Steve squints disbelievingly at the clock. The red numbers don't resolve into sense, and his phone doesn't stop ringing.
His air cast tangles in the sheets when he tries to reach over, bringing him up short. He doesn't think it's strictly necessary, and he's mostly wearing the thing to humour Dr. Cho, who—after she'd explained that anyone else would've lost the leg entirely—hadn't quite threatened him with further bodily harm if he ignored her advice, but had recommended the cast with a field sergeant's tone and her long violinist's fingers pressed convincingly into the muscles of his shoulder. Steve also couldn't help noticing the expressions of baffled terror on the team's faces when Clint had dragged Steve into the Quinjet with the splintered bones of his tibia and fibula jutting from his leg. Natasha'd almost been quick enough hiding hers, but Tony had looked like—and Steve remembered Bucky snarling Fuckin' think about what it looks like to the rest of us that time Steve had shrugged off a knife to the gut. So: he's compromising.
Steve manages to free himself and swipe at the screen just before it goes to voicemail, and in the half-blinded split second before he brings it to his ear, he sees that it's Sam.
“Hey,” Steve says. It pitches weirdly; his throat's dry. He clears it. “How's Utah?”
“Steve,” says Sam. “Listen, we've just—” There's a burst of static and clamour, but it must be interference in the distance, because Sam doesn't react as his voice comes back in: “—tell you something, are you okay to talk?”
“Sure, but you're cutting out.”
Sam goes quiet and comes back a minute later much clearer, if a little echoey. Inside the Quinjet? No, they would've gone out on the Bus; Steve remembers Maria saying that an extraction team needed the Quinjet for a mission in Australia.
Sam says, “So we cleared a HYDRA base tonight.”
“Couldn't wait for me?” Steve says, but Sam doesn't laugh.
“You, you wouldn't have wanted to be on this one,” Sam says. “At least, I wouldn't have wanted you to be. There was a lot of hinky shit.”
“Kids,” Sam says. He sounds clear but—thinned, somehow, like his station's not quite tuned in. And exhausted. “Kids, in the lab. All dead. And a bunch of animals that should've been.”
“That's,” Sam says, and stops. Steve can hear the bumblebee buzz of someone talking nearby. “That's—no, put it over—ask Agent Kwŏk. Sorry, Steve. That's not it.”
Sam takes a deep breath, close-up against the mic. Static. “We think we found Barnes.”
Steve's heart spasms fast-hot-hard against his ribs.
“Okay,” he says, knowing, knowing, but needing: “Okay, when you say you think—”
“We're waiting on a positive ID,” Sam says, very gently.
Steve closes his eyes.
“Tell me,” he says through his teeth.
“We found a shipping container leaking smoke—welded shut. We had to cut a hole in the side to get in.”
Sam tells him.
When Steve hangs up the phone and it drops from his nerveless fingers, Sam has been trying to get him to stay on the line and keep talking for two minutes, maybe more. Steve's phone buzzes against the carpet as he curls up, half under and half on top of the sheets, shaking like there's a fever in his bones. He thinks he's going to be ill, and then isn't. His pounding, pounding heart.
Steve, it's not your fault, Sam had tried to say, before Steve cut him off, and Steve doesn't think that's untrue so much as it's irrelevant; fault's got nothing to do with it. It's just—wrong. It's wrong. Steve couldn't wrap his head around it the first time, how wrong it was. Steve should have gone first. Was supposed to. Bucky could have carried on without Steve, he knows, but Steve without Bucky is a zero sum. There should never be a world that Steve is in and Bucky isn't.
And yet: and yet—and twice—
Steve feels tears come roaring up and just as suddenly, stop. Pressure building in his sinuses, something hard and heavy gummed between his ribs. He hears himself gasp once, and again, flattened by the force of it. Gasping—until: too much air, light-headed with it, the room spinning and spinning. Drowning in oxygen. He's trapped, caught like a fishbone in a throat. He can't get out, he can't get out, no matter how far he runs he won't be able to run backwards, no matter how hard he clicks his heels and thinks of home he'll never wind up in Kansas; we're lost, Toto, and we'll never see Auntie Em again.
He's pulled himself together by the time the sun rises sulkily above the morning fog, all except his hands, which don't seem to belong to him, which just don't seem to want to stay warm. He touches his face with icy fingers. Is he...will he—?
He tears open the air cast before he stands up. Foam rips. His skin, underneath, is smooth and unscarred.
Steve doesn't remember very much of the subsequent month. He knows, by the physical evidence, that several people visit him. Sam, because there's a tastefully muted sprawl of grief counselling pamphlets on the consul table in the hall. Natasha, because his suite is meticulously and mysteriously tidy. Bruce, because there's food in the pantry and the fridge, most of it home-made. Tony, because there's a fancy screwdriver abandoned on the kitchen counter. Sharon, Pepper, and Maria, because there's an enormous vase of lilies and a card with all three of their names on it. More people, maybe, who haven't left identifying marks. Steve feels an abstracted gratitude, as if viewed through binoculars. He can't quite put his hands on it and make it feel like his.
Someone must have, at some point, asked him what should be done with the body, and Steve must have answered, because on a wicked day in late January, Natasha and Clint take him to the cemetery. Steve visited once, not long after they dug him out of the ice—but only once, because the sight of Bucky's empty, pointless grave had hurt more than he could bear, and after Insight it'd seemed even more absurd. The fresh sod piled on it now is as wet as the settled earth on rest of the graves, but the grass has only just started to grow. There are a lot of bouquets and loose piles of wildflowers. Steve looks at Natasha.
“James Barnes's body was found in the Austrian Alps by Italian climbers on December 10th,” she says patiently; he gets the impression it isn't the first time she's had to explain this fairy tale to him. “He was brought home with full honours.”
“Sam's friends with a couple of rabbis,” Clint adds. “It was all done proper.”
Except it wasn't, Steve thinks. It couldn't've been.
For starters, there's the arm. Bucky should've been buried with the left arm he was born with, the one he lost. Prosthetics can count, Steve thinks, but not that one, not the weapon they forced on him somewhere between Austria and DC. George Barnes had been friends with a vet who'd lost his leg at Belleau Wood in '18. Asher'd told them all how he'd made sure to stay awake while they were cutting it off, to be damned certain the doctors didn't throw it in the midden heap with the rest of the amputations, because otherwise he was going to have to use crutches in the World to Come. Steve and Bucky and Becca and Dot had all bug-eyed up at George, who'd shrugged and said: “ 'Course,” and Dot had said, “But what about your teeth,” because she'd just lost both her baby canines in one night, biting into an apple, and George said, “Well, no, but there's the story of a tzaddik...” Ninety percent of George Stories started that way: there was once a righteous man who—and that's when you knew you had to pay attention, because you were about to learn something nobody'd bothered to teach you in school.
They'd gone to liberate a camp in '44, all of them strutting in like roosters, the conquering heroes, still riding high on their early successes against HYDRA. They'd known that there were prisoners there, civilians; anyone with a radio knew what Germany'd done in Poland, in France, in Lithuania, that the ghettos were empty. So they'd known the meat of it, but not the bones, the truth. The smell. The chambers had been washed but human fear seeps down under the caulking of places, settles in the brick. The walls of the crematoria were greasy to the touch. Steve had found Bucky gasping for air outside the women's barracks, crouched and hunched over like he was going to be sick, and he'd gagged when Steve'd touched him, but he hadn't, in the end. Steve had leaned their shoulders together and listened to the flies buzz.
“If one of those flamethrowing HYDRA cocksuckers lights me on fire,” Bucky'd rasped at last, turning to Steve with wild animal eyes, “Before you fucking check if I'm fucking breathing,” his hand twisting Steve's collar, popping the threads: “You make sure you put me out.”
But Steve—hadn't had the chance.
It turns out that isn't at all difficult, if you're Captain America, to get your hands on classified autopsy results. Sam had told him the state of things over the phone, so the details had come through a friend instead of a depersonalized file, and Steve's grateful for that, he really is, but—he has to know.
The decedent stood between 5'8 and 6'1, the file says. Weight: 200lbs with variance of 60%. Hair: unknown. Eyes: unknown. Race: unknown. Sex: male [probable]. Insufficient material for DNA analysis. Insufficient intact dentition. Condition of body: charred. Manner of death: homicide. Cause of death: thermal injuries. Full thickness burns; fire fractures; pugilistic attitude noted. Radiograph confirms osseointegrated prosthetic; titanium rod; eight screws; unassociated shrapnel in upper right abdominal region (perimortem). Decedent positively identified by Wilson, Samuel T., and Romanoff, Natasha A., by means of decedent's prosthetic, as the [REDACTED]. It is the observing pathologist's opinion that the decedent was unconscious at the time of combustion.
Unconscious at the time of combustion. Opinion. It's a kindness Steve doesn't know how to interpret, in an otherwise cold and technical document. To whom was that kindness extended? Who was it intended to comfort? Not Steve, surely; even the most astute SHIELD pathologist wouldn't have guessed that a fellow agent had anything more than a professional relationship to the body on their table. Steve senses Natasha's hand in that sentence, her presence in the autopsy theatre. If anyone, she'd be the one who'd know that Steve would look. Wouldn't be able to keep from looking. He can hear it now, the softness she sometimes unveils like a sleight-of-hand trick: You'd do well to include that in the report, Doctor. An inquiring mind will want to know.
But that kindness doesn't cover up the fact that HYDRA drugged Bucky into a stupor, threw him into a shipping container, set him on fire, and shut the doors. Sealed them, even, as if they thought their doom might blast its way out, wreathed in flames and thirsty for revenge.
Winnie used to tell Jewish ghost stories: wandering phantoms with unfinished business; and dybbuks, possessive spirits furious at some old injustice, like improper burial or being spurned in love; and demons, which were some other class of creature entirely. Steve had never known which stories were true (for a given value of truth) and which were straight out of Winnie's colourful imagination, but one particular time not long after Bucky's bar mitzvah, Bucky'd come home from his on-again-off-again Talmud study with his uncles and told Steve he'd learned how to see a demon. They'd waited until everyone was tucked in and then they'd covered the floor around Bucky's and his sisters' beds with ashes, and peered through the metal rungs of Bucky's footboard until they'd fallen asleep. In the morning there should've been marks like a rooster's feet in the dust, if there were any demons about, but there was only Winnie, standing in the doorway with her hands on her hips and a disbelieving expression on her face.
