His mother coughs, rough and rattling. The handkerchief she presses to her lips comes away red with blood. She is pale and she is shaking. His mother has been ill many times before—as has Steve, though young he might be—but this time, Steve knows, is not like the others.
His mother beckons him nearer—nearer, but not too close, for Steve is fragile and what Sarah has might well be catching. Steve would never describe his mother's voice as weak, but it comes close when she speaks. “Steve, darling,” she says, her eyes—blue, same as his—warm with love and bright with fever, “I do not have much time. I can tell.”
The tears well up in his eyes and there is a sob waiting, low in his throat, but Steve bites them both back, because his mother, who has lived decades longer than the seer of Brooklyn foretold at her birth, and defied the dire prognoses of the countless healers through countless bouts of illness, who has spent every healthy moment her frail life doing nothing but caring for others—his mother deserves his strength. Steve swallows, and says, “What will I do when you are gone?”
She smiles. “Those who are purest of heart, Steve, receive guardian angels in their time of need.”
“I know, Mama, but—”
Sarah stops him with a shake of her bony finger. “I birthed you and I raised you, my dear boy. In a world where there is nothing certain, I am sure only of the goodness of your nature—your goodness, and my love for you.”
Steve trusts his mother beyond anything; but if an angel did not come when Sarah was pregnant, and the death of his father left her alone, an angel will not come for him when she is gone.
“I know what you're thinking,” Sarah says, “and it is not yet time for you to know. I had hoped to be the one to tell it to you, but you will find out when the time comes...I always knew I might not live long enough.”
Good though he might be—and Steve has heard his goodness praised not only by his mother, whose authority on such things he holds in foremost esteem, but by most every adult with whom he has come into contact, though children his own age seem to be of a different mindset—the questions tug at his tongue and press against his clenched teeth anyway. He stays quiet, for he wishes to do his mother proud.
Sarah's eyelids flutter. She is tired, so Steve leaves her to her rest; he sneaks back to her bedside, when he sees that his mother is sleeping, and places a quiet kiss on her cheek. He does not miss the way her mouth curls at the corner, equal parts touched by the gesture and displeased by his disobedience.
Steve is by his mother's side when she fades away, her breathing and her heartbeat already so soft that he only knows she's gone by the way the wail of Miss Sitheach, the building's resident banshee, rings through the hallways. In the new world, the banshees have been parted from their clans. Now, they lament only those they deem worthy.
His mother's prone form remains completely, violently unmoving, and Steve finds that he is incredibly numb, trapped in some kind of dim cloud where sounds and feelings are muffled. He will have to thank Miss Sitheach when the mourning period has passed. It is a great honor indeed, to have one's death announced by the wail of a banshee.
There is a great deal that needs to be done. Sarah planned her funeral rights, and made all the necessary arrangements, but it is up to Steve to oversee their execution. The bones of a good woman have too much power, too much use, for anyone but Steve to be trusted with seeing her burned and then scattered to the four winds. He must be the one to keep her from practitioners of magic, dark and light, to protect her from ghouls and jikininki who would make her their meal.
“I know this will be hard for you, Steve,” she had said, “But I know you, and I know you are strong.”
Steve keeps his head up when they start to come to his door, some with offerings of food, and some with hideous things in their hungry eyes. He thanks Mrs. Goldman for the casserole, and Mrs. McNeil for her promise that she will put out milk for the building's brownies when it is Steve's—formerly Sarah's—turn. Mr. Wakahisa, he stares down with such fierce challenge in his eyes that it must seem threatening—even coming from a young boy—because the jikininki backs away.
Sarah selected the three neighbors she trusts to take shifts watching her body in the night—the three women who were her closest friends, who helped with meals when she was too sick to cook and nursed Steve through colds when she couldn't. Steve trusts her judgement, trust them, but he cannot bring himself to leave her side. Mrs. Yu, gives him an appraising look and an approving nod when she comes in for her watch—the third. She does not say much (there isn't much to say), but she fixes Steve a cup of strong tea when he starts nodding off sometime past three.
By the time the sun rises, ending the hardest night of his life, Steve is exhausted. He is not an adult, but he no longer feels quite like a child. He supposes that this is what being an orphan is like. Sarah's body is untouched and unharmed when the pall-bearers arrive – four men, all chosen by Sarah, too. Steve should be among them, as her only son, but his age and stature preclude it. Instead, he leads the way to the funeral pyre.
Sarah's body is set atop the piled-up wood. Father Ward hands out candles, and Miss Delany follows in his wake and lights them with a touch of her fingers, a modest power for one of the aos sí, but a gift on cold Brooklyn nights. Steve's eyes fog up with tears around the time the priest starts reading the prayers in Latin, and he cries silently through the prayers and the old Irish blessings and he continues crying as everyone shares warm stories and fond memories of the remarkable person Steve has always known his mother to be. The adults pour whiskey and laugh and talk and cry.
Steve has never before understood the true weight of what his mother meant to the people around him, and thinking of the way her goodness touched others is what gives him the strength to stop the tears when it's his turn to talk. It's a deep, heavy, and all-consuming ache, trying to put words the full extent of what he has lost, but Steve finds his way through it. When he is done, Steve looks at his mother's face for the last time – tries to memorize the careworn lines on her face and the particular shade of her blonde hair. He fears nothing more than watching those memories fade.
Father Ward and Miss Delany wrap Sarah's body in the white shroud. Everyone goes quiet. The time has come. Steve tips his candle, and starts the fire.
He scatters Sarah's ashes on his own, as is his right, to the four winds. His mother's last remains twirl and spin on the wind, and Steve thinks she must be at peace, free from her illness and all her burdens, and the ache of his father's loss. Her burdens are his now, and he bears them alone.
Steve wants to scream, but only somewhere nobody can hear him. There is a place, and so he runs to it, disregarding the danger. The alley is empty because the alley is always empty, the one place no child in Brooklyn dares to tread, and Steve screams and screams until his weak lungs ache.
He is still screaming when the voice comes. “Ain't supposed to be here, you know,” it says, “'s dangerous.”
Steve swivels in the direction of the sound, because this voice belongs to a child, and no other child would ever be here. Except there he stands, a boy—taller than Steve, but probably younger, watching Steve with an impressed, amused look on his face.
“They say Moloch only eats bad kids,” Steve says, a little defensive.
“I don't think starving demons are that picky, pal,” the stranger says. “'Sides, I'm pretty sure any kid in Moloch's alley is, by definition, a bad kid.” He's grinning, like they're friends or something, joking together.
“That's fair,” Steve says, smiling in spite of himself.
“But I'll protect you,” the stranger says, and that's when something strikes through Steve, bright and loud, and when he looks at the stranger—just a boy, taller than himself, but probably younger—he sees fire and wings.
Steve thinks he might be crazy, but there is no denying what is right before his eyes. “You're—”
“Name's James Buchanan Barnes,” he says. “Call me Bucky.”
“I'm the guy who's gonna look out for you.”
“But you're a little kid. How are you a kid?” Steve asks. He is walking back to back to the building, as fast as his short legs will carry him, Bucky right on his heels. Steve is rushing, but he doesn't break a sweat to keep up.
“Looks kind of weird when there's a grown man following a kid your age around,” Bucky says. Steve can hear the smirk in his voice without turning around.
“And what kind of name is Bucky, anyway?” Steve asks.
“My name,” Bucky says, cheerful.
Steve shakes his head, but for the first time since Sarah's death—he laughs.
“Are they all going to know?” Steve says in an exaggerated whisper, creeping up the stairs to his fifth floor apartment. He isn't sure, but Steve thinks his lungs ache less than usual.
Bucky's laugh reverberates. “Nah. Only special people can tell. Th' ones with second sight, and the good ones like you. Those ones will all know well enough to keep quiet.”
Steve isn't sure where the sudden need for subterfuge springs from, but something deep in his bones says that Bucky's supposed to be his secret. “Listen to your bones” was something his mother said, combing out her hair or sewing patches into their clothing, her strong and bony hands always working, her voice, with its rich, lilting accent, always teaching him. “Your bones will never lie.” The memory turns sour in a moment—his mother's hands will never straighten Steve's collar again. She will never be cross at Steve's penmanship, will never tack his drawings onto the wall, beaming like he's painted her something worthy of the Met. They will never go to the museum together again, and Steve will never have her colcannon or her corned beef, accompanied by stories of the place she and Steve's father were born.
The unfairness of it all is overwhelming, and Steve fights back the bitter tears until it hurts, walking the steps one at a time, Bucky trailing behind him. He can't cry, not with somebody watching, but the grief refuses to be tamped down. The poisonous thing has a life of its own, and Steve wonders if grief is a spirit, if there is something he can name and warn away with salt and prayers from his mother's old, crumbling Irish Bible, or the book of Celtic charms that rests on the shelf beside it, older still.
Steve can't cry with someone—with Bucky—watching, but he can't hold back another moment. Steve does the only thing he can do—he runs, up the stairs and struggling for breath, his legs made of lead. He hardly makes it to the next landing before crumpling against a wall, sobbing and on the brink of an attack. It's unfair and it hurts—it hurts so much that he will never see her again.
“It's okay to be sad, you know,” Bucky says, sitting down by Steve's side. “You don't gotta hide it from me.” He wraps his arm around Steve's shoulders. The pain in his chest begins to subside—the grief doesn't go away, but it somehow gets easier to carry. Steve backs away from the brink of the attack.
Bucky gives him a minute, and then helps Steve to his feet. Saying nothing, he lets Steve lead him back home.
Later that night, laying in the big, empty bed where his mother died (the sheets have been burned and the room has been smudged; it is safe), Steve is more than relieved when Bucky joins him.
“Can you fly?” Steve whispers into the dark. “I saw your wings.”
Bucky chuckles. “Yes and no.”
“What does that mean?”
“It's complicated. I can fly; this body can't.”
“Not everyone can see the wings, you know,” Bucky says. “You're special.”
“So you couldn't fly, even if you really had to?”
“If I really had to. If I really had to, I could fly.”
Bucky settles in like he's been there Steve's whole life, and as promised, he goes largely undetected.
The especially magical residents of the building know, of course—Miss Sitheach gives Steve the kind of crooked smile that says they're sharing a secret when Bucky comes with him to bring her a thank-you note. They go, also together, to retrieve a fresh batch of the medicine that Hausis, the Lenape healer, mixes up for Steve, from her apartment, which is filled with pots of green and growing things. She refuses any attempts at payment, as always, and gives Bucky a sharp look and says, “Watch out for the ones with the sight. Those are the people who get your kind into trouble.”
Bucky gives her a polite nod and a thanks, coupled with one of his winning smiles.
When Steve has an attack, crying his eyes out into the pillow later that night, Bucky's there with the fresh medicine, and with a cool, reassuring hand on Steve's back. When it's passed, Bucky makes Steve laugh so hard his stomach hurts, telling him stories about guardian angel training.
Steve's never thought too hard about what it might be like to have a guardian angel. As it turns out, it's quite like having a friend.
Steve sees another angel for the first time a few weeks later. She is a tall, serious woman, and she guides a small girl—clearly her charge—by the hand. Steve remembers what Bucky told him, that it would look strange for a little kid to have a grownup for an angel, but no one looks at them twice. Passerby without the sight just see a mother and her child.
Steve thinks about it for a long time, but he figures it out. That little girl had needed a mother; Steve needed somebody like Bucky by his side.
Mr. Rourke, who lives across the hall and three doors over, brings a new wife home, and it's the talk of the building. He is one of Steve's least favorite neighbors—a red-faced man with a mean streak and a sharp mind—and Steve cannot understand what she, a pale, sad-eyed woman, lovely with a fierce intelligence in her eyes, could possibly seen in him. She certainly does not look happy, when Mr. Rourke parades her around the building, smiling his bullish smile from ear to ear.
Steve complains to Bucky that something seems fishy about the whole thing—such a young, pretty lady, marrying a man like that, and a newlywed so unhappy.
“Fishy's the right word, pal,” Bucky says. “She's a selkie.” Bucky's much too proud of himself for the pun, but when he says the word, “selkie,” his voice is full of wonder.
A selkie snared into life on land is something to wonder at, indeed, a sight unlikely to be seen twice by the same pair of eyes. Steve pays careful attention to the new bride's behavior, seeing everything she does from a fresh perspective. Mrs. Rourke's sad eyes are longing for the sea, and her placid acceptance of the situation just means she's waiting—biding her time until she can follow Mr. Rourke to wherever he's hiding her skin.
Except the days go by, and nothing changes. Mr. Rourke parades his young wife around the building every chance he gets, and Steve never sees her sneak out of the house to follow him anywhere, no matter how much he watches their door.
“Why doesn't she leave?” Steve asks,
Bucky shrugs. “Maybe she can't.”
Steve thinks about those words a long time, laying awake in the bed he and his mother used to share, Bucky sound asleep by his side. If Mrs. Rourke wants to go back to the sea, and cannot do it on her own, Steve is going to help.
The next morning, Steve is up at the crack of dawn to watch Mr. Rourke head for the docks. He sneaks out of bed quietly, so as not to disturb Bucky's rest. When there has been time enough for him to descend all five stories' worth of stairs, Steve creeps across the hallway to try his door. It's locked, but Steve has found himself locked out without a key (through means of absent mind or foul play), with hours to go before his mother was scheduled to return home, enough times to pick up some clever uses for the safety pin he keeps hidden on the inside of his sleeve.
The lock is similar enough to his own that Steve makes quick work of it. He opens the door, and peaks inside, cautious. The Rourkes' apartment is very quiet and dim, the heavy curtains in the living room drawn. A narrow stream of light illuminates sparkling motes of dust. If Steve didn't know better, he would guess that there was no one inside, especially not a lady of the house. Steve's own mother treated dusting like it was a religion—though that had more to do with the weak lungs they shared than anything else.
Still hearing nothing, Steve tiptoes inside. He shuts the door behind him, lest seeing it cracked should arouse any suspicion. The living room is as empty as it looked from outside. There's no hint of life in the kitchen, but Steve checks, just in case. Only the bedroom remains, and Steve knows that he is well past the bounds of propriety already, but something—be it curiosity or intuition—overrides his sense of decency.
Steve knocks first. When there is no response, he makes to open the door. It's locked, and it seems like Steve's quest is at an end. He's ready to turn and leave before he realizes something strange—the lock is on the outside. Something fearful and dreadful clenches in Steve's chest. He goes for his safety pin, before he realizes that it's unnecessary—the key hangs on a little metal hook, a few inches away from the door.
Steve knows, without knowing why, that he is about to witness something that he will never be able to un-see. He knows, also, that there is one right thing to do: continue.
Steve takes a deep breath, and opens the door.
Steve has understood, on some level, that there were bad people in the world—he's certainly seen enough children picking on the small and weak to understand that cruelty plays its part in human nature. He's never imagined that any person would ever do something like this.
Mrs. Rourke sits on the floor, one bony wrist cuffed to the radiator under the window. She is wearing a white nightgown—fabric unlaundered and turning grey. Beside her, there is a glass of water, a plate of food (untouched), and a chamber pot (blessedly empty). Her hair hangs over her face—dark, like seaweed floating in the water—but it falls away when she looks up at Steve, her eyes listless. She doesn't say anything.
Faced with the worst thing he has ever seen in his life, Steve thinks of his mother, who taught him to stand up for anyone who couldn't stand up for themselves. He squares his shoulders and jaw, walks into the room, and tells Mrs. Rourke (he wishes he had some other name to call her, it seems so wrong that she should bear that awful man's name), “Hello, ma'am. I'm sorry to interrupt, but I just wanted to tell you—I'm going to find your skin.”
She looks up at him, smiling a sad, far-away kind of smile. “You're just a pup. He'll hurt you if he catches you trying.”
“That doesn't matter,” Steve says. “Him treatin' you like this—'s not right.”
Mrs. Rourke laughs—a sad, cynical sound. There is a gust of wind, the kind that makes all the fire escape and all the building's windows rattle. The bedroom door slams shut. Steve tries to grab for it, but it's too late—the building is eccentric, and the doors have the most terrible habit of locking when slammed. Hoping against hope, he tries twisting the knob, but it's no use. Steve is locked in.
Steve curses under his breath. His mother taught him not to swear, but he figures that there are exceptions to that particular rule. Being locked up in the home of a cruel, cruel man, having discovered the truth of his horrible nature would have to be one of them.
Mrs. Rourke looks at Steve, her eyes large and determined. “I will tell him I called you here with my song. I will not let him blame you.”
