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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.

Chapter Text

The first thing Steve did when he woke up was pull back the curtains to let the brilliant sunlight flood the bedroom. Bucky stirred reluctantly, throwing up an arm to shield his eyes.

“You coming in today?” Steve asked as looked over the vast expanse of brilliant blue water.

“Yeah, the engineers putting in the new fuel injector on one of the planes today, I'm lending a hand.” He stretched out over the sheets, long hair sticking up at odd angles. Steve ached to touch him, to kiss, but there were more than blankets laying between them and he’d long given up on the possibility. “You can shower first though.”

“Don’t fall back asleep.”

The casual luxury of space still caught Steve off guard. The bathroom was the size of his old bedroom. Water always ran steaming hot if he wanted it and showers had become far more enjoyable. Every room was impossibly light with broad open windows to hunt out even the most tenacious shadows.

“I told you not to fall back asleep.” He called out as he went from the bathroom to the bedroom that was supposedly his. It held a gracious wardrobe with a few well tailored suits. They didn’t make him look any larger, but no one mistook him for a kid anymore either. The bed was nice too and sometimes he did catch a nap there.

“I’m up!” Bucky called back.

They ate a hurried breakfast before meeting the car downstairs.

“Good morning, Erik.” Steve slid into the passenger seat while Bucky sprawled across the back, head tipped out the window.

“It is morning, but it has not yet proved to be a good one.” Erik replied before punching the gas. Only long practice kept Steve from grabbing onto the armrest for dear life. Despite the reckless speeds, Erik had never once so much as scratched the car. Still, there was a first time for everything.

The Stark residence reigned on a cliff-side over looking the ocean like a despotic king. Red brick and glass gave it an oddly New England look in the near tropical setting and often reminded Steve of Howard himself. A man who ruled over Malibu with a New York manner.

“Don’t blow anything up.” Steve got out of the car and watched as Erik pulled away, Bucky saying something that made him smile his odd shark-like smile.

Inside the house, everything was already bustling with industry. The housekeeper swept around Steve in a flurry of good cheer and wet rags while the stiff British cook clattered about preparing coffee and oatmeal.

“He’s still out for his run.” The housekeeper chimed. “You’ve a few minutes to prepare.”

“That bad?”

“Not sure he slept.” She confided before heading upstairs.

“Fantastic.” He collected his breakfast before heading to the office.

Evidence of the all-nighter was strewn over the antique desk. Blue prints were unraveled in messy layers and three mugs of coffee lined the edges of the desk, each half-full. A low hanging cloud of smoke filled the room, driving Steve to the window. He thrust it open and stuck his head out. An asthma attack would throw off his morning rhythm.

“Do I pay you to admire the view?” Howard snapped from the door.

“Why are you dragging up the plans for the grenade launcher again?” Steve folded his arms over his chest. “I thought you were working on renewable energy this week.”

“Energy is boring.”

“The grants pay the bills though.” Steve returned to the desk, neatly wrapping up the plans. “Unless you’ve got a renewed contract with the DoD that I don’t know about it.”

“They’re still annoyed about Fury’s office.”

“Surprise, surprise.” Steve hid a smile. It was never a good idea to encourage Howard’s vengeance plots, even when they were well deserved. “You’ve got a breakfast meeting with the V.P. of Sales.”

“Marlin? Cancel it. I can’t look at him this early in the morning.”

“I’ve already rescheduled twice because you don’t want to look at him before dinner or after lunch.” He stacked the blue prints back into the neatly ordered case that held dozens of active projects. There were seven more cases downstairs full of inactive projects. “You’ll have to talk to him eventually.”

“Phone meeting. Reschedule for when I’m in New York.”

“Right.” Steve made a note. “So you’re now free until ten.”

“What’s at ten?”

“You’re due at R and D to talk over some potential avenues for new projects. The afternoon is blocked off for interviews. The board wants your input on the new head of Acquisitions.”

“You go instead.” Howard started to walk away. “R and D should have my full attention for the day. In fact, let’s drop in on them early. I’ll be ready in twenty minutes.”

He waited until Howard was out of earshot to call the office.

“Howard Stark’s office, how may I help you?” Donna answered smoothly.

“It’s Steve. He’s got R and D in his sights. Call Dr. Warren and tell him to assemble the troops.”

“He’s going to give that poor man a heart attack one day.” She sighed. As Howard’s secretary, she served more as distracting eye candy and catch all receptionist, but without her Steve would be dead in the water. “I’ll pass it along. I had a hunch and told him to be in early yesterday.”

“Thank you, you're a miracle worker. Listen, he’s avoiding Marlin. Schedule him in tomorrow at eleven or we’ll never get that account issue unsnarled.”

“You got it. See you soon.”

He abandoned the phone for the office, popping open Howard’s briefcase to pile in the files he’d need for the day. Tucked in among yesterday’s detritus was a small photo of some muscular young man, fresh out of the ocean. Steve plucked it out and stored it in the locked drawer that overflowed with them. As far as he knew most of the pictures were just that, but occasionally evidence of deeper indiscretions did surface. It set his teeth on edge, thinking of Bucky waiting and healing for a man who couldn't focus on one person for more than a few days. But maybe it was Howard's way of waiting.

“Let’s go!” Howard yelled from the living room.

The entire R and D team were at their stations when they arrived, all looking as if they'd been hard at work for hours. Howard narrowed his eyes and gave Steve a deathly look, but said nothing. He went down the hallway, stopping at each desk to interrogate every hapless scientist and assistant as Dr. Warren trailed along in his wake.

“I can’t create something out of nothing!” The man wailed when the rest of the department lay devastated behind them. “You want me to do miracles, Mr. Stark and they cannot be done.”

“I’m asking for effective use of company time, Dr. Warren. I will gladly roll up my shirtsleeves and help if you’re short staffed.” Howard grinned wide and sharp. “Now let’s sit down and go over how you’re going to get what we need done in six months instead of this two years nonsense.”

Steve got them coffee and a sympathetic look for the doctor, before heading across the complex to the interview room.

“Where’s Mr. Stark?” Asked Colonel Angier when Steve came in.

“He’s asked me to act in his stead today. I’ll be taking notes.” He slid into Howard’s chair in the middle of the table, aware of the harsh glares bestowed on him. In a few neat movements he had out his pad and clicked open his pen. “Whenever you’re ready gentleman.”

“Send in the first interview then.” Angier called out with exaggerated exasperation.

There are three serious candidates for the job. The first one Steve dismissed out of hand as too nervous and unqualified. The second was Joshua Goldman, a clear eyed Harvard graduate whose passion for Stark Industries was rather startling. He knew the ins and outs of the company and repeated several times that it had been his goal through school to work there. While young, younger than Steve himself, his resume was already dotted with prestigious internships and a two year stint at a smaller rival cooperation. One that Howard had his eye on.

“Obidiah!” Half the interviewing committee rose to greet the last candidate.

“Steve, what on earth are you doing here?” Obidiah grinned jovially, clapping Steve on the back. Years of practice kept him from spilling forward. “Don’t tell me Howard pawned this off on you?”

“He’s with R and D.” He replied carefully. Now he knew why Howard had sent him. This was all just a formality. Stane had the job the minute he sent in his resume. He had worked with Howard on and off on a number of projects over the years without formally joining the company, always angling for a partnership rather than any of the plum jobs Howard offered. This must be the position they had finally compromised on.

