In his first memory he is sick: frail bones shivering under burning skin, air fighting its futile way into lungs heavy like a drowning man's. He doesn't know this, of course; he knows shaking and heat, the thick scrape against his throat of every meager breath. He uses the last of his voice to tell his mother: I'm scared. And then a cool damp cloth against his skin, shh, shh, and her lilting voice: Where there is love there is no fear.
She sang to him then, maybe; she usually would, when he caught fever. He doesn't remember the song; he doesn't remember healing. He remembers her touch on his forehead. How she swiped her thumb above the cloth just once, like a benediction. How something in him stilled, in the sureness of her love.
"So how you doing?" Sam says.
"Can't complain," Steve says with a smile. "Could you hand me that milk?"
Sam arches an eyebrow and passes the ceramic creamer. "How about we try that again, and this time, you give me a real answer?" Steve pours the milk into his coffee, stirs it with a little silver spoon. Whorls of white splay across the surface and fade in a single movement. "How. Are you. Doing?
Bucky has spent two weeks in Steve's apartment. Bucky has not said a word to Steve since the toneless okay he gave when he let them take him in, but in the nights Steve hears him mumbling in English and shouting in Russian and screaming wordlessly just long enough to wake himself up. The first night, Steve rushed into the room, and when he opened the door saying Bucky, are you—, Bucky pressed himself back against the wall, shaking. That's how Bucky's doing. So when people ask Steve how he's doing—
"I told you," he says. "I can't complain."
The first night, Bucky screamed, and Steve rushed into the room. When he opened the door, saying Bucky, are you—, Bucky stared at him with sepulchral eyes, looking in the moonlight as pale and breakable as porcelain. He shoved himself backwards on the bed, backing himself into the corner, and wrapped the blanket around himself like a little boy warding off monsters. Then he started making these high-pitched sounds. Now when Steve hears Bucky crying out in sleep, he grits his teeth and waits for it to pass. He tells himself it's better this way. That Bucky, waking confused in the night, is afraid of him. He tries not to think of what it was to see fear on Bucky's face and know he had put it there. He tries to believe he is not hiding.
When he gets home he asks Natasha, "Did he say anything?"
"No. He came out of his room for a while and looked at me, though."
"That's more than I get most days."
"How've you been holding up?"
Steve glances at the door to Bucky's room like it can tell him something about the silent, skittish person inside. "Thanks again for doing this."
Natasha allows the evasion. "Sam promised next time I get to be the one to take you out."
"You guys are great."
She looks at him with that softness he still isn't used to seeing on her face. "It's only what you deserve."
When has it ever mattered, what anyone deserved or didn't? "I'll see you next week."
There are reckonings to be made. He told Natasha he is always honest, and lately he wonders if anyone can lay claim to that with certainty. He told Peggy—he has told many people, and long believed it—that he has only ever wanted to do what is right, but when Bucky sits folded in on himself in an armchair, hair obscuring his face, so still it's like he's forgotten he has a body—when Steve looks at the lines of his body so new in its contours yet sometimes so terribly familiar in its movements, he thinks—when he sees Bucky he cannot name one thing he would not do to save him this time. The other parts of him have been so suddenly used up that he cannot be sure they were not a illusion, and it scares him.
He told the man who changed his life that he didn't want to kill anyone, and it was not a lie but has not remained true. That scares him, too.
"There was someone here yesterday."
Steve stares for so long he almost convinces himself he imagined the words coming out of Bucky's mouth, until Bucky adds: "A woman."
"Natasha," Steve manages.
"She was with you." Bucky's voice sounds like it's coming from far away. "Before."
"You remember," Steve says. "She's a friend."
Bucky stands still, mouth twisted in—God—but it is, it's the same expression he used to get when he was trying to put something difficult into words. Somehow in these weeks of Bucky striding through the apartment like a living ghost, the most familiar thing became the strangest to see. "You kept saying that word," Bucky says. "You said I was—but I don't—" He bites his lip, painful-looking.
"Remember," Steve says. "I know. I—"
"No," Bucky says sharply. "That's not what — I remember a hell of a lot more than you think I do." He sounds now like Bucky, Steve thinks, before he remembers he's not allowed to think that.
"Oh," Steve says; then—moth, flame--"Like what?"
"Like—" Bucky closes his eyes. "Like being smaller, and not having—" he flexes his metal fist "—and there's this—boy, I guess, this blonde boy smaller than me, and he's always there. Just—running, or sitting in desks next to other boys, or in a room with a bed, or eating on steps, or bigger, but—it's always both." He opens his eyes, dark and seeking. "And I figure that's you. And what people say happened, actually happened. But—" His mouth, again. Steve has to stop himself from believing in what he wants it to mean. "It's like when you go to sleep, and there are pictures, and sounds maybe, but they're not—connected, and they don't make sense, they're just—they're just there, all mixed up, and—" He looks at Steve imploringly, so direct it's a shock.
"You mean dreaming?" Steve says cautiously.
"Yeah," Bucky says. Sighs, almost. "It's like that. So—I remember, but I don't—it doesn't mean anything. I don't know—what it meant, or why you were there, or why we did any of it. So when you say friend—that's not a word I understand."
"Oh," Steve says. He should say something else. He opens his mouth to say something else. But he has nothing, if not this. He can't explain friend to the person who has always defined it. His throat closes with uselessness. If he tries to talk he'll—he might—he shuts his mouth.
He had thought there could be nothing worse than Bucky staring at him unknowing, like an enemy, the first time, like a nothing, when they found him—nothing worse than knowing someone had stolen from Bucky every memory they had shared. He thinks, now, that he was wrong.
After a long moment Bucky turns and leaves the room.
He has this memory: the first time he and the Commandos had a proper mission, the first time he was doing what he believed he was meant for. What he remembers most is not the chaos, or the exhaustion, or the long terrifying minute in which he thought Morita had gone down. What he remembers is a soldier raising a gun in his direction, and then collapsing like a puppet whose strings had been cut; and he remembers turning around, dazed, to see Bucky looking grimly determined but unfazed. He had been thinking, until that point, of himself as the one who had changed.
Now things are reversed. Now Steve looks at Bucky's re-sculpted body, the shadows in his eyes, the head that holds the brain where so many connections have been cut, and he thinks: what have I lost of myself? Someone else reached into Bucky and carved away his tenderness, his laughter, his once infectious joy; what has Steve carved out of himself to become what he is? What did he leave behind in the rubble of S.H.I.E.L.D; on the fields of Germany; in Howard Stark's machine?
In the morning their exchange—words tumbling out of Bucky like they'd never stopped—seems unreal. Steve is expecting silence again; but when he gets up, Bucky is crouching against the wall across from his bedroom, straightening to his feet when Steve steps forward.
"Look," Bucky says. "I don't know why I didn't kill you."
Steve flinches. "I know."
"But I didn't," Bucky says. "And it's the one thing I remember—I remember being there, and doing it, and—I don't know what happens next. But I want to figure out why. Because this is—it's the only thing that's mine."
"Can I—what do—" What do I do, Steve wants to beg, but he won't.
Bucky hears him anyway. "I don't know," he says, brows set tight. "I'm working on it."
Where there is love there is no fear. But is there hunger? Is there a hollow restlessness, are there aching shoulders and sand always underfoot. Steve watches Bucky's face flicker between blankness and a spark brutally familiar, and he wishes he could ask his mother what she meant. He thinks about a young widow in a filthy tenement, with a son always sick and money always thin. He doesn't understand what courage sustained her.
Every morning, his mother woke him up with a smile.
He is so afraid, all the time.
"There are things that—" Bucky chews his lip. It's a new morning. Hope left Steve when yesterday drained into nothing, and hit him ruthlessly when he came into the living room to find Bucky on the couch, waiting—Steve thinks he was waiting.
"There are things," Bucky starts again, "where I remember someone telling me to do them. So I can understand doing them. Even if they're just—pictures, even if I don't remember—that's something I can—" He looks at Steve with some question in his eyes, hanging just out of his reach.
"That makes sense," Steve offers. He swallows back the violence flaring in him at the thought of how it came to be that commands were the only thing left for Bucky to understand.