“That ain't fair,” Steve says. “I came here snooping. It's my fault. I gotta take the blame.”
“You fool,” she hisses, teeth bared like the wild thing Steve knows her to be. “Do you have any idea what he will do to you? I can smell the weakness in your lungs from here. You have no parents for him to answer to.”
Steve swallows. “Maybe I can find another way out.” He peers out the window. It's a futile task, of course—there's no balconies close, and the fire escape is further still. Steve sinks to the floor by Mrs. Rourke's side. “'s a long time before he comes home. Maybe I'll think of something.”
Mrs. Rourke pats his arm. “You're an odd pup. I doubt you'd live to be full grown, in the water.”
“Lotsa people doubt I'll live to be full grown on land, too...”
She shoves the plate of food towards Steve. “Maybe if you put some more meat on those bones.”
“I can't accept this, ma'am,” Steve tells her. He's always been skin and bones, anyway, during the good times and the lean alike. He wonders if Mrs. Rourke has seal children waiting for her, somewhere in the ocean.
“I can hardly stomach this land food. It's dry and tastes like nothing,” she says. “He works by the water.” The longing in her voice when she says the word is overwhelming. “He brings raw fish, some days. Real food.”
Steve wrinkles his nose at the thought. “Maybe later,” he says, of the food in front of him. At present, the fear churning his stomach makes the act of eating impossible. There's seven, perhaps eight, hours until Mr. Rourke comes home from the docks and finds Steve stowed away in his bedroom.
For all that Steve has plenty of time, he has very little in the way of options.
“I could try calling for help,” he suggests.
Mrs. Rourke shakes her head. “Humans talk even more than seals. He'll know you were here, and it will be no better.”
Steve says, “But maybe they can help you.”
“I will not have a pup sacrifice itself for my freedom.”
Steve frowns. He doesn't have a good response.
“And who's to say whoever comes will want to help me, anyway? Some people say that a selkie who gets caught deserves to stay caught,” Mrs. Rourke says.
Steve shakes his head. “Well, whoever says that is wrong.”
Mrs. Rourke chuckles, but does not respond. There is a clock above the bed, and Steve watches the seconds tick by, turning into minutes. His mother taught him to tell time. “When the little arrow is on the six, and the big arrow is on the twelve, I will come home,” Sarah would say. Those were the good days. The bad days, she would work into the night, work her fragile body to exhaustion, and her hard hands to the bone. The memories hurt. Steve wonder if he'll ever be able to think of Sarah without hurting again—that fear grips his heart tighter than the impending doom of Mr. Rourke's arrival ever could.
Steve hides his face in his bony knees. He's afraid that he might cry, and he doesn't want her to see. He stays like a while, sad and scared and curled in on himself. Mrs. Rourke understands grief—she lets him be.
Steve is startled out of his sorrow by a rattling at the front door. He looks at the clock—scarcely half an hour has passed. It can't possibly be Mr. Rourke coming home, except he could have forgotten something, could have fallen ill on the job, or thrown out his back, or gotten laid off—it certainly happens often enough, these days. There's any number of reasons he might be coming home, and Steve's heart seizes up in his chest. Steve scrambles for something to tell him, but his mind is filled with nothing but static and fear.
The front door creaks on, and there is rapid footfall heading straight for the bedroom, growing louder and closer. Time slows down. Steve's lungs start to ache, and he wills himself to breathe through the growing panic. This will be so much worse if he has an attack.
The bedroom door bursts open. Steve straightens his back and grits his teeth, preparing for whatever is to come. He looks up. Standing there, hair a mess and grey-blue eyes wide with anger and fear, is not Mr. Rourke, but Bucky. “You're alright,” Bucky breathes. He's staring at Steve, intense and intent. “What were you thinkin', sneaking here alone. What if he'd come home, and I hadn't found you—” He looks, for the first time, at Mrs. Rourke, at the untouched plate, and her wrist chained to the radiator. His eyes soften. “It's still a stupid thing you did.”
Bucky rushes over to Steve's side, and helps him off the floor. His hand on Steve's back soothes the ache in his chest. Steve looks at Mrs. Rourke. She's looking up at Bucky, trying to read him, trying to understand what he might be. “Bucky, but—”
Bucky says,“Let's get outta here before someone else catches us.”
“You can't stop me helpin' her,” Steve says, stubborn.
“But I'll stop you doing it without me,” Bucky says. “And you can't help her from here. We'll follow him to her skin.”
Steve smiles at him, bright and unabashed, until Bucky gives in and smiles back. “We'll find it,” he promises to Mrs. Rourke. “We'll find it and we'll return it to you.”
Bucky takes Steve by the wrist, and Steve lets himself be led towards the door. He can't stop turning back, and Bucky stops their two-person caravan before it's time to shut the bedroom.
Mrs. Rourke looks from Steve to Bucky and back again. “I think you'll survive to be an adult,” she says.
“What were you thinkin', going off alone like that,” Bucky says, the moment they're back in the safety of their own home. He gives Steve a light smack to the back of the head. “I wake up, feel you scared half-to-death. You tryin' to kill me or something, pal?”
Steve gives him a miserable shrug—he really does feel bad for frightening Bucky. “I figured you'd stop me going. You're supposed to keep me outta trouble, and all that.” But he doesn't feel bad for what he did. “My mother raised me up to stand up for people who needed help, and that's always what I'm gonna do, even if it's dangerous.
“Keep you outta trouble? Do I look like St. Jude to you?” Bucky says. “'Cause I've met a few saints in my time, and if I do, that ain't flattering.”
“So what would you have done?” Steve says, looking up at him, expectant.
Bucky bites his lip, and lays a hand on Steve's shoulder. “Steve, you're—you're my first assignment, didja know that? They told us and told us how good our humans were gonna be, but nothin' they said coulda prepared me for you. I'd never try and stop you being who you are.”
Steve looks away. He can feel the heat rising in his cheeks. Of all the things Steve expected Bucky to say, none of it was anything like that. “I'm your first human?”
“Yeah,” Bucky says, smiling that crooked, cocky smile. He reaches out and ruffles Steve's hair. “C'mon, let's go eat something. And then we can make a plan to help your selkie get her skin—together.”
“'Kay,” Steve says, still blushing.
They reheat one of the infinite casseroles Steve was given after his mother's funeral. After a few mouthfuls of food, Steve regains some of his composure. “You know, I would've figured out away outta there myself, eventually.”
“Sure you woulda, Stevie,” Bucky says. “Sure you woulda.”
Planning goes faster than anticipated.
“He's gotta be watering her skin,” Bucky says.
“Which means that we can follow him to it,” Steve adds. “He probably goes before or after work.”
Bucky nods. “And he's gotta be going at least a couple-a times a week.”
“We'll go to the docks at five?”
“We'll go to the docks at five.”
They go to the docks at five, and wind up hiding behind a crate for two hours.
“How did the lucky bastard get overtime in this economy?” Bucky whispers, not nearly as quiet as he thinks he is. (Though it is true—times have gotten hard. On their way in, they saw a whole line of men, sitting and waiting on the off chance that a job might open up).
Steve jabs him in the ribs.
“You're pointy,” Bucky says.
It's a small miracle they don't get caught. A pair of young boys sneaking around on the docks is unlikely to arouse much suspicion, but Steve is none too keen on the idea of having the foreman drag them out of the way by the ears—and the longer they go undetected by Mr. Rourke, the better their chances of helping his wife.
Rourke leaves the docks at seven, and Steve and Bucky follow him, at a very reasonable distance—to a local watering hole, where a good deal of the dock-workers go to leave a chunk of their paychecks. Steve thinks of Mrs. Rourke, still chained to that radiator, and he wants to be sick.
Rourke goes straight back home from the bar, and Steve fumes over a late dinner of—you guessed it—reheated casserole. “'s not okay, him leaving her chained up all day like that. Not on the same planet as okay.”
“I know, Stevie,” Bucky says, soothing.
“And him going to the bar after? Knowing she was at home like that? It's like she's not even a person to him!” Steve takes out his rage on the food, stabbing it harder with his fork than is strictly necessary.
Bucky frowns. “Magical beings aren't, you know, according to some people. Some people just wanna use us as tools.”
“Well, those people are wrong,” Steve says, burning with it—with Mrs. Rourke, with the idea that someone might look at Bucky and see him as a thing.
“I'm a real lucky angel, winding up with someone who cares so much,” Bucky says, “but you gotta calm down, Stevie. Gonna work yourself into an attack.”
He's right, and Steve briefly hates him for it. He takes a deep, calming breath, filling his sub-par lungs. “I just—I never knew anyone was that bad, is all.”
“We'll help her,” Bucky says, something stormy in his eyes. “He ain't getting away with this—I promise.”
Bucky shakes Steve awake at the first hint of light, and they follow Mr. Rourke out of the building. He goes straight to the docks. It's gorgeous there in the pink light of early morning, but the beautiful sunrise sees them no closer to finding the selkie skin.
Steve and Bucky spend a few hours running around the city—they throw rocks into the ocean, and then Bucky produces a nickel out of his pocket. They spend it at the bakery. Steve hadn't realized just how much he missed the taste of food that wasn't casserole until the moment he was biting into a warm bun. It's a perfect summer day—a moment of pure, childish glee, almost wholly un-tainted by grief. Steve's heart is the lightest it's felt since the moment he first realized that his mother's sickness was going to be her last.
They return to the docks at the end of the work day, but again, Mr. Rourke heads to the bar, and then home.
The next few days pass in much the same manner. They note all of Rourke's comings and goings, but none of them seem to include the skin.
“I don't get it,” Bucky says, back home after yet another evening of lurking outside the bar. “He's gotta be watering her skin—she'd be dead by now, if he wasn't. And she ain't.”
They've snuck in to visit Mrs. Rourke again and make sure.
“Well if he's gotta be taking care of the skin, and we've been watching him whenever he ain't at the dock,” Steve says, “maybe he's got it stashed at the dock somewhere.”
“'s gonna be risky, watchin' him all day, but it's worth a shot,” Bucky says.
They prepare for their mission with great trepidation. Bucky packs lunches—slices of some kind of egg-heavy casserole between slices of bread. Steve is almost too excited to sleep, but Bucky's cool hand on his back quiets him down enough to close his eyes.
Following Rourke to work is routine by now—they know which streets he takes, and can stay far back enough to avoid even the chance of detection.
Hiding out all day at the docks proves to be a more challenging task. They find a nice, dark hiding place to lay flat in straight away—within easy view of the workers, far enough away to be safe, but close enough that they can distinguish Rourke from the pack. Were they just a little bit older, the stake out would have been a resounding success. However, Steve and Bucky are young and they get restless in the tight space and bored watching Rourke carry crates, and restless boredom makes for playful boys who won't stop poking each other in the ribs, and whose attempts to stifle their giggling fall absolutely flat when faced with the foreman's keen gaze and sharp ears.
They are hauled out of hiding by arms that are wiry from decades of labor. “What're yous kids doing here? Causin' trouble on my docks?”
Faced with the unhappy prospect of losing another day, and the risk of detection by Rourke—currently busy hauling a crate onto the ship—Steve elects to play a card that he tries to avoid using. “No trouble, sir,” Steve says. “Just wanted to watch the workers.” He lets out a feeble cough. “I wanna be strong just like 'em—and just like you—when I grow up.”
The foreman's tight grip on their wrists loosens. Bucky's eyes are bulging out of his skull, but he gets with the program quickly. “It's true, you know. 's his dream.” He drops his voice to an exaggerated whisper. “The doctors say it's good for him to dream.”
The foreman eyes Steve's sallow skin and bony frame. “I suppose there ain't no harm in it, long as you two don't get underfoot.”
“We'll be real quiet,” Steve promises, “keep hiding just like we were.”
Bucky nods, real earnest like. “We won't be any trouble, we swear.”
“Stay outta the way of the crates,” the foreman says. “They're real heavy. You two boys could get hurt.”
He walks away, and Steve and Bucky skitter back to their hiding place, just in time to watch Rourke return for another load. “You've got a bit of the devil in you, Stevie,” Bucky whispers. “I shouldn't like that as much as I do.”
There's no further excitement until lunch, when all of them men sit down and pull out their paper-wrapped sandwiches, and Steve and Bucky follow suit. Rourke wolfs his food down in double-time, and then separates from the pack. Steve and Bucky exchange an eager glance, and abandon what's left of their sandwiches to whatever brownies might dwell at the docks. Steve watched his mother scrounge for pennies to put a meal on the table enough times that leaving food behind is not an action he takes lightly, but the mission is far more important.
Rourke gives a suspicious glance around, to make sure he isn't being followed. Luckily—he's not looking for a pair of young boys, and so he does not notice when they creep after him. They're easy to miss in all the bustle. He leads them to an abandoned-looking, rickety little dinghy tied up at one of the smaller docks. Steve and Bucky hide behind the sandbags and watch as he hops down and moves aside the burlap covering the boat. There's a little pail, which Mr. Rourke fills with saltwater.
Steve has to bite down a cry of elation when he sees Rourke pour the water over spotted seal-skin.
Rourke covers the boat up, and starts to climb back onto the dock, and Steve and Bucky retreat quickly—there'll be no way to escape detection if they stay where they are when he passes them. Bucky drags Steve, whose body—much to his consternation—is growing weary, by the wrist, all the way to the nearest larger dock, where they can hide a moment, and regroup.
“We found it!” Steve says, a little out of breath.
Bucky smiles. “Yeah, yeah we did.”
They retrace Rourke's steps and return to the skin the moment Steve's breathing quiets, and they're sure that Rourke is well out of the way. Bucky jumps down onto the dinghy first, offering Steve a hand to help him follow suit. Steve accepts—people trying to help him out has always felt condescending, but it isn't like that with Bucky.
“You wanna do the honors?” Bucky says, moving the burlap out of the way.
Steve grins. Heart pounding in his chest, he bends down to pick up the skin—Mrs. Rourke's skin. He's certain Mr. Rourke is going to appear out of nowhere at any second. It's smooth and soft to the touch, not like anything Steve has felt before. He offers it up to Bucky. “Feel.”
Bucky obliges, smiling. “You did it, Stevie.”
“We did it,” Steve says. He has a sudden, sobering thought. “Wait, how're we gonna sneak this home.”
Bucky frowns. He looks from his own empty hands to the contents of the dinghy. Steve can see the cogs of his brain working. Bucky pulls a small knife from his pocket, and cuts away a square of he burlap. Together, he and Steve carefully wrap up the skin, before putting the parcel in the pail.
Bucky climbs off the boat, and offers Steve a hand up. With Bucky, it doesn't feel condescending—it feels like having a partner.
Steve spends every minute of the walk home looking over his shoulder. Not for the first—or, indeed, hundredth—time in his life, he wishes he could run without his lungs turning against him. It wouldn't help with the paranoia, but it would get the creeping feeling over and done with faster.
They make it back to the building without incident, and once inside, are stopped only for a quick chat with Mrs. Matsushita—Bucky swears up and down she has the sight, but Steve isn't sure.
They don't bother stopping in at the apartment, just go straight to the Rourkes' once Steve's lungs have stopped aching from the long climb. He's so excited that he keeps fumbling with the safety pin. It takes him three tries to unlock the front door.
Mrs. Rourke is leaning up against the wall, her eyes closed in quiet contemplation, when Steve and Bucky burst into the bedroom. She gives them a weary smile. “Good afternoon, boys,” she says. Steve takes in the seaweed-dark tint of her hair, and the perfect shape of her brown eyes. It is, perhaps—maybe even hopefully—the last time he will see her pretty face.
“We found it!” Steve says, unable to contain his ebullience a moment longer.
There's a magical sort of silence that follows Steve's announcement. The glimmering flecks of dust in the air turn gold. A look of soft, relieved surprise washes over Mrs. Rourke's face, sweeping away the dull, listless boredom. She undergoes a subtle sort of transformation—precursor to the more sweeping one to follow. Her hair and skin regain a luster Steve did not realize that they were missing. She holds her head high. Mrs. Rourke smiles, and her teeth look sharper, a little bit more dangerous and wild. Her voice shakes with excitement when she says, “Show it to me.”
Bucky, who's got the pail, shifts around the burlap so she can see. Mrs. Rourke takes a shaky, delighted, breath, and reaches out. Bucky hands the precious package over. “We just gotta get you outta those cuffs, and then you can go.”
“I'll chew through my wrist if necessary,” she says, very matter-of-fact.
