Steven Grant Rogers never comes back.
“Just as well,” Steve says, looking over the paperwork that Peggy’s laid out across the desk. “Think they’d make me refund the funeral?”
Peggy rolls her eyes.
“All I need is your new surname,” she says. “I can generate the rest myself. You can put down whatever you like.”
“Not the whole thing?”
“No,” she says. “You’re not a protected witness. We’re not trying to hide you. Not exactly. You’re—forgive me, but Steve Rogers is officially dead, and you officially don’t exist yet. Using your own first name isn’t going to raise any flags.” She makes a face. “Don’t change it, please. I’ll never be able to get your attention across the room again.”
“Ah," Steve says. "That's—"
“Steven Undecided,” Peggy says, warningly.
“It’s not undecided,” Steve says. “I’ve got it. I need your help with something else.”
In the end it’s an easy decision; the only natural choice. He’ll always be his parents’ son. Nothing can change that. But the truth is, he’s not the same boy who scrambled off to war; not even the same man who returned from it. Not completely. He’s older, which doesn’t count for much in some people; more importantly, he’s had the chance to truly examine his priorities. If you asked him right now where he belonged; if you put him to the question this minute, where he was meant to be, who he belonged to, he wouldn’t hesitate. It wouldn’t take him any time at all.
“Let’s see—oh, hell,” Bucky says, standing up in the hall. The chair legs squeak as he rises. He must have gone out for a sandwich while he was waiting for Steve to fill out all his forms in triplicate; he smells like oil and vinegar and fresh bread. He comes towards Steve, wide-eyed, and stretches his flesh hand out to ruffle through Steve’s hair. He combs it out with his fingers curiously. Steve’s glad it’s getting late and there’s nobody around in their offices anymore; not because it’s incriminating, but because it’s mildly humiliating. He’s about an inch shorter than Bucky now and trying to ignore that fact most of the time. It honestly doesn’t matter, and in certain ways it’s actually wonderful, but it’s still not easy for him to think of height as an entirely neutral value. Especially when someone—anyone—is patting the top of his head. Well, anyway. It’s alright. Steve came back different, not perfect. His pride survived the trip. “Did Peggy do this to you?” Bucky asks, petting the freshly-dyed hair back into place. It’s a warm, subtly reddish chestnut-brown, just a shade or two lighter than Bucky’s—Peggy helped him pick a color that could pass for natural. It looked alright in the mirror when he was finished, but it could be different under the hall lamps than the bathroom vanity. He’s not sure. Bucky seems surprised by it, but not put off. That’s a start.
“Did it to myself,” Steve says. “Well, mostly. You know how long you have to sit with this stuff on? I'm surprised women don’t commit more murders.” Bucky grins and Steve plows ahead, trying to squash his nerves if he can’t settle them. “You think it’s alright?”
“It’s different,” Bucky says. “It’s fine.”
“Could you get used to it?”
“Sure,” Bucky says. “I’ll get used to anything you like.”
“Okay,” Steve says. “Remember you said that.” He hands Bucky the folded-up copies of his forms; stops himself from rubbing at the back of his neck or covering his hands with his face or running down the hall out into the street, all of which seem like good ideas. This is the craziest thing he’s ever done, including the stuff with the leviathan; their friends will all know why he did it. He won’t be able to pretend any different. Strangers won’t have any idea. He can lie and say they’re cousins, if it comes to that. They wouldn’t be the first who tried it. But all their friends will know for sure. It ought to scare him. But it just doesn’t feel like such a terrible thing anymore. It almost feels exciting. Hell, only about a dozen people know that he’s alive at all: only the ones they know they can trust. “Just tell me if it’s—too much, or if you think it’s a bad idea, if it’d—cause problems for us, if anyone—because I can just as easily—”
“Steve,” Bucky says, in a strangled voice.
