It’s not a difficult decision to go down with the plane: since the train, Steve hasn’t felt much like “alive.” Rageful, yes. Righteous, vindictive. For the first time, glad to get his hands filthy with the soot and blood of war.
But he has been an arrow aimed at the heart of HYDRA and not really a man at all.
“Honor his choice,” Peg had said.
Sure. With blood and bullets, every day.
He hates to hear Peggy cry. She’s always been sharp edges and granite: great but a little frightening. He’ll say anything to stop her crying (anything true). He’d hoped she might actually teach him to dance. Or at least to navigate a world that did not contain James Buchanan Barnes. No chance of either, now. The radio goes out, and he’s left with no future ahead of him, only the past behind.
Duty had always run strong in him, so he followed orders. He took the afternoon they gave him to sit with the chaplain, to sit with regret and the sense memory of cold air at the ends of his fingers. Then he went back to work.
Another day, another nest of black-suited HYDRA goons with creepy weapons and stuff in large crates that they blew up rather than surrender. Steve punched, yanked, squeezed triggers until his fingers felt something other than empty space.
And on the walk back to their grimy little camp (‘fancy name for a clearing in the woods, right?’ his ears resolutely did not hear), he stumbled hard. Five sets of eyebrows around him approached helmets. His balance felt all wrong, as if his center of gravity should have been slightly to the left. As if he should have had a second pair of legs. He felt cut in half.
And it must’ve shown on his face by the sputtering fire of green twigs, because Morita thumped him on the arm and said,
“Buck up, Cap.”
And then shut his mouth with a snap, all of them staring at the ground except Dugan, who seemed to treat that hair on his face like a shield.
“Sorry,” Morita said.
The inability to get drunk had never seemed so cruel. Steve thought about every crude insult he had heard from Eighth Street to the front. He clenched his teeth together so hard they creaked.
“Hey,” Dugan said, “we get it. We lost him too.”
Steve shook his head rather than scream, stalked into the darkness that was now as clear to him as light, and wrapped his arms around the first big tree he found, in the hope that it would hold him up against the storm blowing through him.
A lifetime, wiped out because even his new arms were too short by just a couple of inches.
Steve panted against the rough bark, and the tree groaned with the pressure of his clinging to it.
To be … this: huge and handsome. Commanding, and everything he had always wanted (half of everything) but useless. He’d started almost thirty letters to Bucky about it from the spangle circuit. Knowing he’d get back two pages of cursing, a page of ridicule, and one line of advice that would make everything better. But the words never came out right, and then he was diving out of a plane like a guy from a comic book, for once actually helping. Saving the day.
And Bucky on that table, under a bank of machines, battered. Steve’s pulse had thudded hard in his own ears, and his brain was so focused on get him out, make him safe, my turn to make him safe that it took two days into the walk back for Steve to notice that the long burn on Bucky’s side had already healed to new pink flesh. That evening Bucky wandered off with a group trying to scare up woodland creatures for dinner instead of resting with the wounded, and Steve remembered how very short a time it had been between pulling Bucky off that table and sending him steady, grim, across a single girder above flames. Bare minutes.
But he had brought Bucky back from the abyss. He repaid the smallest part of a life’s worth of Bucky never giving up on him, through lost jobs, asthma attacks, and dates gone horribly wrong.
Steve knew himself to be stubborn. He was stubborn about Bucky being “saved.” Being “okay.” Even when the man once ridiculously vain spent three days in a coat missing four buttons and still done up wrong. Even though he drank everything not actually gasoline without ever seeming drunk.
Bucky had run out of bullets one day and kept up the fight with a long, wicked-looking knife usually reserved for prying open canisters and the odd rabbit. Steve had stared at him after, as he wiped his hands clean with what looked like a lace curtain.
Bucky’s expression was totally blank, and for a minute Steve felt the ground shift underneath him, his guts cold, to see that well-loved face without anything human in it.
Then Bucky had looked up, and his grin slid into place like a habit.
“Revoltin’,” he said, and tossed the curtain away.
That was right before the train. The disaster. Bucky acting as stupid as Steve had ever done, throwing himself in harm’s way.
Harm throwing him away.
His face growing smaller until it would never be seen again. Two inches of space between their fingers, where always before they had not been able to get out of each other’s way, in camps and ditches, their squalid little apartment, and his mother’s couch.
“Get your fat legs off me,” Steve had said a thousand times, and a thousand times Bucky had replied,
“Move your own damn chicken bones.”
“Stop messing with me,” Steve had said as recently as the week before the train in response to noogies, attempted slap fights, and snapped towels.
Always answered by “no.”
But two inches of space to cover, to grasp one hand? Impossible. Mission: failed. Outcome: one face, receding.
When his storm blew itself out, Steve found that he had pulled the tree halfway out of the ground, which frankly made him feel worse. Though by that point he was too tired to do anything but tilt it back into place and stagger back to camp, fall on his bed roll, and stare at the sky.
“Hope there are stars where you are, Buck.”
The plane hits the Atlantic, jarring him out of memory. For a couple of minutes everything is loud and wrenching. Then it’s very quiet and dark, and Steve knows he’s in the water. There’s a thump in the back, followed by the sound of water. The temperature has already dropped enough that his breath fogs.
The windscreen moans. Steve shudders at the mental image of the shatter to come, water pouring over him strapped (trapped) in the pilot’s chair.
No. Bucky didn’t have a choice, but Steve allows himself this much. He unstraps from the chair and crawls aft. The plane shifts, and cold water already covers the floor. He lies down in it and holds the shield over his chest. The water is freezing, and he has always hated the feeling of water in his ears. The windscreen moans again. If he were his old size, he would already be drowning.
The cold is pretty bad, but not as bad as the winter of ’40, in their crappy tenement when the radiator busted in January. They had piled every blanket (2), towel (3), rug (1), and piece of clothing they owned onto Steve’s bed and crawled in together, heads all the way under for warmth, breathing in the stink of too long since laundry day, and their teeth chattering.
“It’s not fair, I’m too beautiful to go like an ice cube,” Bucky had moaned while Steve tried to find a position that did not involve getting elbowed in the kidney or touching Bucky’s feet.
“Aw, Buck, you always said blue was your best color. Matches your eyes.”
“Laugh away, jerk. With my last breath I’ll be sure to roll on top of you. You’ll be stuck under my carcass for days.”
Steve had finally found a comfortable spot and was starting to get the tiniest bit warm. But –
“Jeez, that’s a fate worse than death. Or so all the girls in the neighborhood say.”
Then Bucky – who always fought dirty – touched Steve with his foot, and when Steve jack-knifed away, Bucky slid into the warm spot.
“Ah, thanks, Steve. What a pal you are.”
Even in the cold, with the water nearly covering his face, this makes Steve smile.
“Keep the light on,” he says to the darkness, under the sharp crack of the windscreen blowing.
“See you soon, pal.”
Steve believes in heaven. And heaven will of course have Bucky in it.
But then he wakes up, and it isn’t heaven at all.