Steve had liked the demon stories—most often it seemed like getting rid of demons didn't require much more than a good talking-to or an open window—but Winnie's dybbuk stories scared the living daylights out of him. The thought of some spiteful dead thing clinging to a living person, whispering its thoughts in their ears and stroking their neck with cold fingers, was scarier than any ghost in the hallway or monster under the bed. Not even Ma's hair-raising Fair Folk stories could top that.
Bucky'd never had an ounce of cruelty in him, hadn't ever kept grudges or been more brutal than honest. It seemed like he got all the catharsis he needed courtesy of Steve's too-eager fists, and that'd been enough to satisfy what little rough animal there was in him, the thread of chest-beating machismo that lurks deep down in everybody. Steve thinks if he described Bucky to people as gentle, they'd get the wrong idea; Bucky was tough as nails, but he never needed to prove it to anyone, and that's what made him so mild. So it's not as though Steve's laying awake through the night terrified that Bucky'll come back as a vengeful spectre, because that's not the sort of person Bucky was, no matter what HYDRA did to him—no matter that the Winter Soldier is still allegedly at large, a ghost story in truth. If Bucky's ghost was going to fixate on anything at all, it'd be tormenting his tormentors, or searching for his lost arm. It's just: Steve knows that he'd deserve it if Bucky did.
What Steve was, what he always seems to be, is too late.
After Steve finally talks his way back onto an active team, he pulls a stunt in the field that even Clint wouldn't consider trying without a net. Coulson benches him. Steve's almost expecting it, and isn't surprised. He's watched his own performance with detached curiosity, observing the downward spiral and knowing where he would end up, failing to interfere because—why bother? Shouting at the silver screen won't make the actors turn around. And it's not as though they need him, because god knows he hasn't got anything they don't, or can't find, or make. Hell: let them make another soldier. A better one. He knows they can. He's fought too many willing experiments to be wilfully blind about that.
While the rest of the agents are stuck in clean-up and debriefing, Steve does his best to drop off the map. He's been living in SHIELD subsidized housing since his brownstone was turned into a federal crime scene, so it takes him all of five minutes to fold everything he cares about into a backpack. He leaves the shield; Tony'll get his hands on it eventually, and back in the hands of a Stark isn't the worst place it could end up.
Three days later he has a pay-by-the-week set of rooms in Bed-Stuy. It's tiny and dirty and he can hear his neighbours when they so much as drop a pencil, but it's better than anything he had before the war, and nobody in the neighbourhood gives him a second look. He worries, in an abstracted way that amounts more to self-flagellation than the sharpness of real guilt, that he's abandoned both of his teams in an hour of need, that someone might be hurt through his inaction. But they don't seem to need him: listening to the news, it seems as though industrial properties are mysteriously going up in flames all across the contiguous States, followed by the not-so-mysterious appearance of SHIELD, revealing HYDRA work in the ruins.
Steve finds himself, as if he'd somehow skipped a page in his own life, bouncing the late shift for a strip club with more girls than patrons. He swims up out of the fog long enough to realize it's a front for a gang, and quietly tugs the strings until it folds on itself like a house of cards. The back of his head makes it into the papers afterwards, and he only knows because someone slides the page under his door. Natasha's way of telling him to be careful, he guesses. He goes dark; moves; resurfaces. Stops shaving his face and starts shaving his head. Gets himself clippers and a #2 guard, instead, when some panicky kid mistakes him for an Aryan supremacist. Forgets to work out, loses weight. A marathoner instead of a mutant. He could be one of a hundred thousand steroid-jockeys tearing up the underbelly of the city. New York swallows him like a whale.
But it isn't enough.
Steve did some reading on child psychology a while back, when he was still in his indiscriminatory-knowledge-devouring phase, and he remembers being fascinated by the explanation for how peek-a-boo worked—babies have no object permanence, the book said, so if you cover their eyes or hide under a blanket, the baby thinks you've actually disappeared until it sees you again. Steve's stuck in the opposite state; he can't quite convince himself that Bucky's gone. Bucky came back once, an awful little voice says, so why couldn't he come back again? Steve sees Bucky's face everywhere: Bucky's forehead on an Orthodox woman in Harlem; Bucky's nose on a middle-aged businessman in Queens; Bucky's mouth on a gum-snapping teenager in the bodega; Bucky's strong, square fingers on the hands of old men playing chess in the park. It batters him from all sides. He stops meeting people's eyes for fear he'll see a dead man looking back.
Sharon tracks him down out of the blue—not to bring him in, but to make him an offer. He isn't surprised that she finds his number. He suspects it wouldn't have been hard, for a career spy, but Joseph Grant also isn't the cleverest pseudonym anybody's ever used. He accepts, and so: Sharon smuggles him in to see Peggy.
Steve winds up visiting three times, but she's deteriorated since the spring, and his presence distresses her in a way she can't seem to articulate, all her beautiful diction gone childish with confusion. The broken narrative in her brain has stopped being able to reconcile Steve's presence with where she thinks she is. Before Insight her train often shuddered into the stop marked 1953, and now it's stuck there, and they have to post a night nurse because she keeps getting up to look for her toddler. In the daylight she calls for Caroline, where is my Caroline, what have you done with my baby; while her grey-haired firstborn daughter stands outside the room and bites her knuckles. The third time Steve visits, she just screams.
Me too, Pegs, Steve thinks, and makes sure Carol and Kitty can get ahold of him, should—just in case—in case there's a miracle and she asks for him, because one never knows what the doctors might come up with, these days, and the only thing worse than leaving Peggy alone in the dark would be not coming when she calls.
It's almost inevitable that he starts thinking about—just thinking, and not even about doing it but just—about it. It's like he can't not. For months after Ma died, it seemed as though every article, every novel, every radio show, the whole world was suddenly populated with dying mothers, dead mothers, motherly ghosts. Mothers everywhere he turned, except for his. He'd avoided it for a little while, and then it'd almost been like he needed to zero in on them, an itch that bloomed into real obsession. Bucky'd nipped it in the bud after he'd discovered Steve's awful little squirrel-pile of library books, his list of films, his newspaper clippings. Steve had been mortified, had felt worse than if he'd been caught naked in public, and they'd tossed the lot and only talked about it the once, when Bucky told Steve about the time he'd found Winnie's diary, and all the entries were addressed to a dead sister Bucky'd never even known he'd had.
“Things like that don't bring them closer to us,” Bucky'd said, tearing newspaper into atom-sized bits over the edge of the fire escape. “It brings us closer to them. Door's shut pretty tight on their side, but it's open on ours. Why d'you think it's so goddamn easy to die?”
Steve, still too sweaty-palmed to tear anything up without sticking to it, had set a fire on a broken plate with one of his asthma cigarettes and was feeding it strips of paper. He'd glanced over to find Bucky looking more miserable than any human being has a right to look, talking as evenly as he was, and Steve had almost put one knee in the fire trying to reach him.
“I don't wanna lose you too,” Bucky'd said, high and off-balance, when Steve grabbed his arm.
Steve had apologized and hugged him hard enough to hurt them both, and Bucky'd ended up taking him to bed. They hadn't slept. In the morning Steve had felt bee-stung, battered: but thawed out. In the Arctic there's whole months where the sun doesn't come up over the horizon, and in real life that first day is probably just a momentary sliver of light, but Steve didn't know that at the time, and he'd imagined a luminous dawn. Moments later he hadn't needed to imagine it any longer, because there wasn't anything in the world more luminous than Bucky's face, barely awake and entirely uncensored: his eyes when he looked at Steve.
But Bucky isn't here.
It's suicides, this time, coming at Steve from all sides. Two movies in theatre, one a Christmas-Carol-esque moral drama and another a paranormal thriller; a New York Times bestseller called The River Variations displayed in every bookshop window. A new crime drama premières with a blatant rip-off of the Jonestown incident, except with Satanists. The news is equally overrun: an epidemic of overdoses amongst the teenage population of Philadelphia, an increase in Golden Gate jumpers, a new thinkpiece on the Aokigahara forest—a celebrity couple who, in true Hollywood fashion, commit seppuku back-to-back. The wife survives by the skin of her teeth. She wears a veil, in the hospital, when they interview her. I wish I was dead, she says, But I'm glad to be alive. Isn't that funny? She laughs; it raises the hairs on Steve's neck. It's complicated, she says.
Steve doesn't wind up collecting things, the way he did when Ma died and the itch came calling like he was reliving a former life as a magpie. Instead it manifests as a long rolling mutter of intrusive flashes, the consideration of things that might kill someone normal, someone less breakable than him. He sees death every which way he turns. If those scaffolds fell down, they'd crush anyone under them. If someone stepped out into the road, just now, that truck would—well. How long would it take to fall if you fell from that window? If you—or what if—?
What develops is an almost romantic attraction to bridges. It's like flirting, leaning out over the edge—too far, and then pulling back. Steve knows he would survive, but it's the custom of the thing: the familiarity. There were so many jumpers when he was growing up. Most didn't bother with notes. It was the 30's; everyone knew why you'd done it. Sometimes the bodies would get dredged out, and sometimes they'd appear on the shore days, even weeks later, grey and swollen and raggedy as ghosts. The kids he and Bucky ran with would comb the waterfront sometimes. It was a game, to see if they could find a body before the uniforms descended, but they only managed it the once when Steve was in attendance. She was a girl who might've been pretty before, but she'd been down there a long while before she bobbed up, her eyes and nose and the tips of her fingers missing. Her exposed flesh was bloated white and oddly fluffy at the edges, but clean; her blood had stopped circulating before she lost her extremities. Steve won't ever forget her mouth, though, how it wasn't torn up or distorted, but pretty and red as a Maybelline ad. He's always meant to ask a doctor how that was possible, what quirk of aquatic decay could take her eyes and ignore her soft mouth—leave it red like that, red as a banner.