Steve shudders at the mental image. “Might be a little hasty. I've never picked handcuffs, but it's gotta be worth a try...”
Bucky shakes his head. “I've got this.”
Steve hands over the safety pin, and Bucky goes to work. It doesn't take him very long at all. Mrs. Rourke rubs her wrist with a bright and feral grin.
“I didn't know you knew how to do that,” Steve says.
Bucky shrugs. “I'm your guardian angel. Can do anything I gotta do, so long as it's to keep you safe.”
Steve says, “But how was that keeping me safe?”
“If I hadn't 've done it, you'd have stayed here for hours trying, until Mr. Rourke came home,” Bucky says, “woulda put yourself in danger.”
Steve cannot deny the truth of Bucky's statement. Bucky knows him to his bones, and that's a warm, lovely feeling.
Mrs. Rourke rises to her feet, holding the pail. “Would you two like to see me off?”
“You mean—see you change?” Steve asks, his eyes wide. The prospect of seeing a selkie transform is too exciting to even consider passing by.
Mrs. Rourke gives him a nod, and an indulgent smile. Bucky, however, frowns. Steve, who has been ill for most of his young life, has seen that look a hundred times on the faces of well-meaning adults, and doesn't have to ask why. It's a look that says, “Are you sure you're strong enough to do this?” and “Haven't you worn yourself out enough?”
It's a familiar expression, but on Bucky's face—it hurts.
Steve tries to tamp down his hurt feelings, but it clearly . “Hey, Steve – no. I didn't mean it like that. We're goin'--of course we are. 's just, I'm gonna worry about you. 'Cause that's my job. Now, we better go quick—before Mr. Rourke gets wise to the skin bein' gone and comes running home.”
Mrs. Rourke sets the pace on their way to the waterfront—and it is a punishing one—grueling, for Steve, though he would never admit it, no matter how he was pressed. He's certain that Bucky knows, anyway.
It's worth it, of course. Mrs. Rourke leads them to a secluded, pebbly beach not far from the docks. Her whole face lights up when they reach the water, like she's been reunited with a part of her that was missing. She takes her skin from the pail, which she sets down on the rough sand. “If you children ever need help, cry seven tears into the ocean,” Mrs. Rourke says. “I'll do whatever I can. It's the very least that I can do. Thank you both.” She gives Steve a hard look. “Seven tears, you understand? Stay out of trouble.” Bucky is next. “And that goes for you, too.”
She waits for both of them to nod.
“Goodbye, Mrs. Rourke,” Steve says.
Bucky says, “Bye, m'am.”
“Goodbye,” Mrs. Rourke says, and then she steps into the see. The transformation is almost instant—the skin envelops her whole body and shifts and changes her bones, and she swims away, back where she belongs—free.
Steve is elated, but also just a bit sad. He has few enough friends in the world that watching one disappear into the ocean is hard, even if it's also right.
“You okay, Stevie?” Bucky asks.
Steve nods, and wraps his thin arms around himself. “It's just, I never got to ask her what her true name was. It seems wrong to call her by his name, after the things that he did.”
“I doubt you'd be able to pronounce the selkie tongue, pal,” Bucky says, throwing an arm around Steve's shoulders. “Now come on, let's get you home.”
They take the walk back just a bit at a time, for which Steve is grateful. Steve would never have asked for that, and Bucky doesn't make him. Once home, they have a quick meal, and Steve falls asleep straight away after, predictably exhausted. When Steve rises from the embarrassing, if necessary, nap, he pulls out the sketchbook and pencils his mother got him for his birthday, and does some drawing in bed. Bucky watches over his shoulder crows over every line on the page while Steve tries not to blush.
There's a pounding at the door at ten o'clock at night. Steve, half-asleep with his face on the sketchbook, jerks awake. He crawls out of bed and heads to investigate.
“I know you're in there!” a man shouts. He's furious, his voice slurred by drink. “I know you're the one who did it!”
Steve realizes, with a start, that the voice belongs to Mr. Rourke. He shakes off what's left of sleep straight away. Bucky materializes by his side from somewhere in the kitchen.
“Open up, kid!” Mr. Rourke yells. “I know it was you!” He's hitting the door so hard Steve fears it might splinter at any moment.
“He ain't gonna leave,” Steve whispers, cold fear creeping up his spine. “I'll talk to him—make 'im see reason. 'Fore he breaks down the door.
Bucky shakes his head. “He ain't gonna see reason, Stevie.” He pushes Steve behind himself with a protective arm. “I've gotta try and fix this. Will ya let me?”
“We'll fix it together,” Steve says, but he lets Bucky shield him.
Bucky reaches back and squeezes Steve's hand. “You ready?”
“Ease up on the door, ya brute!” Bucky says. “And then we'll open up.”
The door stops rattling, and Bucky, true to his word, opens up. Rourke charges in—he stinks of cheap whiskey and sweat, and his face is red with rage. Steve's skin prickles with loathing at the sight of him, and perhaps, just a touch of fear. Bucky doesn't budge, just looks the bastard (Steve's mother taught him not to swear, but he's sure there's exceptions to the rule, and what other words are there for a man who thinks it's alright to chain a woman to a radiator just because she's something other than human) in the eye, cool as anything, and says, “What do ya want, buddy?”
“My wife,” Rourke roars. “I know yer the ones who let her loose.”
“We ain't never had a thing to do with your wife,” Bucky says. For an angel, he's a very apt liar.
Rourke doesn't seem to hear, else, he just ignores him. “I oughta whoop the both of ya—show you, stickin' yer noses where they don't belong. Wasn't any of your business, little brats.”
“From where I stand, it don't look like you've got much in the way of proof,” Bucky says. “A hundred people in this building, any one of whom coulda taken exception to the way you were treatin' your wife—who's to say it was us.”
Rourke takes a step closer. Steve almost gags at the sweat-and-whiskey smell permeating his nostrils. “Mrs. Caras saw youse two messin' with my door.”
“An' you trust everything that batty old crone says?” Bucky challenges.
Steve peaks out over his shoulder. “He's right, you know. Mrs. Caras ain't as sharp as she used to be, these days.” She is, actually—sharp as a tack, and mean as a snake—a particularly apt description if the rumors that she's a quarter lamia are true.
“This nosy brat has had a beatin' coming his way for years!” Rourke grabs for Steve.
Steve's not sure how it happens—Bucky moves too fast—but before Rourke even comes close to touching him, his hand has been knocked out of the way. Bucky's got his knife out. His physical body looks all of ten, but at that moment, he looks every inch the avenging angel. Steve can see the wings. “You touch him, pal, and I'll make you regret ever lookin' at him,” Bucky says, his voice a low growl. His age only makes the display more terrifying.
Rourke takes a step back. It's more of a stumble. “Jesus Christ, you're insane.”
“You wanna find out how insane?” Bucky hisses, brandishing the knife with a smile.
Steve says, “Didn't your mother ever teach you not to take the lord's name in vain?”
Rourke backs out the door, and starts down the hall.
“That's what I thought,” Bucky says. He closes the door, and locks it, before looking at Steve, eyes wide and uncertain. “I didn't scare you, did I?”
Steve shakes his head. “You were amazing.”
Bucky smiles, just a little bit shy. “Come on—bed. If you can sleep, after all that excitement.”
Rourke is still in the building, still angry and drunk, and sure to go looking for his revenge again soon, but Steve falls asleep feeling safer than he ever has in his entire life.
Steve knew it was going to be bad when he saw the look on Mrs. McNeil's face. Perhaps his mother's closest friend—the one they sat next to every weekend at church—she hasn't looked that stricken since Sarah's funeral.
Steve knew it was going to be bad, but he didn't think it was going to be this.
“I'm sorry, Steve,” Mrs. McNeil says. She's lived in America since she was a child, but there's still a faint hint of Irish brogue in her accent, and it makes Steve ache for his mother's lilting voice. “We all knew this was going to happen sooner or later, but we wanted to keep you in the buildin'—in your home—as long as possible. But, with certain voices in the buildin' now...It ain't possible, not anymore.”
Steve doesn't say anything, because there isn't anything to say.
“Sister Mary Grace, who runs the Catholic children's home, she's a good woman,” Mrs. McNeil says. “We took First Communion together, back when she was just plain old Molly Byrne.”
“She'll keep you and your friend together—I already talked to her.”
Steve nods again. He looks over at Bucky, who's watching from the corner, a helpless, brokenhearted look in his eyes.
“If there's anything of yer mother's you want to keep from the house, but can't take with you, me and the other ladies will hold onto it for you.” She reaches out, and squeezes Steve's shoulder.
Steve takes a deep breath. “How long do I have?”
“Three days,” Mrs. McNeil says. “I'm so sorry—Lord help me, I've let your mother down. Me an' the others had to fight for even that much. R—the ones leadin' the charge to get you out said they'd be callin' child services about a young boy alone.”
Steve shakes his head. “No, you haven't let her down. I always—I always knew I'd have to go eventually. Summer's almost over. School woulda found out, and Mr. Lacey needs someone who can pay rent, besides.”
“You're a good boy, Steve,” she says, ruffling his hair. “Someone will bring by boxes.”
“Boxes,” Steve echoes.
Mrs. McNeil drags him in for a hug that lingers to long and offers him no comfort. This is the apartment Steve's lived in all his life, the place where all he has left of his mother is collected. The thought of leaving it makes him sick. Steve's dizzy with the effort of holding back the tears. His lungs feel tight. It's true, of course, that he's always known he'd have to leave, but that was a far-off, to-be-determined date. Now, he's got three days left in the only home he's ever known.
Mrs. McNeil leaves, that sad look still on her face. Steve hardly notices her go.
“Steve, Stevie,” Bucky says, “I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry, I should have—I should have known. I should have found a way.”
Steve is sitting on the floor, leaned up against the door, struggling for air. Bucky crouches by his side. “I'm the worst guardian angel 'n the world,” Bucky says, “I ain't—I ain't half of what you deserve.”
“Don't—” Steve says, wheezing, “don't you dare say that.”
Bucky's face screws up, like he's trying not to cry. He strokes Steve's back, takes Steve's hand, cradling blue-tinged fingers. They stay like that, together, until Steve's attack subsides. Bucky lets Steve get a few good lung-fulls of air before pulling him close. He hides his face in Bucky's shoulder and sobs—the place he's at now, it's beyond pride.
He doesn't know how much time passes, Bucky holding him, whispering near-silent apologies into his hair. Steve lets himself cry for a while, but somewhere in the grief, which feels a little bit like losing his mother all over, he finds clarity. Steve untangles himself from Bucky's warm grasp, and rises to his feet. “There's a lot to do. I have to decide what to keep.”
Steve's last few days in the only home he's ever known are a blur of activity. He finds something therapeutic in sorting through all of Sarah's things; and when all is said and done, he's got a box he's taking with him, and a few more that he distributes among his mother's friends, who have promised to keep them safe. (Though truth be told, the way the economy is going, Steve's not sure he will ever see anything in those boxes again). The rest, Steve gives away. Bucky helps, but he also knows when to stay out of the way.
There were some parts of his home Steve just had to dismantle alone, but Steve is mighty glad to have Bucky there and close that last night, when everything is bare and packed away.
Mr. Lacey comes by in the morning to help bring the boxes where they belong. “If it were up to me, kid, he'd be the one goin', and not you,” he says. “Would you like a boot? Take the domovoi with you?”
Steve shakes his head. “In the orphanage, where would he go?” He hasn't seen the spirit since his mother died, anyway.
“When you're grown, there'll be a place for you here,” Mr. Lacey says, “if you want.”
“Thank you,” Steve says.
Mrs. McNeil and her husband are in the hall, ready to take Steve and Bucky to the boys' home. Steve has said his goodbyes, to everyone and everything that matters. He does not keep them waiting.
“'s not so bad,” Steve whispers to Bucky. It's lights out on their first night—and really, it's not home, but it could be worse. They're bunking together. It's chilly, but Steve's got Bucky to huddle with him for warmth. The boys around them are sound asleep.
Bucky still hasn't quite shaken the stricken look that's been stuck on his face since Steve first got the news that they were getting the boot.
“Are the nuns all gonna know about you?” Steve asks.
Bucky shakes his head.
“But shouldn't they all be—and have—?”
Bucky's laugh is soft. Steve has missed it. “Lemme tell you somethin', pal. Most people ain't half so good as they think they are, and ain't a fourth as good as they pretend to be.”
“Even nuns. Bet there'll be three sisters in this place who know what I am, total.”
“Oh yeah,” Bucky says. “One will have the second sight—kinda strange pick of jobs for someone with the sight, but there's always one. Another'll have an angel of her own. Third'll just be pure of heart. Three.”
“Wanna bet on it?” Steve whispers.
“If you wanna lose your money.”
They wind up being shushed by Sister Theresa, who definitely knows what Bucky is, as well as the nature of his connection to Steve. She isn't impressed.
However, in the morning, during prayers, when Bucky realizes that Sister Theresa is a siren, he definitely is. The wholly unexpected presence of a siren in a holy order throws Bucky's count, winning Steve the bet—a first, and probably a last, given the things that Bucky can do with a deck of cards.
Steve thinks that maybe, maybe the two of them will be alright.
The disadvantages of living in an orphanage reveal themselves quickly enough. An end-of-the-summer cold sweeps through the ranks of the children, and everyone else who comes down with it shakes it off with no trouble at all. Steve, with his asthmatic lungs and his weak body, more fragile than ever after months of grief, is not so lucky. When everyone else is well, he is still shivering and sweating, chest too tight, rattling cough wracking his frame.
The nuns exchange concerned looks about Steve's temperature and how much trouble he is having breathing and the palpitations of heart. Steve, when he is awake, and not half-delirious with fever pays them very little mind. Adults have been exchanging concerned looks over Steve's bedside for as long as he can remember.
Bucky, however, is a different story. It's his first exposure to the shifting landscape of illness that makes up Steve's life, and to say that he doesn't take it well would be a gross understatement. He holds on to Steve's hand like Steve's going to slip away if he lets go. The nuns try to drag him from Steve's side for lessons and meals—he does not budge and comes near to biting. (One of the sisters who knows Bucky's true nature takes pity and pleads his case).
The Church's stance on non-Biblical magic is firm, and the nuns cannot permit any of the herbs or powders or tinctures that have helped speed Steve's healing in the past. Steve understands; Bucky, meanwhile, interrupts his vigil to sneak away and find Hausis in the middle of the night, begging for her help. (He recounts the story to Steve afterwards, who dozes through key points—such as how Bucky got in and out of the orphanage undetected—but hears enough to be impressed). Steve is impressed, and he is grateful—grateful for Bucky's friendship and devotion and for the patience Hausis showed him by making the medicine instead of showing him the clock and then the door—more grateful still, when his fever breaks just a few hours later.
“Well, now you really know what kinda charge you're stuck with,” Steve whispers, sweat cooling on his skin. It feels so good to have a clear head again.
Bucky just squeezes his hand again.
It hurts a little, but Steve doesn't mind. He reaches up to touch the curled-down corner of Bucky's mouth. “Are you gonna be okay, Bucky?” he asks. “'Cause this happens, and it's worse in the winter.”
Bucky nods. “Yeah, I'm—” Except his voice breaks, and he lets go of Steve's hand, realizing how hard his grip was. Buck chokes down a pained sound, and shakes his head. “You were—it hurt you to breathe. You were burnin' up, half-outta your mind with fever. And I couldn't protect you.”
“How are you supposed to protect me from my own body, Buck?” Steve asks, voice low and gentle. “You stayed with me. You held my hand. You snuck out for medicine. These last few months with you have been the healthiest of my life. Don't—don't beat yourself up over me, please.” Steve's words do nothing for the stricken look on Bucky's face.
“Can I—do you need somethin', anything?” Bucky asks. “Water? Another blanket?”
Steve shakes his head, but his stomach grows, betraying the lie. “Always hungry after a fever breaks. Not much to do about that until morning, though.”
Bucky smiles his crooked smile at that, though it doesn't quite reach his eyes. “Wanna bet?” Armed with purpose, he takes off for the kitchen, where the food is kept carefully safe from the grasp of boys wandering, hungry, in the night.
Bucky comes back with something to eat, anyway.
Of course, being at a boys' home also means being surrounded by boys.
“Jesus, Steve. What is it about this time?” Bucky says, throwing the last punch in a fight that Steve started, but he came to finish. The three boys scatter. “That's right! You go!” Bucky shouts after them.
Steve looks at his shoes and tries to look penitent. There's blood dripping from his nose; it tickles trickling down his skin. “They were pickin' on Rowan again.”
