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Move Slow, Forge Ahead

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                Boxing always reminds him of Bucky, of those two weeks they spent in Goldie’s gym, trying to make Steve into something dangerous enough to go to war. Bucky was already a three-time YMCA welterweight champion by then, on his way to bigger fights. In a kinder world, he could’ve stuck to the kind of violence where everybody gets bloody but almost no one gets dead.

                The war carved into all of them, but Bucky changed the most. Even more than Steve. The war took a boxer and made him into a sniper. It’s a hard thing to square, even now, how Bucky went from bruising skin with padded gloves to popping skulls with bullets.

                The smell of gunpowder just makes Steve feel tired, but the first time he steps into a boxing gym, Bucky’s ghost feels so close that Steve’s hands curl up tight, trying to hold on. It’s old sweat and worn leather, mats and pads that should’ve been washed or thrown out weeks ago. There’s nothing shining or beautiful about it, except that it feels like Bucky, feels like home.

                He’s got nowhere to be with his dead. He can’t feel them in the graveyards, and, anyway, they never found enough of Bucky to bury.

                Peggy’s a firefly, flashing bright and then fading, and every visit to her bedside is a Promethean experiment, letting himself get healed and picked apart by vultures, over and over again. But Bucky’s nowhere. Bucky’s got no grave, no living grandnieces or children to visit. Bucky’s just gone. He dropped off that train and fell down into nowhere, swallowed whole by a history people read about in books.

                Bucky’s in the gym, in the weight of the hundredth punch, in the way Steve’s fist connects with the bag, just like Bucky taught him. Jab, cross, hook. Sweat, and quick-moving blood, and Bucky’s bright smile of encouragement and sad, worried eyes.

                Bucky’s loudest in an empty gym, which is what Steve’s paid for. Which is why he’s so irritated when the owner catches him on his way in, says, with a shrug and a half-sorry smile, “Got another one tonight. Don’t worry. Way he’s going, he’ll wear out soon.”

                When Steve glances across the gym, the man in question looks like tired is something that happens to other people. He’s young and dark-haired and broad-shouldered, fits so easily in his skin that Steve can tell from twenty feet away that he’s been training for years. Maybe for his whole life.

                He’s light-footed, moves more than he needs to, ducks and bobs and darts like he’s got wings on his heels. Steve’s more inclined to plant himself like a tree, lean hard into whatever threat he’s facing, make them do the work of moving him. This guy’s prancing around the bag like he wants to flip right over the top of it, like he’s not sure yet if he wants to fight the bag or ask it to dance.

                When the man looks his way, the vivid, sunlit seawater blue of his eyes is all Steve can see for a second. And then the rest of his face registers, and Steve thinks Christ, he’s beautiful before he drops his gaze to the floor.

                A heartbeat after that, he remembers which century he’s in, and he looks up, wary, exploratory. The man grins at him – sunny and easy, amiable – and then goes back to work.

                “Yeah,” Steve says, to the owner who’s already halfway to the door. “It’s fine.”

 

. . .

 

                Thirty minutes in, the guy’s still around, although he’s moved on to doing something complicated and unnecessarily showy with the chin-up bar. He’s quiet, breathing fast but even, and Steve can ignore him entirely if he keeps his back to him.

                He can’t find Bucky, not really, but the distance is almost helpful. Like this man’s presence is a pane of glass between him and the war, gives him just enough distance to process all of the loss without feeling so much of the pain.

                The salt of his sweat is grounding this time, doesn’t remind him so much of drowning when he licks it off his upper lip.

                He sets up the bags, and he knocks them down, one by one, adds money to the tab SHIELD pays at the end of every week.

                There are better, stronger bags down in the SHIELD basements, but the whole building smells like antiseptic and bleach, and there’s nothing there for Steve except all those memories of hospital stays, the sense memories of childhood sickness.

                Bucky used to sneak into the hospital after visiting hours to keep him company. Out of everyone he’s ever known, Bucky always had the best soul.