“It can be Buchanan instead,” Steve says, hastily. “Or anything else. It’s your name, so just say you don’t—” he says, and without warning Bucky grabs him by the lapels of his jacket and hauls him forward, hungrily. “Oh,” Steve says. “You,” and then Bucky’s leaning down that inch to press his mouth hard over Steve’s. He kisses Steve like a teenager, clumsy in his urgency, in a way he never is anymore. It’s thrilling. Steve hangs on for dear life. Christ, there’d really better not be anybody in the hall, Steve thinks, from the stratosphere.
Bucky kisses him and wraps his arms around Steve’s waist and then lifts him bodily into the air, turning him around in a half circle with his face in Steve’s neck, before he drops him and kisses him stupid one more time, his mouth hot and red and beautiful as a rose, as the garden of Eden. Okay: Steve really, fiercely, doesn’t mind being just that tiny bit smaller. It’s damn convenient. Bucky strokes Steve’s face with his thumbs as they break apart. He’s smiling. “So,” Steve says. “That’s—okay with you, then.”
Bucky shrugs; shiny-eyed, falsely nonchalant. His pinked-up mouth is trembling.
“I’ll get used to it,” he says, and the son of a bitch actually squeaks when Steve pinches the meat under his arm.
They’re staying at Howard’s place across the river for now; it started out as a quiet, secure location for Steve to get his footing back, like it had been for Bucky last year, but now their stay is looking increasingly indefinite. Howard doesn’t seem to mind. He keeps pretending casual resignation to the whole set of circumstances—shrugging, saying it’s alright for now, what’s a man to expect when he has houses to spare—while in reality he’s been following Bucky around for a week admiring his upgrades to the security protocols and talking eagerly about a solar-driven irrigation system for the back garden. Solar cells are Howard’s new obsession: he wants to turn the building downtown into a giant solar battery, keeps talking about something called a sun farm. He seems to be starting his revolution right here. It also didn’t escape Steve’s attention that someone has bought a new barbecue grill without being asked. Peggy has been referring to the house as Howard’s End.
“I feel like you’re laughing at me when you say that,” Howard says, over the top of another gin rickey. They’re all sitting on the back porch, Howard and Bucky on the steps, Steve in a wicker settee and Peggy situated closest to the tray of mixers. She’s had a very grueling spring. The real Soviet diplomatic entourage, apparently, just loves New York. “I’m just not sure in what sense.”
“Read the book,” Peggy says.
“It takes place mainly in drawing-rooms, doesn’t it,” Howard says. Peggy raises an eyebrow. “Hard pass, Peg.”
Steve closes his eyes and listens to them talk, to the musical rise and fall of their voices. He’s tired sometimes, still. Less and less every day. It’s not a weariness of the body. It’s an exhaustion of the mind. He drifts. Far away; as far as he ever shifted, maybe further. Sees things in his dreams that he can’t put a name to. Strange places. Foreign moons. Asleep, he passes through the veil of the void and beyond, through the velvet dark, the thunderingly heavy hearts of stars. Sometimes it happens in daylight, too: he’ll be sitting in a kitchen chair or lying upright on the sofa, and he’ll begin to relax and let his mind drift, and time will pass, and he’ll find himself staring at a pitted rock beneath his feet, at a plateau of red sandstone shearing into cliffs, turning his face upward to bask in the brilliance of a green sun that turns his insides to golden, shivering fire—and then Bucky will touch his cheek and Steve will open his eyes and blink and realize he’s been gone for hours, wandering the surface of worlds he’s never walked. His body stays behind, now. The shift is gone. He is firmly tethered to the world in one way, and set loose in another. Sometimes he wonders if he isn't seeing through the tesseract's eyes, somehow, still. Wonders if they are connected by this last, dreamlike thread. Whatever causes it, it’s alright. It doesn’t come upon him suddenly, the way the spells of shifting used to: it only happens when he’s calm and lax and willing to set himself aside for a while. He’s not sure if he can aim it, direct it, the way he could when it was a physical movement through space—but maybe, with practice, he could.
