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the kids aren't alright

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Steve wakes up in the morning, lips turning at the bright light that's pouring through his bedroom window, and rolls over.

The mattress should groan under his weight but there is no noise as he digs himself onto his side, facing away from the dawn breaking beyond the heights of Brooklyn. It's the stillness that has woken him, buzzing through his ears as if he can hear the silence creeping upon him as the city still sleeps.

There is nothing there, and so Steve lies in bed until the hollow pressure swelling within his chest threatens to explode.

When he gets up — tugging on a baseball cap and sneakers with half-lidded eyes — Steve stops before he heads out the front door. From down the hall, a sliver of light lines the crack between a door and the hardwood floor. It is shut as always, something which Sam and Natasha keep reminding him is a good thing, but Steve still stares at the door like he wishes he could see into the room.

Like he wishes that Bucky would come out of there.

"Buck," he calls, "I'm going for a run. Do you need anything?"

There is no response, and with each second Steve waits, he feels the earlier pressure from this morning grow beneath his skin. Steve's hand spasms at his side, clenching and unclenching until his trimmed nails have dug grooves into calloused skin.

He wonders what Bucky would do today if he opened the door.

If he invited him out for a run.

If he never came back.

Sometimes, he wonders if Bucky would even care.

It's a question that Steve hates himself for asking.

Opening the door, he takes a halted breath when a brush of air passes through his ruffled hair from the hallway. It sends shivers down his spine. "Call me if anything happens. I'll be back soon," he calls as he shuts the door.

He doesn't wait to see if Bucky answers him this time. Steve isn't one to welcome disappointment.

The city is just waking when he starts his route — familiar enough that Steve's feet simply take him from one block to the next as he passes coffee shops and strip malls. He slows down when he gets to the bridge and finds that his favorite diner is boarded up with a large black-and-white sign tacked to the door. Steve stumbles closer, rereading the large blocked letters.


CLOSED.

THANK YOU FOR THE LAST SIXTY YEARS.

WE'LL MISS YOU.

Something knocks into Steve — something he can't put a name to — when he reads the sign. But then he keeps moving forward, dodging late-shift workers who are heading home and even stops another time to pick up his regular order from the Starbucks down on Demonbreun.

He grabs a latte for Bucky before he heads out, carefully keeping it in his grip as he heads back to the apartment. He's nearly home when Steve hears a voice call out to him.

"Captain America!"

Steve nearly trips over himself as he comes to a stop and drops his own drink to the pavement. He jumps back, feeling the searing heat of his coffee splash against his bare calves, and bites his tongue to keep from swearing when he sees the small girl running up to him. Her dark curly hair bounces with each step she takes, and when Steve looks down, he sees her shoes lighting up colorfully as she shuffles on her feet.

He blinks when he sees that his shield is on her shoes. He blinks again when he hears her saying something to him.

"…believe it! You are, right? Captain America?"

She can't be more than eight, Steve knows. There is an expectant look in her eyes as she looks up to him, still rocking on her heels in a way that makes Steve's stomach roll.

He puts on a smile — one that Senator Brandt had loved all those years ago — and half expects a film crew to pop out from the alley across the street, armed with the lights and cameras that Steve had always hated.

"Yeah," he answers, crouching to his knees to look her in the eye. "That's me."

Her face screws up before she's launching herself at him, nearly throwing him off balance. "You're my hero! My uncle always—"

"Gabriella!"

At the call, Steve peers over the girl's hair to see an older woman jogging towards them. Her eyes are wide as she takes in the scene, brow furrowing in anger as she draws closer.

"Get away from her," she calls, and Gabriella pulls away to point at Steve and nearly pokes his eye.

"Ma," she shouts, "look who I found! It's Captain America!"

The woman shakes her head, and Steve stands up before taking a step away from Gabriella. He feels his throat close as he tries to speak, unsure of what to say. Conflict resolution has ever been his thing — not unless it involved a black eye and Bucky's bruised knuckles — and SHIELD never prepped him for this.

He's holding his hands up when the woman finally stops to stand behind Gabriella, eyes now narrowed as she catalogues Steve's broad shoulders and trim waist. Steve only lets himself relax when he sees the woman's mouth drop and notices how her hands have tightened on her daughter's shoulders.

"You're…"

He sighs. "Steve Rogers," he introduces before noting the sour look on Gabriella's face. "You might know me as Captain America," he finishes, and then the little girl smiles.

Her mother says nothing for a moment until she clears her throat. "I'm sorry for…I was worried that…"

Steve shrugs. "I understand. There's no need to apologize."

"No," she insists, "I do. Oh my god, Pappy must be laughing at me in his grave. Or Tripp — except, you know, he's not dead. Brothers, you know? Can't live with them, but you'd would hate to live without them" she laughs, and Steve watches as she tucks a piece of hair behind her ear.