“Poor sunnovabitch,” Bucky says, “kids like him, they never fit in.”
“He can't help having enough faerie blood that it shows, but not enough to go to the court. 'S no reason to treat him like that,” Steve says.
Bucky shakes his head. “Ain't your job to fix all the wrongs in the world, Stevie.”
“Someone's gotta try.”
“Lemme take a look at that nose,” Bucky says, frowning.
Steve shakes his head. “It ain't broken. Just bloody, 's all.”
“Should put a cold cloth to it, anyway,” Bucky says. His mouth is a thin, worried line.
Steve obliges him—not that Bucky leaves much of a choice. He's not sure how they haven't been caught by the nuns yet. They'll both be receiving a sound whipping for the fight. (The Mother Superior
will go easy on Steve, for his bloody face. Bucky will receive the full brunt of her wrath, and then some—the other half of Steve's punishment is guilt).
“I wish you'd stop gettin' yourself hurt,” Bucky says, covering the hand that Steve is using to press the washcloth to his face with one of his own.
The sweetness of the gesture makes Steve smile, though changing his expression is just a touch painful. “You're gonna be wishing a long time, Buck.”
“I know, I know,” Bucky says. “You've always gotta stand up.”
Bucky smiles at Steve one day, his eyes sparkling—maybe because one of the nuns tells him, “James Barnes, you are a devil child,” maybe because Steve tells him a joke, or maybe for no reason at all—and Steve's heart feels brighter, full to the point of bursting. Maybe he is thirteen or maybe he is sixteen, maybe he is somewhere in between—Steve doesn't know, doesn't remember. The feeling slots itself into place as if it has been there forever.
All Steve knows is that the next time he wakes up from a fever, and Bucky is white-knuckling at his bedside, eyes dark with worry, the first thing Steve does is crack a joke to make him smile. (Except maybe, that's what he's been doing the whole time).
Steve has never been the luckiest guy—he curses the misfortune of falling in love with an angel (underneath Bucky's bright smirk there are wings and sacred duty and war, and not a single breath is wasted on romantic inclination), and he carries on.
Steve doubles over with a coughing fit the moment he walks through the door. Hacking out his lungs, he hopes that he's beaten Bucky home, that maybe, just maybe, there was overtime at the docks, or that Bucky's at one of the side jobs that he takes to keep the heat on and food on the table when Steve goes through stretches of being too sick to work. It's not a common occurrence these days, not with the bread lines so long, but Steve can hope.
But of course, a worried Bucky is at Steve's side before he has time to shut the door, rubbing Steve's back and shepherding him into the warm kitchen, where there is food already cooking on the little stove.“It's takin' you too long to shake this cough,” Bucky says. Steve hates being the reason for the concern in his voice.
“Not as bad as that winter two years ago,” Steve says, when the fit has died down.
“Bullshit,” Bucky says. He touches Steve's forehead with a cool, calloused hand. “At least you're not too warm.”
“See? Nothing to worry about.”
“Bullshit,” Bucky says, emphatic. “I think we oughta try a healer with more juice. Or go see a nicer doctor—someone outta Brooklyn.”
Steve laughs. “We gonna conjure the cash for that? Last I knew that weren't your power.”
“I'll get the money,” Bucky says. Steve doesn't much care for the dark look in his eyes. “If you need it, I'll always get the money.”
“Don't need it. Just need a little while longer, be right as rain,” Steve says. “Now, what's for dinner?”
“Thought you were tryin' to make me better, not finish me off,” Steve says.
Bucky throws his head back and laughs. “You found me out.”
Steve doesn't wind up shaking the cough so easily—it progresses into a wicked case of bronchitis that someone with healthy lungs and a less complex medical history would have recovered from with ease. Bucky gets the money to take Steve to a fancy, uptown healer, by means fair or foul. He does not divulge and Steve does not ask, because sometimes loving someone means letting them have their secrets.
“Bein' a guardian angel don't make me good, you know,” he whispers into Steve's hair one night. “Not like you. Just means I do what I gotta do protect someone who's good.”
Steve thinks of all the times that Bucky stuck up for him and stuck up for others with him, of Bucky's easy, contagious smiles, and the lengths he would got to make the younger kids back in the orphanage laugh. He shakes his head. “If you don't think you're good, you're more of an idiot than I thought, Bucky.”
Bucky does not say anything at all for a while. “You ain't got a clue about some of the things I've done...”
“I wouldn't judge you for them if I did.”
“No,” Bucky says. “No, you wouldn't, would you.”
The girl is a bird-like thing, ashen-skinned, with thin wrists and a profusion of wild, dark curls. She is small, barely over Steve's shoulder, with an ageless face and huge eyes. She must be hardly fifteen, and she is almost certainly something other than human.
The men who have her cornered are human enough, a small mob of them. It was them Steve heard, their jeering shouts that led Steve into the red brick alley. She does not make a sound.
“Wiedźma,” one of them snarls. Polish, Steve thinks—and he thinks of Mrs. Kowalski from his old building, who had kept his mother's cookbooks for him while Steve was in the orphanage, and how gentle the language always sound it when Steve heard her whisper secrets to her husband or soothe a child with a skinned knee. How different it is on this man's lips.
The girl does not shrink back, just stares the mob down with a cool, level gaze. The men have yet to take notice of Steve, and he has to do something, has to divert their attention before they attack her.
“Hey!” Steve shouts. “It sure takes a bunch of real men to fight a little girl!” Steve is a scarce few years older than her, and not that much larger—but if they're going to hurt anyone, it's going to be him.
The de-facto leader of the mob turns to Steve. “Mind your own business, little boy. You don't know what she is.”
Steve throws his head back and laughs. “Then tell me. But you and I both know, that to a real man, that shouldn't matter.”
“She's a witch,” someone in the crowd shouts.
“Half the building's outta their jobs since she and freak of a brother moved in!”
The girl grits her teeth to bite back the rage. At her age, she wouldn't have much control of her powers yet, wouldn't stand a chance against a group this size and so she's not attacking.
“Half of every building in Brooklyn's out of a job,” Steve says. “That her fault, too, you superstitious assholes?” Steve's mother taught him not to swear, but surely that didn't apply to the kind of men who would talk that way about an innocent girl, whose sole crime is to have been born different from them.
“I think we're gonna have to teach the runt a lesson about stickin' his nose where it don't belong, Bogdan,” one of the men says.
The attention of the crowd is shifting his way. Steve feels a quickening in his pulse, excitement where fear should probably be. He puts his fists up the minute he sees someone else do the same. “A whole lotta guys like you have tried to teach me that lesson before. Hasn't stuck yet.”
“That just means they weren't very good teachers.”
Steve doesn't think he's in any real trouble until the first blow lands. The men are angry—unemployed, frustrated, and out for blood. It should not be surprising that it's a heavy strike, straight to his mid-section. It takes everything Steve's got to keep from going down.
“Slawa and some of the other boys here used to box,” the man Steve thinks must be Bogdan says.
“Yeah?” Steve says, panting. “'s that all they've got?”
The next punch knocks Steve off his feet. He staggers back up, but is brought down again straight away with a sharp crack to the jaw. Someone kicks him when he's down, and then another someone, and Steve's vision swims for a moment. The first thing Steve sees when everything is clear again is Bucky descending upon the mob like the avenging angel he is, beautiful in his righteous fury. Steve cannot often see his wings, but they are there now—sharp feathers made of silver-gold light, glowing, another weapon for a member of the heavenly host to wield. Steve wonders if any of the others can see. The young witch must—Steve tears his eyes from breathtaking sight of Bucky on the warpath to look at her—her pale skin reflects the glow, and she is smiling.
“I wouldn't touch him if I were you,” Bucky says, low and threatening, like a growl.
One of the men laughs. “And how will you stop us?”
Bucky does not say anything more. He decks the ex-boxer, hard, and then punches one of the guys who had kicked Steve, in the throat.
The crowd forgets Steve in an instant, shifting all of their attention to the new arrival. Bucky surprises them, like he surprises everyone. No one who doesn't know what he is expects a boy who looks perhaps nineteen to be a trained fighter, and Bucky attacks their enemies like a howling thing possessed. He takes three guys down, one after the other, but they just keeping coming. They've got the numbers; and for all that Bucky is a member of the heavenly host, he can't hit all the guys coming at him at once.
Bucky starts taking an awful lot of punches, and Steve, who has risen to his feet and recovered his wind, lunges in to help—someone catches him with a steely arm around his waist and holds him back. Steve kicks out, flailing, trying to reach back to land a blow to the man's throat, throwing elbows and trying to find a place to dig in his teeth.
“This is why you don't learn your lesson,” Steve's captor tells him, unfazed by Steve's struggling. He's a mountain of a man, strong and broad and immune to Steve's dirty tactics. “I bet your little friend finishes all your fights for you. Maybe watching what happens to him will do the trick.”
Steve stops breathing when Bucky goes down, though he does not stop trying to get free. Bucky crawls back up to his knees and tries to get to his feet, but he is one man, and they are a mob. They were pulling their punches with Steve, he now sees—it was enough to toy with him, get a few good hits in and knock him to the ground a time or two.
With Bucky, it is not so.
Every blow that Bucky takes reverberates through the alley with a sharp crack. He fights back, and he keeps fighting. They hit him again and again and again, while Steve struggles, helpless, straining against the arm across his chest like an iron bar. Time drags. It's all happening so fast, but panic-slow. Steve watches, horrified, as they let Bucky stand up, just for the pleasure of knocking him down again. There's so much blood on his face, pouring from what has to be a broken nose.
None of it has dimmed the fight and fire in his eyes. Bucky lunges at someone and gets a few hits in before he's taken down by a brutal succession of punches to the gut. Steve can practically hear the bruises on his ribs.
The men swarm around him, so many of them that Steve can't even see—can only hear the thuds of boots hitting flesh and bone. From Bucky, there nothing. He's too proud to give up a sound and Steve wishes he'd scream—at least then, Steve would know he was conscious. At least then, Steve would know he was alive.
Bucky isn't moving when they finally let Steve go. The men all melt away, filtering out of the alley. Steve does not notice them leave, sees only Bucky, laying on the ground, one arm at an odd angle and his face a beaten mess.
Steve runs to his side, puts his hand on Bucky's good shoulder and shakes him. "Bucky," he says. It comes out more like a sob.
Bucky does not respond. Steve ducks his head to check his breathing, cannot measure the full weight of his relief when he feels warm air against his cheek. "Wake up, Buck," he says. "I can't carry you home, jerk."
Bucky makes a miserable little sound. Steve is happy to hear it, happy to hear anything at all.
"That's it," Steve says, stroking his hair. "That's my guy. Open your eyes for me."
Bucky groans, but complies. One of his eyes is blood-burst red. "That coulda gone better," he says, testing his voice.
Steve helps him sit up. Bucky accepts the assistance without any protest -- it only worries him more. "What'd you go and do that for, Buck?"
"You mean my job?" Bucky coughs, and then shudders.
"They woulda left me alone," Steve says. "They woulda hit me a few more times and left me be."
"You don't know that," Bucky says, the picture of calm, bloody-faced reason.
"What makes this better? Why's it gotta be you and not me?"
Bucky's not calm when he says, "I'll heal. You wouldn't." There is fire in his eyes and his voice is weak, but there is fire, too.
“You’re going to need help getting him home,” the girl says, and Steve feels a little ashamed for not noticing that she stuck around.
Steve shakes his head. “We’ll manage. You should go home, be safe.”
“Those men live in my building,” she says. “Safe’s not on the table.”
“I could walk you,” Steve says, “after I get him home.”
“I really can take care of myself. You’re the ones who need help right now.”
She’s smaller than even Steve, but she is stronger than she looks. Between, the two of them, they manage to get Bucky home. It’s the longest a five-minute walk has ever taken, but they finish it, so it’s alright.
Bucky looks over at her, dazed, standing in front of the door. “You're not from this time, are you.”
Steve worries that Bucky's been hit in the head too hard until the moment that the girl shakes her head and smiles a sad little smile.
She does not say anything more, and neither of them pushes for more. They thank the girl and exchange their goodbyes and before she goes she presses a piece of paper with an address into Bucky’s hand (Steve wants to kiss the purpling knuckles). “My name is Wanda. If you ever need magic,“ she looks from Bucky to Steve, something sharp in her eyes, “I can help.”
Steve could swear that her words shake Bucky, but maybe it’s just the adrenaline wearing off and the pain setting in.
"I'm sorry," Steve says, pressing the cool towel to Bucky's beaten face--as if that will help, as if it will do anything. "I'm so sorry."
Bucky's jaw is tight with obvious pain, but he forces a smile. "Ain't nothing you gotta be sorry for, Stevie," he says. "Not a thing."
"That's horseshit and you know it," Steve says, and his mother taught him not to swear, but surely there are exceptions, and surely Bucky grinning through the pain, for him, is one of them. "They beat you up 'cause of me.
"Kept you safe, didn't I?"
"Yeah, you did," Steve says, forcing the words past the lump in his throat.
"Well, then I did my job, and it's all worth it." There is nothing but conviction in Bucky's voice.
Steve shakes his head and makes a sound that's something between a laugh and a sob. He slings Bucky's arm over his shoulder and helps him to the bed. Bucky has to bite down on a miserable whimper that cracks something in Steve's heart. Steve wishes, so much, that he could carry him. When Steve pulls off his shirt to see the lurid mess of darkening bruises that is Bucky's torso, he wants to promise he'll never fight for a stranger's safety again. But he never could lie to Bucky, can hardly keep a secret from him -- except for the one.
"Can it, Rogers." The brave tone costs him. Bucky crumples a little, eyes squeezing shut. Steve can see him focusing on every painful, shuddering breath.
Steve strokes Bucky's hair and rides it out with him, like Bucky's done for him through countless asthma attacks and bouts of illness.
"I'll heal up real quick, Stevie," Bucky promises, curling a hand around Steve's wrist.
And Bucky would, he would be trying to comfort Steve, even when he's the one who's been beaten to a bloody pulp. Broken nose and broken bones and all, he's the most beautiful thing that Steve has ever seen.
The first day that Bucky is well enough to be out and about is the start of a bright, glorious spring. After a cold, sickly March holed up indoors, it feels like the bright sun and the singing birds and the flowers peeking through every crack in the concrete are just for them. Steve's out on the bustling streets with Bucky by his side, and he is on top of the world.
It was a hell of a thing, paying rent with Bucky laid up for so long, but they pulled it together and this feels like some kind of reward.
Bucky doesn't seem so happy. Sure, he smiles at the pretty girls, out in their dresses, after months of winter coats, and he waves hello to Mrs. Collins in her open window, pulls faces for a group of kids, but there's something tight to the set of his shoulders, something too serious about his eyes. Steve would swear he sees Bucky glare at a daisy growing through the sidewalk.
"You okay, Buck?" he asks. "If you're still not up to it, we can go back home. No shame in taking all the time you need."
"'M fine," Bucky mumbles. He looks at his shoes and frowns at a dandelion.
He doesn't seem fine, but Steve doesn’t push it.
They're sitting on a park bench—Bucky is tired, though he won't admit it—when a stranger comes up to them. The man is tall and imposing, one eye covered with a patch. Steve looks at him and hears war.
The man's eye darts from Bucky to Steve and to the tree flowering above them. "You watch yourself, kid," he says.
The words are directed at Bucky, and he pales, like he's seen into the grave. Just like that, the stranger is gone.
“Who was that, Buck?” Steve asks.
Bucky shrugs and looks away and does not bother to lie.
The strange behavior worsens. Bucky won't stop looking over his shoulder. He's nervous and on edge and one night, he doesn't come home after work. Steve wakes up to Bucky sitting on the edge of the bed, watching him, breath coming out in uneven little hitches like he's crying and can't make himself stop.
Steve pretends to stay asleep in the dark, leaves him his moment of bare vulnerability. Bucky's always known when to give Steve space with his sorrow, and Steve thinks it might be time to do the same, no matter how much he wants to reach up and pull Bucky into bed and hold him close.
Bucky's still a little ragged in the morning, but he makes breakfast and forces a smile through their usual routine. Steve can't resist the urge to comfort him, then, and he pulls Bucky in for a tight hug before they're both set to head out the door.
Bucky holds on to him and shivers a little and when he pulls away he is smiling with red-rimmed eyes. "Stevie, I gotta angel thing today. A big deal kind of angel thing. You keep your fingers crossed for me, okay?"