Peggy hasn’t asked him about it. He knows she knows. But she hasn’t pushed him to develop it, the way she pushed him about shifting. She’s told him a lot about their negotiations with the Soviets—SHIELD has truly entered the peace business, to everyone's surprise—but she hasn’t said a word about reinstating him, or even hiring him on as a consultant, even under the new name. She does keep asking him to come over for dinner or meet them at the shore house. It took Steve a few weeks to realize it, but now it makes sense: she’s tired of him dying on her.
And it’s definitely why, after the private doctor she arranged declared him healthy, she tried to nix the idea of doing further physicals. But Steve had insisted, so instead Howard and Bucky ran tests on him at the warehouses, sometime after Bucky’d finally stopped brutally mothering him and started chafing at Steve’s cabin fever and stubborn complaining. Stress tests on the treadmill proved his heart and lungs were in peak condition, which hasn’t ceased being a relief. The first time after Moscow that he looked down at his own slimmer and oddly familiar arms and legs, he’d been coldly terrified that somehow the tesseract—or whatever rebuilt him this time—had reverted him to his original settings. But he's not only fit and healthy. He's abnormally so. They’d left him alone on the treadmill for a while, sure he’d stop when he got tired, but he didn’t. Get tired. He drifted mentally as he ran and watched a comet soar through the upper atmosphere of a wildly beautiful alien desert, and when they came and tapped him on the shoulder and startled him out of his reverie he’d run about seven miles. He did a hundred and fourteen pushups before Bucky got bored and told him to quit it. Howard wired up a foam block to test his relative punching strength, and Steve went right through it. He’d stared down at his slightly bonier hand in wonder. He doesn’t know what he still has this strength for, if it’s not to fight. If it’s not to do the work he was made, trained, to do. But he’s willing to find out what else it’s good for. He owes Bucky that much. And when he’s feeling especially positive, he thinks he might owe himself that much, too.
“Hey,” Bucky says, and Steve almost knocks his own drink off the edge of the settee. Bucky’s leaning over him, one hand resting on the arm of the seat; behind him, Howard and Peggy are arguing cheerfully about the energy summit coming up in September. Howard wants a sequined kick-line dressed as yellow suns. Peggy wants him to duck his head in ice water. “Earth to Rogers.”
“You sure?” Steve corrects, sotto voce, and Bucky’s face goes soft. He ducks his smile and pokes a metal finger into Steve’s thigh.
“Yeah, yeah,” he says. “You go anywhere special, just now?”
“Nah. Just thinking.”
“We ought to have a picnic,” Steve says. “Right? Before all the kids go back to school. We could have it out here. Plenty of room.”
“Oh,” Bucky says, and chews at the inside of his cheek, thoughtfully. “Yeah. Could do.”
“Be nice to do it before we leave.”
“Sure,” Bucky says, absently, obviously already starting to scheme, deploying seasoning rubs and cold egg salads judiciously in his mind; it takes him a second, but then he gives Steve a double-take. “What?” Steve smiles at the face he makes, the little wrinkle in his brow. He can’t help it. Bucky is really the most interesting person to look at in the whole world. “Where exactly are we going?”
“Don’t know,” Steve says. “Thought you might have ideas.”
“You want to go away?”
“Be nice to travel without anybody shooting at us,” Steve says.
“Well,” Bucky says. “We’ll stay away from Texas.”
“I’ve heard it’s a beautiful state.”
“Jesus,” Bucky says. “Fine. Yee haw.” He picks up Steve’s wobbling drink and sets it on the side table, muttering to himself. “They won’t know what hit ‘em.”
When Peggy and Howard have gotten into the car and headed back to the city Bucky takes the glasses inside and comes back for Steve, who’s started to fall asleep on the settee in the late afternoon sun. His limbs feel heavy as lead, but not in an unpleasant way; he feels like he has become the tree that he once anchored himself in. That he has put down deep roots in this time and place. That his dreams of sleeping beneath gold leaves—fluttering overhead, turning steady sunshine into glittering mist—have all come true. The breeze on his skin gives him the sensation that he is touching cold groundwater, drinking from the streams that run through earth and rock. “Huh,” Bucky says, smoothing Steve’s hair over his scalp, like he’s petting a cat. “You a poet now, too?”