Bucky takes this in. At least Steve hopes he does. "The things I'm stuck on," he says, "are the ones that—there's nothing, they just—are, like—we used to run in circles, and tap each other on the shoulder, like—" For a second Steve thinks Bucky's going to touch him, but he stops just before making contact. "When we were smaller."
"Tag," Steve realizes. "We would play tag." Bucky's expression stays still. "It's—a kids' game, just—running around, and chasing each other—that's about it, really."
"Why?" Bucky asks, with a depth that hurts to hear. So much has been taken from him.
"Because…" It shouldn't be a hard question, Steve thinks, but— "I dunno. It was fun."
"Fun." The word sounds foreign in Bucky's mouth.
"I guess. Yeah." Steve shrugs, discomfited. "Why do kids do anything they do?"
Bucky stares at him, then—another moment Steve would do anything to take back—gets up and shuts himself inside his room.
Tag was always Bucky's idea. Steve resisted—he'd learned early it wasn't for boys like him—but every time gave in, and every time was glad, even when he wound up gasping under Bucky's alarmed eyes. As they got older and he watched Bucky trounce other boys in neighborhood races or stickball, he pieced together that Bucky slowed himself down for Steve, but he looked so happy when they were playing that Steve didn't mind.
Tag, marbles, cops and robbers, comic books, movies, dance halls—always Bucky, pulling Steve where he never cared that Steve didn't belong. They belonged together; that was what mattered.
Steve doesn't want to think: you're supposed to be the one that's good at this. But he was.
"So he's talking," Natasha says conversationally.
"Yeah," Steve says. He likes talking to her in the car like this: her eyes on the road, his watching the world recede in the false distance of side mirror. No worries about what his face is giving away.
"Questions, mostly. He remembers more than we—more than I thought. I thought—" He thought if Bucky ever remembered, he wouldn't have to explain; he thought the worst part would be over. "I thought memories were memories, and you have them or you don't. But I guess it's not that simple for him."
Natasha gives a little hum. Belatedly Steve remembers it's not that simple for her, either. "What's something you remember?"
"Like something I can't find out on the internet. I'm not trying to pry—it can be something dumb. I just—there are so many stories about you, but I've never really heard any of yours. It seems wrong."
"My mother"—it slips out. "I guess I've been thinking about her, for some reason."
"What was she like?"
"Good," he says automatically. "I mean: a good person. Honest. Kind."
"Like mother, like son, huh?"
Steve lets it go. "When she died, people who'd been her patients were bringing me food for weeks."
"When was that?"
"'39? I was twenty-one."
"It was a long time ago. Even without—you know." Nearing a decade, for him. Long enough.
A long silence. "I never knew my parents," Natasha says. "And some days, still, it feels like I'm learning that for the first time."
Steve shifts his legs. By the road buildings are growing further between, green filling in the gaps. "Where are we going?"
"I thought we'd just drive for a while," Natasha says. "If we want to stop we can."
Just the idea of it is soothing. Steve switches on the radio and leans against the window, cool on his forehead.
When his mother died his world collapsed and so he built something in himself to keep standing. The church was as full as he'd ever seen it. Drunks and gamblers and vagrants who would never set foot in it on a Sunday remembered her treating them like any other patients. The back rows filled with Protestants and Jews. Steve had known his mother was a good woman, but he hadn't realized how many people had felt her goodness. He would have to be strong, now that he was all that was left of her.
He did not cry. Just clenched his fists white-knuckled until they hurt. Just held his every muscle so rigid that after the ceremony he ducked out to vomit in an alley somewhere, eyes stinging but dry.
He read the twenty-third psalm—her favorite—and when he looked up at the end he saw Bucky, crying like it was his own mother, wiping his eyes without hiding his face. Steve never thanked him. For that, or any of the other times Bucky did what Steve could not.
There's noise coming from the kitchen: a rhythmless pounding punctuated by expletives in two voices. When he walks in Steve is stunned by what he finds: Sam and Bucky seated at the table, sliding and flipping playing cards with startling intensity.
"Spit!" Sam shouts, and Bucky says, "Fuck!"
"What are you guys doing?" Steve asks, feeling like an intruder in his own home.
Sam looks up at him. "You ever play Spit? This was the shit at this Y camp I used to go to upstate when I was a kid." He nods at Bucky. "He says he hates it, but he's lying." Bucky purses his lips but doesn't argue.
"How do you play?" Steve asks.
"Split the deck in two," Sam says, demonstrating as he explains. "Five piles each, with one more card in each pile as you go—one, two, three, four, five. The others are your spit cards. You flip the top one over and—you know what, just watch. You'll get the hang of it."
Steve leans against the refrigerator, unsure about what to do with his limbs. Sam and Bucky have created a space of speed and focus worthy of combat without even standing up. But he watches, and his brain tracks the rules, until he feels confident enough to say, "Alright, I play winner next round."
Bucky takes it with a "Yes!" Steve would not have believed could still come from his throat, and Sam stands and says, "I'll leave you guys to it, then."
"They're your cards," Steve protests.
"Yeah, better take real good care of that two-dollar deck," Sam says. "I'll see you next week."
Steve sits across from Bucky. Neither of them says anything till they hear Sam close the door.
"I can shuffle," Steve offers, and Bucky pushes the cards towards him.
Steve has quick reflexes, but Bucky's are just as sharp, and he's had a couple hours worth of a head start. The game is fast and weirdly vicious, and when Bucky takes the first round — "Barely," Steve says, and Bucky arches an eyebrow — Steve feels almost short of breath.
The whole game, he hasn't thought about what's happened to them, or what comes next, or how small he feels under the weight of both of those things.
"This is why we used to play tag," he says.
Bucky freezes, and for a moment Steve is terrified he's going to shut him out again. But his eyes narrow in the way they used to during tactical meetings. People thought Steve was the smart one, because he could recreate a map after a glance and calculate coordinates in his head, but Bucky was the one who made sure they hadn't missed any consideration out of impatience or exhaustion. Bucky made sure nothing got left out. "I get it," he says abruptly. And again: "I get it," surprised.
Steve waits for—something; more, different memories, new questions. Something to push forward. But Bucky just says, "My turn to shuffle," and gathers up the cards.
When his mother died she was mourned by those who had recovered under her gentle watch; or whose hands she had held as she witnessed the shock of a loved one's passing.
When he sank into the ice, thousands of people he had never met hailed him for the men he had killed.
He would not take back the war, he thinks. But he wonders what his mother would have thought of what her son became.
In the dream Bucky is falling, again, again. In his dreams Bucky is always falling, and Steve jumps after him, knowing that if he can just reach—if he can touch his hand, even for a second—they will be safe. But he can't; and so they fall past ice-covered peaks, into a bottomless ravine, through dirt walls growing darker, through the flames of hell itself, into space, into a wormhole, into the monstrous mouth of an alien god, closing its jaws just before—
—Steve wakes up gasping.
He notices first the light slanting across the floor; then Bucky, standing silhouetted in his door.
"You were calling my name," Bucky says, slow and uncertain around the word name.
Bucky, Bucky, Bucky. How many times will Steve have to lose him, even as he's lying a few feet away? "I'm sorry if I woke you," he says. "It was just a bad dream."
"Oh." Bucky traces a semicircle on the floor with his foot, back and forth. "I get those too."
Steve sits up, flicks on the lamp by his bed. "Do you want to come in?"
Bucky hesitates; then crosses the room to sit on the edge of the bed.
"The first night you were here," Steve says, watching for any sign that he's going wrong, "you—were you having a bad dream?"
"I came in, to see if—if you were okay, or if there was anything I could do, and—you got—you seemed scared." He has to remind himself to keep breathing, waiting for Bucky's response.
"I thought you were going to make me leave."
It's like a stone tied to his heart. "Why would I ever—"
Bucky lets out a harsh sound that's not quite a laugh. "Why does anyone do anything? I mean—" He looks at Steve, unsettlingly intense, unsettlingly familiar. Steve half-expects to hear For God's sake, Steve, you could have been killed. "I really don't know."
"I—" Steve tries to swallow. "Okay. Well. I wouldn't. I wouldn't, ever, make you leave. Or—" He makes himself say it: "Or make you stay."
