Scenes from a Marriage: The Kandinsky
Author's Note:Thanks to lim and counteragent for beta! This is yet another sequel to 4 Minute Window.
Edited to add: because people have asked, Pastorale looks like this:
TIME OUT NY. Three at the Keller. The Keller Gallery (536 W. 22nd Street) opens a group show featuring sculptures by Mira Solomon and Arnaud Bruen and paintings by Stephen Grant. Solomon's work is wry: the body parts she twists out of wire and scrap metal are full of personality and thrumming with life. A pair of metal legs is caught in the act of running; a hand reaches out in protest, fingers splayed. This forms a strong contrast with Bruen's work, a series of pale-yellow silk cones which hang, almost dripping, from the ceiling, leaving the viewer with a palpable sense of exhaustion. The standout is Grant, working across canvases in a palette of blue, black, and white. The abstract forms are natural, the paint heavily laid on, texturing the surface, almost sculptural, evoking the best work of the early modernists before the influential narcissism of Pollack. If that were it, it would be enough, but Grant's work offers more: the paintings shift before one's eyes to become landscapes, icy tundras and ravines seen from above. Highly recommended. From March 6th.
She was browning out a little as she swerved onto the Prospect Expressway, so she shoved her hand through her hair and yanked it hard, at the roots—nearly hard enough to rip it out. That cleared her head a bit, and it wasn't much... wasn't... much further now. The Prospect dumped her onto Ocean Parkway, and she took her first left and then made a right onto Coney Island Avenue, only realizing that she'd blown through the lights when there was honking and cursing and some asshole giving her the finger, and Natasha flung her arm out the window and gave it right back, shouting out that they should all eat shit and die, only afterwards realizing that the entire exchange had been in Russian. Welcome to Brooklyn.
She smashed the mirror off the side of the car as she turned into the garage at Coney Island Design and Construction, but slammed on the brakes before she hit anything else. Steve—because it was Steve under that beard—bent to peer through the passenger window, his eyes widening behind his glasses. Chinese food, she thought; he was holding a white carton in one hand, a pair of chopsticks in the other. His face swam before her eyes, and then she dimly heard the thunderstorm of the garage door rattling down. Her seatbelt clicked open and then she was falling sideways out of the car into Steve's arms.
"Did you get any spare ribs?" Natasha managed, looking at him upside down.
"No, but I'll get you some," Steve told her. "If you want them. I'll get you anything you want," and then he was lifting her and carrying her up the rickety wooden staircase to the apartment he shared with Barnes.
"I can't believe they put that shit in the same room with a Van Gogh, is all I'm saying," Bucky said. "In the same building even. It's a fucking travesty," and then, because Steve was looking and not listening: "...You like that."
"Yeah," Steve sighed. "I mean, yeah. It just..." He groaned theatrically, shoulders slumping, in front of the Kandinsky; Pastorale, 1911. "It's right on the edge of abstraction, he's inventing it and he doesn't even... I mean those colors, and then you see those women, the flowers, that dog..." Steve flung a hand at the Kandinsky, then laughed and said to Bucky: "Wrap it up, I'll take it. The Kandinsky, one of the early Picassos, and all the Joseph Stella you've got on the shelf. I'll take the lot."
"Yeah, because it's not like we have any paintings in the house," Bucky said.
"Don't you want to look at that all day? I could look at that every day for the rest of my life," and Bucky was about to say that he couldn't imagine wanting to look at the same thing every day for the rest of his life, except actually, he could.
Steve carried her straight through the sitting room (plaid sofa, armchair, ottoman, dining table and chairs) to the bedroom and set her down carefully before dragging the blankets over and around her, bundling her up; Natasha hadn't realized she was shivering. She closed her eyes and nestled her cheek against the sheets; they were flannels, warm and soft and a little musky, and she felt really safe for the first time in ages and let herself relax: drift away, into rest.
After a while she opened her eyes; Steve was sitting on the edge of the bed, carefully irrigating the wound in her right arm. He'd cut off her sleeve, and the covers were littered with first aid supplies—dressings, bandages, tape, scissors. She took stock of herself; she could feel her other wounds thrumming underneath pressure bandages even though she couldn't see them; she was now covered from the neck down by a heavy green army blanket. She watched Steve from under her lashes; he hadn't yet noticed she was awake; he was carefully drying her arm and reaching for the liquid stitches.
The phone rang. Steve turned, peeling off a pair of rubber gloves before grabbing it.
"Hey," Steve said, and then: "Okay, I think," and then, "AB. And some broad spectrum antibiotics. And don't—" Steve looked away, smiling, then stroked his fingertips down his golden-brown beard. "Yeah, well, I can't help it. Don't get caught." He glanced over and saw that Natasha was awake. "Okay, bye," he said, as he lowered the phone and then, "Hi, Natasha; don't move, I'm not done yet, all right?" He fumbled for the box of rubber gloves and pulled on another pair.
"I'm sorry," Natasha said, and then coughed: her voice was scratchy. "I couldn't think where else to go," and Steve surprised her by bending down to kiss her forehead; his beard was surprisingly soft against her skin.
"I'm glad to see you," Steve said, smiling, "even if—" He made a face as he looked at her injuries, then said softly, "Do you want a painkiller?" and whatever he gave her made her feel like she was floating in a warm bath. Time went strange; she closed her eyes and when she opened them it was Barnes beside her, peeking at her wounds one at a time under the blanket.
"Do I pass inspection?" and that was Steve, somewhere out beyond the perimeter of the bed.
"Yeah, you did a good job," Barnes said distractedly. "But this one here, I don't like—"
"Yeah. I think that came first, it's the deepest. We'll keep an eye on it. "
Barnes pulled the blanket back across her hip and got up. "Did she say what happened?"
"We didn't get that far," Steve said. "She just pulled in, fell out of the car—"
"Yeah, the car," Barnes muttered and then his voice dimmed; he'd walked of the bedroom. "We've got to do something about the car," and now they were in the other room, but the door was still open.
