Chapter 1: I.
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“—so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”
-Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
* * *
He’s fourteen years old when he finds it. He’s all knobby knees with scrapes on the palms of his hands and bruises along the top of his knuckles, fine blond hair sticking to the back of his neck in the thick New York City summer heat. He has a slightly bloody nose and a busted lip his Ma’s going to give him hell for after she cleans it better.
He drags his feet along the hot Brooklyn pavement, ears ringing a little, and when he looks up, it’s there, nestled in between two, narrow brick buildings—a hardware store with a dusty white, pinstriped awning to the left and a haberdashery with a line of men’s hats displayed brightly behind the glass to the right. He’s hot and a little disoriented, fresh off a brawl he could probably have avoided, and all he really wants is a cold glass of water and maybe a kerchief if someone’s kind enough to lend him one. What he finds instead is a window with gold curved writing scrawled across the top of the windowpane and a single book in the middle of its display.
Steve stops, lips between his teeth, and presses his scraped palms against the glass—then his nose and his eyeballs and his whole face after that.
His eyes are large as saucers and the ringing kinda gets forgotten, same as the smarting of his knuckles.
By the time the owner comes out to see what kid is fogging up his glass, Steve knows exactly what to ask—
“Say,” he tells the owner, who gives him that once over that every adult gives every kid who looks like he’s more trouble than he could possible be worth, “what could I do to get my hands on that book in the display?”
It’s almost certainly at least a few dollars and Steve doesn’t have a cent to his name.
The owner—a large man with a bushy mustache and perfectly circular glasses—raises a single, bushy eyebrow, and his kind eyes crinkle at the corners.
“Tell you what,” he says. “You work the hours and I’ll give you any book you want, how’s that for a deal?”
Steve wipes his smarting hand across the bridge of his smarting nose and, eyes bright, breath quickening from excitement, holds out a hand.
“You got yourself a deal.”
That is how Steve Rogers ends up reading The Maltese Falcon.
It’s how he ends up reading The Good Earth, The Great Gatsby, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Gone With the Wind. It’s how he gets his grubby little hands on Of Mice and Men, Rebecca, The Grapes of Wrath, and, eventually, The Hobbit, which he loves so much he reads half a dozen times the first month alone. On his Ma’s birthday, he buys her a slice of cake and gives her The Wizard of Oz, wrapped in newspaper. He brings home a stack of Agatha Christie novels and those too, are from the bookstore.
The bookstore’s name is The Yellow Book Road and the owner’s name is Mr. Carroll.
Mr. Carroll is a kind, decent man who loves books and giving kids who look like trouble a second chance. He gives Steve a job that gets him through the Depression and The Yellow Book Road gives him a purpose that gets him through everything else.
First he’s there after school, helping Mr. Carroll set up the displays and dust the shelves and ring up his daily customers and some wander ins besides. Then, he’s there before school too, helping Mr. Carroll count the till and do the expenses and feed the stray cat that Mr. Carroll refuses to name, but also refuses to turn out—a fat, orange thing that kind of makes Steve itchy on account of his allergies, but also is so lazy and so funny that Steve can’t help but give it attention. He sits with him on quiet mornings he’s having trouble breathing anyway and feeds him scraps of leftover breakfast. Steve scritches between his eyes and behind his right ear, just where he likes it, and he reads out to him from whatever novel he’s reading that week and it’s nice to have an audience, even if that audience mostly just uses him for food.
It calms Steve to be there, him and his thin, spindly limbs and half-working lungs and barely functioning eyes, wandering up and down the narrow aisles of bookshelves, touching the spines of books covered in cloth and books covered in leather. Outside, the world is loud and poor and violent and depressing, but inside the store, there’s a calm that sinks into Steve’s bones, an unshakeable, quiet kind of assurance that nothing else might be going exactly okay, but here there’s shelves of worlds he’s never been to and a hundred thousand different endings to explore—some not so okay, but a lot that are happier than anything he’ll ever find outside.
It’s utopia in the middle of Brooklyn, purgatory in the middle of a war. Not a literal war, not yet, but a more insidious kind; the slower kind of war, hunger and poverty eating away at tired folks who are just trying to survive. Steve closes shop and the moment he goes outside, there’s folks who are hungry and folks who are crying and folks who look at him with eyes so weary he feels it in the bones of him. It wears on him the way it wears on his Ma, when she comes home from a shift at the hospital and her feet ache and her heart hurts because she’s seen too much she can’t fix. Steve can’t fix it either, which burns him up inside, but then he comes back in the morning, opening up shop and bending down to scratch the cat behind his ears and it feels better.
He spends years like this, his limbs growing a little and his hair growing a lot, and he never quite stops sneezing from the dust, but he rifles through the new buys and the old acquisitions anyway. He brings home a few dollars for his Ma and a coupla dollars for himself and a whole lot of books for the both of them besides. It’s not perfect, but it’s as close as he’s going to get—his own peaceful oasis, both his time and his bookstore.
Life eventually creeps in whether you like for it to or not. Steve watches the Depression ravage his neighborhood and disease ravage his Ma. Neither take quite as long as they could, but both last too long by half. He watches Brooklyn grow hungrier; he watches his mother grow thinner. He watches from inside the bookstore, wrapping up his hurt in soft gauze and folding it into his heart.
When Sarah Rogers passes, Mr. Carroll gives Steve a whole month off and a whole paycheck he was never expecting, just to help cover her funeral expenses. Steve takes the money because funerals are expensive and he has nothing but books left to his name, but he doesn’t take the time.
He buries his Ma on a Friday and comes back to work on a Saturday. His eyes are red and his face pink and blotchy, but Mr. Carroll doesn’t say nothing about it.
Instead, he gives Steve a gruff hug and a beautiful, leatherbound copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Steve’s never read it before.
“It’s no use going back to yesterday,” Mr. Carroll says and touches Steve’s face. “Because you were a different person then.”
Steve doesn’t understand it then, but he will later. He swallows the thick knot in his throat and nods, vision blurry, chest heavy as an anvil. There’s dirt under his fingernails and the smell of his mother’s perfume lingering on his threadbare clothes.
He sits down on the back steps during his lunch break. The cat curls up by his feet and Steve sneezes only once before opening the book.
Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”
He spends well past his thirty minutes reading, but Mr. Carroll doesn’t scold him for it. He takes care of the customers and Steve follows Alice down the rabbit hole, the cat nudging at his hand.
Nothing happens exactly the way that Steve plans for it to. That’s life, outside of books. The U.S. goes to war and he feels a compunction he can’t dispel. It’s not patriotism or even pride; it’s doing the right thing and doing it as honorably as he can. Well, as close to honorable as he can. Steve can’t enlist the normal way, so he takes the hard way around.
When he comes back to Mr. Carroll with his body three times the size it used to be, Mr. Carroll looks at him sadly.
“Who in the world am I?” he says to Steve, quietly. “Ah, that’s the great puzzle.”
Steve has the book memorized by now, the words committed to heart.
“Am I Alice?” Steve asks Mr. Carroll quietly and Mr. Carroll gives him a soft smile.
“This isn’t Wonderland, Steve,” Mr. Carroll says. “This is war.”
Steve doesn’t know if he will ever come back here, to the little shop between the hardware store and the haberdashery. He doesn’t know if he will ever see it again—the rows of books, neatly put away on endless, narrow shelves, and the stacks of books on the floor, organized in a quiet, exact sort of disarray. He bends down to pet the cat goodbye and the cat looks up at him, with big saucer eyes. He mewls, like he knows this is the last time they will meet.
Mr. Carroll touches Steve’s shoulder.
“His name is Jabberwocky,” he says and Steve startles.
“When did you name him?” he asks.
“He’s always had a name,” Mr. Carroll says. “We all do.”
Jabberwocky turns his nose up at Steve and Steve scratches him between the eyes one last time, for good measure.
“Jabberwocky,” Steve says, with a smile. He remembers the poem. “That’s nonsense.”
“Take care of yourself, Steve,” Mr. Carroll says and this time he hands Steve Through the Looking Glass. “Wherever the rabbit hole takes you, remember—you can always come back home. All you have to do is find the way.”
Steve takes three things to war: a picture of his Ma, a small pocket watch his father had given to his mother before he had left for the Great War himself, and a single page, folded into quarters. It has a small drawing on top and words printed below.
In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by, Dreaming as the summers die:
Ever drifting down the stream, Lingering in the golden gleam,
Life, what is it but a dream?
Steve doesn’t come back from war.
When the government goes through his storage, they find out very little about Captain America but for one thing—he had loved to read.
The Smithsonian takes half of his book collection for their Captain America exhibit. In the middle of the display case, surrounded by his tools of war, is a beautiful, white leather-bound, illustrated copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
* * *
In 2011, they find the Valkyrie crashed in the waters near Greenland. The ship takes some damage to the hull, but inside is a cold, pristine scene. Everything is preserved, an eerie time capsule lit in low blue light, with ice crawling up the sides.
They find him in the middle of the bomber.
There’s a layer of ice covering his waterlogged suit and frost dusting the curves of his cheekbones.
He’s been underwater for nearly 70 years, but he doesn’t look dead. His pale eyelashes are dusted with frost as well, his mouth curved just slightly into the bare hint of a frown. They can’t feel a pulse at first. He looks as though he’s sleeping.
Steve Rogers wakes up to the twenty first century with a jolt of a headache and an intense sense of disorientation.
“You’ve been asleep, Cap,” a man with one eye and a squadron of armed agents at his back tells him. “For almost 70 years.”
It almost doesn’t need to be said. Steve looks at the modern world around him with an increasing sense of disconnect. The lights aren’t his and neither are the buildings. The cars, the animated billboards, the asphalt roads, and the bright glare of colors and advertisements—none of them are his.
“Are you all right?” Nicky Fury asks him and Steve says something about missing a date.
That much is true, but so is this—he missed one date—one day, one second—and more than half a century had passed in that time.
“Let’s get you home, soldier,” Fury tells Steve and Steve wonders: home—what is home, when the world’s gone on without you?
The twenty first century is nothing like what Steve had imagined in the 40s. It’s too loud and it’s too bright and everything is new technology, which isn’t bad, per se, although Steve’s not entirely sure it’s particularly good either. Everything is a little too brash and everyone is a little too busy. The world changes in unfathomable ways in the time he’s in the ice, but it stays the same in all the worst ways too. It’s 2011 and people are still self-serving assholes. It’s 2012 and Steve’s enemies are still the enemies they were in 1945—they just have a different name now, a new shape, a different face.
He spends not months, but a few years getting used to this—the rhythms of this century, for all its good and all its evils. He misses the past like a phantom limb, but he would, wouldn’t he?
“1945 was a long time ago, Cap,” the Widow tells him after one of their early missions and Steve gives a low laugh, unbuckling the cowl from his head.
“For you, maybe,” he says to her. “For me, it was just last year.”
That seems to be the crux of what his teammates, for all of their goodwill, don’t seem to understand.
“Level with me, Cap,” Tony says to him one day.
They’re all in Avengers Tower after a particularly grueling series of missions. Steve hasn’t been back to his apartment in days—neither has anyone else, for that matter. For the first time in three years of begging, the Avengers stay on their designated floors at the Tower because no one has the energy to do more than strip out of their outfits and sink into a hot shower.
Steve meets Tony after he’s washed the stink of alien guts off of him. Tony pours him a glass of bourbon they both know will do nothing for him.
“Okay,” Steve says and takes the glass from him.
“Where do you go, when you’re with us?”
“Don’t give me that look. You’re here physically, but you’re somewhere else mentally,” Tony says and pours himself one too. “You’re here, but you’re not. Why is that?”
Steve raises an eyebrow, but Tony raises one back. He crunches on ice and swallows a mouthful of liquor to avoid answering the question.
Tony, always willing to fill any silence longer than half a breath, stays quiet for once. He’s looking for an answer Steve doesn’t want to give.
Steve’s good at staying silent. Tony’s even better at waiting him out.
Behind him, the elevator door slides open and the others—Clint and Natasha and Bruce amble in. They make straight for the couch and Tony gives Steve an appraising look that gets under his skin.
“I’m here,” Steve says, finally. “Why would you say I’m not here?”
“Sure, you’re here physically,” Tony says with a wave of his hand. “Aren’t we all? But you’re not here where it counts. I know what disconnected looks like. You think I haven’t dissociated? You think I don’t dissociate? I got kidnapped and held in the middle of Afghanistan. I had to build myself an iron suit just to get myself out. Do you think I don’t think about that, every single day? Sometimes I’m here and sometimes I’m still there. Trust my therapy bills, Cap, I know what that’s like. So what is it? Is it the war?”
Everyone always thinks it’s the war and you know, maybe it is. Steve went to war as a soldier and he came out something else. He never finished fighting what he meant to fight and maybe that hangs over him, like a sentence without a closing punctuation mark. It’s not like he had much time to unpack all of that.
But it’s not that, really.
He’s three years out of the ice and some things come easy to him and some things don’t. He reaches for a radio knob and finds an iPhone instead. He takes the stairs down from his apartment and is almost run over by a car—something sleek and electric, fast and irresponsible. His lungs don’t stutter every time he takes a breath, but everything is on a screen, distant and disconnected. The future isn’t the worst thing that’s happened to him, but it doesn’t feel like it belongs to him. Or, more accurately, he doesn’t feel like he belongs to it.
If everyone has a future that they earn, then Steve thinks he got here by accident; he hasn’t earned anything at all.
“I’m fine, Tony,” Steve says, with a smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes. “I’m here every way I can be. Where else would I be?”
That’s not all, Steve thinks. The real question is—where else would he go?
Tony doesn’t look convinced. But then, neither does Steve.
The Widow—Natasha—takes an interest in his love life. Steve thinks it’s her way of being friendly.
Every week they grab coffee at a coffee shop in Greenwich Village that is too expensive by half, but Natasha likes their pastries and Steve likes their flat whites. They’re Avengers; Steve’s not entirely sure of the pay, but he thinks it’s probably enough to splurge on caffeine and chocolate croissants once a week.
“How was your date?” Natasha asks, breaking off a corner of a linzer tart. It’s not the first thing she asks, but it comes up not even halfway into Steve’s drink.
“It was,” Steve says by way of reply.
Natasha raises an eyebrow and Steve takes a mouthful of espresso.
“Did you take her home?” she asks.
Steve doesn’t have to answer that, so he doesn’t. The silence is more telling than an answer would be, anyway.
“Why not?” Natasha prods. “This was your second time out, wasn’t it?”
Steve’s never been particularly good at dating and even less adept with women. The serum had enhanced his musculature, but it sure hadn’t cured his lack of game. The Captain America thing had helped with that, to a certain extent, but then that’s a whole different problem. Steve doesn’t like going on dates as Captain America. He barely likes going on dates as Steve, but at least Steve is real. Awkward, but real.
Cap, on the other hand, is—
“I don’t know,” Steve says, with a slight lift of his shoulder. “She’s nice.”
“Nice,” Natasha repeats. “That’s code for boring.”
“No,” Steve gives her a warning look. “It’s code for nice. She’s perfectly lovely.”
“But?” Natasha dips a corner of her cookie in her coffee.
Steve likes Natasha, but sometimes he wishes she would take a hint.
“But we’ve only gone out twice,” Steve says.
Natasha gives him one of her indecipherable grins—a quick thing, turned up at the corner and gone just as suddenly.
“It’s the 21st century, Steve,” she says. “You’re allowed.”
“I know I’m allowed,” Steve says with some irritation. “I was allowed in the 40s too. I’m not asking for your permission.”
Natasha raises an eyebrow and Steve immediately feels wrong-footed. He tries to be firm and comes off like a jackass. Everything feels wrong on him somehow—awkward, at least. He sighs and breaks off a corner of Natasha’s cookie. She gives him a dirty look, but doesn’t stop him.
“I’m still getting used to this,” Steve admits.
“This century. Dating’s part of that, I guess.”
Natasha hums and then, surprisingly, Steve feels his foot nudged under the table.
“You’ve been out of the ice for a couple of years now,” she says. “Four years and counting. Unless you have a time machine I don’t know about, you’re stuck here, for better or for worse. When are you going to make this your home?”
The question doesn’t sit right with him, but very few things do.
He finishes his coffee and takes their dirty dishes to the counter.
“Hey,” Natasha says, meeting him at the door. She touches his elbow. “I’m just worried about you. I harass you because I care.”
“I know,” Steve says. “I appreciate it, but you don’t have to—”
“Harass you?” Natasha smiles.
“Worry,” Steve’s mouth twitches. “But that too. I can get by on my own, Nat. I promise.”
“Anyone can get by on their own, Steve,” Natasha says. “I just don’t want you to have to.”
Natasha leaves him near Washington Square Park. She takes a train uptown and he waits for the B to take him back to Brooklyn.
He has his cap on and his earbuds in, huddled at the end of a mostly empty subway car.
When are you going to make this your home? Natasha had asked him.
He thinks about that—the sentiment, but the question too.
When are you going to make this your home?
It dislodges something in his memory, like a fragment of his past, set slightly adrift.
Wherever the rabbit hole takes you, remember—you can always come back home. All you have to do is find the way.
Steve almost misses his stop, he feels so askew. He’s nearly out the door when he catches sight of a young woman with a bag. It makes him pause, large body half in and half out of the subway car. His heart rate ticks up.
“Excuse me,” he asks. “Can I ask—where that’s from?”
The young woman takes an earbud out and looks down at her paper bag of books.
“Oh,” she says with a smile. “It’s this cute little bookstore in Brooklyn.
The thing about missions is that they spike in both directions. Steve doesn’t mind them as a means to pass time. There’s something indescribably soothing about clipping his cowl into place and sliding his shield off his back; the urgency of the moment, the heat creeping up the back of his neck, just Steve and his shield and whatever enemy he has to face in front of him. He likes the immediacy of it, but, more importantly, he likes the mindlessness. He doesn’t have to think about whether the alien creation trying to destroy half of Manhattan is something he needs to fight and, in fact, he doesn’t have the time to think about it.
It’s the aftermath that gets complicated.
Missions crest high and then fall just as low.