Bucky drops his gaze. "I didn't want to leave," he says, almost to himself. "I guess I still don't."
Steve is pathetically grateful to hear it. He edges forward, swings his legs down so he and Bucky are sitting side by side. "You don't have to do anything you don't want to do."
Bucky doesn't react to that. Instead he says, "You…" and stops. He does this sometimes: toss a word out and—Steve doesn't know if he loses the sentence, or changes his mind, or—Steve hates how much of him he can't read. "This used to happen to you a lot."
"Oh. When we were kids." He used to get terrible nightmares, three or four a week—of his mother dying, of Bucky dying, of being trapped in a burning building, of disease taking the form of a black cloud and strangling him while he tried to scream. He'd outgrown them, eventually. Mostly. Until—everything else. "I forgot about that."
Bucky's mouth twitches at the corner. Steve wants so badly to call it a smile. "When it happened, I would—we used to—" He looks at Steve, his face suddenly young and wanting. "I remember—can I try—?"
"Anything," Steve says. Anything, anything, to sustain this.
Bucky nods once, like he's accepting orders. Then he slides his right hand around Steve's left, their fingers lacing together so smoothly Steve can't be sure which one of them did it. "It was different—you were smaller—but it was like—" He lays his head against Steve's shoulder. Steve—he can't help it—he leans into him.
They stay like that, their positions switched but otherwise just as they were on nights Steve woke up to Bucky's cushions covered in tears and sweat. The touch of Bucky's skin is electric; the warmth of his hand is a balm. After a few minutes Steve notices they're breathing in tandem.
"I get it," Bucky says finally. Steve keeps himself still.
"You can always come in," he says. "If you have bad dreams."
"Okay," Bucky says. He squeezes Steve's hand, just slightly. "You, too."
He doesn't remember his mother's sister, but he remembers when she died. He remembers her funeral: the church a sea of black-clad bodies. The resonant baritone of the priest. The back of the smooth wooden pew, with a battered hymnal in front of his face. His scratchy, oversized suit, borrowed from the family across the hall. His mother keeping him close to her warmth. Her hand firm on his narrow shoulders. Her unashamed weeping.
Steve looks up. Bucky has been watching him make a grocery list. Bucky has been watching him a lot, lately. Steve wishes he knew what he was looking for. He wishes he could be sure Bucky would find it.
Bucky is frowning. "You used to—" He reaches to take the notebook and pen out of Steve's hands. "Can I?"
Steve passes them over.
Bucky flips through pages of shopping lists, reminders, schedules, if he's going far enough back. Then he turns to a clean page. "You used to—" He swipes the pen across the page in aimless streaks.
"Oh," Steve says. "I used to draw." Bucky nods, looking—not happy, maybe, but—satisfied. "Yeah. I did."
Bucky draws a little circle in the corner. "But now you don't?"
"I guess—not really, no." He hadn't thought of it.
Steve shrugs. "I was fighting a war, I guess."
"But that's not—" Bucky leans forward, suddenly pained. "No, because I remember—when we were both fighting, but you still had—there were times when—"
"You're right," Steve realizes. "Bucky, you're right. I—I forgot." He had found ways to nab pencils, hold on to his sketchbook. Other soldiers wrote letters to mothers, sweethearts, friends; he only had Peggy, and she knew the important parts anyway, so he drew. Nothing elaborate—there was never the time—but sketches of cities they'd seen, affectionate caricatures of the Commandos. Bucky would pretend to offer critiques: Please, Dum-Dum's nose is much bigger than that. He left the book behind for his last mission. He wonders if it's in some museum: The Wartime Art Of Captain America. "I'm sorry."
Bucky relaxes, some. "I'm sorry," he says. "I shouldn't—there's going to be stuff I get wrong, with all the mess up there," tapping his temple. "So I shouldn't get upset about it."
"It's—" Who could begrudge a few misfires? "Don't worry about it."
Bucky goes back to his circle, gradually taking over the paper. "So when'd you really stop?"
When you died. "I dunno. I woke up and the world was different, and then the world needed saving, and it just… never occurred to me."
"Why did you do it?"
"I guess I liked it. I don't know." He doesn't remember, now: what it felt like to hold a pencil, how to look at a page and imagine creating something that had never been seen. "It was something to do."
Bucky doesn't seem to like that answer, but he just scratches gray lines onto the page. "I think your pen is out of ink."
His mother had given him his first cheap notebook, with a set of pencils and a clumsy sharpener. "For when you're stuck indoors," she'd said, smiling so that he almost forgot it was a nice way of saying when he was sick. It helped: he would prop himself up against the wall and force the blank of the page to be more important than the ache of his head. He drew the view from their tiny window; he drew his own bed, the folds of his blankets, a stack of his mother's books. The same things, over and over, until he could trust his hand to do something like what he wanted. Then he had grown bored, and realized he could make something more than real. He drew his room, and populated it with characters from stories; he drew the creatures from his nightmares, and a skinny faceless boy sticking them with a dagger just where he knew it would hurt.
He had never planned, or particularly wanted, to show anyone. But Bucky was always watching, so he caught Steve doodling on old math homework and said Hey, you're really good, earning himself a rebuke for talking out of turn. He wrote on the top of his page and pushed it over to Steve: Can you draw me one? Steve reddened, but already he would never say no. After that he always had an audience.
"So how's it going?" Sam says. "Don't tell me you can't complain."
Steve and Bucky have spent dozens of hours playing cards—Spit, other games they've looked up that go quick when they want a change. The other day they gave an entire afternoon to it, barely noticing the gray light of a drizzling autumn day drain from the window above the sink. It gets Bucky talking, sometimes, shaking something loose; other time it gives him something to retreat into when he's reached a limit. It's the best part of Steve's day, and he hates that. He hates being here, in Sam's kitchen, near this person to whom he owes his life several times over, and more than that besides. He can't stop thinking about coming home and seeing something flowing from Bucky he had failed to draw out on his own. He hates the way his stomach twists to look at Sam's face, so that he's been averting his eyes. But hating it doesn't change anything.
"Same old," Steve says. "And you?"
Sam takes a long, slow breath.
He hears sounds out of sight again: Bucky and Natasha, speaking low to each other in Russian, with a fluidity that makes him, for one horrible moment, want to slam the door and walk away.
Natasha gives him an encouraging smile on the way out. He tries for a smile of thanks in return, but he doubts she's fooled.
Steve sits on the couch, slowly, like sudden movements are what might frighten Bucky off. Bucky doesn't look at him, but he also doesn't leave.
I'm scared to die, Bucky had told him, just once, a few nights before shipping out, and it was the first time Steve had known the abyss left when words drained out of him like air from a room, so that their memory meant nothing in the face of his asphyxiation. Now Steve feels like that a hundred times a day.
"I keep thinking," Bucky says, "I find something, and that's the last thing I can find. Because finding anything more is impossible. And it's not enough, so—so it'll never be, and I should just—but she said it probably wasn't true. Just because—it hasn't been, yet."
"Oh," Steve says. "Do you—" He doesn't know how to finish that question. The question in his throat is: what are you finding? But he doesn't know how to ask it.
"I want," Bucky says, "more that I can—more that I—I keep thinking the same thoughts, but I don't know what to do that's not thinking." He turns to Steve. "What do you do now that's not thinking?"
Hit people, mostly. But he doesn't want that to be true. Only, without it—"I don't know." He thinks about all the thinking he does in these rooms, how sometimes he feels he could suffocate because his thoughts have crowded out all the air; and then he does know.
Steve could give a lot of reasons he owns a motorcycle—the temporary sense of freedom, a rare nostalgic indulgence—but really it's about this: wind and speed and the way the edges of his body seem to waver against the world, the way nothing matters except the road ahead, least of all him. He knows from having done it before that it's well over an hour along I-66 to get to Shenandoah Park, but it's worth it to ride dwarfed by oak and hickory in autumn reds and golds. Just trees and air and Bucky pressed against his back, arms around his chest almost like trust. The only thing Steve has to do for him is make sure not to crash.