Oh. He didn’t mean to say it out loud.
“Peggy asked me the same thing. Years ago.” Steve turns his face up slightly and Bucky leans down without prompting. He lingers, mouthing dry little kisses over Steve’s cheeks, his eyebrows. Sometimes Steve can see how afraid he is, in the cracks, the margins: he believes that Steve is really here, that this isn’t a dream that will destroy him when he wakes from it. But he’s clearly not taking it for granted. That makes two of us, Steve thinks. He might be Bucky’s miracle, but Bucky is his. Bucky is, will always be, the thread that pulls him back to life. “I think she thought I was being dramatic.”
“Who, you?” Bucky says.
At the barbecue Steve talks for a long time to Gabe’s cousin Charlie, who is in his second year in the engineering program at Howard University. “He said I had to stay away from Mr. Stark,” Charlie says, while he’s shaking Steve’s hand. “Or he’d corner me about my catalytic converter project for the whole afternoon.” There’s a noise from across the yard; somebody knocking over a punchbowl.
“Excuse me,” Howard says, scrambling to pick up tableware scattered on the grass. “Excuse me. No, my fault. I thought I heard somebody say—”
“Have you seen the orchard?” Steve says, steering Charlie away by the elbow. “Let’s take a walk.”
They circle around the pear trees and Charlie talks and Steve listens, and when they come back Charlie excuses himself to get a hot dog and corral his sisters, and Steve finds Gabe by the grill, locked into a debate with Bucky over the merits of dry rubs versus marinades for pork.
“Steve,” Bucky says, pointing a pair of tongs over the lid, “tell this man—”
“Not a chance,” Steve says.
“I told you,” Gabe says. “I told you, the best—”
“I'm not taking a side here,” says Steve. They both frown at him and then shake their heads, muttering to each other about some people’s low standards. Steve could be irritated with that but he isn’t. More than anything he’s happy to see them bickering again for fun, the way they used to sometimes on long dull watches. Bucky went on living while he was gone; nothing could make him gladder. “Are there more burgers coming?”
“Yeah, in a minute.”
“Did Howard catch up with Charlie?” Gabe says. “I swear to God, if he makes another offer about him leaving school early to work on flying cars—”
“No, I took him the long way around,” Steve says. “But.”
“I know.” Gabe sighs and bites into a piece of steak. “Charlie wants to build a cleaner engine—”
“—and Howard wants to write him blank checks,” Steve says. “There are worse things.”
“Jesus, don’t I know it,” Gabe says. “He tell you about the business at their sit-ins?” Steve nods. “I figured he would.”
“He said the student organizing committee is working on something new,” Steve says. “And I told him we were pretty fair hands at sitting down or standing up or marching on orders, whatever he needed. I know I said I wanted to travel, Buck. Is Virginia alright, to start?”
"You know me," Bucky says. He slides the spatula under the burgers and flips them expertly, one by one. “Hate Nazis. Like sitting.”
“It’s not going to be like Bonn,” Gabe says. “Don’t forget that. Those kids don’t hit back.”
“Neither will we,” Steve says. "We'll play it exactly how they want it." Gabe gives him a thoughtful, assessing look. “I promise you. We’ll follow their lead in everything.”
“Huh,” Gabe says.
“Just don’t know how I’m supposed to feel,” Gabe says. “I love that kid. So I guess I’m glad Captain America is going with him. But then again, so is Steve Rogers. Maybe I got a right to be nervous.”
“Shit,” Bucky says. “That's true.”
“There’s no Captain America anymore,” Steve says.
“No,” Gabe says. “No Santa Claus, either. Just an idea." He takes a drink. "But an idea is worth something.”
“You're right,” Steve says, suddenly. It’s so clear to him. It’s shining through him like a searchlight. He feels shocked awake with the plainness of it: how simple it is. How obvious. “Somebody has to take it.”