"You're not surprised," Steve was saying, and there was an accusing undertone to his voice. "That she's here."
"Sure, I am; look, I'm surprised." Barnes said, and then: "Hey, I didn't stab her, if that's what you're—"
"She knew just where to find us—and you don't care, you're fine with it. Because you knew she knew."
Barnes didn't say anything for a moment. "Yeah, okay," he said. "I knew. Look, she's a Black Widow, she's gonna know things. That's how they built her. I'm not fighting a tsunami—"
"That's not the," Steve began, and then, as Natasha closed her eyes and strained to hear. "It's fine that she knows; she's my friend, I trust her. But you didn't tell me. Why wouldn't you—" and then he breathed softly, "Buck. Oh, Bucky..." and then everything went quiet for a long time, except for a sudden scrape of furniture—a chair leg?—on the floor, and then unexpectedly, Steve's soft sigh: "Oh. Oh, God..." and the door clunked shut.
Nine stories wasn't fun but he managed to get the shield under him at the last minute. He didn't have as much practice with it as Steve did, and so ow, ow, fucking ow— The mutant he'd dragged off the roof with him was lying in a bloody heap, though—so hey, that was something. And it was a nice night. The sky was pretty, smeared orange with reflected city light.
It took him a moment to realize that Iron Man was peering down at him, head tilted uncannily. "You okay, Cap?"
"Hey, do you know where I can get a Kandinsky?" Bucky asked him.
Tony Stark flipped his visor up; he was frowning. "Did you hit your head?"
"Yeah," Bucky replied honestly, "but that's not why I want a Kandinsky."
Stark tried, three times, to hop casually up on a nearby dumpster. The third time, he used the suit's flight capacity and made it. "I think I have one," he said, frowning. "I might have given it to the Boy Scouts. But I think I got it back—or Pepper did—and we wrote them a check instead."
"How much you want for it?" Bucky asked.
Stark squinted down at him. "Are you sure you didn't hit your head?"
"I did hit my head, I just said." Bucky hauled himself up, dragging the shield with him. He winced and rubbed his shoulder. "I fell off the roof and broke every bone in my goddamn body, all right?"
"Yeah, that jump's not as easy as some people used to make it look," Stark said. "Why do you want a Kandinsky?"
"Birthday present. I got this friend, he's real into art," Bucky explained.
The next time Natasha woke up the room was dark but she felt sharper—more awake, better rested—and she had to pee. She lifted her hand—somewhere in there, one of the boys had put in an IV—and pushed her covers off. She winced and took stock: the really painful wound was down on her left side; the others (arm, two in the shoulder, one in the leg) didn't hurt nearly as much. She ripped out the IV and slipped out of bed; there was enough light coming in from the window to see by.
Not moonlight: streetlights up and down Coney Island Avenue. She pushed the curtains aside: there was traffic—not Manhattan-level traffic, but still a steady stream of cars, some of them blasting music loud enough to rattle the window panes. She saw right away that they'd treated the glass with some kind of coating: she could see out, but she was guessing that the curious would have a hard time seeing in. Just as well: they weren't making any pretenses about not sleeping together. There was just the one bed, and their clothes were mixed together in the closet, shoes and boots tumbled together on the floor. There was a nightstand on either side of the bed, and Natasha hesitated only a second before opening the drawer: no condoms or sex toys, just loose change, pens and pads of paper, a comb. She smiled then: she could just picture Barnes's face. What the hell do we need condoms for? Which of us exactly do you think is in danger of getting knocked up?
There was an old army footlocker at the bottom of the bed; it was padlocked. She turned the heavy lock in her hand, considering; she could open it, but not with a hairpin. They would know. Besides, she thought she had a pretty good idea of the kind of things Barnes and Rogers might want to keep under lock and key.
She recognized the painting hanging on the wall across from the bed: it was thickly painted in blue and black and white, with a smear of brown and red on one side. She'd seen it in Steve's studio the last time she was here, and it was as unnerving in person as it was in her memory. Violent, somehow, despite the serenity of the colors: she couldn't understand why they'd want to hang it where it was the first thing they had to see every morning.
Now she really had to pee, so she carefully turned the knob of the bedroom door. The sitting room was still and dark, and she waited for her eyes to adjust. They were asleep on the sofa, both of them—there was just the one bed, and she'd taken it. The sofa wasn't that big, but they seemed comfortable enough, snugged up together, arms around each other, Barnes's leg tucked up between Steve's. A pillow and a blanket lay abandoned on the ottoman: it looked to her like Steve had started out sleeping in the armchair, then decided to flop down on top of Barnes instead.
She peered around—there was only one door likely to be the bathroom—and crossed to it silently, catlike. Stepping into the bathroom was like going back in time: a bar of soap, bottle of shampoo, a can of shaving cream, a razor, two black plastic combs, a glass bottle of bright blue "hair tonic," whatever the hell that was. They seemed to have reverted to old habits.
She went to the toilet and then listened before opening the door again: they seemed to still be asleep. Natasha moved silently, her side throbbing but taking everything in. Another painting hung on the far wall, but if it was Steve's, it was from a different series than the other one: it was brightly colored in red and purple and pink. A low bookcase was filled with the same sort of books Steve had had in his DC apartment—history, political biography—but there was a new element here, too. Fiction: stacks of cheap, colorful paperbacks—well, hello there, Sergeant Barnes. On the wall above the bookcase there was a carefully framed photograph. She leaned in to look closer. It was Neil Armstrong, on the moon.
"Seriously—why? Why?" Bucky gestured toward the yellow silk cones dripping from the roof of the Keller Gallery. "I still can't believe they can show this shit. These fucking cones—who wants that?"
Steve tried to hide his smile. They'd popped into the Keller to skulk around; people came into the gallery on Saturdays and he liked to see their reactions. "Dunno. They make me look like a genius, though, right?"