Thy peel off Skyline Drive at the second exit to find a picnic area the ranger at the entrance pointed out on a map to eat the sandwiches and fruit they packed. Off the bike, Bucky tilts his chin skyward, stretches his arms up above his head. When he lets them fall, Steve thinks he looks—taller, somehow. Like under clear flat blue, in open land, he doesn't have to worry about taking up too much space. Seeing him in the sun—hair shining around his face, eyes catching the light—Steve was unprepared to remember how beautiful he was. Is—almost in the way he used to be.
After turning his head side to side a few times, Bucky looks expectantly at Steve, and they walk on.
They don't talk during lunch. For once the silence between them doesn't feel heavy with tension or fear. They used to do this all the time: sit together in companionable quiet, protecting each other's solace. When he forgets to stop himself, he wants so many things he will never get back.
"It reminded me of something," Bucky says.
"Yeah." Bucky plucks another grape off its stem. "It used to be like—all I had was pictures, and sounds. Like my senses had done things, but I hadn't been there for them. Now sometimes there's other stuff, but it's all—I'll remember feeling something, but I still can't put it where it belongs. So—I remember that when I went in after you—I'd felt like that before. And I guess logic says it was probably near you. But fuck if I know when, or why."
A butterfly lands on the edge of their table, and flits away. For a moment Steve can't believe that such small, perfect beauty exists in the world. He had forgotten, maybe. "Is that good, or…?"
"Last night I felt like I wanted to die," Bucky says. Steve feels his heart stutter in his chest. "Or like I was already dying. Like I was sick, but nothing was wrong with my body. Like the air was too heavy. And I remembered feeling that way before, so I was pretty sure it wouldn't kill me, but that didn't change anything. And then my face was wet, and I could remember that happening, and someone calling it crying, and I could remember looking at a girl crying once, when I was real small, and asking why she was sad. So now I know I've been sad, and last night, probably, I was crying because I was sad. But I don't know why I was sad, or when I've been sad before, except by—guessing. So. Is it good?" He shrugs. "It's not nothing, I guess. I guess it's good, if you want to call it that."
"You could've woken me up," Steve says. "If you wanted to."
"It wasn't a bad dream."
"It doesn't have to be. It can be—whatever. Anything."
"I thought," Bucky says, "when we got out here, and it was so—big, and I was—I wanted to stay out, I thought, you've been keeping me inside. But you haven't, have you."
"God, no," Steve says. "I—"
"—would never," Bucky finishes. "You keep doing the things you say you're going to do. So."
"I didn't think how it would look to you," Steve says. "I'm sorry, Buck."
"How could you have known?" Bucky says. "I didn't know, until we got out, and I—liked it." He frowns, listening to himself try out the word. "I like it."
"It wouldn't be worse if I didn't like it. I just—I just want to know," he says, with a sudden plaintiveness that echoes behind Steve's ribs.
"We should get going if we want to make it back before dark," he says.
I'm scared to die, Bucky had said, but if I'm going to I just—I just want to know, hand on Steve's chin in his last hours untouched by the war that would claim him. Steve thought he had never seen anyone so terrified, and then Bucky kissed him and he thought he had never known anyone so brave. I just want to know, and Steve had said yes, the only word left and the only one he needed, yes and Steve had pulled him in, and they had stayed up for hours, learning each other by taste and smell and skin. When Bucky was getting dressed to leave in the pale morning light, Steve had said, Do you know? and Bucky smiled like the dawn, hair still damp with sweat, and said, Yeah. I do.
Only it was hard to hold on to, without Bucky around to keep proving it; and when he came home on leave, Steve wanted to know less than he didn't want to ask. He kept space between them; he found ways to keep the two of them from being alone; he made himself smile when he mentioned Anne Rommely had been asking about Bucky's whereabouts. And later—when he'd had time enough to regret it, when he too was ready to die, when he knew himself to be beautiful—later Bucky was carrying so much Steve could not shoulder with him that even to look at him seemed a violation.
I just want to know, Bucky had said on the sweetest night Steve had known, and Steve has spent the rest of his life trying to forget it happened.
"You're a couple days early," Steve says.
"I'm here with a… package," Natasha says, husky-voiced, waggling her eyebrows. Steve stares at her. "I guess Captain America doesn't watch cheap porn. I seriously am here with a package, though."
"Bucky went out for a walk," Steve says. "I don't know when he'll be back."
Natasha rolls her eyes and holds out a shiny red-white-and-blue patterned bag with tissue paper sticking out. "For you. I got your dumb ass a present."
"Natasha," he says, taking the bag, "you didn't have to—"
"You are so annoying, oh my God, just open it."
Steve reaches past the tissue paper to pull out a sketchbook—a nice one, with thick, heavy paper—and a set of artist's pencils with a metal sharpener and a kneaded eraser, and two fine pens, and a pack of charcoal sticks with a small bottle of fixative. "Thank you," he says, overwhelmed, "Natasha, thank you. How did you know?"
She covers his hand with his, thumb brushing against his knuckles. "He told me, Steve."
It's harder than he remembers. Or than it was. His hands work fine, but he's forgotten how to look at a page and decide what he wants it to be. He remembers even less how to start filling it in, and let the picture itself guide him.
He remembers least of all the point, but Bucky did this for him, so he has to find one.
So when Bucky comes back from his walk just past sunset, Steve is sitting on the couch, working on a detailed still life of his record player.
"Hi," Bucky says. He's started greeting Steve when he sees him, with a firmness that suggests it's very purposeful.
"Hey," Steve says. "How was the walk?"
"It was a walk," Bucky says. "I like walks. I think." He looks at Steve's hands, holding still his sketchbook and pencil. "Natasha came by?"
"Yeah," Steve says. "Bucky, I—"
"Don't." Bucky sits on the other side of the couch, looking at Steve the whole time. "You like it?"
Sometimes Bucky sounds so much like he did at one point in time—his eighteenth birthday, Bucky gave him a collection of American poetry, you like it?, that same nonchalance fading into the smallest hopeful lift—that Steve has to remind himself it doesn't mean anything, except that maybe we always are all the people we have been. "I love it," he'd said then and says now. "I'm a little out of practice, but—well, only cure for that is more practice."
"Can I see?"
Steve shows him his pale gray record player. "Nothing all that exciting to practice on here." Except, of course—except—it rushes out of him before he can think: "Could I draw you?" Bucky leans back, and Steve wants to apologize for asking, except—except he wants to know.
"Okay," Bucky says.
Steve doesn't have an answer for that. So he turns to a new page and holds the pencil, ready to trace the curve of Bucky's lips and the precise geometry of his face, every piece of him rendered in still perfection. Except it's wrong. "Hang on," he tells Bucky. Steve goes to where he left the bag on the kitchen table, opens the pack of charcoal, picks out the softest stick. He settles back onto the couch where Bucky hasn't moved, and swipes a thick, black line for the top of Bucky's hair; another for the angle of his jaw; a third for his neck. He works in quick, loose strokes, the forgivingness of charcoal a thrill, finding the space in his head where this used to live, like a game to play with himself, sizing up what's on the page and what's missing, what's necessary and what can be cleared away, sacrificing precision for essence, blending and trimming and blending again.
By the time he's done—by the time he looks at the picture and it looks like Bucky—his fingers are a smudged mess. The Bucky on the page looks sad, and hard-edged, with a soft light buried just behind his eyes. Steve looks at the Bucky on the couch and thinks: Yeah. That's right. "Wanna see?"
Bucky takes the book gingerly. Studying the drawing, his eyes go wide. "It's me," he says. "I thought—I guess I thought you were going to draw me from before—but you drew me now." He looks at Steve, mouth softly open. "There's a mirror in the bathroom but it's not—I couldn't make it real. This is…" He looks back at the sketch. "Can I keep it?"
"Of course," Steve says. He feels a rush in his blood like the last minutes before a homecoming. "You like it?"
"Yeah," Bucky says. "I really do."
In the dream he is in Brooklyn: the last apartment, which he only ever knew alone. He is strong already. He opens the door and Bucky is here, Bucky is home, Bucky is whole. Golden and smiling easy, like nothing has been lost. Steve wants to drink in the sight of him like this forever. He wants to stop time right here, before anything decays.
