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Our Lingering Frost

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Coulson comes to him in the morning, when he's just finished his first run of the day and the sweat is still sticking to his forehead.

The day is steamy, heavy with the heat of the sun just beginning to crisp the edges of the air. The area where his shoulder joint meets his prosthesis is tingling with the promise of a summer storm. The green rolls and white specks of Arlington shimmer out the second story bay window.

"Colonel Barnes," Coulson says, after he has been offered tea and a banana from the fruit bowl. "I wanted you to hear it from me first."

James (he's always James now. Hasn't been Bucky since he woke up and Steve was gone gone gone) adds strawberries and bananas and ice and protein powder to the blender on the counter. He may have a version of the serum thrumming in his veins but he's pushing his mid nineties and there're hints of gray in his hair and crow's feet around his eyes and his muscles groan a little bit more on rainy days to remind him to be healthy. The serum doesn't stop death. James knows that better than anyone. "Yes?" He asks, careful and avoiding. He has an idea what this is about. He, after all, has been waiting for this visit for almost 70 years.

"They found his plane."

His hands (even the prosthesis) start shaking so he puts down the knife he was using on the apple. Deep breath in. Deep breath out. Tears sting his eyes so he blinks and turns to stare at the bright morning sun. He can just see the peaks of the cemetery - can almost pretend he can see Steve's monument from here.

You'd think that nearly 70 years would be enough to dull the pain, numb the wound. But it still burns like freezing metal on bare skin. There's a picture of Steve in his wallet, one of the few remaining of him before the serum. It's creased, well folded, tucked away and treasured like a talisman. He wishes he could hold it now.

"That's good." The smile he dredges up is watery and feels sticky on his cheeks. "It's good that we can finally bring him home."

"They're just moving equipment in for the excavation now. The aircraft is frozen solid. It'll be a day or so before they even know how long it'll take to get him out. We have a plane waiting for you if you'd like to be there."

Of course James will be there.

He goes to the cemetery before he leaves. Whenever he's in the country, he comes every Sunday. The honor guard changes out at 10 am and he likes to watch the hand off: the precision and the sameness after even 65 years is calming. He sits on the white stone bench in front of the memorial. A flame burns on a low table at the entrance to the twin granite walls that extend back to a life size statue Steve.

It’s white granite – he’s holding his shield at his arm, face turned out toward the Capitol, still keeping watch. On the sides of the walls, the Howling Commandos are listed, ashes of those already gone safely ensconced in the wall. Too many.

He will be there one day. He is the last one.

The honor guard changes at the front of the flame, before pacing back to stand watch along side Steve.

Steve would be embarrassed by this. He'd flush and mumble and duck his head. He'd get flustered like he did when Bucky would wink at him from across the room. He never understood how he inspired people.

People leave flowers and trinkets at the foot of the flame: pictures and letters and flags. There's a good deal of rainbow flags now, scattered among the traditional red, white and blue. That started back in 2004 after James had told the New York Times the whole story of him and Steve.

It'd been cleansing in a way, to tell the world the secret born in the drab apartment in Brooklyn and carried in silence through the trenches and then into a watery grave in the Atlantic. For a long time, he had kept the secret, thinking he was protecting Steve's privacy. Then he had realized all the good Captain America could still do.

There had been a fundraiser just a week ago for a disabled LGBT veterans fund – The Steve Rogers Memorial fund. James had stood up there in a pretty ballroom in his uniform and looked out at white tablecloths and weary eyes and said, “Steve spent his whole life fighting bullies. He would’ve been proud to know his legacy was being honored this way.”

“I’ve tried, Steve,” he says now, just under the summer wind and the distant city buzz – yet, somehow, he’s still cold. “I’ve tried to make you proud.”

James stands and salutes the monument - those who have gone before. "You'll be home soon," he murmurs. "I'll bring you back."

He calls the nursing home where Peggy is. Her memory is going but she's the only person left who knew Steve like he did and she deserves to know. She cries a little when he tells her. "I'm glad," she repeats. "I'm so glad they found him. I didn't like thinking about him out in the cold." He promises to call her as soon as he knows anything. The nurse comes on the phone after Peggy and James tells her the same information. Peggy will forget and worry when he doesn't visit her on Tuesday like he always does now.