He catches his breath after a particularly difficult day fighting off enormous, sentient slugs and unbuckles the cowl from his head. He slides it off and slumps against a brick wall, surveying the scene.
There’s guts everywhere. It’s a fucking disaster.
“That’s going to be one hell of a clean up,” Clint Barton says next to him. He’s gotten kind of banged up in the process, but Clint is, as ever, interminably good natured about it all. He unscrews a bottle of water and drains half of it before offering it to Steve.
“Who’s on slug slime duty?” Steve agrees, making a face. He takes the bottle and finishes it off.
“Some poor SHIELD intern, probably,” Clint says. “Better them than me.”
Steve looks at him as he crushes the plastic under his hand.
“You gonna get that looked at?” Steve nods at Clint’s side, where some of the slime had burned through the material of his uniform.
“Yeah,” Clint says rolling a shoulder. “New protocol. Everything goes through medical. You good?”
Steve had managed to avoid most of the toxic slime, although he had not managed to avoid the sight of slugs being blasted to jelly pieces by all manners of weaponry.
“In a manner of speaking,” Steve says. Sure enough, he sees a dozen young SHIELD interns fan out across the half-destroyed streets of the Lower East Side. “Alien slugs, huh?”
“Thor says he doesn’t claim them,” Clint chuckles, then hoists himself off the side of the building.
“Someone has to,” Steve muses out loud and Clint grins.
“All yours, Cap,” he says and claps Steve on the shoulder. “You going home?”
“Yeah,” Steve says tiredly. “Going to take a long shower and try to forget about slug guts.”
“Yeah,” Clint says and steps over a particularly large puddle of green-tinted jelly. “That’s for the best.”
Clint bids Steve goodbye and Steve watches the clean up for a few minutes longer.
Then he tucks his cowl under his arm and heads toward the subway.
Manhattan can be overrun by aliens fifteen ways to Sunday, but the MTA will still be running. Every line will inevitably, however, be running on delays. Then again, the MTA, Steve has learned, does not need aliens for that.
The low hits him halfway through his shower.
The hot water sluices off his new body—not new by objective metrics but still new to him, somehow—the aches in his muscles easing in the steam. The muscle pain never lingers too long, no matter how badly hurt he gets in the field. What lingers behind is something a little deeper than that.
It hits Steve square in the chest; a feeling a little like loneliness and a little like something more—it feels as though the ground has fallen away beneath his feet and he’s lingering over a gaping chasm, the dark yawning up at him, the end nowhere in sight.
He feels it again—the sensation that he’s slightly askew, something in him just a bit off center.
He hasn’t felt grounded in years. It’s ignorable until, well, it isn’t.
Steve grips the tiles and takes in deep breaths—one, two, and three—just the way his SHIELD therapist taught him to. When that doesn’t work, he stumbles out of the shower, hastily drying himself, and tries to squat by his bed, palms pressed into his eyes.
He can still feel the fluttering of his heart, low and rapid, somewhere near his clavicle. Time tears away from him, around him, leaving behind uneven hollows he’s left to stumble through.
Steve tries to catch his breath, but he can’t. When it’s clear nothing is working, he manages to pull on clothes.
He leaves his apartment, locking the door behind him.
Brooklyn has changed in all of the ways it was possible to. The streets are narrower now—brighter, somehow, dirtier, louder in different ways. The shops are more worn down than he remembers, with less tailors and haberdasheries, fewer newspaper boys at the corners and almost no shoe shiners to speak of. He makes a familiar loop around his neighborhood, somewhere between Clinton Hill and Crown Heights. The walking helps, although the neighborhood does not. There’s less brick now than he remembers and more yoga studios. There’s a donut shop three blocks away and next to it, a grimy hole-in-the-wall pizza shop with three tables total and a smudged display case of cheap slices. The pizza costs more than it did in the 30s, but the shitty, salty, grease trap taste is the same. It’s comforting enough, in a way.
Steve slides his hands into his pockets, his wet hair dripping onto the back of his jacket. He goes in the opposite direction today, away from what he’s come to know, that dislodged feeling making him feel uncertain on his feet. He has been in the future for four years now. He’s an Avenger; he has friends; he might even have a family. It’s not the future he imagined for himself, but it’s the future he’s gotten and it’s not all bad, except for days like this when he just can’t seem to catch his breath.
Steve passes a young woman pushing a stroller and he gives her an approximation of a smile. It’s only when she gives him a slightly terrified look that he realizes he must look even worse than he feels. He lets out a breath, drawn deep from his gut, and runs a hand through wet strands of hair.
It’s not that he’s in the future. It’s not even that he’s alone, because he isn’t. It’s that he wears the past like a second skin, the memories embedded deep and coming up close to the surface. It’s not that Steve can’t let go of the past—it’s that he is his past, just like he is his present and he will be his future. His memories are all that anchor him to the person he was, and the person he’s becoming? Well, Steve barely knows him at all.
He runs a hand through his wet hair, distractedly. There’s a buzzing sound he can’t quite dispel.
He turns left when he thinks he should go right.
He walks through Brooklyn, alone.
Steve winds his way through areas of Brooklyn he’s lost the names for. Every block is something new, although they each look foreign to him in very familiar ways. There are juice shops and yoga studios, bodegas and stand-alone delis. If there’s one cute cafe with outdoor seating he doesn’t recognize, well there’s at least half a dozen more. It’s not bad—far from it—but it’s unfamiliar. The whole city feels that way, sometimes.
It’s the city he loves, but not the city he knows. It’s definitely not the city he remembers. Of all of the things that hit him hard, this, somehow, betrays him the most. That not only should New York change, but that it should forget about him entirely.
He wishes there was one thing still living from his past. He wishes there was just one person he could find to remember with him.
The sun begins its slow dip through the Brooklyn skyline, disappearing behind tall, beige-colored buildings and reappearing between pre-war brick townhouses that Steve couldn’t afford then and certainly cannot afford now.
He drags his feet along the dirty sidewalk, the soles of his shoes making soft noises against the concrete. He stops at a streetlight, walks past a small square of a park, and then turns right at a street of brownstones. He walks under the canopy of lush green trees, smiling as a child chases after a dog. That, at least, will never change.
Steve’s phone vibrates halfway down the street and he fishes it out of his jacket.
A text message from Natasha, telling him to come to the Tower for dinner. Any other day, he would give the Avengers a happy chance. Tonight though, he’s in some kind of mood. Human interaction does not only seem like a risk, it seems ill-advised.
Steve considers it, almost replies, and then puts it away.
When he looks back up, dragging himself out of his reverie, he’s at the street corner, caught in an intersection. He can turn right now, follow the path along more street shops, back in the direction he came from. Or, he can turn left and see what’s that way.
Steve’s phone buzzes again and this time he doesn’t even reach for it.
In the end, it’s not a decision he makes, really. He just follows where his gut tells him to go. It says go left, so he goes left.
Imagine his surprise when he sees the pinstriped awning of an old hardware store.
Sometimes, when Steve is lost in that space between his past and his present, he settles into a sliver of time that is neither and both at the same time. It’s a kind of temporal limbo, a way for his brain to stop and make sense of everything that’s happened to him. Usually, when he’s floating in this space, it’s more metaphorical—fleeting thoughts and glimpses in the corner of his vision; a thin, grey divide between memory and reality.
This is nothing like that.
At first, he thinks he’s seeing things—a hallucation, a mirage, a daydream that will disappear the moment his eyes flutter.
But he closes his eyes and opens them again and it’s still there—an awning he remembers as acutely as the apartment he grew up in.
Steve can feel his heart hammer in his chest in a way that is more present than anything he’s felt in a very long time. He can hear the sound of it in his ears; a rat-a-tat-tat-tat. Briefly, he wonders if he’s lost what’s left of his mind. Next to the former hardware store is a familiar storefront—a narrow, yellow door, faded mint borders, and a windowpane with letters curved across the front. There are window hours at the corner of the glass now and half a dozen stickers he doesn’t recognize; the display inside is different and the store next door is a juice shop, but that’s as far as the differences go. If he forgot everything else, Steve would still know this door and this window and this small, narrow building in between two brick storefronts.
He reaches forward, touches the door handle, and when the faint chime above the doorway clinks together, he’s nearly startled backward.
As far as dreams go, this is far too real of one.
Still, Steve tilts his head up and the sign is still there, like something plucked out of his memory.
The Yellow Book Road, it says, just above his head.
It’s disorienting to be two places at once, but that’s the kind of skin-prickling deja vu Steve feels when he steps inside. The door closes behind him and for a moment his senses are overwhelmed, his head stuffed with cotton and caught between memories. The shelves are narrow, polished wood, filled with rows and rows of neat, colorful books. There are books stacked in the aisles and books stacked in the corners and books stacked on top of shelves of differing heights. Customers stand between them, crouch over them. A young man with dreadlocks down his back reaches for the topmost shelf and comes down with a thick book, a hardcover with a ship drawn on the front.
The air is a little warm, a little stifled, but it smells like wood and dust on pages. Steve doesn’t sneeze when he inhales it, but it does sink into his lungs, the taste of paper and ink and the smooth leather of bindings.
His head feels like it’s stuffed with cotton. His heart ticks slowly somewhere near his throat.
He takes one step in and then another. There are two long tables set up in between the crowded rows of shelves and to the left, what, distantly, appears to be the front desk. There are books stacked there too, a small bell, and small containers of magnets and other trinkets. There’s a cash register and a sign that says open, but no person manning it.
Steve’s disorientation increases. For a moment, he thinks he should take a step toward it. It’s his job to be at the register, he remembers.
Then he blinks and he’s back, standing in the doorway.
He gives his head a little shake and looks straight down the store, instead, to the back. At the other end, opposite from him, is a set of stairs, right where he remembers them to be. If Steve isn’t careful, he can see himself sitting there, four score and a lifetime ago.
When he turns his head, he thinks he sees a fat, orange cat.
It isn’t there, of course. Jabberwocky has been gone nearly as long as Steve has.
“Hey, sorry about that,” a harried looking person says, suddenly startling into Steve’s thoughts. He emerges from one of the aisles with two arms full of books; a tall, young man, maybe Steve’s physical age, maybe older, or maybe younger. He has long, brown hair that’s half pulled back into a bun and a grey and black plaid button up that’s open at the throat. He’s wearing dark, ripped jeans, nearly plastered to his legs, and bright, beat up red shoes that Steve recognizes as Converses. There are thick, black frames sitting comfortably on his face. He grins at Steve apologetically.
“Had a bit of an accident back there,” the young man says.
“An...accident?” Steve blinks.
“A book accident,” the man says. He lets out a little puff of breath and tips all of the books onto the already crowded counter. They slide into place with a little bit of clatter, although the man knocks some trinkets off the table and that’s louder. “Ah fuck! Shoot—sorry! Hold on.”
He disappears as he picks up the trinkets and then he emerges again, flapping his arms a bit wildly.
“Like I was saying, book emergency! That’s the most dire kind. There were two shelves and they were ready to tip over, which would have sucked because—I mean you’ve seen the shelves right? It’d be like some kind of incredibly dusty game of dominos. My allergies aren’t ready for that. I developed adult allergies and now I’m allergic to dust, I guess. Glad I work in a bookstore. Anyway, it’s all fixed now, or at least they’re not leaning anymore and the stacks are manageable enough to walk around.”
Steve blinks again.
“The shelf situation I mean,” the man says. “I don’t think I can fix the allergies, you just kind of develop them and then you’re stuck with them forever, aren’t you? Although I have a bottle of Claritin in the back, I guess.”
Steve looks at him uncertainly, but the young man doesn’t notice. He’s started to organize the books into piles.
“Anyway, they’re pretty visible, right? The stacks, I mean. Like, they’re stacks of books. And not thin ones either—we got tomes in here. So I kind of feel like if you trip over an entire stack of books that includes tomes, you have no one to blame but yourself.”
It’s all a lot to process. Everything about this person seems a lot to process.
The young man shifts the books into three different piles and grins at Steve again over the top.
“Anyway, if you trip, don’t sue us. I mean technically you could, but I don’t recommend it. I can only pay you in books and probably only the dusty paperbacks if I’m going to be honest. How many John Grisham novels can cure a twisted ankle? Probably not enough, or maybe too many, I don’t know. I don’t really like John Grisham. So, can I help you?”
Now Steve knows he’s not the smoothest human to ever walk the planet. He’s not even top…million, let alone any number higher. But he usually knows how to use his mouth and he hasn’t been rendered speechless since about 1944, by his estimation. So it’s to his unique horror and confusion that he finds himself with his mouth open and all words refusing to come out.
It would be fine, if he could just smile and nod and turn away, but to compound the horror, the guy in front of him gets a look across his face like shit and, running a hand into his hair, he gives Steve a sheepish smile.
“Sorry, that was a lot, wasn’t it?” he asks. “I’m running on about four cups of coffee and two hours of sleep and it’s near the end of the day, so I tend to get a little...well anyway, you saw. Seriously though, can I help you?”
Steve has no desire to make this perfectly normal person feel like he’s done something wrong when it’s no one’s fault but Steve’s own that his brain has forgotten how to make words, so he unsticks his tongue from the roof of his mouth and says the first thing he can think of.
The young man gives him a politely confused look as though, for some reason, “Carroll” isn’t a full sentence or thought.
“Sorry, there are a lot of Carrolls,” the young man says. “Do you have a first name? Or a last name.”
Steve looks at the stack of books in front of him. On top is one he hasn’t read yet—The Kite Runner. He picks it up, absentmindedly, just to have something to do with his hands.
“Khomeini,” the young man says, looking over at what Steve’s picked up. “Have you read him?”
Steve shakes his head.
“You know those books that render you just...devastated?” Steve looks up and the young man is watching him with a thoughtful expression. “Like, you just know it’s one of the best things you’ve read and you kind of can’t believe you did it to yourself, but you’re glad you did because for the span of that book everything was just...devastating, but beautiful?”
Steve’s chest constricts.
“Yeah,” he says.
“He’s like that,” the young man says, with a smile. “I can’t recommend it enough. But also, make sure you’re in the right headspace for it.”
Steve looks down at the book again. For a moment, he fingers the edges. He’s drawn strength before, from the hard corners of a book, from the sharp edges of uneven papers and the sandpaper feel of everything in between. He does it again now and it soothes him in a way he can’t explain. It dislodges a worry held tight in his throat. Like, everything else has changed, but this hasn’t.
He puts it down.
“Mr. Carroll,” Steve says this time. “He used to own this place...a long time ago. Is he still—do you know what happened to him?”
“Charles Carroll?” the young man says. “He was the original owner…God, ages ago.”
“83 years ago,” Steve mumbles.
“Yeah, something like that.” The young man braces his hands against the counter and leans into it. “He died a really long time ago, I can’t remember when. Sometime after World War II. I think his son inherited the shop and then his daughter, but she sold it sometime in the early 2000s.”
“Oh,” Steve says. It’s not like he expected anything more, but it makes his chest sink a little, makes him feel funny and loose. “Who’s the new owner?”
“Roberts,” the other man says. “He doesn’t live here. Bought the place from the daughter and has hired people to run it ever since. I think I’ve seen him maybe twice since he hired me. He lives in Florida or...somewhere warm.”
That makes Steve look at the young man closer.
“You’re the manager?”
“Sure, why not?” the guy shrugs. “There’s three of us total and we run the place seven days a week, so I guess we’re all one third manager. One of them’s got a family though and the other’s kind of in and out of rehab, which sucks. So I’m maybe like 45% manager and then the other two are the rest.”
Steve must give him some kind of absurd look, because the man starts laughing. It takes over his whole face somehow—his mouth folding up, teeth peeking up over lips, eyes crinkling from the corners. He kind of throws his head back while he does it, like he’s laughing with his whole body and maybe because that is absurd, but probably because Steve is losing what’s left of his mind, Steve finally lets out a puff of breath and when he reemerges, he’s smiling too.
“You want to talk to Mr. Roberts, though?” the young man asks. He shakes his head and starts rummaging behind the desk. “I have his number here somewhere.”
“No,” Steve says quickly and the young man looks up. “No, that’s—okay. I was just wondering. I just knew Mr. Carroll—the old owner.”
“You knew him?” the young man looks confused.
Steve colors a little.
“His family, I mean. I knew his family. I’ve been away for a while and...I didn’t know this was still here. The bookstore.”
The smile that steals over the young man’s face is something different than before—it’s softer, somehow. Warmer, maybe.
“Yeah,” he says. “We’re still here.”
Steve nods. There’s a moment of silence between them and that’s all he really needs. Suddenly, it comes washing over him, like a wave crashing into the shore—how tired he is; a bone-deep, aching, exhaustion.
He’s in a new century with new people and a new life and all he really wanted was one touchstone from his past. That’s what he had asked for. And, strangely, that’s exactly what he had gotten.
“What—” Steve says suddenly and finds his voice croaking. Then he clears his throat and looks up at the young man, who is watching him closely, but not surreptitiously. “What do you suggest? I haven’t picked up a new book in...a while.”
“Well, that’s a big question—” the young man looks at him questioningly.
“Steve,” Steve says. That makes the young man smile.
“James,” he says, nodding to him. “Technically. Call me Bucky though, James makes me sound like an old, dead president.”
That, surprisingly, makes Steve laugh. Which only makes the young man—Bucky—grin wider.
“That’s a big question, Steve,” Bucky says. “What are you in the mood for?”
Steve hasn’t picked up a book in a long time. He had visited the Smithsonian once and seen his old belongings on display—all of his personal mementos and less than half of his collection of books. It had almost made him pick up a library card, but he had hesitated, at the last minute. He still doesn’t know why.
“Nothing too heavy,” Steve says, thinking out loud. “Or too...light. Something I won’t want to put down.”
Bucky leans against the desk, drumming his fingers along the top, thinking. Then his face lights up.
“How do you feel about murder mysteries?”
“Oh,” Steve says, his heart quickening. “I love those.”
“Great,” Bucky says, happily. “Okay, let me introduce you to The Magpie Murders.”
Steve couldn’t really say what happens after that. Only that he follows Bucky past the front desk toward the back of the bookstore and they both get lost in the stacks.
