To Be Better

April 14, 2017:

Peter Parker and Bucky Barnes finally intersect after the events of Ozone Park, in a conversation between a man purpose-built to kill, and a NOT-A-KID determined not to let anyone die.

Queens, New York

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Steve Rogers, Peggy Carter

Plot:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

By now, the man once known as the Winter Soldier has settled into what passes for a normal life. As normal a life as 'a dead man out of time, hiding from his bloody past' can have, anyway. There is a large part of him that just selfishly wants to hide, to live the kind of life that was stolen from him, to ignore that Washington is starting to try to figure out what to do with him— that multiple countries are out for his blood. A large part of him that takes comfort in the ties he has made, ties that keep him from succumbing wholly to the anger that burns deeply at his core. An anger that occasionally brings him to risk everything he's tenuously regained, just in order to see the blood of those who hurt him for so many years.

But there is much of him, also, that cannot forget or ignore his guilt, his shame, his culpability. Cannot forget that much as he wants to live normally, he cannot. Much of him that still struggles nightly with who he is, what was done to him, what he did while captive for seven decades. Still has moments where he can't keep up the facade of normalcy anymore and spends hours sitting and shaking on the bathroom floor.

He's spoken to most people he cared to speak to, made his amends and reconciliations, admitted all. That, at the least, he can consider somewhat settled, in the balance sheet of his bloody life. But there is one person he has not found again since that horrible night in Ozone Park, the one person who— perhaps— it mattered most to find. A young man who was most affected, in the end, by the bloodiness of the Winter Soldier.

A young man whose identity Bucky Barnes doesn't know.

It's a bit hard to find a kid who you only know as 'a web-slinging spider-kid in spandex.'

He has searched on occasion, but to no particular avail. This evening he isn't actually searching, however; he's just coming out of a Starbucks soemwhere in Queens, needing a bit of a pick-me-up after an errand that took him out to the ass end of the borough. He's a little disgruntled, as he usually is after his encounters with Starbucks, which usually involve him reverting into the centenarian he is in utmost bemusement, and angering all the people behind him by requiring explanations for drinks he doesn't understand.

Five goddamned dollars! It's highway robbery. But that whipped cream and caramel, though…

Not that he got anything fancy this time. It's a plain coffee he's holding as he proceeds down the darkened streets. It's a long slog to the G, but he seems fine with walking it. The evening is nice enough and he has nowhere pressing to be, and that particular freedom is not something he's felt in a very long time.

Sensationally Surprising Spider-Facts #12:

Spider-Man is very good at sneaking around when he has to.

What? He is.

Shut up.

It's not something that ever comes up, really. Normally, the kinds of people Spider-Man has to deal with are either people whose height of mastermind genius include 'that one time I actually managed to steal from a convenience store,' or they're the kinds of people who call themselves the Shocker unironically. Seriously. There's not a lot of room for subtlety and espionage there.

… Not that Spider-Man's particularly good at espionage, either (shut up), but he is -remarkably- good at being quiet (still shut up). Uncanny - nay, amazing - agility and sense of balance combined with a super-sensory radar system makes it so that the wallcrawling fiend can creep (creep) around with nary a peep to be heard. It's not something he has much reason to put to use, most of the time.

This, however, is a bit different. He's not quite sure when he started doing it, but some point after that night in Ozone Park, when the man once known as the Winter Soldier started making himself known again, Spider-Man has been on the lookout for him. Trying to tail him quietly, see where he goes, or simply -find- him. Easier said than done, but, well.

Where there's a will, there's a way, even when it comes to stalking.

He likes to refer to it as 'being aggressively cautious.' Or spider-stalking.

It's what brings him here, now, hanging upsidedown on an overshadowed overhang at the building just across from that Starbucks on a corner of Queens… except Spider-Man is suddenly, acutely aware he doesn't actually know -why- he's here. Because he thinks Bucky Barnes might be a threat? Because he's concerned some weird HYDRA nutcases might be tailing him to shove him in a burlap sack and haul him off? Because he wants to make sure the man's alright, even though probably all fifteen hundred of his close friends from the distant past who he assumed just crammed into a DeLorean and drove to the year 2017 and yes he probably thinks Tony Stark is one of those people (dude looks -so old-) were all there to console and protect him now?

White lenses shutter into a distant sort of slitted squint. No. It's not that, is it? That's not what kept him awake at night, burning the candle at both ends after Ozone Park trying to save just one more person than he might have otherwise. No. It's…

… it's something he never quite finds, or admits, the answer to. Instead, he just does as he has done; sneakily sneak his way around to watch Bucky Barnes order his coffee in a totally not creepy sort of way. More like the… morbidly curious way. It's like watching a trainwreck. So much so that, even from so far away, the spandex-clad superhero just sort of scratches the side of his head with an expression in those shuttered lenses best described as 'confused and horrified,' like when someone just can't look away even though they want to. They really, really want to.