In the frozen wasteland of the middle of the Atlantic, the dig site is bitterly cold and dark. The wind catches any piece of skin and turns it frozen within seconds.

James stands in the tent command post next to the upright heater and listens to the debrief.

They've found his shield and are trying to figure out the best way to dig it out of solid ice without damaging it. Schmidt’s body is nowhere to be found and they're thinking Steve must be near the front of the plane, beneath what they estimate is 35 feet of solid ice. Water and ice came through the front windows of the plane when it first crashed and froze solid. Then years of ice and water drifting through have added layers and layers of thick ice throughout the whole nose of the plane, trapping Steve in a never-ending winter. Sonars have picked up objects roughly human sized down there - but it'll be hard to know for sure until they get through the ice.

"It's slow going, sir. We want to preserve as much of the plane as possible."

James nods, finds the picture of Steve in his pocket and runs his thumb along the edge. "Can I see?"

They seem hesitant when they take him down. There are floodlights and drills and brushes and giant heating devices and they're rigging up plumbing to pump the melted ice to the outside of the plane. There are scientists and soldiers and men with no insignia and grim faces.

He sees the shield first. It's half uncovered; they've been delicately melting and chipping away at the ice for the last six hours and it's almost free. He kneels close and sees the tiny dings and scratches in the paint – the little bits of battle still left on it after all these years. It's been so long.

The shield is back about forty feet from the front, against a wall. James imagines it must've rolled away as the plane crashed for the final time into the ice. He stands and paces to the opposite wall, looks back at the dark cavernous space, tries to imagine it without the ice and the flood lights: all black metal and catwalks and Steve spending the last few minutes of his life alone.

He passes a hand over his face.

At the front of the plane, they have a large heated drill, hand pumps and warm air blowing through ice that has not been touched for decades. They have to go slow - too much too fast and gallons of water could destroy whatever is preserved down there.

He stands at the edge of where the ice wall starts, nudges against the beginning of the melt with the toe of his boot.

This is the closest he's been to Steve in 66 years. It's comforting.

The excavation takes four days.

James sleeps in snatches, eats when someone hands him protein bars. He stays out of the way of the workers, spends most of his time sitting against one cold wall, watching the ice come away, drip by drip.

When they first got him back from the Russians, mostly dead, he'd begged for Steve almost every time he was conscious. They hadn't told him Steve was dead until they had been sure he was going to make it. Then, Peggy had sat down next to his bed, carefully avoiding his missing arm, squeezed his remaining fingers and told him the whole truth. He had listened to the cockpit recording weeks later, had thrown a chair against the wall.

"He'd be glad you're alive. He'd want you to live," Peggy said, Stark said, the Howling Commandos said, Colonel Phillips said. All James wanted was to have been on this plane in the end.

The workers free his shield by the evening of the first day. James holds it once before passing it to the specialists so it can be preserved and packaged for the trip home. He knows the Smithsonian will take it. It would be his if he wanted it - but Captain America doesn't belong to him as much as Steve Rogers does.

He's dozing just outside the excavation hole when a scientist with goggles kneels next to him. "Sir? We're close."

The hole in the ice is man sized now and he follows them down the 20 feet, the walls drip and chill around him. It feels more like a tomb than Arlington ever did.

Steve is still in the ice - only about six inches in and curled on his side, facing away from them. James can see the curve of one shoulder, the line of his back. He's crumpled below where the console would've been, arms curled around his head like he tried to protect himself at the last second. His face is hidden, tucked against his chest and pressed toward the cockpit, blonde hair frozen against his head, preserved perfectly.

He thinks of Steve in the snow, frail and white and bundled in a threadbare coat and struggling through snow drifts. Steve would never complain but the cold always sapped his strength and his oxygen and Bucky’d spend every winter scrounging for wood and pennies and blankets to keep him warm and alive. Here, Bucky had left him alone in the cold for decades.

Coulson is at his shoulder. "We're going to cut out the block of ice around him. We don't want to start defrosting him til we're in a more controlled setting. It looks like the ice did a great job preserving him."

James nods, his prosthesis feels heavy in a way it hasn't since the younger Stark made him a new one a decade ago.