He doesn't remember that it upset any of them, or distressed them, exactly. It made them sad to see a pretty young lady in deplorable condition, unloved and unburied—Bucky'd laid his handkerchief over her face—but it wasn't the death that bothered them. Nobody lived in their neighbourhood who didn't know somebody who'd lost a baby or two, and if it wasn't kids dying of things they shouldn't've, it was the elderly freezing to death or breaking their hips and never getting out of bed again. Young women like Steve's ma, filling wards, coughing up their lungs into a series of increasingly rusty handkerchiefs. The dead were laid out in parlours and front rooms, petted and kissed. Bucky'd been in the burial society for a little while, and he'd washed and shrouded half a dozen bodies before the war took him and George and half the shul up along with him; more bodies for the Chevra. And it'd been normal. Grief today is like a commercial production, brochures and flashing billboards, ten-thousand-dollar coffins, rush embalming and old folks' homes. A forgetting; a denial. Not like the way Steve grew up, Grandfather Time looking over his shoulder, ruffling his hair, breathing on the back of his neck when the winds brought down snow from the north—no, not like anything he knew. In New York, death was your neighbour.
The itch finds him, after a while, in a concrete way: being in the right place at the right time with the right muscles hooks him work as a body retriever for the Lewis & Sons Funeral Home. Him and the part-time crematory gal, a tiny Hispanic woman who speaks eleven languages, are put on call through the pre-dawn hours, servicing the surrounding boroughs. They double-park the home's scuffed grey van on streets Steve remembers sideways and upside down. The city looks more like itself at night, smaller and dimmer and older, the buildings leaning close like old ladies sharing naughty gossip. Mabel—she didn't! She sure did, Flo, and you should've seen what she was wearing.
The largest percentage of Steve and Lupe's pick-ups are the aged, from care homes and hospitals and sometimes from private residences. Steve prefers the private pick-ups, even if they're harder, because they're more familiar: Steve doesn't remember anyone who didn't die at home in his day, except his mother. Hospitals were mostly for people who had to be kept apart from the living. Me and my leper colony, Ma'd called it. The only day Steve comes close to breaking down is when they pick up an old woman who died in her bed. When they get there, the woman's two daughters are sitting on either side of her like guardians, one of them holding her mother's hand, the other brushing out her mother's long grey hair. Steve can't count how many people he's seen on their rounds who're scared to touch their dead, as if a body breathing its last somehow made it a plague vector. When he started, he wondered if it would be the smallest corpses that would bother him, the babies in their little boxes, but in the end it's always the living that do it, reminding him of his own dead.
The ones that give Steve the most conflict are the ones his age, the teens and twenty-somethings, most of them dead as a result of accidents. Ten years ago, or seventy, Steve had been realistic about his chances, and how slow his death was going to be when it came. Kids with bum tickers and a family history of TB were lucky if they saw twenty, and Steve had known for years that he was living on grace by the time the war came slouching over the horizon. If he died on the battlefield, he'd thought, at least he'd die for something, in the service of something greater than himself, and it'd have more meaning than gasping out his last breaths in bed without having done any real good for anybody, except maybe Bucky, who'd loved Steve harder than he deserved—harder than anybody could've deserved.
Jones, one late watch when the woods were alive and nobody was sleeping, had told them all the story of Kleobis and Biton, Greek brothers who'd honoured their mother by a feat of strength and endurance. Late for a feast at Hera's temple, the brothers had unhitched their oxen and drawn their mother's cart themselves. Their mother went up to the temple and begged that the goddess should grant her sons whatever was best for man to win. Later that night, the brothers feasted, celebrated, and laid down together, and then they'd died in their sleep. Dugan'd cried: Some reward! and Dernier had said something tart in French, but Morita had chimed in before Jones could explain, and said, “Think about it, y'barbarians. Ancient Greece? Not my first choice as a time traveller.” Yeah, Jones said; the story's about how they died young, strong, healthy, loved by their mom and esteemed by everybody who knew them, before they experienced pain or suffering or loss. The Greeks thought happiness was a life well lived, however short, not a state of mind.
“Well, that certainly does put a new slant on all those times Miss Vera Winchester told my brother she should rather die than marry him,” Falsworth said thoughtfully, and the night had devolved in class from there, but Steve—still not quite able to believe the serum was permanent, and his trousers full of lice besides—had been thinking about how twenty years of good health and good cheer didn't sound so bad, compared to the alternatives.
Steve's not so dumb that he thinks the dead twenty-somethings he and Lupe pick up were unblemished innocents in life, free of suffering—they would've wanted to live, probably, besides the ones who clearly didn't, and they would've thought the story of Kleobis and Biton was as stupid as the Howlies thought it was back then. On the whole, though, the millennium kids have it better than Steve and his peers ever did, in just about every conceivable way. It makes him feel sick and awful to think it, but sometimes he envies them. Their racecar lives. Their sudden stops.
And, Steve wonders—what would Kleobis have done, if only Biton failed to wake?
Steve finds himself floating through his days, like trying to walk up a set of stairs in a dream and never quite managing the top step. Surreality. It isn't unpleasant, just—detached. Watching from the wings. Is he going to do this? It appears that he is. He stops sleeping; he doesn't seem to need it. A cat-nap of an hour or two keeps him awake enough to work, awake enough to walk. When he isn't with Lupe, he drifts.
In a strange way, it's like he's wrapping up cycles in time, tying up all the loose threads left dangling in his passage to the future. It makes him feel briefly brighter, every time, as though he's wading up out of the fog and seeing the world in technicolour. Streets he's walked down a thousand times come alive. He might be seeing them for the last time, and that makes them special, even the wrong things: every deviation is rain-washed and new. It's true that many of the physical spaces themselves are gone, automats and grocery shops and bus depots replaced by upscale restaurants and clothing outlets and glass-fronted high-rises with security guards wearing watches worth more money than Steve ever made in his whole life, but the bones are there in his mind, and his feet know the forgotten streets, and he can follow them like ley lines through the new wilderness.
Here: the Filipino restaurant on Sands, where Steve and Ma had gone out every year for her birthday until she'd taken to her bed. Natalio had always been ready with a flower for Ma's hatband, and his wife Carmen always joined their table to talk novels; Ma and Carmen, Bucky used to remark, had a book club that met twice a year, the other time being the aftermath of the Easter Parade, when they'd sit in the restaurant kitchen and drink tsokolate until after midnight, their curls pulled up and all their baby hairs sweat-stuck to their foreheads and necks, shouting over the cooks and dodging hot oil. Steve only knows the details because he joined them once. That night every year he was usually out with Natalio and Carmen's son, José—or, as Bucky called him, El Muy Muy Hermoso José, the most beautiful boy in New York, who sent both Steve and Bucky into face-fanning raptures and not-quite-faux swoons as soon as they managed to drag themselves from his orbit. It'd been a running joke. Bucky would say, “If you cheat on me, I'll kill you,” and Steve would say, “Unless you cheat on me with him,” and then they'd say together: “In which case take pictures.”
Here: the time Bucky and Sol Meinertzhagen had been drunk because it was Purim, and Steve and Rory Ardagh had been drunk because it was Rory's birthday, and they'd run into each other unplanned; the next thing Steve knew, they were all four of them marching down the middle of Montague St. at three-something in the morning, arm in arm, singing: Oy that—oy that Yiddishe Charleston—you should see the Cohens and Kellys—doing it everywhere! How they managed to make it back to Steve's building in their state, he'll never know, but he remembers Ma in Mrs. Inoue's hand-me-along kimono, leaning on the third-floor fire escape with her chin propped on one hand, smiling down at them as if they were serenading her with Tony Martin. She'd joined them on the last verse, her scratchy contralto ringing out over the street: Henry Ford is learning to Yiddishe Charleston now! and someone had shouted Put a sock in it! and thrown a rotten apple at them.
Here: the breezy June day when they'd gone out walking like a couple of honest-to-god gentlemen, Bucky in his beautiful summer suit and Steve, as ever, making do—but Steve never was a very good gentleman. He'd taken exception to a couple of jerks loudly running a girl's reputation into the ground, and the afternoon had ended with one of the rare fights Steve had ever managed to win, though mostly on account of one of them being nearsighted and the other one being tinier than Steve. Bucky'd stood back indulgently, his arms crossed in white linen, shouting advice like he had money on Steve and wanted to cash in. After, they'd cut through the Navy Yard and fetched up at the Intelligent Whale, which was maybe Bucky's favourite thing in the whole world, and Steve loved to look at Bucky looking at the submarine. They'd only been standing there a minute when Bucky said, out of the blue, “D'you know what you'd be today, if you were a woman?” Steve had looked down at his bagged-knee trousers and bloody knuckles and, grinning, said: “In trouble?” and very quietly Bucky'd replied, “Married,” and looked at him.
Here: Flushing Meadows and the great white spire of 1939, the World of Tomorrow—and again, in '43, when the world conspired to cancel the Fair and Howard Stark refused to acknowledge the war, spangling all of Queens with neon light. Between the Fair and the Expo it'd seemed as though a whole century had passed, an Age of Man; like they were stuck in time, sandwiched between an old-world conflict put through its paces so slow it was almost lurching backwards, and the future rocketing forward too fast, a blur—
Here: where you could walk past the Pedrotti funeral parlour and tell when someone had died, because you could hear the women screaming from the other side of the street, long before they filed out in their black stockings and black gloves and enormous black veils, clutching each other and staggering—
Here: when half the block turned out for one of Karl Siebner's all-night parties, artists in slouch hats and Van Dyke beards, sweet shy Carol from Flatbush posing mother-naked and radiant on somebody's ottoman like the Venus de goddamn Milo—
Here: where Bucky had lit up his first Sweet Caporal and Steve had burst embarrassingly into tears, because Da had—
Here: the taxi strike of 1934—
There's the other things.