“Tell Howard he should come over for drinks tomorrow night.” Stane said airily as he prepared to leave. “A celebration for the future of Stark Industries.”

Howard’s office sat at the top of the glittering tower that formed the center of the compound. Sitting behind the massive desk that always made him look oddly vulnerable, Howard smoked a cigar while signing a pile of documents.

“Don’t give the job to Stane.” Steve said immediately.

“He’s an old friend.” Smoke wafted upwards, briefly haloing Howard’s head in its fog. “You can’t argue that he isn’t qualified or doesn’t know the company. I didn’t send you there to form an opinion.”

“Too bad. I did anyway.” He frowned. “He looks good on paper and he’s charismatic, but he’s out for personal gain, not what’s best for Stark Industries.”

“Who would you choose then?”

“Goldman.” He ticked points off on his fingers, “He’s young, so you can mold him however you want. He’s smart and hungry enough to do what needs to be done without making a mess of it. I think the idea of buying Blue and Simon would appeal to him and since he used to work for them, he’ll have a better idea for leverage.”

“Is he good looking?”

“Does it matter?” Steve sighed, “Maybe. I wasn’t paying attention.”

“You really have to start focusing on the important things in life, Rogers or I’m going to lose all hope in you.” Howard stubbed out the cigar. “I trust Obidiah.”

“Then you’re a fool.”

“And you’re fired.” Howard growled.

“Good.” Steve slammed the door between their offices with a resounding crack.

He liked being fired. It usually lasted for long enough for him to make a cup of coffee and read through the front page of the paper. Today, he even got to the sport’s section before the door slammed open again.

“You’re rehired. I need you to make sense of Donna’s notes again. I swear she writes them in fucking Japanese.”

“It’s shorthand.” Steve folded the newspaper back up. “I’ll only take the job back if you don’t hire Stane.”

“I thought you weren’t the blackmailing type.” Howard laughed, turning on his heel leaving the door open. “Glad to know you’ve got it in you when it matters.”

“That’s a rare sound.” Bucky peered around the door that lead from Steve’s office to the outside world. He was the only one that used it. “Guess you got him in a better mood.”

“You could say that. What’ve you been up too?”

“Fuel injector project wasn’t a hundred percent successful.” His teeth shone bright against his tanned skin. The warm sun of California had done much of what Howard promised. “You going to be home for dinner?”

“Probably going to be made to suffer an evening at the mansion for my sins.” Steve sighed. “You go on though.”

“He works you too hard.” Bucky tsked. “Bastard.”

“I can hear you!” Howard called through the wall. Bucky froze like a deer in headlights before running off down the hall.

“Oh, well done!” Steve yelled back. “You’re as sensitive as a tomato sometimes.”

“You’re fired!”

“Good! Then I’m going home. Don’t rehire me until tomorrow morning.” He grabbed his jacket and took off after Bucky.

Luckily, Bucky had only gone as far as Donna’s desk. He was pressed tightly against the wall, but otherwise showed no outwards sign of stress.

“Got the night off.” Steve said lightly.

“Fired again?” Donna smiled sympathetically at him. “Better get while the gettings good.”

“Goddammit, Rogers!”

Bucky grabbed his hand and they ran off towards the elevator laughing more like children then the grown men they had become. Once the door was safely closed behind them, Steve collapsed against the wall trying to regain his breath.

“You all right?” He asked between pants. “Can’t believe he can’t remember not yell at you through walls. Shouldn’t come up half as often as it does.”

“You can’t protect me from everything. What doesn’t kill me, you know?”

“Yes, I know.” Steve nudged him affectionately with his shoulder. “But you’ve always been plenty strong enough.”

They talked superheros over dinner. Though it lay only in a few paltry finished pages in Steve’s bedroom, Captain Winter was still very much on both their minds. They planned on working on it all the way through the upcoming long fourth of July weekend, celebrating Steve’s thirtieth birthday with a few freshly inked pages and bottle of champagne.

“I’m only saying that the villain needs to match the hero.” Steve said patiently. “Cap has a dark side, so his hero should have a light side, not be some cartoonishly evil guy.”

“I don’t know. People are supposed to identify with the hero, not the villain.”

“That’s why it would be interesting. Blur the line a little.” He took a long sip of milk. “What if they were friends at some point? Maybe that man in the shadows from the beginning? Cap would have to wrestle over taking him out.”

“Maybe.” Bucky stole a french fry off Steve’s plate. “Could get boring reading about one guy feeling sorry for himself.”

“It wouldn’t be. It’d be about the two of them, how they work out their differences, where things went wrong. And you know, crime.”

It had become Bucky’s ritual to go for long walks after dinner, following the coastline for miles. Steve had tried to accompany him once or twice, but the distance and pace proved too much for him. Instead on nights like this when he was home for it, he brought out a kerosene lamp and a book. He settled into a deck chair and watched the dark figure of his friend retreat across the beach, a flashlight playing against the sand.

The crash of the waves usually cajoled him away from whatever he’d gotten into his hands. Tonight, he set the book down almost immediately before rolling up the legs of his trousers and wading into the warm water. The fresh sea air hadn’t proved the cure all so many advertisements declared. Yet, standing in the warm water and holding his own against the waves made him feel more at home than he had ever expected.

Somewhere to his right, Bucky was scrambling over rocks in his restless search for internal peace. To his left and miles up the coast, Howard would be returning from the office and pouring himself too much whiskey. Steve closed his eyes and drew in deep even breaths. He would stand between them as long as needed. Until something taut finally snapped and brought them crashing back together.

The next morning the phone rang a full hour before his alarm usually went off. It took him three rings to untangle himself from the pile of blankets that made up their nest of a bed and another two before he could actually pick up. The sudden rising made him dizzy and he sat down hard, clutching the phone between his neck and shoulder.

“Hello?”

“Stane is a murdering sack of shit.”

“What?” He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. “Did you sleep last night?”

“Not the point.” Howard snapped. “I went over to his house for a drink, but you planted that damn idea in my head. I couldn't stop thinking about him not being in it for the company. So when he left to take a phone call, I started looking around.”

“You went through his things?”

“Damn good thing I did. Let’s say the locked drawer in my desk? Doesn’t have shit on his. He’s waist deep in some ugly plans with the Russians. I turned the files over to the Feds this morning.” The faint sound clinking glass traveled over the phone line. Steve could picture Howard standing over the wet bar, one hand on the decanter. “I need you to get to the office twenty minutes ago. Someone needs to tell them we have no comment and Donna won’t go into work before dawn for some reason.”

“On it, boss. Are you all right?”

“Sure.” Howard’s laugh grated rusty in his ear. “One of my oldest friends is a traitor and I turned him in. I would’ve let him take control of one of the largest departments of my company if it weren’t for the guy I hired out of pity. I’m fucking fantastic.”

“Go to sleep.” Steve said instead of a thousand other things he wanted to say.

“Yes, mother.”

The phone went dead in his ear and Steve went about preparing for a day giving non-committal answers to the jackals.

“Everything all right?” Bucky asked through a yawn, stirring a little under the blankets.

