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When he comes out of the water it is summer, bright and sharp as a shard of glass; he can feel the sun lick a stripe across his back as soon as he leaves the waves. But he doesn’t feel warm. He ought to feel warm inside. There’s only a faint sensation of temperature, the touch of light on his skin. It doesn’t reach his flesh. He should be- sweating, he thinks. He should be sweating. He can picture the beach at Coney Island, the boardwalk shimmering in the heat. The paint peeling, and Bucky- and Bucky, he thinks, and staggers forward faster. And Bucky, with a box of popcorn and his pant legs rolled up. This is a beach, a beach like that beach, there are- there must be people around. Someone who can help. He has to keep walking. He sinks back a little into the sand with every step. He doesn’t know where he is. He stops at the edge of a blanket and stares down at it, at the turned edge of it and the machine stitches, the crisp stripes in blue and white. The tag.

Someone is screaming.

“Help,” he says, or tries to say, and the world wavers in front of him, and he is looking at the cars parked along the rail: they have fins and long low silhouettes, except that they don’t, they are just the way he remembers them for a moment, and at the same time they are rounded smooth and compact and in garish, unimaginable colors. They make his head swim. When he shuts his eyes they go away, mostly; instead the world bursts in dizzying clouds of light, pinprick stars that bloom and die, faster and faster. When he opens his eyes he is gasping, and it is-

-winter, it is winter and the snow is coating the sand, and he is all alone, and overhead the slow scream of an enormous airplane scrapes the sky apart, scrapes the sound from his ears and the air from his lungs: he is on the plane again and he is falling, he is sinking into the horizon while blue light fills the world-

“Steve,” says Peggy. “Steve, are you-”

He opens his eyes.

They are alone on the sand now; in the distance Steve can see crowds milling behind the cars, police cars, men in uniform. He doesn’t understand. Peggy is standing in front of him, just a few feet out of reach: her hair in curls, her feet bare. She’s holding her shoes in one hand. She’s dressed like- there’s no uniform anymore, she’s in a neat suit and jacket, only a little rumpled, and she looks so, so very-

“Jesus,” Steve says. It chokes out of him, like the words have been dragged out by a hook, scraping his insides. He can’t remember quite how to speak. “You look so beautiful.” For a moment, Peggy doesn’t smile. And then she does: the soft corner of her mouth turns up. She blinks and smiles at him but it’s not quite right, not brilliant the way she is brilliant. It’s sad somehow. Raw. For a moment she looks older, only just. He thinks it must be a trick of the light. He’s so dizzy.

“Are you here?” she asks. “Can you stay, this time?”

“Stay?” he repeats. “I don’t understand.”

“I’m not sure I do, either. Howard says it’s- a superposition, a way for you to- to hang on. To come back. You’re in so many places at once, he thinks you might- but even Howard’s not sure. Can you- I think you should try to feel the sand. The air. Focus. Try to remember where you are.” She looks at him. “Do you know where you are?”

“I- no.” He looks around and the world wavers again, and the only thing that holds is Peggy; Peggy with her crisp suit and radiant eyes, and the headlamps of the cars in the distance. Her silhouette is blurring but he can still find her. Still trace her, follow her lines. The world is like a white page that keeps crumpling around him: he tries to draw her in his mind, find the shape of her, the edges. She is the only thing that makes any kind of sense.

“You’re at Montauk. At Montauk Beach, Steve. You made it.” She seems like she might be crying. “You got so close. To home.”

“Montauk?” he says. He thinks. Tries to touch the broken bits together. “I don’t know how I got here. Peggy, I was-“

“We’ll figure it out,” she says, and reaches out her hand. “Please. Come back.”

It takes him three tries. She keeps dissolving; she is there and then she isn’t, she’s there and then the snow is coming down so gently, into the empty place where she should be standing, and the cars are round and wrong. But he concentrates. It ought to be so simple: all the muscles and the balance, the strong surety of him, the thing he is now. He’d better be able to do this simple thing right, what is he good for if he can’t catch hold of her, if he can’t- he has to be able to. Steve reaches out. “There you go,” Peggy says, “there you are. Steven.” And now he can feel her palm against his, her fingers twining between the things that must be his fingers, his meat.

Peggy takes him by car to the airport, and then by plane to Tennessee; beneath them the ground is green in a hundred shades, cut with stripes of farmland and thin strings of road. In Germany there were forests like this: thick forests, trees like towers, leaves like clouds. Steve presses his face to the glass of the window- cold, freezing cold, he can’t feel the sun anymore, no matter how he aches for it- and tries to hold onto them, onto the way the ground reels and unreels like a turning marble. “We’re almost there,” Peggy says. He blinks and tries to focus on her, on her voice at his side, those strong hands still wrapped around his. He’s never felt so weak, so insubstantial. Not even when he was smaller, when he was so faint from sickness that the blankets weighed him down. He wonders if this is- if this is it, if the serum will wear off now, if it’s finished, if he’s burned it out of himself like a fever, like- if he will be small and straggling again, if he will go back to that, if he will be forgotten, packed away, left alone, left to lie in bed and stare at the ceiling, if he can rest. “Steve,” Peggy says, beside him, her throat thick with tears again. He must have been speaking aloud. He can’t seem to control that, either. “Don’t talk like that, please. You’re going to be fine.” She doesn’t let go of him, even when they’re going down the rickety jet bridge and into a jeep, when they go through the security gates and Peggy has to fumble a badge out of her pocket.