The threads Steve can't grasp, can't visit; their building isn't there anymore, and standing on the corner isn't enough. The velveteen things, the memories that feel close and humid like the inside of a cave, small and precious, because the two of them were the only ones who'd keep them, a museum with two curators. Like: The downy-soft skin beneath Bucky's ears, and the insides of his wrists, where Steve had pressed his closed mouth, and opened; and bit. The way Bucky'd laughed when he was gasping for breath. Bucky's habit of slotting Steve's achilles tendon between two of his toes when they slept, his other foot tucked under Steve's leg, the perfect curve of instep to calf like they'd been made to fit that way, chiselled in marble and broken apart. The sweltering night in '38 when Bucky'd let Steve tease him for an eternity on the kitchen floor; grit under his sticky spine, their hands, when he'd told Steve not to hurry even if he begged, and two hours later Steve'd made him beg, very prettily, for everything they both knew Steve was going to do anyway. They hadn't noticed until later that Bucky'd fetched up a splinter the size of a darning needle in his shoulder, and Steve had dug it out and put his mouth there, too—there weren't many places, really, where he hadn't, but that was the first time he'd had Bucky's blood on his tongue. Bucky'd tilted his head back in time to see Steve lick it off his lips, iron filings and salt, and Bucky had pulled Steve back down, and they'd almost, but not quite, managed another round.
Warm memories—or they had been, once. Now they make Steve feel cold and brittle. A house with all the lights turned out, flaking brickwork, a scrawl of ivy. In the museum all alone.
Sharon calls Steve in October.
Hey, neighbour, her voicemail starts; she sounds tired but friendly, like they're just catching up, like he's made any effort to contact her since the spring. I know you're probably not crazy about coming up to DC, but Aunt Peg put away a load of stuff that might be yours, and I'd really appreciate a hand going through it. I can send a ghost car if you'd prefer keep your head low. Give me a call, okay? Thanks.
“Every time she's had a really lucid spell,” Sharon tells him now, winding her way through the echoing halls of Peggy's riverside townhouse, “She gets one of us on the phone and says: you know that—whatever? That's for Jim's niece Cindy; or—that's for whichever grandkid takes up vintage fashion first. Anyway, we kept all of it here instead of giving it out, because then if she asked about something at least we'd know where it was. Say what you like about everything else, but until recently she's been a steel trap for details.”
“Always was,” Steve says, following Sharon up the stairs. “She—” he tries to add, but chokes on it. Luckily, the stairs creak like hell's own hand organ, and Sharon misses it.
“The left side's all earmarked for you,” Sharon says, and Steve blurts: “Christ!” because the near side is all sheet-draped furniture, but on the far side there must be two dozen boxes. The Peggy Steve knew lived out of a rucksack, had raised an eloquent and judgemental eyebrow at Howard's tales of his sprawling properties, had—had bought a palatial townhouse, apparently, overlooking the Theodore Roosevelt Island, and filled it with things. Steve feels as though he's stepped unexpectedly into deep snow, like he didn't know her at all.
“You should've seen the pantry,” Sharon says. “Enough canned food to outlast a nuclear winter. There's a bunker, too, but she always claimed Howard bullied her into that. You'd think if anybody would've been immune to post-war paranoia, it would've been her, but...” Sharon shrugs. “Well, pick a box, and I'll start on the other end. Don't feel bad if you turf most of it.”
Steve's glad she says it, because most of the boxes aren't anything he can use, or are things he could've used, but only if he'd worked with Peggy in the fifties. Three boxes are stuffed with classified and declassified documents about Commando missions, during and shortly after the war. He pushes those over to the other side of the room, and Sharon scrawls a cousin's name on them; the historian of the family. There's something that looks like a bomb and probably isn't, and a pen that probably is. Steve's dress uniform, missing the cap. Aerial photographs of France, Germany, what looks like Italy. Ticker-tape from an Enigma machine. A pair of crumbling pantyhose: Steve's face goes inexplicably red. Code-books, a weather-diary, Russian newspaper clippings, a copy of The Enormous Room, and two books titled Now It Can Be Told, one by a Gibbs and one by a Groves. A piece of raw green glass, set in gold and hung on a fine chain—“Trinitite,” Sharon says, “From Alamogordo,” and Steve almost drops it.
Steve's fingers touch metal when he reaches into the second-to-last box, and he feels the blood drain out of his face even before he's looked down. He knows the feel of it too well. He'd know it blind, a hundred years from now. It's Bucky's not-a-medal.
It'd been Bucky's grandfather's, or maybe his great-grandfather's, made of the kind of sterling silver that tarnishes if you look at it funny, so Bucky had always been polishing it; he'd traded cigarettes to the mess staff for baking soda and vinegar, during the war, but the thing was still soot-black half the time, like it is now. It'd been a fool's errand, wearing a thing like that in Axis territory, but Bucky'd worn it on his chain like the rest of the guys wore their Christophers and Michaels, and HYDRA'd ignored it. It was a subtle thing, though: nothing like wearing a Magen David, or the implacable H on Bucky's tags, just a thin slice of metal with a stylized branch and an oblique squiggle Steve only knows is the Hebrew word for life because Bucky told him so.
Bucky'd had a curious mix of reverence and irreverence about it, the same mixture that seemed to colour the whole of his religious life. He'd teased Steve sometimes, saying, “No, wait, you gotta kiss it before you enter the building, you schmuck, what are you, some kinda heathen?” with his legs around Steve's waist. Bucky hadn't complained when Steve had carried on with an inch of silver between his teeth, but Steve had offhandedly called it Bucky's good luck charm once, and Bucky'd blown up; it's not a superstition, he said, it's not a fucking amulet. He'd apologized later, and he'd explained, and said it was a touchy subject, just ingrained. Jews weren't supposed to believe in luck. Bucky'd thought maybe it was the opposite: maybe luck didn't believe in Jews.
Steve hadn't needed an apology for that kind of thing, not then, not ever, but Bucky had made it up to him and then some, and Steve remembers thinking maybe they should fight more often.
“Is that a mezuzah?” Sharon asks over Steve's shoulder, jerking him out of memories he shouldn't be tracing around a lady young enough to be his granddaughter.
Steve nods. He doesn't think he can speak, but it turns out he can. “It's—it was Bucky's. I don't know how it—I thought it fell with him. He must've...” Given it to Peggy for safekeeping, Steve finishes in his head, flayed open. He remembers the tent and Bucky murmuring in his ear, some time before dawn when Steve was three-quarters asleep: “Got a bad feeling about this one, Stevie, it's been givin' me the crawling horrors all week.” Bucky'd laughed, then; murmured something rumbly-low in Yiddish. He'd added, “God, listen to me, I sound like my grandmother,” and Steve had rolled them both and put his hand over Bucky's mouth, and they'd gone back to sleep, Bucky's even breaths puffing through Steve's fingers. It'd been the last time he'd touched Bucky's face until DC, because a few hours later Morita had startled them awake, and they hadn't had time for anything but planting their feet in their boots. Already dressed, jackets and all; it was freezing up in the mountains, and there were never enough blankets. So Steve hadn't seen—wouldn't have been able to see what was missing from Bucky's tags.
Bucky knew he wasn't going to survive that mission.
Steve feels it ring through his body like it's he's a hollow thing. It hits every bone on the way down.
Ancient, stooped Frank Sullivan—who'd lived one floor below Steve and Ma; dead wife, dead daughter, deadbeat son—used to say that grief hollowed you out. Steve had disagreed then and he disagrees now: it fills you up to bursting and strains the places where you're welded together.
It's like—before Bucky, there'd been Billy, who liked breaking things to see how they worked, and Steve had been there the day he'd smacked a wasp nest too many times. Steve, bored, had turned away for what seemed like just a moment, and when he looked back Billy'd been walking slowly towards him under a seething cloak of yellow and black. Billy hadn't screamed, but Steve had, and people had come running out with buckets of water and drowned the things off of him. Billy'd survived, covered in small pockmark scars like raindrops in soft sand, but Steve had moved on by then, old enough to make friends who weren't his immediate neighbours, and by preference friends who didn't think abusing wildlife was the most fun thing you could do with a stick. But Steve remembers what Billy had looked like, after: a wet, stumbling bloat of flesh, red and unrecognisable, twitching all over like a dog full of ticks.
That's what grief feels like in a body, Steve thinks. Stretched full of poison; a hurt in the belly. Dead things moving under your skin.
Steve finds himself thinking of Peggy as gone while she's still breathing. The internet says that's normal enough; it's called anticipatory grief, he learns, and it's common in people watching loved ones die of slow, degenerative things. It says what he'll feel when she passes might be a shadow of the thing he feels now, more relief than grief. Steve doesn't know about that. What he's feeling now doesn't seem barbed enough to be sorrow. It's more akin to how Bucky said sniping felt. A patience that wasn't really patience, but an elevated emptiness, almost spiritual. Nothing mattered but the shot; not pain, not hunger, not time. That's how Steve feels. A waiting that isn't. He has nothing but time.
The chain Peggy'd strung Bucky's mezuzah on wasn't the same quality as the pendant, and it's corroded over the years it's sat in a box. Steve finds a new one in a junk shop—an antique shop, he supposes it's rightly called, but this one isn't much more than a dumpster with shelves, the odd treasure surrounded by heaps of things Steve's ma wouldn't have kept around if you paid her. The proprietor insists the chain is good Mexican silver, and it seems sturdy enough.
He thinks it might bother him, wearing a necklace even to sleep, but it's immediately comforting; Steve hadn't realized how much he's missed the weight of his dog tags. He doesn't see many men wearing chains these days, unless they're enormous things meant to make a certain kind of statement, but no one comments, not even Lupe, who seems to notice everything. It feels dark and close, like a secret whispered under a blanket. No one knows what's under his shirt. What he's chosen it to mean. The promise they could've made, if they'd lived long enough to see the laws change.
In movies, people always seem to die at night, in cold and cinematically darkened rooms—and Steve's witching-hour shift doesn't do the myth any favours—but Peggy dies at 2:12 in the afternoon on a sunny, unseasonably warm November day. Outside his window the leaves are as blazing red as the lipstick she used to wear. Siobhan, the nurse who calls him, is kind but crisp, no-nonsense, and from down the long tunnel where he's found himself, Steve appreciates her matter-of-factness.
It was very peaceful, Siobhan tells him. Her nephew was with her and she went without any pain or distress. She'd had a good day. When Steve asks, Siobhan says she'd looked in at 2:00 and they'd been holding hands, Peggy resting and the nephew talking, and when Siobhan'd looked in at 2:30, nothing had changed, except that the nephew had lowered his forehead to their woven fingers. Siobhan wouldn't have needed to take Peggy's pulse to know what she was seeing, Steve suspects. You don't work in senior care for forty years and not know a thing like that.