“Yes. Go back to sleep.”

Work was chaos from the moment he stepped inside the building. Two high level managers flanked him in the elevator, already planning how to turn the event to Stark Industries advantage. Each hour had brought a fresh wave of information. The F.B.I. and C.I.A. were in some kind of pissing contest over who should be handling the case while new evidence of Stane’s associates surfaced with every passing minute. In between the phone calls and the long strategy sessions with P.R., members of the board called to congratulate Howard on his excellent sense. The stock prices rose reassuringly throughout the day as the news made it clear that Stark Industries had caught the traitor rather than harboring him. He and Donna shared a hurried dinner of takeout while listening to the news casters tell the American people that Howard Stark was a true patriot.

Steve relished none of it. All he could think of was how close Stane had come to being a part of the company, how he had insinuated himself under Howard’s thick skin and taken brutal advantage.

“Mr. Barnes called.” Donna told him when he came out for his fourth cup of coffee. He knew it was a bad idea with the way his heart was already knocking in his chest, but he could barely keep his eyes open. “He’s spending the night at the mansion, he said.”

“Oh.” He set down his mug, suddenly wide awake. “Thanks.”

The fierce spike of jealousy took him off guard, a physical jarring sensation that left him rubbing at his chest to ease the tightness. He’d been preparing for the day they would reconcile for over a year. Contingency plans for how to cover for their relationship were lined out neatly in one of his encrypted notebooks, along with a detailed list of what Bucky would need to bring with him when he moved out.

“Steve? Are you all right?” Donna got up from behind her desk, a frown marring her pretty face.

“Too much coffee.” He laughed uneasily. “Look, I think the papers are all gone to press at this point. Nothing more to handle tonight. You should go home.”

“Only if you’ll go too.” She crossed her arms defiantly over her chest. “I’m not coming back to find you slumped over your desk in the morning.”

“Can’t have that.” He headed to the phone, “No use waking up two drivers and I don’t trust either of us behind the wheel right now.”

If Erik had been asleep, he showed no sign of it as he wound through the streets as keen eyed as he was in the early hours of the morning. They left Donna in front of her pretty cottage, idling in the street until she was safely inside.

“And you?” Erik watched him through the rear view mirror.

“To the mansion, thanks.”

He was too keyed up to sleep, overtired and emotionally drained. Going home to the empty apartment was the greater of two evils. At least at the mansion he could get some work done. Anyway, it was better to face the reality head on, he reasoned, like ripping off a bandage.

The front door yielded to quickly and he took a sharp breath though of course no one was waiting there. A dim light in the living room coaxed him off his chosen route to the office. The tableau he found took him entirely off guard. Howard was stretched out over the couch still wearing most of his suit from the day before. He must have fallen asleep at some point as there was a blanket tangled up between his legs, but he was awake now. His eyes were glued to the arm chair where Bucky, legs draped over one side, head pillowed on the other, lay in boneless sleep.

“He’s quite something, isn’t he?” Howard asked, not looking away from Bucky’s face which refused to be peaceful even in sleep. “I called him over here drunk as a skunk and said the worst kinds of things. Another man would have laid me out. Instead he took off my shoes and tucked me in.”

“He’s something all right.” Steve took the first full breath he’d had since Donna had passed on Bucky’s message. “Never know what he’s going to do.”

“Take him home. He clashes with the carpet.” Howard started to get up, blanket falling to the wayside, but he was still quite drunk and wound up sagging against couch with a defeated sigh.

“Let me help you upstairs first.” Steve hid a smile, and ducked under one of Howard’s arms to drag him upright. It would never have worked if Howard had been sober. He easily had three or four inches over Steve, but drunk he leaned heavily onto him, evening the difference. “You need to stop drinking so much.”

“I don’t pay you for your opinions.” Howard mumbled.

“I know. It’s a bit of friendly advice, completely free of charge.” Steve laughed, then grabbed at the handrail as a sudden dizziness came over him. Maybe he shouldn’t have had all that coffee.

“You look kind of...green.” Howard blinked sleepily.

“I’m fine.” He took the next stair carefully and then the next. The last step eluded him as he pitched forward into darkness.

“....can’t believe......what did you....since he was a....T.B., why?”

Steve floated in and out of consciousness, marginally aware of harsh white lights and hushed arguments taking place over him. He let himself slide back and forth, waiting for his mind to clear. He hadn’t fainted in a few years, but he knew the ritual all too well. When he could finally keep his eyes open, he determined that he had been taken to a hospital of some kind. There was an I.V. at his bedside steadily dripping fluid into him.

“Mr. Rogers, are you awake?” A sharp looking nurse hovered over him.

“Yes. Embarrassed, but awake.” He tried to get up, but found it surprisingly difficult.

“Stay still, please. You’ve had a nasty trauma.” She frowned, checked his I.V. and made a notation on a clipboard. “The doctor has a few questions for you. I’ll go fetch him.”

The doctor was a large man with a generous smile that Steve liked immediately. He settled into a chair that was far too small for his frame, creaking ominously believe him.

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Rogers. I’m Dr. Morris, the cardiology specialist here at the hospital. Do you remember what happened?”

“I fainted.” He sighed. “It’s happened before. Not recently. I had a long day, too much coffee and was probably doing too much heavy lifting. I should have known better, but usually I’m all right after a few hours, no hospital required.”

“I’m afraid it isn’t that simple.” Dr. Morris took up the clipboard the nurse had left behind. “Your friend didn’t know much about your medical history. Did you have rheumatic fever as a child?”

“When I was eight. Caught every kind of sickness there was when I was a kid.” He remembered the pain of that one most of all though he’d been feverish for most of it. Every joint had hurt until getting out bed had been an exercise in agony. “Nothing for it.”

“I see. Did you find you were weaker after the fever had passed?”

“I was never what you’d call a strong kid.” He shrugged. “The asthma kept me from getting out.”

“What treatment did you receive for the asthma?”

“The local doctor told my mother it was psychological. That she hadn’t been quick enough to pick me up when I was crying as a baby.” When they’d gotten home, she’d closed the door to her room, but he could hear her crying. “I thought that was nuts, but no one asked my opinion. After that, we stopped going to see the doctor. Why waste the money when there weren’t any answers?”

“Why, indeed. It’s a common theory about asthma. One that several of my colleagues despair over.” Another note onto the chart. “I’ll have to run some tests, but given your history and the symptoms it is very likely that you’re suffering from a heart condition known as mitrol stenosis. It only occurs in those who have had rheumatic fever. Essentially the mitral valve of your heart is not delivering enough blood to your heart. It’s happened slowly over time causing light headedness, dizzy spells, chest pain and heart palpitations. ”

“And that’s why I fainted?”

“Lucky thing that you did. If you’d pushed yourself much harder, you might have had a heart attack.” Dr. Morris said grimly, “The good news is that you’ve come to the right place. We’re one of the few hospitals in the country that has preformed numerous successful mitral valve surgery. “

“Surgery?” Steve closed his eyes. “I don’t...”

“We’ll repair the valve and you’ll be good as new. Actually considering how long this may have been effecting you, you might be better. When you’ve stabilized, I’ll recommend you to one of our pulmonologists Dr. Trevor. There are some very interesting experiments being done now to ease asthma attacks.”