                It’s so strange that the world thinks Steve’s the hero. Everything he reads, he’s the emblem of hope, and Bucky’s off to the side like some kind of afterthought instead of the anchor that kept Steve from thrashing into deep water.

                People never did understand. Steve never understood.

                If you could hold up a single snapshot to show the world Steve as a child, it’d be him in some back alley with blood on his mouth, fists held in front of him, facing off against some bully twice his size. And Bucky’s would be him halfway up a telephone pole, eyes screwed shut because he always hated heights, rescuing Dottie Hartmann’s stupid, daredevil cat for the fifteenth time.

                Steve’s spent his whole life trying to fight the part of the world that’s bad. Bucky was always trying to save what was good. If Steve learned a single damn thing from the war, it’s that there’s nothing brave or strong or redemptive about violence. Heroism is saving something. Everything else is just flash and blood and tickertape.  

                It’s wrong that Steve’s here and Bucky isn’t. Bucky was meant to live in peacetime. Meant to build and guide and nurture and protect. But Steve, he can never seem to find his footing without something to push against.

                When his fist connects with the bag, he forgets to check his strength. The hook snaps clean off, and the bag hits the ground and slides ten feet before it rolls to a stop. Steve takes a deep breath, and it catches on something inside him, makes him bite hard into the inside of his cheek to keep any sound from coming out.

                “Hey.” The man’s voice is soft, concerned. A second later, there’s the sound of footsteps headed over.

                He’s fit, and he’s friendly, and he’s done nothing wrong. But if he asks if Steve’s okay, Steve’s going to ruin his pretty face.

                “You warmed up yet?” the man asks, instead. There’s a playful smirk pulling up one corner of his mouth, but there’s assessment in his eyes, a slight furrow between his brows. He almost looks like he understands what he’s asking for when he hooks his thumb toward the ring behind them.

                “I’m not,” Steve says, although he’s not sure what the hell he is or isn’t. He’s in no condition to spar with some civilian who doesn’t know what he’s risking.

                “Hey,” the man says, and his smile is so sweet and encouraging that Steve wants to kiss it off his face. Wants to steal all that kindness, cage it down deep inside himself, be more like the person Bucky would’ve been, if he’d lived long enough, if he ever got the chance to go home. “You hit like a truck. I noticed. But trust me, I’m resilient.”

                Steve hesitates. He can’t fight him, not really. Not like he wants to. But sparring is like dancing, sometimes. You have a partner, and you move together. 

                The only people who touch Steve these days are the doctors who run tests every Wednesday.

                “Anyway,” the man says, bouncing up on his toes, stretching the long, solid lines of his body, “you’d have to be fast to land a hit. Good luck with that.”

                Steve blinks, raises an eyebrow. “You think your faster than me?”

                The man laughs. In his face. Laughs right at him, bright and ringing as a church bell on Sunday morning. If church bells still do that sort of thing these days.

                “Why don’t you come find out?” he says, throwing the challenge over his shoulder as he moves toward the ring, and Steve can’t help but follow him, feels tugged along in his wake like a boat going out to sea. Or maybe like a piece of driftwood being guided to shore.

 

. . .

 

                It’s a hell of a fight. It’s exhausting.

                The man’s right. He’s incredibly, almost unnaturally quick. It’s not so much physical, which Steve could match easily enough. It’s that his brain moves so damn fast, reads Steve like he’s got a billboard behind him showing his next three moves. Every time Steve goes to tap him with his wrapped hands, the other man has already danced – sometimes literally, hopping and skipping like he can’t stop himself – right out of Steve’s reach.

                Steve keeps waiting for him to get tired. He’s no super-soldier, after all. But, five minutes in, the man’s still grinning, sweat just starting to darken the roots of his hair, eyes lit up from within like he’s having the time of his life.

                “C’mon,” he taunts, bouncing a half-ring around Steve in a neat, sideways shuffle, “you don’t have to be so polite.”