One more chance, and Steve was still too late.
Da had died in his sleep, far away: in the old soldiers' home they'd sent him to when the doctors said he wouldn't last another year in the smother of Brooklyn. He'd lasted three months, upstate. When Ma died, as near as he can tell, Steve was working: crammed into a restaurant booth with Minnie Zuckerman, talking over the details of the political cartoon she wanted done for the socialist rag she and her cousin ran out of the family bookshop. Steve had been planning to visit Ma the next morning, once he'd done some sketches, because he'd known they would make her laugh. He'd come home buoyant to find Sister Mary Margaret wringing her tiny hands on his doorstep, a crumpled envelope sticking out of her pocket.
And Bucky—take your pick, really, but Steve can't say he was there for the first time, powerless as he'd been to stop it, and the second—
Steve has a shift that night, and maybe it's crazy but he doesn't call in sick, just goes, because he's nocturnal now and knows he won't sleep, and because it's better than sitting in his tiny apartment all alone, thinking about it.
At the end of their shift, when they're stuck in traffic three blocks from the funeral home, sitting in silence because the radio's still busted, Lupe says, “You're awfully quiet tonight, Joe.”
“Uh,” Steve says, caught off balance. “Ain't I usually?”
“Not usually this loud,” says Lupe.
Steve bites the inside of his cheek. Instead of saying: yes, I'm quiet because the very last person I loved in the whole of my life died today, and if we were in DC maybe we'd be picking her up, maybe I could lift her bird-bones and it'd feel real—instead of saying all the sharp things that want to come tearing out of him, Steve says, “Do you believe in—signs?”
“Sure,” Lupe says with a certainty that surprises him. “You mean omens and things? Yeah, of course.” She pauses. “You Catholic?”
“I don't know,” Steve says.
Lupe laughs. “You're Catholic. Anybody who isn't says no quicker than that. You know why my mama named me Guadalupe?”
Steve shakes his head, though it's clearly a rhetorical question.
“Okay, so, rewind thirty years. My mama meets this guy.” Lupe takes one hand off the wheel and leans her elbow on the door frame. “A gringo, right, but everyone in her family fell in love with him just the same as her—great guy, good prospects, aspiring family man. Maybe everybody's a little disappointed when she turns up pregnant, but he's planning to put a ring on it, so that's okay, and before long everybody's over the moon. She's four months pregnant, sitting in her room, when this girl walks in and says, Isabella, you got to leave that man right now, and vanishes. Now, a fantasist my mama is not, and I've watched her tell this story a dozen times. So. I don't know the truth but I know what she knows she saw, and that was the Virgin of Guadalupe in denim overalls. Anyway, Mama left him, and long story short, the week before I get born, he gets busted for possession of child pornography and human trafficking.”
“Fuck,” Steve says.
“You bet,” says Lupe. “So, do I believe in signs? Absolutely. In my experience, if something smacks you in the face hard enough you see stars, you better listen, because it's your life on the line. That help any?”
“Yeah,” Steve says, “Thanks,” and strangles the part of himself that protests: But what about the other way around? What about when the universe is telling you it's all gone wrong? What about the signs that say you shouldn't be here—now what are you going to do about it?
The problem is, Steve's thinking, as he tucks a sheet around the soft body of a middle-aged man, is that Bucky'd been wrong when he said that it was easy to die. Or not wrong, but unknowing. Neither of them could have predicted what they'd become. Unnatural creatures. Too strong.
So: how do you leave a body the Arctic couldn't touch?
It might be easier if Steve hadn't started working with Lupe, hadn't seen the trail of destruction a messy death leaves through friends, families, communities. Even if the deceased didn't have anyone to mourn them, there's still the landlord or the postman who finds the body, the officers who have to cordon the scene, the retrieval folks—the crime scene cleaners, swooping in at the last like vultures, picking the place bare for the new residents. So although Steve's relatively certain that his uncanny body wouldn't be able to regenerate his brain stem, he can't bring himself to choose that route; it wouldn't be fair. If nothing else, Bucky would be ashamed of him.
Bucky's going to be ashamed of him anyway, if Steve's honest with himself.
Bucky'd believed that despair was a sin. It'd been one of the few points Bucky and Ma had agreed on, even if they were coming at it from different theological angles—and it didn't help that they defined sin in different ways. Ma argued that despair was an extension of sloth, not laziness but capital-s Sloth, the one where you're so impressed by your own flawed nature that you just give up on grace. Bucky countered that it wasn't self-absorption but the opposite: allowing yourself to get overwhelmed by all the evil in the world and sinking into hopelessness, instead of lifting a hand and doing even one little thing to beat back the dark. The other thing they agreed on was that suicide was wrong, but they argued even more about that one, about where you drew the line between the foolhardy suicide, who kills himself with his lack of wits, and the martyr suicide, who kills himself for a cause bigger than one life.
Steve supposes he gets that: your life is a gift, the greatest possible gift, and to God it must seem like you're the worst kind of ungrateful child, tossing your body like it was garbage and not a miracle walking. But Steve—Steve was supposed to die. His time was up. It feels wrong. A bone set crooked after a break.
The feeling gets exponentially worse in the week after the funeral he doesn't attend, a constant tug, as if the past knows he's been misplaced and wants him back like a gum, aching, wants a lost tooth. Maybe, he thinks, maybe—maybe everyone has gone back but him, and they're waiting for him in that far country, and that's what's pulling at his hair with ghostly fingers. Steve doesn't know if he believes in life after death, or in the indestructibility of the soul, which aren't the same thing. The soul might be indestructible, but there might be no afterlife, no place you go, or no you to go anyplace at all, no continuation of consciousness. There's nothing to say that your soul has anything to do with who you are. Steve struggles when he tries to imagine the workings of it: is the soul a material thing, with a weight and a measure, or an immaterial whisper—atomless, always beyond the reach of earthly instruments? And if the soul isn't immortal, then what happens to it? Does it survive the death of the body? Where does it go? How does it end? Perhaps we kill it.
He has to imagine something, though. To think of things just ending, all those bright sparks dissolving into nothingness—he can't bear it. After years of exposure to Bucky and Ma's debates, Steve doesn't know how he might begin to imagine the next world, but one late night on a mission Thor had waxed poetic about the Asgardian lands of the dead. Golden halls with golden shingles, and a golden tree on the doorstep; a feast that never began and never ends, storytellers at every hearth; beds for lovers and fields for those who're called to roam—and Steve can live with that, even just as a fantasy. If he could only find the way. He's convinced if he could just find the key, close his eyes and focus hard enough, then he'd turn around and there would be a mighty sound, he'd turn and see the DeKalb mosaic, the tile, the bench: and the train would be pulling in, Peggy and Ma smiling under incandescent lights, Bucky leaning out a window, waving, waving, and the doors would open, and Steve...
It's nice to have hope, anyway.
After all his research, his napkin math, three fallacious visits to three apathetic doctors, and four separate pharmacies, Steve sits alone in the dark with his death in his hands. The bathroom isn't a very soothing place to do what he's about to attempt, but it's practical: if he fails, if he's ill, it's the easiest room to clean up. And even after all his calculations—he's not certain. His body doesn't seem to accept reality. He moves through the world and it leaves no mark on him. Two hours after he jumped out of the Triskelion's elevator, changing into his stolen clothes in a hospital restroom, there hadn't even been a bruise.
He thinks he's ready, is the thing.
He thinks he's ready, but when he leans forward to put his empty glass of water down, Bucky's mezuzah slips out from the loose collar of his shirt, swinging up to smack hard against his mouth; it might've split his lip, but invulnerable plastic thing that he is, it only clicks off his teeth. Just the same, Steve reacts like he's been punched, reeling backwards, smacking the back of his head on the rim of the sink hard enough to see stars.
Phillips had a favourite saying: No battle plan survives contact with the enemy. He'd muttered it more often with regard to the Howlies than he ever did about the Axis, granted—they'd all believed Falsworth when he claimed there were voodoo dolls of each of them stuffed in Phillips's foot locker. Jones remarked once that the saying was itself actually German, a paraphrase of an old Prussian field marshal's writings. (“You think Phillips is secretly HYDRA?” Bucky had joked, and Dugan'd replied, “No, but that new mess cook sure as hell is.”)
Steve isn't sure who the enemy is, in the analogy he's suddenly living, but his battle plan has gone all to dust. A gargantuan terror is welling up in his chest, catching in his throat, half-suffocating him as it blooms. It brings a friend: the sticky putrid weight of shame, burning his skin and setting his palms tingling. After the serum, during the war, Steve had struggled with sometimes overwhelming sensory input—the film-strip memory; the dissonant heartbeats of the men around him; the heavy smell of something he'd only later learn was the musk of a bear, half a mile away—but nothing like this, he thinks, as he begins to shake. Not from within. He's never felt anything like this. It hits him in long shuddering waves, has him sliding to the floor when sweat loosens his grip, helpless as the child he feels like as he gibbers into the linoleum: please, oh god, oh god, I don't, oh god, I don't want, oh please, oh please, I don't want to die.
I don't want to die.
The bathroom becomes a hothouse. Steve desperately wants to open the door, to let out all the air, but he can't seem to stand up. The walls flux in the heat. They pulse. Oil-slick colours. Like coming out of the chamber again, but sharper, a higher order of existence: too bright. When he'd stepped down, when his foot had touched solid ground, Steve had understood why babies cry on arrival—but he'd already screamed himself out, when the radiation had seared into his bones, and in the long moments after he'd been too overwhelmed to make a sound. Now, with the room bright where it should be dark, shimmering where it should be dull, Steve has to grit his teeth to hold the whimpering in.
He becomes convinced he can hear people outside the door. Snatches of conversation, almost intelligible. The voices come closer but their speech is meaningless, warped. Great yawning pitches of sound. If he could only reach the doorknob, if he could just—but his sweat-slick palms put him back on the floor. Stars. A pain in his back like he's growing spines. He hears himself pleading. He's never been so afraid.