Bucky takes him to the mysteries and thrillers section and although he immediately hands Steve The Magpie Murders (Anthony Horowitz), Steve somehow also ends up with a pile of other books too—Gone Girl and Dark Places by Gillian Flynn (“A lot darker and more fucked up than you could even imagine, Steve,” Bucky says, his eyes lighting up with excitement. “Like, her protagonists kind of suck but that’s the point and then you can’t put it down and—you’re okay with fucked up, right?” “I’m...okay with fucked up,” Steve blinks at him. “Okay great,” Bucky enthuses. “Read those two and then read Sharp Objects and tell me which one you like best.”) and Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton (“Okay, this isn’t murder, but Crichton is just the holy grail of science fiction, may his soul rest with the dinosaurs,” Bucky says solemnly, shoving that into Steve’s arm. “Dinosaurs?” Steve asks. “Dinosaurs, Steve,” Bucky says.) and Interview With the Vampire by Ann Rice (“It’s vampires,” Bucky says, emphatically. “Listen, Rice is kind of nutso now, but she created the very fabric of modern vampires and I cannot and will not begrudge her that. Did you like Twilight?” “What?” Steve asks, confused. “Nevermind,” Bucky says and manhandles Steve toward the aisle. “It’s more vampires, but the sparkly kinds.”).
Bucky tries to shove half a dozen other books into Steve’s arms, but by then Steve is getting kind of overwhelmed. He hasn’t read a book in over 80 years, technically, and here he is, exchanging his debit card for a small stack of books on the word of a very effusive bookstore clerk. Well, he can’t blame Bucky for his enthusiasm. In fact, it makes Steve smile.
“Sparkly vampires?” Steve ventures to ask as Bucky’s ringing him up.
“Okay, I’m going to admit it,” Bucky says, sliding Steve’s card through the machine. “I read all of them, okay? All in one sitting. It wasn’t my best look, but I had to know and listen—you know how you start to read something sometimes and you know it’s trash, but it’s like, addictive trash, and you can’t just not consume it. It’s like reality TV that way. Anyway, the point is yeah I read all the Twilight books and I didn’t even hate some of them.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Steve mutters, but Bucky must not hear, because he shrugs and hands Steve back his card and the receipt to sign.
“All I’m saying is that vampires shouldn’t sparkle. It just seems disrespectful to vampire culture.”
“What is vampire culture?” Steve asks Bucky.
“The culture of vampires, Steve,” Bucky answers.
Steve gives him a bemused look.
“I read Dracula?” he says and hands the receipt back.
“Yeah?” Bucky says eagerly. “And?”
“I love,” Steve says with a grin. “Gothic horror.”
Bucky takes in a little dramatic-like gasp, clutching his hand to his chest.
“You couldn’t have started with that? Do you know how much good Gothic horror is out there? There’s a whole section—”
Steve, laughing, takes his books in the bag and starts to back away.
“No, Steve, come back!” Bucky calls to him. “You can’t leave now! We have so much more to cover!”
Steve can’t help but grinning. He holds his books close to his chest.
“Let me finish these first,” he says.
Bucky, half leaning all the way over the front desk, gives him a smile that’s like—well, a little like staring into the face of the sun. It’s bright and open and excited in a way that makes Steve want to feel that way too, somehow. It’s infectious.
“Then you’ll come back?” Bucky asks.
Steve considers it for half a second, then nods.
“I’ll finish these,” he says. “Then I’ll come back.”
He leaves the bookstore with a backwards wave at Bucky. When he’s outside again, just him and his inordinately heavy bag of books, he stops to take stock of himself.
The low feeling is still there, but it’s been shuffled backwards now, like a card that’s been rearranged to the middle, or maybe back of the deck. What’s at the front now is a little different—maybe a little excited, perhaps a dash enthused.
Steve reaches up and touches his face and is surprised to find the smile still there.
He takes the path away from the bookstore, looking back only to see the looped cursive in the window of the store.
The Yellow Book Road, it says, like it always has.
Steve takes the long way home and when he finally gets in, he changes into his pajamas, makes a hot cup of tea, and settles into his couch to read about vampires.
* * *
picture: bucky handing down books to steve from a bookshelf; art by: odetteandodile
Chapter 2: II.
The thing about reading is that once you start, you forget how to stop.
It starts with Interview with the Vampire.
Steve starts the book that night and then finds he’s unable to put it down. He goes to bed too late that night and wakes up the next morning with Lestat on his mind. He reads while he makes himself cereal. He goes on a run and comes home, takes a shower, and reads some more.
He leaves the book behind when he goes to the Tower for his daily briefings and finds that’s a mistake.
Fury tells them a whole host of things, some probably even important, and Steve half listens, but his mind is wandering through the lush swamps of Louisiana, in the dead of night when the undead reign.
Natasha asks him to spar, after, and he obliges.
He doesn’t take her punches easy, but his returns aren’t nearly as sharp as usual. They take a break a half an hour later, winded, a bottle of water each.
“You’re distracted,” Natasha says, astutely.
“Vampires,” Steve says, mysteriously.
Natasha raises an eyebrow and Steve grins and puts the bottle back down.
They spar for another half an hour. She asks him if he wants to join her and Clint for dinner, but he declines.
“Big plans?” She asks.
“Something like that,” Steve says, unwrapping his fists.
“A date?” Natasha’s eyebrow shoots back up.
“Something like that.”
He goes home and reads, cooks and reads, listens to music and reads.
He finishes vampires and craves more.
He puts Interview with the Vampire on his empty shelf and moves away with a thrill running through his stomach. His first book in the twenty first century.
Lots of blood, lots of angst, no sparkles to speak of.
Steve grins and excitedly fishes the next book out of his bag.
“Okay, Gillian Flynn,” Steve says as he curls up on his couch with a blanket and another cup of tea. “Let’s see how fucked up you get.”
Very fucked up, as it so happens. Unreliable narrators, unlikable anti-heros, murders, satanic cults, an angel of death—Gillian Flynn writes from an id that kind of terrifies Steve, but that he can’t put down.
He reads through all of his meals. He reads before briefings. He reads after briefings. He can’t stop thinking about murder.
“Did you bring a book?” Clint gives him an incredulous look on the quinjet during their next mission—a weekend undercover operation in Serbia to go head to head with a HYDRA cell that’s been going active recently.
“Uh,” Steve looks up from Gone Girl, his thumb acting as a bookmark in the middle of the book.
“Missions boring you?” Natasha snorts from where she’s strapped in to the plane.
“I like reading?” Steve offers.
“Since when?” Clint asks. He looks over Steve’s shoulder at what he’s reading, which makes Steve hunch defensively. “Oh cool, I liked that movie.”
“Since before your time,” Steve says crankily.
“Did you just old man Steve Rogers me?” Clint blinks at him owlishly.
Steve scowls at him, which makes Clint’s face go slack with surprise. Next to him, Natasha barely stifles a snicker.
“Oh leave him alone,” she says. “Even fossils need hobbies.”
“You know, you could buy a Kindle,” Clint says, ignoring Natasha’s advice.
“It stores hundreds of books,” Clint says. “Easy to carry all of them on, uh, missions I guess.”
Steve considers this.
“Yeah,” Clint says enthusiastically.
Steve shakes his head.
“No thanks,” he says and goes back to reading.
If asked he could give a host of answers, like: not everything has to be technology, or, he likes the feel of a physical book in his hand, or, he would miss the smell of pages in front of him.
But Clint doesn’t ask, so Steve doesn’t have to lie.
The problem with an electronic reader is that he would buy all of his books online. He has no interest in that. He doesn’t want to go on Amazon, click a button, and be done with the transaction. He wants someone to show him what to read, light bright in his eyes, excited smile, books tumbling out of his arms. He wants something personal.
What he wants, is to go back to Oz.
He does run out of books eventually. One Saturday he looks up at his shelf and finds four freshly finished books lined up in alphabetical order according to author’s last name. It thrills him just to see—it had been empty before; now it’s not.
He has the weekend off and an incurable itch for something new.
So after Steve goes for his morning run, he meets Sam for brunch in Williamsburg.
“You look like you have somewhere to be,” Sam says, quirking a smile at Steve after they’ve paid the bill.
Steve stands, a little nervous and strangely excited.
“Where would I go, Sam?” he says, slipping his hands into his pockets.
“Some place you don’t want me to follow.” Sam doesn’t look offended. If anything, he looks pleased. Sam’s a good friend that way.
“Is that okay?” Steve smiles.
“Is it okay for you to have a place all to yourself?” Sam raises an eyebrow, then grins. “Yeah, Cap. That’s really okay.”
They part ways, Sam thanking Steve for brunch and Steve already looking forward to an afternoon in the stacks.
He doesn’t remember the path he took last time, but it turns out he doesn’t really have to. His feet already seem to know the way.
This time when he sees the pinstriped awning, he isn’t surprised—he’s pleased. He gets a little thrill of anticipation as he pushes the door to the bookstore open. He looks up at the softly ringing chimes, and goes inside.
The bookstore is quiet in that lazy, Saturday afternoon kind of way. There are a few customers Steve can see and hear rummaging through the stacks, but it’s a soft rummaging—the sound of breathing and the rustling of papers as they turn pages in the books they’re holding. There’s the sound of books sliding off of shelves and the slightly harder sound of them finding their way back.
Steve looks toward the front desk and finds it unmanned.
He runs his hand over the first table of books—New Releases and Staff’s Picks—and picks up a hardcover of something with block letters and a bright image. He reads the back and finds it not to his liking. He puts it back and pauses.
All he’s read so far has been murder mysteries and vampires. What he could use now is something more—something a little bigger than that.
He scans the rows of shelves, then, smiling as the idea hits him, disappears down one of them.
Steve doesn’t know how long he’s been looking, but he’s on the floor with a huge book in his lap, turned a few pages in, when a shadow falls over him.
“Wow, the vampires really did you in, huh?” a somewhat familiar voice asks. “You were like God, enough of these bloodsucking menaces, what if I was an impoverished ex-convict in the middle of the French Revolution, instead?”
Steve smiles at his lap and then looks up.
Bucky’s leaning over the top of a shorter shelf, his face peering down at Steve and the book he’s holding. He has his hair fully pulled back into a bun today. His glasses are perched on the bridge of his nose.
“It’s a classic,” Steve says. “And it wasn’t the French Revolution.”
“It’s depressing,” Bucky points out. “Also technically it inspires a revolution that’s in France. Ergo, French Revolution.”
Steve puts his thumb on the page he was on to mark his spot.
“I don’t think that’s how words work,” he says. Then, “Have you read it?”
“Yup,” Bucky says, watching him.
“Have you read anything else by Hugo?” Steve asks, curious.
“Yup,” Bucky grins.
Steve pauses. “Have you read everything else by Hugo?”
“Yup,” Bucky says.
“Are you going to claim you’ve read everything I ask about, regardless of whether you’ve actually read it or not?” Steve asks wryly.
“Yup,” Bucky says, leaning farther forward and popping the p. Steve gives him an amused look and Bucky laughs. Then he disappears.
Steve gathers his knees close to his chest and pushes himself up to his feet.
Bucky appears again, this time in front of him, and Steve is unsurprised, somehow, to see the small stack of books in his arms.
“Hi,” Bucky says, grinning. He’s standing a few feet from Steve. “You came back.”
He’s taller than he appeared to Steve behind the counter that first day. He’s in dark, ripped jeans today, with a white t-shirt and a black cardigan on top. His shoes are still a bright, beat up red.
“I said I would,” Steve says. Then, feeling a little self conscious, he holds Les Miserables close to his chest. “I ran out of books.”
Bucky’s smile widens. Steve’s not entirely certain how, because it’s wide and bright to begin with, but he manages anyway.
“Well, that won’t do,” Bucky says. “You know what they say about a man without a book.”
“No?” Steve blinks uncertainly.
“He’s bound for trouble,” Bucky says. “And you look like trouble.”
“I don’t know how you figure that,” Steve suppresses a smile of his own.
“It’s the—hair,” Bucky waves vaguely at Steve’s head. Steve frowns and resists the urge to reach up and tug it. “And the eyes. All of the rest too. Something in your face. And your reading taste. It’s intangible, trust me. So what, you decide to find the longest book you can grab?”
Steve doesn’t feel wrong-footed so much as he feels just a little confused. He wonders if his hair is sticking up at angles or something.
“It’ll keep me busy,” Steve says. “Wait, what’s wrong with my face?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Bucky says mysteriously. He leans against the shelf, carefully. “For how long? You get to the end of the French Revolution and then what?”
Steve shrugs at that.
“Find out what Napoleon’s up to, I guess.”
Bucky pauses. His eyes kinda bug out, like he can’t believe his own ears.
Then he bursts out laughing.
“You think you’re funny, huh?”
Steve is so unused to making anyone laugh, he marvels in the moment, half sheepish and more than half pleased. The closest he usually ever comes to having his humor appreciated is when Sam or Natasha laugh at him.
“You seem like you have other ideas,” Steve says wryly.
“I got more than ideas,” Bucky says. “Lucky for you, I got the goods.”
Steve can’t help but grin.
“Yeah? You do?”
“I got a whole store of ‘em, pal.” Bucky shifts suddenly, leaving his armful of books on top of the shorter shelf and says, “C’mon.”
“Where are we going?” Steve asks.
“You always ask this many questions? Live a little, Steve. Also, I’m literally the only person working this bookstore right now, so the geographical range is a little limited.”
Bucky doesn’t wait for Steve to make up his mind. He brushes his hand against the bookshelf at the end of the aisle and then disappears around the corner.
Steve hesitates only a moment before following. He doesn’t let go of Victor Hugo, but, with a heavy sigh, he makes room in his arms for more.
As though it’s such a great burden. As though he’s not looking forward to it.
“Okay,” Bucky says. He’s sitting, cross-legged, in the middle of the stairs.
Steve looks behind him, down the middle of the bookstore toward the front door. A few customers come in and out, but no one seems to approach the front desk yet. Truthfully, Steve doesn’t know if it would make much of a difference.
Bucky’s made a throne for himself out of books and Steve’s not entirely sure there’s any way out of the self-created and self-imposed fortress.
“To the East we have the pile of Classics, with a capital C, at your request,” Bucky begins.
Steve, a little amused and a lot bemused, takes a careful seat near the bottom of the stairs. It tickles the back of his mind, this stair and the bookstore spread out around him. He’s bigger on the stair than he remembers being before or maybe the stair’s gotten smaller in all the time since. It’s definitely not the piles of books Bucky is currently naming and sorting through.
“I don’t agree with all of these choices, but I agree with your right to pick them,” he says, peering with distaste at some Russian literature Steve had added to the pile. “Voltaire said that, by way.”
“I don’t think so,” Steve mutters, but Bucky’s already moved on to ignoring him.
“I’ll give you Don Quixote, because it’s on every best book of all time list ever conceived blah blah quests blah blah most translated book of all time or something blah blah Cervantes was a genius. Anyway, if you’re going to not listen to my wise words of wisdom and try to read both Les Mis and Don Quixote, don’t come crying to me when your eyeballs fall out of your head.”
“That’s definitely what eyeballs do,” Steve says, amused.
“Frankly this entire pile makes me ill so I’m going to ignore that you’re making us consider it,” Bucky says with disgust. He kind of toes that pile away from him, but not enough to make it go toppling over his stair throne. He turns toward his right. “Okay, but this pile—contemporary modern literature. Some of the books in this pile—Steve. Steve.”
“Bucky,” Steve says.
“Steven,” Bucky says. He takes a book, looks at, considers it, and then puts it at the bottom of the pile. He picks up the next book, looks at it, considers it, and puts it next to the first. He does this for three more books before he finally makes some kind of excitable squeaking sound. His eyes go buggy again, his mouth a round o. He clutches one hand to the middle of his chest and presses in there. Steve almost has to cover his mouth not to laugh at the pure theatrics of it all.
“Okay, okay,” Bucky says, with enthusiasm. “This is it. This is the Holy Grail. The One.”
“The one what?” Steve asks.
“The one ring to rule them all,” Bucky says, solemnly. “No, Steven, the one book. The Secret History by Donna Tartt. This is—I don’t even want to say modern classic, that undersells it. It’s dark, it’s haunting, it will linger in you conscious if you let it, Steve. God, this book. The Goldfinch is fine too, don’t get me wrong, I guess it has a Pulitzer or whatever, but this—this is her magnum opus. Hell it’s my magnum opus and I didn’t even write it.”
Steve holds a hand out and Bucky shoves the book into it.
The cover is cream-colored with a black binding. Steve reads the back cover, excited at the little thrill that runs through him at the synopsis.
“You’re taking that,” Bucky says, distracted. “Okay, yes, here’s another. The Book Thief, for when you need to cry. And oh, here, Lincoln in the Bardo. That’s a newer one. Written very—ephemeral, I guess? It’s weird, but really good, I read it in an afternoon and then I couldn’t stop thinking about ghosts and the Lincoln family. That was one wild Wikipedia rabbit hole, let me tell you.”
Bucky hands Steve two more books and reaches for a third.
“There was a...movie?”
“Jesus Christ,” Bucky says. “Here, take it. Just take this book and read it and don’t even look at me, please, I’m begging you, this is my job and you have to trust me to do it.”
Bucky shoves an enormous book at him—11/22/63—and Steve doesn’t even stop to think about it, he just adds it to his already burdened arm. He’s not entirely sure how this happened, but he went from one book to about half the bookstore in the span of two hours and somehow, he can’t account for his thoughts or actions in between. He has half a suspicion Bucky had something to do with it, although there should be nothing about clear, slate blue eyes and a soft chin with a dimple pressed in that makes Steve forget all semblance of self control. Still, the evidence speaks for itself.
“Bucky,” Steve says, uncertainly, looking down at his arms.
Bucky looks at him, going kinda cross-eyed.
For a moment, neither of them say anything.
At the front of the store, the door chimes ring lightly. A woman emerges from one of the aisles with three books in her hands.