                Steve ducks his chin and darts forward, lets some of that super-soldier speed surface. The hit should land below the man’s guard, a jab to the floating ribs on the man’s right side. A solid but not aggressive warning shot, a gentle demonstration of how much Steve really outclasses him.

                Instead, there’s a flinch and a flutter, and then the man’s flipping out of striking distance, spinning through the air in an honest-to-God backflip with a full twist thrown in for flair.

                Steve’s so damn shocked that he drops his hands.

                “Whoops,” the man says, bouncing on the balls of his feet, grinning so wide and smug that Steve’s still just staring, struck dumb, when he skips forward and taps his knuckles right against Steve’s chest. “Sorry,” he says, with a shrug that says he really isn’t. “isn’t this the part where we show off?”

                It sticks and jars in Steve’s chest. The athleticism of it, the skill. The strength and coordination in all those sculpted muscles. The sweat shining on his forehead and darkening his shirt, making him glow golden under the overhead lights. The life and warmth and strange, playful joy in this stranger who’s faster than he has any right to be. The warmth of his hand, when his knuckles pressed briefly to the center of Steve’s chest.

                “Yeah,” Steve says, bringing his fists up, not even trying to bite back his answering smile. “Alright. Let’s show off.”

                It’s a mess after that. A glorious, showy, reckless mess.

                Steve’s the better boxer, the stronger hitter, but they’re boxing for about five minutes, and then Steve’s just following along while the other man dashes and flips and spins through a dizzying array of martial arts and gymnastics and moves he seems to have picked up either in dirty street fights or especially disreputable nightclubs. He’s sure as hell not body shy, which he proves at one point by toppling Steve to the mat through the expert, brazen, and borderline disrespectful use of his thighs.

                “Wow,” Steve says, picking himself up. “Is that how people box these days?”

                “Well,” he says, tossing his chin, flicking his hair out of his face, “usually you have to ask nice first. But I’m pretty friendly.”

                Steve’s hot all over, feels warmed straight through to his core. Feels, for a moment, like he can’t even remember what it’s like to be cold and air-starved and dropping steadily away from everything bright and safe and familiar.

                The man’s stretching half a ring away, taking a few deep breaths while he has the chance. He’s smiling like he’s on the verge of laughter. “Come on,” he says, waving Steve forward. “I know you’re not done yet.”

                Steve gets his feet under him and charges, and he’s stronger and studier, has a longer reach and a heavier punch and higher endurance, but, for another ten, fifteen minutes, it almost doesn’t matter.

                It’s a beautiful relief, like the first step into a fire-lit house in dark midwinter, the first gasp of air after a coughing fit that blurs the edges of his vision. It’s exactly what he needs, and he’s gone so long without it that he almost doesn’t know what to do with the way his body feels afterward, when they’re both exhausted and sweat-covered and done, leaning back against the ropes, shoulder-to-shoulder, coming down.

                The man’s laughing, soft and breathless, wiping sweat off his forehead. “Damn,” he says, half-humming it, drawing it out. It’s throaty and approving, and Steve blushes, buries his face in his hands and scrubs until he thinks it’ll cover how red his face is.

                “I’m not gonna move right in the morning,” the man announces, and Steve honestly can’t gauge if he’s being teased or taunted or if it’s just all in his head. He’s been awake for months now, and this is the most any single person has touched him.

                His skin is tingling everywhere the man’s hands – and arms and chest and feet and thighs – have been. He’s embarrassed by how good it feels. He’s doing his best to forget that, any minute now, it’s going to be over, and he’s going to go back to his empty room at SHIELD, where everyone maintains a polite, professional distance.

                 The man knocks his elbow into Steve’s ribs. “I think you owe me a drink, after that.”

                Steve stills and looks up, and there’s a crooked, knowing smirk on the man’s face that Steve could read no matter which century he woke up in. “Um,” he says.

                “Or not,” the man amends, with a shrug and a smile.

                “No,” Steve says, sudden and sharp. He’s never been good at this. He’s probably even worse now. “I mean,” he tries again, “yes. Yeah.” He pauses, flounders, and then holds out his hand. “I’m Steve.”