"They do!" Bucky jerked toward Steve, his mouth opening in delight. "Wow, you egotistical piece of shit..." he muttered admiringly. "Is that why you didn't complain when they put him in the show with you?"
"No, but I think that's the effect," Steve said. "Besides, it could have been the other guy, the clock guy—"
"Oh, the clock guy was so much worse." Bucky shuddered. "That guy actually made me want to kill myself. Painting the same clock over and over, with a different time, like that makes it—"
"I think that was supposed to be the time he started painting," Steve said frowning.
"Yeah, because that makes it so much more interesting." Bucky rolled his eyes. "What a waste of time."
"That's it," Steve said. "That's the concept."
"Great, I got it. You say conceptual, I say he's out of his fucking tree, painting the exact same painting thirty times—"
"Yeah, that guy needed to go outside," Steve agreed. "I think he needed to talk to somebody."
"He needed to eat something. Get laid. Something," Bucky said, shaking his head.
Natasha woke up when an alarm went off in the other room—a real alarm clock, with a bell. The sun was just coming up.
Save me from virtuous men, she thought, closing her eyes. Somewhere a shower was running. It was the smell of coffee that finally got her up—it smelled good, strong. Rogers had cut big holes in her clothes to bandage her injuries, so she found a shirt in the closet and slid it on, buttoned it, rolled the sleeves. It was big enough that she could have belted it and worn it as a dress. She ran fingers through her hair—there were no mirrors in here—and then opened the bedroom door.
They started—obviously not expecting her to come out. Barnes was fresh out of the shower, hair wet and wearing nothing but a towel slung low around his waist; Steve was in boxers and a sleeveless t-shirt, holding the percolator awkwardly.
"Is there coffee?" Natasha asked.
"Yeah, there's—" Steve was looking from himself to Barnes, obviously trying to decide which of them was more decent and reluctantly concluding that he was, though his boxers left little to the imagination; they were practically translucent. "Go, get dressed," he muttered, shoving at Barnes's gleaming metal shoulder. "Come on. Hurry," but Barnes just rolled his eyes.
"I'm going, I'm going," Barnes muttered, moving slowly, almost sauntering. "Natasha," he said, in passing.
"James," Natasha replied, nodding her head respectfully in return.
Barnes went past her into the bedroom and Steve, flushing hard, busied himself pouring coffee. "How're you feeling?" he asked, quickly taking a seat—to hide himself, she surmised. "I—you shouldn't be up yet. You took your IV out?"
"I'm all right, I don't need it." Natasha said. She took a sip of the good strong coffee. "So," she said, smiling over the rim, "this is you getting some regularly, hm?" She didn't think Steve's fair skin could turn any pinker, but it did.
"Yeah." Steve ducked his head, practically hiding under his eyelashes. "I'm—getting quite a lot, actually."
"I'm glad," Natasha said. "You look happy."
"I am," Steve said. "Everything's great. Work's good. I'm painting. There's baseball; hockey in the winter. I've got no complaints," and then his smile faded and he said: "Are you going to tell me what happened to you?"
"Sure," Natasha said, "but maybe we should wait for your better half. He speaks the language."
Steve frowned. "Were they Russians?" he asked, and she nodded. "Is there a Hydra connection?"
"Yeah," Natasha said, "though I'm embarrassed to—" They looked up as Barnes came out of the bedroom. "It was a sex trafficking ring," she told him, continuing. "Russian mob, Russian girls," and Barnes frowned. "I thought they were funneling the profits to Hydra—and they were," she explained. "But I thought it was the boss man doing it; the pimp."
"And it wasn't?" Barnes asked.
"No," Natasha said, and then she sighed, because this was the embarrassing part. "It was his mother," she said. "Seventy-eight years old, but moves like she came out of the Red Room yesterday. She'd stuck me four times before I could get my bearings. I have no excuse; it was pathetic," she admitted. "I fell for it and I shouldn't have. I of all people shouldn't have."
Benediction came from an unexpected quarter. "I don't know," Barnes said, pouring himself some coffee and sitting down beside her. "If you're living like a person, which I'm mostly trying to nowadays, then most seventy-eight year old women aren't trying to kill you. You can't treat everyone like a target," and something flickered between him and Steve. Steve propped his bearded chin on his fist and smiled. Barnes kept his attention on her. "Do you know where they are now?"
"I think I know where they've gone," Natasha replied.
Now Barnes looked at Steve. "We could go over there later," he said. "Show them what's what."
"You think?" Steve asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Hey, we're a Brooklyn construction company," Barnes replied with a shrug. "We fix things—"
Steve laughed. "Not like that we don't," he said, grinning, and then: "Well, I don't know. Maybe. Just this once." He glanced at the time and leapt up: "Hey, I have to get dressed. We told Cheng we'd be there at seven—"
"I'll go," Barnes said. "You stay here, catch up with your—" He waved a hand at Natasha. "Whatever."
"Yeah. Sure," Steve said, getting up and heading for the bedroom, "because when you go to pick up three hundred pounds of marble by yourself, that won't raise any red flags," and Barnes rolled his eyes and muttered, "Okay, yeah." "We'll pick up the marble," Steve said firmly, "take it straight over to the Petersons and install it, get that done. We can be back here for lunch," and then he looked at Natasha and added: "If you think you'll be okay. There's food in the icebox, there's—"
"I'll be fine, thanks," Natasha said, and Steve nodded at her and shut the bedroom door.
"And the fixtures!" Barnes yelled after him, fiddling with his coffee cup. "We've got to go to Long Island City to get the—"
"I know! I remember!" Steve called back, muffled, through the door.
"You'll be okay if you lay low," Barnes told her. "Stay inside, keep the doors locked and the gates down. We close up the place for hours at a time when we're on a job, nobody'll think anything of it," he added, and Natasha nodded.
"You guys haven't had any problems?" she asked. "Nobody's noticed he used to be Captain America?"