"Are you gonna be okay, Buck?" Steve asks.
Bucky nods. It isn't convincing. "I'll live."
Steve sits in the kitchen and watches the clock, sketchbook in front of him, neglected, open to a half-finished charcoal of Bucky's face. It's twelve o'five before he hears the scrape of the key in their shoddy lock. Bucky is ashen-faced when he comes in—stricken, and Steve would do anything, anything to pull that hopeless look out of his eyes.
"I'm in trouble, Stevie."
"What is it?"
Bucky doesn't say anything for a moment. He sits down at the table, and looks at the picture of his own face. Steve feels the heat rush into his cheeks—he should have turned the page, opened to a sketch of his mother.
"Who's that handsome bastard?" Bucky says, a weak attempt at a smile on his face. "It looks good."
Steve blushes harder, but he doesn't regret not hiding the drawing, not anymore. "No changing the subject," he says.
"Yeah," Bucky says, "that's what I was doin', wasn't it?" He's deflated and sad and Steve has never heard him sound like that before.
"I'll help. Whatever it is, I'll help."
"Can't fight this one, Stevie. This ain't the kind of trouble you can beat up in a back alley," Bucky says.
Steve reaches out to cover Bucky's hand with his own.
Bucky closes his eyes and shivers. "I'm not good, Steve. Not like you."
“I broke a rule, Steve. A big one. They're gonna take me away,” Bucky says.
Everything goes white for a second. The blood rushes to Steve's ears—he can hear it pounding—and all the warmth drains from the room.
Bucky's eyes flicker over Steve's face—the anguish painted on his only brightens. “It'll be okay. They'll send you another angel. Someone good.”
“You're good,” Steve manages to say, after a long, broken pause “I don't want another angel. I want you.”
"Nah, if I were good, I wouldn't tell you this next part. I wouldn't tell you shit." Bucky states at Steve's hand, where it’s still touching his. “But I've gotta.”
Steve wonders if he should pull away, but he never could, not with Bucky wearing that expression. “I'm listening.”
“There's a way for me to stay.”
“Then why are we having this conversation?”
“I could give up my wings,” Bucky says.
And this is it—Steve is going to lose him, because Bucky cannot lose his wings. Steve thinks, with numb terror, of his last great loss—the unbearable pain of it, and the dull empty ache left afterwards. It still hurts to think of his mother sometimes. And would he even have gotten over losing Sarah without Bucky there to guide him through? The thought of that kind of void in the place where Bucky used to be is impossible, but Steve will make his peace—he will.
“I could give up my wings,” Bucky says, “and I would do it. I would do it, to stay. And it's selfish—they're right. The counsel—my bosses—they're right. Because you wouldn't get a new angel, if I stayed, and I'm so damn selfish, but I'd do it. I'd do it. I'd do anything, to stay with you.”
His eyes are fever-bright. Steve has nothing, no words to say.
“Only—only I've gotta tell you one more thing, and then I don't think you're gonna want me to.”
“Buck, I can't ask you to give up your wings,” Steve tells him, “but there's nothing you could say that could ever make me want you to go.”
“You're gonna be regrettin' those words in a minute.” Bucky takes a deep breath. He clenches and then unclenches his jaw, curls and uncurls the hand that Steve is not holding, and then he speaks. “The reason they want my wings, Stevie—it's 'cause I'm in love with you. Not pure and familial, like a guardian angel should love their charge. The fire in my veins kinda love. And it ain't allowed. It ain't allowed. But I don't care about that. Don't care about the rules or even my wings—only you.”
Steve opens his mouth, but words don't come out—Bucky shakes his head, anyway. He isn't done.
“I can choose. Either I give up my wings, or I give up you. 's my chance—make the selfless choice—you keep havin' an angel, and I keep bein' one. But I can't. I know you've gotta want me to go, but I had to tell you. I had to tell you that I'd give it all up for you.”
He watches Steve and Steve watches him and they watch each other. Bucky's just offered Steve everything he never even dreamed he could have, and the feelings are too much—they are everything—but Steve has to be strong. He has to make the hard choice and tell Bucky no and let him go, let him keep being what he is supposed to be. Steve steels himself, prepares the words of rejection in his mouth. Except for once in his life, determination fails him, and all Steve can say is, “I love you, too.”
Bucky's eyes are the size of dinner plates. Mouth is parted, the hand under Steve's is perfectly still. “No—you don't—you ain't—you ain't gettin' how I meant it.”
“Oh, for fuck's sake,” Steve says, and his mother taught him never to swear, but there are exceptions to the rule, and Bucky being this obtuse has to be one of them. He rises from his place, walks with purpose to where Bucky sits on the opposite side of the table, and kisses him on the mouth.
The adrenaline and the annoyance pound in his ears and the love, ever-present, surges in his heart, and it takes a moment for Steve to realize what he's doing, what he's just done. Bucky takes a minute, too, but then he makes a shocked little sound against Steve's mouth, curls his fingers in Steve's hair and in Steve's shirt, keeping him close, and kisses back—with everything he's got. Bucky's mouth is hot against his.
Nothing has ever made Steve feel quite so alive, and Steve could probably kiss him forever—should, probably never stop kissing him—this moment could be it, could be—is everything, but could be all they ever get.
Steve is breathless when they finally break apart.
“Steve,” Bucky says. His eyes are bright and his voice is soft and this has to be a dream, but Steve would never dream of such impossible things.
Steve reaches out to trace the contour of his face, to cement this moment in memory forever. “You're not giving up your wings. No way, pal. No way.”
“Ain't your choice, and ain't no way I'm keeping them, Stevie. Not after that,” Bucky says. “Not after that.”
What Steve feels is guilt and what Steve feels is relief, and the relief only makes him more guilty.
“Hey, hey, none of that,” Bucky says. He tilts Steve's chin up with a careful hand, and kisses him on the lips, passionate but brief. “'s my choice. My choice, and I choose you.”
Steve falls asleep that night with Bucky's face pressed into the crook of his neck—feeling his pulse, breathing him in.
“I'm gonna to see the counsel in the morning,” Bucky whispers, running his fingertips over bare skin of Steve's ribs. “Tell 'em I choose you.” He kisses Steve's neck. “Tell 'em fuck everything but you.”
Steve reaches out to stroke Bucky's hair and Bucky leans into the touch. He's halfway to dreaming already, exhausted from a long day and the late hour, and this feels like a dream. Steve wants to tell him that they can't—he can't—that Bucky deserves better, deserves his wings and his grace and every righteous thing, not some skinny thing doomed to die some particularly harsh winter, but the words are caught in his throat. “I love you, Buck,” Steve says instead, cursing his traitorous tongue.
“I love you, too,” Bucky says, his voice full of light.
That night, Steve dreams of Bucky falling.
Bucky creeps out of bed at the first stirring of dawn. Steve wakes up just enough to watch him slip away, bathed in the rosy light peeking in through their ragged curtains. Steve wants his warmth back, and tries to call out.
His voice doesn't cooperate, but he must make some forlorn sound, because Bucky turns around and ducks down for a sweet kiss, his face bright with an affectionate smile.
The next time Steve wakes up, the sun is up and Bucky is gone.
Steve has no idea what to make of Saturday without Bucky by his side. He fixes some food and frets around the apartment. He works on a WPA poster. He pulls out the sewing kit—his mother's—and mends a tear in his trousers, won in his latest ill-advised fight. He catalogues the meager contents of their cupboards, and calculates how much money it will take to keep them fed for the rest of the month, the paltry sum that represents the difference between survival and death.
He goes on a brief, anxious walk—because Bucky's not going to come home from that and find the apartment empty—and triggers an attack rushing, too fast, back up the stairs. He wheezes on the landing, aching lungs struggling for air, and thinks about how accustomed he's gotten to having Bucky's strong hands on his shoulders, soothing him through this.
Bucky's out there somewhere, giving up a part of himself, because of how selfish Steve is—because Steve couldn't do right by Bucky, the way Bucky always does right by him, and give him up.
Steve breathing goes back to normal, and he gets a grip. The heartbreaking loss that Bucky is, perhaps at that very moment, in the process of suffering isn't about Steve's guilt. Bucky is the one who had to make the hard choice. Bucky is the one sacrificing a part of himself, and Steve will see him through this the way Bucky saw him through the dark, difficult time after his mother passed on.
Bucky comes home when dusk has colored the sky a purplish grey. Steve is watching out of the window when the key turns in the door. The man who walks into their shabby living room is irrevocably changed from the man who snuck out of their bed in the morning. Bucky wears a new weight on his shoulders. There is exhausted sorrow in his eyes and in the corners of his downturned mouth.
They say, the stories do, that the fallen can never be free from the burden of their grief, that being cut away from the heavenly host, and all of its light, is too heavy a blow for those who have been part of it. They say the quiet drives some fallen angels insane. (They say that the ones who go crazy are lucky—fallen angels still have power inside of them, power skilled practitioners can use. The unlucky ones die).
'Fuck the stories,' Steve thinks, crossing the room in several of the longest strides that he can manage. He kisses Bucky on the mouth. “How're you feeling, Buck?”
“Different,” Bucky says. “Worn to pieces. Had to go see Wanda after, too—fallen angels get picked apart for leftover power by vultures 'less they've got some kind of magic shielding them, you know. She told me a little 'bout why she's now. Tried to go back and undo an accident. Went too far.” He lets Steve guide him to their moth-eaten couch and sit him down, and fails to contain the little groan of relief at finally getting off his feet.
“You alright?” Steve asks him, taking one of Bucky's strong hands between both of his own, bringing it to his lips to kiss Bucky there, too.
“Hurt worse than I expected,” Bucky says, watching Steve with a soft, adoring looking in his still-sad eyes. “Still worth it.”
Steve lets go of Bucky's hand to stroke his cheek. He wants to smile, but it would feel like a betrayal. “When you'd go all sappy on me?”
“Probably the minute I met you,” Bucky says. He groans. Bucky's face has been an open book to Steve for a long time now—or at least, so Steve thought—and the emotions play, like light, over his features, joy and grief and relief and just a touch of embarrassment shifting and blending, one into the other (and love, always love, and Steve really should have been able to see it before). There's nothing to do but to kiss him again, and again, and again.
Bucky's lips are plush and perfect; one of his hands is rough and warm against Steve's cheek. Steve is breathless, and he never thought that could be a good thing. But when he pulls away to suck in air, the look in Bucky's eyes is something cracked.
It hurts to see him hurt and Steve swallows down the insecurity to ask, “What's wrong, Buck?”
“Kissin' you, it felt like flying. I don't regret it a minute, but you're the closest I'm getting to the sky now,” Bucky says.
“I'm sorry,” Steve says.
“Ain't your fault.”
“No, I'm sorry you had to choose.”
Bucky takes a deep, shuddering breath. “Weren't any kind of choice.”
Steve reaches over to stroke the side of his face. Bucky leans into the touch.
“Guardian angels get trained, you know.”
“You've told me.”
“They tell you how many they lose with their very first charge, how easy to is, to fall,” Bucky says. “Nothing they said coulda prepared me for you.”
“Think you mighta said that before, Buck.”
“Think they mighta smashed you on the head during angel training sometime. You're all mixed up about me.”
“Nope,” Bucky says. “You're the dope here.”
“'M serious. You take a spill learning to fly? Mom and Pop Barnes push you out of the nest too early?”
It's a bad joke, but Bucky still laughs. He's gorgeous when he laughs, and when the bright look fades from his face, grief in its place—it feels like falling.
“I must've done a helluva thing in another life to get you.” Steve intertwines their fingers. He needs to make this better, but there's nothing he can do.
Bucky shakes his head. He looks like he's either going to smile or cry—maybe both. “Was all this life, Stevie. All you.”
There are unshed tears clinging to Bucky's thick eyelashes. Steve would do anything to have prevented them, but has to settle for wiping them away.
“So empty in my head now,” Bucky says, after a long while.
“Anything I can do?”
Bucky closes his eyes. “Make me forget.”
Steve leans in slow and gradual for another kiss, and waits for Bucky to close the distance between them.
Bucky does—he surges forward, so desperate he's almost shaking. “Steve,” he says, his hands—gorgeous hands, the very hands that cover pages upon pages of Steve's sketchbook—clutching at Steve's clothes, Steve's skin. He kisses hard, passionate, like he is drowning and Steve is air and that's okay, because that's how Steve feels, too.
Bucky pulls away, and leaves Steve gasping. “You don't—you go to church, Steve—I never asked if you think we're a sin.”
Steve smiles at him and shakes his head. Even the angels don't know, but he believes—in a world full of miracles and magic, with his beautiful, dirty-faced angel by his side, it's hard to be a skeptic; every sunday, he goes to the same church his mother took him as a child; but despite all that, Steve could never believe that what he feels for Bucky, what he has with Bucky now, is a sin.
Steve touches Bucky's cheek, feels soft skin and two day's growth of stubble underneath his fingertips, and it's electric. Nothing so incredible could ever be wrong and Steve tells him so, watches the warm glow of relief creep across his still-sad face, and kisses him again.
“Next question,” Bucky says, breathing heavy, mouth a little slack, “you wanna take things slow?”
“We've gone slow enough, Buck,” Steve says. “I wanna make you feel better.”
Bucky climbs to his feet and offers Steve a hand up. Steve accepts—his legs feel like jelly, and he wants Bucky's hand in his, besides—and they go to the bedroom, their fingers intertwined.
The most solid piece of furniture in the room is a low, old, chest of drawers—made of heavy wood, acquired, thanks to Bucky's charming smile, from a neighbor who was moving away. It stands against the one wall in the apartment that they don't share with a neighbor. Bucky sits back on it, pulls Steve between his knees and in for more kisses, sweet and lingering and just a little slower than before.
It feels like a dream, and Steve would be pinching himself if it weren't for Bucky's grief—a tangible presence in the bedroom. Steve would do anything to ease his burden. “Tell me what you want, gorgeous.”
“When'd you get all smooth, Stevie?” Bucky says. He's grinning. “Puttin' the moves on me like that.”
“Shut up, asshole,” Steve nudges his shoulder. “Made you smile, didn't it?”
“Maybe I liked it,” Bucky says, “but only 'cause I like everything you do.”
“Now who's the sap?”
“Both of us.”
“Alright, so maybe you've got a point this time,” Steve says, “but the question still stands.”
“What question's that again?”
Steve's heart really shouldn't melt at the teasing lilt of his voice. “You know what I said.”
Bucky hooks a leg around Steve and pulls him in closer. Steve can't stop staring at the mischievous curve of his smile. “Maybe I just wanted to hear you call me gorgeous again.”
“I'll say it every day,” Steve says—and he means to joke, he really does, but it comes out as a solemn vow instead.
Bucky's smile fades away, then—replaced, instead, by stark emotion. Steve is almost sorry until Bucky speaks, his eyes shut, as if looking at Steve while he says his piece would be too much.“Falling woulda been worth it for just one day with you, let alone...”
Steve presses in close to kiss the words from his mouth. It seems unspeakable now that he went an entire life without kissing Bucky even once—he's not sure he will ever stop now.
But Bucky breaks away and pulls something out of his pocket. “Time to move on with the show, pal.”
Steve realizes, after a long, slow moment that the object in Bucky's hand is a small jar of vaseline. His brain short-circuits promptly, overwhelmed by a barrage of images—things he's never even dared to dream, too many possibilities, all of them too appealing—and if Steve forgets how to move for a while, he doesn't think anyone can blame him.
Except Bucky's face falls and he hurries to say, “If you're not ready—”
“Jesus Christ, that's not it,” Steve says, and his mother taught him never to use the Lord's name in vain, but he's not thinking of her now, with everything he never thought he could want offered up in the shape of Bucky's teasing grin and the lust in his eyes.
“Yeah, I think we're definitely gonna have to wait a few weeks,” Bucky says, but he's already starting on the buttons of his shirt.
Steve watches his nimble fingers reveal the toned plane of his chest, hypnotized.
“You gotta get with the program, punk,” Bucky says, chucking his shirt aside. His arms are well-built from endless hard work at the docks. Steve cannot stop staring. “Takes two to tango, all that.”
The thought of stripping has not occurred to Steve, and the idea of revealing his own bony, disappointing body—so unlike Bucky's perfect form—fills him with panic and dread. It's ridiculous; Bucky has seen him in various states of undress over the years, but never like this—never intimate and close and sensual.
