucky was right all these years.”

“Yes.  His father intercepted the letter, and it was only after his death that James’s mother found it.  You can imagine how James has reacted - his father’s betrayal, learning that Steve was alive and wanted to see him, but ...”

“But what?” Scott asked then, his brows drawn up like he was bracing for the answer.

“But Steve was gravely ill at the time.  Not expected to survive.  Odds are, he didn’t.  But he wanted to talk with James one more time, risk the protection to reach out.  His dying wish.”  She let the gasps and whimpers die away before continuing.  “James did not take this well.  Finding out his friend had been alive but dying, that James had, in all likelihood, missed his chance to say goodbye, for closure ...”

“No wonder James spiraled,” Nat said softly.

Clint cut through it all with a simple question.  “Is he OK?”

Diana smiled, finding herself looking fondly at the young man.  “No.  But I think he can be.”

“You’re gonna find Steve,” Sam said flatly.

“James is going to try.”

“Shit, all these years ... he was right all these years,” mourned Scott, shaking his head.  Then he raised his face so he was looking directly at Diana.  “So what can we do?”

“Well,” Diana answered, leaning in.

&&&

When Diana came out of the bathroom stall to wash her hands, she found Nat perched on the counter waiting for her.

Diana smiled and nodded at Nat.  “I pegged your for the intelligence officer of the team,” she said as she turned on the water to wash her hands.

“I am in law enforcement, after all.  Surprised we haven’t worked together yet, ADA Prince,” she replied with a shrug and a small smile.  Then she looked at Diana soberly - interesting, considering how much alcohol she’d already consumed that evening.  Do you love him?” Nat asked.  Few words, but not a simple question.

Diana turned off the water, and stood up straight, considering her reflection in the mirror.  She’d dressed warmly, with a soft, cowled sweater in a combination of shades that complemented her complexion, comfortable form-fitting jeans, and mid-calf leather boots.  Her hair was drawn back severely from her face, anchored in a knot at the base of her head.  Her makeup was flawless.  She looked professional and put together.  Which of course was the opposite of the emotions that swirled within her at the possibilities inherent in Nat’s question.

“No,” she said at last, pursing her lips and making a face at her own reflection.  Then she turned to look directly into Nat’s piercing green eyes.  “Don’t get me wrong. I could love James.  I could love him so easily. Like breathing,” she exhaled gently, and shook her head.  “We’ve always been brutally honest with each other. I knew what I was getting into with him, and it suited me.  I didn’t want strings, I didn’t want commitment.  But over time ... I’ve come to realize that under the right conditions, I could.”

Nat nodded to herself.  “I think I get it.”

“I imagine you do.  You’re pragmatic.”

“I’m Russian.”

“Same difference.  I’m Israeli.”

“So Steve ...”

“Was always a factor, but only in a conceptual sense.  There was this vague ... Steve influence,” she waved her hand around.  “James has been driven by the loss of his friend, his entire adult life, his career, has all been inspired by his need to know what happened to Steve.”

“It’s more than that,” Nat said quietly, tugging at the hem of her sleeve.  “The day that Steve went missing ... James had been out for a while at that point.  No one thought anything of it. But what he had with Steve was special, and we all knew that James wanted more.  And then James finally admitted that to himself.  So.  The day that Steve went missing, James was on his way over to Steve’s house to tell him that he liked him.  Loved him, actually.  He never got the chance.  Never got to find out if Steve felt the same way.”

Diana drew a slow and steady breath, tipping her head back to stretch her neck muscles.  “I thought there was more to it.  James needs to know.  He needs to resolve the Steve-shaped emptiness in his life.  Now more than ever.”

“And what if Steve is still alive?”

“Then James has to see him.  He has to know.  And I’ll support him whatever his decision.”

“Wow, that’s um, that’s big of you.”

“Hardly.  I like James.  I enjoy his company, his sense of humor, his intelligence.  The physical aspect of our relationship grew out of that.  If finding Steve ends up meaning that part of our relationship is over, our friendship doesn’t have to end, too.  But first, he has to find out whether Steve is still alive or not.  If he isn’t ...”

“Then the two of you have a chance.”

Diana nodded with a hint of a smile. “Perhaps.  James would need to mourn.  And I am very patient.  For all of you, I hope this is not the case, though.  I hope that somehow Steve survived.”

“So, assuming Steve is still alive ... it’s been 14 years.  James never responded to that letter, so if he’s alive, he’s probably moved on long ago.  In that case -“

“Let’s hope they could at least be friends again.  That would be the best outcome for everyone.  Don’t you think?”

Nat smiled then, and nodded.  “Yeah.  That would be great.  But if Steve’s alive and he feels for James the way James feels for him -“

“Then I shall be the supportive friend.”  She adjusted the drape of her sweater and looked at herself in the mirror, assessing her reflection.  “And that is why I could love him.  But I do not.”

“Yeah, keep telling yourself that.  Whatever happens, I’m glad to see that James found you.  I’m glad you found us.  Have any more room on your friends list?”