Bucky says, "Aren't you gonna say hello?"
Steve tries to say hello but he can't move his mouth. He reaches forward with his arm, slow and imprecise like the air is water, to touch Bucky, to give Bucky something, so that Bucky knows. He touches Bucky's cheek with his hand: yes, good, Bucky is smiling, Bucky is glad. Only it's too late: already the space Steve touched has turned to dust. It crumbles, revealing a a glimpse of metal plating beneath. The destruction radiates outward, skin graying and falling to the ground like ash, Bucky disappearing leaving something shining and cold behind.
Steve tries to say, I'm sorry, Buck, but his mouth won't move. He tries to say I love you,, Buck since it's going to be too late soon, but already his tongue is ash in his mouth; his jaw is sand spilling down his chest; his hands are splintering apart from the fingernails; his eyes—
—his eyes open to see Bucky, sitting on the floor.
"Bad dream?" he says.
Bucky shakes his head. "You said I could come in if I got sad again."
The way Bucky talks sometimes—the way he winds around the spaces left by what he used to know—hearing it Steve thinks, if he found the people responsible, he would relish the sensation of their skulls shattering beneath his palms. It is only half-sickening to imagine the sound. "You could have woken me up," Steve says, sitting up to make room for Bucky on the bed. "Do you want to talk about it?"
Bucky joins him without being invited. This much, at least, they've made. "It's not like—I still don't know why. So. There's nothing to talk about." He reaches for Steve's hand, leans against his shoulder. Steve leans back.
Steve thinks, That's not true. But he wouldn't be able to prove it. "Is this helping?"
"It's—" Bucky starts. "I would rather be here than other places."
That's something. It has to be something. "Good."
"What do you do when you get sad?"
"I don't—" I don't get sad, he almost says, except—that can't be true, can it? He remembers living through sad things, since he was found. Except the insides of the memories are muddled and gray. "I don't know. I guess that's not helpful."
Bucky doesn't agree or disagree. He shudders against Steve's side. Steve realizes he's crying, and half-panics. He wishes, absurdly, his mother were here. Bucky doesn't ask for him anything. He just cries until he stops.
His mother always made it look easy. Or perhaps he was simply young.
Drawing is not yet easy. Steve thinks it gives Bucky—something—to see him work at it, so he works: line drawings of the view from the window, cross-hatched sketches of his furniture, quick furtive charcoal impressions of Bucky's hands, or the back of his head, or the drape of a T-shirt around his neck. It's safer to look at him with an eye towards marking him in two dimensions. It's easier to sit in his silence—their silence—with something occupying his hands. It's not like it was. But nothing can be.
"When you used to draw," Bucky says one evening, "I would sit and read a book."
He leaves space for a confirmation Steve suspects he doesn't really need. "Yeah. We did that a lot." Sunday afternoons, especially. Even before they shared an apartment, Bucky would come over sometimes for quiet, and they would nestle into their temporary peace. Steve would glance up from his work every now and then to be comforted by the sight of Bucky's long legs propped up on a chair, that half-frown on Bucky's face that meant he was concentrating. Sometimes he'd stop on something he especially liked: Hey, Steve, listen to this….
"Can you show me your books?"
Steve allows himself one breath to revel in the certainty of the question. "Sure thing." He sets aside his sketchpad and walks over to his shelves. Bucky follows immediately: another minute gift. "They're kind of loosely organized—up there is mostly general histories, a couple biographies of presidents. This is World War II stuff—trying to figure out what people say about it now, what was going on that I didn't—that we didn't—then there's some other specific stuff, what I missed. Cold War, Great Society, that kind of thing." He glances at Bucky, whose face shows neither recognition nor confusion. "Oh—and down there's some science stuff, a little art history. That's about it, I guess. Anything catch your eye?"
Bucky pulls the first volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson off the shelf, opens it, flips through the first few pages, puts it back. He does this with the next three, and then with every other book on the shelf, frowning all the while. Steve tries to settle his nerves. It's just books.
"There's something—" Bucky starts, frustrated. "These are different. I mean—they're words on paper, in order, but it's—weren't they different?" He looks lost now, like he hasn't in—a while.
"Well," Steve says, stalling while he tries to think. Bucky went to the library, taking home hardbound books in rough single-color covers with titles sunk into the spines, nothing like his glossy paperbacks. The paper was different, the type less fine. That doesn't seem enough to leave Bucky freshly unmoored. He tries to think about Bucky's quest for why, about what he saw then that he isn't now that might not mean that this is something irretrievable. He tries not to merely remember, but to hear him: Hey, Steve, listen to this: 'Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.' Ain't that the fucking truth, huh? And then he says…. "You used to read fiction," he realizes.
"Stories," Steve says. "Made-up ones. You read other stuff sometimes—but mostly it was stories." Bucky read the newspaper every day, and he liked to hear Steve tell him about what he'd learned from whatever study or history he'd picked up lately. But Sunday afternoons were reserved for fiction. He was strict about it. Steve never asked him why.
Bucky turns this over, perturbed. "Why would…" He shakes his head, resets his mouth in a line. "Do you have any?"
"I… don't, actually," Steve says, scanning the shelves. "I can get you something tomorrow, if you want."
"Okay," Bucky says, and adds, "Thank you," with the same deliberateness that has just started flickering out of his hellos.
"So what does he like?" Natasha says. "Or what did he, I guess."
Steve pushes his hands into his pockets. He isn't used to the bigness of modern shopping—too many choices, too many people. He feels like he could wander into the stacks of Barnes and Noble and stumble out another seventy years later. "I don't know. Or—he liked all kinds of stuff." Bucky would go from a Pulitzer winner to the most lurid of the pulps in a single week. This way nothing gets stale, he'd said once. "Maybe nothing too specific, I guess."
"So that's a 'no' on paranormal romance," Natasha says. "Bummer." She tugs at his sleeve. "Hey." Sheepishly Steve lets himself be led, to a table with signs reading "Classics" in white letters on dark green. "These have stuck around for a while, right? Probably there's something in them."
"I guess," Steve says. It's weird to see books designated classics that weren't written when his plane went down. He picks up a couple at random, looking each one over like he might find a code that will tell him, yes, this, this is the one, give this to Bucky and—and what?
"What about this one?" Natasha holds one up for him, mouth quirked mischievously: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. "Thematically relevant, you know."
"You're hilarious," Steve says. But he takes it, feeling the weight of decision-making recede. It's as much a reason as anything else he could think of. "All right. Let's get out of here."
"Wait," she says. "We should get you one. You guys can have a senior citizens' book club."
"One day that won't be funny to you anymore."
"Yeah. When I'm dead. Seriously though, what do you like?"
It's been so long. He almost tells her to forget it, except—he pictures sitting next to Bucky, across from Bucky, the two of them reading, sharing the same kind of peace. "I liked Dickens," he says. "Great Expectations. A Tale of Two Cities, I must have read that three or four times. Les Misérables, that's a great book." Bucky had made it twenty pages into Waterloo before giving up and asking Steve to just tell him who died. But he listened to Steve read aloud every word of Javert's last scene.
"So unpatriotic, Rogers. I'm kind of impressed." She grabs a book off the display. "Ever read this?"
Steve takes it: The Brothers Karamazov. "Nope. A favorite of yours?"
Natasha snorts. "Please. You think I need more screaming Russians in my life?" Her face softens. "Clint likes it. He's into books about being a good person and all that boring crap you like."
"It's not boring—"
"So it's settled," Natasha says. "Now: paranormal romance. I think one of my series has a new installment out this week."
Steve is relieved when Bucky doesn't ask him to explain his choice. He just takes the book, eyeing it with something between suspicion and interest, and sits cross-legged on the couch, back against the arm rest. Steve takes the opposite end planning to read, but his gaze floats up to Bucky's face enough times that he gives up and watches him.
Bucky reads quickly. Steve remembers the first time he tried to read something after the serum, the shock of absorbing the whole front page of the Times in a few seconds, like it had been implanted there by some invention of Howard's. It's come in handy reading briefings and reports, speeding through hundreds of pages on the past seventy years. He suspects he'll be grateful for it again not long into the nine hundred page tome in his lap.
