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Taps

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"Grab my hand…"

Steve jerked awake, the echo of a scream still ringing in his ears. Whether it had been real or in his dream it didn't matter. His hands were shaking, his body was shaking. The dreams were always different but no matter what he did to try and save Bucky they always ended with Bucky falling.

Shoving away the blankets twisted around his legs, Steve got up off the floor and folded the blankets into a neat bundle. He'd spent just one night trying to sleep in the bed that S.H.I.E.L.D. had provided before giving up. The floor was more comfortable.

Walking over to the windows, he pushed open the curtains and looked out at the sleeping city. In the distance he could see the lit dome of the Capitol building. The street lights still burned bright on empty streets. In an hour, it would be a different city, a different place. Washington woke up early, too many people rushing off to too many places.

He'd relocated here after the events in New York the past summer. S.H.I.E.L.D. had wanted him closer to Triskelion. Fury was starting to use him more on missions but Steve had the feeling that he was still being tested, Fury still didn't trust him. Which was fine, he didn't trust Fury either.

Moving away from the city he'd grown up in hadn't been as hard as he thought it would be. New York held too many memories from the past. That actual aliens had tried to destroy the city was beside the point. H.G. Wells had foretold it decades earlier and now Steve had lived long enough to see it happen. He wasn't at all sure he was happy about it.

Besides seeing the city nearly destroyed by the Chitauri, it had been too hard to walk down the streets and not look back. Remembering when the streets were filled with streetcars, the Empire State building was the tallest building in the world, and a Coca-Cola had only cost a nickel.

Being in Brooklyn had been the hardest. Steve hadn't been able to stop himself from revisiting the old neighborhood. The grocers where he used to work was a pawn shop now but he still expected to see Bucky leaning against the front plate glass window, waiting for Steve to finish bagging groceries so they could go to the cinema.

Turning his back on the window, Steve dressed quickly. There was a hint of breaking color to the east when he exited his apartment building. He started out at a full-stride run, letting his mind just focus on the sound of his own feet hitting the pavement. Trying not to think about how much it sounded like the wheels of a train racing along a track. He ran until the streets started to fill with cars and people.

Back in his apartment he stood in the shower, head bowed under the torrent of cold water, hands braced against the wall. He hated the downtime between missions. It had been months since he'd awoken and had been forced into a world he didn't recognize and a regular routine was the only thing that kept him moving forward. Which is why, maybe, he clung to the things that he could still hold on to, in order to remember who he was and not simply be the machine they wanted him to be.

He dressed with care. Buttoning the starched shirt before sliding the tie around his neck. He knotted it looking in the mirror on his bureau, taking care to make sure it was straight and tight, regulation. His uniform jacket was pressed and ready, he slipped it off its hanger. Grimacing, he straightened the medals and ribbons pinned over his left breast. Hill had arranged for the uniform after he'd requested it and had assured him that all of the decorations were correct.

Ten minutes later he was on his motorcycle, weaving his way around the snarled traffic until he finally broke free as he headed west across the Arlington bridge. Tapping his fingers on the handlebars he joined the queue of cars that slowed to a stop at the security gate. Reaching behind him he pulled out his cap out of the saddlebag and tugged it on.

"Good morning, Captain." The guard at the gate greeted him with a crisp salute.

"Morning, Sergeant." Steve returned the salute.

"You'll be wanting to head to Section 60, sir," he said, pulling out a piece of paper from his pocket and handing it to him before waving Steve through the gate.

Steve palmed the paper as he nodded his thanks and accelerated slowly up the winding hill to the parking area. He pulled into a space far from the other vehicles. Shutting off the cycle he looked down at the paper. 2nd Lt. Marcus Nielsen, 1925-2010. Pulling his cap lower than regulation, Steve made his way down the hill past the rows of gravestones that dated back to the Civil War through those from the First World War, his father's war.

The trees were starting to show a hint of color, soon the hills would be brilliant with red and orange leaves. The last time he'd seen a tree in full fall colors had been the previous fall in Italy with Bucky. Seventy years ago.

Steve stopped as the funeral procession crested the hill on the road below him. The steady beat of the drummer matched the measured steps of the funeral guard. The caisson appeared over the hill, an artillery wagon pulled by six black horses. The sharp clip of horseshoes on the pavement and rolling grind of the carriage wheels.

The sounds blended with the rustling of the wind through the trees, the calls of the birds who hadn't yet migrated south. There was a new peace to the grounds, September meant far fewer tourists chattering loudly as they made their way from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to the memorial for the slain president, simply marking the Arlington National Cemetery off of their to-see list before moving on.

Still a few hundred yards away, Steve kept pace with them as the procession moved towards the gravesite. It was easy to spot with the tell-tale canopy to protect the loved ones against the chance of inclement weather. He glanced up at the sky, fortunately rain would not be an issue this afternoon. The clouds were breaking up, the sun forcing its way through the gloom.

The casket made its way towards the final resting spot for Marcus Nielsen. A fellow veteran who had come home from the war and been able to move on with their life. One of the millions from their generation who'd gone on to find jobs, fall in love, married, have children and watch them grow up, retire in their golden years. And now they were dying, after living a long, natural life.

They'd accomplished everything in their lives that he'd failed in his own.

Nearly everyone he'd ever known was gone. Some buried just a few hundred yards away. It wasn't right. How could everyone be gone when it was just yesterday the war was still raging and the platoon had been fighting Hydra. It had just been yesterday that Bucky had been by his side.

And now he was trapped between two worlds. Yesterday's world where the reverberating shock of artillery fire still rang in his ears, where he could still smell the acrid stench from the Panther tanks diesel fumes, could hear the shouts in German as they stormed the Hydra fortress, could feel the grit on his hands from days spent in the trenches.

But every morning he woke up to this new world he couldn't comprehend. A world filled with sounds, words, music he had to fight to understand: phones without cords, the internet, and five dollar coffees, and the whole world was spinning faster than it ever had before.

The caisson stopped, Steve moved so that he was just a dozen rows behind that procession. There was something soothing in the precise timing and movement of the ceremony. The respectful way the funeral guard handled the remains. He'd come across the first funeral accidentally, and now it was part of his routine.

Every Thursday he spent at the cemetery. Walking the rows to find his old friends. And doing what he couldn't do when they'd been buried, he saluted the men and women of his generation, his war that had passed on.

He stood at attention as the honor guards approached the back of the artillery wagon and began to loosen the straps on the flag-covered casket. There was a small group of mourners, not more than twenty gathered around an older man in a wheelchair. Older man. Steve choked back a laugh. He was likely older than the man in the chair.

The steady beat of the drum continued and at the precise moment that the honor guard picked up the casket the company snapped to attention, saluting as the casket was moved off of the artillery wagon. Steve raised his arm, his fingertips brushing the visor of his cap in salute.

That casket was set on the bier. The mourners sat down on the chairs and the army chaplain stepped forward to speak. Steve could catch a few of the words carried by the wind. Family. Loved. God. Service. Country. He watched the family. One of the women had her arm around the shoulders of the man in the chair. Brother of the deceased, most likely. Or maybe the lieutenant's last surviving friend.

Two teen boys were hanging back, tugging uncomfortably at the buttoned collars of their shirts, which undoubtedly had been forced on them. Long bangs swept to the side like the singers that were popular now. They looked young. Kids. Seventy years ago they would have already been in infantry fatigues, ready to be shipped out before they had enough facial hair to shave.

"Were we ever really that young, Bucky?"

The gun volley caught him off guard and he fell back, instinctively looking for cover before remembering where he was. He stood at attention through the next two volleys, flinching as the shots echoed across the hills.

The honor guard stepped forward again, pulling the flag taut, they folded with precision. Making the tight, regulation triangle. The man in the wheelchair put his arms on the armrest and pulled himself upright, a woman and man supporting his elbows until he got his balance and stood straight. The officer presented him the flag, saying the words that Steve knew by heart.

"This flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation and the United States Army as a token of appreciation for your loved one's honorable and faithful service."

The officer saluted and the elderly man returned the salute, his left hand clutching the flag to his chest. He must be the lieutenant's brother, Steve thought, and a veteran himself. The trumpet player moved forward and the first long note of the final salute played out. His hands tightened into fists as the notes played out. Closing his eyes he listened as even the birds in the trees were silent for this final good-bye. When he opened his eyes again, the service was over, the chaplain and one of the Arlington ladies came forward to shake hands with the family members. Steve turned to watch the empty caisson detail move away, the horses' manes blowing in the wind. Their steps lighter now that they were relieved of their burden.

Steve waited until the family had departed before moving forward. The work crew who had been waiting patiently in one of the green cemetery trucks were getting out, slamming the doors as they completed the final task of burial. They gave Steve a nod as he approached but didn't stop their work. He knew they had to finish up and move on to the next one. Up to thirty burials went on at the cemetery a day, fewer and fewer of them were for vets of his war. The bier was over the gravesite. The foreman gave a nod to Steve and he held his salute as the casket was lowered into the grave.

The crew slid the plywood sheet over the grave. The night crew would come in with its machinery after the cemetery was closed and fill in the hole with soil, and dig the holes for the next day's funeral. It was a never ending routine here, five days a week.

Steve walked up the hill until he was at the highest vantage point and turned east towards Washington. The city's monuments and buildings shone white in the sun, surrounded by the parkland and roads that were filled with cars and buses. Familiar and foreign, all at the same time.

"What am I even doing here, Bucky? I don't understand…why couldn't I have died like everyone else?"

The only reply was the sound of Taps being played somewhere else in the cemetery, the sounds echoing across the field. There was no other answer, Steve knew, he'd been asking the same question every day since he'd woken up. Repressing a sigh he adjusted his cap and walked back down the hill, tomorrow he would wake up and start over and maybe some day it would all make sense.