“When you finish them,” Bucky says. Steve looks up at him and the other man is giving him a half-smile. He pushes his glasses up his nose and a tendril of hair curls around his temple. Steve has a passing feeling he can’t quite put a name to, yet. “Will you come back and tell me what you thought?”
In four years, Steve hasn’t really promised anyone he would come back to them. In four years, he hasn’t really had anyone to promise.
He swallows, warmth pooling dead center, in the middle of his stomach.
“Yeah,” Steve says. “I’ll come back, Buck.”
The door chimes again, the tone as soft as the space between them. Bucky tucks back his stray curl.
“Buck,” he says, with a soft smile. “I like that.”
Bucky gets up and Steve watches him stretch. He reaches down a hand to help Steve up too.
“When you’re finished,” Bucky says, a little quietly. “Come back for more.”
Steve takes the hand.
“Okay,” he says.
He already knows he will.
It doesn’t happen slowly so much as it happens consciously and repeatedly.
Steve finishes The Secret History (and loves it) and 11/22/63 (can’t stop thinking about it) and Lincoln in the Bardo (which he finds unusually beautiful and which does, in fact, cause him to spiral into a two hour Wikipedia rabbit hole but, on the bright side, he now knows everything there is to know about Abraham Lincoln and three other presidents besides). He gets through half of Les Miserables and it’s so good he has to stop and think about it after every section he finishes. He leaves the rest for after the next mission. He can’t carry Victor Hugo through Uzbekistan.
That leaves him with more free time than books, so he does what he promised.
He goes back.
Bucky, behind the counter for once, takes one look at who’s walked through the door and brightens visibly, every part of him.
“Look who the cat dragged in.”
“I loved all of them,” Steve says, walking right up to the counter. He looks down at Bucky and Bucky looks up. “Show me more.”
That’s how it starts. He goes back, as promised. And then, nothing to do with promises at all, he keeps going back.
Being an Avenger keeps Steve busy, of course. He has missions and when he doesn’t have missions, he has briefings. He has press conferences. Once, every too often, Tony holds a gala or a charity fundraiser and Steve has to go to that too.
When he’s not in one suit or another, he dresses down. He has a standard collection of jeans and an even more standard collection of shirts. One day, Natasha takes him to a mall in New Jersey and forces him into the fitting room at Nordstrom Rack with an armful of clothes.
He likes some of the button ups, but he likes the plaid more. He definitely likes the flannel. He buys a dark denim jacket and a black leather one to replace his beat up brown leather jacket.
“Who are you dressing up for, Rogers?” Natasha asks, a wry twist to her smile.
“I’m not,” Steve says nervously and flattens his hair. In all his lifetime he has never, not once, managed to tame his bangs.
“Well you’re not dressing like that for Tony,” Natasha grins.
Steve looks at himself in the mirror—nicely fitted, dark jeans, a white t-shirt under a blue checkered flannel shirt and the leather jacket on top—and thinks, he doesn’t look half bad.
“I don’t know what you’re hiding, but it looks good on you,” Natasha says.
“The clothes?” Steve asks, looking down at himself.
“No, idiot,” Natasha says fondly. “The smile.”
At first, he comes with excuses.
“I hated Crime and Punishment,” Steve says, pushing the book toward Bucky.
“I told you,” Bucky smirks. Then he squints. “No buy backs.”
“I need another book,” Steve says to his face, resolutely.
“Sorry, we ran out of all of those,” Bucky says, stone-faced.
“Bucky,” Steve says.
“Steven,” Bucky says.
“Books,” Steve insists and Bucky cracks, laughing.
“Fine,” he says and Steve only obsessively watches his eye crinkles a little. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“Bucky,” Steve calls through the stacks.
“Back here, back here!” Bucky shouts to him. Steve makes his way through the poetry and memoir shelves to find Bucky with piles of political books stacked around him.
“Spring cleaning?” Steve asks.
“I’m trying to get rid of all of the fascist literature,” Bucky says and pushes the glasses up his nose.
“Can I suggest a bonfire?”
“That’s ideal. I’ll hold an anti-fascist potluck. Bring one dish of your choice and any kindling,” Bucky smirks. “What do you need?”
“The A—my friends started a book club,” he says. “I need a book called Bad Blood?”
“You running scams, Steve?” Bucky asks, suspiciously.
“I prefer to be the scammer, not the scammee,” Bucky says.
“What?” Steve asks again.
“Front table,” Bucky grins, explaining nothing. “It’s very popular. Have you heard of the documentary? Follow me.”
“My house set on fire and all of the books are gone!” Steve says, wild-eyed and urgent.
Bucky, who’s at the top of a ladder, reaching a very topmost shelf for a book, freezes, horrified.
“Holy shit! Holy fuck! Are you serious? Oh my god—”
“I’m kidding,” Steve says, with an easy grin. “Hey, do you have any Franzen?”
“What the fuck, Steven!” Bucky shouts from the ladder. “That’s worse than your house fire joke!”
Slowly, Steve stops needing an excuse to come back. He treads the quickly familiar streets up through Williamsburg as often as he can—during the week, on the weekend, before missions, and definitely after missions.
He’s passing by after grabbing brunch with Natasha and Clint one day—apparently the future is obsessed with mashing breakfast and lunch foods together and drowning both with a side of mimosas—and sees a new display of books in the window. He goes in.
“Buck?” Steve calls, before even looking for him. “What’s the Golden State killer and why is it the ‘Hot Staff Pick of the month’? Also is the pick hot or is the staff hot? It’s very unclear.”
“Both, Steve,” Bucky says, coming down the stairs at the back of the store. He has a rubber band in his mouth and he’s putting his hair up. Tendrils of curls hang loose, framing his face, and Steve feels an almost indiscernible lurch in his chest. “The correct answer is both.”
Another day, he loses his copy of The Scarlet Pimpernel during a stakeout mission near Vancouver. He finds himself distracted the entire time. He barely gives himself time to shower once the quinjet lands back home before he marches over.
“I need to know what happens to Sir Percy,” Steve demands, hands slamming down on the front desk, and Bucky looks at him strangely.
“This is the third book you’ve lost in two months,” Bucky blinks at him. “What are you doing with my children, Steve?”
Steve mumbles something that isn’t really an answer and isn’t really audible and Bucky stares at the back of his head the entire time he’s there.
Steve is slightly more careful with his books after that.
On a different day, he receives an email for an author reading and signing.
“He’s a local,” Bucky whispers to him. They stand next to each other on the back stairs, listening to a young black man with an afro read his newly published book. The bookstore is crowded, chairs Steve helped Bucky haul in from the dusty basement set up in neat little rows where they’ve moved some display tables aside.
The air in the store stands still in that quiet, alert way when everyone in a room is focused, attention rapt on the same thing.
The author’s voice carries over the small space, gravelly and smooth.
Steve feels the words slide down his spine, quietly electric, sparks along his back. He sips an enormous coffee as he listens. Halfway through, he notices Bucky eyeing him.
“Want some?” Steve asks, tilting the cup toward Bucky.
“Please,” Bucky pleads, gratefully. “I’ve only had two of my four morning coffees and half of my words have been replaced by a buzzing sound.”
Steve smiles and passes the cup over. Bucky’s fingers brush against his as he takes it from him. It’s a fleeting touch, just a light brush of skin against skin, but it sinks into Steve’s stomach, a warm, very alive spark. He looks down at their hands and looks back up.
Bucky’s watching him closely.
“Thanks,” he whispers.
In the background, the author continues reading a passage from his book. It’s something beautiful, lively and full of humor. A smattering of appreciative laughter fills the space between them.
The warmth spreads, crawling up his chest and trickling down his arms, seeping to the tips of his fingers until they tingle with feeling. He’s hard pressed to hide the soft curve of his mouth. He doesn’t have to try very hard, anyway. When he sneaks another look at Bucky, he can see that Bucky looks nearly the same.
In the beginning of December, the city turns grey. The clouds hold across the sky, day after day of relentless white and a cool grey that reflects off of buildings and creeps into the skin, like a chill that won’t quite go away. Steve hasn’t been sick since 1943, but the Avengers drop one by one to the eternal enemy—the cold virus.
“Got any of that super serum left?” Sam asks Steve after a shorter-than-usual briefing. He gets the words out between a cough that’s afflicted him for over a week now. Steve can hear the build up in his lungs and the worry pierces him acutely.
“Take a rest, Sam,” Steve says, squeezing his shoulder reassuringly. “I have it covered for both of us.”
Sam sneezes a few times and nods, his shoulders low with exhaustion.
“Don’t forget,” Sam says. “The Christmas party. I’m not saying Tony will replace you with a robot if you don’t show up, but I’m saying I don’t want my best friend replaced by a Tony Stark robot.”
“But any other robot is fine?” Steve asks.
“You know your flaws, Rogers,” Sam says, just before he sneezes again.
Steve takes pity on him and sends him home. He orders a matzo ball soup from the corner deli and sends Sam an order through UberEats. The twenty first century has 24/7 delivery going for it at least. He hopes the matzo ball soup tastes as comforting as it did in 1942.
That reminds Steve that he has friends to buy presents for.
The door chimes above his head, soft and familiar, as he steps inside from the cold. It drifts in after him, the air biting in that way it gets before flurries begin. Steve never checks the forecast, but he doesn’t need a weather report to turn his head up and see the heavy, white clouds looming over the Brooklyn skyline. It smells clean—like the calm before the storm—which is how he knows it’s going to snow, because Brooklyn never smells clean otherwise.
The bookstore is quiet, on a wintry Thursday afternoon, that hour before 4 pm turns to 5 pm and the dim grey deepens into an early night. Winter used to be hell for Steve when he was younger and quiet and lonely for him just out of the ice. Now though, there’s something glowing and warm about it, which is funny because it’s absolutely frigid outside. He wraps a scarf Natasha bought him around his neck and sticks gloved hands in a decently warm coat he couldn’t have afforded 80 years ago. On a whim, he stops by a coffee shop a block away and picks up two cups of hot chocolate.
“Buck?” Steve calls softly.
There’s no answer for a minute, but then—
“Hold on!” a frantic voice calls from the back. There’s some noises and a thud and a curse. “Fuck! Shit! Motherfuck—”
Steve stares, bemused, as Bucky emerges from the farthest corner of the bookstore.
“Hey, how can I—” Bucky says, rubbing his head, before he catches sight of Steve. His frown gets caught halfway before his mouth curves up into a familiar, bright, distinctly pleased smile. “Steve!”
“Hey,” Steve smiles. The chill is still on his skin, but he feels himself quickly warming up from the inside. “Are you okay? I brought you something.”
“Oh yeah, a shelf fell down and I got a knock on the head as I was cleaning up because I’m a dumbass—it’s dumb, nevermind that. Is this bribery for hating Stardust?” Bucky asks. He closes the space between them, with all of the enthusiasm he always exudes, his fingers wrapping around the hot paper cup. Their fingers touch again and Steve swallows the spark, thrilling and quickly becoming familiar.
Bucky looks up at Steve with an expression of pure mischief and—something else. Something comfortable and soft, familiar in a way that knocks a beat out of Steve’s chest. “Because I cannot be bought—”
“I didn’t hate it, I just thought—” Steve protests, weakly, but is interrupted by sighing.
“Ahhh,” Bucky sighs loudly. “Except by hot chocolate. I’m being played like a fiddle, but one, I love hot chocolate, and two, it’s freezing in here so I’m going to allow it.”
Steve only notices then that it’s draftier inside than usual. He has serum keeping his temperature running high and he’s wrapped up warm besides, but Bucky can’t say the same. He’s in jeans and a knit green sweater that looks soft enough, but not so thick it’ll stop the chill sinking in.
“Is it the heater?” Steve asks. He’s careful to keep the worry out of his voice, but he does a subtle sweep of Bucky as Bucky busies himself with the hot chocolate.
“It could be the heater,” Bucky says. “Could also be the windows, which never shut properly, or the door, that has that inch gap no one ever fixed, also the basement is always about ten degrees colder than it needs to be and I think the ghost haunting it might have moved upstairs for the winter and now we suffer.”
Steve listens to this with a deepening frown.
“You have a ghost?”
“He’s benevolent, mostly,” Bucky says, not a little dramatically. “He’s the ghost of bookstore clerks past, probably, just got stuck in the basement a hundred years ago when the goddamned door got stuck and died mourning the 27 shelves of books he never read. It’s not the way I wish to go, personally. I’m not dying with an unread collection.”
Steve’s frown deepens.
That makes Bucky shake his head and laugh softly.
“You frown any harder and your eyebrows’ll get stuck that way.”
Bucky shakes his head and reaches up on his toes—it makes Steve startle, his breath catching—and presses a warm thumb to the furrow between Steve’s brows.
“This right here,” Bucky says and the crinkle eases away. “It’s always furrowed. I like it better the other way.”
“What other way?” Steve asks, looking down at him. There’s not much of a height difference between the two of them, but there are a few inches—just enough for Steve to have to look down. Or, better, for Bucky to have to look up.
“That way,” Bucky says, with a mischievous grin. “Right now.”
Steve has no idea what he’s talking about at first. Then he realizes that in the space between Bucky reaching up and now, his expression has softened almost unimaginably. His mouth curves up into a smile and Bucky reflects that back at him, a warm expression that reaches the corners of his eyes.
“You’re trying to distract me,” Steve murmurs. His heart flutters, flickering somewhere near his collarbone, and Bucky takes another mouthful of hot chocolate. Steve is careful not to let his eyes dip down toward Bucky’s mouth, but there’s a bit of whipped cream sticking to his Cupid’s bow and Steve’s brain goes kind of fuzzy because—
“Oh,” Bucky startles.
Steve’s thumb brushes the whipped cream away, gently. Then, watching Bucky, he dips his thumb into his mouth and sucks the sweet cream clean.
He can hear Bucky’s breath quicken between them.
Steve suddenly feels dizzy.
“Yum,” Bucky says. They lock eyes just long enough for Steve’s heart to start spritzing, then Bucky turns away with a shaky laugh. “Hey, I’m redoing the displays. Wanna help?”
Steve sucks in a breath to collect himself.
“Yeah,” he says. “I’d love to.”
He follows Bucky, close behind, heart still beating fast, sugar still sweet on his tongue.
The holiday season in books is about as busy as a book season can get, Bucky tells Steve. Steve remembers this too—the quiet lull of the end of summer replaced by the slightly more frantic holiday gift shopping energy, even at the height of the Depression. Steve loved those weekends the best, not only because they made Mr. Carroll a bit batty, but also because Steve could come out from behind the desk and talk to people about books. Even in the cold hunger of the Depression, people would come into the store, having barely two pennies to rub together, but they’d find a way to buy the one pulp book their husband wanted or an old children’s book that would be the only present their daughter got that year. Sometimes they didn’t have two pennies at all, but Mr. Carroll would slip them an old treasure anyway.
“Oh I’ve been trying to get rid of this for years,” he would say gruffly and shove a beautiful illustrated book into the hands of a mother whose eyes would shine with emotion.
They would each of them know it was a loss to the store, but it wouldn’t matter anyhow.
“What’s the point of hoarding all this magic?” Mr. Carroll had said to Steve the one time Steve had asked. “It’s not doing anyone any sort of good for me to hold onto a book someone else might love better.”
That’s the kind of love Mr. Carroll showed books all year, but especially during the Christmas season.
It’s the kind of love Steve feels now, handing Bucky books that he arranges carefully at different tables. Bucky has an opinion—a story—for each book; when he read it, where he read it, and why it means something to him. Steve has never met a person who can find meaning in anything, but Bucky proves he can. It’s enchanting, warming in a completely different way.
More than that—it’s disarming. Steve finds Bucky’s ease and endless tangents contagious. It makes him want to think less and share more, so he does. He voices anything that comes to his head, tells him stories he’s never even shared with Natasha or Sam. Bucky laughs at all of the right places and asks questions everywhere else, sincere in his curiosity. It works. There seems to be no beginning to what they have to say and, somehow, no end either. It makes Steve feel like he’s glowing, inside.
“That is absurd,” Bucky says, loudly and Steve snickers into his sleeve.
“I’m serious,” Steve insists and Bucky tries to playfully hit him in the shoulder with a book. “You can’t hit me for telling the truth!”
“First of all I can hit you for any reason while you’re on this property, that is my legal right as the manager of this establishment—”
“I don’t think that’s how the law works,” Steve says. He’s always telling Bucky that’s not how things work. Bucky is never listening.
“You look like you haven’t followed a law to save your life, so how would you know?” Bucky says over the far end of the display and Steve suddenly looks very innocent. “Second of all, you’re trying to tell me you got stopped in the middle of a street by a fortune teller and you’ve been cursed ever since?”
“No, what I’m saying is that everything she told me has come true and I’m cursed separately, they’re two different issues.”
“I’m cursed too,” Bucky says, rearranging the order of some books in front of him. “Cursed to know you.”
Steve snickers again and Bucky hits him for his efforts.
Okay, so he had embellished some details and it was that Natasha had wanted to see a fortune teller and Steve had gotten dragged along and the lady had given him every grim reading in the book and some of those had even come true and then Tony had been waiting for them outside the tent and that had felt like a curse, to be fair.
Bucky shakes his head and continues around the display. Steve follows him, feeling a little bit like a puppy following his master and finding he doesn’t mind it one bit. Usually, everyone is following Steve. For once, he’s happy to follow after someone else.
Every so often Bucky stops and exclaims some loud opinion about the book he’s arranging and then he gets side-tracked on some well-thought out diatribe, until Steve hands the next one to him to move the process along. They talk about nothing and they kind of talk about everything, growing louder than warranted and laughing in between. It’s a good system. It’s a fun system. Steve feels his cheeks ache from smiling so much.
“My friends expect books from me now,” Bucky says. They sit next to each other on the ground, opposite the window display. Bucky arranged and re-arranged the books there until Steve threatened to replace his latest selections with the Fifty Shades of Grey series. (“The holiday season is not the time for poorly written Twilight fanfiction, Steve!” Bucky had panicked. “The BDSM is inaccurate and offensive! Get that away from my window!”)
Eventually, they had settled for the paperback version of the latest book by “Robert Galbraith,” The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ first novel, Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James, a series of beautifully drawn children’s books, and a gorgeous pop-up version of Le Petit Prince.