"M'am?"

The woman flushes, blurting out her next words. "Gabriella is named after you."

Steve blinks, and the woman cries, "Wait, no! Uh, I mean, here…let's try this again." Bringing a hand out to Steve, she stutters, "Hello, I'm Emelie, and this," she says as she ruffles her daughter''s hair, "is Gabriella. Um, Gabriella Jones."

He runs through the names until he remembers waking up — remembers Fury giving him the files on the Commandos — and remembers seeing Gabe's list of kin as he glossed over the report on his friend's funeral. Steve stares, seeing the same wide-set nose and curved chin that's been shared throughout generations, and then there is a hand tugging at the hem of his shirt.

Steve looks down. Gabriella is waving at him, and he wants to smile.

God, Steve wants nothing more than to smile and cry and bring them both to his chest in a hug that would make them all breathless. A piece of his old life is standing here with him, but at the same time, it isn't.

Because if it were, Gabe would standing between them both — hair greyed with laugh-lines gathering at his eyes — and the rest of his team would be there too. Peggy would be there, as sharp as the day they'd met, and Sharon would be at her side rather than at the graveyard she now visits with flowers for her aunt. And Steve would be there with Bucky where they'd…

"…always said that you'd promised to name a kid after him. We all thought he was lying, but Dugan had sworn Pappy was telling the truth — that you had told Pappy you'd do that. And, well, Pappy was getting old when I was with Gabriella, so I figured I'd be the one to do it. We found out it was a girl, and I knew what I had to do. I don't think I'd ever seen Pappy laugh so hard than when I told him."

It's like when he saw the diner, the way Steve feels when he listens to her speak. There's a name for it, whatever he's feeling, that he remembers from before — that he's felt everyday since waking from the ice. It's a viscous thing that flows through his veins and pushes against his chest.

Rarely does it get the best of him. Steve is stubborn. There was no time for feeling sorry for himself, not when his Ma was rationing and not even when Father Donavon had come to give his last rites on Bucky's sixteenth birthday. There was no time then, Steve tells himself, and so there's no time now.

But, as he stares at Gabriella, Steve wonders if it's something greater than pity or nostalgia. He feels his breath hitch into a sigh, feeling a watery sting at the back of his eyes, and lets a loose laugh break from his quivering lips.

"That's great," he breathes, blinking tears away as he steps back. Gabriella pouts, grabbing again for Steve's shirt, but he moves beyond her reach. Her mother frowns, staring at Steve with eyes that take him back to France — back to foxholes and air raids — when Gabe would flirt the team into a few free drinks before remembering that Steve couldn't get drunk anymore.

"Are you alright?"

Steve smiles. "Of course," he answers, "I just have someplace to be," he finishes, unsure of what to do or say. He hates it, the guilt that chips at his gut when he jogs away with cold sweat rising from the back of his neck. If Gabe were here…

Steve runs, pushing himself faster as he rounds the corner, nearing his apartment with each step.

Gabe isn't here. None of them are, not anymore — at least, not like they used to be.

It takes a moment for Steve to remember that this is what grief feels like.

Steve takes the stairs up to his apartment so quickly that he trips on the last landing, pitching himself towards his front door with a bang. He curses, tensing as if he expects Bucky to kick the door down with a knife in each hand at the noise, but nothing comes. Even when Steve unlocks the door, toeing off his shoes in the foyer, there is nothing in the apartment.

It's the same, just as how he left it this morning. Not a thing has been moved, and Steve's willing to bet not a sound has been made. Beyond the birds lined on the fire escape, there is nothing to cut the stillness in the air that stifles the apartment. Steve stands there with Bucky's chilled latte in hand and takes a step into the hallway. When he's in front of Bucky's door, he coughs and raps his knuckles against the wood.

"I got you a drink," he calls through the door. "I'll leave it outside your door."

He is setting the drink down, feeling a sudden weight on his shoulders, when the pressure in Steve's chest bottoms out. Like a blow to the gut, Steve lets himself fall backwards on his hands to lower himself to the floor. The hallways is dark, darker now as he curls himself into the corner of it, and lets his legs stretch out in front of him. The angry red burns on his calf are all but healed now, and Steve feels sick when he sees the tender skin that's there now.

He heals too fast — too fast for Steve to often even realize he's been hurt in the first place. Sitting, Steve runs a finger over the skin now, shivering at the chills that raise from the skin when he does so. A savage part of him wants to rip into the skin and see how long it would take to knit itself whole again, to heal itself without a scar in place.

Biting his lip, Steve breathes deeply through his nose — one, two, three in and one, two, three out — just like his counselor had told him to do. He brings his hand to his chest, feeling the steady thud-thud of his heart as it beats below his breast.

