When he comes out of the water it is summer, bright and sharp as a shard of glass; he can feel the sun lick a stripe across his back as soon as he leaves the waves. But he doesn’t feel warm. He ought to feel warm inside. There’s only a faint sensation of temperature, the touch of light on his skin. It doesn’t reach his flesh. He should be- sweating, he thinks. He should be sweating. He can picture the beach at Coney Island, the boardwalk shimmering in the heat. The paint peeling, and Bucky- and Bucky, he thinks, and staggers forward faster. And Bucky, with a box of popcorn and his pant legs rolled up. This is a beach, a beach like that beach, there are- there must be people around. Someone who can help. He has to keep walking. He sinks back a little into the sand with every step. He doesn’t know where he is. He stops at the edge of a blanket and stares down at it, at the turned edge of it and the machine stitches, the crisp stripes in blue and white. The tag.
Someone is screaming.
“Help,” he says, or tries to say, and the world wavers in front of him, and he is looking at the cars parked along the rail: they have fins and long low silhouettes, except that they don’t, they are just the way he remembers them for a moment, and at the same time they are rounded smooth and compact and in garish, unimaginable colors. They make his head swim. When he shuts his eyes they go away, mostly; instead the world bursts in dizzying clouds of light, pinprick stars that bloom and die, faster and faster. When he opens his eyes he is gasping, and it is-
-winter, it is winter and the snow is coating the sand, and he is all alone, and overhead the slow scream of an enormous airplane scrapes the sky apart, scrapes the sound from his ears and the air from his lungs: he is on the plane again and he is falling, he is sinking into the horizon while blue light fills the world-
“Steve,” says Peggy. “Steve, are you-”
He opens his eyes.
They are alone on the sand now; in the distance Steve can see crowds milling behind the cars, police cars, men in uniform. He doesn’t understand. Peggy is standing in front of him, just a few feet out of reach: her hair in curls, her feet bare. She’s holding her shoes in one hand. She’s dressed like- there’s no uniform anymore, she’s in a neat suit and jacket, only a little rumpled, and she looks so, so very-
“Jesus,” Steve says. It chokes out of him, like the words have been dragged out by a hook, scraping his insides. He can’t remember quite how to speak. “You look so beautiful.” For a moment, Peggy doesn’t smile. And then she does: the soft corner of her mouth turns up. She blinks and smiles at him but it’s not quite right, not brilliant the way she is brilliant. It’s sad somehow. Raw. For a moment she looks older, only just. He thinks it must be a trick of the light. He’s so dizzy.
“Are you here?” she asks. “Can you stay, this time?”
“Stay?” he repeats. “I don’t understand.”
“I’m not sure I do, either. Howard says it’s- a superposition, a way for you to- to hang on. To come back. You’re in so many places at once, he thinks you might- but even Howard’s not sure. Can you- I think you should try to feel the sand. The air. Focus. Try to remember where you are.” She looks at him. “Do you know where you are?”
“I- no.” He looks around and the world wavers again, and the only thing that holds is Peggy; Peggy with her crisp suit and radiant eyes, and the headlamps of the cars in the distance. Her silhouette is blurring but he can still find her. Still trace her, follow her lines. The world is like a white page that keeps crumpling around him: he tries to draw her in his mind, find the shape of her, the edges. She is the only thing that makes any kind of sense.
“You’re at Montauk. At Montauk Beach, Steve. You made it.” She seems like she might be crying. “You got so close. To home.”
“Montauk?” he says. He thinks. Tries to touch the broken bits together. “I don’t know how I got here. Peggy, I was-“
“We’ll figure it out,” she says, and reaches out her hand. “Please. Come back.”
It takes him three tries. She keeps dissolving; she is there and then she isn’t, she’s there and then the snow is coming down so gently, into the empty place where she should be standing, and the cars are round and wrong. But he concentrates. It ought to be so simple: all the muscles and the balance, the strong surety of him, the thing he is now. He’d better be able to do this simple thing right, what is he good for if he can’t catch hold of her, if he can’t- he has to be able to. Steve reaches out. “There you go,” Peggy says, “there you are. Steven.” And now he can feel her palm against his, her fingers twining between the things that must be his fingers, his meat.