He reserves his commentary for now, besides a distant and harrowing, "… wow. how can someone with hair THAT KURT COBAIN-Y act so… Mr. Burns-y??"

But that's it. He needs to keep the others locked and loaded for now.

And so it is, when Bucky wanders out into the dark streets of New York, he has a secret companion in the form of a wall-crawling vigilante clearing the rooftops quietly just above him. Just watching. Again, emphasizing the not creepy part.

But even people with the proportionate sneakiness of a spider have their limits, especially when dealing with (reasonably) paranoid superkillerspyterminatormisterburnses — and with how hard he's been pushing himself lately, the young man is bound to leave some sort of opening that makes him that much easier to notice sooner rather than later. He's good at being sneaky. Good at being quiet.

He's not so adept at hiding from someone who's spent their whole lives tracking people. Especially when he's already compromised by fatigue, and, well…

… the fact that he can't get that day out of his head whenever he sees Bucky Barnes' face.

Spider-Man is a very, very good sneak. But the Winter Soldier is, as Parker so quaintly puts it in his mind, a paranoid superkillerspyterminatormisterburns. James Barnes has decades of experience in both staying unseen and ascertaining when he's being trailed, and what's more— he has senses better than the average human to begin with, courtesy of the serum in his blood.

So he notices he's got a tail, in the form of one Peter Parker. But it's not quite clear when he first notices that fact. He makes no outward indication of noticing, betrays nothing that suggests he's aware of the spider-stalker trailing him in secret. He just finally works out that in fact he does not want any of the ridiculous confections he just had explained to him (everyone behind him groans quietly), and decides he just wants a coffee. The barista gives him a deeply unimpressed look.

He is much too young-looking to be this confused about hip young coffee culture. She has no forgiveness for him.

Untroubled by this, he takes his coffee out into the night, walking slowly down the street as a jumping spider follows him silently above, moving adroitly from building to building. Bucky ambles along with the aimless contentment of the very old, happy with his snail's pace— and very happy, apparently, to take a random turn down a side street away from the main thoroughfare, a narrower street with more privacy courtesy of the high buildings on either side.

"Hey kid," he eventually says without altering his gait or actually looking up, or doing much of anything— in fact— except continuing to walk. "I've been looking for you."

"I'm not a kid!"

Long, uncomfortable silence rolls in through the New York City night as Spider-Man awkwardly realizes he's revealed exactly where he is to Bucky, who thinks he's -so cool because he can find out where spider-people are and ruin their entire gameplan for the evening-.

It goes without saying that this intervening silence is as tense and embarassing as it is long.

"… And I'm not here! Do not speak to me! Do not alter your normal human behavior in any way! You know not the elaborate criteria by which you are to be judged! Ignore my presence and go about your Earthly business! Ignore me!"

One can practically hear the wind whistling through the air. See the tumbleweed in their mind's eye.

"… you just — you don't even get that reference, do you? I just — ugh! -Whatever-!"

And this is when, frustrated, Spider-Man peeks his spider-head over the (non-)spider-wall, wide white lenses shuttering in a slow blink as he peers at Bucky from on-high.

His hand pokes out next. Waving. Awkwardly and stiffly.

"Hiiiiiiiii."

"This? Like — totally coincidence."

He doesn't -quite- seem comfortable dropping down just yet. Nope. This is the perfect amount of space for him. It'd be even better if Bucky didn't like — Soviet super sleuth his whereabouts. Damn super soldiers…!

"By the way, how can you -not know- what an iced cinnamon almondmilk macchiato is? Seriously, how Star Wars Old are you? … Wait. Do -I- know what an iced cinnamon almond milk macchiato is?"

… …

"Wait yeah I do. Phew!"

I'm not a kid! Parker retorts angrily. The immediate result of this is that Bucky's head promptly turns towards the sound, his blue eyes unerringly flicking up to pin down Spider-Man's exact location. Worst of all, a faint smile comes and goes on the canny old operative's incongruously young features.

No— actually— there's worse to come. Parker makes a reference, and the amusement vanishes completely from Bucky's features.

The reference goes completely over his head.

"Nope," he says, when Parker expresses his frustration over Bucky probably not even getting the reference. He even sounds unrepentant about it. Horrifying.