There are a few other customers in the store now, but they’ve disappeared among the bookshelves. No one seems to mind that there are two grown men, sitting cross-legged in the middle of the store, shoulder to shoulder, staring out the window after a half an hour of endless bickering.
“Is that a bad thing?” Steve asks.
“No,” Bucky says. He sits back on his hands. “It makes gift shopping easier. I guess it’s never a surprise though, so maybe that makes it boring.”
The thought is almost inconceivable to Steve.
“I can’t imagine you being boring,” Steve says, without thinking.
He flushes the moment his comment registers, but Bucky looks over at him, a grin slowly creeping across his face. He nudges Steve’s shoulder with his own and Steve tries to backtrack at the same time his brain scrambles to think of a reason to stay pressed close. “I just mean—you always have so much to say—”
“You telling me I talk too much, Steve?” Bucky looks at him with absolute delight, which makes Steve’s blush deepen and his stomach twist pleasantly. “You telling me to shut up?”
“Yeah,” Steve manages, after a cough from him and a cackle from Bucky. “That’s exactly right.”
“I knew it,” Bucky says, laughing warmly. “Okay, you talk then.”
He presses his shoulder close to Steve again. The heat travels down Steve’s arm, the way it always seems to, and ends up pooled somewhere low in his stomach, the way it always does. He feels warm all over, in fact, just a little fuzzy around all of his edges.
“You, Steve—say, what’s your last name?”
Steve’s smile flickers.
He hasn’t kept it from Bucky on purpose—not really. It’s just that, he doesn’t come into the store with his cowl on. He leaves his suit and the Avengers—the expectations, the burden, the outside world—at the door. Here, in this bookstore—in his bookstore—Steve lets down his guard. He gets to be the person he once was, without thinking about the superhero that he is now. He gets to be Steve, just Steve, and figure out what that still means. It’s a luxury, maybe, or perhaps it’s a lie, but it’s one he takes for himself, just a hint of selfishness in a future that’s always trying to claim a piece of him.
It makes him nervous to think about coming clean now.
Showing up at the store one day with his mantle in his hands, looking up at Bucky and apologizing for not being the person he thought he was. He doesn’t know how Bucky will take it. It’s one thing to sit on the floor, laughing with Steve Rogers, and another thing to invite Captain America inside—willingly—as though he doesn’t have baggage in the shape of alien invaders and mythical gods and a powerful blue space cube attached to his person.
“What’s in a name?” Bucky says gently when Steve doesn’t answer right away. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Steve’s been looking down at his hands. Now he looks back up at Bucky. His heart ticks a beat, slow and steady, the expression soft on Bucky’s face.
“Shakespeare,” Bucky says, with a gentle smile.
He doesn’t want to keep anything from him, he realizes slowly. It’s not about honesty, really—it’s about walls. Steve has spent years with walls closing him in and sitting on this floor, with this person, he gets the feeling that he doesn’t want that anymore.
He doesn’t want to be enclosed, with no one to share his space with.
More importantly, he wants to share that space with this person, specifically. With Bucky.
“No,” Steve replies. He hesitates, then smiles. “Rogers.”
That makes Bucky pause.
Steve’s stomach churns at the brief silence. Bucky’s working it out, he thinks. He’s putting together all of the pieces, he’s not stupid.
What Steve expects, he doesn’t know. What he gets, instead, is a smile—wide and pleased.
“Steve Rogers,” Bucky says. Somewhere between them, their fingers brush. There’s that spark again, low in his gut. “You never talk about yourself. You never say anything.”
“Bucky,” Steve says.
Bucky touches Steve’s pinkie with his own. “I know why.”
“Buck,” Steve says again, feeling dizzy. The floor seems to rock gently under his hands, the room swaying imperceptibly around them. He feels Bucky lean in.
“I know who you are, Steve,” Bucky says into his ear. Then, gently, he kisses Steve’s cheek and gets up.
Steve looks up at him, his chest fluttering, his breath tight, locked in his throat.
“Come on,” Bucky says, above him. “I want to show you something.”
Bucky reaches a hand down, an offer. Steve looks at it for just one moment. He lets out a shaky breath, then he takes his hand.
Bucky puts a sign up at the front desk and Steve follows him up the stairs at the back of the store. There’s a back room where Mr. Carroll used to put the books he had recently acquired. Steve had been smaller at the time, but he remembers the room being fairly small even for him. It had been kept neat, boxes of acquisitions covered in sheets and cheap tarp, waiting for Mr. Carroll to find a pocket of time to go through them. The room seems even smaller now that Steve is twice the size he used to be. He steps in through the doorway after Bucky and his sense of deja vu steadily increases.
Bucky reaches up and turns on the light—a single lightbulb in the middle of the room. It flickers to life, the chain swaying beside it.
“I was going through some of the old boxes,” Bucky’s muttering. “This bookstore’s been here for ages, I’m always finding things in boxes. I thought maybe the last owner had left behind some books she hadn’t put out yet or maybe the manager before me just hadn’t unpacked a recent delivery, but—”
Steve’s only half-listening, truthfully. He stands, large and imposing, just inside the doorway and tries not to let the ground slide out beneath his feet.
He knows this room the way someone knows their childhood house. He knows the dusty, cobwebbed corners and the strange gouge marks in the floor, just off the center, where a long table used to be. He knows the slats of wood that make up the ceiling and the shallow notches along three corners of the wall. There’s an old boiler at the far corner of the room that rattles in the cold winters and it’s quiet enough now, but Steve can almost hear the phantom noises in the back of his mind.
The boxes aren’t arranged exactly the same way they used to be, but there are still boxes filling the small space. There are still books. There’s still a fine layer of dust and a worn velvet chair in the corner of the room. He knows this place. It’s been 80 years, but Steve still knows this place.
“—guess we could sell some of these, you know?” Bucky’s saying. “Would probably be worth a ton on the antique market.”
If Steve turns his head just so, he can almost see the ghost of Mr. Carroll hovering over a table alongside the far wall. He’s writing in a book, his handwriting small and meticulous, his notes painstakingly kept. His spectacles are hanging at the bridge of his nose, his thinning, white hair sticking up at the sides. He’s wearing a pin-striped vest over a white button-up. The vest is missing the button at the very top.
“Steve?” Bucky asks.
There’s a fat orange cat sitting on the velvet chair. He looks up at Steve, his green eyes bright and lazy.
“Hey,” Bucky says, louder, and Steve’s startled from his thoughts, a cool hand against his face.
The cat disappears.
“Sorry,” Steve comes back into himself. “I got...distracted.”
“This is what I wanted to show you,” Bucky says, quietly. He retracts his hand and Steve wishes he had taken the chance to cover it with his own. He’s becoming all out of sorts all over again.
Bucky’s standing by a stack of large boxes, the topmost one open. There’s a thick layer of dust covering the stack, as though it hasn’t been unsettled in years. Behind this stack, there’s at least three more. A few of the boxes seem to have water damage at the bottom.
“I found it a year ago,” Bucky says. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Steve comes to stand next to him. The room is small, so the space between them is necessarily nonexistent. Steve doesn’t mind, really. Bucky doesn’t seem to, either.
On top of the open box, there’s an old, leather-bound book open to the center. The cover is black and worn, the open pages sepia and fragile with age.
“Here,” Bucky says softly. “Do you see it?”
Steve doesn’t, for a moment.
There seem to be columns—it’s bookkeeping of some sort. He sees numbers and notes, some symbols and demarcations, nothing too interesting. Then, Bucky runs a finger down the page on the right.
Steve’s breath catches at the top of his throat.
“April 16, 1932,” Bucky reads out loud. His voice is so quiet, it’s almost a whisper. The syllables catch in the still air between them. “New employee. Steven Grant Rogers.”
Steve sits at the top of the stairs, his shoulder pressed against the wall.
“Let me close up, okay?” Bucky says, touching his other shoulder. “Stay here.”
It takes Bucky maybe a half an hour to check out the last, stray customers and turn the sign on the front door. The air in the bookstore is warmer than it was before, or maybe that’s just how Steve feels. Everything seems quiet and hot; the store, the air, the noise in his head.
“Hey,” Bucky says and sits down next to him. “You’ve been quiet.”
Steve doesn’t know how to respond to that, exactly. His mind is almost as loud as it is silent. He’s overwhelmed, everything racing through his head at once—thoughts, feelings, memories. He wants to turn his face, press it into Bucky’s shoulder. He craves that kind of comfort, but he knows that would be inappropriate. He settles for pressing his palms against his knees instead.
“I used to work here,” Steve says, after a minute of struggling for words. “A long time ago.”
“April 16,” Bucky says. “1932.”
“That must have been that first day,” Steve says quietly. “I didn’t know. I saw The Maltese Falcon in the window. I didn’t have any money for it, but I wanted it terribly.”
“That must have been hard,” Bucky says, his voice low. “The Depression.”
“It was hard for everyone,” Steve agrees. “I knew we’d never be able to afford it, but I loved reading and I didn’t have many friends. Was always too sick, a little too angry to connect with many people. But the book—it was on all kinds of lists, or the kinds of lists we had then anyway. It was what you had to read, it was so good. I didn’t have any chance of getting my hands on a copy myself, so I just came in, bold as anything, and asked and Mr. Carroll—he let me have it.”
“Musta been some kinda sight,” he says. Then, “He sounds nice.”
“He was,” Steve says, shakily. “One of the kindest men I’ve ever known. He gave me a home away from home at a time when any kind of home was hard to come by. I never knew what happened to him. I didn’t know the store was still here, Buck, I—”
Steve has to stop himself. Something in him shakes. It starts in his core and radiates out, as though he’s coming apart at the seams. It’s only when his arms tremble that he realizes it’s reverberating through his limbs. Bucky doesn’t ask, he just puts a hand over Steve’s. Steve’s grateful for that—he’s grateful that he didn’t have to ask; he’s grateful that Bucky offered, without asking for something in return.
“Do you know the hardest part?” Steve asks, quietly.
Bucky doesn’t say anything for a moment. Then he says, “I imagine it’s all hard, Steve. I guess I can’t imagine it. I don’t know how you do it.”
“I don’t,” Steve says. It feels terrible, to admit out loud. “I’ve been trying, but I don’t, really. I should try more, but when I do, I get so…tired.”
“What’s the hardest part?” Bucky asks, nudging him softly.
“Being the only one left who remembers,” Steve says, after a minute. “I feel like a ghost. There are pictures of me in history books, Buck—just, a whole history of my life, there until I disappear. But it’s just writing, what people think they know about me. They don’t know anything, really, not the kinds of things that matter. Anyway, what’s a history book but fiction about a past that people think they know? There’s nothing to prove I was there. No one left to prove it. God, I feel like I’m losing my mind.”
Bucky laces his fingers over Steve’s own, then flips Steve’s hand over, so that their palms are touching.
“You’re not losing your mind,” Bucky says, firmly. “You’re here, right?”
Steve looks at him.
“You’re here, on these steps with me, in this bookstore. Your name is in that ledger back there. You have an apartment, you have friends. You’re on TV like, every other day.” Bucky looks back at Steve and it hooks him somewhere in his chest. He feels too open, like he’s being cracked in two.
Bucky presses their palms together.
“You’re here, Steve,” he says, emphatically. “I can see you.”
Steve trembles and Bucky squeezes his hand tighter.
“What you can’t see, I can,” Bucky says, voice soft. “And I promise, I can see you.”
They sit on those stairs, just talking, quietly, while the beat of the bookstore thrums around them.
Steve tells Bucky about Mr. Carroll, about working in the bookstore in the 30s and 40s, about how much it meant to him, about how it had saved him, in ways he’s still trying to understand now.
Bucky tells him a story that’s almost remarkably similar. He had suffered a near-death experience as a teenager that had almost entirely derailed him from going to college. He had spent almost six months recovering from a diving accident that had almost left him paralyzed. In the end, he had survived and intensive physical therapy had helped him regain almost all of his mobility. Still, when the conditions are right, his bones ache and his left arm gets a little wonky.
“There was a hiring sign in the window,” Bucky tells Steve. Their thighs touch along the full length of them, their shoulders pressed together. “I didn’t want to go to college, but I needed to do something, so I applied here instead. Been here ever since.”
“I didn’t go to college either,” Steve tells Bucky wryly and Bucky laughs and shoves his shoulder.
“Smartass,” he grins.
Steve admits to Bucky he doesn’t know how much longer he wants to be an Avenger. It’s not something he’s said out loud to anyone—not to Natasha, not to Sam. He’s not even sure he’s thought it out loud, himself.
“I like what I do, but I don’t want to do it forever,” Steve says, guiltily. “I feel obligated, because of what I am, but—”
“You’re a person, Steve,” Bucky says.
“I’m a supersoldier,” Steve says. “I’m a lab experiment. I’m the most expensive science—”
“Bullshit,” Bucky says, almost aggressively. He pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “You’re a person. And as a person, you don’t owe anyone shit.”
That makes Steve feel better. He doesn’t know why.
“Anyway, I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to be an Avenger forever,” Bucky says, dryly. “The alien guts are doing wonders for your skin.”
Steve shoves him back.
Bucky tells Steve he’s worried about the store. There’s a leak in the back and there are beams that are loose and some of the shelves are rotting through and he doesn’t know if they have termites because he’s afraid to check. Maybe, if it was any other kind of store, he’d have the money to fix all of the problems, everything old and everything cropping up new, but it’s not.
“It’s a bookstore, you know?” Bucky says quietly, looking down at the shelves around them. “It’s not exactly a cash cow. We do okay, but sales aren’t exactly—” He sighs. “Anyway, if something big happens—we have insurance, but maybe it won’t be enough.”
Steve’s throat dries a little at that.
“Enough for what?”
Bucky looks down at his hands.
“Enough to keep it around.”
Steve can’t bear that. He takes Bucky’s hand this time.
“It’s been around this long,” he says and nudges his shoulder. “Where’s it gonna go now?”
Eventually, both of them start to grow quieter. It’s a comfortable silence, two people enjoying the space between them. Still, the air around them is so quiet, it’s almost drowsy.
“Do you live far?” Steve asks Bucky, nudging him when he seems like he’s comfortable enough to fall asleep. He’s listing sideways, his head dipping onto Steve’s shoulder every once in a while.
“Just a couple of stops away,” Bucky says, sleepily. “You?”
“A little more than that,” Steve chuckles.
“I’d invite you over,” Bucky says, with a yawn. “But I should probably clean the apartment before Captain America sees it.”
Steve snorts and teasingly pinches Bucky, which makes him yelp and wake up a lot more.
“Captain America doesn’t care about the state of your stray socks,” he says.
“Captain America’s a bit of an asshole,” Bucky replies, rubbing the pink spot on his arm.
Steve is delighted by that, a wide smile spilling across his face. He’s only been called an asshole before by Tony and that isn’t nearly as charming. He likes being called out this way, like he’s a normal person doing normal things, like being an asshole with the person he—
He stops the thought in its tracks.
Shaking his head, he’s the one who stands first this time. He offers Bucky his hand and pulls Bucky to his feet.
He feels light as a feather when they do finally get ready to leave. He hasn’t been checking his watch and it turns out it’s hours later than anticipated.
“Hey,” Bucky says, a hand pressed to Steve’s arm.
“Hey,” Steve replies. Bucky looks—not sleep-rumpled, but something close. Drowsy and soft around the edges, pieces of long, wavy hair escaping from his usual bun. His eyes—that effervescent, slate blue—are bright in the dim light and his skin is pink with warm flush, despite it also being cold. He looks beautiful in a way that’s so permanent it’s almost fleeting. It doesn’t seem real, that someone can look as effortlessly, timelessly beautiful as Bucky does; he looks like something out of a book of fairytales.
Steve’s heart reacts to Bucky in a way that’s becoming painfully familiar. It does that soft, steady drumming in his chest—a sharp tick up and back down to a thudding as slow and sweet as dripping honey. He almost reaches out to press a thumb against the slope of Bucky’s cheekbone, thoughtlessly, craving it—like an addict reaching for the only thing that still makes his heart race—but he stops himself before he goes too far. Bucky blinks at him, soft and slow, and it leaves an ache behind, somewhere near Steve’s ribs.
“I’m going home for Christmas,” Bucky says, when Steve doesn’t make a move. “Indiana. I’ll be gone for a few weeks. Didn’t want you to worry.”
Steve feels fluttery everywhere. He would have worried.
“I didn’t want to go before—”
“Before?” Steve asks. Bucky holds up a finger, motioning at him to wait, and then disappears behind the front counter.
Steve tries to crane his head over the top, but he can’t see whatever Bucky is doing. He reappears a moment later, something wrapped in his hands.
“Here,” Bucky says. His voice is high, the color in his cheeks deepening. It’s a lovely, glowing pink and Steve stares for a moment, wishing he had paint to capture it.
Bucky presses the present to Steve’s chest.
“Don’t open it here,” Bucky says. “Only on Christmas.”
“Buck, I didn’t get you—” Steve says, stricken, but Bucky shakes his head.
“Shut up. I don’t want to keep score. I just saw this and—it reminded me of you. I wanted you to have it.”
Steve holds the present close to him. He feels warm—so warm, all over.
“On Christmas, okay?” Bucky says with a smile.
“On Christmas,” Steve promises.
Bucky locks the door behind them.
“Hey,” Steve breathes out, staring at the dark Brooklyn street around them.
“What?” Bucky turns around and that’s when he must see it—the street, the stores, the cars, all covered in a fine layer of powder white. The air is cold and fresh, the wind a gentle bite. The dark is punctuated by pillow soft swirls of crystals. Brooklyn, around them, is hushed under the first snow of the season.
“Oh,” Bucky sighs happily, shivering.
That’s when Steve thinks of it.
He unwinds the scarf from his neck and before Bucky can blink, Steve loops it around his neck.
“There,” Steve says.
The snowflakes catch on his eyelashes. They dust the bridge of Bucky’s nose. Bucky’s eyes, already glittering, light up even more. He looks unbearably soft like this, his glasses fogged up in the cold, the soft lines of his shoulders under the woolen material of a coat that's just shy of being warm. There's snow on his nose, snow on his hair, snow catching the tops of his shoulders.