Bucky knows him too well—they know each other too well—and Bucky's face is an open book. Steve watches as the realization dawns and heartbreak follows. He's supposed to be making Bucky feel better, but he's only hurt him with his own endless fears of inadequacy. Bucky cups Steve's cheek in one calloused hand and says, “Stevie, don't be like that. You've gotta be blind not to see how—how beautiful you are.”
Steve closes his eyes to shut away the sincere way that Bucky's looking at him.
Bucky moves his hand lower, to the buttons of Steve's shirt. “Let me?” he whispers.
Steve nods. He forces his eyes open so he can see the tenderness and concentration with which Bucky handles his task. Bucky ducks his head to kiss Steve's chest as he exposes it. The bones of his sternum don't seem quite so grotesquely protruding when Bucky presses his soft lips against them.
“Alright?” Bucky asks, before he pulls Steve's shirt off his shoulders—too narrow and too sharp, but maybe today they are alright, with Bucky staring at him like he does not see a collection of flaws—only perfection. He kisses Steve on the lips and there is no way—no possible way—that Steve has ever done a thing to deserve this.
He runs his hands up and down the bare, smooth skin of Bucky's sides, touches him with fingers calloused from hours holding pencils. Bucky's hands settle on his hips. Their mouths fit together like they were meant for this; he wonders what it will be like when—
Steve's fingers curl into the strong muscles of Bucky's back, and to his great shock, Bucky flinches. Steve jumps away as if he's been burned. “Sorry—sorry, Buck, sorry.”
Bucky shakes his head and looks away. His eyes are glazed, hurt and lust mingling together. “Shit, I forgot to show you.”
“What'd you forget?”
Bucky climbs to his feet and turns around. On his back, there are markings, intricate and dark—like a massive tattoo, fresh and enflamed. It takes Steve a moment to realize that it's wings—enormous wings on Bucky's back, and they weren't made by ink, but branded into his flesh with heavenly fire.
“Jesus, Buck,” Steve says. He takes in Bucky's hunched posture, the way he's looking down—but he can't possibly be—there's no way he's insecure over this. “Bucky, they're gorgeous. Can't imagine how much that hurt, but they're beautiful.”
“You think so?” Bucky says, all harsh self-deprecation.
“I know so. Like a work of art,” Steve says. “Can I touch—if I'm real gentle, or will it hurt?”
Bucky nods his acquiescence, and Steve runs careful fingers over reddened flesh. The wings really are something stunning. He's heard that fallen angels were marked, of course, but he never imagined anything like this. Steve presses his lips to one of Bucky's shoulder-blades, where the wing begins. Bucky shivers.
“Does that feel good?” Steve says. It comes out as a reverent whisper.
“'s nice,” Bucky says.
Steve covers the every inch of the wings with featherlight kisses, slow and reverent, with all the care that Bucky deserves.
Bucky is shaking when Steve is done. He turns around slowly, and then hauls Steve in for a desperate kiss. “Pants. Off. Now.”
“When'd you get so bossy?” Steve says, but he's already undoing his belt.
Bucky sits back on the chest of drawers and watches him with hooded eyes. When Steve is done, he undresses Bucky, too. Bucky is pliant and demanding, slowing down the process by pulling Steve in for hot kisses and running his hands over Steve's bare skin.
“What do you want, Buck?” Steve asks. He can't stop staring. Bucky is naked and gorgeous, cock hard and flushed against the taut muscles of his abdomen.
Bucky smiles at him, lazy and lopsided and a little sad—but Steve will take care of that, he will—and says. “Want you to do all the work.” He presses the jar of vaseline into Steve's hands.
Steve accepts, some mixture of awed and aroused and overwhelmed. “Take care of you for once, yeah?”
Bucky shuts his eyes and spreads his legs. “Somethin' like that.”
Steve steps in between his thighs and kisses Bucky again, stroking his arms and his back and everywhere he can touch.
“You gonna need me to walk you through this, Stevie?” Bucky asks.
“No—uh,” Steve can feel himself color furiously. Bucky laughs, low and rumbling, reaches out to cup his burning cheek. “I've read—in books.”
“Let's see how that book learnin' of yours holds up, then.”
Steve opens the jar and places it on the dresser, next to Bucky's leg. His mind and his heart won't stop racing. He runs his hands up the insides of Bucky's thighs, feels the the coarse hair and strong muscles and sensitive skin. He wonders if Bucky can tell that Steve has never had his hands on anything so precious. “You'll tell me if—”
“I'll tell you what feels good. Can't be too loud about it, though. Not with these walls.”
Steve dips a finger in the vaseline. He's nervous—of course he is—but he's also giddy with this, giddy with what they're about to do and what they're about to share, giddy and so hard he's practically dizzy.
Bucky adjusts a little, leans back further and spreads his legs a little more to give Steve better access.
“Bucky, you ready?”
“Not sure those books taught you much, Stevie, because gettin' me ready is the point of this—”
Steve kisses him to shut him up, which turns into kissing him just to kiss him, which turns into breaking away, breathless and impatient, a few minutes later. “Okay, okay—we gotta—”
“That's right, pal. Get old waitin' for you at this point.”
Steve looks at Bucky—red lips, open legs, hard cock—better than any fantasy. He gets more vaseline. He can't stand the thought of hurting Bucky, even a little.
“Ain't gonna break.”
“Alright, alright, bossy.”
Steve takes a deep breath and slowly pushes a finger inside of him, watching Bucky's face for any sign of discomfort. Bucky is hot and tight. His expression changes, but it isn't pain.
“Okay?” Steve asks.
“Yeah.” Bucky smiles, his eyes full of affection.
Steve starts to move his finger in and out, careful, so careful; he might be scrawny and short, but his bony hands—artist's hands, Bucky always calls them, watching the way they curl around a pencil—have always been too large for his body. Bucky is relaxed, trusting and open, with Steve (for Steve), and before long, he's comfortable adding another finger.
Bucky grimaces a little, with two, and Steve spits out apologies until Bucky grabs him (gently) by the hair and kisses him, puts some tongue into it and bites his lower lip and Steve doesn't let his fingers stutter, keeps the slow and patient rhythm going.
Their faces stay close even when they pull apart. Steve can feel Bucky's breath on his cheek. He thinks of the book that he read in the university library, face burning with humiliation, praying to every god he could think of that no one in the building was capable of mind-reading, and changes his angle. This is supposed to feel good for Bucky, if Steve gets it right. (Steve has to get it right).
He keeps adjusting until Bucky gasps, tilts his head back and exposes the pale line of his throat to Steve's lips. Steve kisses him there and keeps moving his hand, working him open. His wrist is getting tired but Bucky's biting down on his own fist to stifle all the sounds he can't hold back and Steve would do this forever; he could.
“Stevie,” Bucky says, breathless, and Steve knows what he wants, doesn't make him ask for it.
Three fingers seems like a lot, but Steve isn't small—not there—so he has to take every precaution. He adds more vaseline, tries to keep the angle right, strokes Bucky's hipbone with his other hand—everything, everything for him. Steve would do anything to make him feel good.
He doesn't stop until Bucky is panting, writhing against Steve's fingers and failing to choke back all these little moans.
“You ready?” Steve says, sealing the words with a kiss.
He already knows the answer, but he still waits for Bucky's breathless yes. Bucky grabs the jar of vaseline and liberally coats Steve's cock—Steve has to press his hand against his mouth to smother the sounds he makes at the feeling of the slick petroleum jelly and Bucky's calloused palm.
Steve composes himself, and positions himself between Bucky's thighs—lines them up. His hands are shaking. Bucky takes one of them, entwines their fingers—anchors him. Steve holds on, and carefully (so carefully) pushes in.
Right away, he has to bite down a choked, almost-pained groan. Bucky is so hot and so tight and there's no way Steve gets through this without embarrassing himself utterly, and possibly right away. But the fear of disappointing Bucky, of not making him feel as good as he deserves, is a powerful motivator—one which keeps Steve's eminent humiliation at bay. “You okay, Buck?” Steve says. They're pressed together, as close as two people can possibly be (but weren't they always?), and it's incredible.
“Need a moment to breathe,” Bucky says. He sounds overwhelmed.
Steve understands overwhelmed (he feels it), and he knows what it is like to be breathless; he gives Bucky's hand a reassuring squeeze. After a while, their breathing falls into matching time. Steve wonders, with some concern, if his lungs will last through the festivities, and then he doesn't wonder anything at all because Bucky is ducking his head to kiss Steve's shoulder and saying, “Hey, move.”
Steve thinks—does not have to think—that, in this moment, he would do anything that Bucky asked. He moves—of course—starts slow, rocking in and out, holding on to Bucky, probably too tight.
Bucky gasps, soft and pleased, runs his hands up Steve's back. His fingers feel good curled into Steve's shoulders, like they might leave marks and Steve wants that—wants the memory of this night in his skin. “That good, Buck?”
Bucky nods, and lets out a shuddering breath. “So good, Stevie—yeah, just like that.”
Steve muffles a sound by hiding his face in the crook of Bucky's neck, pressing frantic kisses against the delicate skin. Doing this with Bucky feels amazing—friction and tight heat and the person he loves most in the entire world right there with him, urging him on with his voice and his moans and the finger-shaped bruises his strong hands are sure to leave behind.
Bucky wraps his legs around Steve and drags him even closer. There's less freedom to move this way, so Steve picks up the pace, goes a little bit harder, touches Bucky wherever he can. Bucky curses and shakes. He tangles a hand in Steve's hair and tugs, brings him in for a kiss that takes Steve's breath away. It's nothing short of miraculous that he's not mid-asthma attack.
He's panting and he's already close, but it's alright—neither of them are going to last long, not this time (and there's going to be more, so much more). Bucky's making little sounds against Steve's lips every time they break apart. Steve reaches between them to wrap his hand around Bucky's cock. It's hot and silky in his hand, slick with precome.
Steve's nowhere near coordinated enough to time his hand with his thrusts, but he does his level best. It seems to be good enough for Bucky, who bites Steve's lip and whimpers, and comes hot and hard all over Steve's hand and both their stomachs. Steve tries to fuck him through it, but Bucky clenches down as he comes, and that's it—Steve's gone. Everything that's left is bright sparks of pleasure, and Bucky, against him, around him—the taste of Bucky's kiss, the smell of Bucky's hair, the feel of his touch. He is everything.
When Steve comes back down, it's hard to believe his feet have been on the ground this whole time.
“Definitely feels like flyin',” Bucky says, pressing his forehead against Steve's. He must be a mindreader.
His hair and back are damp with sweat and Steve runs his hands over everything, struggling to regain his words or his breath. He is so lucky. No one has ever been so lucky before—of that, he is certain.
Bucky touches Steve's hair, yellow in the dim light of the bedroom's solitary bulb. “Flew too close to the sun.”
Even if Steve could find his voice, he wouldn't know what to say to that.
"Steve?" Bucky says.
They're both awake, though they shouldn't be. Steve is too giddy, too eager to soak up every minute of their first night. "Yeah?"
"It's gonna be different, now that I'm not an angel anymore." He presses a kiss to Steve's temple, wraps his arms around Steve tighter, and pulls him in closer. "Harder."
Steve laughs, twists around in his arms to press his lips to Bucky's neck, where his pulse beats underneath hot skin. "It'll be better."
Bucky smiles, so bright that Steve can feel the curve of it.
It is better, but it's harder, too. There's no miraculous extra paycheck at the end of the month when they're running short for rent. Trucks don't break down outside the house laden with goods that will rot before the repairman arrives. When Steve is sick, the medicine is harder to find. The luck that Steve never even knew that they were counting on runs out. Bucky still finds him somehow whenever he gets into fights.
They have to hide—stay quiet at night, kiss outside only in the right bars. The mattress moves against the one wall their apartment doesn't share with another, and some of the neighbors still glare when they walk down the halls side-by-side.
But Steve comes home and kisses Bucky—home even later—at the end of every long day, and that is worth everything.
"Three dollars squirreled away this week," Steve says, sealing up the big, metal can where they hide their savings.
Bucky raises an eyebrow. "Thought you were aiming for five."
"Saw a lady on the street with her kids. She had a sign. They looked hungry," Steve says.
"So you bought 'em something to eat," Bucky says. The look in his eyes is pure adoration.
"So I bought 'em something to eat," Steve says.
Bucky leans in to steal a kiss. "That's why I put in eight."
"How'd you manage that?" Steve asks.
Bucky's smile is a little too tight. "Don't worry about that."
"Someone's got to worry about you," Steve says, pulling him in by the lapels of his jacket. "You sure as hell don't." His mother taught him not to swear, but Bucky is working himself to the bone.
Bucky lets Steve pull him close and rub the tension from his tired shoulders. "Well I have you for that, don't I, pal."
"Yeah, yeah you do."
It's hard, but they get along just fine.
They don't count on the world changing—no one really can.
"You read the news, Buck—armies, in Germany and Japan," Steve says. "They're saying Italy, too."
"Gotta be rumors. War is for the angels," Bucky says, but he is frowning.
Wars have been fought by the heavenly hosts of sovereign nations as long as nations have existed, that much is true—angels whose sole purpose is eternal war, preparation for a final battle that may or may not ever come. Humans and other magical beings have fought civil wars and staged revolutions, but conflicts between nations mean conflicts between angels, and there has never been a standing army on the earthly plane. That isn't true anymore—or at least, it soon won't be. The harshness with which Germany was treated after the Great War has assured as much.
A rich kid named Howard Stark is on the front page every week. He hasn't got an ounce of magic in him, but he builds things that wow crowds as if he were made of nothing besides. He says technology is the future—that their world needs weapons now, that their country needs an army.
“Yeah,” Steve says, leaning over to kiss the frown from his mouth and the furrow from his brow. “Rumors.”
Steve believes in people and he believes in goodness, and he wants to believe that what he's telling Bucky is true.
It turns out that Howard Stark was right.
It doesn't all happen at once—or maybe it does. Italy invades Ethiopia and Japan invades China and Germany invades Poland and the world builds armies. The Golem of Brooklyn is seen with terrified, desperate refugees who whisper tales of growing atrocities to anybody who knows the right language to listen.
(Steve spends a lot of time listening; his scraps of Polish, German, and what have you, and their scraps of English come together into a tapestry that portrays something too awful for a common tongue to help anybody comprehend. Bucky, who has always been friendly with Rivkeh—that is, the Golem, because “guardians have to stick together, you know”—spends time helping find jobs and vacant apartments, running around Brooklyn collecting clothes and toys).
No help that they can offer seems like enough. The country does nothing, and the angels are silent.
And then the bombs fall on the fledging US military fleet in Pearl Harbor.
Steve tries to enlist for the first time the same day the war is declared. It's the cause of the biggest fight that he and Bucky have ever had.
“What if they take you, Steve?” Bucky shouts, hoarse with emotion, and his lack of faith hurts more than any blow. “What am I supposed to do when you die?” (His anguish is even worse).
Steve slams the door storming out of the apartment; he knows—of course he knows—that they won't take him. He tries anyway, despite Bucky's raw voice and Bucky's red-rimmed eyes.
They laugh him out of the recruitment center, of course, and he comes home miserable and steaming. Bucky's pacing when Steve walks through the door, running a hand through his hair—a nervous habit Steve knows well.
He takes in Steve's hunched shoulders and gloomy eyes, and doesn't bother hiding his sigh of relief.
It's like ice between them for a week (and that hurts more than anything), so it takes a while for Steve to catch on to the fact that Bucky's hiding something.
By the time Steve confronts him, it's already too late—Bucky's mind is made up. “I'm enlisting, Stevie,” he says.
Steve spits out a profusion of curse words that probably have his mother's ashes twisting on the eastern wind—and he's sorry, so sorry—but there are exceptions to every rule, and Bucky fixing to get himself killed at home before he can ship out to be killed somewhere far away. “You're a madman,” Steve says, when he's finally stopped seeing red, and can speak in sentences again. “Whoever's doing the physical is gonna see your back, and he'll sell you out to the first practitioner who crosses his path.”
“Not everyone can see the marks,” Bucky says.
“But most people can,” Steve says, “And if it's not him, then one of the guys in the room with you.”
“Thought you were supposed to be the optimistic one, pal,” Bucky says. Steve can't remember the last time he saw Bucky's eyes so sad.
He shakes his head. “Not when you're on the line. Not when what's at risk is you getting cut up by some necromancer. Was close enough of a call when Mrs. Rosenberg saw you pull your shirt off last August, and she likes you.”
“Weren't you the one who taught me all about helpin' people who need it?” Bucky says. “'bout protecting everyone, even if it puts you in danger?” He reaches out, like he wants to touch Steve, and then snatches his hand back, like he doesn't know if he's allowed.
