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A Gentle Thaw

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The crowd cheered deafeningly when the gangplank was finally secured and the first officers emerged from the ship. In their dress uniforms, medals shining brightly in the late afternoon sun they looked as if they had stepped directly from news reel. All around Steve women shouted out names of husbands, brothers, fathers and their arms reaching out as if to anticipate the coming embraces.

He hung back to avoid getting trampled though he practically shook with the same exuberance. Reunions spread through the crowd like joyous bursts of fireworks. The noise burst through the crowd rising and falling with years of repressed talk tumbled out. Steve stretched out on tiptoe and watched the men pouring forth, restless and tight.

They had traded letters across the Atlantic, full of their old banter and affection until last January when a fist full of shrapnel had sent a frightening telegram his way.

We regret to inform you that Sergent James Buchanan Barnes was injured in the line of duty.

After that, the letters were few and far between and when they came they were bleak, stunted things. It was as if the injury had split open some old wound and the weeping bile spilled right onto the page. There were descriptions of battles, bloody and pointless that left both sides panting for breath as they dragged their dead home during ceasefires. Steve had forced himself to read every terrible word, responding with as much compassion he could muster from the comfort of their kitchen. He sent on stories, food and clean socks, all too aware of how pitiful the offerings, but unable to do anything more.

“Steve.” A man emerged from the crowd and it took him long seconds to find the familiar face under the scars. The entire left side of his face was lined with scars at oddly precise intervals even his eyebrow bisected neatly. Angry red skin flared over his right hand where it must have risen to protect his eyes and lips, the pointer and pinkie fingers missing entirely.

“Bucky!”

“You didn’t get any taller.” The joke sat uneasily as if unsure of its welcome.

“This is the whole package.” The hug could not be repressed though he knew how ridiculous they probably looked. “I missed you, you big idiot.”

“Yeah.” Bucky patted him gently on the back. “Yeah, I know.”

Like a champagne bottle finally uncorked, Steve began to talk, the last three years of quiet vigil coming to an abrupt end. He stayed close to Bucky’s side, glancing at his profile as they walked just to assure himself that he was really there.

“What happened to the deli?” Bucky asked abruptly as they rounded the corner of their block.

“Went out of business.” Steve looked over the barricaded windows. “There was talk of someone buying it a few months ago, but nothings come of it.”

“I was looking forward to a Reuben too.” Bucky said mildly, but there was something stricken in his face.

“It’s not the only deli in Brooklyn.” Steve replied with equal lightness. “Anyway, you always hated their pickles. Levitt’s still has the best.”

“Let’s go home first.”

“All right.”

They climbed up the four crumbling steps into the cramped vestibule that always smelled faintly of cabbage. A faint smile creased Bucky’s lips as they took the shaky staircase up to the second floor.

“Oh Lordy! Is that Jamie?” Mrs. Schuyler emerged from her apartment, eyes shining. “Come here my boy and let me have a look at you.”

“Hello, Mrs. Schuyler.” Bucky grinned. “You look as young as the day I left.”

“You terrible boy.” She threw ancient wrinkled arms around him and even though Bucky had always said she was a hateful old hag, he hugged her back like she was his own dear departed mother.

“Hello, Steve!” Gloria on the first floor called up. “Is that Bucky?”

“Come up!” He waved.

She bounced up the stairs, leaning down to kiss Steve on the cheek before turning her 100 watt smile on Bucky.

“Do you remember me?” She asked all laughter.

“How could I forget?” Bucky embraced her then held her at arm’s length. “Though I could swear you were still a kid when I left.”

“Guess I went and grew up on you.” Her smile faded at the edges. “Welcome home, Bucky.”

She disappeared down the stairs in a flash.

“She married a Naval officer two years ago.” Steve said softly as the continued down the hall. “Went down in the Pacific.”

“Christ.” Bucky leaned heavily against the wall as Steve fumbled for his keys. “Did I really stick my foot in it?”

“Don’t think so. She always liked you. The telegram only came a few weeks ago, she’s been up and down ever since.” The door finally creaked open.

He’d obsessively tidied for the last two weeks, trying to make up for years of neglect. It wasn’t that the place had been dirty, rather it had gathered a sort of a disturbing abandoned quality. He lived almost exclusively out of his small bedroom and the galley kitchen, eating over the sink. As the only young man in the building, many of his meals had been courtesy of lonely older women anxious to express their deprived motherly feelings onto someone more tangible than a bundle of letters.

“You kept it the same.” Bucky surveyed the living room with the floral monstrosity of a couch that Steve’s mother had bought for a steal twenty years ago. Even the same faded painting of a bonny Irish lass lingering in a too green field hung with care by the father Steve had never met remained over the mantle.

“No reason to change.” He shrugged, hanging his keys on their hook next to the long abandoned second set. Bucky reached up to touch them, fingering the three chunky keys and the worn brown leather tab that could be hooked to a belt loop.

“No, guess not.”

Steve lingered in the doorway, watching as Bucky moved slowly through the apartment. His fingers alighted on one ancient object after another. Steve was profoundly grateful that he’d taken the time to so carefully dust the china lamb that lived next to the radio, the two bronze picture frames with their murky photos of two long gone sepia tinged couples and the tiny heap of seashells from a long forgotten day on Long Island. Each one received a gentle touch in turn as though too harsh a pat would send them crumbling.

“I’m tired.” Bucky said so quietly that Steve almost missed it.

“I put fresh sheets on your bed yesterday.”