He takes a step forward and stumbles, goes to his knees, feeling every single one of his ninety something years.

Coulson is shepherding people away, leaving him alone with the ice and the dead.

Tentatively, he scoots forward. The chipped ice is clinging to his pants and his breath frosts gray. He shakes free his flesh hand of his glove, presses it to the ice that has held Steve.

"Stevie," he says, just a breath against the cold. "I'm here, pal. I found you. I'm sorry it took so long. We're gonna take you home. You..." His entire body hitches. "You don't have to be alone anymore. I'm here."

There is just the distant murmur of voices and the rumble of drills pulling ice away from the hull.

Steve is silent.

And all of Bucky's tears freeze before they hit the ground.

They carve Steve from the ice and carry him out on a steel table.

His eyes are closed (small mercies) but his familiar face is twisted like he's in pain. Blood is pooled under his head, frozen like a lopsided halo. And he's so pale, almost blue under the floodlights.

He thinks of when Steve got pneumonia when he was 19 and there was the one scary night when his lips went all purple and his eyes were big, pupils blown wide with fear when the air just wouldn’t come. It was one of those nights where Bucky had believed, for agonizing hours, that Steve was finally going to slip away from him. But Steve was a fighter. Even when he was driving a plane into the ocean, he was a fighter.

"Cause of death was most likely massive blunt force trauma to the left side of the skull," a young scientist says, her voice clinical. She glances at him and the detached look in her eyes falters. "He... I don't think he suffered, sir. He wouldn't have woken up after that."

They lift him from the airplane and into a specially made container for transport. The younger Stark personally had it sent over, guaranteed to keep Steve's body perfectly preserved in the ice until they get back the States.

James leaves before they close the lid. It's too much like a coffin.

He paces on the flight back. The steel box with Steve sits in the back of the plane and James fidgets and turns just feet away. He wakes from dozes with nightmares of trains and planes and falling and drowning.

Stark meets them at JFK. Tony is so much like his father in his sunglasses and suit that James feels a pang for more things lost.

"So how is the capsicle?" He says, patting the steel box. "Heard he looks pretty good for a 70 year old corpse."

The humor feels good after days of everyone treating him like he's about to crack into a thousand pieces. "Always knew he'd age well."

Coulson promises to call him as soon as Steve is free of the ice and sends him to home to sleep in a real bed.

He gets the call only three hours later.

On the other end, Coulson is breathless – flustered in a way that he rarely is. "You need to get down here."

James goes in a sweatshirt and jeans, and he sees his hair sticking up in all directions when he glances in the rearview mirror.

When he arrives, the S.H.I.E.L.D. lab is cold and there's double the number of people he expected. He can't see Steve.

Director Fury ushers him to a back room. Stark, Coulson, and a blonde woman in a lab coat he doesn't recognize are already there, arms folded and looking severe. "Captain Rogers has a heartbeat," Fury says with no preamble.

James sits down, heavy, in the scratchy office chair. "What."

Coulson moves next to him. "We drilled a small hole in the ice, just around his ankle, to test the viability of his skin. Once we got in direct contact, our sensors picked up a very slow rhythm." He hesitates and then looks up. "This is Doctor Chung. She's going to explain what this means."

"Colonel Barnes," the doctor begins, perched on the edge of the desk. She talks in big, technical jargon and it floats over his head. The sick feeling in his stomach twists tighter and tighter until he feels he may explode from the pressure.

He gets it. The heart that fluttered and skipped when they were kids (until Bucky had laid with his ear on Steve's chest and begged it to please please please just keep going) is somehow still beating after 66 years frozen in ice and no one knows why or how or what it means.

Everything that makes him Steve could've been lost long ago and the only thing left is a heart that never did know when to quit. He could be trapped in his own skin, held captive by the serum. He could be nothing but a drooling puddle.

He could be fine.

Fury looks gentle for the first time since he took over as Director. "You can take some time. But we need a decision from you on whether we attempt invasive measures to preserve Captain Rogers's life, knowing that he may be profoundly damaged."

"Yes. God. Yes."

