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To The Ground

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Treading softly down the steps

It's New York (it's always New York) and Steven Rogers takes a first wheezing breath with eyes the color of the harbor on a perfect, perfect day. His mother smiles, almost crying, and the nurses laugh. There are fireworks blooming in the sky and his farther whispers to him that they're for him.

Steve believes him until he's five, and sickly (he can't ever breath, ever, ever, ever, a car sitting on his chest), believes it until his father doesn't come home to watch the lights, until he sits alone and his mother comes home weeping. He never comes home and they never find out why.

She still cries, never in front of him. She’s too strong to push this on his shoulders and she works and works, comes home late and later, still sings him lullabies and tells stories and gives him slices of happiness, makes it easier for him to breath.

But the sounds carry through the thinness of their walls and he can't stop himself sometimes from sitting with his back to a wall to listen, to bear witness. He refuses to cry, because one of them can't, he’s the one who doesn’t have the right (those are his bills piling up on the table from the doctor).

Sometimes when he can't hold it any longer, angry, burning, unhappy and guilty, sometimes he won't go home and sits alone in the park -9, 10, 11- that is on the way home. At 11 he stops, because someone finally noticed, someone who takes him to this strange house, who grins at him and who ruffles his hair. Who leans in close and whispers, call me Bucky.

Bucky is liquor, is smiles, stolen bread, hand-me-down coats, laughs from his mother, a shoulder to cry on and blood stained knuckles in the back alley. He is Bucky and it’s impossible to breath when he speaks of faraway coasts and whistles on dead man's land. "I want to protect," he says and Steve desperately wants him to stay.

(Steve's always breathing, each and every inhale a fight he refuses to lose)

Steve stays as Bucky slips through his fingers, and he goes back to back alleys, same as always, same as it should be, picking each and every battle as his own personal war, the only fight he can do. Every time he picks up his fists and tastes the blood in his mouth he tries to forget the hole at his side, at his back and thinks this is same, it’s the same, even though its not.

Mother dies, swathed in white.; coughing too much like Steve and burning up. He tightens his fingers on hers in the hospital, too cold and too fragile, and her lashes flutter. The lights flare.

Bucky comes home smelling of acrid smoke and gun-oil.

At the funeral, they stand together in the rain.

War looms higher on the horizon and it's a taste on his tongue, gunpowder, fear, it is the words on everyone’s lips, tangible in a way it shouldn't be and could never not be. No and denied and REFUSAL in red letters, and Steve still can't breath, not in this air.

One says yes.

They ask him if he's ready to serve his country and the answer is yes, sir, waiting willingly at the back of his throat. He jumps at the call, at the pain, at the image of a friend trapped alone in a battlefield, on a grenade. He meets men without uniforms who offer more service than any one deserves. One confides hopes for a son, "great, like Alexander, and like Peter," another talks of better humans that they need to win the war. It makes him think of Bucky, and of the girl down the street with the odd eyes he’d helped up on a morning filled with rain.

There’s a woman who has pieces of his mother, and she’s strong, and she’s beautiful. She looks at him and smiles.

Pain explodes and he can breathe for the first time. The world gets so much brighter.

Stronger, faster, shows from America to America and dancing girls and he breathes in.

He beats the enemy over and over again, thinks of a faraway field and breathes out.

He gets there, and bleeds, and loses as fingers slip out of his, he can't hold on enough, snow rages and he's back to 11-year-old lungs, he's screaming.

Keeps going.

It's an ocean, it's cold and icy and the plane is shaking so hard he'll break. Steve takes a breath and the sun is shining. Steve takes a breath and she says good-bye. Steve takes a breath and remembers.

Steve takes a breath-

The walls are breaking open

Robert Bruce Banner opens his eyes in the tight silence of a hospital room. He smiles a smile that shatters the quiet with the laughter of the room, and his mother coos. His father smiles, and it’s just as brilliant.

(later, that smile isn’t quite right)

His first word is mommy and Robert doesn’t learn daddy until 2 months later.

He learns not to say it.

He reads before he learns to run, and he likes the ones with bigger words and less pictures. There’s a fork he puts in a light socket, a bottle of vinegar he pours into baking soda and his mother laughs when she takes him to the shower.

Robert loves his mother. She’s cookies on a cold morning, and bedtime lullabies. Warm hands and soft clothes and a safe lap in a thunder storm. Secret whispers just between the two of them, with quiet, blinding smiles. Stories on every languid, lazy day.

Robert hates his father. He’s screaming in a room full of bottles, and heavy fists. Wrong smiles (always, always wrong), and vicious frowns and words like freak. He smells of whiskey, and his breath is vaporized alcohol, and he doesn’t slur when he yells. Robert knows to run when he finishes the third beer.

His mother is his shield, but she breaks under blows, and Robert can’t stop screaming until his jaw explodes with pain and he hits cold carpet.

He doesn’t cry at the funeral because he can’t.

His Aunt Drake is his new mother but she isn’t, and it makes him angry, anger that sits under his skin as a lead weight. It grows with jeers and knocked over books and broken glasses in a football field, and as school blurs by, math and calculus and chemistry and physics, it fills his throat enough to choke.

The explosion happens on a blustery, wintery afternoon. The world burns green and spirals out.

He wakes up in a mound of snow with frostbite building on his fingers.

The biggest news for days is the suspected mutant attack on campus, three injured bodies and no suspects and damage that goes for a mile along the alleys. Robert doesn’t remember but he switches schools and tries to forget.

Thinks freak in his father’s voice.

The military is steady work, good work, first to build a bomb, than he publishes a paper on the chemicals in genes and the changes radiation makes, and they have him working something else. He reads the files, breathes deep and even and slow, and draws up the experiments. Does them on himself because he’s already a monster, so why ruin someone else.

The last test feels like its killing him. They see the green this time.

He wakes up in a forest with a dog nosing at his naked chest.

His name is splashed on all the headlines, MUTANT HORROR on every third title. 6 dead bodies, 11 injured and damage that goes for miles to the east. The anger’s still burning bright under his tight skin, but it seems alive now and it hates.

Bruce- he used to be Robert, but that’s so far away now, and his father had never called him anything but Robert, and Robert wasn’t a monster, just a child- runs.

He learns (3 more breaks, and military guns and green he can’t remember) the only thing to keep it down is more anger, anger that’s stronger than it is.

He doesn’t think he’ll ever stop running.

Its exhausting and he sleeps on hard beds and under smoke-stained, gasoline tarnished underpasses where he reads the words on the walls until he falls asleep. He never used to see the stars this often. Steals baseball caps to hide his face, steals from purses left open in the light; jumps ship to Mexico, to Peru, to Argentina, finally uses four years of Spanish.

A ship takes him to India with him working as the pay.

He’s a doctor, something he never planned to be, but it works here in the crowded, lonely cities. Sometimes he says no to the money; sometimes he’ll only say yes to the food, or the blanket, or the extra shirt they tell him they’ll refuse to use if he doesn’t take it. He likes the way the children smile. He likes the way the parents can laugh again.

He likes how none of them know his name.

Bruce is still running but he’s slowed down just a little.

Its enough for them to find him.

They track Bruce down on the muddy streets, and its not always all-American boys. He knows the mobs; they’re rumors on every street, big in China and Japan and Russia and the US of A, and the newspapers write of them in whispers.

When they corner him, they’re surprised to hear him speak.

He’s a monster after all, they think, a monster among monsters, who taught him to talk? And aren’t his eyes gre-