It had been the first time he’d gone into the other bedroom in years. It felt like violating something precious to strip away the sheets and lay-down new ones. He’d thrown open the window, the first ghost of a breeze stirring the curtains and sending swirls of dust in every direction.

Bucky sat down heavily on the edge of the bed, the mattress squeaked irritably underneath him. The room and the bed had once belonged to Steve’s mother. Bucky had moved in to help Steve care for her in those last terrible weeks, sleeping on the couch until the day she died. With all the terrible practicality of grief, Steve had stripped the covers, turned the mattress and given it all over to Bucky by the end of the week.

“I’m going to close my eyes for a bit.” He reached up slowly sliding buttons from their holes.

“All right.” Steve backed out of the room.

“Hey, leave the door open.” Bucky didn’t look up, just kept working on his buttons like they were a complicated math problem. “Turn on the radio, ok?”

“Sure thing.”

The radio coughed up something slow and mellow. Steve returned to the living room,setting himself up at his art table to finish the last commission for the Department of Defense. They had offered to keep him on to do ads here or there, but the well was clearly running dry. He’d liked creating the war bond posters with their simple slogans and bold colors. All the Life Drawing classes he’d slaved over came in handy as he drew rugged soldiers standing heroically against backgrounds of battlefields and khaki green tents. He’d miss the simplicity of it and the feeling, however nebulous, that he was contributing.

Lost in the delicate lines of a dove, signaling the beginnings of peace, he barely noticed the fading light. Only when he had to reach for his lamp did it occur to him how much time had passed.

“Bucky?”

He hesitated on the threshold of the bedroom, already taken aback by how much the space changed with the return of it’s resident. The sheets were crumpled, the curtains parted to let in the last of the afternoon light and the duffel bag on the floor had been opened, shirts and pants spilling out. Still soundly asleep, Bucky was wrapped tightly around his pillow, a deep frown creasing his mouth and forehead.

Propelled by curiosity, he crossed the wooden floor avoiding creaking boards with long practice. The scarred half of Bucky’s face was turned outwards. Steve ghosted a hand over the ruined cheek and tried not to imagine how it must have looked just afterwards, a bloody shamble of exposed muscle. Only the shielding hand had saved the dark eye that so often crinkled at the corner in a private smile between the two of them. What would he have done in that same moment? Would he have known to protect himself or managed afterwards to drag another wounded man to safety as Bucky had? Or would he have failed lacking some intrinsic bravery or brute strength?

The long dark eyelashes that Bucky had always used to such good effect on woman were intact, an oddly delicate feature among the rubble. Steve drew his hand away as if burned. This was his friend, his brother, but the traitor called time had parted them and turned them both to strangers. He fled the room for the familiar territory of the kitchen.

Bucky slept all through the night and well into the next morning. He never moved from his tight question mark around the pillow. When he finally unfurled and stumbled out in the living room, he looked a little dazed. Steve poured him a glass of milk which he sniffed at before drinking down in a single gulp.

“Hungry?” Steve asked, turning away.

“Starved.”

There were enough eggs to make an omelet and Steve set about making the most elaborate one his limited pantry would allow. He chopped an onion and a sad looking pepper for color and threw in a liberal tablespoon of butter and the last of the bacon.

“Thank you, Jesus!” Bucky took the plate with a laugh before falling on it like a ravenous wolf.

“No divine intervention necessary.” Steve poured himself a cup of coffee before sliding into the seat across from him.

“You have no idea how good this tastes.” Bucky licked at his fingers and Steve hid a smile, remembering a scrawny kid horrifying his mother with feral table manners. “If I never have to eat another powdered egg, I could die a happy man.”

“You’ll be sick of my cooking again in a week.”

“No.” Bucky didn't look up from his plate. “No, I don’t think so.”

They spent the afternoon in companionable silence. Bucky stretched out over the couch, singing along with the radio and flipping through the newspaper while Steve added color to the poster.

“You did ok without me.” Bucky said suddenly when the sun started to fade and paint shadows over the walls.

“Don’t get any ideas.” Gently, Steve smudged a spot of dark green into the olive branch. “Just because I can make it on my own doesn’t mean I prefer it.”

“I’m not going nowhere.” Bucky’s eyes slid closed, the newspaper wilting in his hands and within minutes, he was snoring gently. Steve threw a blanket over him.

True to his word, Bucky went nowhere. He stayed in the apartment for three days, begging off with cheap excuses every time Steve went out. So Steve brought Brooklyn back with him. Sandwiches piled high with cold cuts, thick sliced pickles, hot dogs still steaming in their buns and containers overflowing with red splashed meatballs. Bucky slept, waking to eat and talk awhile then fell back into deep dreamless sleep. On the fourth day, his body had apparently finished it’s great hibernation and the old Bucky energy was back.

“Give me something to do.” He demanded pacing the floorboards.

“You could go out for a walk.” Steve pointed towards the door. “Trains still work too.”

“No.” A quick shake of the head. Steve waited for an explanation, but none was forthcoming.

“All right.” He pursed his lips together. “Get the boxes out from under my bed. I need to start putting together a portfolio for some of the jobs I’ve been looking at. I haven’t looked through my sketch books in a while.”