Steve can't take the thought of Bucky feeling like that, and so he grabs Bucky's hand, intertwines their fingers. “Nah—didn't have to teach you anything about that, Buck. You were born knowin' that.”
Bucky squeezes his eyes shut and laughs. It sounds like his heart is breaking.
Steve knows it isn't fair, but he's never been above playing dirty. He brings Bucky's hand to his lips and kisses the knuckles that have defended him in uncountable fights. “And who's gonna keep me outta trouble?”
Bucky hisses like he's been burned. He opens his eyes; they're burning with something too bright. “You're the reason I gotta go, you damn punk. Bombs got dropped on Hawaii. What the hell is gonna stop them falling on New York? Ain't your guardian angel anymore—gotta protect you any way I can.”
“And the look in your eyes when you listen to Rivkeh's people talk about what the Nazis are doin',” Bucky says. His voice breaks. “There's things so awful in this world that they're takin' your faith in people's goodness from you, Stevie. What the hell kind of a guardian would I be if I didn't try to fight that?”
“You don't have to fight anything for me,” Steve tells him, holding on to his hand. He feels like he might cry.
Bucky looks at the ground. “I'm a soldier, you know. All angels are born soldiers—guardians, too. Stopped bein' an angel, but I can't stop being a soldier. Stevie, this is my war.”
Steve has never been the kind of person to give up on a fight just because it's hopeless—but it's hard to fight Bucky when he would take the same risks, make the same decisions. He doesn't say anything at all, just lets Bucky pull him into a tight embrace, and the lets Bucky tilt his face up for a soft kiss—and with his silence, lets Bucky put himself in danger.
They spend a frantic night—Steve could lose him in the morning.
The next morning, Steve kisses Bucky goodbye at the door, and doesn't pretend that he's going to do anything except wait while he is gone.
(Bucky pulls his shirt off in a room full of shirtless men. He can feel the eyes on him. Steve was right, of course—most people can see the markings—and to anyone with the slightest bit of sight, the intricate wings that cover most of his back are impossible to miss. Not everyone will know what they mean, of course—there's gotta be three idiots in the building who'll think it's just a damn huge tattoo.
That just leaves the other fifty.
Bucky's not fool enough that he ain't scared—but when they call his name, he squares his shoulders, and marches in to see the doc like he'll march into battle if he makes it that far alive.
The doctor—Bucky barely catches his name, the blood is so loud in his ears (it's Clemson)—looks at Bucky's back for a long, long time.
He doesn't say a word about the wings scarred into his skin in black, just gives Bucky his clean bill of health, and the 1A stamp on his enlistment form).
Bucky comes home wearing the reckless, bright grin that Steve loves so much, and part of the tight, worried knot in Steve's chest melts away.
“We did it, Stevie!” Bucky says, closing the door behind him and pulling Steve in for a kiss.
Steve shakes his head, but can't help smiling. “What exactly did I do?”
Bucky laughs. “Took my shirt off in a room fulla recruits. Got my physical. No idea how many people saw my back, and I didn't get jumped outside the recruitment center. Didn't get followed home—spent the whole walk dodgin' a tail that wasn't there.”
“Glad you're home safe, soldier,” Steve says. It hurts to call him that, of course, but it keeps him beaming, so happy he's glowing with it.
Bucky drags Steve to bed. Every minute with him now is even more precious, and Steve doesn't put up the usual fuss when Bucky insists on throwing him over his shoulder carrying him part of the way there.
Afterwards, when they're laying together in post-coital bliss, Steve makes Bucky write down everything—the recruitment station, the name of the doctor, any other names he can remember. If someone sells Bucky out, that person's going to have to look Steve in the eye.
“And I'll be home before you know it, pal,” Bucky says, crooked smile plastered across his face. He's all packed up for basic. “And then who knows how long until I get my orders. We'll go to that Stark fella's expo together, Stevie.”
Steve's not going to say anything that will dampen Bucky's determined enthusiasm, so he doesn't say anything at all. This will be the first time they've been apart since Bucky first sauntered into Steve's life in Moloch's alley.
“You can meet me at the station,” Bucky says, his voice soft and comforting. “Wrote down my train for you. Damn shame that my welcome home kiss will have to wait for closed doors.”
Steve tries his best to smile. His face falls a little short of the intended expression, he's sure. “I'll miss your ugly mug.”
Bucky grins at his words, real and bright. He's doing the right thing, and Steve is proud—he has to be proud. Bucky picks up his bag. “Steve. Where's my goodbye kiss?”
They'd both agreed that Steve shouldn't see him off at the train. This is it. Steve grabs onto Bucky's shirt, and tugs him down for a last kiss, pours every last bit of love and passion and adoration and worry into it, until Bucky staggers back, breathless. Steve is hardly aware of the tightness in his own chest, too focused on his heart, which feels as though it might be breaking.
Every moment since Bucky enlisted has felt stolen, and this is it.
“If you're tryin' to convince me to stay, that's a pretty good argument,” Bucky says, panting, “but I think it would count as going AWOL.”
“Hurry up and leave, so you can come home, you big jerk,” Steve says.
Bucky salutes him as he shuts the door. Steve waits until he knows that Bucky will be down the stairs before burying his face in a pillow to cry.
It's like losing a limb.
Steve hasn't been away from him, since...he doesn't really know. It's been so long that the years have blurred together. Years of sleeping curled together, of waking up to Bucky's sleepy smiles and good-morning kisses, sharing meals and cooking dinner side-by-side.
The clock ticks to the time when Bucky usually comes home, and every night—he doesn't come home. Steve doesn't get to hear his voice, telling stories or complaining about an incompetent supervisor. After dinner, Bucky doesn't plunk down on their battered couch and put his tired feet in Steve's lap and make eyes until Steve agrees to rub them—not that Steve there was ever a single moment when Steve considered not helping them out.
This is a trial separation—preparation for Bucky getting his orders and being gone for...nobody knows. Steve thinks of it as training—Bucky's training for war, and he's training for Bucky being away from him. It's pathetic, of course—but Steve can't help feeling like all the warmth and passion is missing from life without him. Letters are a comfort—scarce and short and oh-so-precious—but they're nothing close to enough.
It's illegal to lie on your enlistment form, but Steve goes to three more recruitment offices, and tries to join up three more times. It's three rejections, but Steve has never been the type to give up easy.
Steve fills up the days with work. He draws endless sketches of Bucky's handsome face, and thinks about the fact that he doesn't have a picture—not a single one—of the person he loves. Steve gets into fights over the honor of strangers—they're worse with no one to wade in and save him, but he survives. He isn't sure that it's called living, without Bucky there, and Steve knows—he knows it's a problem, but it isn't one he knows how to fix.
Time ticks by, slow though it might be. Bucky's homecoming grows closer and closer until the day that's marked on the Steve's calendar finally comes.
He wakes up, giddy and before the dawn. Bucky's train should be arriving at five—Steve's arranged (begged and pleaded) to get off of work an hour early. He unloads boxes of vegetable's at the grocer's uneasily, spends more time staring at the clock and daydreaming about Bucky's face than he does doing anything else until he runs out at four-thirty sharp. He'll placate Mr. Cassidy tomorrow—tomorrow, when he's seen Bucky and touched him and has drunk down their reunion to the dregs.
The wait at the station is the most impatient twenty minutes—the train is ten behind—of his life. He watches the off-time hands of his cheap watch. The anticipation's so bad he's almost shaking with it. Any minute now, any minute now—the train finally pulls into the station, and Steve's so damn excited that his weak heart rattles in his chest. Breathing feels a bit tight, like he might have an attack at any moment. It doesn't matter—none of it matters—if he has an attack, Bucky will be there to help him through.
He's got no interest in frightening his fella the minute he gets off the train, though, so Steve works to calm himself down and get his treacherous lungs back under control, with some limited success. The new soldiers come pouring out and into the arms of waiting families and sweethearts.
Steve searches for Bucky's face in the crowd. He is stunned to not immediately find him—he and Bucky have bit of a sixth sense about these things, and seven measly weeks should not have changed that. Still, it's nothing to worry about (Steve tells the palpitations in his chest, and the growing trepidation). The crowd will thin out, and they will find each other.
The soldiers and their welcome parties start to filter out of the station, and still no sign of Bucky. Steve starts worrying in earnest, but there has to be an explanation—perhaps he wrote something down wrong? He goes up to a young man who is smoking a cigarette by himself, watching the happy reunions, and asks, forgetting to avoid the smoke, “Sorry to bother you, but which company's this?”
The soldier answers—it's Bucky's company, alright. Steve hasn't gotten it all wrong.
He chances another question. “You know a fella by the name of Barnes—James, calls himself Bucky? 'Bout your height, brown hair, blue—”
Something like fear flashes in the soldier's eyes. “Sorry, kid. I've never heard of him.” He grinds his cigarette out under his heel, and walks away. It's practically a run.
Steve talks to three other people to convince himself he wasn't imagining the first soldier's panic. It's all the same. No one knows who Bucky is, and everyone he asks gets the hell out of dodge the moment he asks them.
Steve's panicking so bad his head is spinning. He finds a bench and sits down, hiding his face in his hands—he has no idea what to do.
“Hey, kid,” someone calls, maybe to him, hours or minutes later. “Psst! Over here! You must be Steve.”
He looks up at that, and follows the voice into the shadows.
It's dark, and Steve's eyes are too weak to see exactly who he's talking to—he makes out a vague, slender figure in an ill-fitting suit, a hat pulled down low over his eyes. “Barnes, he was there,” the mystery man says, voice pitched low—Steve realizes, with a start, that the mystery man is a woman. “Don't let anybody tell you otherwise. Go see—”
And that's all the stranger manages before someone drags her away.
Bucky was there. Everyone else was lying to him. Bucky was there, and now he is gone, and someone is hiding the truth.
Steve has always been the sort of person to be sure of every course of action he takes. He follows his heart and does what is right—that's just the way his mother raised him. Steve knows what is right here, and he knows where his heart wants to lead him, but for the first time in his life—he has no idea what to do.
Steve spends a few hours utterly lost. He returns to his bench, and sits on it, staring out at nothing. He's out of his depth, and his mind won't stop conjuring horrible images of horrible things that might, at that very moment, be happening to Bucky. Steve's been in impossible situations before, but always with Bucky by his side. The two of them together have experienced a marked tendency to get through the lean times, to overcome any obstacle life puts in their path. Steve panics. He has no idea if he can manage this one on his own.
He has an asthma attack and there is no one, no one to rub his shoulders and tell him that it's going to be alright, and if he can't get through one measly attack—something that's happened to him hundreds upon hundreds of times in his life of physical frailty—how is he supposed to find Bucky, who's been snatched away by something dark and seemingly all-powerful.
Night falls around him. Darkness only makes it easier to imagine some necromancer grinding Bucky's bones into powder for his curses. The US army's got a magic division—perhaps they even gave Bucky up to be devoured themselves.
That thought, strangely enough, is what makes Steve pull himself together. He can't count on anybody else to help Bucky—it's gotta be him. And if he can't do it alone, Steve's going to get help.
He squares his shoulders, and he walks to the waterfront. He finds a quiet little pier, and sits down—seven tears, Mrs. Rourke had said. It's not at all hard to cry when there is so much fear and sorrow in his heart. But seven tears fall into the water, and she does not come.
Steve's never called a selkie before—he lets himself cry a little longer—just to be on the safe side, and just because he can't really stop.
She doesn't come, and he can't really blame her, not after what happened when she was last called. He hopes that wherever she is, she's alright.
Steve's pretty short on magical allies—Wanda went back to her own time a few years ago, assuring Bucky that her magic would remain even when she was gone; Hausis was convinced by a granddaughter to comes live on tribal land; it's hard to keep track of Rivkeh these days. And really, he and Bucky don't have much in the way of close bonds outside of each other, magical or otherwise, at all. They talk to their neighbors, and they help out whomever they can, but they've been so wrapped up in one another, and the hard work of surviving takes up the rest of their time.
It's never been a problem—they've been happy with their little, insular life. Except now, Steve has to fight the whole damn world to find Bucky, and he has to do it on his own.
Steve doesn't really know what draws him to the Stark Expo—probably Bucky's voice, telling Steve that they were going to go together, the memory of Bucky's smile—but he winds up there the very next evening, after a night of very little sleep, and a day of hopeless planning. Steve doesn't even know where to start.
The expo is a huge, showy thing—bright lights, big spectacles, and bigger personalities. Bucky would have loved it, and Steve feels, for the first time, a stab of fury rather than fear. How dare someone keep Bucky from something he would have enjoyed—how dare someone keep him from Steve's side.
Howard Stark himself is flashy and slick on the stage, showing off some failed flying car. Steve hates him viscerally and immediately. He leaves the show partway through,
There's a recruitment center at the fair. Steve doesn't really know what he's hoping to find there—Bucky might well have been betrayed by their military. It might be habit—Steve has walked into recruitment centers more often than he has walked past them.
He's staring at propaganda that he trusted a short twenty-four hours, now a lifetime, ago when he hears his name.
“There you are, Steven Rogers,” someone says. “I've been expecting you. The summoning magic really should have brought you here sooner. You must be very stubborn.”
The stranger's voice is accented—German—and Steve tries not to judge, especially not based on things like that, but he's been summoned and that sends a shiver down his spine. Steve turns around. The man standing behind him is short, bespectacled, and greying. His eyes are very kind. “My name is Dr. Abraham Erskine, and I can help you find your friend. Follow me.”
The doctor could be leading Steve anywhere, but he follows without question.
They wind up in a little examination room, where Steve sits down, quiet and docile, and waits for an explanation.
“Four times, you tried to enlist, Mr. Rogers,” Erskine says. “So eager to be a soldier? Is it in your blood?”
“Not that I know of,” Steve says. He's starting to become uneasy—he's broken laws, after all, and there's no way he can help Bucky from jail.
Erskine smiles, friendly but perfunctory. “Don't worry. You're not in trouble. Not that you know of? You don't know very much about your father at all, do you, Steven—may I call you Steven?”
Steve nods, and swallows. His throat feels dry; Erskine passes him a small cup full of water. “How do you know—how'd you know any of that? You a telepath or something?” Steve has never met a telepath before.
“I do not read minds, Steven. I just know people. Your mother was Sarah Rogers, yes? Irish immigrant, came over with her husband, Joseph—she was already pregnant with you.”
“Yeah,” Steve says, “but how—”
“It's all in the records,” Erskine says, pointing to his file.
Steve takes a deep breath. He has to stay calm. “You said you could help me find Bucky.”
“Yes, yes,” Erskine says, “your friend—James Buchanan Barnes, known as Bucky. Formerly an angel, presently a soldier—or at least, he's supposed to be. I can, and I will—but first, first I have to help you find you.”
“I'm right here, doc,” Steve says. He's starting to think that this was a terrible idea—the doctor may or may not be insane.
“Yes, Steven—but how much of you is here?” Erskine says.
Definitely, definitely insane, Steve thinks, and he looks nothing like those mad scientists in the horror flicks, but Steve's almost certainly going to find himself turned into some version of Frankenstein's monster. “All of me, doc, and I'd like to keep it that way.”
“You're funny. That's good! You never did answer my first question.”
“Why do I want to be a soldier?”
“That was the one.”
Steve looks down at his hands, folded in his lap. “I want to protect people.”
“That's a good reason,” Erskine says. “Your father wanted to protect people, too.”
“Why do you know about my old man?” Steve asks. He's somewhere between frustrated and frightened, and Bucky's out there somewhere, needing him. He wants to put an end to this—sooner rather than later—but he also wants to know. His mother hardly ever talked about Joe Rogers at all, kept telling him that it was a conversation best saved for when Steve was older—only, only she never made it that far.
“Because you are a very special young man, Steven,” Erskine says.
“My guardian angel always tells me so,” Steve says, forcing a smile. Joking to cover up negative emotions is a trick he picked up from Bucky. “And my ma used to.”
Erskine chuckles. “Both of them are correct—from an objective standpoint, as well as their subjective points of view.”
“Everyone's special,” Steve says.
Erskine shakes his head. “That's true, but you're a different kind of special than everyone else.”
“Alright, cut it out. If you're trying to mess with me, ain't funny—I'm getting outta here.”