Peggy takes him by car to the airport, and then by plane to Tennessee; beneath them the ground is green in a hundred shades, cut with stripes of farmland and thin strings of road. In Germany there were forests like this: thick forests, trees like towers, leaves like clouds. Steve presses his face to the glass of the window- cold, freezing cold, he can’t feel the sun anymore, no matter how he aches for it- and tries to hold onto them, onto the way the ground reels and unreels like a turning marble. “We’re almost there,” Peggy says. He blinks and tries to focus on her, on her voice at his side, those strong hands still wrapped around his. He’s never felt so weak, so insubstantial. Not even when he was smaller, when he was so faint from sickness that the blankets weighed him down. He wonders if this is- if this is it, if the serum will wear off now, if it’s finished, if he’s burned it out of himself like a fever, like- if he will be small and straggling again, if he will go back to that, if he will be forgotten, packed away, left alone, left to lie in bed and stare at the ceiling, if he can rest. “Steve,” Peggy says, beside him, her throat thick with tears again. He must have been speaking aloud. He can’t seem to control that, either. “Don’t talk like that, please. You’re going to be fine.” She doesn’t let go of him, even when they’re going down the rickety jet bridge and into a jeep, when they go through the security gates and Peggy has to fumble a badge out of her pocket.
Howard is there, waiting for them inside; talking to a handful of anxious-looking technicians, waving his hands at them until they disperse like a flock of geese. Steve steps up and lets Howard look at him with his narrowed, curious, cataloguing eyes.
“Welcome back, kid,” he says. His hand twitches at his side, as if he was about to clap Steve on the shoulder or shake his hand. He doesn’t. “You got a hell of a sense of timing.”
“Howard,” Peggy says. Howard puts his palms up.
“Just saying, if I’d known- if I’d even thought it was a possibility,” he says, and shakes his head incredulously. He’s cracking a crooked grin. “I shoulda been on that beach from day one, huh? Waiting with a Mai Tai in my hand and a chauffeur sign that said ROGERS. I keep telling Peg-“
“Howard,” she says again, sharply. Her hand in Steve’s is tense, tight, almost painful. It’s grounding him a little. “You said time would be of the essence.”
“So I did.” He looks at Steve again, leans in. “How are you feeling?”
“Dead,” says Steve. Howard and Peggy’s faces go ashen for a moment, and Steve knows he’s made a mistake. “Dreaming.”
“Okay,” says Howard. “Let’s see what we can do about that.”
The cascade chamber hurts, but even that’s welcome: it’s something, he thinks, as it all tears through him. It’s something to feel. He remembers being inside the machine that first day, the first day of the rest of his life. It had hurt like a cramped muscle unknotting itself in the back of his calves. It hurt and pulled like taffy, just to the point where you couldn’t bear it, where you went limp and blank, and then afterwards all you could feel was the relief of it, the hole in your flesh where the pain had been, the emptiness that sat in you instead. It was something to feel. And so is this. A whirling, howling storm. And then it’s over: the world wrenches itself brutally around him and then goes still. His hands are hands again. They touch the side of the chamber, palms up, firm and solid. He leans his head down and throws up water and saliva and bile, like he’s just been on a rollercoaster, and then he closes his eyes and rests his cheek against the cold wall of the tank. There is nothing inside him: no more pain. No more of that strange seasickness, the drifting feeling. Nothing at all.
“Holy shit,” Howard says, crackling through the speakers. “You alive in there?” Lying is a sin, of course, but Steve’s not sure what else he can do. He’s already lied to the government and Bucky and God Almighty; and himself, himself most of all. He ought to tell the truth. That he’s not quite what they hoped for. That perhaps they should put him back into the ocean.
“Probably,” he says, instead, listening to Howard’s tinny laughter; and waits for the blast doors to unlock.