“Take it?” Gabe says, bewildered. Gabe and Bucky stare at him, and then each other. “You mean—”
“A new Captain America,” Steve says. “Another Captain America. Somebody who deserves it. They found me at a fairgrounds, for Christ’s sake. We could find the right person. Think about it," he says, urgently, leaning across their little card table stacked with rolls. "Maybe it’ll be a Polish kid, this time,” he says. “Or— one of Charlie’s classmates. Somebody who can love this country without being blind to its faults. Without pretending.” He looks at Bucky. “A tenement kid. A Jewish fella. A queer.”
“A woman,” Peggy says, over his shoulder. They all turn to look at her. “Not that I'm volunteering.”
“But not to go to war,” Steve says. “Not just a mascot for another war. Somebody whose job will be peace.”
“And justice,” says Gabe.
“And justice,” Steve agrees. “What do you think?”
“I’m for it,” Bucky says, quietly.
“I think it’s a wonderful idea,” says Peggy.
“It’s not like we can advertise,” Gabe says. “Kind of disqualifies you to want it.” Peggy hums her agreement and takes a bite of potato salad. “How do we find them?” Bucky says something about starting fights on DeKalb and seeing who shows up, and Gabe suggests Lenox Avenue instead, and Peggy is starting to hover somewhere between laughing and looking like she’s itching for something to take notes on. When Steve turns to look up at the house he sees that Howard has found Charlie after all, and they’re deep in the middle of something that involves stacking rolls in a scaffolding formation on the buffet table and arguing about the placement of a lettuce leaf on top. Winnie’s been comfortably installed on the settee on the porch, talking with Gabe’s sister; Gabe’s littlest niece is sitting on the edge of the porch giggling at Dugan, who is eating deviled eggs delicately off a paper plate perched on his knee. Rebecca’s carrying more ice out in a bucket; she smiles at Steve when she catches him watching, and empties it into one of the big Coleman coolers that she brought over for them yesterday. The sun’s high and the air is hot and breezy; the whole yard smells like sunshine and smoke and cut grass, and Steve shuts his eyes for a second and feels the flat warmth of light on his face. Caroline and Michael are playing tag with Peter and Julia, all of them looking sweaty and rumpled by now, their pressed shirts wrinkling in the heat. Julia shrieks when Caroline swipes at her and barrels down the path towards the orchard with her arms up in the air and Peter doubles over laughing and Caroline swipes for him too, and then Peter is It and they’re all going in a circle again, skidding between the trees and out of sight.
“I think they find us,” Steve says. He looks back at Bucky and Gabe and Peggy. “I think if we’re paying attention, we’ll see them a mile off.”
“A nail sticking up,” Gabe says. Peggy smiles at him and nudges into his hip.
“A squeaky wheel,” she says.
“A blockhead,” Bucky says, teasing, under his breath. And then, steadily: “Somebody who tries.” He looks at Steve and something passes between them, like Bucky’s seeing him and something further-off at once: the smaller shadow behind him, maybe, and the taller one, too. His handsome eyes are made beautiful with it, with whatever’s lighting through his mind: Steve can see the truth in them, legible as printing, the letters tall and clear. It takes his breath away. When God looks down on the swaying branches the sparrows must feel like this: adored, in their insignificance. Safely catalogued to the pinion feather, the smallest brilliant claw; awake and alive and stirred to love, like summer wind. He came back for this, Steve knows now. He came back for this: to be worthy of it. To live every day, reaching for it.
“To them,” Steve says, raising his beer. “Wherever they are. To their fight. Hope it's cleaner than ours.” Gabe and Bucky clink their bottles against his, and everyone drinks.
“Hear, hear,” says Peggy, and leans in to kiss his cheek.
“No, it’s the right one, I’m afraid—Caroline, for the third and final time, turn that down. Did you hear me, Steve? I’m afraid that’s the proper address. Is there a problem?”
“No,” Steve says. “Not exactly.”