"Mainly we've found that if he wears a tight enough shirt, nobody looks at his face," Barnes replied. "He could have three eyes, like a Picasso."
Bucky drove the van in, but the hellish traffic in midtown gave him plenty of time for reconnaissance: you could see anything you wanted when you were going 5 miles an hour. It took him three goddamn tries to get through the light at 42nd, even with a cop on duty at the intersection, and so Bucky leaned forward over the steering wheel and peered up at the buildings: construction still ongoing across from Stark Tower, three new restaurants coming in, new ladies clothing shop on the corner. Hey, Nat Sherman was still here—had it been here? He'd remembered it being on Broadway back when he used to come into the city to buy gold-tipped cigarettes for his ma at Christmas. It didn't look like they'd added any new cameras or surveillance equipment around here since the day he'd gotten Steve out—the happiest day of his whole goddamned life.
He turned and took a nostalgic lap past the old Grand Central cab stop, all that fucking beautiful tile-work now moldering in obscurity behind a cheap sign saying EZ 24 HR PARK: EARLY BIRD $31. Then he turned into the service entrance for Stark Tower, pulling up to the guard at the gatehouse and putting on his most bored expression as he rolled down the window. "Picking up from Stark Industries," he said. "I should be on the list—" but the guard was already nodding.
"Yeah," she said, "they told me to tell you to pull around; five stories down, gate E5."
"Thanks a million," Bucky said, and rolled the window back up.
He drove down and around the concrete ramps—sublevel A, sublevel B, sublevel C. Sublevel D was gated, though it whirred open once he pulled up and waved at the camera, and sublevel E was full of beautiful cars: sportscars and roadsters, a 1931 Dusenberg that looked just like new. And there, standing on a iron loading platform near the service elevator, was Stark himself, holding a canvas-wrapped painting of about three feet by four feet.
"I like this," Stark said, as Bucky got out of the van. "Meeting in the parking lot. It's like a movie from the 1970s."
"I never saw any movies from the 1970s," Bucky admitted.
"Oh, you're missing out," Stark said. "Golden age of cinema."
"So they tell me. People are always pushing that Star Wars, and Jaws, but—"
"Not Jaws," Stark said, looking affronted. "I'm talking about real movies, conspiracy theories and espionage, you with your white van, 'Have you got the package?' 'Yeah, I got the package'"—"
"You know, you talk," Bucky said, "but I don't know what you're saying most of the time, I'll be honest."
"This," Stark said, over-enunciating, "is a Kandinsky. Early, like you wanted—Pepper told me when, I forget: 1909? 1910, something like that—"
"Perfect," Bucky said, hopping up onto the platform. "That's perfect. I owe you, Stark, I really—"
"Actually you owe me about twenty million dollars," Stark replied, handing the painting to him, "but what's a couple of nickels between friends? Besides," he said, grimacing, "it's just sitting in a basement somewhere. I assume this friend of yours doesn't collect art for investment purposes?"
"Nah," Bucky said. "He just likes looking at pictures. Always has."
Stark nodded. "Yeah. So hold it for me till I'm down to my last twenty mil." They shook on it, but then Stark didn't let go of his hand. "This friend of yours," Stark said, his black eyes fixed on Bucky's, "maybe you could bring him over to dinner sometime. I'd like to meet him."
Bucky considered, shook his head. "It's too dangerous," he said. "But if you ever need some plastering done..."
He pulled out a card for Coney Island Design and Construction and offered it to Tony between two fingers. Tony took it.
"You let us know, we'll make you a priority customer," he said, and Tony frowned down at the card as Bucky carefully loaded the Kandinsky into the back of the van. Bucky finished securing the painting and slammed the cargo doors shut.
Then he had a thought. "You collect art for—money, what did you call it? Investment," Bucky said. "Investment purposes."
"Mainly," Tony said, "yeah. My mother liked art, I kept up with it. It keeps its value better than most things."
Bucky nodded, flexing his fingers through his rough suede work gloves. "Then I got a hot tip for you. New painter, down at the Keller Gallery on West 22nd. Smart guy like you should get in on the ground floor."
With the boys gone, Natasha was able to give the place a thorough going-over: Steve knew her well enough to know she would search the place, and Barnes would expect it by default. In any case there wasn't much to see: they seemed to be disgustingly clean-living. There was simple food in the small fridge—eggs, butter, sandwich fixings. Fruit in a bowl on the counter, a loaf of nubbly bread. Oatmeal and dried macaroni in the cabinets, canned vegetables and soup. There was a small desk on one side of the room, a few papers tucked into pigeonholes. Two checkbooks. Stephen Grant—not Steven, she noted with some interest—paid the household bills promptly in a careful, neat handwriting, while James Buchanan signed off on bigger-ticket items for the business: supplies, insurance. Invoices from Grant and Buchanan, d/b/a Coney Island Design and Construction. She tucked the papers back into their holes, then crossed the landing and went into the studio.
The girl sipping her pint of beer was gone, but there were two other paintings in progress on the front easels, and this time she didn't need Barnes to tell her that they were commercial: one was a hanging sign, black with gold lettering, for McAllister's Bar; the other was obviously for a restaurant, a fake Impressionist painting of a cafe. Pretty, but she could feel Steve's boredom steaming off it—he was painting fast, having fun with the details: putting women in ridiculous hats.
She spared it a last glance and then went deeper in, to where Steve did his real work. The ice paintings were gone; the new paintings were geometrical—straight lines and sharp angles, squares and rectangles—and in a new set of colors: pale yellow and gray and brown, broken off by thickly painted black lines, all the brushstrokes visible. Nothing natural here, except maybe the light, which seemed too bright even thought it was only paint. But it was bursting out around the lines, reflecting off the rectangular shapes in the...windows on buildings, maybe, or a road; was this Brooklyn? She tried to look at Steve's paintings the way she looked at a room, or a mark; tried to open herself up to them and feel them. The blue and white paintings had been quiet, violent, despairing; these paintings were tense, looming, urgent, energetic.
