Captain America is slumped in the breakfast aisle. Crouching, with one hand braced against the dated tile floor. His chin rests on his other fist, brows drawn together with thought. Eyes drifting over the boxes that sit, forgotten, at the bottom of the shelf.
He is alone, save for the unfamiliar music drifting through the ceiling speakers.
“Oatmeal?” Steve’s voice sounded too hopeful in his own ears.
“Yeah!” Bucky sounded happier than he’d been in months. Giddy with a smile that lit up his eyes. “Cheap too,” a little quieter that time.
“What’d you do, trade him for a pile of soggy newspapers?” Steve tried to keep the dark tension of never enough money, never enough food out of his voice.
Bucky laughed, “Nah, nothing like that,” he clanged their only pot onto the stove top, “Just a favor for a favor.”
Bucky was always pulling strings behind the scenes. Coming home with some surprise every couple of weeks. It wasn’t much but it felt like luxury to Steve. They hadn’t had oatmeal in years.
Steve had no idea how he made it happen and he suspected that Bucky didn’t want him to. The paper delivery job certainly didn’t pay enough.
They cooked it carefully, watching the pot boil. Trading an easy back-and-forth about how long to keep it over the flame. Bucky swore he knew what he was doing but Steve guessed he’d never cooked it on his own before. They’d only moved into a place with a real gas stove last winter.
It tasted wonderful. The gentle sweetness of grain, the soft-scratchy-wet texture on the roof of his mouth. The heat settling in his stomach. The peaceful fullness.
Warm and content, wrapped in Bucky’s arms, buried under all the blankets, coats, and clothes they owned in their makeshift bed. Three pairs of socks on his feet to stop the chill. Happy and full.
Steve lets the grief push deep into his chest. A blunt knife that rips jagged new edges from old scars. He closes his eyes and exhales. He sits with the pain for a moment, waiting for it to retreat.
Then he draws a breath and stands, grabs a box from the shelf with his eyes on the floor.
Sam meets him by the check stands, “Plain?”
“You don’t want some sugar or syrup or something?” They unload boxes and cans onto the belt, two or three at a time. Beans. Soup. Noodles. Instant coffee.
“Little bits of dried fruit?”
“No,” Steve glances up, “why?”
Sam just shrugs. Steve looks down at the generic oatmeal box in his hand.
“It’s just,” Sam hands two folded bills to the cashier, “it’s not gonna taste like it used to.”
“Yeah,” and the pain in his chest tugs again. Not going to taste like it used to. Not like it was made in beat up pot over a weak flame in Brooklyn. Not like it was something special, something to be shared, “Nothing tastes like it used to.”
The corners of their motel room are dim in way that suggests they’ve never seen the sun, or even the feeble light of the lamp on the desk. The only light in the room. Sam flicks through channels with the TV muted. Steve rests his shoulders on a pile of pillows, his head against the wall, his open eyes pointed at the screen, and his mind 337 miles and 78 years away.
He had filed away all his old memories with the file that detailed every Howling Commando’s fate. Too many regrets and nothing he could do but try to forget. And he had forgotten so well, thrown himself so fully into the mission, that seeing Bucky’s face had hit him like bright, close headlights on a dark highway. Something so blinding and urgent that he couldn’t react.
He was alive. He was alive and it changed everything. Upended Steve’s fragile new life in the blink of an eye. He was alive and he needed help. He needed Steve.
In some ways, it felt like a new mission. And one that he’d chosen instead of waiting for it to choose him. But it clawed at him desperately in a way he hadn’t felt since he jumped out of plane, sailing past enemy fire, marching alone toward death with a stage prop strapped to his back. It was more than a mission.
Steve stares at the TV for hours after it goes dark, until an uneasy sleep claims him.
He’s running. Stiff, thick-soled, too-big shoes striking the pavement. His chest is heaving, never could get enough air. He combs the crowd with frantic eyes. He was here a minute ago.
“Bucky!” Steve’s voice is already hoarse and he realizes he’s been doing this for hours. The fair is closing and the crowd is streaming toward the exit. Steve’s running against the flow, bumping shoulders and bags and tripping over shoes.
Bucky’s always been fine without him but he’s panicking now. He’s got to find him. The agonizing burn in his lungs tells him it’s critically important. So he pushes forward, zig-zagging through the chaos, circling around each building. Running until he’s gasping. Until he can’t feel his feet. Until his hair clings to his forehead, soaked with sweat. Until he trips and can’t get up again.
They’re on the road early, before the sun rises. Following shaky leads. Tracking down men that will never want to talk; that probably know nothing anyway. Steeling themselves against the incredulous laughter that comes. Every time they say they’re looking for a ghost. Clenched fists and simmering frustration between bland roadside meals and TV-lit motel nights.
There’s a quiet resignation that only soldiers know, that comes from doing the same thing over and over until you just do and don’t feel. In the silence of the car, with its constant white-noise highway hum, Steve wishes he could reach that point. That every dead end didn’t feel like a new weight in his stomach. That he didn’t dream of Bucky every night, big memories and small, stitched together into new nightmares or joyous, easy, heartbreaking moments that had never happened.
He wishes the pain wasn’t so fresh but he doesn’t run from it. Soaks in every regret, waits for the tightness in his chest.
Of all the loose ends he left behind in 1945, he never expected the chance to fix this one. When he crashed that ship into the ice, he thought of all the people he left behind and Bucky wasn’t on that list. Just two Brooklyn boys that gave their lives for their country. It was an honorable way to die.
But Steve woke up and he was less of a man and more of a soldier. More alone than he’d ever been. What could he do but return to the fight?
And then Bucky was there. Leaving him crushed and hopeful and speechless again. Just like in the war. Standing in the rain in Italy and saying his name out loud for the first time in months. Suddenly so close and so far. Across enemy lines, too late, too dangerous, and no one believed him but Steve knew Bucky was there. He was right then and he was right now.
And all the guilt and anger and determination that he’d bottled away came tumbling back. You can’t change the past. But sometimes the past follows you, shoots at you, stabs you, bloodies your face with a metal fist, and gives you a second chance.
Steve rests his head against the car window and breathes. It’s just a matter of time. The guilt doesn’t help, he knows. But when he sits up at night, sleepless and still, he hopes Bucky does the same. He hopes he takes the time to remember. So he’ll know Steve is coming for him.
Steve watches the road with clear blue, open, empty eyes. Just a matter of time.