There were hundreds of drawings crammed into the old crates and Bucky set himself up on the living room floor with quickly growing piles billowing up around him. Steve returned to the careful wording of inquiries. There weren’t many jobs for artists, but that was all he was qualified for. He wasn’t sure what Bucky would do now, but he fully intended to support him until he decided. After all, Bucky had found a way to feed them both when Steve was too sick to work and even managed to get Steve through the first two years of college. It was a shame the program had closed during the war. He hadn’t had the heart yet to tell Bucky he’d never got a chance to complete the degree.

“When did you do these?” Bucky was at his shoulder and Steve jumped. He’d have to get used to someone else being around again. He took the slightly crumpled sheets, smoothing them out over the desk.

It was a series of cartoonish sketches, Bucky tilted back in a kitchen chair deep in discussion with undrawn partner, his hands waving and thin empty word bubbles rising from his mouth.

“It was summer.” Steve smiled, rubbing a thumb over one crinkled edge. “I don’t remember which one. You were telling the story about the manhole cover. I must have been reading too many comic books and thought about turning the story into one.”

“That old yarn?” But Bucky looked pleased, something finally melting from his eyes. “Wouldn’t make much of a comic.”

“Not everything has to be heroes and adorable little kids.” Steve handed it back to him and watched as Bucky folded it neatly, slipping it into his trouser pocket.

The letter came together faster after that. When he signed his name to the last copy, he shook his cramped hand and turned to look over the messy scene. Bucky had barricaded himself in with paper, pressed against the couch.

“You drew me a lot.” He gestured at one of the thicker piles. “A lot of disembodied pieces. Hand, foot...”

“Life Drawing.” Steve picked his way through the minefield settling next to him on the floor. “I had all sorts of crazy assignments and you were usually the closest example.”

“So you’re not planning on chopping me up for parts?”

“Not any time soon.”

“I didn’t find any cartoons from the last few years.”

“I wasn’t in a comical mood.”

That night Steve was roused from an uneasy sleep by a soft cry. Sleep addled, he rose from bed, shuffling down the short hallway trying to pinpoint the sound. Bucky’s door was ajar and when another noise escaped the room, Steve slipped inside.

Tangled in the sheets, hair plastered to his forehead with sweat, Bucky twitched violently, hands fighting free of the bedding to protect his face.

“Bucky.” Steve said softly, reaching out to touch one fist gently. “Wake up, buddy.”

“Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes...13..437.. 788...” He gargled, turning away from the gentle touch. “Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes...13..437.. 788...“

Steve swallowed hotly and reached out to shake him harder.

“It’s me, Bucky. It’s just a dream.”

“Steve...” Bucky exhaled, shuddering. “You have to-”

“You’re home.” He crawled in next to Bucky’s trembling body. “You’re safe, it’s all right.”

“Steve...”

And to Steve’s infinite horror, Bucky began to weep. Steve had never seen Bucky get so much as choked up. It was Steve who was weak, easily provoked to righteous anger.

“I’m here.” He said steadily, pulling Bucky into a tight hug. “It’s all right, you’re home.”

“It hurts.” Bucky buried his face into Steve’s neck, half in his lap.

“Shhh.” He pressed his forehead to Bucky’s shoulder, sweeping a hand over his broad back.

“I can still smell it.” Warm breath stuttered past Steve’s ear. “Meat and fire, but I didn’t give in, did I?”

“No, of course not.” He kept up the slow soothing movements, even as raw terror and anger set his weak heart beating angrily in his chest. “You’re a hero. My hero.”

“I won’t tell them anything.” The tears started again. “But I want them to stop.”

“No one can get you here. You’re safe, I promise.” He bit his lip and tried to think of something soothing, something that might reach him. Embarrassed, but desperate, he sang softly,

“Over in Killarney, many years ago, my mother sang a song to me in tones so sweet and low. Just a simple little ditty in her good old Irish way and I'd give the world if she could sing that song to me this day,” He rocked as much as he could against the heavy weight of the body shaking in his lap, “Just a simple little ditty in her good old Irish way and I'd give the world if she could sing that song to me this day...”

“Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral...” Bucky hummed quietly, a hiccuping sigh at the end. “You sound just like your mother when you sing. You even get the brogue.”

“I still hear her, sometimes.” He admitted in the thick intimacy of the moment. “Are you all right?”

“No.” The weak laugh didn’t feel any different than the the tears. “I’m awake though.”

“Good.” He didn’t let go, even though his legs were starting to lose feeling. “Want to talk about it?”

“I can’t think of anything that I want to do less.” Bucky curled marginally closer instead of pulling away and it occurred to Steve that whatever half-state the dream had coaxed him into hadn’t entirely fled.

Steve pulled at the wrinkled sheet, managing to get it around both of them. “Slide down a little.”

They fell asleep tangled together, one of Steve's hands still describing loose circles over Bucky's back.

Sunlight woke Steve and he wasn’t surprised to find himself alone. He went to the bathroom, washed his face and tried to dredge up a friendly smile as he headed toward the clatter in the kitchen.

“Smells good.” He slid into a chair. Bucky, already dressed and washed, was watching a pan with the kind of concentration that suggested he was paying not real attention to what was in front of him.

“Figure it was the least I could do.”

They ate breakfast in tense silence until Steve snuck his hand across the table and tapped one intact knuckle on Bucky’s mangled hand.

“It doesn’t matter.” He said when dark eyes met his. “I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

“You’ll have to.” Bucky kept his gaze steady though Steve could see it cost him. “It’s been happening for months.”

“Winter’s coming on. Better to share the bed anyway.”

“You’re some kind of nut, you know that?” Bucky shook his head, turning his attention back to his food. “I swear, there isn’t another man like you.”