Steve could take a pastel to him, draw the lines of Bucky Barnes in delicate whites and greys on a canvas of black. He would never be able to capture him, not his beauty and certainly not his spirit, the color of it, the generosity in it. Still, he could try. And he wants to do that—he wants to try.
“From me to you,” Steve says. “Sorry it’s not wrapped.”
Steve tugs Bucky closer and Bucky goes willingly.
“Oh no,” Bucky puffs out a quiet, soft laugh. “How will I survive?”
Steve smiles and loops the scarf around Bucky once more. When he lets go, his hand lingers, fingers curled into the soft, warm cloth. He feels delicate all over. It’s a lot, for a supersoldier to feel as though a breath could knock him sideways, but he feels it now, paper in the wind.
“Happy holidays, Buck,” Steve says.
Bucky takes a breath and then, quickly, before Steve can properly register it, reaches up on his toes and presses a kiss to Steve’s cheek. It’s there, a touch of a warm mouth to a cold cheek, and then it’s gone.
“Happy holidays, Steve,” Bucky says, cheeks glowing.
He turns on his heels and leaves Steve at the door.
The gentle, falling snow frames his tall, lean figure as he quickly crosses the street.
Bucky gets to the end and takes one look back.
Steve’s heart tumbles in his chest. There’s no denying it—not now.
He watches until Bucky turns and disappears around the corner. Then, holding his present close, a smile etched into his face, he calls a car home.
* * *
picture: steve wrapping bucky in his scarf in the snow; art by: deisderium
Chapter 3: III.
“You seem different,” Natasha says over her cup of coffee.
There’s a chocolate croissant on a blue ceramic plate in front of her and a blueberry scone in front of Steve that is mysteriously disappearing through no effort of his own.
He swallows a mouthful of flat white to give himself an excuse to not answer.
Maybe that would work on Clint or even Sam, but Natasha knows better. It makes her watch him more shrewdly. She nudges his foot under the table and he emerges from his coffee with an expression that, admittedly, he doesn’t try very hard to hide.
“There it is again,” Natasha says.
“What?” Steve asks, as though he doesn’t know.
Natasha doesn’t suffer fools and she definitely doesn’t suffer anyone being coy on purpose, but she’s either in a good mood or has developed a soft spot for Steve. He supposes five years of friendship will do that.
“A smile,” Natasha says.
“I smile,” Steve says.
“When?” Natasha raises an eyebrow.
“I smile!” Steve insists.
“I can smile is different from I do smile,” Natasha says with a wolfish grin of her own. She knows exactly how pedantic she’s being and it’s almost as annoying as it is endearing. This is Natasha Romanoff trying to make friends.
Steve feels an inordinate amount of affection for her.
“Do I really not?” Steve asks, quietly.
He’s always thought he’s done an okay job of holding in the unbearable heaviness he always carries with him. Maybe he hasn’t been quite as careful as he thought. Maybe his friends know him better than he realized.
“It’s nice,” Natasha says, kindly. “You look alive.”
“Did I look dead before?” Steve’s mouth twists wryly.
“You looked sad,” Natasha says. She tears off another corner of her croissant and then nudges Steve under the table again. “So there is something.”
Steve doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t have to. He thinks about his bedside table and the effect is automatic, undeniable—he glows.
“Who is she?” Natasha asks. She does seem surprised now.
Steve finishes his coffee.
“Can we meet her?”
Steve sets the mug down and Natasha sighs.
“Fine, have your secrets, Rogers,” she says.
Steve grins at her and she changes the topic, asks him about what book he’s reading now.
“The Song Of Achilles,” Steve says. “It’s a retelling of Greek myth. The story of Patroclus and Achilles.”
“Hm,” Natasha says, watching Steve astutely. “They’re in love, right? That must be a change. From when you were growing up.”
Steve doesn’t know about all that. There has always been queer love. People have always found a way to read and write and make art about love, in every form it takes.
“You guys didn’t invent queer romance,” Steve says, with a mysterious smile.
“Does Captain America read gay romances?” Natasha raises an eyebrow.
“Captain America punches Nazis,” Steve laughs. Then, with a smile, “Steve Rogers reads gay romances.”
“Hm,” is all Natasha says. She finishes her croissant and then Steve’s scone. “Seems I have a lot left to learn about Steve Rogers.”
They leave the café an hour later, having talked about almost everything under the sun—Clint’s latest mishap at the Tower, Tony’s public reaming at the hands of Pepper, Sam’s day job, how everyone suspects that Fury’s gotten a cat.
Before they part ways, Natasha reaches up, touches Steve’s cheek with a gloved hand.
“I hope you can trust us with your heart one day, Steve,” Natasha says.
“Natasha,” Steve murmurs.
“Until then,” she says and backs away. “I hope he makes you happy. Whoever he is.”
Steve thinks about that late into the night. He thinks about the Avengers—about Natasha’s quiet strength, about Clint’s reliable, happy attitude, and Sam’s disarming demeanor. He thinks about Bruce sharing his darkest secret with them and Tony making a Tower for them to all come home to.
Steve thinks about Bucky, eyes illuminated behind his glasses, a book in his hands, Steve’s scarf wrapped around his neck.
He looks at his bedside table, a small, white leather-bound and gold filigreed book with beautiful, colored illustrations.
Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland it says on the cover. Beside it, folded neatly, is green wrapping paper with words scrawled across the top in neat, looping cursive. To Steve, Let this be your wonderland. Yours, Bucky.
He’s finished rereading it twice already.
There had been one passage underlined inside—just the one.
”Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
Maybe the Cheshire Cat was right. Maybe it had never mattered what direction Steve takes now, in this time, in this century. Perhaps what mattered was where he wanted to end up.
He thinks he knows, now, where he wants that to be.
To Steve, like Dorothy, all roads lead home. So long as he takes the Yellow Book Road.
Being an Avenger means nothing is ever actively busy, until a monster of the week attacks a metropolitan city and then everything is busy, active, and not just a little destructive for the foreseeable future.
It’s not as bad as the chitauri invasion, but the Skrulls and the Kree bring their fighting to planet Earth and the Avengers get a crash course in all manners of lifeforms and someone incredible by the name of Captain Marvel.
Steve and Carol come to an understanding after the Avengers have to join with some Skrulls Carol trusts and some Asgardians Thor brings and it all lasts too long for Steve’s taste, but at the end he sits next to Carol Danvers on a bench and they both split bottles of beers. Steve is grateful, to not be the only captain anymore.
“I missed a lot while I was away,” Carol says, looking over her shoulder at Steve.
They’re both exhausted, tired and sweaty in their uniforms. Carol has dirt in her hair and Steve has a smear of blood at his temple.
“I’m sorry I didn’t know about you sooner,” Steve says.
“You were a superhero in my history books, Steve,” Carol says. “This is way more exciting for me than it is for you.”
Steve gives her a wry grin. “I don’t know about that. Don’t you have the power of the tesseract in you? Also you’ve been to space.”
“Space was great,” Carol says, with a sharp smile. “But hard. I left to help the Skrull and came back and all of these decades had passed here. You forget that. Time passes for you, but it passes for everyone else too.”
“That sounds familiar,” Steve says.
“I bet,” Carol replies and they clink their beer bottles together. “Would you mind advice?”
“I would love it,” Steve says and takes a mouthful of beer.
Carol makes a thoughtful noise.
“You’re here now, in this time,” she says. She looks out at the quiet wreckage of Los Angeles around them. SHIELD interns are working overtime again. “That’s not going to change. So find something that grounds you here, now. That makes this time worth it, you know? Take care of it and let it take care of you. Don’t let it go.”
There’s a story there. Steve recognizes a like spirit—slightly out of rhythm, slightly out of time. Desperately trying to fix what’s gone wrong and make a room for what’s left over.
“Is there someone you miss?” Steve asks. They’re not close, but they are sharing a beer. And they’re captains, anyway.
“Yeah,” Carol smiles sadly and tilts back her beer. “Is there someone you miss?”
Steve thinks about a white book by his bedside table, the quiet aisles of a bookstore, and sitting on the steps, pressed against someone whose light makes him feel light.
“Yeah,” Steve says.
“Then that,” Carol says and taps a hand against Steve’s heart. “Is your answer.”
Steve’s not sure what his question was, but this answer—this he understands. Captains always understand.
The bookstore is almost dark by the time Steve gets there. He knows it’s almost closing time, but the Avengers have kept him away for over a month. Captain America has kept him away from Bucky for all that time.
Steve doesn’t knock.
He sees Bucky, through the display window, looking listlessly at something inside. His hair is down tonight, waves brushing the top of his shoulders. His shoulders are hunched. The light glints off his frames. He’s the best thing Steve’s seen in over a month.
Heart beating faster, Steve jostles the door open. He doesn’t stop to listen to the door chimes before he’s inside, halfway across the floor, his arms around Bucky.
“Oh,” Bucky says, in surprise. Papers go fluttering out of his hand, to the floor. Then, more emotionally, “Oh.”
“Bucky,” Steve says, voice muffled.
“You came back,” Bucky’s voice sounds strained.
“I missed you,” Steve says. He takes the chance, as though it doesn’t cost him something to do so. “Sorry it took so long this time.”
Bucky doesn’t hesitate either. He wraps his arms back around Steve, his glasses pressed to Steve’s chest. Steve can feel the warmth of him, pressed close, a scent that’s clean and soothing, like fresh laundry or mountain air. Bucky’s hand raises to the back of Steve’s head and Steve nestles his face into the crook of Bucky’s neck.
He breathes Bucky in, feels himself warming all over.
It’s never cost him anything to take a chance on Bucky. He’s never wanted or taken anything from him.
“I missed you too,” Bucky says, voice muffled into Steve’s sweater. His hand curls into Steve, he holds him close. “Welcome home.”
Bucky is trying to organize the disarray at the end of the night, which Steve is only too happy to help with. He helps gather all of the books that have been left out around the store, the books that were deposited to the front desk, the books that have been clearly misplaced or knocked askew on the shelves. Bucky’s moving slower than usual, which makes Steve touch his elbow to stop him.
“Just my arm,” Bucky says, apologetically. “Just having a bad day.”
“Let me,” Steve says. “It’s the least I can do.”
He takes the armful of books from Bucky and follows him around, helping slide books back to the shelves in which they belong and rearranging the books around them to accommodate the new intrusion.
“This probably isn’t what they had in mind when they gave you the serum,” Bucky says, handing Steve books and watching him reach up and place them on the topmost shelf.
“This is much better,” Steve says. “The rest is garbage.”
“You’re lucky they can’t fire you from your day job,” Bucky laughs and hands Steve another book.
“They’re lucky I don’t fire myself,” Steve grins. Despite his height, he actually has to reach up to put this book—Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris—away. Before he can let himself back down, he feels two arms wrap around him from behind.
Steve freezes, his heels hitting the floor softly. Bucky’s body heat seeps in through the thin layer of the sweater he’s wearing, his arms fitting perfectly around Steve’s waist. Steve’s heart reacts so strongly, he’s almost certain Bucky will be able to feel it from behind. The heat makes him dizzy, but in a good way.
Bucky leans into him, his nose digging into the middle of Steve’s back. It makes everything in him do a slow, impossible lurch. After five years of near debilitating loneliness, Steve almost can’t bear how whole Bucky makes him feel.
“Hey,” he says, quietly. “Is everything okay?”
“Growing up is harder than they tell you,” Bucky says, after a minute.
“Yeah,” Steve says.
“It’s not all fun and books,” Bucky says. “You can’t just read and escape.”
It doesn’t sit right with Steve, how low Bucky sounds. It’s the way his voice dips, like there’s an unbearable sadness he’s barely holding back. Steve can hear it clearly. He has practice himself, after all.
“Buck, what’s wrong?”
Bucky shakes his head and then presses closer to Steve. Steve carefully loosens Bucky’s grip and turns, so he can gather Bucky close against him.
“Is there anything I can do?” Steve asks. He’s not deft enough to keep the worry out of his voice. He’s only just deft enough to keep out a lot of it, though. He feels almost desperate to make Bucky feel better.
“Distract me,” Bucky manages.
That, Steve can do.
“When I was younger,” Steve says softly, pressing a kiss to Bucky’s temple. “We sure loved to dance.”
It’s nothing like it used to be, of course. Steve never made a habit of dancing in bookstores with handsome men he was sweet on. He doesn’t make a habit of it now, although if he holds onto Bucky for any longer, he’ll go and spoil himself.
Steve opens Spotify on his phone and sets it against one of the bookshelves. He’s not overly fond of technology, but he’s no foreigner to it. Sam shows him streaming devices one endless spring day and Steve takes to it with enthusiasm. He finds a whole playlist of the kind of music he grew up dancing to, him on his Ma’s toes in their living room when he was younger and him and his friends, in dancing clubs when he was older.
There’s not really much room to turn on something lively and Steve doesn’t think it would suit the mood anyway. So he turns on a playlist that has music with sweet, winding tunes, the voices of Bing Crosby and Jimmy Dorsey and Benny Goodman soothing them as Steve, his arms around Bucky’s back, and Bucky, his arms reaching up and around Steve’s neck, turn together.
They don’t talk so much and that’s okay. Bucky leans his forehead against Steve’s shoulder and Steve tucks his face against the side of Bucky’s head, pressing a kiss into his hair every so often. He doesn’t know what they are, exactly, but it almost doesn’t matter. The enchanting sound of strings and flutes and the lazy, long notes from saxophones and clarinets blend together around them and if Bucky can feel the way that Steve’s heart is nearly beating out of his chest, then, well, Steve can feel Bucky’s too.
It doesn’t take too long for the worry to leave Bucky’s face and Steve’s grateful for that. He holds him closer, his hands spread across Bucky’s waist. Bucky takes in a small breath and Steve can feel it all along him. They turn in each other’s arms in that small space, a nook in between tables and shelves of books, Steve’s memories at every intervening corner and their present everywhere else. Bucky presses his mouth to the back of Steve’s jaw, just the barest brush of his lips against Steve’s skin, and the spark that slides down Steve’s spine nearly makes him gasp.
Bucky doesn’t move, because that is enough—it’s more than enough. Steve presses his forehead against Bucky’s own, his few inches giving him just the barest height over him. It works perfectly for them. Bucky closes his eyes and Steve does too.
The music winds between them, filling any space they leave behind.
They sway together, breaths mingling, heartbeats aligned, until Bing turns to Jimmy and Jimmy turns to Frank and they don’t stop until long past the moon starts streaming in through the front window.
“Steve,” Bucky says, gaze as foggy as Steve feels.
“Yes?” Steve asks, quiet, so very quiet.
Steve thinks—he doesn’t know, exactly. He doesn’t think, which he’s not used to. He feels feverish, as though he could be caught in the middle of a dream. They sway to a stop together, Steve’s hands still pressed against Bucky’s side, Bucky’s forehead still against his shoulder.
“Thank you,” Bucky says.
“For what?” Steve asks. He pulls back, just a little, just enough to see Bucky’s expression.
It’s complicated, both softer and sadder than he imagined it could be.
“Buck?” he loosens a hand, brings it up to cup Bucky’s face.
Bucky looks like he wants to say one thing, but ends up saying another.
“For letting me get to know you,” he says. He leans up and, once more, presses a kiss to Steve’s cheek. When he pulls away, it leaves behind a tingling sensation.
“Bucky?” Steve asks, uncertainly.
“It’s time to go home now, Steve,” Bucky says. “It’s time to close up.”
“Right,” Steve says and, with great effort, finally pulls away. “I guess it is pretty late.”
Bucky steps back and looks around them.
“I’ll remember this,” he says. “For a long time.”
Steve’s not entirely sure why he looks as sad as he does. It makes him worry.
“You go on,” Bucky says. “I’m just going to close up. Just some paperwork now.”
There’s a pile of papers stacked haphazardly on the front desk. Steve remembers them scattering to the floor earlier.
“I’ll see you, okay?” Bucky says.
In 80 years, Steve has never failed to trust his instincts. He’ll wonder, later, if it was how late it was, or how warm the air was, or maybe how fuzzy the evening ended up leaving him.
Whatever the reason, he sees Bucky’s eyes and he hears Bucky’s voice and he registers Bucky’s worry—but he doesn’t listen. All the warning signs are there, but Steve Rogers, who always trusts his gut and rarely trusts his head, ignores it.
“Soon,” Steve says and presses a kiss to Bucky’s forehead. “I promise.”
Steve leaves for Budapest on Friday morning. The Avengers and a handful of SHIELD agents take apart a lingering cell of HYDRA operants running an illegal weapons manufacturing and distribution ring. It takes them two days of staking out the affiliated warehouses and an hour and a half to break in and survive the fire fight. They make it out, with a handful of operants, but the others don’t make it. Neither do the buildings.
Steve comes back home on a Tuesday, tired, the smell of ash and soot lingering on him. He postpones the debrief to collapse into his bed. He sleeps ten hours and avoids all thoughts of HYDRA in the meantime.
He dreams, instead, about The Wizard of Oz.
There is a scarecrow, with wings on his back, a cowardly lion, with a mane of red hair, a man of tin, and a young man in a blue checkered shirt, brown hair tied back, black glasses on the bridge of his nose, and red converses on his feet.
They stand together, before a castle, hands at their sides, a wizard at the end of a winding, yellow road.
The man of tin tilts his face up, a tin hand on a tin chest.
“How about my heart?” he asks.
The wizard looks at him, an eyepatch over one eye.
“I think you are wrong to want a heart,” he says. “It makes most people unhappy. If you only knew it, you are in luck not to have a heart.”
Steve looks at the young man in checkered blue, with a ribbon in his hair and a book in his hands, and thinks: I wish to go home too, if he will take me.
“That must be a matter of opinion,” Steve tells the wizard then. “For my part, I will bear all the unhappiness without a murmur, if you will give me the heart.”
“Very well,” Fury replies, eye narrow on the tin man. “Come to me tomorrow and you shall have a heart.”