Only after a few minutes Bucky does something strange. His hand stills while turning a page, like he's considering if he wants to continue; then he turns instead to the beginning of the book. He uncrosses his legs and settles his shoulders back, sitting with his knees up, bare feet close enough for Steve to touch without reaching, if he wanted. Then he starts to read again, slowly this time. His face—it barely changes, it might not change at all, but Steve thinks something eases.
"I like it," Bucky says.
"No. I mean—maybe, I don't know yet. But—sitting, and—it makes things quiet."
Steve wonders how he should respond, but Bucky is already focused on his page. So Steve reads about a nice little family which has very little niceness, brothers who overflow with personality yet still miss so much, money troubles and spiritual troubles and vodka-soaked affairs. There is a lot of screaming. For pages at a time. But the book is okay.
They read into the evening. Steve orders a pizza after a nod of assent from Bucky, and Bucky reads while eating. Steve goes to shower and when he comes out, Bucky hasn't moved or set the book down. Steve fires off a few emails—yes, Sam, we're still on for next week; thank you, Pepper, but I won't be able to make it to New York for the gala, is there some way I can donate directly instead—and Bucky reads.
Once Bucky laughs, a sound Steve hears with his entire body, but by the time he looks up Bucky's face has settled again.
He's debating whether to suggest that Bucky consider going to bed and finishing tomorrow when Bucky hurls the book against the wall. The corner leaves a dent; he was holding back.
"Buck?" Steve says carefully. "You okay?"
Bucky is looking at the book like it injured him physically and he's calculating the cruelest revenge. "I don't understand."
"Did something happen in the book?" Steve says. "Was it—"
"It's just some girl's dumb dead drunk of a dad!" Bucky explodes. "It's not even real. So why am I—" He runs a hand through his hair with vicious energy, tugging on the ends.
"Bucky," Steve tries. Everything he might offer seems poised to break something between them.
"I'm going for a walk," Bucky announces.
Steve wants to say Don't. He wants to say Stay, please, we can make it better. He wants to say It's nothing, it's just that you're a human being.
Bucky puts his shoes on and leaves. The door doesn't quite slam.
In the dream Bucky is gone and gone and gone.
The first time he and Bucky fought, long enough ago that he can't remember what it was about, he sat sullen over the same page of his reader until his mother mussed his hair, saying, You don't have to tell me what's wrong, Steve, but it can help. He burst into tears he hadn't known he was holding back, his grudge gone in a wave of fear that he had ruined the best thing he had found. He doesn't remember what she told him while he sobbed into her chest, but she knew. She knew it would pass, and she knew what to say to make him believe it. She knew, always.
In the morning Steve finds Bucky in the living room. He has found Bucky so many fewer times than he has lost him, but he finds him again. He is on the couch, knees bent, face to his book opened almost to the end.
"Hey," Steve says.
Bucky looks up. His eyes are red, lashes damp. "I—hi," he says, hoarse. "I get it."
Steve wants to touch him, lightly, without purpose. He wants to take Bucky's face between his hands and breathe until he believes the impossible: that they will not lose each other again. He wants to read in his eyes, on his lips, in his pulse under Steve's thumb, the words he needs that he hasn't found.
He picks up The Brothers Karamazov from the side table and settles next to Bucky to read.
Bucky says, "Can I read yours when you're done?"
"Of course," Steve says. Of course. Anything, always.
The questions pick up. They're not really questions anymore, precisely: Bucky holds out statements like bricks he wants Steve to help him lay.
"Those three girls who were always around, that's my sisters, right?"
"We went to school. You went longer than I did."
"I had a mother and a father. You only had one. Your father was—dead."
Steve returns what he can—yeah, they worshipped you; your family needed the money you could bring in; he died when I was a baby, in the war, the other war—but it never reaches where he wants to reach; Bucky takes it and stores it away where Steve can't see. He's building in the dark, without a blueprint.
Once Bucky says, "You never talk to me first."
Steve swallows, feeling strangely caught out for something he hadn't known he was doing. "I didn't know you wanted me to."
"I—" Steve wants him to say, I do. Or I don't. Or I didn't, but I do now. Or anything that will shine a light forward. But Bucky just says, "That's not right," quietly, to himself.
Steve feels it in himself like a hole: That's not right.
But he doesn't know what is.
Anything, he has felt, so many times; the right thing, he has thought, just as often. They could never both have been true. How did it take him so long to notice?
"So what's up with you?" Sam says. "You seem tense. Like, more than usual, I mean."
Steve shrugs. "The usual." He tries for a wry smile. Sam is unimpressed.
"Steve," Sam says. "You've said about nine words to me since I picked you up this morning."
Steve sips his coffee. "Bucky's talking a lot lately."
"That is not what I asked."
What's up with Steve is that he can see Bucky opening, but he can't see into what. What's up with Steve is that the person through whom he understood his own life is now a mystery unraveled more easily by everything and everyone else than Steve himself, and sometimes he doesn't know if he can forgive any of them for it. "How did you know?" he asks. "About—that card games would help."
"No." He doesn't want it to be a lie, but he can tell it sounds like one.
Sam rubs the heels of his hands into his eyes, like Steve makes him very tired. Steve sympathizes. Steve makes himself very tired. "Let me ask you something. Do you think that you bullshitting to my face makes my life easier?"
It's not funny, but Steve almost laughs, because— "Would you believe Bucky once told me almost the exact same thing?" Do you think giving me bullshit about how you're doing just fine makes me sleep easier at night? You're a terrible liar, anyway.
Sam does laugh, at that. "There is honestly nothing I would believe more. Especially since you are the worst liar I have ever met."
"Yeah, he mentioned that, too."
"And yet you haven't learned." Sam purses his lips. "Listen. You know I don't play therapist with my friends. You want therapy, you go pay a professional for it. And I told you once I think you should, and then I dropped it, because on top of not being your therapist, I'm also not your dad. I'm not going to make you talk about your feelings for an hour. You can if you want. But all I am asking you is—as your friend—just don't lie to me, man. Say you don't want to talk about it. Say I'm a real asshole for asking you that in the first place. But don't lie." His face softens. "What's the point of friends if you can't be honest with each other?"
Steve grits his teeth, not looking at Sam. He doesn't want to call Sam an asshole. But he also doesn't want Sam to be right. If friends are honest with each other, then—
"I guess," he says, dragging it out of his own mouth, "I guess I was kind of jealous. Like—you were doing my job for me. Only—I guess…" He rolls it over in his mind. "I guess really that means I'm scared. Because what if I can't—what if I can't ever—" He clamps his jaw shut.
Sam takes a moment to think it over. Steve is so lucky to know him, and shame spreads over him, thinking about how he's acted today. "Let's say it is your job," Sam says. "I don't know if I agree with that, mind you, but I do know I'm sure as hell not going to talk you out of it, so let's say it is. That doesn't make it only your job. If aliens attack New York again, are you going to tell your space buddies to sit this one out, because it's your job to save everyone?"
"Only one of them is from space," Steve says. "And Asgard's not really space the way we think of it, it's—"
"Steve." It's uncanny, how much his inflection sounds like an echo of Bucky's.
"You're right," Steve admits. "You're right. I'm sorry."
"And as for the other stuff," Sam says, "I mean, he's been talking to you, right? That's something. You can't rush this."
"I know," Steve says. "But thanks for the reminder."
"I didn't know, by the way." Steve looks up at him, then. "This stuff isn't like a computer program. I made a guess, and it worked out. If it hadn't, I'd've thought of something else to try."
"Why Spit?" Steve asks. To his relief it comes out neutral.
"You know I'm a believer in talking things out. But sometimes…" He looks off to the side, and Steve is struck by another echo, the same sharp working intelligence. "Sometimes you're just not there yet, and you gotta start somewhere. It can help to have a kind of—jolt, you know? Something that wakes you up a bit, gets your body going."
"I guess," Steve says. He's exhausted, suddenly. He decides to try taking Sam at his word: "I don't want to talk about this anymore."
Steve thinks Sam's going to argue, but Sam just nods, then stands to bring their mugs to the sink.
It wasn't just the once.