“Yeah, they really broke the mold.” Steve snorted, a pleased flush of warmth suffuse his chest. “There’s a Dodgers game on today. We should go.”

Bucky glanced out the window at the cool Fall sun and the people hustling down the sidewalk clutching their Saturday shopping.

“All right.”

There were a few false starts, but eventually they made it out the door. Bucky strolled coolly onto the street as if he hadn’t refused to leave the apartment for days. His hat tilted rakishly back on his head and freshly ironed shirt stripped him of all the tender vulnerability of the night before. A few young mothers, pushing carriages, paused to watch him go by. When the caught sight of the scars, their looks turned speculative and dark.

“Who are they playing anyway?

“Phillies, I think.” Steve said. “Doesn’t matter, they’ve had a terrible season.”

The stadium was only half full, a casual chatty air abounding. Steve bought them both hot dogs, before they settled into the stands.

“We just had breakfast.” Bucky protested as he bit down into the bun.

“So?” Steve grinned pouring on the mustard. “Hot dogs are critical for baseball appreciation.”

The last of the clouds swept away as the game got underway and the feeble sun warmed the metal seats. Bucky spent the entire game on his feet, excited as they had been as children, hooting and jeering. Steve watched him closely and despite everything, was as happy as he could remember being in a long time.

The smell of the day’s sun lingered in Bucky’s hair, a tantalizing reminder of what had been when the night’s terrors unraveled him, leaving him shaken and cold. Steve held him close and sang him every sweet song he could remember.

The weeks passed with an uneasy staccato. Despite the success of the baseball game, Bucky remained reluctant to leave the apartment. He would spend most of his days on the couch, smoking and listening to the radio, the newspaper picked apart over the floor. He made up for his general sloth by taking up cooking, preparing simple good food from whatever Steve brought back from his travels. It was Steve who braved the world, going out to interviews, doing the shopping or taking Gloria to lunch to cheer her.

The world outside turned chill and foreboding, the first few flakes of snow making their appearance in time for Thanksgiving. Bucky kept the oven door open all day, filling the apartment with over abundant warmth that had Steve, who usually caught chills easily, rolling up his shirt sleeves the moment he came home.

At night, the dark and silence turned against them. The nightmares came and went with no predictable pattern. They left them both with gathering shadows under their eyes.

“What if you told me about it?” Steve finally asked as they ate a small feast of turkey and green beans to commemorate the day.

Bucky set down his fork, walked to his bedroom and shut the door. Steve didn’t bother asking after that.

Good news came with the beginning of December, the letter breaking a growing tension in the small space.

“I got a job!” Steve grinned, waving the acceptance like a flag. “How about that?”

“Which one?” Bucky looked up from the paper, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

“Illustrating manuals for Stark Industries. Well, that’s the part I like anyway. Rest of it is proofreading and paperwork. I’ll have to take the train into Manhattan which will be a pain, but-” He stopped. Bucky was staring, face drawn. “What?”

“You’re going to work for Stark?”

“Well, technically.” He shrugged, “I doubt I’ll ever meet him directly. They say he never comes to the New York office. Likes California too much to spend time here.”

“Oh.” Bucky smiled again. “That’s great then! We should celebrate.”

“How about dinner? We can walk down to Casa del Mare. Get enough to eat on for a week if we both order.” Steve offered. The smile disappeared again as Bucky reached for a pack of cigarettes. “I’ll get take out. Better to eat in here where it’s warm, right?”

The commute took him away early in the morning and returned him in the late evening. He liked the office with it’s harried scientists and engineers mingling with regular office workers. The job wasn’t hard and sometimes, even interesting as he proofread directions for all sorts of new machines. The drawing was a small part of the work, but he liked the challenge of making a vacuum look beautiful and simple to put together.

What he hated was coming home to an increasingly agitated and home-bound friend. For the first time in all the years Steve had known him, Bucky stopped cutting his hair. He’d never gone to the barber, preferring to handle the long silver shears himself. Now, it grew in thick and ragged at the edges. It obscured the scars, throwing them into shadow.

“I need a job.” He confessed one dark night in February into the thin space between them on the bed. “I’ll go crazy if I don’t have something to do.”

“You need to leave the house for that.” Steve murmured.

“I don’t think I can.” He said miserably. “It’s so loud out there, Steve. Anything could happen.”

“You’re a brave man. A hero. You can face anything.”

“I think that was someone else.”

That Saturday after venturing out to do the shopping, Steve came home to find Bucky retreated to the bedroom. The small bottle of whiskey Steve kept for toothaches lay empty by the bed. He threw it away and headed defeated into the kitchen. He’d optimistically set up his drawing table in the living room the night before, but now he couldn’t conjure a single idea. He sat down anyway, picking up a sharpened pencil.

He stared out the window where gray clouds hung heavy and foreboding. He tried to imagine what Germany would look like this time of year, recalled letters about the cold and quiet. Disquieted, he drew the darkened clouds at the top of paper. It reminded him of something else, a cover of a favorite Shadow comic with the titular character standing tall with the rage of a storm gathering behind him.

Inspired, he drew the loose lines of a man, tall and broad at the shoulder with a confident wide stance. The Shadow had a long flowing jacket, abundant scarf and wide brimmed hat. Steve shied away from the familiar silhouette. He gave the faceless man a more military coat, tailored closer to the body. Rather than a rich suit he gave the clothes underneath a rougher style, loose blue jeans and a fisherman’s thick sweater. The face remained curiously blank as he tapped his pencil against the sheet. After some hesitation, dark chin-length hair flowed down with no hat to hide it’s wild tangle. A half mask finished the look, shielding forehead, eyes and nose. The mouth he made generous and quirked into a mischievous smile.

The end result looked more like a villain that Steve would have liked. He reached for his colored pencils. The coat took on thick dark red and the sweater a proud white star on a field of blue. With far less care he filled in the background, a suggestion of a city street with amorphous buildings and roughly paved street.

Hand aching, he stood up to shake the creaks out of his body and use the bathroom. Suddenly tired, he shucked off his shirt and shoes then climbed into bed with his quietly snoring companion. Planning to take a short nap, he was shocked to wake to the sun just starting to rise. As usual Bucky was already long gone from the bed.

With a loose yawn, he ambled from the bed to the kitchen. There was a warm plate of toast and eggs on the table, but Bucky was nowhere in sight. A small note was folded next to the plate and he opened it with a flutter,

‘Gone to get more bread and go for a walk. -B’

Steve whooped joyfully, pressing the letter to his chest like a child. He dutifully ate his breakfast, before returning to his drawing desk to see what could be salvaged from his artistic wanderings. The sketch of the hero was still there, but the same handwriting on the note still in Steve’s pocket was scrawled under the boot clad feet.

‘Captain Winter’ read the new caption. A neat stack of paper lay next to the drawing. He barely hesitated before scooping them up and reading through the carefully written lines.

Scene: A building rooftop. Crouched on the edge is a man in a mask, looking down over the street. Behind him, a man is speaking from the shadows.

MAN: You can retire now, son. The war is over and your country is prepared to pay you generously for your extraordinary help. Whatever it is you think you’re doing out here isn’t government’s work.

CAPTAIN WINTER: It was never for the government. This country needs someone to watch over it.

MAN: They won’t thank you for it. You’ll be a criminal. Nothing more than a thug vigilante.

CAPTAIN WINTER: Is that better or worse that being called a hero for killing men blindly on the battlefield?

MAN: I never took you for a bleeding heart.

CAPTAIN WINTER: And I never took you for a heartless bastard. Guess, we’ve both been wrong then.

SCENE: A tenement apartment, Captain Winter dressed in street clothes sits at a kitchen table sewing a white star onto a blue sweater. Another man, David, sits across from him.

DAVID: I wish you’d let me come with you.

CAPTAIN WINTER: You don’t have any training. I’d spend half my time getting you out of trouble.

DAVID: Being alone can’t be any better. What am I supposed to do if you get caught, huh?

CAPTAIN WINTER: Tell stories about me at the bar on Friday nights. I wasn’t supposed to come back here, Davey. I’m living on borrowed time.

DAVID: It doesn’t work like that. You’re here and alive. Everything is changing and you can change with it. Come out with me tonight. Have a drink and flirt with the dames like you used to. Bet you’ll have fun.

CAPTAIN WINTER: I’m patrolling tonight. I have to start making my presence known.

“It’s not very good.” Bucky said from the door.

“I like it. I mean I’ve only read the first page, but I like it.” He set the pages down. “Might be on to something there.”

“On to what?” Bucky sighed. “Who wants to read about a jaded broke hero? People want their heroes to be clean cut and spandex wearing or wealthy and mysterious.”

“I like him.” He smiled faintly. “I think maybe he’s the hero America might like right about now. We have the rest of the day. Tell me how you saw the scenes and let’s see what we can come up with.”

Soon they were pressed thigh to thigh at the desk, pouring over the few sheets of dialogue that had occupied a predawn hours usually reserved for nightmares. Deftly, Steve sketched out panels, blocking figures and scenes. They dug out a pile of old comics for reference flipping through them with increasing interest.

“We could really do this.” Steve said sleepily long after the cuckoo clock had rung out midnight. “Wouldn’t that be something?”

“Yeah.” Bucky replied hoarsely, his eyes shining with something entirely new and foreign as he gazed at Steve. “It really would.”

It carried Steve through the week. He came into the office cheerful and whistling.

“You must’ve met a pretty special girl, Mr. Rogers.” Ms. Richards, the receptionist commented the third day he breezed.

“Something like that.” He agreed.

“It’s good timing. Mr. Stark always likes seeing happy faces around the office.” She chimed, before answering the phone.

He walked down to the office he shared with two engineers and their intern. The entire room was in chaos, the three of them tearing through files and frantically posting papers on the walls.

“Everything all right, Wally?” He asked the beanpole of an intern, who was attempting to stack everything on his desk into neat piles.

“Mr. Stark called this morning! He’s coming in to do an office spot check and we’re three months behind schedule on the cooling unit project. We’re all gonna get fired!”

“We’re not going to be fired. Everyone gets behind sometimes.” Steve tried to assure him, but the boy was already turned back to his piles desperately reshuffling them.

Unnerved, Steve headed to his corner of the office and tried to concentrate on proofreading the assembly manual for a garbage disposal. Papers kept flying past his desk, chased by one of his office-mates all wearing identical faces of fear and impending doom. It wasn’t conducive to a productive work atmosphere and Steve wound up spending most of the morning doodling Captain Winter on lined notepaper. He liked the familiar planes of the man’s body, the tense smile and ready attitude. He drew him sprawled over a couch as if recently returned from a patrol, mask dangling from one hand.

“Jesus Christ, Rogers! Get up and look alive!” Wally shouted across the room. “He’s coming.”