                “Dick Grayson,” the man says, and his handshake is strong, friendly, and lingers just a half-second past the point of casual.

                Steve smiles, can’t hold it back. Dick’s an old-fashioned name. Everyone’s Rich or Rick or Richard these days. “Nice to meet you,” he says, because it is. Because it hasn’t been, for most people, since he woke up on the wrong side of the century divide.

                “Been a real pleasure, Steve,” Dick says, grinning sliding toward mischief. “Let’s see about that drink.”

 

. . .

 

                Dick says he knows a place nearby, and Steve follows along beside him, sweat cooling fast in the slight spring chill. He’s dressed for exercise, with a clean hoodie pulled over his sweat-damp shirt, and he’s sure they’ll get tossed out of whatever bar they wander into, as mussed and casual as they are, but Dick takes him to a dive bar where nobody looks any kind of dressed up.

                The lady tending bar blinks at Steve like she can’t work out what he could possibly want in this place, but her face lights up when she sees Dick. “Officer Grayson!” she says, and she leans right over the bar to give Dick a loud, smacking kiss on the cheek.

                Dick laughs, ducking his head, expression an endearing mix of embarrassed and fond. “Alright, Mel?” he asks, as he leans his hip against the bar, tips his shoulder into Steve’s.

                “Yeah,” she says, with a quick nod, “those assholes haven’t been back.”

                Dick clears his throat and darts a glance toward Steve. “I just, uh,” he says, inarticulate for the first time since Steve’s met him. “Had a conversation with some drunk guys a couple days ago. They were getting kinda loud. Impolite.”

                “You should see the dents their faces made in the dumpsters,” Mel says, turning cheerful eyes Steve’s direction. “And then the fire escape-

                “Yeah, so,” Dick says, right over the top of her. “So we would like some drinks, please, Mel.”

                Mel huffs out a breath. “Alright,” she says, clearly begrudging. But after Steve’s paid for their beers, she slides Steve’s drink over to him and then leans in, conspiratorially, to mutter, “Dumpsters are out that way, if you wanna see how much of a badass your date is.”

                “Thanks, Mel,” Dick says. He swipes both drinks off the bar while Steve’s frozen in place, heart stuttering in his chest, mind stripped down to a running repeat of the word date. “Your discretion is admirable and deeply appreciated. Have you considered a career in espionage? Law enforcement?”

                When they settle in a booth that gives them a clear view of every entrance, Dick’s blushing alone the lines of his cheekbones. “Officer?” Steve asks, poker-faced, taking a sip of his beer to cover the strange, flattered, shakey way he feels.

                “Sometimes,” Dick says. “I’m from Bludhaven,” he clarifies, a second later. “Just up here for a week or so, helping a friend.”

                He doesn’t clarify the nature of that help or the friend, so Steve doesn’t ask. “And beating up drunks in alleyways,” he adds, instead.

                Dick blinks and then grimaces, runs a hand up his neck and then through his hair. “I had an extended, animated conversation with some disorderly patrons,” he hedges.

                Half an hour ago, in a friendly, playful sparring session, Dick damn near fed Steve his own teeth. Steve can’t quite picture what Dick would do to some handsy drunk bullies, but he wouldn’t pass on the opportunity to watch.

                “And after that conversation,” Steve says, “they decided to behave?”

                “I’m very persuasive,” Dick says, and, yeah, Steve just bets he is.

                With a face and body like that, Steve imagines he could persuade half the world to do whatever the hell he wanted. And then, for anyone who might find themselves impervious to his charms, there’s that viper strike of a right hook for additional encouragement.

                “Have trouble walking away from fights, Officer Grayson?” Steve asks, because he can’t keep it to himself. Because he’s curious. Because he’s spent this whole night trying to figure out if Dick reminds him more of Bucky or Peggy or himself.

                Dick blinks and then sighs and settles back against the booth. His eyes drift to the side, focusing briefly on Mel before moving back to Steve. “If my last fight was already over,” he says, “it’d make my whole life. That’s retirement, you know? That’s the dream.”