All of a sudden, he can smell—
Steve squeezes his eyes shut as hard as he can when he hears the doorknob turn, because he knows he'll see her if he opens them. The sound her clothing makes when she crouches down tells him what she'll look like—the crisp hem, the sharp collar, sweat fuzzing the baby hairs at her temples. She never wore perfume on active duty, and this is 1944: she'd switched from Tangee lipstick to Elizabeth Arden, that spring, and the waxy floral of Montezuma Red had announced her presence better than the scent of gunpowder ever did, because they'd all smelled like that after a while. Cordite under their nails, in their hair, crunching between their teeth.
“Well,” Peggy says. “Isn't this a pickle. What on earth have you done to yourself, Steve?”
Steve doesn't answer. She isn't really there.
Peggy doesn't seem to mind his silence. “You know, of all the people I suspected might top themselves, you didn't even make the bottom of the list,” she says. “You made your griefs into candles. You lit your way with them. You always came up swinging. What happened, darling? Where did we go wrong?”
You all left, he thinks, clenching his teeth so it doesn't come roaring out.
Peggy sighs. He can almost, for a moment, imagine that her breath ruffles his hair. “You were made for more than this, Steve. No matter what, I still believe that.”
“Go away,” Steve whispers. He can feel the black throb of her disappointment, but after a moment, her presence melts obligingly away.
What fills up the space she leaves behind, almost predictably, is Ma's homemade perfume.
Ma and the other nurses were encouraged—which is not to say bullied—into not wearing makeup or scent, but Ma had been a rebel. No one could fire her if she just so happened to smell like good things. When Steve was little he'd loved to watch her mix it, and when he got old enough he'd helped: once a year she'd buy an orange and carefully scrape every speck of skin into an atomizer, and they'd share the segments while she added lemon juice and rosewater. She'd always let Steve shake the mixture, gently, though he'd later learned it wasn't necessary; it only needed time to sit. Every morning before work, she'd sit on the edge of her bed and apply the faintest powdering of colour to her cheeks and the tip of her nose, and she'd rub Vaseline behind each ear before she spritzed the perfume, to make it last longer. After, in the ward, Steve had brought it to her against regulations, whenever he visited. When it ran empty, Bucky'd found an orange and they'd fumbled a batch together, and they were sure it wasn't the same, but she'd said it was better.
Ma died long before the serum, but Steve suspects she would've smelled like this, if he'd been around her after. The overpowering cloy of rose, the razor-bite of citrus. It chokes instead of comforting.
“Oh, a leanbh mo chroí,” she murmurs. Steve, immobilized, manages to flinch. His head swims. “Oh, boyo. I thought I taught you better than this.”
He feels her lay down on the floor beside him, like she used to when he was sick and feverish; he'd crawl out of bed, sometimes, and spread out on the cold floor, trying to leech heat into the wooden boards. She'd never picked him up, never made him feel helpless. She'd just laid there until, drawing off her iron-girder conviction, he'd managed to find the strength to get back on his feet. That was the rule: you always stand up.
“Steven,” she says now, “When they brought your father home with half his beautiful face burned away by the gas, jumping at shadows and screaming in his sleep, I thought I'd die of it. I thought you'd be afraid of him. I thought I'd have to separate my two blubbering boys. I thought: how will we ever survive this? But you'd only stop crying when he held you, Steven, and you brought him back to life. I've no doubt he would have withered away by autumn, if not for you. You gave him six more years—good years, gay years; for your sake he hardly suffered at all. You made so many people happy. Won't you try again?”
“You're not real,” Steve says. Flat and rude as he'd never been to her in life. “Unless you're here to take me with you—go the fuck away.”
“So much for the carrot,” Ma says sadly, fading out slow, and in the distance Steve hears footsteps.
Boots, down the hall, coming closer. A familiar tread.
“No, no, no,” Steve moans, pressing his hands to his face. Hurting: hard enough to bruise. “No, please, no—”
“What the fuck,” Bucky says. “What the fuck, Steve, what is this, what'd you take—”
“This isn't happening—”
“God help me, Steven Rogers—”
“You're not real!”
“Like hell I'm not!” Bucky snarls, and with ice-cold fingers he tears Steve's hands away from his face.
Dybbuk, Steve thinks wildly, staring up at Bucky. His edges are flickering, distorted: heat waves. Like he's still burning. Cold dead hands and the fire still inside him. Steve smells smoke and burning hair. He coughs; gags. Bucky's eyes are black as wet pebbles.
“I'm so sorry,” Steve says. “Buck, I'm so sorry. I wasn't there. I couldn't put you out.” The room pulses along with Bucky's flaming skin. “I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry.”
But Bucky's ghost is ignoring him, growling a steady stream of gutter Yiddish and putting his cold, cold hands on Steve's neck. Steve doesn't know what it feels like to be possessed by an angry spirit, but he can feel Bucky's furious mind pressing against his, a smothering weight. Steve tries to take a breath and fails. His heart gives a huge convulsive thump: if his ribs were a door he would've kicked them out. Grey clouds gather in the corners of the room.
I'm sorry, he thinks at Bucky, who stops and looks at him with gun-barrel eyes. His teeth bared. I'm sorry, Steve says. We're just a couple of losers stuck where we don't belong. Let's go home. Can't we just go home?
Far off, and then not as far, Steve hears the train. The clatter and rush. Under his spine the linoleum shivers. It's coming here, to where they've made a stop, two tired ghosts on a bench in Brooklyn, nickels in their pockets and hope in their hearts. The mighty sound. The women at the windows. Steve clings to Bucky so they won't be separated. When they board the train, it'll soar out over Manhattan, over the Maritimes, over Greenland and the last of the ship-lights and further on: into the Arctic, where the first sliver of morning will be creeping over the horizon, glittering on the ice, and he'll turn to each of their luminous faces and say—
Steve wakes up on the futon.
“Oh Jesus,” he mumbles, and isn't sure what for—his cotton-ball mouth or his pounding head or the fact that he's breathing, still, and already awake. By the angle of the light, he's slept through till mid-morning. One of his neighbours is brewing coffee. His nose is stuffed up, but he can smell that. It might've been the thing that woke him. The room isn't spinning anymore, which means he's cleared all the drugs out of his system. He rubs the crust out of his eyes with his thumbs; presses hard with the heels of his hands. Presses harder. He feels—muted. Burned out empty, like a blown fuse. And genuinely hungry, for the first time in a while. He knows he should get up and do something about that before it fades, but he can't bring himself to peel his hands off his face. If he doesn't move, maybe he can just—
Someone sits on the futon, heavily, next to Steve's hip.
Steve freezes. They're too heavy to be Lupe or Natasha or Sharon, too familiar-close to be Maria. Clint? Sam? Tony? God help him—Fury? God, he didn't even think—someone must have found him, dragged him to his bed. He wasn't in any kind of state to do it himself. Steve, feeling the baby-beginnings of shock start to hit his limbs, takes his hands away from his eyes.
He's finally lost it.
Steve can feel the heat of his body, the weight of his bones. Can see the five-o-clock shadow on the side of his face, broken by a thin scar near the point of his jaw. The crow's feet at the corner of his right eye. The lizard-skin roughness of his knuckles, all ten of them. His mouth is pulled into a grim line. He has a plate in his lap, and is methodically tearing a piece of toast into strips. Even if Steve really, truly believed in ghosts, that detail would confound him: he can't imagine why any spirit, no matter how unmoored they were from reality, would choose to spend a part of their restless afterlife playing with their food.
Steve's not really in the business of ranking his inadequacies, but giving himself a psychotic break instead of heart failure seems like a new low, all things considered.
“I'm dead,” Steve suggests out loud, as an alternative.
“You ain't,” Bucky says. He doesn't look up. “And just in time, you lucky son of a bitch, 'cause I could've rigged a defibrillator out of your electric razor and my auxiliary circuits, but I'm pretty sure neither of us would've enjoyed it any.”
“Christ,” Steve hisses, and scrambles to sit up, accidentally kneeing Bucky in the kidney. Bucky grunts. Can you hurt a hallucination? The way Bucky turns to glare at him says: yes.
“No,” Steve says. His heart's beating a mile a minute; maybe he hasn't recovered as much as he thought. He feels faint. “You're dead,” he says, and Bucky's face pinches oddly.
“Neither of us is dead,” Bucky says, slow and measured, like Steve's a half-wit. “Although you gave it the old college try, sweetheart, and just about gave me a stroke in the process, so what do you say—half marks?”
“Then who's in your grave?” Steve shouts. He shoves himself further back against the arm of the futon, fighting the urge to grab Bucky with both hands, because Bucky isn't real, can't be real, will dissolve into smoke if Steve reaches for him. “They burned you to death in Utah, in a shipping container, Sam brought you back in a box—”
“Whoa, whoa,” Bucky says, and moves as if he's going to touch Steve's knee. Steve flinches hugely and Bucky stops. There's a hurt in his eyes like he's been punched in the gut. He puts the plate on the floor. “Okay,” Bucky says. “Okay. Given I'm not dead in a shipping container in Utah, you wanna explain why—”
Steve points his chin at Bucky's left side. His impossible knuckles. “Your arm. The rod was still. It was screwed into the bone.”
“Fuck,” Bucky says. His hand over his mouth. “Hell. The prototypes.” For a moment he looks like he's going to punch his own leg, maybe hard enough to break it, but he shakes his fist out at the last moment. He digs at his left wrist with his nails. “I didn't even think about those poor bastards. Every time they upgraded this hunk of shit—” splaying his fingers, “—they'd install it on a guinea pig. I was,” Bucky says, in too-reasonable tones, as he peels away a strip of skin to reveal, dully, a metal plate: “I was too valuable.”
Steve breathes out, very carefully.
Bucky peels the fake skin from his hand like he's removing a rubber glove, finger by finger. “I've been looking for you,” he says. “After Carter, I thought—but nobody knew where you were. Not even your friend Wilson, who I still owe about six hundred apologies and maybe some flowers, for scaring the shit out of him at work. Had to go grovelling to the Widow, in the end, so thanks very fucking much for that. I cannot believe,” Bucky snarls, “You thought the world was better off without you in it.”
“How did you know about—” Steve starts, and then runs into a wall, as the puzzle pieces fall into place.
We think we found Barnes.
—if one of those flamethrowing HYDRA cocksuckers lights me on fire—
Insufficient material for DNA analysis.