Steve obediently clamored to his feet as the door to the open office in a wide arch. Three dark-suited vice-president types surveyed the room as if checking it for potential enemies before sweeping inside. Just behind them was a slim man with a pencil mustache not looking a day older than when Steve had seen his presentation at the World’s Fair all those years ago.

“These men are working on the cooling unit project, sir.” One of the vice-presidents sleazed. “They’re prepared to give you a full status update whenever you can find time in your schedule.”

“Is it finished?” Stark asked sharply.

“No, sir.” The lead engineer step forward, “but we have a promising beginning and-”

“Let me know when the project is complete. If the problem is funding, tell Lionel to throw money at them until it works.” As if motivated by some unseen engine, Stark started to pace around the room, talking a mile a minute. “I hope you all understand what an effective unit could mean for the efficiency of hundreds of other Stark Industry products. We could run machines at far faster speeds on our own production lines and work just as efficiently through the summer months as the winter. We could put Freon in the backseat and look forward to a chemical free air conditioner. I’ve given you all the tools I have, gentleman and I expect results!”

“Yes, sir.” The soft mumble of agreement tumbled from the two engineers. Wally looked like he might faint as Stark pinned him with a dark look. He turned to Steve, gracing him with a similar intense gaze.

“And who the hell are you? You don’t look like an engineer.”

“Steve Rogers, sir.” He said mildly. “I proofread and illustrate the product manuals.”

“Rogers? Rings a bell.” Stark looked him over, eyes darting to the table behind him. “Am I paying you to draw comics?”

“No, sir.” Steve said stiffly.

“Well, hand it over then.”

Reluctantly, Steve picked up the pad and handed it to Stark. He was wondering how he was going to find another job when Stark made a soft noise.

“Did you model this on someone, Rodgers?” Stark asked tightly.

“My roommate Bucky.” As soon as he said it, Steve wished he could take it back. Had Bucky feared this very thing when Steve took the job?

“Bucky.” Stark repeated flatly. “And who’s that when he’s not at home?”

“James Buchanan Barnes.”

“And this man is alive?”

“Yes.”

“Those fucking monsters!” Stark whirled in a fury, barking at the flock of suits. “I’m taking the rest of the day off. I want one of you to contact General Fury and let him know that I will personally be setting fire to his desk if he had anything to do with this.”

“With what, sir?”

“I was informed that Sergent James Barnes was dead. As it appears he is very much alive, someone is to blame.” He turned back to Steve. “Where is he now?”

“Our apartment.”

“Let’s go.” He walked briskly out and Steve grabbed at his coat, running to keep up with him. “Ms. Richards, call my car.”

The car was utterly decadent. Steve had to stop himself from running a hand over the slick leather seats. For his part, Stark seemed inclined to forget Steve was there, keeping his eyes firmly on the glass of whiskey in his hand. It had appeared there like magic, the rich smell of it suffusing through the car.

Pedestrians stuttered in their paths as Steve climbs out of the car followed by Stark. He was recognized instantly and only the deeply creased line in his forehead warded off would be admirers. Climbing the stairs, Steve was profoundly aware of the peeling wallpaper, the faint smell of cabbage and the patches in his own elderly suit. Stark looked terribly out of place, all sleek dark lines and confidence. He tried and failed to fit this man together with Bucky, couldn’t imagine a conversation they would have or how they could have met.

“When did you last see him?” Steve asked as they took the last staircase.

“Two years ago.” Stark wasn’t looking around the building. He had eyes only for the apartment door rapidly coming into view.

“He won’t be what you remember. Just...be kind to him, please.”

“You’re a piece of work, Rogers.” Stark laughed, rough and humorless. “He said that about you. That you had a good heart.”

The key was too soon in the lock for Steve to reply.

“What’re you doing home so early?” Bucky called out from the couch, his feet were stuffed into two pairs of socks where they hung over the edge. The blast of heat from the stove wafted into the hallway.

“Hello, James.” Howard stepped neatly around Steve, his rapid fire strides eating the space between the door and the couch. Bucky was on his feet before he got there, one hand reaching for him, before dropping back to his side.

“Hello, Howard.”

“Tell me you had nothing to do with it.” They were close now, their noses only a few inches away. “Tell me!”

“To do with what?” Bucky’s eyes narrowed.

“Fury said you were dead. Was it a cover up?”

“What? No! I sent you letters, for God’s sake! They told me you’d gone back home. Patched me up, sent me back to the lines. When you never wrote back, I figured that you blamed me for what happened.” Bucky gripped the side table as if to steady himself.

“Your face. Hell and damnation, what did they do to you?” Howard reached out now and he didn’t back down. His hand cupped Bucky’s cheek tenderly, his thumb running over one of the scars.

Steve stepped into the kitchen, stomach twisting. There was no place in the apartment that would give them true privacy, but this way he couldn’t see as well as hear. The subterranean knowledge that he had pushed away for months could no longer be denied. The strange evenness to the slices on Bucky’s face, the precision and regularity of the cuts. If he’d lost a finger in a blast then surely the skin itself would have born evidence of burns. The way he talked when he was in the throes of his waking nightmares alone told most of the story.

The voices in the other room rose and fell, too soft to distinguish. Eventually Steve rested his head in his folded arms, drowsing in the overabundant heat. Every time he roused a little, he could make out the conversation continuing on and on until it interwove with his dreams, terrible visions of pain and blood across vivid fields of barbed wire.