Steve’s spirit soars, a tin smile on his tin face. He cannot feel happiness, without that piece of himself he desires, but this must be the closest he can get—a lightness he did not think possible at the beginning of their journey.
It is fleeting, however, flaring bright, until Bucky steps forward.
“And now,” Bucky says. “How am I to get back to Brooklyn?”
The wizard smiles and says: “That is easy. Just take the yellow brick road.”
“And it will be there?” Steve asks. “That is the way home?”
“Why of course,” the wizard says, staring at him. “Where else would home be?”
Steve leaves on Friday. He comes back on Tuesday.
In the time in between, the bookstore catches on fire.
He doesn’t know this at the time, but it’s on all of the channels—news vans parked across from a cluster of buildings, not all of which had gone up in flames, but each of which had taken significant damage anyway.
Bucky receives the call in the middle of the night on Saturday.
They contain the fire, but a third of the rooms are gone.They don’t know what starts it. It’s New York City, so faulty wiring, perhaps, or an appliance short circuiting. It doesn’t matter the why, anyway. What matters is the scorch marks on the brick walls and the smoke damage inside.
They put yellow tape and DANGER: UNSAFE BUILDING signs around the three buildings on Sunday. There’s broken glass and curled pages of destroyed books on the sidewalk in front.
The news vans leave.
Bucky doesn’t come in to work on Monday.
When Steve wakes up, he’s alone, swimming in his extra large, extra empty king sized bed. Visions of their mission drift through his head—knocking out HYDRA agents, gunfire, the explosion taking out the back half of one of the factory buildings. He had gotten out with Natasha, staring at the tendrils of acrid smoke spiraling above gray cement blocks. For a moment he had thought they’d lost Clint and Sam. It caught him in that part of his chest he saves for panic, the part he doesn’t let himself feel. He had almost gone back in, but Natasha had stopped him, fingers digging into his arm.
“Wait,” she said, sharply.
Clint and Sam had come stumbling back out a moment later, dragging two SHIELD agents with them.
It had been a close call. They’re all close calls, he thinks, exhausted.
On the plane ride back, he thinks only of two things—his bed and Bucky. His Avenging was everything Bucky was not. The bookstore was everything his Avenging was not. The scales were becoming quickly unbalanced, in a way he’s finding it difficult to reconcile.
“You look tired,” Natasha says to him, on the quiet ride home.
He feels it, a bone deep weariness that leaves him more ragged than human.
“I fought one war,” he finally tells her. “I don’t want to keep fighting everyone else’s.”
Natasha sits next to him then. She takes his hand in hers.
“You want to get out?” Natasha says, looking into his eyes. “Then you go. We’ll be okay without you.”
It’s dizzying, to hear it out loud.
“Natasha,” Steve says, feeling as guilty as he feels relieved.
“You’ve earned your rest, Steve. No one’s going to take that from you. No one wants to,” Natasha says. She reaches over and presses a soft kiss to his cheek. “You’ve earned your bookstore clerk.”
Steve startles at that, but Natasha just smiles at him knowingly. She pats his cheek gently, then gets up to go talk to Sam about something.
Her words stay with him.
His bookstore clerk.
Steve had thought about that the rest of the ride home.
For the first time in five years, Steve wakes up looking forward to something. His head aches and his muscles ache, but more importantly, something else aches, a part of himself he had tucked away before the war and had never allowed himself to feel since. It’s been a long time since he’s had something to share with someone, and even longer since he’s had someone to share it with.
His plan is largely unformed, but bold all the same. The crux of it is this: he’ll go to the bookstore and surprise Bucky.
No, it’s more than that.
He’ll show up, unannounced, and catch Bucky in the stacks. He’ll be on a ladder, putting away a book, surprised at Steve’s voice. Steve will find him there, curl one hand at the frame of the ladder, one hand at Bucky’s back. He’ll help him down, set his feet on the ground. He’ll keep one hand at Bucky’s back and press a palm to Bucky’s face. He’ll look down at him, look into those bright blue eyes, and feel the tension leave his shoulders.
Bucky will say his name. He’ll smile.
He’ll frame Bucky’s cheekbone and move closer, crowd him against a bookshelf until Bucky’s back hits wooden beams and hardcovers.
Steve thinks: enough is enough.
Heart beating rapidly, he’ll close that distance between them, once and for all.
You know what they say about the best laid plans.
Steve shows up, unannounced, but he’s the one who’s surprised.
“A fire,” a young woman tells him.
He stands, slack-jawed, looking at the last pieces of his past, half caved in, bricks black with burns and glass scattered inside and out. It’s not total destruction, but it’s close enough. The yellow door is black, the paint splintered away.
There’s a ringing sound in his head. His palms are sweating.
The ground shifts unsteadily under his feet.
“Are you okay?” the woman asks, looking at him in alarm.
“What happened?” Steve asks. His voice sounds as low, as thoroughly wrecked as he feels.
“They don’t know,” the woman says. “Really, are you—all right?”
The buzzing in Steve’s head grows louder.
“The people—” Steve says. He turns toward the woman. His heart rate ticks up. His throat goes dry. “Were there people, inside? Did anyone get hurt? Was there anyone inside?”
“No,” the woman says, startled. “I don’t think so.”
Bucky, Steve thinks.
No, Steve panics.
Steve has nowhere to go and no way to gather any kind of information. The buzzing in his head is unbearable, his ratcheting anxiety impossible to think around. So he does the only thing his panicked mind can think of—he goes to Natasha.
“Hold on,” Natasha says. “Steve. Steve, calm down.”
He can’t. Steve could try, but he really fucking can’t. His breath is coming up short. He hasn’t felt this lightheaded since he had asthma.
“Okay, look,” Natasha says. She pulls up something on the screen. Steve can barely read it, but she presses a hand to his arm. “No fatalities. No injuries. It happened in the middle of the night. It’s just fire damage. He’s okay, Steve.”
Steve’s head spins. He presses both palms down onto the table and leans on them, closing his eyes.
His heart is still racing too fast, his body jittery with panic.
Bucky’s safe. That matters first and foremost. It’s the only thing that matters, really.
He doesn’t know where he lives or how to reach him—but he’s safe.
“Oh,” Natasha says, softly, clicking through images. “All those books.”
“Did you know that bookstore had been there for ages?” Natasha asks. “Since 192—oh.”
Realization dawns quietly and quickly among Avengers; even faster among friends.
“Oh, Steve,” Natasha says, softly.
Steve’s throat is tight. He doesn’t know how much of the bookstore caught in the flames—he doesn’t know how much there is left, to the building, to the structure, to the books. He doesn’t know what the flames caught or how much of the smoke destroyed the boxes that were in the back room or the basement. He doesn’t know whether the stairs he used to sit on are still standing.
Is there anything left of the place he loved most?
If he goes back, will the ghost of Jabberwocky disappear too?
Steve curls his fingers into the palm of his hand.
The grief hits him sideways, full force. It knocks him off his breathe, forces the breath out of his lungs. It gets its claws into him and drags him under the water. He’s lost almost everything in his life. It seems almost unbearable to lose this too.
“Hey,” Natasha says. She has a hand on his back, her face pressed close. “We can fix this. That’s what we do, right? We fix things.”
Steve shakes his head, finding it difficult to catch his breath. He presses back into Natasha, grateful for her friendship and comfort. She holds on. She supports him.
“How?” he says, after minutes. “How do I help fix this?”
He doesn’t know how that would be possible. All he can see are the ruins of the bookstore. All he can see is the damage.
Maybe this was all fated to be. Maybe Steve was always going to end up, with damage.
“Do you trust me?” Natasha asks him.
Steve doesn’t know what that has to do with anything.
“Tell me,” Natasha says and presses her hand against his side more firmly. “Do you trust me, Steve?”
“Yes,” Steve says, swallowing. “I trust you.”
“Then tell me. Are you done?” Natasha asks then and Steve turns to her, confused. “Avenging. Are you done Avenging?”
Now doesn’t seem to be the time, but then, maybe there never was a right time to begin with. The fire there, the fire here—alien guts and gods of mischief and robots that try to subjugate humanity and end up destroying entire countries instead. Wars that start and wars that never end.
Maybe what’s lost isn’t time, but the possibilities of what to do with it. Steve has been Captain America for so long, he’s forgotten how to be anything else. But that’s not to say that’s all he is, or even all he wants to be. That’s not to say that is what he loves.
“It’s okay to be done,” Natasha says, softer. “You’re not wrong to want something else. Steve, you’re not wrong to want to be happy.”
The truth is, if Steve is lost—if he’s been lost, since he went into the ice, if he’s stayed lost, since he woke up out of it, in 2011—a man out of time, a man without a way—then what is home to him? What does home mean to him? And how does he find his way back to it?
What was it the Wizard had said? Come to me tomorrow and you shall have a heart.
No, that wasn’t it.
“And it will be there?” Steve asked, a tin man wishing for a real heart. “That is the way home?”
“Why of course,” the wizard said, looking at the yellow road winding behind them. “Where else would home be?”
Where else would home be?
“I’m done,” Steve says to Natasha. He breathes out, through his nose, his truth revealed, through his whole body. He turns to her. “I trust you. And I’m done.”
“Then, I have something to show you.”
* * *
Chapter 4: IV.
When Bucky was a kid, he wanted to be a pilot. Like most kids of his age, he also wanted to be a firefighter, an astronaut, an ice skater, a ballerina, and—one day—the president of the United States. But mostly, he wanted to be a pilot.
It turned out eventually, much to his dismay, that he was kind of afraid of heights.
Then he went cliff diving with a group of friends his senior year of high school and had an accident that had nearly fractured his spine and definitely shattered his left arm. That had changed his life in unforeseeable ways and what the accident hadn’t done, the sign in the bookstore had.
He had been skipping school, wandering through upper Williamsburg when he had passed by.
Bucky had always loved reading and, what’s more, he had always loved bookstores.
The bookstore was in a brick building, squeezed between a fake speakeasy that had still kept the awning from an old hardware store, and what was one of those trendy juice bars. In the middle, different from each in every conceivable way, was a shop with script written in gold font on the window, wood panelling painted a faded mint green, a bright yellow door, and a display that had The Hobbit front and center.
Bucky had always loved all things Tolkien.
Next to the display, there was a sign: HELP WANTED.
It seemed like fate.
He had gone in that day, left arm slightly twinging, to ask what kind of experience was required. As the door chimes rang above his head, goosebumps rippled across his arms. The hair raised at the back of his neck.
The door closed behind him and in front were rows and rows of books. The air was still, the quiet barely disturbed. Bucky had looked around him, spellbound.
He had gone into the bookstore that day, looking for a job, and he had never left.
Bucky never took to the skies, but he took to everywhere else. Books were his great adventure and he had never felt anything close to failure for not taking the planned, traditional paths.
How could he have failed, when what he had gotten was more than he could have imagined? A place to read and explore; a place of his own, to love.
He watches the bookstore burn in the middle of the night and feels his accident all over again—the breath leaving his lungs, the unbearable pain shooting down his spine. The knowledge that nothing—nothing—will ever be the same again.
There’s nothing he can do, so he goes home that night, curls up in bed with two, thick comforters, and cries.
For the first time in as long as he can remember, he does not read a book.
That first week is the hardest. He wakes up at 8 am, when his alarm used to go off, calculating orders in his head. He thinks through the acquisitions and the backorders. He contemplates what displays are currently arranged and how to change them next. He remembers all of the receipts and accounts that have been lagging and thinks if the morning crowd is light, today is the day he will finally go through them.
It takes him two full minutes to remember.
He does this, every day, at 8 am, for one full week.
Bucky was eighteen the day he walked through the front door of The Yellow Book Road. In thirteen years, he has woken up every single day at 8 am, whether he’s opening the store or not. In all that time, he has never missed a day of work. In all that time, he has never once been late.
For the first time in over a decade, Bucky has nowhere to be and nothing to do. He wakes up, stares at the ceiling, and thinks about all of the books he won’t be organizing. He thinks about all of the regular customers he won’t be seeing. He stays in bed, depressed.
He’s never felt like a failure before, but he does now.
He misses his bookstore.
He misses the people who made it feel like home.
“It was in trouble anyway, wasn’t it?” Becca talks to him over the phone.
He’s in his pajamas, sitting on his shitty striped couch, eating a shity bowl of shitty cereal, his left arm hurting, his greasy hair in a greasy bun and the only reason he’s even talking to a human at all is because his older sister doesn’t know boundaries and, more importantly, his older sister doesn’t know how to take no for an answer.
His sister doesn’t know tact either, apparently.
“That doesn’t make it better,” Bucky mutters, through a mouthful of off brand Cheerios. There’s a stack of envelopes still sitting on his kitchen table, the words NOTICE OF FORECLOSURE staring up at him, as though it matters anymore.
“You were going to lose it,” Becca says. She probably thinks she’s being soothing, but the words cut Bucky until he chokes on his tongue. “At least this way there’s insurance. Maybe he’ll use it to rebuild.”
That brings out a strangled laugh from Bucky.
“Roberts? He’s been trying to come up with a reason to get rid of it for years,” Bucky says. His chest feels so tight, it’s getting difficult to breathe. “He only stayed because—I promised. I promised we would do better, Becca. He doesn’t care. Do you think Roberts gives a shit about the store? Do you think the store saved his life?”
Becca’s quiet at that. She knows how much Bucky’s been through. She’s well aware of all of the years he struggled to stay afloat.
The bookstore had been more than just a good omen to him, it had been a lifeline. It had been his entire life.
And now it was a pile of ashen rubble, more or less.
“There are other bookstores, Bucky,” Becca tries. “I’m sure someone will hire you.”
That’s not the fucking point, Bucky wants to snap at his older sister. He knows he’s depressed and agitated and overwhelmingly hurt, but he’s also just self aware enough to know he would be taking it out on her when it’s not her fault his home of thirteen years had caught on fire.
“I don’t know if I want that,” Bucky says, trying not to sound too hurt.
“Okay,” Becca says. There are some noises in the background and Bucky can tell she’s getting ready for work. At least one of them is. “What do you want?”
He wants his bookstore back. Bucky wants his shelves, with the precarious domino stacks, and his front desk, with the bell that actually didn’t even work, and the bright yellow door, with the door chimes that welcomed him every morning. He wants his steps with the creak on the second stair, and his window, with the one inch gap along the bottom, and his backroom with the waterlogged boxes and the treasures he keeps finding. It was an old, small bookstore with loose boards and leaks from the roof and shelves that were unstable and yes, probably a termite problem, but it was his bookstore. Not Roberts’, not the two other guys’ who rarely came in, but his. Bucky’s.
He doesn’t realize his breathing is growing heavier, his eyes prickling, until he hears Becca over the line.
“Aw Buck,” she says, kindly. “I’m sorry. I know how much that place meant to you.”
She doesn’t, but that’s okay.
No one knows, exactly, how much the bookstore meant to him.
That’s not true, of course, but that part Bucky’s trying extra hard not to think about. Becca finally has to go to work, but Bucky has nothing to do but sit around and mope, so he does what’s definitely not advised and puts on jeans and a t-shirt, shoves on his converses, and walks to the train.
It’s two stops and two blocks away. It’s been this way for five years, ever since he moved into the little, overpriced studio in East Williamsburg, a cute, shitty little brick place with one large window, a boiler that rattles in the winter, and an exactly five minute walk from the Graham Av station. He takes the route back, as though what will await him in the end will be different from what he saw on Saturday.
He’s wrong, of course.
The buildings are cordoned off, the smell of ash and fire still lingering in the air, even though it’s been nearly two weeks. Someone’s cleaned up the glass and the paper, but that’s all. It’s New York City; not even a fire remains news for too long.
Bucky shoves his hands in his pockets and stays, across the sidewalk, watching the buildings for a long time. It doesn’t look like his bookstore anymore. It doesn’t smell like it and it certainly doesn’t feel like it. Whatever it used to be—whatever it has been, for far longer than it’s been Bucky’s—is gone now.
Maybe there’s space to grow something new, but that’s for someone else.
What he had is gone. He doesn’t know what’s left in its place.
It reminds him of conversations in the stacks and shared life stories on the stairs. Bucky, with his shoulder pressed to the wall, watching without trying to make it look like he was watching.
A beautiful man with sad eyes and a love for the written word, sitting two steps below him, his head tipped forward, his pen pressed against a bookmark. Bucky watched the pen draw ink across the white cardstock, but he watched the person more—his back hunched forward, muscles bunched at the top of his shoulders. That furrow between his eyebrows, the curve of his nose, the gentle slopes of his shoulders.
Steve’s fingers, long and slender, almost delicate given who he was and what he did. Bucky hadn’t known the first day, but it was hard to miss it the second time, the third. Bucky watched the news and he watched Steve and it wasn’t difficult to connect the dots when coverage of the Avengers included Captain America with his cowl knocked off. He had been surprised only for a few minutes. It hadn’t seemed so shocking after that. Of course Steve was Captain America. Who else would have such sad eyes?
The knowledge had made Bucky feel complicated—not because Captain America was Steve (his Steve), but because Steve (his Steve) was Captain America. The thrill in his stomach was accompanied by worry.
Steve, being Steve, hadn’t realized how tired he had looked when he had come in the next day, but Bucky had. Steve had stood in the historical fiction aisle, lost in thought, nearly swaying on his feet and Bucky had almost come to him, to take his face in his hands and try to bring him back down to earth.
Bucky watched the news more carefully after that, worrying his nails and destroying his nail beds every time it showed the Avengers in the middle of something bad.
In the end, it didn’t matter to Bucky that Captain America was coming to his bookstore. He lived in New York, where he could cross paths with celebrities if he stayed in Chelsea or SoHo long enough. It mattered to Bucky that Steve—with his desperately sad eyes and long fingers, his quiet and sharp sense of humor and hands made for art but co-opted by war—did. Steve mattered to Bucky.
It had been difficult to leave Steve that night, in the middle of the snow, Steve’s scarf around his neck.
Bucky’s never been in love before, but he knows what it feels like.
He knows it isn’t normal to look into someone’s face and want to wipe the hurt clean. He knows it isn’t normal to want to take a person’s hurt, his glass crushed feelings, and put it back together for him, with him, piece by piece.