“We think we can harness it,” Howard says, showing him through the lab. Steve’s clean and wearing too-small coveralls that barely reach his ankles. Some of the technicians can’t stop glancing over; some can’t meet his gaze. He can sense them, their attention, not with his eyes or his ears but with something else: something inhuman. He is aware of them, like faint lights in darkness. He stops looking at them too closely, at the strange glow of their life, their aliveness; they make his head swim. “Better than harness it. Amplify it. Adapt it. Probably.” There’s a power pack disassembled on the bench; a tiny cell battery pulsating pale blue. Steve stares at it for too long, while Howard rambles about recharge rates and condensers. “Not even Hydra got this far with it. Just think-“
“I won’t help you with this,” Steve says. “Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Peggy says, calmly, at his elbow. She jerks her head at Howard and Howard sighs and moves away, muttering to himself. “We understand. Of course we do.”
But they won’t stop, either. He knows. He doesn’t know how to convince them: doesn’t know the right thing to say. Even Schmidt didn’t understand. And he was the closest to it, before Steve. Their mistake is always in believing that you could- believing that it was a weapon, a thing that you could point and shoot. Mistaking energy for energy: there were bombs that blew and shattered, bombs that killed, and then there was this, this force. It climbed inside you and took you apart and put you together differently. He wonders, now often, what happened to the men they killed with those stolen guns, what happened to the bodies they vaporized, the bodies they blew away like candle flames. Did it- could it transport you, the way it did with him? Could it shift you, unmoor you, send you outside yourself, beyond the world? Or did it simply reduce you to atoms, cycle you back into the universe like so much sand, so much stardust. The waves take out the sand and bring it back, grind it against itself until it’s so fine you could inhale it. Dust is partly human skin, he knows that now. They are all flaking away. Wearing down. Until they are fit for the universe to take them back, piece by minute piece.
He walks the beach now. Or haunts it. They find him there when he’s vanished from the lab again, disappeared from headquarters or his rooms in New York, lost another set of handlers. He’s solid now, mostly; corporeal, real; but sometimes he simply drifts. Wakes passing through space, wakes staring at the ocean. He can’t always help it. He doesn’t always want to. He walks for hours, barefoot, trying to feel it, the texture of it. Damp heavy sand. Splinters of wood. Sharp chitin, the broken shells of crabs. Fine grit. Sometimes the wind puts that into his eyes. He kneels down and runs his hands through the grains, lets it spill between his fingers like an hourglass. It unnerves the agents they send to collect him. After the first half-dozen times he starts picking up seashells, sand dollars.
“Starting a collection,” he says, and they smile at him again, pat him on the shoulder. They relax: this is a thing that people do. They codename him Beachcomber as a friendly joke. They give him empty bottles and jars as presents whenever he fills the ones he has. His apartment has shelves of beach glass after a while. Colored sand layered into bottles, mimicking the sunset. He has jars of sand that he can shake, turn from side to side, watch it run until it runs out. Grains of it cling to the sides of the glass, sparkling like diamond. It is like holding the dead. As precious as life is, this is what it returns to: this is all that’s ever left.
He does not say anything about that to Peggy. She would either be horrified, or mock him relentlessly.
“Did you always love the beach?” she asks him, months later, walking alongside him in rolled-up trousers and a baggy linen shirt. She sounds thoughtful but there’s teasing underneath, a happy note he hasn’t heard much in her voice lately. “I suppose if one’s an artist, one has to appreciate a good view.” A hundred yards ahead, Gabe is carefully holding Caroline above the waves while she shrieks and kicks at the water in delight. This is ostensibly a vacation, but Peggy brought about one hundred files with her to Howard’s guest house, and her little army of subordinates keep calling. She’s pregnant again, Steve thinks. She hasn’t said anything but she is radiating a little. Her energy signature vibrates minutely, now and then; he can see it shimmering. And Gabe keeps appearing in her office at odd hours, bringing sandwiches. Peggy pretends not to luxuriate in that kind of attention. “I never pictured you like this before.”
“Standing out on the shoreline, gazing about like a Romantic poet.” She looks at him. “You’re not writing poetry, are you?” Peggy lowers her voice. “Tell me you’re not writing poetry.”
“Would that surprise you?”
“Steven,” she says, seriously. “You have never stopped surprising me. And don’t make that expression. I mean it in the best possible way.”
“Is that why you won’t put me in the field?” he says, suddenly. He doesn’t mean to, but he can’t stop himself. Almost as if he doesn’t care. He sounds bitter. “Because I’m a little too surprising?” Peggy stops walking. They both stop, and stare at one another. Caroline whoops in the distance.