“And if the surgery doesn’t work?” He watched the I.V. drip one languid drop of fluid.

“You’ll have a long recovery with no improvement and we’ll try to manage it with medication. Even with the surgery there is a slight chance of further heart troubles, but you’re a young man. I think you will do fine.” Dr. Morris rose and patted his hand. “You have a visitor waiting and after that you’ll need some rest. We’ll begin the tests in the morning.”

“Thank you.” Steve replied automatically, watching the white coat disappear out the door and down the hallway.

“Hi.” Bucky strode in, pulling Dr. Morris’ chair up to the bed. He was smiling, too brightly and too widely.

“I’m sorry.” Steve choked. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”

“You’re sorry?” Bucky laughed helplessly, glancing up to make sure the door was closed before taking Steve’s hand. “You’re a piece of work. So busy taking care of everyone else that you didn’t think to tell me you weren’t feeling well?”

“I didn’t know. I was worried about Howard, Stane...it all just ran together.” He squeezed Bucky’s hand gently. “Doc says I just need some surgery and I’ll be fine.”

“They told me, going to crack you open and fix you up. You get me waiting on you hand and foot for a few weeks. Nice change of pace, huh?”

“I hate being laid up.” He groused. “I’ll be stir crazy by the end of the week.”

“Deal with it.” Bucky brought Steve’s hand to his lips. “I love you, you bastard. You don’t get to die on me.”

“Bucky...” Steve stared at him, his beleaguered heart stuttering in his chest. “I thought Howard...”

“Howard? Are you....No, you know what? You never get to call me dumb again.” The soft look in his eyes didn’t seem to match the anger in his voice. “I figured you were waiting for me to get better somehow and that’s why....but no. I should have known. St. Steve, you gotta make a martyr of yourself.”

“You kept looking at him like.... like he was it. And he still cares about you.” Steve protested weakly. “The way you were circling around each other.”

“Newsflash, dimbulb, we got tortured together. That’s a special kind of bond, one that I’m real pleased not to share with you.” He rolled his eyes. “Howard will always be a good friend. Apparently he tried to resuscitate you though the doctors don’t think you ever stopped breathing. Guess he was still pretty drunk. Did you know he knew CPR?”

“Mandatory safety training for all staff. He hated the test dummy so much that he invented a new one. It was disturbingly lifelike.” The reality of what had just occurred finally hit him. “Does this mean I kiss you now?”

“I’m not supposed to be getting you excited.” Bucky raised an eyebrow. “You’re a heart patient. And of course you’d do this to me when you’re going to be laid up for weeks.”

“I can wait.” He’d waited this long without hope, a little bit longer with a guarantee would be easy.

“Good. Not exactly a private setting anyway.” Bucky started to get up.

“Bucky?”

“Yeah?”

“You have to let go of my hand first.”

“Right.” Bucky stared at their joined hands. Loud footsteps rang through the hall. He glanced up at the closed door, then leaned forward quickly to peck a kiss on Steve’s cheek. “I’ll be back tomorrow for visiting hours. Get some rest.”

“I love you too.” Steve blurted. “In case there was some kind of question.”

“You told me. Every day since I’ve gotten back.” Bucky smiled warmly and kissed his other cheek. “Go to sleep.”

Obediently he closed his eyes and sleep found him soon after though he woke up more than once, reaching for the body that should be slumbering next to him. In the morning, he went from patient to lab rat, stuck with needles and attached to beeping machines until Dr. Morris confirmed his diagnosis.

“We should move quickly.” Dr. Morris declared as he gave Steve a tissue to wipe away the last of the gel left on his chest. “The valve is highly compromised and it’s likely you’ll only become less stable if we wait. I’ll schedule the surgery for the morning.”

“I’d rather get it over with.” He pulled on the scanty hospital gown, trying not to shiver. “No offense, but I’d like to see the back of this place sooner rather than later.”

“You know that you’ll have to spend at least a week here afterwards.” The doctor’s smile didn’t dim a fraction. “Then bed rest for several more.”

“Don’t remind me.” He groused.

With all the preparation, there was no time for visitors to come through before he had to sleep. Though he missed Bucky, what he longed for most was the strong calloused hand of his mother that he held through so many examinations. When he finally fell asleep, he dreamed of her in her crisp nursing whites telling him something terribly important. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t make out a word.

“Ready, Mr. Rogers?” A young nurse asked cheerily before the sun was fully up.

“What now?” He had expected morning to mean later somehow.

“Dr. Morris likes to operate early.” She explained as she lowered his bed enough for him to move onto the rolling stretcher. “You’ll be done before lunch!”

There were a hundred things he wanted to say and do before the anesthesia mask went over his mouth and nose. He wanted to make sure that Donna had Howard’s schedule for the week, that someone else had arranged Joshua Goldman’s hiring papers and that the Tuesday board meeting agenda was on his desk. He had to tell Bucky a thousand things, but none more important than that he would have waited another ten years if it meant he would look at him again like he had yesterday.

“Count backwards from ten, Mr. Rogers.”

The surgery lasted for six hours, then there were four days spent in a morphine haze to blot out the searing mass of pain that had once been his torso. He had fragmented dreams through all of it, fleeing as quickly as they came without meaning or sense. Sometimes he thought there was a hand on his or steady conversation in his room, but he couldn’t be quite sure.

On the fifth day, he stopped taking the morphine even though it still hurt to breath.

“St. Steve strikes again.” Bucky groaned when he found out, slumping into the visitor’s chair.

“It felt too good.”

“You’re no kind of addict.”

“You never know.”

By the end of the week, he was so grateful to be allowed home that he didn’t protest the wheelchair or Bucky carrying him from the chair to their bed. It was too good to feel the sun coming through the window on his face and smell Bucky’s shampoo on the sheets. The room was festooned with flowers from well wishers.

“I don’t think I know this many people.”

“You make an impression.” Bucky grinned as he fussed with the blankets. “Half of Stark Industries called me this week to check on you and the other half sent cards. Then there’s all the little old ladies in the building who think you’re God’s gift and the entire mansion staff. Donna said it was like a part-time job sorting through your get well mail.”

“I need to call her.” He said vaguely. “The board meeting.”

“It’s in hand.” Bucky reached for a pillow, fluffing it idly. “You need to rest.”

“What about Howard?” He finally asked.

“What about him? I know it’s hard to believe based on the evidence, but he’s a grown man. He took care of himself before either of us knew him. He can manage a few weeks without his nanny.” Bucky snorted. “Last thing you need is trying to clean up after his messes while you recover.”

But of course, that’s exactly what wound up happening.

 

Recovery had begun inauspiciously with Bucky insisting on sleeping Steve’s long abandoned bedroom.

“All you need is for me to roll over on you one time and then you’re innards are all over the bed.” Bucky had said as he grabbed his pillow. “Doc said no activity, especially around the incision.”

“Sleeping is not an activity.” Steve started to cross his arms across his chest, then stopped dead as a red flash of pain set him gasping.

“You’re not selling your point there.” Bucky laughed.

The rest of the week went on much the same way. Steve occupied himself with books and drawing much as he had as child. The reminder put a near permanent frown on his face which Bucky didn’t bother trying alleviate. Bitter experience had taught them both that it was better to just wait out Steve’s weaknesses rather than smooth down the corners. Instead, Bucky spent much of the week finding somewhere else to be. That in turn gave Steve too much time to thing, pouring over old worries and working himself into a state of profound doubt.