He finally stops walking, turning towards Spider-Man and folding his arms in this odd stand-off they've found themselves in. This calm tableau is the first sight that greets Parker when he pokes his head out over the wall— and then his hand, in the most profoundly awkward of waves.

Hiiiiiii, Parker says. "Heyyyyyy," Bucky drawls back, amused. Though as Peter refuses to come down, some of that amusement gives way to a muted sort of guilt. "You can— you can come down, you know. Not gonna shoot you."

He frowns. "Even though you've been coincidentally in my immediate vicinity long enough to know what I was in there asking about, just now."

A pause. "Very coincidental."

Another beat. "I know what an iced cinnamon almond milk macchiato is now."

You can— you can come down, you know. Not gonna shoot you.

"… I know that."

But Spider-Man doesn't vacate that roof. Not yet. The implication is clear, even if he doesn't mean it to be.

What's keeping him up there isn't the risk of getting shot at.

He lingers there, uncharacteristically stiff for someone often so limber. Inwardly, the webbed vigilante just curses his own stupidity — mainly for getting caught, but also just for… everything that is following after now. Just. All of it. "Look, I was just — casing the neighborhood wait no that sounds bad not the illegal bad guy casing, like — you know, in Home Alone, when Joe Pesci dresses up like a cop and checks out the houses to see which ones are… waaaait, Joe Pesci was the bad guy in that, wasn't he? … Has Joe Pesci ever been the good guy? … ugh, just — nevermind! Ignore that! I'm not Joe Pesci here! I'm the Bizarro Joe Pesci in this situation, okay?? Totally above board!"

Eventually, this all just gives away to a long-winded sigh. Yes, just… -everything- is going wrong here.

Perhaps, that's why he compromises, even just a little bit. With uncharacteristic quiet, the young man bends himself over the edge of that roof until he can quiet literally flip down to the wall about halfway between where he was and where Bucky is now, his back somehow, in defiance of all things good and sane, just sort of… sticking to the side of that wall as he crosses arms over bent knees and just peers at Bucky from on-high.

Silence once more reigns, before Peter Parker awkwardly, tentatively breaches it.

"… So you're like. You're — good enough to be buying morning buns at Starbucks now, huh?"

I know that, Parker says. Which of course means he's staying up there for different reasons.

Much of the humor drains from Bucky's features as his mind helpfully offers him all sorts of potential reasons, none of them flattering.

That guilt— and a healthy dose of old man out-of-touch obliviousness— keeps him grave even throughout Parker's barrage of cultural references he doesn't understand. Joe Pesci was two years old when Bucky lost his life in the war. He regards Peter with zero understanding and no small amount of regret.

He's gloomy enough he doesn't even really react when Parker flips down and, in defiance of all laws of physics, just sticks himself to the side of the wall.

So you're like… good enough to be buying morning buns at Starbucks now, huh?

What in the sam hell, Bucky wonders distantly, is a morning bun?

"What do you mean by good enough?" he sighs. "I'm no longer under Hydra control, if you mean that. If you mean something else… not sure I can tell you if I'm 'good enough' for anything."

He leans back against the wall opposite the one Parker's stuck to. "Been looking for you," he says eventually, "cause it seemed to me I was… kinda harsh on you, at times. Not necessary. It warranted an apology."

If he thinks about it, it's nice to imagine that there's still room for people as idealistic as Parker in the world.

It's unpleasant. And the jokes hardly help as a deterrent against that, not really. Momentary distractions that just ultimately hammer home the point of why he makes them in the first place:

Because he has such a hard time looking this man in the face.

It's a gradual process, the way his head tilts and those wide, white lenses look Bucky Barnes' way, until the presence of his gaze on the former Winter Soldier can actually be felt. His chin resting on his folded forearms, he really does look like the kid Bucky labels him as in that moment, just bundled up and small against the dark, night-encrusted wall of that building.

"I mean… I dunno," mutters the masked vigilante with the shake of his head. "'You enough.' I guess. I kinda wasn't sure if…"

If they were going to haul you off to prison.

If you'd ever be able to live a normal life.

If he could ever bring himself to—

'It warranted an apology.'

"Huh?"

Those lenses shutter in the approximation of a blink, the whirring motions of it faint in the dead of night as Spider-Man peers at the former assassin beneath him. He has a hard time processing that, at first, for so many different reasons. Not the least of which—

"You don't — like… they told me so of what you — you know. You went through hell. You were all… cuckoo for HYDRA Puffs." He has a slow start with navigating this kind of thing. The young man sucks in a breath. "That wasn't you. Right? So… you don't have to apologize to me."

There's a long, intervening silence that settles in after that before Parker finally exhales the clinging remnants of that held breath.