“I won’t put you in the field,” Peggy says, “because I never know where you are.”
“I’ll draw you a map,” he says, and Peggy rolls her eyes.
“You came back, darling, but-“
“You think I came back wrong.”
“Changed,” she corrects, gentler now. “You came back in pieces, and you’re still coming back. You had to put yourself back together from atoms! It’s nineteen fifty-three, for Christ’s sake. It took you- you were gone for years. Years and years. Who could’ve- who could ever have imagined this? Imagined you?” She rests her hand on his arm, slides it around to tuck under his elbow. Her fingers squeeze him, lightly. “Nobody expected things to be the same.”
“What if this is the best I can do?” he says. “What if I never-”
“There’s nothing wrong with that, either,” Peggy says, flatly, like he’s being a fool. He probably is. “Nothing wrong with you. You’re different. We all are. Look around you, Steve.” She smiles down the beach at her husband, her daughter. Steve watches them wave. “Time marches on. Life marches with it.”
They’ve explained to Steve that there was no footage of the explosion itself but there were readings taken later, as soon as the reports started drifting in: a split in the sky, a raging white sun that sank into the horizon and vanished. They found the spot where the plane went down but it hadn’t mattered. Not really. There was nothing to recover besides his shield, still whole and pristine, which they presented to him that first week back, but still mostly discourage him from using. They found the wreck quickly enough, but they weren’t ready for the rest of it, for what was left behind. At first they thought mirages, some kind of visual distortion from excess energy, even radiation. But then some of Howard’s technicians fell into the flickering bits by accident and never came out of again. Steve wonders if someday they will. There were tears in the fabric of space and time; thin places where nothing was real. Too many to count. They fenced it off for miles after the search was over and the surveying done. Even disabled, Schmidt’s bombs tore holes in the world, holes that are still healing slowly.
“You don’t sleep anymore, do you?” Gabe asks, when he finds Steve sitting at their kitchen table in the middle of the night again. Steve can’t even remember how he got here: if he walked, if he ran. If he just thought about being here, and then was. It doesn’t seem important. Gabe pulls a chair around and sits down on it backwards, arms folded across the back. “I couldn’t either at first. None of the guys could, when we got back. But this isn’t that, is it? Not just good ol’fashioned GI insomnia.”
“No,” Steve says. “I can’t- I can’t make it turn off. My mind, my- my head. I can’t let go. Anything.” He looks down at the table. “I’m running simulations. From the security briefing Peggy handed out yesterday. I’m running them right now.”
“Jesus,” Gabe says, and rubs a hand across his face. “Okay. You’ve got to talk to Howard about it.” Howard suggests sensory deprivation, but after twenty minutes floating stiffly in the tank Steve wakes up half-naked on the boardwalk in Ocean City with seagulls screaming overhead and cigarette butts and sand stuck to his back. He steals a pair of sandals and walks halfway to Toms River before a harried-looking agent in a plain sedan finally pulls over in front of him. After that they try sedatives, powerful concoctions that would put an elephant out for a month. They make Steve woozy and nauseous, but they don’t make him sleep. They try meditation, holistic treatments that Howard scoffs at. Steve likes listening to the steady thrum of his own heart, likes listening to his apartment creak and settle around him. He can almost sleep like that, almost drown the world out, mute his whirring engines. But there are still no dreams. He is starting to forget what it’s like. There used to be bodies, faces in his dreams: touches and words, soft formless moments that would leave him warm under the blankets, happy. Or confused memories tipped over and reassembled absurdly. He used to tell Bucky his stranger dreams in the morning, sometimes, while they got ready for work. The funny ones, with mashed-up bits of their lives in them. Giraffes in church, the grocery store turned into a dancehall, all of them in suits with carrots on their lapels. Other dreams were only his. He used to dream about Bucky, Bucky Bucky Bucky, how could he not? There was so much of him. So much life in his body: being near him was like drinking from a cold tap when you were dying of thirst, cupping your hands and watching light dance on the surface of the water. In dreams Bucky showered him with kisses, bit Steve’s bottom lip and smiled and rolled over Steve in their narrow old bed, pulling a carpet of stars over their heads and erasing everything else. There was never an end to him, a limit to the things Steve wanted from him, with him; no limit to the things Steve would have given just to have his glances, the slightest touches, his smallest crumbs. Those dreams sometimes left him aching and hot and ashamed, but they were good, too; they were something to escape into, when the world was rough-edged and cold. But now there’s not even those.