When the call came on Friday it was a welcome relief. He was alone in the house and still technically bed bound, but the promise of outside contact lured him easily from bed. He answered the phone with a slightly breathless,

“Steve Rogers speaking.”

“Oh, thank God.” A woman with a pretty Southern accent exhaled with noisy relief. “Mr. Rogers, my name is Maria Carbonell. Howard told me that if I ever needed him, I should call you. I’ll be honest, I thought it was a brush off.”

“He told you to call me?” That didn’t add up. The only people Howard directed through him were men looking for money or favors. It was Steve’s job to make them go away, one that he took very seriously. He had yet to need to pay any of them off or threaten them. More often then not, an understanding conversation worked just as well.

“I doubt he remembers. I know I’m not his type. And frankly, he’s not mine, if you understand me. I wouldn’t even infer, but Howard said you would understand.” She hesitated, “I hope I haven’t misunderstood.”

“No, you understand fine.” It was Steve who was a little lost.

“Good, then you’ll know what I mean when I say the events of the evening were unusual at best. Only we’d both had a few too many drinks at a certain bar.” A discreet pile off a back road with no real name. Steve had been there only once and hated every second of it. “It seemed we had a lot in common at the time....I won’t bother you with the details. The problem is Mr. Rogers that I’ve been left with a bit of a souvenir.”

“If he told you that he was giving you the plans for a global positioning device, I’m afraid you’ve been mislead.”

“No, Mr. Rogers. Nothing like that. I’m pregnant. About two months along and given my interests, I can say definitively that he is the father.” Her voice cracked a little on the last word. “I’m not looking for a hand out or to be paid off, Mr. Rogers. I thought he might want to know. To have some... could you please tell him for me?”

“Give me your number.” He coaxed, scrambling for a pen and paper, “No. Scratch that. Where are you?”

As soon as she was off the line, he called Erik and read him off the address then called the mansion. It rang for a long time before a muffled and reluctant,

“Stark.” Snapped over the line.

“It’s Steve.”

“Steve?” Someone laughed in the background and a glass shattered. “Sorry for not stopping by. I hate hospitals, especially with Nurse Barnes growling at me.”

“Growling?” He shook his head, a mystery to be solved later. “Don’t worry about it. I need you come over here. There’s a situation.”

“I’m in the middle of something here and aren’t you supposed to be recovering or something?”

“This situation requires your personal attention.”

“Twenty minutes.”

Steve rested for a minute by the phone before getting to his feet. Maybe if it were just Howard, he could get away without getting dressed, but the very idea of wearing his bathrobe in front of a woman was horrifying.

Evidence of Bucky’s temporary residence littered the second bedroom from the messy bed to the radio singing quiet torch songs to oil stained clothes overflowing the hamper. A few pages of Captain Winter were strewn over the bedside table where they’d been cast aside in favor for sleep. Even mussed, the bed looked terribly tempting after his exertions. Squaring his shoulders, he pushed on. A button down shirt and a pair of slacks would have to be good enough. A sketchy wash cloth and basin bath later, he pulled on his pants then began the painful journey of buttoning his shirt.

The adventure left him wrung out and sweating. He had to rest a minute on the edge of the bathtub. That was when the front door opened.

“I’m home!” Bucky hollered out.

It was moments like this when Steve wished he felt comfortable swearing. Slowly, he got back on his feet and made his way to the living room. Bucky was in the kitchen, efficiently unpacking two grocery bags. Steve settled himself on the couch and waited for the inevitable. With economic movements, Bucky tucked away bread, cheese and a bright bag of oranges. His shirt was rolled up to expose muscular forearms that flexed subtly as he moved.

“Oh for fuck’s sake. Why are you out of bed?”

Steve started, he’d been so caught up watching that he missed Bucky’s sharp gaze cutting across the apartment. It was a nervous habit that he’d never shaken, surveying the area for enemies.

“There was an emergency.” Steve sat up a little straighter. “I was careful.”

“Jesus.” Bucky crossed the room, putting a hand to his forehead. “You’re warm.”

“I’m fine.”

“Let me check your stitches.”

“They’re fine.” Steve bat his hands away. “I promise. Howard will be here in a few minutes.”

“He can’t just go dragging you from bed because he’s got a hangnail! Steve, you have got to learn how to say no to people or-”

“He got some poor girl in a family way.” Steve said quietly. “I didn’t tell him yet. I wanted to get him in the same room as her where someone could mediate. I’m sorry, but it’s important.”

Bucky sat down heavily next to him.

“You sure it isn’t some kind of prank? I mean, Howard will take a dame out on a date or two...”

“It’s real. She’s a queer. I didn’t even know that women could be queers.” Steve shrugged, trying to resist the urge to lean into Bucky’s side. He bet the warmth of another body would ease the ache of the incision.

“You’re such an innocent sometimes.” Bucky laughed. It was affectionate, so he must be at least a little forgiven. “All right, I have to admit that’s a real emergency, but you could have waited until I got home.”

“I didn’t know when that’d be.” Or if he would have been willing to help, he thought morosely. “You didn’t say.”

“Guess I haven’t been the best I could have been this week, huh?” Bucky sighed and put an arm over his shoulders. Steve melted into the touch. “Didn’t want to screw anything up.”

“I missed you.” He muttered into the soft cotton of Bucky’s shirt.

“Lay on the guilt there.” Bucky laughed and Steve could hear it reverberate in his chest. “Like you weren’t being a complete asshole.”

“Sorry.” He shrugged. “Having my chest cracked open makes me cranky.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

The knock at the door shattered the peaceful moment. Reluctantly, Steve pulled away already missing the contact. What he wanted more than anything was to lock out the world and explore the new possibilities between them.

“Just a minute!” He yelled out, then groaned softly at the thought of getting up again. “Can you get the door? I hate this. Have I mentioned that?”

“Hey.” Bucky reached over, tilting Steve’s chin up with two fingers. “Another week or two and you’ll be back on your feet. If you’re patient, I’ll make it worth your while.”

The knock came again and Steve growled softly. Bucky let out a surprised laugh, before ducking forward to brush an impossibly light kiss at the edge of his mouth.

“Hold that thought.” He got up from the couch while Steve tried to collect himself.

“Mr. Rogers?”

“Mr. Barnes, actually. Go on in and have a seat, miss. You have to pardon me, I’m a mess.” He listened to Bucky’s retreating steps and the tentative approaching ones.

The first time Steve laid eyes on Maria Carbonell he briefly lost the power of speech. Before the War, he had had a hard time talking to gorgeous women, but time and experience had taught him that they were just people. Now some of the old shyness came rushing back. Maria was stunning. It wasn’t hard to imagine Howard changing his long held views on the female sex for her. Her hair was a vivid red that framed a delicate heart shaped face with the kind of green eyes that defied comparison to anything natural. She was tall and her legs seemed to go on forever. There was nothing expensive or flashy about her clothes, but gave the impression of elegance and style just by virtue of being on her.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Carbonell.” He stood, holding out his hand to shake. “I mean, the circumstances, of course aren’t...but. I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine, Mr. Rogers.” She smiled and it sat uneasily on her face as if it wasn’t something it was used to doing. The press of her hand in his was cool. “Thank you for hearing me out.”