“Sorry, sorry, Steven. I shouldn't have gotten so dramatic,” Erskine says. “The reason that you are special—objectively—is that your father, Joseph Rogers, was the guardian angel of your mother, Sarah Rogers. What makes you even more special is that you were conceived before your father's fall from grace. Only a few children like you have ever existed.”
“That's a load of bullshit,” Steve says. His mother taught him not to swear, but he hardly ever hears her voice in his head now when he does, and isn't that its own kind of tragedy.
He stares at his file, and gives Steve a pointed glance. “It would seem that you are your mother's son—in so many ways.”
Steve raises an eyebrow. “So first of all, if my father was my mother's guardian angel—how'd they manage to...make me without gettin' caught? And second—if this is what a human-angel hybrid looks like, I can see why angels aren't supposed to mess with their humans. You've got my chart.”
“As to your first question, Steven,” Erskine says, “you cannot compare your own situation to that of your mother. First time angels like your young James are monitored much more closely than someone like your father, who had a great deal of experience. It did not hurt that he knew well enough to go find a witch the moment his feelings for Sarah changed.”
Erskine looks at Steve's face, entirely too amused by whatever he finds there. “And as to your second question, Steven—there was a reason that I asked how much of you was here. As someone with angelic blood, but no connection to the heavenly host, the dangers you would have faced would have been similar to those faced by a fallen angel. I trust that—because of your friend—you are familiar?”
“After what happened to your father, your mother was not willing to take that risk with a defenseless child—her defenseless child,” Erskine says.
Steve cuts him off to ask, “What happened to my father?”
“Nothing good,” Erskine says. “Nothing good. And so, Sarah Rogers found someone who could take that part of you away. She knew you'd likely be like her—sickly—but she was much more willing to deal with that risk. After all, she'd been dealing with illness all her life.”
It's a lot to process, so Steve takes a moment.
“So—I was part angel, and now I'm not,” Steve says, “why bring me here? Why bother?”
“Because, Steven,” Erskine says, “nothing in this world is ever truly gone. I brought you here because can bring that part of you back.”
It's not a hard decision to make. Erskine lays his choices and his risks at his feet, but what it comes down to—what it always comes down to for Steve in the end—is that the beyond-human strength he will be necessary to bring Bucky home.
“How do you know all this stuff, anyway?” Steve asks, following Erskine down into something that looks like a cross between a warlock's lair and a lab. It's sinister, to say the least. “And—this might come out wrong, but—what are you?”
Erskine chuckles. “I am someone who believes that science and magic work best together. And let's just say I work for the heavenly host. It's a lot to explain—maybe another time. You have a lot to do—a transformation to undergo, a quest to go on.”
Erskine gestures to a menacing-looking wooden chair. Steve sits down. “So why do this? Why find me?”
“Because the heavenly host wanted me to, of course,” Erskine says. “But! You'll worry about them later. Transformation, quest, then heavenly host!”
“Won't they want me before that?” Steve asks.
“And that will be their problem.” Erskine hands Steve a potion. “Drink.”
Steve downs it obediently. He supposes that he should be more frightened, but the fact of the matter is—if this brings him one step closer to Bucky, it will have been worth it. There's always the possibility that he's about to turn into a frog, but Steve would be a wholly different sort of person if he worried about those kinds of risks before drinking the potion and not after. “Is that it?” he asks. “I don't feel any different.”
“Oh no, I'm afraid that's not it at all,” Erskine says.
It is at that moment that the chair clamps restraints down onto his wrists, and around his waist. Fortunately—or not—Steve doesn't have any time to be frightened before the excruciating, blinding pain begins.
Steve hears his own scream as a distant thing, smells blood from where he's shouted his throat raw, sees nothing but white.
When Steve is next aware of anything that isn't anguish, he is standing. It seems that he has ripped the restraints from the chair—he can see their remains on the floor, along with torn buttons that appear to have come from the shirt shirt he was wearing.
“—remarkable,” he hears Erskine say. “That's just remarkable. Should have had him take off the shirt.”
There are other people in the room now. They were not there before. Steve is standing, but that does not account for his change in elevation. He looks at Erskine, and finds that he is now looking down.
“How do you feel, Steven?” Erskine asks.
Steve opens his mouth, but words don't come out. He tries again. “Tall.”
“You're not wrong. Shirt,” Erskine says, “someone get him a shirt.”
Someone hands Steve a white tee-shirt. He pulls it on—it's too tight, but better than what he was wearing before would have been. Someone else drags a mirror in front of him. The person he sees has his face, but they share nothing else in common. The man in the mirror is tall and broad; where Steve was scrawny, the man in the mirror is muscular; where Steve was wan and pale, he glows with health. It can't possibly be him, except—
“Well, Steven, your transformation is complete. Up next is the quest—we're going to have to get you out of here before the angels grab you.”
“Angels? There are angels here?” Steve is still too dazed to recognize people for what they truly are.
“Yes,” Erskine says, “and unless you care to find yourself the mascot for human-angel cooperation, you won't be.”
Steve follows him dutifully.
Erskine leads Steve up a stairwell. Steve isn't quite sure where the stairs came from. “I believe there's someone waiting for you.”
Bucky, Bucky is waiting for him, but that isn't what Erskine means. At the top of the stairs, there is a woman—her hair is dark, like the murky depths of the ocean, and her skin is pale like sea foam under the moon. She's wearing red lipstick and a smart military uniform and Steve never, ever thought he would see her again—not like this, glowing with health and with happiness even though both her feet are on land.
“He's all yours, Agent Carter,” Erskine says.
“You—” Steve manages to stammer out. “You're late.”
“Yes, well, I got your call, but you know—there's a war on,” she says. “I was right, you did survive.”
“Thanks to Bucky,” Steve says. “Carter's your name now?”
“Agent Margaret Carter. Picked it out myself—suits me, doesn't it? Friends call me Peggy, and you are a friend, Steve.” She smiles. It's warm.
“Good to meet ya, Peggy,” Steve says, because she is a different woman now. He doesn't ask what she's doing back in human civilization, why she would ever come back.
He doesn't ask, but Peggy volunteers it. “Your lot were making a mess of the world. Figured I might try to help.”
“You're one hell of a lady, Agent Carter,” Steve says. He can't help but smile—at her evident happiness, at their unexpected reunion. He only wishes that Bucky were here to see, and he tells her as much.
“About your friend James,” Erskine starts—
A great deal of things happen at once. Up until that exact moment, Steve had neither seen, nor heard an explosion. That changes when half the room goes up in a bright burst of flames and a deafening sound. Steve does not have time to dwell on the new experience—a single shot rings out, and a spot of blood blooms, stark red against the white of Dr. Erskine's lab-coat.
Peggy takes off after someone, and Steve drops to the ground by Erskine's side. It's been a long time since he's seen somebody die. That streak is going to be broken. The bullet hit its mark—Erskine's heart; Steve presses down on the wound, but it's useless. Erskine manages a weak smile, but no words, and then he's gone.
Steve cannot help him, but he can help catch his killer.
What comes next happens even faster, the details lost in a blur of adrenaline—he and Peggy work in tandem. She cannot match him for strength or for speed—and since when has Steve ever had either one of those things—but he cannot match her for training. Together, their adversary doesn't stand a chance.
“Who was he?” Steve asks, panting, when it is all over. He realizes, for the first time, that he does not have shoes.
“Dr. Clemson—or at least that's what he called himself,” Peggy says. “He was one of Schmidt's, that much is clear.”
“Schmidt is the one who has Bucky.”
Peggy has a great deal of things to explain to him, and she does so in a clipped, quick tone as cameras flash and soldiers move around them.
“The SSR—well, we're secret agents, first of all. But more importantly than that, we serve as a link between the army and the heavenly host. They're none-too-pleased about the development of human warfare, but they're not about to be left out. Erskine must have said this—we negotiate the interaction of technology and magic”
“Like you, Johann Schmidt is the son of an angel. That is where the similarities end. He is obsessed—with power, with angels, particularly ones who have fallen. He's a Nazi, albeit one with his own cult—a cult that's grown so much that every capture fallen angel in the entirety of the western world winds up in his grasp.”
“How's he manage that?”
“Schmidt has a machine.”
Steve's first impression of Howard Stark was not a good one. His second impression of Howard Stark is decidedly worse.
“I'm not gonna wear that,” Steve says. “I'm not.”
“Tough luck, pal,” Stark tells him. “You are the face and perfect form of human-angel cooperation, and if you think we're sending you on your way without an appropriately patriotic photo op, you're dead wrong.”
One photo op turns into twelve days of touring around the tri-state area Peggy gives him the compass somewhere in-between. Steve has no idea what's happening to Bucky, and he's pretty sure he's going to snap or run for it and try to make it to the location that Peggy showed him on a map, is pretty sure that's what she wants him to do when she puts the compass in his hands.
“It's not an ordinary compass,” she says, on day twelve. “It was scavenged from the wreck of a ship laden with magical artifacts, many, many years ago.”
“What does it do?”
“It shows its owner whatever they want to see,” Peggy says.
“Like what?” Steve asks, but Peggy just rolls her eyes and hands it over and when Steve looks inside he isn't standing back stage, USO girls milling around behind him—he's—
(He's strapped to a table somewhere in a dark factory, and he's scared—so scared, though he'll never say it out loud.
“We're doing you a favor, Sergeant,” the doctor—a man who makes his skin crawl, who makes his blood freeze, whose round glasses and crooked teeth are going to be in his nightmares forever—says. “We're going to bring back your grace. Any pain you suffer is...a mere inconvenience. And if some of the machines in this fine factory happen to run on the pain of fallen angels, well that's just a lucky coincidence, isn't it?”
He looks above the doctor's looming face, at the gear-and-clockwork machine that towers over them both. He does not know what the machine does, and he wonders—something is injected into his arm, and something electronic is hooked to his bare chest, and then there is only pain. He does not wonder anything at all).
Steve slams the compass shut, gasping. “Bucky—I was, I wasn't here. I wasn't me. I was in his head.”
“Yes,” Peggy says. “This particular artifact lets you walk a while in the shoes of others. You have to care a great deal about the person whose life you're stepping into, but I do not thing that will be a problem. Anyone else looks at it, and they will see a picture. Of me.” Her red lips curl into a sharp smile.
“Does it work as an ordinary compass, too?” Steve asks.
“Only when you want it to.”
“Thank you,” Steve says. “Thank you, Peggy.”
Peggy says,“You can thank me when he's safe.”
Steve slams Howard Stark against against a wall, and he will never get used to wielding this kind of strength, of that much he is sure. “One photo,” he says. “One photo, you told me. He's being tortured. Tortured, while USO girls dance around me.”
“Easy, big guy,” Howard says. “We'll get you to your party on time. In the meantime—I made you a toy my future-seer says you're gonna love.”
Steve has never been on a plane before in his life, so of course his first time in the air is under enemy fire. Not that Steve has been paying much attention to the flight. He's staring into the compass.
“Should have known better than to give you that thing,” Peggy says with a heavy sigh.
Steve snaps it shut. “It lets me know he's alive.”
“You're torturing yourself. Quite literally, might I add.”
Steve shrugs. It's true that he has felt the walking pneumonia in Bucky's lungs, and the way that the cold and the starvation have made their way into his bones. He tries not to leave the compass open when Bucky is with Zola—he learned the creepy little doctor's name somewhere along the way—it feels like a violation of Bucky's privacy. Bucky will share those things with Steve if he wants Steve to know them. “Like I said, it's better than worrying he might be dead.”
Peggy just shakes her head.
The plane is rocked by a very (very, very) near miss, and Steve stops brooding. “I think I should just jump. It's too dangerous for you two to be here.”
“And it won't be dangerous for you?” Stark shouts. The pilot's goggles he's wearing make him look (more) manic.
Steve doesn't dignify that with a response; instead, he jumps.
“It's an enchanted forest!” Peggy shouts after him. And well, Steve will deal with that particular problem when he gets to it.
There is a marked improvement in his circumstances the moment that Steve's boots hit the ground. For one—there's nobody shooting at him, at least for the time being. In theory, the shield should protect him once the shooting starts.
Steve starts towards the factory—everything is better now, his sight, his memory, his sense of direction. He doesn't need to pull out his compass or his map. He starts towards the factory.
Steve doesn't get very far before his walk is interrupted by a very rude flash of light and furious wings. The angel who has appeared in front of him is very obviously military in nature—an officer, so Steve salutes, before hissing, “Sir, are you insane? You'll give our position away.”
“That's Colonel to you, son. And you are AWOL. AWOL, from the heavenly host, and I'm the one who's insane?”
“I'm not an angel,” Steve says, continuing forward, calm and determined. “Well—half. But I don't think that counts.”
“Half,” the colonel says, incredulous. “No such thing, except for that thing in that factory, and you're not him, son.”
“My mother was Sarah Rogers,” Steve says, “and my father was her guardian angel. Half.”
“Rogers,” the colonel says. “Son of a bitch. Excuse me—your mother, she was a lovely lady. Damn smart to hide you like she did, too. Had no idea that father of yours had a son.”
A root slithers out to trip him. Steve sidesteps it deftly—coordination, that's better, too. He curls his fingers around Peggy's compass. Bucky is so close, Steve can practically feel him.
“Is that all, sir?” Steve asks.
The colonel shakes his head. He sounds fed up, but Steve supposes that an eternity of warfare will do that to a man. “You half breeds can battle it out over the fallen angels or what have you.”
He gives Steve the coordinates of the nearest allied base (“In case you survive,”), before disappearing. Apparently, the flash of light he arrived in had been optional.
Thirty seconds later, Steve is under enemy fire.
There's a poetry to fighting with the shield. Steve calculates the angles and it ricochets from foe to falling (fallen) foe. The shield sings—it whistles through the air; the sweet ring of metal on metal echoes through the dark forest whenever Steve deflects a bullet, and the heavy, rhythmic thuds of metal hitting body armor and then bodies hitting the soft ground keeps time.
Steve has never felt more right or more alive, except with Bucky by his side. (And hasn't he always been the type to fall in love in the middle of a fight?)
He doesn't know how many men came at him—he only knows that when he leaves the clearing, they are all down.
Steve creeps into the factory, hiding behind crates and darting through the shadows. If it weren't for the men he cracks over the head with the shield or silently chokes unconscious every time he advances, it would be just like those sunlit days of hiding at the docks with Bucky, waiting for Rourke to lead them to Peggy's skin. The stakes had been unimaginably high then, too.
Steve remembers some of the layout from the time he's been spending looking at this place through Bucky's eyes. He creeps to the cages where the prisoners are being kept, and he sets the men free. They are, all of them, he knows, soldiers—men who were brave enough to try to join up despite the targets that their lost wings painted on their backs. Men, like Bucky, who were soldiers even before that.
They know what to do.
And Steve, well—Steve has only one purpose, here or anywhere else. He runs through the factory and doesn't stop to care about the destruction around him—Schmidt's gear-and-clockwork machines are blowing themselves up, and maybe now Bucky will never know what they are for. (Steve will find out—Steve will find out for him when he wrings the creepy doctor's neck for daring to)—Zola himself rushes past, and Steve doesn't stop for him, either.
Revenge can wait. Everything can wait, everything except—Steve hears Bucky's voice. He's muttering to himself—name, rank, serial number, over and over—and it breaks Steve's heart, but it also leads Steve back to his side.
“Bucky,” Steve says. He's strapped down and delirious, and Steve thought there would be joy in seeing his face again, no matter the state—but Steve rips through the restraints, and he doesn't respond, and there can be no kind of happiness, not like this. “Oh, Buck.”
Bucky murmurs something incoherent in response, still perfectly still.
The building's catching fire around them. Steve 's got no time to process this pain.“Hey—it's me. It's Steve,” he says, reaching down to touch him, and that is all it takes to bring the light back to Bucky's eyes.
He smiles and echoes Steve's name, and they banter back and forth as Steve hauls Bucky to his feet. Transformations and torture and time in between them, and nothing has changed—not with them; the factory might be burning, but there's nothing more important than pulling Bucky in for a kiss.
He laughs against Steve's lips. “Things are blowing up, Steve,” Bucky says, but he kisses back, anyway.
And yeah, there's explosions; and when they take off, Steve's supporting most of Bucky's weight. They've got a war to win, and Steve's got the angels to deal with (Bucky, Bucky is going to have ghosts)—but they are, the two of them, together. The whole world could be ablaze, and Steve would still be smiling.
Bucky would call him a sap if Steve ever said that out loud—but he'd also grin bright enough to light up half the eastern seaboard. Steve files the words away for the next quiet moment, and then he runs for his life—Bucky right beside him.