—industrial properties are mysteriously going up in flames all across the—
It was very peaceful.
—there was once a righteous man who—
Her nephew was with her.
Her nephew was with her.
“You've been—this whole time,” Steve says, “In America,” and, startled, notices he's on the other side of the room. When did he get up? Bucky hasn't; Bucky is still on the sofa, his mismatched hands dangling between his knees. He isn't wearing an expression Steve can read. “Torching HYDRA bases, and—and you were there when Peggy—”
“Yeah,” Bucky says. Very mild: “You wondering if I killed her?”
Bucky stands up when Steve doesn't continue. Staring across at him with that foreign composure. Bucky'd never had a problem with keeping still, hadn't ever been a twitchy kid, but he hadn't been very good at schooling his face. He's a blank canvas now. There's nothing nice in it, but nothing mean, either. Just: waiting. Steve's shaking, he realizes. He feels like such a mess next to Bucky's stillness.
Bucky says, “But?”
“But maybe it would've been better if you had,” Steve says, hard and too fast.
Bucky takes a step towards him. Steve flattens himself against the wall.
“She hated it,” Steve says. “She said—when I came back she said she hated all of it, the forgetting and the bed and—she had to be stuck there knowing it was going to get worse and worse, and she said nobody would let her go, she was just waiting—”
Bucky comes closer, and closer still, until he's toe-to-toe with Steve. No expression at all.
“—and, and maybe if there was any justice somebody'd have come to put her out of her fucking don't you touch me—”
Bucky's hands have come up; Steve throws a punch even his sixteen-year-old self would be ashamed of, and Bucky turns it as easily as anything, sending them both crashing up against the wallpaper. Bucky's arms come around him and Steve uses his fists and elbows without grace. Comes up against the solid muscle of Bucky's chest and strikes out, kitten-weak, until he's shaking too hard to aim. One of them is making a horrible racket, like something being murdered. Sobs so wretched they're almost screams.
Steve realizes it's him, and he realizes that Bucky isn't letting go, and he just—
Steve tucks his face into Bucky's neck and surrenders to the thing his body wants to do. Has been trying to do for the whole of this awful, unbearable year. He howls and swears and mostly just cries into Bucky's sweater, only vaguely noting that they're on the floor, and Bucky has at some point wrapped himself around Steve like they're back in the Heights and Steve's a bundle of sticks in his arms.
Steve doesn't know how long it is before he surfaces, but it's long enough that his left leg's fallen asleep where it's been trapped under him. He takes a deep breath, and then he's sliding back down, convulsing with it, sobbing dry because he's cried out everything he has to give.
It scares him, the intensity of this thing. He's scared it's never going to stop, and he's going to be sprawled on this disgusting floor for the rest of his life, shaking and keening and never able to get a grip. He can't hold much more grief in his body, can he? Surely there isn't room. Surely he's done.
He's not done.
But he will be, soon.
Steve doesn't think he dozes off, exactly, so much as he drops out of the world for a while. He's brought back to ground by warm breath on his ear, and the sound of Bucky singing.
Singing might not properly be the word for it; Steve never asked what it was called, the wordless tunes he'd overhear Bucky or George humming sometimes, usually when they prayed. It wasn't quite Hebrew, but it wasn't anything else, either. Organized nonsense. In the brief glimpses Steve had managed to catch, it'd seemed sort of like a comma, or a breath: a bookmark, so you didn't lose your place. Bucky'd soothed a fretful Dot to sleep that way more than once, with the low coffee-ground roughness he could only manage after his voice had broken, had settled deeper than his father's. Steve had loved the sound of it then, and he loves it now, as Bucky sighs Yai lai lai lai, ya lai lai against his temple. For a moment, his love is bigger than his shame.
“Ssh,” Bucky says, when Steve stirs, “Don't move,” and his arms tighten around Steve's ribs. His voice is thick like he's been crying too. He sniffs, hard, and Steve realizes he has been. It hits him in a tender place, deep down where he'd forgotten he had nerves. Forgotten he could bleed. He feels dizzy and a little sick, and he'd forgotten that too: the fallout of a hard cry. The rawness of it. The Avengers had been called to Busan, once, for a woman whose breakout powers had seemed much more catastrophic than they actually were, and in the celebratory wake of a mission with practically no clean-up Tony'd taken them to the mogyoktang. An old man who wouldn't've come up to Natasha's shoulder had scrubbed Steve's back with a rough mitt until he was flinching and lobster-red. Tony, Bruce, and Thor had fared better, but the men laughed at Clint and Steve's fair skin until Steve'd had to laugh too. The amount of dirt and dead skin that'd come off of him hadn't seemed possible. Afterwards he'd felt storm-tossed, scoured to the quick, but softened somehow; the post-battle weariness without the nerves. That's nearly how he feels in this moment, just raw meat and rattling bones, and none of the spiralling aliveness he'd felt then.
But he can remember that he felt it. Which feels, now, like a small miracle: something you can cup in your hands.
“Your girl was something else,” Bucky says. “D'you know she recognized me right away? The state I arrived in, I don't know my own mother would've recognized me. Barnes? she said. Good god, you're alive. Again. Are you certain you're not a cockroach? I just about laughed myself sick. She got upset, then—realized nobody'd gone looking for me—and I had to talk her down. She asked if I'd suffered. And I said: suffered, didn't suffer—who cares! I'm still breathing. Every day I can get up and do that, that's more important. That's a bigger fuck-you. And you know what she said? I wish you'd told Steve that, just once. So I'm telling you now.”
Steve tries to speak and fails to make a sound.
“I know,” Bucky says. “I know. I've been there. The universe's got your number and your line-up's just pain. It'll never stop, you'll never die, they'll never let you die, it'll just hurt forever—”
“—but it doesn't,” Bucky says, fierce and sudden as the wind-up to a punch. “Nothing lasts forever. And if you leave the party early, you'll never see it. There are—” sounding all of twelve years old, “—so many good things in the world, Stevie, I can't even tell you. So many good people. It's such a beautiful place.”
That, at last, gives Steve the strength to break the circle of Bucky's arms. His teeth are already bared by the time he finishes straightening his spine. Bucky has been crying; his eyes are red and his forehead is blotchy, his cheeks still visibly damp. Steve doesn't imagine his own face looks much better. They didn't either of them ever cry pretty.
“How can you say that?” Steve demands. “After everything that happened to you, how can you believe—”
“That's why,” Bucky snarls back. “You want the bad stuff? Sure! The ice caps are melting and everybody's got nukes. There's entrepreneurs shitting into gold-plated toilets while millions starve. Shoah's been over for seventy years and there's still not as many of us as there were before the trains. There's assholes on every corner. There's Nazis in America. I've seen the worst this planet's got to offer, I have been the worst, but you know what, Rogers? I've seen more human kindness since I walked out of the Potomac than I have since I pitched off that mountain, and that's why it's my moral fucking obligation to acknowledge every subatomic particle of good that crosses my path. Because the world's still there. It still needs fixing. I ain't giving up on account of some shitty awful no-good things being done to me by a bunch of shitty awful no-good people. You remember what I used to say about despair?”
“It's a sin,” Steve says. Bucky raises his eyebrows: Because? Grudgingly: “Because obsessing about bad things means you never get around to doing good things.”
“And you can't just give up,” Bucky says. It's almost a whisper. Steve jumps: Bucky's cold left hand, and then the warm right, cradling his face. Bucky's thumbs on Steve's cheekbones. “You can't give up. Not if I didn't get to.”
“I couldn't—” Steve's voice cracks like a boy's, and he can't finish that thought: I couldn't live without you. Because Bucky—Bucky'd had to live without Steve. Without anyone. He'd battled alone while Steve slept in the ice. And he still— “Jesus,” Steve says, and tries to hide his face.
Bucky won't let him. “You look at me,” he says. It's sharp like a slap, and not softened at all by the kiss that follows. Steve chases Bucky's mouth, desperate, when it goes. “You look at me, Steven Rogers,” Bucky says, and Steve looks. He's looking. Shaking, too. Pinned by Bucky's hands like a bug on a tray.
“God forbid, if anything happens to me,” Bucky grits out, “I want you to live. You listening? You fucking well live. I can't bear thinking about you not living. I knew you were alive when I read what you did in that plane and it still felt like I'd been kicked in the nuts. And I don't mean just breathing, you hear me? I mean live. You fill up your life so there's no room for despair. Promise me.”
“I can't, Buck, I—”
“I promise,” Steve says.
Bucky tugs him in quick and hard, hard enough to make Steve's teeth clack together. The impact sparks white through his vision. Steve's arms are around Bucky before he's consciously realized it's a hug. If hug's even the word; it's more like a kick, an elbow in slow motion, a punch that stretches out taffy-soft and hurting until they topple sideways onto the floor. Their faces tucked together. Bucky is crying again, gasping into Steve's neck like he's suffocating, and Steve holds him harder, as though less air is the solution to their problems. Bucky, to be fair, seems to be working on the same principle. He sounds like the Blitz. Like the whistle of a shell.
Bucky's nearly incomprehensible when he says, “You selfish bastard.”
“Don't you ever do that to me again.”
“I'm sorry,” Bucky says, madly. Steve jerks. “Putting myself together and avoiding you like a coward; I should've come sooner. But, hell, I didn't think you'd—”
“Don't,” Steve says, “Jesus, don't, you're not responsible for—”
“I don't care,” Bucky says, and that's enough of a summation for both of them that Steve shuts the hell up.
Fuck logic; I love you.
Steve thinks he could probably lay there forever, but when Bucky finally says, “We've gotta eat something,” he lets Bucky tug him up against the wall. They can't seem to let go of one another, so Bucky ends up reaching out and dragging the plate over to them with his bare toes. He's missing one of them. “Bomb,” Bucky says, when he catches Steve looking, “The others grew back;” and his foot tucks under Steve's ankle like it's shy. The stack of toast has gone cold and the butter's made it soggy, but it's the best thing Steve's ever tasted. Water in a desert. All his dangling wires plugged in. It would be nice to think it's Bucky's presence, lighting him up, but Steve knows the feeling, the adrenaline high, the nervous spark: the days he can only breathe because he's done something he very nearly couldn't take back.