“Do you need a hotel?” Peggy says. “I’ll find you a number.” In the background he can hear a guitar solo soaring through the house, something high and tremulous over a droning beat. “Do you need me to ring— hang on, Caroline!” Peggy shouts, sounding barely muted, like her hand’s over the receiver. The wail of the guitar dips down, and Steve hears Peggy exhale hard into the phone. “I can ring Jacques. Now that he’s rejoined civilization.”
“Civilization might be stretching it,” Steve says. “But no. We’ll manage. Thank you, Peg.”
“Steve,” she says. “Steve! Don’t hang up.” Now there’s laughter behind her; Gabe and Michael’s, raucous and happy. “It’s Steve,” she calls, and the voices get closer, questioning. “No, no. They’re descending into the wilderness, I think. Yes, of course in France! Oh—I’ll explain, just come and say Happy Christmas. Caroline, come down and say Happy Christmas to Steve and Bucky!”
There’s a little flood of joyous shouting; Steve has to put a hand over his mouth to cover the hugeness of his grin. He glances out of the payphone nook and out into the otherwise-empty bar; Bucky’s leaning over his drink and nodding at something the lone bartender’s just said.
“Buck,” he says, and Bucky looks up smiling. “They’re saying Merry Christmas.” Bucky smiles wider and cups his hands around his mouth.
“Merry Christmas,” he calls, and the bartender makes a little shout and tips another tall shot of something dark and licorice-smelling into his glass.
“Joyeux Noël,” the bartender says, vehemently, and takes a pull right from the bottle.
“We’ll see you at Howard’s, won’t we?” Peggy asks, on the other end of the phone. “For the new year?”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” Steve says. “I know he wants to show off the moon rock.”
“NASA’s at their wit’s end with him,” Peggy says. “And Charlie. Command already knows they’re going to insist on a cosmonaut again as the third man.”
“Isn’t that the point of a joint space program?”
“Sure,” Peggy says. “Officially.”
“Plus ça change,” Steve says, dryly.
“No more shop talk,” Peggy says. “Are you having a wonderful time? How was Paris?”
“Better than we remembered,” Steve says, but then he thinks about the Champs-Élysées at night in the snow and says, “Beautiful, Peg. It was beautiful. Bucky’s been humming cabaret music for forty-eight hours straight, I think.”
“Oh, I envy you,” Peggy says. “Tell me, have you heard of Pink Floyd?”
“Uh,” Steve says. “I think so. They’re in Buck’s magazines.”
“Excellent,” Peggy says. “Tell him I’m sending Caroline to you next summer. They’ll have a lot to talk about.”
“Sounds good,” Steve says. “Love you, Peg. Love to everybody.”
“Happy Christmas, darling,” Peggy says, and hangs up.
Steve slides back onto his stool next to Bucky and finishes his liquor for him; the burn is caramel-dark and herbal, warm and bitter in his throat but sweet on his tongue. If they were alone he’d let Bucky chase the taste of it against his lips; he settles for sliding a hand onto Bucky’s thigh, out of sight under the edge of the bar, and feeling Bucky’s legs slide open just a fraction wider, watching Bucky’s smile heat.
“So,” Bucky says. “That’s the place?”
“That’s the place.”
“Huh,” Bucky says. “Fixer-upper.”
“Yeah,” Steve says. He ducks his chin and smiles. “You know all about those.” Bucky watches his face and watches the bartender too, out of the corner of his eye, careful like he always is, and then he angles closer to Steve’s ear and says,
“Nothing I ever wanted to fix,” he says, low and easy. “Just to keep.” The bartender turns to shelve glasses and Bucky presses a quick kiss on the shell of Steve’s ear, light as a snowflake.
They have another drink and walk back to the farmhouse in the dark, their breath ghosting up into pale clouds. The sky is starless and soft; the only light is from the half-moon, wreathed in ethereal fog. A light snow is falling, half-flakes and half-mist, and the countryside is beautifully shapeless under a foot and a half of white. They come off the deep tire-track path in the main road and turn onto the unplowed gravel path that leads up to the house. The house itself appears slowly, from behind a screen of frosted cypress trees. It’s a shambolic, ancient, rubble-stone house with too many gables, irregular and charming and ringed in overgrown gardens. Their electric lantern is hanging from a hook under the eaves, glowing faintly as a beacon; they left it there before they turned back for town to call Dernier and Peggy and make sure they hadn’t copied the directions wrong. “Home sweet home,” Bucky says, and unlocks the heavy wooden door.