He remembers all of the times he thought that his heart would give out on him.

He even remembers the times he had wanted to make it stop.

Steve remembers that such a time wasn't too long ago, had been sooner than even the Valkyrie or the helicarrier.

A sound comes from Bucky's room, and Steve jerks, staring at the doorknob to find that it hasn't been touched. He sits there, losing time just as surely as he had in the ice, until the light outside his windows goes dark under the city's night sky. The empty pit in his chest yawns when Steve pushes himself to his feet, silent as he makes his way into his room. He shuts the door — something he's not done in months — and relishes the sound of the lock clicking into place as he strips his stiff shirt from his skin.

As he shucks his shorts off, Steve pauses when a thud drops to the floor with them. He bends down and reaches into the fabric, pulling out his little black notebook. His heart thuds painfully against his ribs when he opens to a marked page and sees the list he's been keeping.


He called me a "punk" today

He hummed to the radio while I made dinner

He asked about Anne. I told him she got married — Check that!

He didn't have a nightmare last night

He shuts the notebook, pressing it's worn leather binding between his fingers, and sets it on his bedside table. Steve looks at his unmade bed before heading to the window. The blinds are still open from this morning, and from outside, the light of a few street-lamps filter through the room. He stares at them — listening to the moths buzzing around the bulbs — before he closes the blinds. When he settles into his bed, curled onto his side on top of his covers, Steve rests his head on his arm.

Steve breathes, alone now in the dark, and feels the still air close in around him. He lies there and digs his fingers into the sheets, nearly ripping them as he struggles to control his breathing. The pit in his chest gapes widely, falling now into the pit of his stomach, and Steve closes his eyes.

There's no need to feel sorry for yourself, Steve remembers. Captain America is better than this.

Pushing his head into his pillow, Steve takes a gasping breath when a voice, rich with a familiar timbre, reminds him:

You're just a boy from Brooklyn.

"Steve?"

He doesn't say anything when he hears Bucky's voice from the doorway. He doesn't even bother to ask how he got past the lock. Instead, Steve clears his throat and rolls towards his friend.

"Need something, Bucky?"

Bucky looks at him, not with the eyes of a soldier but not quite with those of a friend, and walks into the room. "Something's wrong," he notes, not pressing to ask more.

Steve shrugs. "I'm alright. Don't worry about it," he says. Bucky stands there, and Steve waits — unsure as usual of what's going through his friend's head. He closes his eyes after a moment as every part of him grows tired, but then there is a dip in the bed beside him that has Steve rolling over with eyes wide open. Bucky is lying next to him, going stiff after he tosses Steve's blanket over their exposed feet, and he pulls his hair into a tie while Steve stares blankly at him. Rolling his right shoulder, Bucky stares at its pale skin before fixing Steve with a look.

Bucky nods. "Are you coming over here or not?"

"Huh?"

Something in his chest fills when Bucky reaches for Steve with his flesh-and-blood arm. He's still so careful, even after all these months, to keep his other arm hidden from Steve, but the touch of Bucky's soft fingers against his scalp feels good as his friend nudges Steve's heavy head to his shoulder. The heat feels good against Steve's skin, and Bucky lies loose underneath him. The arm is at his back now as Bucky's hand splays between Steve's shoulder blades — five points of contact to keep Steve close as he huddles closer to Bucky.

They lay there together for a moment before Bucky speaks. "You're not alright."

Steve shakes his head, his nose pressing against Bucky's joint. "Look, don't worry abou—"

"You will be," Bucky interrupts, looking up at the ceiling. "That's what you tell me."

"Bucky…"

"So," Bucky says, "the same has gotta' be true for you."

"I know, I know," Steve says. "It just doesn't always feel like that."

Bucky snorts. "Tell me about it."

Steve takes a breath, wanting to say a thousand things at once as the weight on his chest lightens. He wants to tell Bucky about his day — about the diner and Gabriella.

About his notebook and all of the things Steve keeps there.

About anything and everything that Steve can think of because Bucky is here and alive and that's so much more than Steve ever thought he'd get.

He wets his lips. "Hey, Buck—"

"Go to bed, Steve," his friend breaks in, brushing his thumb across Steve's back. "We'll talk tomorrow."

Steve wants to saying something, but for now, it is enough for him to lie there and know there is a tomorrow. Closing his eyes, he draws up a knee to rest over Bucky's thigh and slowly drapes an arm over his chest. Bucky tenses for a moment, breathing softly as he relaxes, but Steve chooses to focus on the even thrum of Bucky's heart beneath his hand.

Thud-thud

Thud-thud

It's the last thing he feels before falling asleep.