A door closed and he shot awake. It had gone dark out and the apartment was quiet. Tentatively, he returned to the living room. Stark was sitting alone on the couch.

“He went to bed.” Tipping his head back, Stark regarded Steve with a smirk. “It’s your house, you might as well sit down.”

Reluctantly, Steve folded himself into the opposite end of the couch. For the first time, he realized that their living room was set up in a very peculiar fashion, leaving no place for guests to sit unless they took up Steve’s desk chair which turned away from the couch to face the light. Had it always been like that? He couldn’t remember anymore. The silence was awkward.

“You must have been close.” Steve managed.

“You could say that.” Stark kept his head back, staring up at the ceiling. “He never told you what happened?”

“I got the official story.” He kept all the bitterness out of his voice. “He wasn’t himself when he got back. I had thought something... I didn’t want to push.”

“The way he talked about you, I thought it was fiction. The way some of the other guys talked about their hometowns.” The laugh trickled out of Stark. “But you really are a fucking saint aren’t you? You’re letting him hide away here, working to keep him in food, keeping him safe and away from liquor.”

“He’s my best friend.” Steve shifted uncomfortably. “I’m not going to turn him out on the streets because he’s having a hard time.”

“Look, personally I think you’ve earned the story, even if it says some things about me that I would rather no one ever know about, but that’s not my call.” Stark finally turned his head looking Steve over. “You’re not the blackmailing type, right?”

“Is there a type?” Steve asked mildly, but then shook his head, not willing to even feign it. “No, sir. I’m not.”

“I think you better start calling me Howard.”

After Howard left, Steve crawled into Bucky’s bed and watched him sleep. The faint light trickling through the window was just enough to pick out the scars. Steve hovered a finger over the deepest of them, the one just under the cheek bone which had healed to a thick ugly line. He thought about Howard reaching out to cup Bucky’s cheek and the soft way he’d said his name.

“Hasn’t anyone ever told you it’s rude to stare?” Dark eyes slitted open, glittering in the dark.

“There’s a lot to look at.”

“Did he say anything?”

“No.” Carefully, Steve reached out to tuck on a strand of hair behind Bucky’s ear. “He said it wasn’t his to tell.”

“Coward. No worse than I am though.” His eyes drifted closed again and for a while, Steve thought he might have fallen asleep.

“I’m a queer.” The announcement broke the silence. a challenge as well as a confession. “I tried not to be, tried pretty much everything, you have to believe that. I can’t shake it though. Ever since I can remember, it was boys I looked at. Dames liked me though and it was easy, so there go. I’ve lied to you the whole time we’ve known each other.”

“I knew.” Steve confessed to the bedside table. “I don’t remember how old we were when I figured it out, but I knew and I was so...relieved. I thought I was alone. Brittle, unhealthy and queer. I used to think being sick was the punishment. And I could take that. I thought I deserved it. Then there was you and you looking like I looked, just out of the corner of your eyes and only for a second like looking might burn you. And I knew.”

“Why didn’t you ever say anything?” Bucky asked and he sounded so broken that Steve wanted to take it back. But it was true and it hurt, yet it also felt so good say out loud. A secret that had been locked up so long it had started to eat at him from the inside out.

“You’re the only person... you’re it.” Steve reached across the covers, circling his fingers around the thick meat of Bucky’s wrist. He could feel his pulse racing. “You’re my family, my closest friend. How could I chance being wrong or worse being right and you hating me for it?”

“All this time.” Bucky groaned. “You should have...or hell, I should have. Neither of us were afraid to go off to war, but we couldn’t...I hate this fucking world sometimes, Steve. I really do.”

“It doesn’t matter.” He said nonsensically. “It doesn’t.”

“Oh, you idiot, of course it does.”

“So, you and Howard...” Steve trailed off.

“He’s a good guy. Sort of. Well actually, he’s an enormous asshole, but he’s all right underneath it.” Sitting up, Bucky jarred Steve’s hand from his wrist, but reached for it again as soon as he was settled, wrapping his intact fingers around it. For all that they’d been in almost constant physical contact since Bucky came back, the gesture warmed Steve anew.

“Why didn’t you want me to meet him?”

“Well, the queer thing for one.”

“But not all of it.”

“It’s a real long story and I’d like to tell it when the sun is out very brightly if I have to tell it at all.” With a slight shift, Bucky’s shaggy head was on Steve’s shoulder and though the angle didn’t look very comfortable, his body seemed to relax immediately. “You’ll stay tonight, right? I mean, is it too strange now?”

“There’s no where else I have to be.” Impulsively, Steve turned just enough to drop a kiss right at Bucky’s hairline. “We’ve been sharing a bed for six months, it’s way too late to get delicate about your virtue, don’t you think?”

“Oh God.” Bucky moaned, but he was laughing a little too. “I think I hate you a little.”

“Yeah, yeah what else is new?”

It was a little awkward as they adjourned to opposite sides of the bed, but the screaming nightmare a few hours later brought about the routine of comfort given. If they clung onto each other a little longer afterwards, then so be it.

“Let’s go for a walk.” Bucky said first thing in the morning.

“I have to go to work.” Complained Steve from under the covers, before he understood the implication.

“No, you don’t. Come on.” Bucky pulled on a second sweater and grabbed his jacket as Steve rushed to get dressed.

Out on the street, Bucky scanned the road uneasily, before leading them on a twisting path until they were in a part of the neighborhood Steve barely recognized. The shop signs were in Yiddish and the few people on the street at the early hour were eying them warily. Apparently satisfied, Bucky located a bench and settled onto it.