It's not a question. If Steve is really gone, they'll know soon enough and Bucky will let him go in peace and hope Steve's spirit forgives him this selfishness. But it's Steve. He's been defying the odds since day one.

If Steve is alive, Bucky will selfishly take him back in any way he can get him.

He doesn't leave again. Coulson and Fury suggest that he go in soft voices but he ignores them until they leave him alone. Finally, someone gives him a chair and he sits in the corner of the room, out of the way but so he can see everything.

Stark and the doctor are arguing about the best way to melt the ice and keep Steve alive. It's possible he'll die as soon as his heart starts picking up and his organs start to creak back to life. They need to warm him gradually, bring his heart rate up slowly and hope he doesn't bleed out or swell up or just fail before they can get him stabilized and figure out what a plane crash and decades preserved in ice did to him.

It's painfully slow. They finally decide to use a warm salt water, defrosting in sluices and bringing up his temperature one tenth of a degree at a time. They need to intubate him - but they can't do that until the ice covering his mouth and nose melts. It's a race. Water drips into drains beneath him.

His heartbeat picks up, slowly. They get his face uncovered, white skin beginning to pink up as warm air blows over it. James is starting to lean forward, starting to see that Steve is back – then one monitor wails and it all goes to belly up.

There’s a long tone where Steve’s heartbeat was and finesse gets thrown out as the tubes come out and someone shouts to clean the ice from his mouth.

The uniform he died in is disintegrating in pieces. Faded red, white and blue flutter away to the floor.

James leans forward until his forehead is braced against his clasped hands. The sounds crescendo and Steve's head rolls to the side, still. James hasn’t prayed since he woke up and found Steve had died without him. But now.

This can’t be how the story ends. Not like this.

It’s not the end.

Somehow somehow. They bully and prod and drag Steve’s body back into life, hook him up to the miracle medical marvels of 2011 that ding and chime and beep and cajole Steve into taking just one more breath. His lips lose the ghostly pallor and his hair is dry and soft against the pillow after someone rubs a towel over it. He's still pale, looking too much like he did when he was frail and the fever and the coughs would take him in the winter.

When James presses their hands together, his fingers are warm and his pulse chugs along beneath the delicate skin of his wrist.

The doctors are quiet, eyes wide and amazed but still not hopeful. The serum is working, they say in hushed voices. But is it working fast enough? And how much can it fix?

The head wound closed during the 66 years in ice but there's still no activity, nothing to show that Steve is alive in any meaningful way.

All of Erskine's notes are dredged up – poured over again in painstaking detail for any indication of how to proceed. James goes over everything he knew, sits with his head in his hands next to Steve’s bed and answers their questions as best he can.

No, Steve couldn't get drunk. One time in France, they tried and he got a little flushed after 12 shots of whiskey - but he was stone sober within the hour. Yes, all injuries healed up on their own. He'd gotten shrapnel in the gut in Austria once. Bucky had gone to his knees next to him, bright red spilling everywhere and his hands had shaken. Steve had gritted, "pull it out" so he had, then pushed his hands against the gushing wound and thought it was the end. But flesh had knitted and Steve had gotten up again. Bucky had given him his share of rations that night because he was always hungrier after healing.

So his world narrows to the hospital room, the bed, the soft breaths. Steve is warm to the touch now. But still so silent. More than once, James looks at the bed and expects to see his frail friend from before, only to see the Captain America. "Thought this thing was supposed to mean no more hospitals," he says in the quiet. "You should ask for a refund."

Tony flits in and out, poking at machines and tubes and suggesting upgrades and improvements. "I could make him a wheelchair that flies," he says at one point, hand drifting over Steve's feet. "That could be useful." He's rarely quiet but James has known him since he was a child, can see the flickers of hero worship in the wry mouth as he helps in the least helpful ways.

James studies Steve’s hands, relearns the grooves and lines that time had faded from his memory. The knuckles are even more delicate than he remembers and he rubs the slender bones, imagining Steve holding a charcoal again.

It's the morning of the second day when Steve's brain starts firing again. The doctors are cautious but Steve was an ice cube and now he has working brain cells. So really anything is possible.

Steve's hand tightens around Bucky's a few hours later, just the slightest hint of pressure that the doctors write off as involuntary. But it feels like a beginning.