                It sounds like a confession. It sounds like a daydream. It sounds like something he wants and knows he can’t have, like the way people used to say When the Dodgers win the pennant or Maybe, tomorrow, the Germans surrender, and this whole thing’ll just be over.

                Steve swallows. Oh, he thinks, as it settles in his mind. Bucky.

                Maybe even if Bucky got to go home, he’d never have lived in peacetime. Maybe people who fight to protect others never get to stand down. Maybe it’s just one fight after another, until the last one takes you with it.

                “What about you, Steve?” Dick asks, tipping his head back, eyeing him thoughtfully. “You’re military, right? You have trouble walking away from fights too?”

                Steve shifts in his seat and wonders what gave him away. He wonders how much Dick sees, how much intelligence and awareness he hides with pretty blue eyes and affable smiles and all those friendly, effortlessly charming mannerisms.

                “Just waiting for the next one,” he says. It’s maybe too honest for strangers, but all Steve has these days are strangers.

                Dick’s silent for a second and then he breathes out, takes a long drink of his beer. “I know a guy like that. Can’t say I’ve ever seen him happy.”

                Steve’s struck, for a second, by how alien that thought is to him. “Not sure being happy has much to do with it.”

                Not for himself, anyway. It’s never been the point. When there’s so much suffering in the world, what right would he have to be happy in the face of it? What would it matter, if he was? What would it change?

                Dick laughs and flashes another grin, sharper and colder than any of the others. “Yeah,” he says, with an upward flick of his mouth that doesn’t reach his eyes. “Pretty sure he doesn’t think so, either.”

                Steve blinks and falters, feels like he’s being judged for something he’s never thought of as a flaw. He gets a flash of memory, the worn-out worry in Bucky’s eyes, as Steve threw punch after punch, air wheezing in his chest, arms shaking.

                “Here’s the thing, Steve,” Dick says, suddenly leaning forward, face a few inches from Steve’s. “You only get one life, too.”

                Steve freezes. He’s looking at Dick’s mouth, and he’s thinking about how it’s not true, because he’s on his second life, and you have to pay people back for gifts, even if you never wanted them in the first place. He feels pinned and pulled and tugged in two. He feels – for some reason he can’t understand or articulate – like Dick’s ripping his heart right out of him.

                Dick’s motionless for a long moment and then he smiles, sad and earnest and a little bitter, and leans back, resettles. “Yeah,” he says, looking away. “Yeah, okay, Steve. Fair enough.”

                Steve swallows and then curls his hand around his beer. He’s uncomfortable, awkward and confused, feels like he’s lost the thread of the conversation. And that’s not unusual these days, but he hasn’t felt that way with Dick Grayson until this moment.

                “Hey,” Dick says, and his foot nudges Steve’s under the table. He’s smiling again, but it’s friendlier this time, strikes like a match in Steve’s chest. “So where’d you learn to fight like that?”

                So Steve tells him about Bucky, about Peggy, about the Howlies, about all the fighters he’s known, and Dick tells him about some guy named Bruce, who’s got to be his father or a lifelong mentor from the wrapped-up, tail-chasing, fond and proud and disappointed way he talks about him.

                And Steve’s been answering questions about the missions he ran since he blinked his eyes open in the twenty-first century, but no one else has leaned over the table, arms wrapped around his chest, and laughed himself damn near sick over the way Bucky and Dugan once nearly got themselves murdered for stealing fresh chicken eggs from a dead-shot French woman who lived in a barn they thought was abandoned.

                No one else has made Steve snort beer through his nose by waiting for the exact, perfect moment to explain that the burglary suspect Dick had chased for fifteen minutes, rooftop-to-rooftop, almost falling to his death any number of times, turned out to be his absolute jackass of a kid brother, who had the audacity to suggest that Dick should do more cardio while Dick was lying face-down in some crushed wooden pallets, trying to figure out if he’d broken any ribs.