“We’re off the beaten trail.” Steve said mildly.

“This doesn’t get to be where I live.” Bucky rubbed the back of his neck. “Where we sleep.”

Or apparently anywhere within fifteen blocks of their apartment building.

“All right. Am I going to get fired?”

“Howard is in the office. He wanted...well. A lot. But that’s for later, all right? You don’t have to worry about your job.” Bucky shifted until their boots were touching. “You need to listen and not say anything. Don’t look at me either.”

Steve nodded stiffly and fixed his eyes on a shop window across the street. Thick braided loaves of bread were displayed in the window. He had bought one once for his mother when she was ill and the other shops were closed for Sunday. It had been surprisingly sweet and moist.

“I met him when we were in Italy. Rotating guard duty for the civilian. We talked a bit. Nothing important, but we had an understanding pretty quick. I snuck into his tent that night, got him away from his work. Maybe if he’d been where he was supposed to be....well. Anyway. I still don’t know who they were. They spoke German, but they were wearing Russian uniforms. .

“It wasn’t hard to figure out what we’d been up too and it looked touch and go if they were going to shoot us on the spot.” Bucky shifted until the toes of their boots knocked together. “They knocked us both out. I came to tied to a table with the worst hangover. I could hear someone yelling through the wall and Howard replying like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. I couldn’t make out what they were saying.

“They left me like that for a while, don’t know how long. It was cold. The kind of cold that makes your teeth hurt. I wrote a lot of last letters in my head. Mostly to you. Some ways, I think that was the worst of it. The anticipation.

“Eventually someone came in. He turned a bright light on and shone it into my eyes. He never spoke, never even bothered asking me a question. Just took out his knife and started in on my face. At first I gritted through it and when I couldn’t take it anymore, I did what I’d been trained to do.”

“Name, rank and number.” Steve said hoarsely.

“Shut up.” Gently said which was almost worse then a harsh rebuke. “Eventually the guy left me alone. Turned the light off and walked out. I passed out, I think or maybe I slept. My face was on fire and the rest of me was freezing. I wasn’t really with it when he came for my fingers. I remember screaming and I remember the pain, but it’s through this red haze. Maybe it was the pain or the dehydration, but I started hallucinating. I thought you were there to save me or my mother was bathing my forehead like she used to when I was sick. In the background I could hear Howard yelling, banging on the wall and I thought he’d gone right through it there for a while. He said yesterday that they let him listen to me scream, promised him they’d let me live if he made them weapons.

“I don’t remember being rescued. They’d sent a team out looking for Howard. They didn’t even know I was there. Had me marked down as a deserter which took weeks to straighten out. The docs stitched me up and a lot of old guys with a lot of stripes asked me questions which I couldn’t answer. They told me they’d flown Howard home. That he never should have been there. Like he was some dumb civilian instead of this ridiculous genius that wanted to do the right thing. Eventually they left me alone, sent me back out fighting with warnings not to talk about what happened. Fed me the shrapnel story and put the hero spin on it. I can’t even look at that goddamn medal.” Even through the many layers of clothing and the discreet space between them, Steve could feel Bucky shaking. “So that’s it. That’s the whole fucking story. If I wasn’t... if I hadn’t with him then... it was my own fault. Like you said. Being sick was your punishment, maybe this was mine.”

“No, no...that wasn’t what I meant. I thought that once, but I don’t anymore.” Steve wanted to reach out, but he was too mindful of the very public space. “You didn’t deserve this, none of it. You’re a good man. The best. You just got very unlucky. The world doesn’t work like that. If it did, maybe it would make a little more sense.”

“Howard wants me to go back with him to California.” Bucky shrank further into himself. “It’s warm there.”

“I’ve heard that.” Steve said numbly. The farthest he’d ever been from home was a few weekends on the Jersey Shore when he was still a kid. “Do you want to go?”

“Yes...no.” He sighed. “I love Brooklyn. Used to dream about coming back here. But I can’t breath here anymore. There’s just too much. He said there was an apartment building he owns, right up on the ocean and it’s not like the Atlantic at all.”

“Sounds nice.” After all, he had lived alone once and he could manage again. They could write, maybe call sometimes. The loneliness would eat away at him, but he could make it through.

“You’d have to give up illustrating the manuals though. He’s wants to take you on as some kind of executive assistant or something.” Bucky shrugged. “Sounds like being a secretary to me, but he says he has one of those already.”

“He wants me?” Steve frowned. “But you’re the one he....”

“He’s got a lot of cars. I like machines, I’m good with them.” He shrugged uneasily. “Maybe I can be a driver. Or just work on the comic. Or get a tan.”

“Sounds like you already made up your mind.”

“I’m not going without you.”

Steve’s heart raced and skittered at the absolute surety in Bucky’s voice. Once, only a few years ago, Steve had been willing to give up everything for a chance to fight. It was easy to give it up when he could take the most important part of it with him.

“Change of scenery might be nice. Maybe learn to swim.”

The walk home was slower. They took in the sights like they might never see them again. Once enclosed back in their dark envelope of space, Steve realized anew how dreary the apartment had become. Bucky wanted to be safe in here, to keep the darkness outside, but there were traps in the faded wallpaper and slowly collapsing couch. He wanted to tell Bucky to pack his things that they should go now before the weight of history pressed them back into old shapes.

“I’ll make lunch.” He said instead as he hung his keys on their hook.