She was so engrossed that it took her a moment to recognize that there was something rubbing at her ankles; she looked down and saw a black cat. It looked up at her and meowed plaintively. "Well, hello," she said. "Do you belong here?"
The cat meowed again and glared at her with one eye, screechy and irritated.
"Right," Natasha said, and grinned. "I'm guessing you belong to James."
The only place to hide a painting was with other paintings, and so Bucky took the Kandinsky into Steve's studio and put it with a group of canvases Steve had leaning against the back wall. The new paintings were different—the colors were different, and the light—Jesus. Bucky hadn't realized what was wrong with the light until he saw the first canvas: Steve was painting the light like it used to be, back when the city was lit by bulbs. He recognized the outlines of buildings long demolished, vistas from places where you couldn't stand anymore, pictures out of his memory with no real-world counterpart; leave it to Steve to be painting the inside of his head. His favorite painting so far was the one on the easel—nearly done, he thought. It was the darkest of the lot, and so thickly crossed with dark brown lines that it was nearly black, but there was a golden-white light streaming through the knife-scratched slats, and more light leaking in from the sides of the painting, and for Bucky it totally captured the feeling of being out, standing under the El, and—
"Hey," and Bucky turned to see Steve standing there in his work clothes; he hadn't heard him come up the stairs. "Don't," Steve said, mouth twisting ruefully—Steve didn't like talking about in-progress work—but talking wasn't everything; talking was nothing, actually. He wandered over, slid his thumbs possessively into Steve's belt loops, and kissed him to say he liked the paintings. Steve smelled like—cedar; he'd been doing carpentry, lining the closets on the Stimpson job—and sweat, but he was surging forward, hands sliding into Bucky's hair and kissing back, and this was like his whole life in a goddamned nutshell; him reaching out for Steve and being kind of surprised when Steve came back at him, all hands and desire.
"Oh yeah," Steve was murmuring against his mouth. "Let's. I want to," and maybe it was because he'd been thinking about the past, but Steve's voice seemed to echo through the years. There'd once been this skinny kid, with a shock of blonde hair always falling into his face, shoulder bones peeking out of the too-wide collar of his shirt; it'd been so hard keeping his hands off him. And then he hadn't been able to, and his hands had gone where they shouldn't—even now he could remember the desperation and terror, the tightness in his chest, the adrenaline headache, the lust—and then Steve had shifted against him, legs spreading, and said: "Wait. Let me—" and Steve's hand was on him, fumbling over him, touching him for the first time. He'd gasped, closing his eyes, his own legs falling open—and that had been the start of it, the start of everything.
Now it was eighty years later and the skinny kid was bigger than he was and tugging him, blindly, still kissing, across the landing into their apartment and muscling the door open with his shoulder, because it was eighty years later and you could do that now: fuck openly, live openly. Even the guys down the block, the Russians at the auto glass place and the muchachos at the garage were fine with it: he'd had this whole elaborate bullshit story prepared where him and Steve were cousins, and then when Steve had shown up, Lalo had taken one look at him and said, "Es tu novio—your boyfriend?" and while Bucky was trying to figure the least-defensive answer to that, Steve had swung his hand out and said, "Si, me llamo Steve." Bucky had turned to stare at him, but that had been the end of it; Lalo had just nodded and shaken his hand.
It was a whole different world now, Bucky thought, as Steve pulled him down onto the bed. Bucky rolled on top of him and felt Steve's thighs sliding open to grip his hips. A different world, and a better one in a lot of ways.
"She's something, isn't she," Bucky said to him, offhandedly, as they were driving back to the shop. They'd had to haul all the marble up three flights of stairs to the Peterson's brownstone in Park Slope, but it had only taken a couple of hours to install the countertops, and then Bucky'd hooked up the sink while Steve put in the hardware for the cabinets, all the handles and hinges and drawer pulls. It came out good, though. "The Widow," Bucky elaborated, as if he didn't know. "Natasha."
Steve, driving the van, shot him a sharp glance. "Yeah," he said. "She is."
"She really cares about you," Bucky said, looking away. "And you like her; I know you do."
"Sure I like her," Steve said warily. "Don't you like her?"
"I do, actually," Bucky said.
"I mean, you're the one who works with her," Steve pointed out. "Now that you're the big superhero and everything."
"Yeah, that's me," Bucky replied, rolling his eyes. "Big and super-heroic."
"So, fine. Don't," Steve began, and then he bit it back, shaking his head.
"Don't what?" Bucky asked.
"Nothing," Steve said. "Natasha's great, we're agreed."
"Yeah," Bucky said. They rode for a moment in silence and then he added: "So if you wanted to see more of her, I would totally under—" and Steve jerked the wheel to one side, pulling the van up next to a chain-link fence under the Gowanus, and shoving it into park. He turned to Bucky and said: "I swear, I thought we were done with this."
"With what?" Bucky asked defensively.
"With this thing you do where you push me at girls because you think you turned me queer in 1934," Steve replied.
"I did turn you queer in 1934," Bucky said.
"Right, and if it weren't for you I'd be a father of five out on Staten Island?" Steve shot back. "You think?"
"More like a grandfather of sixteen buried in Greenwood," Bucky said, "but—look, I wasn't pushing you at Natasha. But maybe I'm wrong to be keeping you to myself. I—I don't know," Bucky mumbled, looking away; Steve had to strain to hear what he was saying. "I feel like I'm getting away with something. I always did with you. Like finding money on the street; I just put you in my pocket and didn't tell anybody. And now it's worse," Bucky said, "because I literally stole you, put you in the trunk of the car and—"
"Oh, you dumbass," Steve said. "Is this about the Kandinsky?" and Bucky was shaking his head but Steve leaned across the van and kissed him anyway, and Bucky kissed him back hungrily, almost savagely, sucking and biting at his lower lip.