                It’s nice. It’s nice, and weightless, and uncomplicated. When the bar closes and they empty out onto the pavement, Steve thinks he’d follow Dick halfway to HYDRA, if Dick asked him to. He dodges into the back alley Mel mentioned instead, and makes a big, embarrassing show out of all the dumpster dents and fire escape damage, just to watch the way Dick shuffles his feet and blushes clear down to the collar of his shirt.

                “Well, Steve,” Dick says, with his hands shoved into his pockets and a gently, indulgently aggrieved look on his face, “if you’re done embarrassing the hell out of me, it’s probably time to call it a night.”

                “I’m gonna call the cops,” Steve tells him, pointing toward the fire escape. “I’m pretty sure damaging those things is a felony.”

                “It’s a misdemeanor,” Dick says, faintly exasperated. “And I’m gonna fix it.”

                Steve figures that has to be true. Dick seems like the kind of guy who’s compelled to fix any broken thing he meets, permanently driven to leave everyone and everything better than how he found it.

                Steve thinks, charmed and fascinated and a little wistful, that it must be nice, to live like that.

                “Steve?” Dick’s eyes are thoughtful and earnest, and Steve didn’t exactly mean to get this close to him, but he can only hold against a pull like that for so long.

                “This okay?” Steve asks, because he can’t not. Because they’re in a different time that’s so strange it might as well be a different world, but it still feels risky and wrong and dangerous, kissing another man in the middle of the city, where anyone can see.

                Dick kisses him in answer, gets a hand in Steve’s hair and another around the back of his neck, like he doesn’t care they’re in public, like he’d kiss him in the middle of Times Square. Kisses him sweet and skilled and a little flashy, same way he does everything else.

                When the kiss is over, Steve’s breathless, and he’s got Dick’s smile on his mouth, too wide, too friendly, too happy. It fits like a borrowed sweater, warm and comfortable.

                “You should call me sometime,” Dick says, and he passes Steve a napkin from the bar, phone number already written on it, like he’d scrawled it out under the table, just in case.

                “Yeah,” Steve says, because he can’t, in this moment, think of any damn reason that he wouldn’t.

                “Or maybe,” Dick says, darting in for another kiss, “I’ll see you at the gym.”

                “Yeah,” Steve says again, dumb and buzzing and feeling almost drunk, even though he knows he can’t be.

                Dick laughs, too pleased to be mocking, and kisses him one more time before he turns. “Goodnight, Steve,” he calls over his shoulder, and he’s glowing under the weak, watery lights, looks beautiful even when he’s leaving.

                Steve clutches the napkin in his hand, and he can’t make himself say goodbye. It feels like bad luck, and, anyway, he’s used up his quota on goodbyes for the next hundred years.

 

. . .

 

                He doesn’t call the next day, but he’s hopeful when he goes to the gym that night. He should be cooler about things, wait another day or so, but he woke up feeling lighter than he’s felt since Bucky left Brooklyn, and he doesn’t want to wait. Can’t, maybe.

                When the gym door creaks open an hour or so after the owner left, Steve looks up, hoping for dark hair and blue eyes and an easy, charming smile, but it’s Nick Fury with a mission, instead.

                Steve thinks about the napkin back at SHIELD, the only personal thing in his whole damn room, aside from the compass with Peggy’s picture and the shield Howard built. He thinks about how many graves he’s already visited, the way his bones weigh heavy in his body, how tired he is all the damn time. He thinks about the life he gave up, the friends he left. He thinks – stupid and petulant and childish – that he’s already sacrificed enough, that he already gave up his whole Goddamn world.

                “Yeah,” he says, standing up, unwrapping his hands, blanking Dick Grayson and his brilliant, sunshine warmth and his you only get one life, too right out of his head. “Alright.”

 

. . .

 

                When it’s over, he doesn’t feel much of anything at all. There’s the flashburn of relief when Stark opens his eyes, the dizzying release of the pressure that had been slowly choking the air out of him. They’re in the shattered remains of Midtown, surrounded by debris from a fight they barely won, and there are bodies in the broken buildings around them, but Tony Stark is still breathing.