It’s cold inside, and dusty; there’s nothing in the galley kitchen but a long crooked table and the crate of tinned food they brought in this afternoon. When they tested the water pump it ran rust-red and then clear, freezingly cold and metallic-tasting. Bucky had shrugged, unworried, and said, “Thanks, HYDRA,” and taken a long drink from it anyway, cupped in his hands like he was dipping from a stream. Now they walk through the kitchen and into the main room in the dark, with their coats still on. There’s a pot-bellied cast-iron stove against the central wall, left with the door hanging open. There’s only ashes inside.
“Did you see firewood anywhere?” Steve says.
“There's a lean-to out back,” Bucky says. He nudges the stove with his foot. “You think you can manage this beast, city boy?”
“Laugh if you want,” Steve says. “But if I burn the house down, we’ll be warm.”
There’s dry wood in the shed, and matches in one of the kitchen drawers; the first one doesn’t strike, nor the second, but the third blazes just fine, and with a little newspaper Steve manages to get one of the logs to catch. There's some funny business with the chimney, but somehow he gets it sorted and waves the smoke out through the kitchen door. In half an hour the stove’s getting hot enough to throw warmth into the room; when Bucky comes back in with a third load of firewood he kneels down and shucks his gloves, grinning. He holds both his hands palm-up towards the stove, flesh and metal, even though only one of them ever really feels the chill. He stopped acting like they were very different a long time ago. If he still worries about their asymmetry much, he doesn’t say. He touches Steve with both of them like they belong to him; like Steve belongs to him, too.
“You're a regular Mark Trail,” Bucky says, admiringly, and rubs his hands together. “I stand corrected.”
They find old-fashioned candle lanterns in the downstairs cupboards and put them around the room; Steve tacks a moth-eaten blanket over the doorway that leads into the hall, to keep the heat in, and drags the least offensive mattress downstairs to set into the corner. There’s clean but stale-smelling blankets in the linen closet. By the time Steve’s finished, their makeshift bed’s looking almost appealing. He drags a chair in front of the fire and waits for Bucky to come back inside from whatever he’s doing out there; clearing a better path to the shed, probably. Steve sighs and leans back and folds his hands over his middle. Shuts his eyes. The house isn’t what they expected; when Dernier called up out of the blue, just before they left for Paris, he’d offered the old family homestead up to them for the holiday weekend as a quaint pastoral retreat. It’s clear now that they should have been listening more carefully. Jacques doesn’t actually believe in retreating.
Steve drifts for a second, finally comfortable and starting to feel sleepy; alcohol hasn’t worked on him since nineteen forty-two, but the fire’s crackling merrily and the warmth of the liquor is still in his throat, and there’s something about the smell of musty sheets and old wood that’s drawing him backwards in time, with sensations too familiar to name. It’s been so many years since they were scrabbling to live. So many years since the last time they truly went hungry, since the last time they bled; but the taste of it will never leave Steve’s mouth, not completely. Like salt. It gives savor to everything: to cracker crumbs and laundry day and balancing the checkbook. There is nothing he isn’t grateful for. He’s meditating on that and circling the cosmos, starting to slide into the deeper black that marks one of his traveling spells, when Bucky pulls the blanket back from the doorway and yells, “Take a look at this!”
Steve startles upright and watches Bucky bring in a hulking wind-up Victrola and set it on the floorboards. The crank is loose, almost falling off, but when they lift the wooden lid the insides look fine, even nicely preserved.
“You think it works?”