On the morning of the third day, James stands in the hospital bathroom and stares at his reflection. He pokes at the tiny wrinkles around his eyes and tugs at the bits of gray he can see at his temples. He's never been vain. There was never anyone to impress but Steve - even during the 80's when his loneliness got the better of him and San Francisco was anonymous and warm. There had been men: smart men, handsome men, brave men, kind men. But none had lasted long in the face of competing with a ghost and the frozen wasteland that had been James’s heart.

Then, at a certain point, James had realized his contemporaries were dying and the world was filled with young men and their hero worship – filled with “my grandfather served in the 107th, it’s an honor, sir.” And how could you really date someone when their grandfather was your age.

Now, he pulls a frown when he sees how his face has aged. He only has the barest memories of his father, but he thinks sees some of him now in the lines around his mouth. He flexes the prosthesis, barely noticeable in long sleeves.

He looks good for a man in his nineties – for a man in his thirties really – but Steve, even on a hospital bed, looks every inch of 26 years. There’s an irrational panic buried deep somewhere that Steve won’t recognize him.

Steve thinks Bucky is dead, he reminds himself. Steve’s Bucky had died just weeks ago and now it’s the future. With gay marriage and robots and terrorism and health care and cell phones.

On the fourth day, the doctors say that Steve will wake up in 48 hours. They shake their heads in wonder, like children who have seen a fairytale come to life. All of his vital signs and readings are well on their way to normal – no lingering damage from the long frost.

Sleeping Beauty is real, James thinks, brushing his thumb over Steve’s chin. He presses a kiss to Steve’s quiet mouth just in case. Except he’s no prince charming and Steve had never been a damsel.

There’s a mountain of psychologists and psychiatrists now, all with different ideas on how to ease Steve into the twenty-first century. They talk about PTSD and trauma and culture shock and depression and grief and anxiety with acronyms and science.

In the end, as Steve creeps towards consciousness, James asks to be left alone. He has Coulson bring him the old record player from his house and sets it to a collection of greatest hits from the 1930’s.

He hums and sings snatches, lets his mind go back to a tiny apartment in Brooklyn and the heat rising up in summer and the cold sinking in during winter. The upstairs neighbor clomping away and the paper thin hallways and Steve sitting at the kitchen table, sketching the sunrise and the sunset and Bucky drying their clothes against the stove.

Then, in the wee hours of the morning, before the sun has come up and Judy Garland is singing “somewhere over…” for the third time, Steve makes a noise. It’s just a sigh, his head rolling toward Bucky like it did on the mornings when no alarms blared them awake.

He presses their hands together, and leans close, mingles their breath and their heartbeats and breathes in the clean smell of the hospital and a whiff of something that is so Steve that Bucky can pretend it’s just any other morning too.

“Bucky?” Steve’s eyes aren’t even open but his fingers are fluttering against his. He tries to lick his lips and Bucky offers water in a straw.

His hands are shaking and he spills water on the bed.

“I’m here. I’m here.”

Steve’s eyelids shiver, hints of blue peeking through and it’s too much because at some time in the nearly 70 years, he had forgotten the color of Steve’s eyes. They’re blue like the water of the Atlantic at sunrise and the sky at the bottom of the horizon.

He muffles a watery breath in Steve’s palm, an open mouthed kiss.

And, when he lifts his head, Steve is blinking at him.

“You’re here,” he breathes. “Bucky.”

“Yeah, Steve. I’m here.” Bucky leans forward, brushes his fingers along his forehead and lets his thumb linger on the faint pulse in his temple. “We’re both here.”

“Heaven?” Steve asks, twisting his head.

This time it really is a sob. “No, buddy. No. We made it.”

For once, Steve doesn’t argue. He relaxes under Bucky’s hands even as he wraps his fingers around his sleeve. “I dreamed of you,” he says. “And so much cold. Is it winter?”

Bucky looks out at the pale sky. The sun is just beginning to glow over a green horizon, melting away seventy years of ice and snow and cold. He inhales back the tears that come and leans down to brush a kiss to the side of Steve’s mouth, letting his forehead rest against Steve’s, and just breathes.

“No, Stevie, I think it’s finally summer.”