                Steve nosedived a plane into the Atlantic, and Stark flew straight up into a hole in the sky, and it’s the same thing, really. They’re both supposed to be dead.

                “You got someplace to be, Rogers?” Tony asks, when the team is done eating, and Romanoff and Barton have limped off somewhere, and Thor’s escorting Loki to Fury, and Banner’s waiting a few yards away, shoulders hunched like he needed to find someplace to sleep it off about thirty-six hours ago. “Tower’s a bit banged up, but there are a few guest suites left without any massive holes in them. And, if you don’t mind a bit of a breeze, there’s couches in the penthouse.”

                Steve misread Tony. Or maybe, the whole time, he knew exactly where Tony was headed, and he wanted to warn him away from it. It’s hard to tell, even in Steve’s own head. Nothing’s a straight line anymore.

                Steve wants to tell him that people who throw themselves on grenades tend to end up as meat and blood splattered on the friends who have to go on living with the guilt of not getting there first. He wants to tell him that flying with a bomb isn’t any better than diving with one, and it’s cold in space, and it’s cold in the sea, and it’s a hard, cruel, lonely thing, coming back from death into a life you thought you’d finished.

                Heroism is saving something. Which makes them heroes. Which doesn’t, in the end, make it any easier to live with the fact that they still have to get up in the morning without all the people they weren’t fast enough to save.

                Tony’s smarter than Steve, though. He’s probably figured all of that out already.

                Steve’s got no right to call Dick Grayson. He’s a mess and a disaster, an exposed nerve, and he thinks he must be some kind of poison, judging from all the bodies that drop in his wake. Bucky’s in a mountain somewhere, buried under snow, and Erksine’s grave is small and rarely visited, and his mother’s is covered with flowers from strangers who only love her for the child who bought all of them more time.

                Manhattan is a banged-up, smoking mess, and they are standing, surrounded on all sides, by the bodies of people who had dinner plans and dental appointments and children’s playdates scheduled carefully in their phones and calendars.

                If he’s going to lead this team, he should stick close to Tony, make sure he gets through this. But he’s starting to realize he’s in no shape to lead. You can’t save someone from drowning if you’re drowning yourself. You can’t save anyone at all.

                Here’s the thing, Steve, he hears, in Dick’s steady, sympathetic tone. You only get one life, too.

                “Hey, Tony,” he says, because SHIELD tracks his phone. “Can I borrow your phone?”

                Tony’ll trace the call, no question, but you don’t have a team if you can’t trust them. When Tony hands over the phone without a single beat of hesitation, Steve thinks maybe, finally he’s putting down roots in new ground.

                “Steve,” Dick says, after he figures out who's calling, “hey. You’re in Manhattan, right? You wanna bring those big shoulders of yours and help me dig out some survivors? I found a nice lady with a search and rescue dog. You’ll love him. His name is Hrothgar, and he’s almost as blonde as you are.”

                It is, Steve thinks, exactly what he wants to do.

                The fight’s over. There’s nothing comforting in violence. Nothing about it that Steve enjoys. He’s not building a single Goddamn thing. It’s just blood and ichor and dead aliens on the pavement.

                “If you can find some coffee on the way,” Dick adds, cajoling, “I will love you forever.”

                “Well,” Steve says, because Stark has to have coffee in the Tower, and Steve knows a sucker for a good cause when he sees one, “I think I can manage that.”

                “You’re a hero, Steve,” Dick tells him, and it sounds right in his voice, like a blessing, like a buoy pulling him up instead of an anchor dragging him down.

                Steve’s been thinking about the bodies, and Dick’s been searching for survivors, and it’s all Steve needs, really. It’s all he’s ever needed. Someone with their eyes locked on daybreak, while Steve does everything he can to push back the dark.

                “I’m on my way,” Steve says, because he is. Because he found it. Because for the first time in a long, dark, endless stretch of forever, he’s finally found his way to looking forward.