“I think we ought to find out,” Bucky says, and goes back through the blanket into the kitchen; he returns with a crate full of records, half of them much older than they are. “What would you rather,” Bucky says, holding two up. “Enrico Caruso, or—”
“Oh, Buck, look,” Steve says. He pulls a sleeve out of the crate. “What about this?”
“Goody,” Bucky says. “Germans.” But he puts the record on and dutifully winds the crank, and after a second O Tannenbaum starts warbling out of the old Victrola, tinny and faint at first and then swelling to fill the room. The sound crackles and skips but the voices are pure and steady, dipping to sway into heavy bass notes that rumble the speakers. They sit curled in the blankets and Bucky plays it again, winding it carefully and sitting back to pull Steve against his side, resting his cheek on Steve’s head. Outside the snow is starting to coat the windows, but for now it patters against them gently, the only other sound in the room besides the old carol and the fresh, hissing fire.
“Merry Christmas,” Steve says.
“It’s tomorrow,” Bucky says. “Don’t wear it out.”
“Merry Christmas,” Steve says, poking Bucky’s chest. “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas.”
“Coming right up,” Steve says. Bucky laughs and Steve closes his eyes and squeezes his arms tighter around Bucky’s middle, feels the laugh resonate through the flesh of his body, the thrum of his heart. They promised not to be stingy with their happiness, years ago. They promised not to spend every moment hedging their bets, softening their own landing: being scared that it could end. It ends, of course. Someday. But until then they have to be glad of it, safe with it, trusting. They have to make it count. “You want me to whip something up?” Steve asks, nuzzling into Bucky’s shoulder. “We’ve got tinned ham and pineapple, which if you think about it—”
“I love you,” Bucky says.
For a second Steve just—just doesn’t make himself do anything. Doesn’t make himself say anything back right away, just lets that feeling pass over him: a flash of pins and needles for a second, before the spread of giddy, radiating joy. He always used to feel embarrassed about those pins and needles, but he doesn’t anymore. He used to think it was wrong of him, that Bucky’s love could make him shiver, but now he understands. He spent so many years dreaming about it that he was afraid to meet it awake. It awes him, still. And every time. Bucky doesn’t say it often. The way he still doesn't ask for certain things, unless he really needs them. But he says it enough. He says it in everything he does: every touch, every look, every time he rolls over in the night and wraps his arm around Steve and tucks his face into the back of Steve’s neck and mouths a kiss while he’s still mostly sleeping. He says it in the way he stirs a half-teaspoon of sugar into Steve’s coffee, in the way he fucks Steve breathless and kisses him searchingly and pours his heart into their life. In the way he slips out of bed in the morning still, sometimes, to sit on the floor against the edge of the bathtub and look at nothing for a while: the way he leaves the door open, now, always, so that Steve can come and sit with him.
In the morning when pink dawn sits on the horizon they’ll make love in this ratty little bed, sweaty and grinning and slow, and afterwards Bucky will put on an ancient jazz record and get Steve to dance—he can dance now, if Bucky leads, swinging him around the room with a strong hand on his waist. They'll make ham and eggs for breakfast and he’ll give Bucky the present he smuggled along in his folded-up underpants in the bottom of his rucksack, and then knowing Bucky they’ll make love again, and sleep until the sun is high. At some point they'll trudge into town to call ma and Rebecca and walk back marveling at the silent beauty of the fields, rendered softly into chalk sketches under the weight of untouched, crystalline white. There are a million worlds past theirs, Steve knows that now. There are shores and skies and mountains beyond measure. Broad tidal seas that pull at his memory. He can’t remember passing out of the world and back into it; he doesn’t know if there was a choice, a moment when he could have set himself loose into the endless brightness of the universe, to see the impossible, forbidden places that he only glimpsed before, shedding all of this forever. He doesn’t know. He doesn’t think so. It wouldn’t have mattered. He will only ever want this world: this place, this life. It’s had its share of horrors for them. And there’s no promise that they’re over: only a shield of fierce hope.
“I know,” Steve says. “I love you, too.”
On the Victrola the singers split apart in harmony and the horns sigh, and the snow falls, and the world is still.