“Please, have a seat.”

She perched on the edge of a chair as if it might collapse under her.

“I’ll be honest with you, Mr. Rogers, I considered not calling at all. There’s a doctor...well. I’ve never been the motherly type.” She smoothed an imaginary wrinkled from her blouse. “I certainly have no interest in returning home to Georgia with my tail between my legs.”

“Oh.” He nodded in what he hoped was a sympathetic manner though she didn’t seem to require sympathy. “I’m sure there’s no need to..I mean. There’s adoption.”

“So there is and how should I keep my job while I’m showing?” She arched her eyebrow upwards and Steve shrank a little.

“Howard might...” But there was no telling what Howard might do. “Could I get you something to drink while we wait?”

“A glass of water, please.”

She left a thick red smear of lipstick on the edge of the glass that his fingers itched to sketch. The knock came just as she was setting it down and he wrenched his gaze away gratefully.

“You look awful.” Howard said immediately, clapping him on the shoulder. “Did I detonate something in the wrong place again?”

“Hello, Howard.” Maria stood and Steve was pleased to see that Howard apparently had the same momentary stutter on beholding her.

“Hello, Maria.” He recovered quickly, crossing the room to take her hand and press a kiss to it. “How are you?”

“I’ve been better.” She shifted, all the icy precision gone. “Perhaps this was a bad idea.”

“She has something to tell you.” Steve prodded gently.

“Go on then.” Howard crossed his arms. “I broke up a hell of a party to get over here.”

“I’m pregnant.” She spat. “I hope that’s worth your time.”

“But you’re a lesbian!”

“And you’re a queer.” When her arms crossed over the chest, Steve imagined he could see the faint trace of a bump. “Yet here we both stand.”

“I’m the father?”

“Why do you think I came here, Howard?” She shook her head. “I thought you might want some say in what I do next.”

“What do you want? Money? I can set you up in style.”

“I don’t want your money.” Her face went tight, her back straightening. “I’ll get rid of it before I stoop to that.”

“You can’t!” Howard protested, seeming to surprise himself. “I mean...it might be my only chance, Maria.”

“So you’ll hide me and a baby away somewhere? That’s no kind of life.”

“Then we’ll get married.”

“What?” Steve and Maria asked at the same time.

“It’s simple, isn’t it.” His eyes had gone wild, a look Steve recognized all to well though. Usually it meant something was about explode. “We can’t both go on hiding who we are, people are bound to talk. You get a wealthy husband, who will leave you alone to your affairs and I’ll get a wife who won’t care what I do. And a baby.”

“Absolutely not.” Maria took a step back. “I have a life that I love. Friends, a nice house in the city and a job.”

“This is a major decision.” Steve stepped up. “Maybe you need to think about it for a minute or two?”

“I don’t need to think. That’s my child.” Howard gestured expansively at Maria. “I don’t want her going to some hack doctor and have it scraped out in an alleyway.”

“Excuse me!” Maria glared daggers at him.

“You were the one talking about removing it.”

“As an option. I’m only trying to be realistic.”

“Why don’t we sit down and talk it over?” Steve offered.

The conversation lasted well into the night. Bucky emerged eventually to make sandwiches that no one ate, before taking a tactical retreat back into the bedroom. In retrospect, Steve probably could have followed him and not effected the outcome one bit. Persuasive and determined, Howard turned on his deadly cocktail of charm and logic. It took until midnight, but eventually Maria agreed to the marriage. She left soon afterwards visibly defeated.

“Congratulations.” Steve mumbled, rubbing at his eyes. “I don’t think I’ve seen a more unhappy bride.”

“She’ll get used to the idea.” Howard slumped a little in his chair. “It will be ideal for the both of us. A built in cover story, I should have done it years ago.”

“You’re going to be a father and you’re thinking about a cover story?”

“I’m trying not to think about the father part. I want that baby. I can’t explain it, but...that’s the future of Stark Industries. With Stane gone, there’s no one I can leave the company too and I won’t live forever.”

“A legacy is no reason to become a father.” Not that Steve knew what the right reason was, but it had to be better than that.

“What do you want me to say?” Howard scrubbed a hand through his hair. “Christ, I’ll probably be a terrible father.”

“You won’t.” Steve said automatically.

“Nice yes-manning, but we both know that I’m going to fuck this up spectacularly.”

“I won’t let you.” He rephrased.

“We won’t let you.” Bucky strode back in, resting a hand on Steve’s shoulder. “On three conditions.”

“I’m listening.” Howard drawled he usually reserved for the dumbest members of the board.

“One, you got to quit drinking.” To his surprise, Steve could feel a faint tremor from the hand on his shoulder. “My dad was a drunk and I’m not letting some other kid grow up like that.”

“I’m not a drunk.” Howard was on his feet. “There is a goddamn difference between having a drink with dinner and being in the gutter.”

“You tell me that you can get to sleep without drinking three shots of brandy. Go on and try.”

“I have insomnia.”

“I’m not going to argue with you. You quit or you’re on your own.”

“You said three conditions.” Howard eyes narrowed. “What else?”

“The second is you have to listen to us. No use in us helping if we don’t get any kind of say. Maybe I don’t have any advice worth giving, but Steve does and you can’t brush him off like you do at work.”

“He doesn’t brush me off.” Steve protested. "I don't need defending."

“Yes, I do. Ten or fifteen times a day.” Howard shrugged. “So no drinking and I have to listen to advice. Three?”

“You go home and leave us alone until Steve’s healed up.” Bucky crossed to the door and opened it wide. “Out.”

“I haven’t agreed.”

“Then you have plenty of time to think it over. Good night.”

“I can tell when I’ve outstayed my welcome. Get better quickly, Steve, you would not believe the amount of paperwork I have to do.”

Bucky didn’t quite slam the door behind him.

“That was rude.” Steve complained through a yawn.

“He’s lucky I didn’t punch him.” Bucky shook his head and lifted Steve off the couch, ignoring his protests. “You need to sleep.”

It probably didn’t help his case that he fell asleep immediately, but when he woke in the morning Bucky was curled up against him, so all in all it was worth it.

Only a handful of days later, Dr. Morris stopped by for a through checkup. He grinned all through out the process and finally gave his blessing for Steve to start moving around again though cautioned him not to return to work for at least another two weeks.

“Are you sure?” Bucky asked, hovering nervously in the doorway.

“You’re friend is healing very well, Mr. Barnes. With any luck, he’ll regain all of his stamina and quite a bit more soon enough.”

“Let’s go out onto the beach.” Steve said as soon as the doctor was gone. “I need to get some fresh air.”

“Don’t go running out into the ocean like a lunatic.”

“Who me?”

Even though it was the middle of the day, the beach was far from empty. The continuous crash of the waves offered more privacy then one might think though and Steve took advantage as they stood in the wet sand, water caressing their feet as it rolled out.

“Tonight.” He said quietly. “I don’t want to wait anymore. Please.”

“Yes.” Bucky looked at him sidelong, eyes heavy lidded and dark.