"… I keep on trying to tell myself that. You know? It wasn't you. You didn't — weren't doing those things by choice. But then I think of that day, and I can't…"

His head shakes, before it just buries a bit more against his forearms, those lenses half-lost against the creases of his arms. He sounds tired, and frustrated. Maybe angry. But none of it is directed at Barnes. Not really.

"… I guess… you weren't any harsher on me than I was on you."

It would be tempting for James Buchanan Barnes to refer to himself— to think of himself— as the 'former' Winter Soldier, as so many others do. But that would be disingenuous. He cannot bring himself to do it. It is not something you just decide to stop being. It is something that becomes part of you, in your blood, a half of yourself that you try to keep suppressed.

A part that comes back out at night, in dreams— and sometimes during the waking hours, in nightmare fugues filled with a deep and black rage he cannot deny or push down.

It is that knowledge of what really lies within his mind that makes Bucky wholly unsurprised and unoffended that Peter Parker can't really look him in the face. It is a face that is attached to horrible memories. Men blowing apart from launched grenades and gunfire. Men torn open, hearts ripped from their chests.

Spider-Man has seen James Barnes at his Winter Soldier worst. It's no wonder the kid didn't want to come too close.

He holds his silence as Parker speaks. He wasn't sure if…

"I'm not either," Bucky says. "It's been day to day." What do you even say about the painful process of trying to resume life after seventy years of hell? "I've been me so far. Taken precautions to make sure I stay me."

He lapses back into silence as Spider-Man tries to work his slow, halting way through the words he wants to say— the things he wants to express. He keeps trying to tell himself that— that it wasn't Bucky, that none of what he did was his choice, that there's no need to apologize or anything. And yet— then he thinks about that day— and…

"I wish they hadn't brought you," Bucky begins. "I'm sorry you saw it. Saw any of what I did."

He cants his head back, thinking. It's a few more moments before he speaks: dialogue, for him, is an effort not easily undertaken. "It wasn't me," he eventually says. "I didn't choose to do any of what I did. I wasn't responsible for it."

His blue eyes turn to Spider-Man's flat white lenses. "But I was," he finishes, in an apparent contradiction. "My hands remember each trigger pull. Yeah, I try to tell myself the same thing: not me, not my acts, et cetera. But it's my face on it all, and my hands doing the work. It's my memories that record the way killing all those people felt. So I have… trouble… separating the act, from the sight and feel of me committing it." He closes his eyes. "And so do you."

His head lowers tiredly. "So do you."

He sighs, his eyes opening again when Peter admits to being harsh himself. "It warrants an apology, that it's me you picture when you think of these things. I didn't choose to do them. But I was still the one doing them. For that, I'm accountable."

It's been day to day.

"That's the way they say to do it, right? Babysteps. I don't know… I don't know all the things you have to go through, day to day." He can only imagine. And unfortunately, Peter Parker has an active imagination. "But… I mean. You've got a lot of people there to help you. You've got Captain freaking America. Like — holy crap. Captain America!"

He realizes, after a moment, he's veering dangerously close to gushing at a supremely inappropriate moment, and clears his throat.

"… what I mean is… at least you're not alone anymore. You've got — you've got family."

Which can be as much of a bane as it is a blessing, he knows all too well.

He listens. It wasn't Bucky, but it was him. It's a contradiction to most, but for Peter — he can understand that all too well. That kind of guilt, of being powerless to stop something yet still being responsible for it. The young man's red-covered hands lift, locking behind the back of his head in an idle movement that looks like someone taking shelter.

"There's…" he begins, and hesitates. He sucks a breath in through his teeth, muffled by the mask. "… there's things like… things we do, right? That we can never, ever, ever take back. No matter how much we want to. No matter how much it hurts every day. I always worry about the… mistakes I've made. If I'm ever gonna — y'know — ever gonna be able to make it right." He feels like a fool, trying to give advice to a man who is probably as old as his grandfather twice over. Yet — he carries on. Because it's just how he is. Who he is.

"And some days I think there's no way I can ever make up for them. That I can… That there's some things in life you do that can never be made right, you know? That can never be wiped away. And I don't think I can. I don't think anyone can. But that just means we keep trying… we keep trying to do good, to be the kind of people who can… can keep other people from having those kinds of regrets."

He shakes his head; it tilts up, slowly, until those white lenses focus on those opening blue eyes. "I'm not sorry they brought me. I'm… I'm sorry I couldn't stop you, or stop him, from… from…" He can't finish that thought. He just can't. "… I could have been better. I should be better. And maybe I can't… look at you and not see the things you did, the things I couldn't… couldn't stop you from doing. I can't just… just separate that part of my brain from the rest." He stops for a moment, weighing his words. And then:

"But that just means I've gotta keep trying. We both gotta keep trying."