Bucky said breathlessly, "What do you want? I'll do anything you—"
Steve pinned him on the bed, shoved his shirt up and his pants down and mouthed down the hair on his belly to his cock—licked and kissed it, then tipped it into his mouth. Bucky groaned; God— he used to be so proud of his ability to take Steve apart, but lately— Steve had really learned to— He pushed at Steve's shoulders. He had to teach that kid what–- he twisted himself around and felt his mouth go wet from the thought of it. Goddamn yes. He had to take Steve in his mouth and lick that self-satisfaction all the way off him. Below him, Steve moaned softly and nosed up for Bucky's cock and then Jesus- Steve closed his mouth around Bucky's cock again, tightly, pacing him, showing him the rhythm and Bucky was just lost to it, everything forgotten but sensation, the soft slide of Steve's velvety cock against his lips, tracing him with his tongue, and oh, God, fuck, Steve always gave such great sloppy blowjobs...
He was right on the edge of coming when Steve's wet mouth slid off him and his fingers slid out of him, and Bucky moaned in frustration and jerked his hips. "You bastard," he muttered, desperate and empty, but Steve was tugging him upright and trying to move him, and Bucky reached out and hooked his metal arm around Steve's neck and dragged their mouths together—fuck, he could taste himself on Steve's lips. You could never kiss Steve hard enough, or deep enough, and Bucky kissed him fuckin' breathless, kissed him until Steve forgot what the hell he'd been doing and yielded, sinking back onto the mattress beneath him.
Finally Bucky lifted his mouth off Steve's and murmured, "Gonna finish what you started?"
"I—sure, I—yeah," Steve said breathlessly, lurching up, and then Steve was getting behind him, holding his hips and pushing inside him. Their thighs pressed together. Bucky could feel Steve's thighs driving forward, the power in him, the heat of his skin and his muscles working. Steve knew exactly where, how—Bucky pushed back into it, bracing his body, rocking forward and letting himself yell it out: jubilant.
Everything was coiled tight, every muscle flexed, excitement scraping his nerves—and then—Bucky felt it like a fall, a dead drop—and he let his head drop, melting, everything released. And Steve was moaning in Bucky's ear, and falling onto him, saying, "I'm coming. I'm coming too." They were collapsing, Steve heavy on top of him, and Bucky's face thunked into the mattress and he whooped into it, muffled and exhausted. Steve slid off like an iceberg, wet cock sliding across Bucky's ass—and sex was great but what was maybe even better was falling into the sheets after, lying in your own mess, sweaty and warm in your own bed, limbs tangled and clinging to each other as the come dried on you, between you, without rushing, without guilt or the stab of adrenaline, without being afraid of anything: not a single goddamned thing.
He lay there, too tired to move, his eyes on Steve's painting: it was impossible, with all this warm, smelly Steve next to him, to remember the ice—and his chest ached with joy, like it always did when he looked at the painting; they'd won, somehow, him and Steve. He drifted off, and when he woke up he brushed his lips across the spray of freckles on Steve's shoulder—he was probably the only one in the world who knew what that skin looked like under the uniform. He could have drawn every freckle, every mole on Steve's body: could have mapped them like constellations. Steve's eyelashes fluttered but he didn't wake up, and Bucky ran his hand through Steve's dyed brown hair and saw the ripple of gold underneath; treasure, buried.
They found Natasha sitting on a stool behind the counter in the shop, George and Gracie sprawled in blissful adoration at her feet, and Bucky's cat strutting back and forth in front of her, gracefully stepping around the telephone, tail up in the air.
"George and Gracie begged to come in," Natasha said, and Steve shot Bucky a look, because okay, she was good but there was no way she could know that. The cat stopped in front of her and Natasha scratched under her chin. "And who's this?"
"Shop cat," Barnes said shortly, taking off his jacket and hanging it up on the hook.
"He says it's a shop cat," Steve said, shrugging.
"It is a shop cat, it's in the shop, ain't it? Keeps the mice out—you see any mice around here since we got her?"
"No," Steve agreed. "Haven't see any elephants either, so that's like a bonus, right?"
"Oh, shut the—"
"You got some messages," Natasha said, and they stopped arguing and looked at her. Steve saw that there were a couple of message slips on the counter. "A Rina Deblusky called, she says she's had a change of plans and can't be home Friday, can she reschedule with you. Then a woman called Marlowe called: she wants to know if you could come out and give her an estimate for a remodeling of her kitchen and dining room—she wants it to be open plan, with an island; she was very specific about it," Natasha said, and arched an amused eyebrow. "Oh, hey, and this—you'll like this. This guy Vinnie, who manages McAllister's, that you're doing the sign for—he says he wants you to do some additional renovations to the bar." She put down the slips and said, "You guys are missing out on a lot of business. You should get a machine, at least."
Steve looked at her and crossed his arms. "Is my checkbook balanced?"
"I wouldn't swear to the penny," Natasha replied seriously, "but it looked more or less all right."
"You know, I was gonna order you spare ribs," Steve chided, but when Natasha lit up he couldn't deny her, and so Bucky locked the place down and then all they went upstairs and ate Chinese food and planned their take-down of the sex-trafficking ring, which, Natasha assured them, was currently housed above a storefront on Roosevelt Avenue, in Queens.
In hindsight, it was maybe a mistake to wait until the end of his birthday to give Steve the Kandinsky.
They'd made a day of it, like they did when they were kids, taking the train to Coney Island and swimming and lying around on the beach eating hot dogs and ice cream, Steve doing sketches while Bucky sprawled in his chair with his sunglasses on and his hat pulled down, reading Asimov. Then they'd gone to see the Cyclones, to which they were devoted with all the fervor of converts—and had maybe twelve beers between them. Then there had been fireworks. By the time they'd stumbled off the train and walked the couple blocks back to the garage, Steve's birthday was really nearly over, but Bucky'd already hung the painting, festively wrapped, on the wall so that Steve would see it just as soon as he opened the door.