They kissed for the first time pressed against the front door of the apartment. Bucky put a hand just above Steve’s head, leaning in until their breath overlapped. Steve surged forward closing the gap. He’d imagined kissing Bucky a thousand times, had even sketched it once then erased it out of sheer shame. It was nothing like what he pictured. He tasted like the cigarette he’d ground out before coming inside and where Steve had thought there might be softness there was only teeth and the grit of stubble. It was perfect.

“Tonight is a long time away.” Bucky mumbled when they parted. “How do you feel about now?”

“I could be persuaded.” Steve panted. “But if you pick me up, you can wait until the end of time for all I care.”

They walked instead, tripping over each other and laughing breathlessly. Steve wondered if he should be nervous, but his anticipation far outstripped his fears. They finally tumbled to the bed, tugging at their clothes and making a mess of it. It was all horribly awkward. There was lingering pain that caught him off guard as they arched into each other, not as careful as they should have been. Their hands never wound up in quite the right spot until in sheer frustration, Bucky shoved Steve down and wrapped a strong hand around both of them.

“Stop trying to help.” He kissed Steve, wet and not at all tender. “Let me lead for once.”

“I want...” But he never did finish the statement because everything turned from terrible to wonderful in one careful flick of Bucky’s wrist.

Afterwards, they lay on top of the blankets sweat soaked and laughing. Steve pillowed his head on Bucky’s shoulder, reaching across his chest to link their hands together. It was strange to settle his fingers against the two scarred stumps.

“Do you think,” he asked as his heartbeat slowed, “that this would have happened if I’d gone with you?”

“Probably. You can’t fix everything, you know.” Bucky’s other hand stroked idly down Steve’s back. “Sometimes you just have to accept what’s broken and do your best with it.”

“I don’t think of you as broken.” He kissed the patch of skin under his mouth, then settled back to listen to the steady beat of Bucky’s heart. “If you are, that I must be too.”

"How do you figure?"

"If you're broken then I must have been fractured in the same exact place. How else would we fit so well together?"

"I should have known you'd be the sappy type." Bucky scoffed even as he reached down to draw a blanket over both of them, encasing them in a private darkness.

Chapter Text

Hey D, Attached transcript with notes on interview. Tell me what you think, could make a good Sunday article. -J

Tuesday, August 1, 2004 Location of Interview: Stark Tower, 12th floor, Conference Room 2b. One small couch, one chair and a coffee machine producing God’s own coffee, I swear. Stark is a class act.

Waited about five minutes, got briefed by a perky P.R. wonk, but nothing unusual. Steve Rogers (88) and James Barnes (89) entered as soon as she left. Barnes came in first. He’s still got a surprising amount of hair, all white and he walks with the gnarled wood cane. There’s terrible scarring on one side of his face. Even bent over it, he still overshadows Rogers. Rogers has to be the frailest person I’ve ever seen. He walks unassisted, but he carries a small oxygen tank with him that wheezes a little every few seconds. Barnes sat down on the far end of the couch and Rogers sat practically on top of him.

Rogers: Good afternoon.

Interviewer: Hello, thanks for meeting with me.

Rogers: Its our pleasure.

Interviewer: So, first off, I hear congratulations are in order.

Rogers: Thank you. Its been a very long time coming.

Interviewer: How long is a long?

Rogers: Forty-two years, give or take.

Interviewer: Wow. My math is sketchy, but that dates your relationship back to what? 1952.

Rogers: We were friends for far longer than that. We met in 1927.

Barnes: 26.

Rogers: Could’ve sworn-

Barnes: It was 1926.

Rogers: Yeah, ok. 1926. But we weren’t together until after Bucky came back from the war.

Interviewer: Its hard to imagine having a homosexual relationship in that kind of climate.

Rogers: You figured it out. We had good friends, kept it private for a long time. I still think a lot of people don’t know, even though we were pretty active during the 80s in the activist scene.

Interviewer: I’ve also heard rumors that you were both involved in the Stonewall Riot.

Rogers: I was in California at the time, actually. That was all Bucky.

Barnes: I was just in the wrong place at the right time. Got a few good punches in, chanted a few times and then it was over. No big story.

Rogers: Everything is no big story with him. He was right at the front lines pushing back and flew back to California the next day with a black eye and a tooth missing.

Barnes: It was just chipped.

Rogers: Missing! You swallowed it.

Barnes: I thought that was New Mexico.

Rogers: He lost a tooth for our civil rights. You can write that down.

Interviewer: Actually, I’m voice recording this. Is that all right?

Rogers: Oh. Sure. Is that one of Tony’s? He likes red.

Interviewer: I think it’s a Samsung actually.

Barnes: The TV in our bedroom is a Samsung. We taped the channel guide over the logo because Steve feels disloyal every time we watch it.

Rogers: Oh my god. Don’t publish that, please?

Interviewer: I don’t know. That’s the kind of scandalous material readers love.

Barnes: Tony doesn’t actually care. All the inside hardware is Stark tech. Here he pressed his hand to his chest. We’ve both got prosthetic Stark hearts and I’ve got one of the first lungs.

Rogers: What you get for smoking for years.

Barnes: I gave it up fifteen years ago. Let it go!

Rogers: I’ve got more fake parts than real ones these days. Tony is trying to turn me into a cyborg.

Interviewer: You’re both Tony’s godfathers, is that right?

Barnes: Yep.

Rogers: Howard was a very good friend and we’ve been honored to have Tony in our lives. He’s like a son to both of us.

Interviewer: He speaks very highly of both of you. According to multiple interviews, he credits you with the controversial direction he took the company once he became CEO.

Rogers: Tony did that all on his own. He wanted to get out of weapons.

Barnes: Well, your little heart ‘episode’ probably didn’t hurt.

Rogers: You always make it so dramatic.

Barnes: He fainted in the middle of a Sears. We went in to by a washing machine and left with him on a stretcher. We had Tony with us that day...he would have been what? Twelve?

Rogers: Sounds about right.

Barnes: It turned out that Steve’s heart had conked out for a few seconds. Guess it struck a chord with Tony. He’s been into medical research ever since.

Interviewer: Well, I think the world would thank you for that. Stark Industries has saved a lot of lives.

Rogers: Thank Tony. The technology is his.

Interviewer: But you acted as both Howard and Tony’s personal assistant at one time or another.

Rogers: I’ve booked a few appointments. I was really only with Tony a few years. Virginia Potts has been his assistant for a long time and she’s fantastic. She should be the V.P. of Getting Things Done.

Interviewer: You were credited with the massive reorganization in the company following the conviction of Obadiah Stane for treason.

Rogers: That was a joint effort.

Interviewer: You’re very modest.

Barnes: Annoying, isn’t it? It’s why we usually don’t bother with interviews.

Interviewer: You’ve been listed on the company payroll in varying capacities, Mr. Barnes. I especially like ‘Coordinator of the Collective Insanity Unit’.

Barnes: Oh yeah! Heh. That was in the late sixties. I’d gotten my engineering degree by then and there was this great group of scientists inventing all sorts of crazy shit. Howard didn’t have the time to manage them anymore and I’m good at wrangling.

Interviewer: That department vanished in the mid-seventies.