That's the way. Baby steps. Though he doesn't know the things he has to go through, day to day—

Bucky says nothing. His silence, the brief haunted look that flickers across his eyes, probably says volumes about what he goes through day to day.

It eases, however, at mention of Captain America. Those blue eyes soften in an obvious way, gentling with the kind of affection that cannot be feigned nor fabricated— only built, over time, by years of staunch friendship, shared experience, shared pain and happiness and tears. "A lot of things are survivable with Steve around," he says, voice heavy with muted affection. "…Though a lot of things would also have gone a lot better without Steve around, also. The headaches he gave me…"

It's a glimpse into what Spider-Man says, a moment later— the fact Bucky does have a family, of sorts. His blood family might be dead and gone, but there's a new one grown up around him. And there's Steve, who was always like family to him despite not being blood, Steve who's still here, somehow, in the future. Him and Peggy both.

His expression certainly says clearly enough that to have such family on hand is both a blessing and curse, at times.

And in the end, perhaps, it might be Peter Parker who understands Bucky Barnes the most when he says he's not responsible… but at the same time, he IS responsible. Peter Parker who knows what it is to feel guilt for things he had no power to control to begin with. It's Bucky's turn to lapse into silence as Parker offers his halting words, his youthful advice, but though it could potentially be a bit silly for a nineteen year-old to try to advise a man who just hit a hundred, who's been through more wars than can be counted on both hands, who's probably killed more people than Parker's ever even met in his life…

…there's nothing about Bucky's gaze nor attitude that makes it out to be a silly thing at all, nor anything to dismiss or belittle what Parker's attempting to say.

There's only an active sort of listening. He can read the undercurrents beneath what Parker is saying, can scent some great vast guilt hanging vaguely in the background of his words. Despite his youth, he has already suffered some vast failure that has shaped the rest of his life.

Bucky doesn't ask.

"We don't know if we can make it right," he just starts slowly. "What will be… enough. If it's even appropriate to think about it as something you can… 'put enough' into. I… think there's some things that really can't be 'wiped away' or forgiven. I know I did plenty I don't think I'd ever ask anyone to forgive me for."

His blue eyes tilt up, watching as Parker finally concludes he's not sorry he was brought at all. He's only sorry he wasn't able to stop more death from happening. Wasn't able to save people from dying at Bucky's hands. His eyes close briefly, pained. "I…" he slowly says, "Couldn't ask you to look at me and not see what I did. I did it. All I can do, on my part, is work to keep that in the past. Be better, going forward. Not ever go back to that… to what I was."

He looks very tired, in these moments. "You got a good head on your shoulders," he concludes, pushing away from the wall with a sigh and shoving his hands in his pockets. "Good heart. I keep getting told kids these days, they don't know shit, but. You got a good start for somebody so young."

It's strange to hear about his idol in such a normal way. Especially weird when it's coming from the guy who's basically Revolver Ocelot.

He doesn't apologize for how he categorizes people. It's just who he is.

But, still — it's strange. And comforting, in its own way. Despite himself, behind that mask, Peter Parker smiles just a bit, causing the barest of nudges across red spandex. In a way, he's happy for Bucky, really, even if he doesn't say anything. He of all people should know —

Family is truly precious.

It's a sentiment that he knows both sides of the coin of all too well, one that just dredges up even the tiniest bit when he listens to Bucky's words — whenever he remembers that night. That other New York, and what he saw. The resurfacing memories that aren't quite his just makes his fingers clench a little bit tighter against the back of his scalp despite himself. He hears Bucky's words. And he knows the man is right. But… "It's just something you have to fight every day for," the young man murmurs, voice clear even if soft-spoken in that moment.

"To be better than the person you were."

Be better, going forward. Spider-Man's head tilts just a bit, to peer at Bucky.

"I dunno how… like, I don't know. When I won't see those things, but… I'll help. I mean — I'll help you, however I can, to… to keep moving forward. Believe it or not, I'm pretty good at this kinda stuff."

He's just stubborn enough and crazy enough and desperate enough and depressively guilt-ridden enough to be the perfect superhero material.

"And I'm not a kid! Okay?? Like — okay, can we just — get that out in the open! It's Spider-MAN, not Wee Baby Spider-Kid gonna sit you on my knee and tell you the story of how cornmeal came to be! I am an adult! An ADULT! … ish!!"

… even despite all that.

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