As Steve tucks the last piece of bread into his mouth, he feels Bucky hook a finger around the chain, drawing the mezuzah just up out of his shirt. He closes his eyes.
“So.” Bucky clears his throat. “Carter kept it, after all.”
“You knew,” Steve says. “That mission—”
“Had a feeling,” Bucky demurs. “Had a feeling on a few other missions, too, but you ain't bent out of shape about those because nothing went wrong. You'd never have known, if I'd come back with you.”
“Would you've told me,” Steve asks, half-desperate, “After the war,” and Bucky makes a fist around the chain; he'd be dragging Steve closer if Steve wasn't already moving. “Would you have told me, when we were old and grey?”
“You think we woulda made it?” Bucky says, asking what Steve had been too much of a coward to. Bucky could've made it cruel, but it's soft and curious; he's really asking. “D'you think...”
“No.” He can't imagine it. “Not really. But—”
“But maybe, if we'd played it safe—”
“Expanded the team—”
“Sabotaged the plane—”
“We could've gone home. Peggy was in the SSR then, she could've gotten us jobs. Do-gooding. Busting heads.”
“Big shots in New York.”
“Or Los Angeles,” Steve says. Bucky's eyebrows raise. “She went out west, in '47. Would you have liked that? Sunshine? Palm trees? Howard was there, you know, we could've lived like—”
“—kings; but I don't know,” Bucky says, sceptical: “Are there Jews, in California?” and Steve, finally, manages to laugh.
“Hollywood,” Steve reminds him.
“Right,” Bucky says. “So you would've busted heads, and I would've made pictures, and we would've had—what else did Los Angeles have going for it? Wrigley Field? The night life? Muscle Beach?”
“Marriage,” Steve says, and feels the brightening mood pop like a bubble. “California was one of the—in 2008. One of the first.”
“Long time to wait,” Bucky murmurs. The backs of his metal fingers rubbing against Steve's neck. “You sure you wouldn't have rather—”
“No,” Steve says. “No.”
“Because she would've loved it,” Bucky says, “Two handsome specimens waiting on her hand and foot, punching Nazis on command,” and Steve chokes.
“You would've...wanted that?”
“Are you kidding?” Bucky says. “You and her were the two craziest people I ever knew. You would've been collectively the biggest, awfullest pain in my ass—”
“So no,” Steve wagers.
“—and I'd've been mental to turn it down,” Bucky says, with startling conviction. “I could've loved her. Easy. Someone like that—you just do. If you've got any soul at all.”
“It would've been something,” Steve says weakly. “The three of us, tearing up Los Angeles. Or New York. Or wherever—”
“But we didn't,” Bucky says. His hand on the back of Steve's neck, like he's going to shake him. “We didn't, and there's no going back, Stevie. You got no idea how much I'd give to go back and start over. You got no idea. They say the past's a foreign country, but it's not; you can visit another country. Time's like—it's like Mercury. You can land there and live there, if you got a spacesuit, but you'd have to stay on the dark side and keep moving, always. Because if the sun finds you standing still, it'll burn you to cinders.”
“I just wanted to go home,” Steve whispers. Perversely: “I just thought if I—” Reached, he can't say; Stretched out a little further, and...
But Bucky's nodding. “I know,” he says, tugging their foreheads together. Steve feels his face contort, as if he's about to weep, but nothing comes. He's all cried out. “I don't know what it feels like,” Bucky says. “Wanting to die. I only ever remember wanting to live until I thought I'd die of that. But—I know.”
“I don't think I wanted to die, exactly,” Steve says. “I just wanted to be where you were. And I thought. I thought I knew where that was.”
“You thought some crackerjack HYDRA goon could've managed? I got news for you, pal. Ain't no goose-stepping creep on this planet's got the chutzpah to take me down. You underestimate me like that again, and I'll have your nuts.”
“I love you,” Steve says helplessly.
“You got a funny way of showing it,” Bucky says. His fist in Steve's shirt. Bucky's face, when Steve looks, is halfway to manic. He's grinning, but it's a feral thing. “Treating my property like that. S'desecration, is what it is—hanging a klaf and then burning the house down. What kinda person does that?”
“A punk,” Steve says, “A real jerk-shit—”
“Asshole,” Bucky finishes. Gentler: “Will you try? Not for me,” he says quickly. “I won't make you do it alone, but I won't be your reason to live. One body's not big enough to hold that kinda weight. Come on. Look at me. Will you try?”
“I'll try,” Steve says. As if he can promise anything less, with Bucky's hand on his heart. “God help me, I'll try.”
Bucky, achingly slow, smiles.
Steve feels his face uncontrollably pulling into the same lines. He can't not. It's against the laws of the universe, not to smile when Bucky is.
“There he is,” Bucky says, “There's my—”
Steve reaches for him like a child.
There's no desperation in them this time. It's only an embrace, not an explosion; not a fight. Bucky's lungs expanding smoothly under his hands. Steve becomes aware of some dead, coiled-up thing dropping off of him, scale by scale, shedding cold skin: the mogyoktang feeling all over. After a minute, Bucky determines they aren't close enough, and shifts whole-bodied into Steve's lap, asking for as much comfort as Steve. It shocks him, always, still: Bucky's reciprocal need. It seems insane that the world had managed to separate them at all. They should have bounced back together like magnets.
Something nearby makes a cheerful noise, and Bucky wrestles a smartphone out of his front pocket. “Stark and Wilson are here,” Bucky says. He stands up, pulling Steve along with him. Ping! “And Romanoff's on her way.”
“Natasha?” Steve says, unbalanced. “Sam? Tony? Here?”
“Sure,” Bucky says. “I went through your contacts after I got you stable—called the ones I recognized. You scared the shit out of everybody. They're worried sick. You thought they wouldn't care?”
“I—” Steve shakes his head. He feels as though he's taken a step out, unexpectedly, into thin air. “I didn't think—”
“Yeah,” Bucky says, grimly amused, jabbing hard at his phone with his thumb: “That always has been your particular problem.”
“They're meeting us at that rattletrap diner across the street. C'mon, let's get cleaned up. We look like we been through the wars.”
Bucky sits Steve on the rim of the tub while he splashes freezing water onto his face and behind his ears, making offended noises. Steve watches, fascinated, as Bucky slicks his hair back into a low tail with the casual ease of long practice. Steve's watched Bucky make a thousand motions in front of a mirror—even applying Becca's lipstick, on a lark—but he's never seen Bucky long-haired and left-handed, balancing his body for a new weight.
“What's that look for?” Bucky asks, as he comes at Steve with a wet hand towel.
“I,” Steve says; but he won't be able to explain it. The precious newness of it, and the hurt. “Nothing. It's only that...well. It's—numming:” the towel against his mouth. Panic blooms hot in his chest when Bucky turns away, finished, wringing out water into the sink. “Buck, I can't go, I couldn't stand it if—”
Bucky grabs Steve by the shoulders and makes him square up. “You remember El Muy Muy Hermoso José?”
“That's a stupid question,” Steve says.
Bucky doesn't rise to the bait. “What I liked about him, aside of him being the most beautiful man on the face of the planet, was how good he was at making people feel useful. When there was a bunch of kids fixing to cause trouble, he'd find 'em all jobs so sneakily they didn't even realize they were helping out, they were having so much fun. If a guy was in the restaurant moping over a girl, there'd magically be garland that needed hung. He was a fucking magician. He made opportunities.”
“What's your point?”
“It ain't cowardly to give people a chance to help,” Bucky says, giving Steve a little shake. “In fact you might go so far as to say it's a kindness. So let us help, huh? Will you do that for us? Me, your weird friends—we want to. God, Steve, you were meant for more than—” a derisive gesture at the mildewed walls, “—this.”
“Did you...” Steve blinks, slowly. “Did you say that to me? Last night?”
“Probably. Said a lot of things, trying to keep you awake.”
“I thought they were ghosts,” Steve says. Bucky gives him an owlish, concerned expression. “I was—it's fuzzy,” he admits. “I thought I saw Peggy, and—and Ma. And you. Ghost-you.”
“That explains a few things,” Bucky says. “Was I on fire? You kept trying to, you know,” patting at Steve's arms: “I couldn't figure it out until this morning.”
“Yeah,” Steve says quietly. “Oh Christ, we should—that poor guy in your grave.”
“Let him lie.” Bucky shakes his head. “He's got as much right to be in there as anybody. Who's James Barnes—really? Besides, I won't need it.”
Steve swallows grit. “No?”
“Nah,” Bucky says. “Ain't letting you out of my sight, Rogers. They'll have to bury us in one hole, so I can keep an eye on you 'till Moshiach comes. God knows what you'll get up to, otherwise.”
It's a rebuke, and an apology, and a promise. Steve kisses Bucky for all three: takes his skull in his hands and presses their mouths together, warm and open, heart thundering in his chest. Bucky's fingers digging into Steve's waist like he means to put down roots, yanking them away from the wall, halfway to dancing and no air between them. Death crumbling to powder beneath their bare and curling toes. Somewhere there is a key, and a bench, and a train with red seats pulling into the station with a sound like all the bright bells of the world ringing out at once, joyful, and the shadows in the windows have flowers in their hair. They wave, but the doors don't open. There is no one on the platform. The train pulls away.
Bucky tugs them both out of the room; they collide with the doorframe on the way. “C'mon,” Bucky says, “C'mon, work with me,” and he drags Steve into the hall, down the stairs, pushing him out of the murk of the building and into the light: Steve flinches and blinks like a mole. He hasn't been out during the day in weeks. Too bright and too loud. The street smells vile. They're blocking the sidewalk; a man yells at them, and Bucky snarls cheerfully back in the same language. Across the street Steve can see Natasha's red hair through the window, but the rest of her is a blur, twisted away. Steve gasps, once, and then takes a proper breath, right from the belly. He's alive. Did he really almost—
“Baruch atah Adonai,” Bucky murmurs, “Elohenu melekh ha'olam—” and Steve thinks Bucky's blessing the morning, reflexive, “Shehecheyanu vekiymanu—” but when Steve turns, “Vehigi'anu lazman hazeh—” his hand outstretched:
Bucky, smiling, is looking at him.