Diana felt the smile blossoming before it lit her face.  “Oh, yes,” she replied, beaming.  

&&& 

March 2016

Diana had come through with background on the human trafficking case that had been active in 2002.  She’d pulled some strings and skirted some pesky ethical issues in order to provide him access to the files, including the transcripts of the closed sessions, and Sarah Rogers’s own deposition.  From there he’d been able to piece together what had happened.

Sarah - his second Mom, really - had risked everything to report what was going on in the practice where she worked as a nurse.  There’d been imminent threat, so she and Steve had been placed into WitSec pretty much instantaneously.  She’d come back to testify in closed sessions, and then went back into the program.  The DA’s office closed the book on Sarah Rogers after her testimony, and they ultimately achieved guilty verdicts and lengthy prison sentences.  There had been subsequent deaths in prison - executions, really.  No suspects, no clue how the specific prisoners convicted of trafficking women and children had met with such odd accidents.

Justice, raw and wild, had found them.

In all likelihood, Sarah wasn’t still in the program at this point, but she’d probably settled into her new life wherever the program had placed her.  There was nothing to give him a hint regarding Steve, but armed with Coulson’s name, the timing and urgency of the placement, and the timing of her testimony, he thought he had enough to track down the Marshall case files.

&&& 

Bucky finally had to go to Fury directly to request contact information on Phil Coulson.  Every method of tracking the retired agent down had stopped at a dead end, no matter how creative Buck got.  He just kept coming up short up against what was starting to feel like an intentional campaign.

But he hadn’t got this far to give up without getting to the prize.  He had to know.  He’d accepted long ago that his belief that Steve had gone into protection bordered on mania, but to have it confirmed ... he couldn’t let it go until he knew for certain what happened to Steve.  Whether he’d be forced to grieve at last, or ... no, he couldn’t let himself hope for anything more.  He just had to know.

So he’d pulled in favors to get on Fury’s calendar.  He waited impatiently for the slot to open up.  He’d been a barely controlled ball of raw nerves going into the director’s office, convinced he was going to have to plead, cajole, and outright lie to get what he needed.

What really shocked him was the ease with which Fury gave up Coulson’s info.

“He told me if you ever came asking, you could have it,” Fury shrugged.

“He ever think of offering?”

“Pretty sure that’s a no.  Nah, I’m betting he just planned to let you come to terms with your loss if you didn’t ask. But if you did, he’s willing to talk to you.  You willing to listen?”

“I’ve been waiting for this meet for 14 years.  So yeah.”

“This why you signed up?  To find your friend?”

“He was more than a friend.  And yes.  Steve was always my end game.”

“Playing the long game.  Damn, son.  I don’t know whether I should be impressed or weirded out.  But hey, Coulson saw that in you all those years ago, so maybe impressed.  With a side of weird.”

“Now you sound like my friends.  So, yeah, I get that. 

“Coulson told me you were a bright kid, passionate, able to see clues even the CSI missed.  You knew right away that your friend and his Ma weren’t taken.  Coulson hoped you’d join up.  You’ve done exemplary work - didn’t let that little obsession of yours get in the way of doing a good job.  So, you’ve got leave banked.  Why don’t you hand off your active cases and take a few weeks, burn some of it off.”

“Think I’m gonna need ‘em?” Bucky asked, a wild flare of hope igniting in his chest.

“Barnes, one way or another this is going to take you to the end of your line.  Whether it’s a happy end or a grieving end, I think you’re gonna want some time to process it, don’t you?  And you’re gonna have to figure out who you are and what you want out of life once you accomplish your mission.  And while you’re doing that, I don’t wanna see your excellent service record go down the crapper because you can’t concentrate.”

“Yeah.  I hadn’t thought about it like that, but you’re right.  Once I know for sure ... I’ve never gotten past that in my head.  Didn’t wanna jinx it, y’know?”

“No, I don’t.  But take the time anyway.  And drop me a line when you find out, huh?  I love a mystery.”

Bucky chuckled.  Fury might sometimes skirt the edge of appropriate boss behavior, but he also had some valid points.  One way or another, meeting with Phil Coulson was going to redefine who Bucky Barnes was.

Wasn’t that a kick in the head?

&&&

Phil Coulson had settled into a small New England town northwest of Boston, nestled in the rolling hills of the Berkshires.  The address Fury gave Bucky led him to a white clapboard house with a salt box roof and deep red trim, a gravel driveway, and big glass windows that looked out onto the quiet street on one side, and the trees marching up the hills on the other.

It was idyllic.  Calm.  That’s how Bucky remember Phil Coulson.  Calm to the point of annoying.  So yeah, the place suited him.

Snow flurries dusted the lawn with a frosting of white, and a combination of salt, snow, and ice crystals crunched underfoot as Bucky made his way from his car to the heavy wooden front door, the interior masked by the whorls of the leaded glass insert.

He heard footfalls inside after he rang the doorbell, then a pause - he could practically see through the door to the person peering out through the peep hole, and then there was the sound of locks disengaging, a chain falling away.