Bucky has a cross at Arlington but he’s only gone there once to look at it: the real Barnes plot is at Holy Cross on Tilden Avenue. Bucky’s pa and his last grandmother died while Steve was in the ocean knitting himself together, so Steve goes over sometimes to meet Winnie and Rebecca and put flowers against the big plain stone with its lines of names and dates. Beneath their feet are two generations of Barneses, lying like bedrock. Bucky had beautiful broad shoulders, beautiful broad hands for the piano, for carrying his little cousins home from the ballgame when they were sunburned and tired. They are all like that, every Barnes he’s ever met or can remember. Strong people, backs like shields, arms that open wide. When Steve is being sacrilegious he stands at Holy Cross and thinks, upon this rock I will build my church. There is nothing under the ground at Arlington; not much left of him above it, either.
In July of nineteen fifty-nine, they try to kill Peggy. Caroline and Michael are with Gabe’s parents at the lake, and Gabe is in Los Angeles on assignment, and so it’s only Steve and Peggy and her latest secretary in the car when the bridge in front of them blows. Steve isn’t supposed to be in a car at all: he’s supposed to be on a flight to Washington, but he’s been particularly distracted lately and Peggy didn’t want to deal with another incident of him vanishing from the cabin at thirty thousand feet. The explosion sends chunks of concrete and metal into the sky and the center of the bridge sags dangerously, then groans and shudders and gives way. Three cars ahead of them plunge down, and Peggy skids and swings around nearly in time, but the truck behind them doesn’t stop. It plows into them and they go over. Steve barely has time to grab Peggy and put his shoulders up against the back of his seat. They are tipping into freefall when he kicks through the windshield and they burst through it together, her body tucked into his as tight as he can make it. He grabs wildly for the underside of the bridge, snags onto a handful of twisted scaffolding that’s still hot from the explosion. It sears the skin off his palm but he doesn’t let go; meanwhile Peggy wraps her legs around his waist and stretches out to grab a dangling cable. Between the two of them they swing up and crawl onto a ledge on the underside of the bridge, hands bleeding and shards of glass still caught in her hair and his jacket. Far below them, the car is burning.
“Christ,” Peggy says, with a hand over her mouth. “He was only twenty.” She looks at Steve. “Do you think you can get us up to the road?”
They go hand over hand across the scaffolding to a service ladder, then climb over the railings and slip behind the stopped cars. People are screaming, running back down the bridge with their bags and children in their arms. Steve inclines his head over the hood of the nearest sedan; the truck that drove them over is still sitting by the edge where the mangled bridge drops away. Next to him, Peggy unholsters her gun. “Split,” she says. She goes right, moving along the guard railing, while Steve moves up the center, staying low. There are two men standing in front of the truck, looking down. They’re both in military-style gear, dark jackets and holsters strapped to their thighs. Trained guys, who don’t startle when Peggy pops up and fires on them. They drop behind cover, then drop lower when her shots clip the rear-view mirror. They’re turning around the edge of the truck to return fire when Steve springs out and clocks the first one so hard his skull leaves a dent in the side of the truck. He wrestles the second one for his gun; the guy has moves, and Steve’s hand is already fairly mangled, but it’s over less than a minute later when Steve drives a knee into his nose with a sick popping sound. He opens the driver’s door and finds the cab empty and the keys in the ignition.