Steve was sunburned and mussed and ocean-drunk, bits of him crusted with sand and salt, but he turned and smiled happily at Bucky when he saw the present. "What's this?" he asked. "You didn't have to."
"Happy birthday," Bucky said, and leaned back on his heels.
Frowning, happy, curious, Steve went over to the painting and began carefully to pull away the paper. Bucky saw him settling his face into an expression of pleased surprise—and then the jolt of shock as he realized what he was actually looking at. Steve finished pulling the wrapping off, then stumbled back and stared at it, like he was trying to take it in.
Then he looked at Bucky. "Are you out of your fucking mind?"
"It's a Kandinsky," Bucky explained.
"I know it's a—" and Steve's hands were sliding into his hair and over his head; Bucky could see his blond roots, like wind ruffling a cornfield. He was moving nervously, not quite pacing, eyes fixed on the brightly colored painting: red and purple and pink. "You—Bucky, you can't do this," he said finally, and Bucky didn't think he'd ever seen Steve so totally knocked off-kilter; Steve was usually the one doing the knocking. "Wherever you got this from, you've got to give it back."
"I thought you'd like it," Bucky said, frowning. "You said—"
"I do like it—I love it—but it's not you something can—I mean, I like Beethoven too, but I couldn't live with a symphony orchestra in the house! How do you live with a thing like this, it's a masterpiece, it knocks me sideways every time I— How am I supposed to—make coffee, fry an egg—with something so amazing, so beautiful, three feet away from me?"
Bucky didn't know what to say to that. "I don't know, you get used to it," he said finally.
Steve was already shaking his head. "It's not right, Buck," he said. "It belongs to the whole world, it's not a thing you can lock up in a room for yourself," and Bucky felt knocked sideways; it was suddenly hard to swallow. "It's special! It's—"
"It was already locked up," Bucky scraped out; his throat hurt. "I didn't take it from, I —" but he had, really, hadn't he.
"We gotta give it back," Steve said, his eyes sliding back to it. "God, what a thing though..."
Bucky didn't reply.
Bucky went down to the auto glass place and borrowed the Bagrov brothers' van, which had Russian lettering all across the side. "I gave 'em some money for the glass, too," he told Steve, who was putting on a nondescript blue jacket and pulling a baseball cap down over his eyes. "Figured it'll probably get broken," Bucky added, and put his tongue in his cheek.
"It will if we're doing it right," Steve replied, grinning.
"Where's the Widow?" Bucky asked. "Come on, let's roll, I'm getting antsy," just as she came down from upstairs.
She was wincing a little—stairs were hard, Steve knew, when you were injured—but she was Natasha, after all, and they'd done a good job on her; the sutures would hold. She'd changed into the clothes Steve had bought her: black leggings and a pink-leopard print shirt and a pair of cheap black sneakers. Bucky took one look at her and laughed; Steve raised his palms defensively. "Hey, I just bought what was there," he said. "Those things were paired together in the store—"
"Are you kidding, she looks perfect," Bucky said. "Big gold earrings, she could be my cousin," and Natasha grinned and snapped her gum at him. She muttered something in Russian, and Bucky said something back to her, and they laughed.
They piled into the van, Natasha sitting between them, and drove to Queens. Steve slowed as they headed down Roosevelt Avenue, looking for the address; the street was jammed with commercial traffic, they fit right in. Natasha pointed and Steve double-parked; everyone was double-parked. A yellow plastic sign hung over the storefront: it read DISCOUNT LIQUORS.
"There are two doors to the second floor," Natasha said. "One there," and next to the door to DISCOUNT LIQUORS was a steel door with faded stickers pasted on it giving the street number, "and one inside the shop, in the back on the left. That's the one the johns have to use, and it's guarded but—" She rolled her eyes. "It's nothing for us. The head guy is—"
"Kozloff," Steve said. "I got it," and then he looked at Bucky and said, "We do it like we said." Bucky nodded and pulled on his work gloves, and they got out of the van and went around to the back and unloaded the sheet of glass, carefully carrying it between the parked cars and onto the sidewalk. People ignored them, walked around them, as they walked the glass toward the door of the liquor store, and then Bucky was balancing his half of the glass on one hand, and yanking the door open, and yelling at the befuddled looking clerk, "Hey, can you get this? Where's this supposed to go?"
"Uh," the clerk said. "I don't think—Is that for us?" and Steve could see a couple of guys in the back frowning and coming toward them. Their guns were visible under their clothes, but there was nothing defensive in their body language; no sense that they were taking him and Bucky either for threats or for customers. Bucky propped the door with his foot and together they maneuvered the pane of glass inside and set it down carefully against the counter, where the register was. Bucky took his cap off, wiped his arm across his forehead, then pulled a set of invoices out of his back pocket: yellow and pink sheets.
"Which of you is Kozloff?" Bucky said, looking from one to the other of them. "I got an installation for Kozloff."
They exchanged glances. One of them said, "I'll go up and ask." He headed toward the back door and went upstairs.
"Ask," Bucky said, shrugging and leaning against the counter. "I'm waiting." The other guy moved past Steve to squint out the door at the van; Steve grabbed him by the neck and dropped him with a single punch. The clerk pulled a gun from beneath the register, but Bucky yanked it out of his hand and slammed his head down on the counter, knocking him out.
"You sure you want to go up first?" Bucky asked him.
"Yeah," Steve said, flexing his arms. "I could do with the exercise," and in the end, the glass didn't even get broken.
"You don't normally take such an interest," Pepper said, sounding pleased, at Tony bent to read the amazingly uninformative biography of Stephen Grant pasted on the wall of the Keller Gallery; Stephen Grant is a Brooklyn-born artist. He has taken classes at the Art Students League of New York and works primarily in oils. This is his first show.
"I'm actually not all that interested now," Tony replied, straightening.