It was when they were kids and Steve threw up in the park, why didn't you tell me you weren't feeling well, I would have taken you home. It was when they were teenagers and Bucky had spent his Friday night with Francine Plunkitt, and his Saturday afternoon trying to figure out why Steve couldn't stop frowning, why didn't you tell me you liked her, I never would have asked her if I'd known. It was when they were men but barely, and Bucky shoved a bag of groceries into his arms, don't fucking tell me you don't need it, you must've lost ten pounds since June. It was all the time, and only ever in one direction.
If friends are honest to each other, then Steve was never a very good friend.
He thinks maybe he knew that already, but was wrong about how.
On his way home he gets a text from Natasha: At the library, might be back a little late.
The apartment feels empty now when Bucky's not in it. It never used to bother him. Never: like anything, like always. Stories people make up, for time to make them lies.
"I don't get it."
Steve glances up from a sketch he's mostly abandoned already. Bucky is frowning at The Brothers Karamazov, but he's not throwing it anywhere. "There's a lot of stuff that's apparently referencing the intellectual currents of Dostoyevsky's—"
"It keeps saying Alyosha's the hero," Bucky says. "But Ivan's right."
"But—" Steve stops himself.
"But—I mean," Steve says, trying to be careful, "Ivan goes crazy. He thinks the devil is visiting him."
"Maybe that's not crazy. Maybe he really is."
"But that's—" Impossible. Except that Steve remembers a sunken red face in a fiery pit, long before he knew how much of Bucky that place had claimed. Except what hells has Bucky seen since, that Steve will never know? "I don't know. Maybe you're right."
Bucky makes a stunted, dissatisfied sound. "You never used to do that."
Suddenly this is a test he didn't know he was failing. "Do what?"
"Just—stop like that. I've looked in—I've pinned down just about every memory I've got, of the two of us disagreeing, and there's not a single one of them where you just end it like that, as soon as it starts." Bucky leans forward, suddenly intense. "You're still nice to me. You still call me Bucky. But this part is different. Why?"
"I don't want you to be sorry, I want to understand."
"I…" Steve hadn't known it was even true; but it spins out now that Bucky's pulled the truth out for both of them to see. "I guess I just—I don't want to say anything that will upset you, or make you feel bad. And I don't really know what that is, now. So I just—don't say much."
"But why?" Bucky's tone is less insistent than puzzled.
"Because you're my friend, and I care—"
"No—I mean, you've told me that part. But why would you think this would help?"
"I don't know," Steve says. He thinks back to the early silent days, Bucky's first hesitant graspings, trying to remember. "Do you think it was a bad idea?"
"Well, yeah, I—" Steve can see the second Bucky catches it: his face opens up, his whole body goes glass-still. "I think that," he whispers, like he can't believe it. "I think—I didn't know I could—" He looks at Steve wonderingly, and a stupid, useless hope beats in Steve's chest that this will be it, this will be the end, everything will click and Bucky will—and Steve won't have to—
—but Bucky just settles back, still stunned, before saying he needs to go for a walk.
It's a quiet few days. Steve knows, now, that he should say something. But even the wrong things won't come. After a while he thinks Bucky isn't waiting anymore.
"Look," Natasha says, pulling up to the corner outside his building, "you know I'm not one to pry. If what I can do for you right now is drive you around listening to classical music for four and a half hours and not say anything, that's fine. But I just have to ask, once: did something happen?"
He could tell her, he knows; he could tell her anything, and it wouldn't shock her. He hates that that used to be a wedge between them. "I don't know where I would be without you guys."
"You know we're happy to—"
"No, I mean: I don't know. And I don't mean with HYDRA, or finding him. I mean everything. And that's—" Terrifying.
"Oh." Natasha turns off the radio. The silence reverberates in Steve's ears. "I've seen so many people die, you know? And when Nick died it was something different. And I kept wanting to tell him, and thinking he wouldn't believe me, and then remembering it didn't matter. But it did. And I wouldn't—I wouldn't take that back. I think maybe without it, I wouldn't be here."
"I'm glad you're here." He's said thank you, but suddenly this seems so overdue.
"Me too." She smiles at him. "I guess I shouldn't say when Nick died. Since he didn't."
"I know what you mean," says Steve.
It's morning, or not quite. Bucky is in the living room, eyes dark-ringed like he's been up all night, sitting against the couch, surrounded by dozens of scrawled-on scraps of paper, torn from a spare notebook lying demolished to the side. He's staring at them with a furious intensity that he breaks just long enough to tell Steve, "Hi."
"Hey. What's all—" Steve gestures "—this?"
"I thought," Bucky says, "if I could just—put it all in order, like a story, and see it, then maybe—maybe I could finally understand. But there's too much, and I don't—most of it I have no idea how I'm supposed to figure out when—so how can I—"
"I could help," Steve offers. This much he can do. "I can't promise I'll be able to place all of them, but we should be able to get some idea down." Bucky considers, nods.
Steve joins him on the floor. He scans the papers: Steve (small) breaks his leg. Steve and me visit an old woman (grandmother?), eat soup. Steve (big) falls out of a tree. "Well, we know how the story ends, right?" He plucks the one that reads I pull Steve out of the river. Bucky nods his approval, and Steve places it to their far right. "What was right before that?" Bucky slides it to him—Steve and me fight on the helicarrier—and Steve moves it over.
They work like this: backwards, retracing the steps they have taken together which have somehow led them here, from those rushed days when both their lives were crumbling, to the misery of war when they sustained each other, to months marked in letters that crossed the Atlantic, and then the days of their early manhood, hazy now with the impossible sweetness distance gifts to loss; an adolescence where they forged a sanctuary even as the world began its unstoppable encroach; a childhood where they learned to be through learning each other.
Finally Bucky holds up the last scrap—Steve and me (very small) (very young?) find a dead bird—and says, "You're not in any of the ones before this."
"That's because that's the day we met." Steve would like to say he remembers it with the clarity of noontime on the brightest day of the year, but of course he doesn't. He was seven years old, Bucky six. It was their story, for years, indisputable, almost mythic—the Dead Bird Day—but the particulars are long gone. He remembers the bird, and some grass, and his mother and a great many other benevolent adult presences; he remembers Bucky as a presence more than a person. In the memory is the germ of knowing that this was someone Steve wanted to stay; but who could say when that worked its way in?
"It was some church thing, I think. A picnic maybe. Our mothers both went. Your whole family, I guess. The kids were running around, and somehow you and me found each other—you were sick of girls, maybe—or you recognized me from around the school—anyway, and we found a dead bird. I don't remember it very well."
"But…" Bucky traces the line they've compiled from that point onwards. "But we were—after that I was your friend."
"I don't know." Bucky had sought him out after that, during school and after. It seemed a minor miracle to his small, lonely self; then it seemed the most natural thing in the world, beyond question. Bucky was his friend; he was Bucky's friend. These were matters of identity, not desire. They were just kids. Why do kids do anything they do? "You wanted to be, I guess."
"And that was enough?" Bucky demands.
Steve doesn't answer at first, because it seems so impossible: the whole arc of history, set in motion by the whims of a child who could barely tie his shoes. Except there's no other answer. "Yeah. I guess it was." Except was it? Could it have been?
Bucky looks stricken, gazing at the scraps like tarot cards spelling doom. There's something missing, Steve knows. Only before he finds it, Bucky gathers them up and dumps them in the trash.
He really thought he might have it this time.
They play cards. They read books. They take walks, separately and together. On one of the last nice days of the year they go back to Shenandoah. Steve brings his sketchbook and jots down pencil drawings of wild grasses and trees losing their leaves. Bucky holds on to him and it's almost right. It's almost easy, all of it.
The questions stop. The nightmares too. At least: Bucky doesn't come into Steve's room, and when Steve lays awake at night grinding his molars, he doesn't hear any noise. He tells himself it's better this way. That Bucky sleeping through the night is more important than whatever Steve may or may not be feeling. He tries to believe he is not hiding.
When his mother died his world collapsed and he thought for a long time that he could make up for it. But now he thinks maybe when your world collapses, it stays that way. Maybe there is no life beyond the ruins; just more ruins, piling up on each other like layers of bones. Maybe neither of them ever really came back from the dead.