He’s hopping down when Peggy fires again in a barrage, this time sending her shots screaming right over his head. “Roof!” she shrieks, from somewhere to Steve’s right; and then a body drops onto his from above. Steve’s arm was already up, so the garrote wire digs into his firearm instead of his throat. The guy on his back is big, wearing some kind of armor, Steve thinks: the forearm around his neck is rigid as the shield, and it makes a strange ringing sound when Steve tries to bash the guy’s shoulder into the hood of the closest car. Steve gets a hand around the garrote and flips the guy over his back, into a windshield. He’s wearing the same uniform, no insignia, and a black balaclava over his face. He rolls away from Steve and slides a bowie knife out, lunges forward so quickly Steve can barely get a block up. Steve ducks and slams his fist into the guy’s stomach with all his weight, drives him back a couple feet, but the guy doesn’t stop, just flips the knife and goes for Steve’s other side, forcing Steve to block with his burned hand. For a second Steve’s too slow: the knife goes into his palm and the guy twists it. Steve feels a white-hot wash of pain and the world tears around him and then suddenly-
-suddenly he’s standing behind the guy, drifted away and back again, six feet off, no knife in his hand, just a river of blood pouring down his arm, and the guy has stopped, frozen in confusion for an instant, only an instant, but it’s long enough for Steve to kick him in the spine and drive his head into a passenger-side window. The guy shakes his head and stumbles, crouches with his fists up. He’s about to strike for Steve when a shot clips his collarbone, drops him against the car. Steve kicks out his knee, hammers him in the face. When the guy grabs wildly onto his jacket Steve plants a boot into his abdomen and rolls them, slamming the guy’s back onto the road, then swings up and straddles his chest, clocks him hard twice in the bullet wound, snapping the bone. The guy doesn’t scream but Steve can feel him seize up, can hear the anguished sound caught in his throat.
“Stay down, soldier,” Steve says. The guy makes that choked-off sound again and kicks his legs up, grabs Steve’s neck with his other hand, knees Steve in the back, and Steve punches him in the face until his head rolls back, until he spasms and lets go. Steve sits over him, panting. He can feel his heart racing, can feel- can feel everything, the sweat running down his back, the bruises that will start to heal in hours, the scraped-away places and the hole in his hand still draining hot blood onto the ground. Steve feels drunk, like every part of him is expanding into the universe, like he can feel the air where it touches his skin, the inside of his lungs.
“Steve!” Peggy calls. She’s running up, reloading as she goes. “Steve, is he down?”
“He’s down,” Steve says. He stares at the body under his, alive but barely twitching. The mask’s turned around: Steve is looking at his cheek instead of his mouth. He can hear the hitched, wheezing breath muffled underneath it. He doesn’t know why he does it. Has no idea what makes him reach for the top of the balaclava and pull upwards.
“I can’t believe-” Peggy is saying, and then she stops, and there is unbearable silence while Steve looks down at the face below him. The bottom lip is split; there’s fresh blood running from the nose and mouth, smeared in lines from where Steve pulled the mask off and away. There are tiny pieces of glass and road grit dug into the cheek. Peggy doesn’t say anything. Or at least Steve doesn’t hear her: he can’t hear anything beyond the animal sound that someone is making close by. His head throbs. He opens his mouth and a sob comes out. “God in heaven,” says Peggy, at last; it really sounds like a prayer. She’s kneeling beside him. Her hand is on the back of his neck, another on his shoulder, holding him up. He hears sirens now, in an overwhelming roar. “Dear God.” Peggy looks over her shoulder at the ambulances and police cars winding their way down the hill towards the bridge. “Steve,” she says, softly. “I think- I think it’s best if they don’t find-”
“No,” Steve says. “No, they can’t-“
“Have him,” Peggy says. “Certainly not.”
Peggy hotwires a car that still has a windshield and backs them down the bridge at full speed, nearly crashing them into the ambulance before spinning them around and driving straight off the side of the highway into the woods. A police car gives a halfhearted chase but after a couple of minutes they’ve pulled into a narrow country road and they’re the only car in sight. With one hand on the wheel, Peggy finds a map in the glove compartment and then drives eighty miles an hour towards town. When she looks at him in the rear-view mirror he meets her eyes and they both smile grimly at each other, remembering. It might as well be the Hürtgen Forest again, shells streaking overhead. Bodies in the ditches. There’s a streak of blood drying on her beautiful cheek. In the back seat, Steve holds Bucky Barnes across his lap, keeps his jacket pressed to the bullet wound. “Hang on,” she says. “Both of you, just hang on.”
“Yes, ma’am,” says Steve, and focuses on the heart beating under his hands.