Bucky knows it isn’t normal, when someone is wrapping his scarf around you, to want to lean up, take his face into the palms of your hands, and kiss him.
It’s not normal, but it’s not unexpected, either.
It’s like looking up at the water spilling around you and realizing you’ve been standing at the bottom of a waterfall.
Bucky has been in love with Steve—every vibrant, quiet, thoughtful, sad, beautiful part of him, since he first met him. He had looked up from the stacks that and there he was, standing by the doorway—tall and golden and so uncertain, he was almost shy.
That wasn’t it at all, Bucky had learned.
He was lost in space; lost in time.
If anyone understood what that looked like, wasn’t it Bucky?
It doesn’t matter anymore now, anyway.
Bucky can’t just show up at Avengers headquarters, demanding to see Captain America.
He was just a bookstore clerk without a bookstore and Steve? Steve was a superhero.
What would a superhero want to do with someone who couldn’t even keep the place he loved most standing?
It doesn’t really get better. Time heals most things, but it can’t heal a burned building. It can’t heal the email he gets from Roberts, confirming the insurance money covered the damage, that it was a good payout, but that after much consideration, he had decided to sell, not rebuild.
It doesn’t heal how Bucky feels, applying to a job at Trader Joe’s, because his heart can’t handle being near a bookstore. He does that on the weekdays and on the weekends, he helps Becca man a table at the farmer’s market in Union Square.
It’s right between Barnes & Noble and the Strand, which would be funny if Bucky didn’t have an arm full of vegetables and a broken heart.
He spends six months like this, in limbo, missing his old life, his old job, and his old friend.
He looks over his shoulder at every tall, blond man who crosses Broadway, but it’s never the one he wants to see. Once, he almost does go into the Strand, thinking maybe he’ll be inside. Maybe he’ll be at one of the long tables, picking up a book with his long fingers, reading the cover with that little furrow he gets between his brows, and Bucky can just come up behind him, wrap his arms around his waist, and lean into his back.
I need a hug, he’d say, which is a stupid thing to tell Captain America, but an okay thing to tell Steve. He thinks Steve would understand. If you’re done reading the summary on that book, could you turn around and take me into your arms? I’d like to rest there, for a little while.
Maybe Steve wouldn’t understand that.
Sometimes he watches the news for coverage of the Avengers. It’s always some fight gone wrong or some footage of something remarkably dangerous and Iron Man flying around in his metal suit and the Indestructible Hulk hanging off of buildings and Captain America with his fucking shield, just throwing it at the bad guys. Bucky worries.
He turns off the TV and goes back to bed.
It’s never really enough and sometimes it’s almost too much. He almost had him, the man of his dreams and then the bookstore had burned down and it had taken his dreams with him. Bucky misses Steve. Bucky misses Steve very much.
So anyway, now he has two broken hearts. Apparently that’s possible.
It takes him another two months to quit his job at Trader Joe’s.
“What are you going to do now?” Becca asks Bucky when he tells him.
It was probably a stupid idea because now he has no income and also no groceries, but it almost doesn’t matter anymore.
“I don’t know,” Bucky says, looking down at the book in his lap. The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. “But I have to do something else.”
On Monday, Bucky grits his teeth, sucks in a breath, and sends an application to Barnes & Noble.
On Tuesday, he receives an email from Roberts.
FROM: Roberts, L.
TO: Barnes, J.
Could you run by the store? The new owner has some questions about the property dimensions and you’re the only one who knows it well enough to answer.
Bucky has a whole list of how Roberts can go fuck himself. He almost emails them to him, alphabetically, in bullet point form, each phrase increasing in color as it progresses.
It would be the most satisfying thing to do, if what he really wanted, deep down, wasn’t to go back, one last time.
So he acts like the adult he is and agrees.
On a cold, Wednesday morning, in the middle of November, Bucky puts on his jeans and his long, checkered coat, ties his hair back, and finally, on a whim, wraps his favorite scarf around his neck. It doesn’t smell like Steve anymore, but it reminds Bucky of him. If memories are all he has left of his short-lived storybook romance, then he’ll take the scarf and he’ll take the memories too.
He gets on the train for two familiar stops and gets off two blocks away. His brain and his heart disconnect from his legs, the former screaming at him to stop, while the latter operates on muscle memory alone. He wants to see what’s become of the bookstore and he doesn’t.
It’s complicated, but then, most things are.
Bucky starts to feel his breath quicken as he approaches, his chest tight with anxiety. He counts the steps back—ten, nine, eight...
He gets to point directly across the street and stops dead in his tracks.
It’s nothing like it used to be, but it’s everything it somehow was anyway. The framing in the front is a fresh, bright mint green, the glass nearly sparkling clean in the morning sun. To its left is a brick building with a fresh pin-striped awning and to the right, what looks like a juice shop.
Through the window, there are shelves of mahogany—a deep, rich brown—lined with hundreds of books in dozens of bindings and dozens of colors.
On top of the glass, in golden script, it says: The Yellow Book Road.
On display, in the window, is The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett.
“Hello?” Bucky calls, hesitantly.
His heart is beating loudly somewhere near his right ear. His palms are sweaty. He looks around the bookstore—newly renovated, restored, replenished. The sun streams in through the window and hits a shelf of books, illuminating them just like he remembers. To the left, the front desk, with a bell, and to the middle, long tables with books set up carefully. All the way at the back of the store, a set of stairs, a little scorched, but mostly intact.
Bucky steps in and they ring gently above him, a pair of door chimes.
He shivers a little.
It feels like a dream.
“Hello?” he calls again, a little louder. “Roberts—the previous owner told me to come in. He said—you had questions about the property?”
There isn’t an answer, so Bucky steps all the way inside, mesmerized by the way the whole store has been preserved and replicated, not a book or a wooden slat out of place. It’s like someone took The Yellow Book Road of his memories and painted it to life.
He stands in the middle, chest tightening, his emotions rising slowly, like a tide in the sea.
Bucky reaches forward toward the dumb, broken desk bell and—
It rings, loudly.
“Oh,” he says, startled. In five years, the bell hasn’t worked.
“Hello,” a familiar voice says, just behind him. “You rang?”
The thing about Bucky is that he has never been able to hide what he’s feeling.
So when he turns around, Steve sees it all—the shock, the confusion, the relief—the yearning.
“Steve?” Bucky asks, his voice wavering.
“I did,” Steve says, smiling widely, stepping forward. “Have a few questions about the property. The old owner—Roberts? Said you could help me answer them. He said no one knew this store like you did. No one loved it like you did.”
For once, Bucky is quiet. He doesn’t seem like he knows what to say.
“I was thinking,” Steve says and stops in front of Bucky. “If you knew much about this property. Is it worth keeping?”
“Keeping?” Bucky asks. He sounds as overwhelmed, as watery as Steve feels.
“Yeah,” Steve smiles. “Say someone got about 80 years of back pay from the government. And he had nothing else to spend it on. Say he bought a bookstore that meant the world to him growing up and still means everything to him today. It’s just a bookstore. Is there any value in that?”
Bucky seems to sway on his feet. Steve reaches out and catches an arm.
“Tell me I did the right thing,” Steve says quietly, when Bucky doesn’t answer. He looks at Bucky intently, intensely, blue eyes on blue eyes. Before he knows it, he’s cupped his face, tilted Bucky’s chin up toward him. “Tell me I made the right call.”
Bucky searches his face for something—for anything. Just as Steve, desperate, is about to give up, Bucky laughs.
“It’s books, Steve,” he says, voice tight, expression almost joyous. “It’s books. That’s always the right thing.”
“That’s only half what I meant, Buck,” Steve says, his hand sliding into Bucky’s hair. He steps closer, two inches between them, then one. He stops and looks down and thinks—if this is what it means to come to someone, your heart in your hands, then Bucky Barnes now has his to hold. It beats between them, slow and true.
Steve sucks in a breath and Bucky’s hands frame his face.
“You made the right call,” Bucky says.
He reaches up on his toes, palms against Steve’s cheeks, expression soft with adoration, and then, finally—finally—after months of waiting, dust motes swirling in the light of the air, in their favorite place in the whole world, he kisses him.
Steve’s heart nearly drums out of his chest, his mouth tingling from where they touch, his nose rubbing against Bucky’s. There’s electricity sliding up and down his spine and goosebumps rising on his arms and a pleasant, delighted buzzing at the base of his neck. His hands, one in Bucky’s hair, the other on his shoulder. Bucky leaning up toward him and Steve leaning down. Their noses, touching.
The two of them meeting halfway.
It’s heady and enchanting and terrifying—until it’s not.
Then it’s something soft, and sweet, and romantic.
Steve kisses Bucky gently and Bucky smiles into his mouth.
He feels dizzy, but steady, as though the ground, which has been falling away from his feet, has slid back into place. He closes his eyes and feels the cool, untouched air of the room on his skin. He feels Bucky, warm, leaning into him. He feels the moment—soft, bright, alive—in a way he hasn’t felt very many moments before, certainly not now, and maybe not even then.
He thinks this might be what home feels like.
“Are you offering me a job?” Bucky asks after a moment, mouthing the words into Steve’s mouth.
Steve laughs and presses a firm kiss back and pulls away, just so.
“I’m offering you a bookstore,” Steve says. And then, smiling and happy—so happy—he laughs. “Are you wearing my scarf?”
Bucky ignores that.
“I’ll take your bookstore,” he says, instead. Then, he reaches up again. “I’ll take you, too.”
He kisses Steve.
* * *
six months later.
In six months, many things happen.
First: Steve quits the Avengers. It doesn’t happen with so much of a press conference as it does with him showing up to the Tower one day, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, interrupting a mission briefing and setting the shield down in front of Sam. There had been a bit of an uproar and Fury had been, to say the least, pissed, but after everyone got over the initial shock and Natasha threatened everyone else who didn’t, they had all come to a general sort of understanding.
The understanding was this: Sam Wilson was now Captain America. And Steve Rogers was: now retired.
Second: while Steve Rogers was retired from Avenging, he was not, however, retired from life. Despite Natasha’s very many fossil jokes and Tony’s very many dinosaur jokes and Clint’s very many icicle jokes, Steve is still young, with a future ahead of him, including hopes and dreams and all of that. So he hands in his shield, but he picks up a book instead.
He buys a bookstore he’s always loved and, after, he runs it with the person he loves.
The third thing is:
“Steve,” Bucky says.
Steve doesn’t listen. Steve is unrepentant and definitely unapologetic. Steve has one hand in Bucky’s hair and the other hand crawling up the back of his shirt.
“Steve,” Bucky complains, louder, although complaining is a weird way to describe someone whose mouth is attached to another person’s mouth and who is doing very little to detach his mouth from said other mouth.
Steve sighs, trying to make out with his boyfriend, but his boyfriend is strangely responsible and wants to open up their bookstore, which they own and run together, at 10 am on the dot, which is when the bookstore, which they own and run together, is set to open.
“You used to love me,” Steve says, trying to continue making out with him. “You used to want to impress me because I was Captain America.”
“First of all,” Bucky grumbles into Steve’s mouth. “That’s not true. I was never trying to impress you, I was trying to get you to read something not written by a dead man. Second of all, ‘was’ is the operative term here. Was.”
Steve breaks the kiss, only to catch his breath. He has supersoldier many things, but his lungs still require oxygen, sometimes.
“I can’t believe you only liked me for my shield,” Steve says.
“It wasn’t your shield,” Bucky replies. “It was the outfit. It made your ass too legit to quit.”
Bucky says this with such a straight face that Steve can’t help but laugh out loud. Perhaps a little hard. Perhaps a little too loud.
A streak of orange startles and disappears into the aisles.
“Oh, you scared her,” Bucky admonishes.
“That is not saying much, unfortunately,” Steve says, which Bucky sadly agrees with.
The third thing is that they have a cat now. Cats, actually. Two.
“Mimsy,” Bucky calls after her. “Mim, girl, come back!”
Mimsy was not going to come back. Mimsy was a fat, orange cat of skittish nature. Steve and Bucky had found her curled up in front of the bookstore one morning. Bucky had fallen in love with her immediately, called her a miracle. Steve knew it was more than that.
One fat, orange cat is a miracle. Two is some kind of bookstore cat guardian looking out for them both.
Bucky had suggested they name her Jabberwocky, but that had seemed too on the nose. Let Jabberwocky’s ghost rest in bookstore peace, Steve said.
“Okay,” Bucky had smiled, squatting down and rubbing her under her chin. “How about Mimsy?”
Steve had loved that, of course.
“All mimsy were the borograves,” he recited. He stroked the top of her head and looked back at Bucky, bright and happy.
Bucky, smiling wider, leaned over and gave him a soft peck on the lips.
“And the mome raths outgrabe.”
Nonsense, is what it was.
In his arms, Mimsy purred her approval.
The second cat was an accident.
It had followed Steve home one day, after his morning run.
Bucky, who had been making them breakfast in his small, slightly shitty studio apartment, had looked up when the door opened, to find a sweaty, overlarge superhero boyfriend and a tiny grey kitten in his very large arms.
The kitten had looked like a stuffed animal and Steve had looked like he was going to cry.
“Good grief,” Bucky said, spatula in the air.
“How about Hercules?” Steve suggested, hopefully.
Bucky had just made Steve marathon his favorite Disney movies the day before. A full—back-to-back Disney movie marathon—Aladdin, The Lion King, Atlantis, Mulan, and Hercules.
That had been a mistake, evidently.
“We already have a cat, Steve,” Bucky said, trying to keep a straight face and already clearly crumbling.
“Not this cat,” Steve insisted. “Not a cat named Hercules.”
“Good grief,” Bucky said, louder.
It was a moot point, anyway, because the cat was so snuggled into Steve’s warm, large arms that it was impossible to pry him away.
picture: steve with his large muscles, holding a tiny grey kitten up to his face; art by: deisderium
So now they have two cats and, unfortunately, are crazy about both of them.
“Okay, okay,” Bucky says now. “You have distracted me long enough, Rogers.”
Steve considers getting fresh with Bucky once more, really just picking up where they left off when Mimsy so rudely interrupted them. But Bucky gives him a warning look and someone knocks on the door and then the door is open and the door chimes start ringing and—
It’s hard, obviously. It’s really, really hard, to run a bookstore with the man you love and the two cats you love and be surrounded by books all day, which you have purchased, and many of which you have read, and so many of which you still have left to read.
The thing is, once, Steve was a reckless, knobby-kneed, angry kid and then he was at war and then he was in ice and a whole host of things besides, but no matter where he was—no matter when he was, he had books.
Books had brought him happiness when he was sad. They had brought him peace when he was angry. They had brought him Bucky when he was lost.
It flickers down his spine—this life, his chosen life, and Bucky, next to him, this person, his chosen person, and all of the adventures they have read and all of the adventures they will go on together. He feels it in the air, on his fingertips, at the base of his spine, and on the tip of his tongue.
Books were magic.
He thinks: books are magic.
“Hey stranger,” a voice says, smiling.
“Hey,” Steve looks up, warm and a little fuzzy, from the counter.
In front of him are his people now, his family—Natasha, in her brown leather jacket and her red hair in a braid, and Sam, in a shirt with falcon wings on it, and Clint, with purple sunglasses and a tattoo of a bow and arrow peeking out from under his tank.
“You know,” Natasha says. “We were thinking. And we could use a new book, for our book club.”
Steve smiles then—broadly.
“Yeah?” he says.
“Yeah,” Natasha’s mouth twitches up. “A former coworker of mine got us hooked. So now, I guess we read.”
Steve’s face aches with his smile.
“Well, you’ve come to the right place,” he says. “I got books. We got books.”
Natasha looks at him fondly and Sam looks at the table behind her and Clint, obviously, tries the bell, which rings loudly and jarringly across the store.
“Good grief,” Bucky says, appearing to Steve’s left.
Steve can’t help the warm, delighted expression that spills across his face. Natasha looks amused. Sam looks nauseated. Steve leans into Bucky and Bucky gets an arm around him, squeezing his hip and pressing a kiss to his shoulder. Then, adjusting his glasses, getting to business, he slams his hands down on the front counter.
“All right, amateurs. Your superpowers mean nothing in here. What are we looking for?”
They start bickering then and they don’t really stop. Natasha has an opinion and Sam has an opinion and Clint probably has an opinion, but no one’s really sure what it is. Bucky argues with them. Steve argues with Bucky. They all argue with each other, debating genres and authors, books they’ve read, and books they have yet to read. It’s a loud, jumbled, laughing, bickering mess.
Steve holds Bucky’s hand the entire time. When the rest are finally reading summaries, he sneaks a kiss onto his cheek, and then his jaw, and then, when no one’s paying attention—onto his mouth. Bucky melts under the attention, so Steve, happily, does it again.
“You’re trouble, Rogers,” Bucky says, sighing into his mouth. “I knew it the moment I saw you.”
Steve’s eyes flutter closed and Bucky, pressing a hand to Steve’s face, leans up and kisses him back.
To Steve, it doesn’t feel so much like lost time anymore.
It feels like time, found.
And in the end, isn’t that all that home is?
In the front of the store, in the display case, is a stack of books. Some are old—Beloved and Parable of the Sower and Uncle Tom’s Cabin—and some are new—The Rules of Magic and Homecoming and Pachinko. Some are somewhere in the middle. Each book is hand-picked, selected with care, and put up with love.
In the middle of this display, set on top, is a beautiful, illustrated, leatherbound copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The pages are worn; there are thumbprints on the cover. The sunlight glints off of curved script, rays catching in the grooves of fading gold imprints. It is an old book, well-thumbed and even better loved.
Everyone stops to look at it. The book catches their eye and they stop and think: what a strange little shop with a bright yellow door, and, I wonder what curiosities might lay inside?
That is for them to find out. For a bookstore cat, the wonders are much simpler.
Ready for her morning nap, Mimsy curls up next to the book and, letting out little puffs of breath and a twitch of her small whiskers, falls asleep.
picture: mimsy, curled up on top of books; art by: deisderium
* * *
There is no place like home.
-L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz