Yes, often, I am reminded of her, and in one of my vast array of pockets, I have kept her story to retell. It is one of the small legion I carry, each one extraordinary in its own right. Each one an attempt - an immense leap of an attempt - to prove to me that you, and your human existence, are worth it.
Here it is. One of a handful.
~ The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
The first time Death meets Steven Rogers, the sky is a sickly yellow with a tinge of grey heartache. Death doesn't know the boy, not yet, but he remembers the mother.
„I took your husband,“ he says to the gentle, battered soul curling into his arms like a lot of souls in this hospital did. Many more will still do. „The sky was yellow, too. As yellow as mustard.“ She doesn't answer, but he can feel her reaching out: a last brush of comfort against skinny arms, a last touch of motherly love to blond hair.
That's when he notices the boy.
He's small, even for his age. Death can see a dozen ways the boy's health might fail him, a dozen paths on which they might meet again. None is decided yet. Still, even though his body is young and frail, his eyes are old. He doesn't cry. His mother is dead and he doesn't cry, because it is the one thing he can do: look into Death's eyes and be strong.
Steve. Sarah Rogers' voice is a faint sigh between hope and sadness. She wants to do more for her son, but there is nothing she can do anymore. There is nothing Death can do. Nothing but to look into Steven Rogers' eyes and remember his name.
„Steve.“ Another boy with wild dark hair approaches them. He's just as young, just as old, but unlike Steve strong and vibrant with colors. Death can see his path, too, and the way his life will end. „Steve, come on. I'll take you home.“
Death lets them be.
They will meet again.
The next time they meet, the sky is a hard, crisp white.
The color of ice.
The color of winter.
James Bucky Barnes was a fighter in life and he is a fighter in death. He fights with everything he has, even as the stone crushes his body and the ice stills his beating heart. He fights when Death picks him up. He fights even after he's given up.
Death has rarely been confronted with such resistance.
I need to go back, Bucky says defiantly, straining against the crook of Death's arm. He needs me.
That may be true. But that is not the way of things.
Death shakes his head and then they go up, up, up. Past the steep, sharp cliffs that tore open Bucky's skin. Past the railway. Past the train that holds a devastated Steven Rogers. The frailty of the Captain's body is long gone. The sadness isn't.
Even now, Steve doesn't cry. He is full of guilt and blame for himself, but he doesn't cry. Because there is a mission waiting for him and this is what he can do: be strong and finish what Bucky died for.
If he could, Death would tell him that he's wrong. That it wasn't Steve's fault his best friend died.
It was bravery that killed Bucky Barnes.
Bravery kills most good men.
Little time passes before they meet again, but the sky has no color at all and that is when Death knows that this isn't right.
The plane is rapidly sinking, taking the Captain down with it beneath the ice. There is no way out. There is no hope. And yet … And yet. There are no colors, either.
Steve opens his eyes and for one moment, he's looking. Looking at Death, seeing him and the expression in his eyes is of a million things and recognition. Then his lids flutter closed and he is swallowed by water, to be frozen in ice and time for decades. He will not remember Death. Death, however, will remember him.
„Sleep,“ he says, „this is not your time.“
Not today. Today, Death has other places to be: a small town in Germany and a street named for the sky.
The work that awaits him there: a boy that once painted his face black, an accordionist, a woman with a mouth as big as her heart.
The one he'll be taking them from: a girl with stolen books and so many words inside her that she couldn't hold them inside her, so she needed to pour them out on paper.
But this is another story, from another life, for another time. One of a handful.
The day Tony Stark dies, the sky is blazing in bright red and shimmering gold. Red for the blood he spilled to protect the one he loves, gold for the last beam of energy he shot to take down the enemy with him.
That's it? No tunnel, no light, no singing cherubs? I'm disappointed.
Tony Stark stands tall and proud, even in death. He sticks out his chin stubbornly, looking at the flickering lights of the Stark Tower, at the ruin it is now. Then he gazes at Steve and his look grows weary. Wistful. Tony Stark is a fighter as well, though not the kind that Bucky was. He has sought death too many times to shy away from it now.
Tell him it was worth it, he says, his voice raw and open. His soul is worn and frayed at the edges, and patched up at the places where it was touched by Steve Rogers. Tell him it was worth every fucking bit of energy I put into that shot as long as it kept him alive.
Steve is bent over Tony's dead body, shaking it, willing the light of the ARC reactor to sputter back to life. He knows it's useless, but the battle is over and it's the only thing he can do: be stubborn and hope where hope is lost.
This time, he cries.
„I can't,“ Death says.
Thought so. But one can try.
Tony Stark goes out of this world like he always wanted to: with a bang and a smile on his lips.
And, most of all, loved.
Death and Steve meet many times more after that when people around Steve die.
They meet on the day when Natasha Romanov finally wipes her ledger clean and her soul slips gracefully into Death's arms. Her color is white and for the first time in a long, long time, it stands for innocence.
They don't meet when Clint Barton follows her shortly after on a mission in Bolivia, pressed up against Phil Coulson as the bomb burns away their bodies. Their colors mix and mesh, a dark purple swirling against a steel-grey with a dash of blue. Coulson is as ready in death as he was in life. Clint is as ready as you can get, when you've been expecting to die everyday since you were thirteen.
Tell Cap I said hi, he says with a grin and his soul takes the place next to Coulson's.
They meet when Bruce Banner eventually dies of the one thing that can defeat even the Hulk: a ripe and old age. Bruce takes down his glasses to clean them, until he realises he doesn't need them anymore. Then he smiles at the green and scarlet sky as both parts of his soul become one again.
(Thor's is the only color Death probably will never know.)
The last time he meets Steve Rogers, though, Death is greeted with a smile and a blue, blue sky so bright it's almost blinding.
I've been waiting for you, says the Captain. His smile is a smile you keep for old friends: the best ones. It wrinkles the corners of his old, old eyes. I've been waiting for a long time.
And that, if nothing else, is true. After 70 years in the ice and almost twice as many out of it, Steve Rogers has become an old man, at last. He has outlived family members, friends, comrades, generations and lovers. Fewer than some. More than most.
Many more than anyone should.
Still, he has held onto life with both hands and saved as many as he could along the way. Death has met a lot of soldiers, but only few who held life so dear, considered it as precious as Steven Rogers did.
Death nods, steps forward and Steven Rogers' soul is as light as feathers as it meets him halfway. Because he's old and has been waiting for a long time, this is what he can do: look into Death's eyes and be ready as parts of him have already been gone for years and the biggest part went with a man of iron with a heart of gold.
Souls like his are the best ones.