Phil Coulson hadn’t changed much at all in the past 14 years.  His bland face still held that maddening half-smile as he drew the door inward.

“Barnes.  ‘Bout time.  Lunch is nearly ready.”

&&&

Lunch was homemade clam chowder, thick slices of buttered brown bread, and warm spiced cider.

“Yeah, I’m not from New England - my wife is.  This is her definition of comfort food, so,” he shrugged, handing the stoneware butter dish to Bucky.

“I’m sorry, am I interrupting -“

“No, no.  Audrey’s in town.  She plays in the local orchestra.  She used to travel a lot, but when she was ready to settle down, it was time for me to retire.”

“You moved here from New York for your wife,” Bucky said softly.

“The things we do for love, huh?” Phil asked brightly.  “You’ve done well for yourself.  Put that fine mind to work on the problem.  I did expect you a lot sooner, though.”

“Yeah, well, I was working on tracking you down.  You didn’t make it easy.  But I didn’t have your name until I got Steve’s letter.”

“Letter.”

“He wrote me a letter in 2002, but my Dad confiscated it without me ever seeing it.”

“Of course he did,” Phil said with undisguised exasperation.  “And sorry your Dad was an asshole.  As for Steve, he was crazy over losing you, over you not know what happened to him.  Kid was hell bent on getting himself killed over you, Barnes.  You have it with you?”

“It’s kind of private.”

“Yeah, I figured,” Phil agreed, and ate his soup in silence for a while.

“I need to find him,” Bucky said after the silence had dragged on for a minute or so.

“I figured that.”

“Look, you were expecting me.  Are you just gonna tell me fuck you now I’ve found you?”

“No, no of course not.  The thing is they’re out of the program now, have been for a while.  But they kept the identities they were given when we shipped them out of New York.  The pair of them - the most challenging charges I’ve ever had.”

“Steve’s alive?”

“Last I checked.”

Bucky would swear that at that point, he stopped breathing.  He wasn’t sure if he wanted to hug Coulson or kill him.  But if he did that, he wouldn’t get the information he needed.

He was pretty sure his eyes were bugging when Coulson finally looked up at him, and his eyebrow shifted slightly.  “Don’t hurt yourself,” he said mildly.  “Sarah wouldn’t testify if we didn’t get Steve some help, and pronto.  He was dying, but he was placed in an experimental program that saved his life.  Changed it pretty radically.  After that, Steve was always crap about keeping a low profile.  You’ve probably seen him on TV or the net.  If you’re into that sort of thing,” he shrugged.

“What sort of thing?” Bucky rasped out, his face hurting now with the grinding of his teeth.

“Tech.  Your Steve was an artist, on his way to art school.  So the Steve in the program had to do something different.”

“Right.  Like everyone pretty much has to.”

“He took to programming like nothing I’d ever seen before.  Should’ve been a nice, anonymous career.  Except he met Tony Stark, and together, the pair of them rewrote the universe.”

Bucky stared at Coulson, confused.  Tony Stark’s partner was something of a legendary hermit, but he did come out to make appearances every so often.  He was tall, broad-shouldered, blond, blue-eyed.  Steve’s had been tiny, slender, also blond and blue-eyed.  So were a lot of people.  And of course when Fitzgerald got married, there was all sorts of pomp and circumstance, live by satellite ...

“No fucking way.”

“If you’re thinking Steve Rogers became Grant S. Fitzgerald, the world-famous architect of JARVIS, you would be correct.  It’s a good thing Audrey was ready to put down some roots - working with Steve nearly killed me.”

“No fucking way,” Bucky repeated.  It wasn’t possible that Steve had been hiding in plain sight, that Bucky could have had his resolution years ago - “I watched that wedding on TV with my Mom.  I remember thinking he was hot, but I didn’t recognize him. And I’d’a thought I’d recognize him anywhere. He was so tall, so buff!  That wasn’t Steve!

“That was Steve after experimental treatment resolved his physical ailments and allowed him to fully grow.  If it’s any consolation, Sarah didn’t recognize him at first, either.  And she was right there for the whole thing.”

“So he’s married.”

“Widower.  Peggy Carter died of brain cancer.”

“Yeah, I remember hearing that. But he’s really straight.”

“Why do you make assumptions?  You’re bisexual, right? Why do you assume he’s only straight, especially when he risked his life - and his mother’s - to write you that letter.  I know how broken Steve was over losing you.  I’m not saying he still feels that way about you – he and Peggy were very happily married, and I know he’s taken her loss hard.  But don’t you owe it to you both to get some closure?  He risked everything to get that letter to you.  You’ve spent your life searching for him.  Now’s your chance.”

“I’m going to need an address, Phil.”

“Of course you are.”  He slid an envelope across the table to Bucky, and Bucky just stared at it for a long moment while Phil watched him.  “It won’t bite.”

Bucky’s hand was shaking as he reached out to take the envelope, open it, and read the information Phil had provided.  “You can probably book a flight out of Boston tonight.”

Steve was alive.  And living in Arizona.  And Bucky was finally going to see him again.

&&&