A woman was rushing over meet them; Pepper greeted her with a smile. "Claire, how nice to see you."
"Ms. Potts—Virginia," Claire said, clasping her hands; she looked delighted. "You should have called, I would have arranged a special showing for—" and then she noticed Tony and had a quiet little heart attack. "Mr. Stark," she managed. "What an—honor—to have you—"
Tony flashed a smile and turned to look at the paintings: they were large canvases in blue and white and black, thickly crusted with paint. He had to stand back to see them, to get the sense of them, the scale. Pepper smoothly took over with Claire. "We saw the review in the Times," she said, "or rather, Tony saw it, and so we decided to come by."
"Yes, it was a good review, wasn't it?" Claire said, a little breathlessly. "Well, we have three very exciting artists on display—"
"I'm interested in Grant," Tony interrupted.
"Yes, well, I agree, he's the breakout talent here..." Claire said, trailing after him as he moved to the next painting.
Honey, you don't know the half of it, Tony thought, staring up at the snow and the ice. He jammed his fists in his pockets; he thought his hands might be shaking. "When I was kid," he found himself saying, "my dad used to fly over the Arctic. He was looking for something," and Pepper was staring at him, her mouth falling open, and then she was moving back to the wall and peering down at the totally inadequate artist biography of Stephen Grant. "These remind me of that," he told Claire, and they did; he felt, weirdly, like they were paintings of his father, or his father's absence; like Steve was searching the sky for Howard Stark. "I'll take them all," Tony said, turning.
Claire made a strangled sound. "You c-can't have them all," she stammered. "This one's here is for sale, but the others—" She had the miserable look of a gallery owner who has undersold an artist just before a billionaire walked through the door. "We've sold them already, though I can put you in touch with the buyers, or—or the artist," she said, brightening a little. "We represent him," she added, "and I know he has at least one more work in this series. He refused to sell it, but he might change his mind if he knew—if he understood—that someone of your—prominence in the art world was interested..."
Tony laughed at that. "Nah, he won't sell," he said, shaking his head. "He doesn't care about money." He leaned in close to Claire and lowered his voice. "You see, Claire, I've been collecting this guy for years."
They left Kozloff, his mother, and ten men handcuffed to the radiators; there were plenty of handcuffs lying around. Natasha handed one of the women a baseball bat and told them to enjoy themselves until SHIELD got there, and Steve couldn't bring himself to feel bad about it; not when he'd seen the barracks, the bars on the windows, the bruises on the women's arms and legs.
"Should we take the glass back?" Steve asked Bucky, who replied, "Yeah, we paid for it. We'll use it for something," and so they reloaded the glass into the cargo hold of the van, climbed in with Natasha and drove off. No one looked at them twice.
"I like this," Natasha said, settling back, "traveling with my own muscle, not even having to get my hands dirty. Thank you, boys."
"Not to mention it," Bucky drawled. "It's a long time since we've been in a good old-fashioned fight. It was fun."
"It was, wasn't it?" Steve said, a little guiltily. "I kind of miss fighting, is that weird?"
"Not to anyone who's ever met you," Bucky replied, rolling his eyes.
"We're on a roll, let's keep going!" Steve said, making a fist. "Let's go rob from the rich and give to the poor, who's with me?"
"That's Robin Hood, not Captain America," Natasha said, smiling.
Bucky shot him a look. "Though you'd look cute in that outfit, too."
Natasha sat up suddenly and said, pointing, "Actually—hey, pull over," Steve obligingly pulled up into an open space by a hydrant. "You should let me out here," she said, and Steve felt a hard twist of loss in his chest, but he nodded at her.
Bucky was frowning, though. "Do you have to?" he asked. "Already? It's been nice for Steve to—"
"I should," Natasha said, and Steve added quietly, "She's right. It's safer this way. Word's going to get out, and Natasha's—distinctive-looking. It's asking for trouble," he said, and then: "I don't want trouble, Buck."
"Some other time," Natasha told them. "We'll figure something out," and she hesitated only a moment before stretching up to kiss Steve's bearded cheek, and Steve couldn't help himself; he gathered her up and hugged her tight, breathing her in.
"I miss you," Steve said finally, letting go of her.
"Miss you too, Rogers," Natasha said with a sad smile, and then she turned to Bucky and kissed him, as well: full on the mouth. Steve bit his lip at Bucky's shocked expression and had to stare out the window to stop himself laughing.
Bucky was blinking stupidly as Natasha pulled away. "You'll get my car to me?" she asked.
"Yeah, I—yeah," Bucky said, and Natasha gave Steve a last smile and then climbed over Bucky and out the passenger door.
"See you boys around," Natasha said, and disappeared up the steps to the El.
Steve looked at Bucky. "So you ever think that maybe I turned you queer?"
Bucky visibly clamped down on the smile. "Oh, Jesus, shut up—"
"I was irresistible," Steve mused. "You were compelled by my bony elbows and knobby knees to abandon all womankind—"
"I was, actually," Bucky said. "Now that you mention it."
"But maybe it's not right of me to keep you all to myself," Steve deadpanned. "So if you like her, Buck, I totally—"
"You know, I do like her. She's like you were: a tiny, feisty pain in my ass," and Steve grinned and pulled back into traffic.
It was late by time they turned back onto Coney Island Avenue, later still by time they'd unloaded the glass and returned the van to the Bagrov brothers. Then the dogs had to be fed and the cat let out, and by time they finally made it upstairs Steve was exhausted; it had been a full day. He was stopped in his tracks by the Kandinsky; he was floored by it still.
He put a hand out as Bucky came in, stopping him. Bucky looked at the Kandinsky, then back at Steve, and nodded. "My eyes hurt to look at you, too, sometimes," and Steve thought his chest hurt before, but this; this was an ache. He tugged Bucky off-balance and kissed him for a long time, and Bucky was breathless and grinning a little when he pulled away.
"I'm never giving that goddamned painting back," Bucky said.