Where there is love there is no fear, she told him. But the dead don't feel either one.
"So how's it going?" says Sam.
Steve is going to say fine. He is going to say better. He is not going to mention that he hasn't slept for more than an hour at a time in over a week. He is not going to mention that something has crept into Bucky which looks like peace but feels like defeat. He is not going to say that sometimes he looks at Bucky and wants nothing so much as to kiss him right then, and sometimes wants nothing more than to punch something until his knuckles bleed, and sometimes wants nothing more than to be properly dead.
Only he can't do it. His mouth won't work. A physical reaction, like his body which cannot malfunction has elected to cut off his tongue rather than permit one more untruth. He looks at Sam, who's loved him so steadily, and thinks about Bucky, whose love he craved and cherished and hid his face from, and he cannot lie anymore.
So Steve decides to tell him: I think I fucked everything up and it makes me think I shouldn't be alive. Or, I've never been so scared in my life. Or, I think maybe I've been scared every day of the past five years and I just figured it out.
What comes out is, "I miss my Ma," voice breaking on the last word.
Sam says, "Come on, man," and stands so he can put his arms around Steve's shoulders; and then everything breaks: then he is crying for the first time since Bucky fell, which was the first time since he doesn't remember when; then his chest is heaving like his lungs are swollen and weak again, and he has the thought, this is going to kill me, but it doesn't. It doesn't.
In the dream he is in Brooklyn: the first apartment, populated by himself and his mother and her memories of a ghost. Narrow, but wholly clean, and lit up as though with its own interior sun. He is small and breakable again. His mother is washing dishes in the sink while he sketches her at the table, the slight hunch of her thin shoulders familiar after all this time.
His mother finishes the last plate, dries it with a cloth, and quickly wipes the counter down. Then she turns around and says: "Steve, this isn't a dream."
He gives her a crooked smile. "Come on, Ma. You know I never believed in that stuff."
"Oh, I know." She sounds fond. "Katie and I used to watch you and Bucky play—God—cops and robbers, and sigh about how we were raising such American boys."
"Wasn't that the point?" Steve says.
"Steven. Honestly." His mother makes one of her most marvelous expressions, a sort of deeply affectionate disdain. "The point was to eat. The point was to work and hope and pray that maybe, if a thousand miracles lined up, you would be able to eat better than we had. And for you, a thousand miracles did." She crosses the room with light footsteps and sits at the chair next to his. "This is a hard country, Steve. It likes hard people. Now, you made your choices. But I wonder what you thought you were choosing." She puts her hand on his, warm and alive. "That's all right, then. None of us really know. What did your father and I think we were getting on that boat for? Some things we got. Some things we didn't. We got some things that could have made us stay home, if we'd known. But that's just time. You can't fight with time. Although you've come closer than most." She clucks her tongue. "Always so stubborn."
Steve sets his pencil down so that he can hold her hand between both of his. The first time she was sick when he was an adult, he had done this, and it had felt—how had it felt? Important, maybe; useless, maybe. They sit like that for a minute. "Ma," he says quietly, against his better judgment, "why are we here?"
His mother smiles at him. He's never realized before how true it was that he inherited her eyes. "Look over there," she says, tilting her chin.
Steve turns. "The door?"
"That's where I was," she tells him, "when I got the news that your father had been killed."
"I'm sorry," he says, feeling not his own sorrow but hers.
"I fell to my knees, Steve," she says. "I had bruises that didn't fade for weeks from it, ugly and blue, so that every time I looked at my own legs I was learning he was dead all over again. And in that moment I felt terror such as I had never known. I was nineteen, with my family an ocean away, and a baby that was now the only thing I had left of the only man I'd ever loved. I fell and I screamed and I thought I could never get back up again."
His throat is tight. "What did you do?"
"I?" His mother quirks a smile. "I did nothing. You started crying. As babies do. And after a minute I realized I couldn't just leave you there, not while I had breath in my body. So I picked myself up and I held you. Only I couldn't stop crying, which I think scared you. So there we were, all that either of us had on this bitter earth, crying our young, stupid heads off. And I looked at your little red face and I started to laugh. Because the worst thing had happened, and I still loved you every piece as much as I had before."
"And then," he says, desperately, "and then you weren't scared anymore?"
His mother smooths her thumb across his forehead. "Of course I was scared. And I was scared the next day, and the next, and plenty more after that. Life is a frightful thing, and motherhood is worse. Fear comes and goes, Steve. Sometimes it stays for years. But love just is. And that's something fear can't touch."
He's crying, softly. "I can't stay here, can I."
"Oh, you could if you really wanted to," she says. "But Steve, I've watched you follow that boy since you were seven years old. I'd be almost as much a fool as you if I thought you were about to stop now."
Steve nods. He knew before she said it. "Well. Bye, Ma. And thanks," he says, and kisses her cheek.
Bucky's door is shut and his lights off, but when Steve enters the room he sits up right away.
"Kind of," Steve says. "Is it okay if—you said once—"
Bucky has already turned on the lamp by his bed and moved to make room. "Do you want to talk about it?"
Steve forces himself not to answer right away. He sits on the bed, leaving space between them. "I was dreaming about my mother."
"Sarah," Bucky says after a pause.
"She was nice to me."
"She liked you," Steve says, a smile tugging at his mouth. "I think she'd started to give up on me having friends till you came around."
"I—" Bucky hesitates, but when he finishes it's certain. "I liked her."
"You cried at her funeral," Steve says. "I didn't—I couldn't, or wouldn't, or—but you did, and I never—" His voice cracks. "I never told you how grateful I was."
Bucky studies his face. "You're crying now."
He is, Steve realizes. "Yeah."
"You're sad," Bucky says.
"I'm—" He is so many things. He has tried so long to be everything but. "Yeah. I'm sad. But—" He struggles for words that aren't it's okay. "I don't need to stop right now. I think maybe I didn't know, until you—" He stumbles on all the ways he could finish that sentence. He doesn't need to finish that sentence. That's the whole story, isn't it? I didn't know, until you.
Bucky is still watching him. "You miss her."
"Yeah," Steve chokes out. The tears are falling fast now. Let them, he prays—to what, he doesn't know. Let them. Let me.
"You loved her. You—" Bucky is silent for so long that when he goes on Steve is startled. "You loved me."
"I still do," Steve says, hoarse. "Bucky. I still do." He has so many years' worth of things to say, but this is the most important.
Bucky's face goes open and soft. "I want to," he says, "I want—so much, Steve," his name like a plea out of Bucky's mouth, the first time he's said it, eyes wide like he hasn't been seeing Steve until right now. Like Steve hasn't let him see, until right now. "I want to, but—I don't know if it's enough anymore."
"It's—" What? What is this human spark between two shattered spirits, weighed against the cruelties of time? What is this small, frightened moment, in all the years of their blood-soaked lives? Their life: a twisted helix, twisting forward still. Nothing. Everything. "It's enough. Because—" Steve takes Bucky's hand between both of his. "We'll make it enough. That's what we did before. I forgot that part. But I don't think you did. I think a part of you remembered, because you've been doing it since you got here. So—maybe one story ended in the river. But you started another one, just like you did before. Except I was out of practice. But—"
"—only cure for that is more practice," Bucky finishes, with a ghost of a smile.
"Yeah." Steve smiles back, feeling too many things to name.
"I said I didn't know what came after," Bucky said. "After I figured out why I didn't kill you. And I guess I still don't. But I still don't want to leave."
"I want you to stay," Steve says. "If you ever need to go, you can. But I wanted you to know that."
"Steve—" Bucky reaches out to touch his face, stopping like he remembers his arm is no longer made of flesh. Steve takes the hand and presses it to his cheek. "Steve, I remember—can I try—?"
"Anything," Steve says. Time will do with it what it will.
Bucky kisses him, once, softly, almost chaste; then he holds still with his eyes closed, an inch from Steve's face.
"I get it," he says, opening his eyes. "Steve. I get it."
Then he shifts to press himself against Steve's side, in their usual position: leaning on each other, holding tight. They stay like that, breathing, with all their fear, and all their love, waiting for the dawn.