Rogers: Literally, actually. There was some kind of event horizon in the lab. One day everyone was there, the next they were gone. Luckily, Bucky was doing field inspections that day. They reappeared three years later with no recollection of what had happened. All six of them stayed on at Stark Industries in other departments.

Interviewer: What were they researching?

Barnes: Random artifact discovered while doing deep sea R and D. Little blue glowy cube. It disappeared with the guys, but it didn’t come back with them. We’ve made the research on it public, but no one’s been able to figure out anything about it.

Interviewer: That sounds ominous.

Barnes: Nothing to be done about it now.

Interviewer: You both retired when you were well into your seventies, why wait so long?”

Rogers: I loved my job. Working with Howard and then Tony was always rewarding.

Barnes: I just didn’t see a point in banging around the house by myself. I waited until Steve was ready.

Interviewer: Neither of you have been idle though.

Rogers: Well, we slowed down. At first we traveled which was nice. Saw a lot of places. I liked London a lot. The activism was mainly to keep from going stir crazy once we got home.

Barnes: Its true. We were home for about a month and we both started going nuts. It was just too much idle time.

Interviewer: And that’s when you did the Captain Winter comics?”

Rogers: Laughs Oh no, that’s been around for a very long time.

Barnes: It was a personal project. I was pretty fucked up coughs Sorry for the language. Messed up. I was messed up when I got back from the war. We didn’t have PTSD back then. I mean, we did, but not the words for it. Guess you could say Steve and I invented our own therapy for it.

Interviewer: It’s won several awards since it’s 1995 publication. What made you finally make it available for the public?

Rogers: Tony. We let him read it when we were still actively working on it. He was always nagging us to publish it.

Barnes: We gave him the first copy off the presses and signed it.

Interviewer: That’s lovely. Steve, you started off as an artist didn’t you?

Rogers: I did a few posters for war bonds and later some manual illustrations. I never really stopped drawing, it just wasn’t my job anymore.

Interviewer: You’ve allowed Marvel to continue the rights on the comics. Are you still creatively involved?

Barnes: The nice young men there send us a few pages, we make comments, they ignore them, but I don’t have any real complaints.

Rogers: I don’t really read it anymore. The fans still seem to enjoy it, so I imagine they’re keeping close enough to the spirit of it.

Interviewer: It was the first major comic to have a gay couple at its core, wasn’t it?

Rogers: Oh, I don’t know. I’m sure there were others.

Barnes: Nothing on the same scale. Frankly, if it hadn’t been for the fact that we’ve got a lot of money it wouldn’t have happened. We printed the whole thing entirely out of pocket and ran it for a few issues before anyone would agree to pick it up.

Interviewer: Now that I’ve met you, its clear that Captain Winter and his partner Michael draw at least a little on the two of you. Certainly looking at younger photos, Winter resembles you very much Mr. Barnes.

Rogers: He’s still my favorite subject.

Barnes: There are scraps of paper everywhere in our apartment with little bits of me scrawled on them.

Interviewer: That’s sweet.

Barnes: It’s obsessive and stalker-like...but maybe a little sweet.

Rogers: Gee, thanks.

Barnes: Puts his arm around Rogers’ shoulders You’re welcome.

Interviewer: So the love story between Winter and Michael, is that your story?

Rogers: Oh, I don’t think so. I mean we put ourselves in there, but for the sake of dramatic narrative they were both much more conflicted and dramatic about it then we were. Once we sorted ourselves out, we became a boring couple.

Interviewer: I find it difficult to apply the word boring to either of you.

Barnes: Thanks.

Rogers: It’s true though! Especially these days. I wake up at 7, do the crossword. We eat oatmeal and then if we’re feeling ambitious do errands. What little Tony’s staff lets us do anyway. Afternoons, we go to a few local meetings. I sit on a local library board. Sometimes we go to concerts or plays, but usually we like to stay in. Have dinner with Tony and Pepper if there home or one of their friends. Dr. Banner is over a lot.

Barnes: We have our thrilling standing date with Erik and Charles on Thursdays.

Interviewer: You mean Dr. Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr?

Rogers: Yes, we met them years ago when we first got into the gay rights movement. I’ve always thought that mutant rights go hand and hand. I’m happy that we’ve made great strides in both.

Interviewer: A lot of people would say that Lensherr’s form of activism bordered on terrorism at one time.

Barnes: He was very extreme, but terrorism is a loaded word. We’re all old men now anyway and that was a long time ago.

Rogers: The only things Erik terrorizes these days are his flowers.

Barnes: I swear that garden only grows because he glowers at it and they’re afraid not to shoot up.

Interviewer: Have you ever collaborated with them on anything?

Rogers: Making the perfect lasagna. Does that count?

Barnes: There was that treaty-

Tony Stark enters the meeting room. His hair is disheveled, wearing only a tank top and pajama pants.

Stark: Hey guys, you done talking about me yet?

Rogers: Tony. I know you know how to knock.

Stark: Sorry.

Barnes: We’re almost done.

Stark: Good because I think I just discovered time travel. Either that or a really eerie hallucinogenic. Or lime jello.

Dr. Bruce Banner crashes into the room, nearly knocking over Tony. His lab coat is badly singed.

Banner: Good news! Only half of lab two got irradiated!

Barnes: The safety protocols were observed?

Stark: We stopped, dropped and rolled, I promise.

Rogers: Do I have to worry about growing a third eye in my sleep?

Barnes: Radioactivity doesn’t work that way.

Rogers: So you keep saying.

Stark: Anyway...uh. We’ll just wait outside until you’re done.

The two back out slowly and close the door quietly behind them.

Interviewer: Boring, huh?

Barnes: Tony likes to keep us on our toes.

Rogers: You know when he was trying to convince us into giving up our apartment to live with him, he argued it would be safer.

Barnes: Steve laughed so hard he had an asthma attack.

Rogers: But it’s actually been a lot of fun living here.

Interviewer: Well, I can see you’re needed elsewhere. Is it all right if I call in a few days to flesh out some details?

Barnes: You’d better call Steve. I don’t always hear my phone.

Rogers: Because he turns it off, not because of hearing loss. Con artist.

Barnes: Don’t even start with me. I know you can still pick stuff up off the floors, you just like to trick me into bending over. Bad knees, my ass.

Rogers: Bucky!

Barnes: It’s true.

Interviewer: I was going to ask if marriage has changed your relationship, but I guess that’s a no?

Barnes: Oh, I don’t know. It means I don’t have to worry about knocking him up out of wedlock.

Rogers: Oh my God.

Barnes: Seriously though, it meant a lot to us. We’re the same, but now the law acknowledges that.

Rogers: And I get to call him my husband. I like that.

Barnes: Yeah, that’s true. Barnes kisses Rogers on the forehead, then struggles to his feet. He supports his right hand on his cane and offers his left to Rogers, who takes it and gets up with a few audible creaks. We should make sure the boys didn’t melt the walls again.

Rogers: Have a good afternoon.

Interviewer: You too.

Barnes: Oh, don’t forget to take a brochure on arch reactor technology! There in the lobby. Nice and glossy. Steve did the illustrations.

Rogers: Sell, sell, sell. Leave it already, no one cares.

Barnes: Bitch, bitch, bitch. What would you talk about if you didn’t have me to complain about?

Rogers: But I always will, so I don’t have to worry about it.

The door closes behind them.