Howard is there, waiting for them inside; talking to a handful of anxious-looking technicians, waving his hands at them until they disperse like a flock of geese. Steve steps up and lets Howard look at him with his narrowed, curious, cataloguing eyes.

“Welcome back, kid,” he says. His hand twitches at his side, as if he was about to clap Steve on the shoulder or shake his hand. He doesn’t. “You got a hell of a sense of timing.”

“Howard,” Peggy says. Howard puts his palms up.

“Just saying, if I’d known- if I’d even thought it was a possibility,” he says, and shakes his head incredulously. He’s cracking a crooked grin. “I shoulda been on that beach from day one, huh? Waiting with a Mai Tai in my hand and a chauffeur sign that said ROGERS. I keep telling Peg-“

Howard,” she says again, sharply. Her hand in Steve’s is tense, tight, almost painful. It’s grounding him a little. “You said time would be of the essence.”

“So I did.” He looks at Steve again, leans in. “How are you feeling?”

“Dead,” says Steve. Howard and Peggy’s faces go ashen for a moment, and Steve knows he’s made a mistake. “Dreaming.”

“Okay,” says Howard. “Let’s see what we can do about that.”

 

 

 

 

 

The cascade chamber hurts, but even that’s welcome: it’s something, he thinks, as it all tears through him. It’s something to feel. He remembers being inside the machine that first day, the first day of the rest of his life. It had hurt like a cramped muscle unknotting itself in the back of his calves. It hurt and pulled like taffy, just to the point where you couldn’t bear it, where you went limp and blank, and then afterwards all you could feel was the relief of it, the hole in your flesh where the pain had been, the emptiness that sat in you instead. It was something to feel. And so is this. A whirling, howling storm. And then it’s over: the world wrenches itself brutally around him and then goes still. His hands are hands again. They touch the side of the chamber, palms up, firm and solid. He leans his head down and throws up water and saliva and bile, like he’s just been on a rollercoaster, and then he closes his eyes and rests his cheek against the cold wall of the tank. There is nothing inside him: no more pain. No more of that strange seasickness, the drifting feeling. Nothing at all.

“Holy shit,” Howard says, crackling through the speakers. “You alive in there?” Lying is a sin, of course, but Steve’s not sure what else he can do. He’s already lied to the government and Bucky and God Almighty; and himself, himself most of all. He ought to tell the truth. That he’s not quite what they hoped for. That perhaps they should put him back into the ocean.

“Probably,” he says, instead, listening to Howard’s tinny laughter; and waits for the blast doors to unlock.

 

 

 

 

 

“We think we can harness it,” Howard says, showing him through the lab. Steve’s clean and wearing too-small coveralls that barely reach his ankles. Some of the technicians can’t stop glancing over; some can’t meet his gaze. He can sense them, their attention, not with his eyes or his ears but with something else: something inhuman. He is aware of them, like faint lights in darkness. He stops looking at them too closely, at the strange glow of their life, their aliveness; they make his head swim. “Better than harness it. Amplify it. Adapt it. Probably.” There’s a power pack disassembled on the bench; a tiny cell battery pulsating pale blue. Steve stares at it for too long, while Howard rambles about recharge rates and condensers. “Not even Hydra got this far with it. Just think-“

“I won’t help you with this,” Steve says. “Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Peggy says, calmly, at his elbow. She jerks her head at Howard and Howard sighs and moves away, muttering to himself. “We understand. Of course we do.”

But they won’t stop, either. He knows. He doesn’t know how to convince them: doesn’t know the right thing to say. Even Schmidt didn’t understand. And he was the closest to it, before Steve. Their mistake is always in believing that you could- believing that it was a weapon, a thing that you could point and shoot. Mistaking energy for energy: there were bombs that blew and shattered, bombs that killed, and then there was this, this force. It climbed inside you and took you apart and put you together differently. He wonders, now often, what happened to the men they killed with those stolen guns, what happened to the bodies they vaporized, the bodies they blew away like candle flames. Did it- could it transport you, the way it did with him? Could it shift you, unmoor you, send you outside yourself, beyond the world? Or did it simply reduce you to atoms, cycle you back into the universe like so much sand, so much stardust. The waves take out the sand and bring it back, grind it against itself until it’s so fine you could inhale it. Dust is partly human skin, he knows that now. They are all flaking away. Wearing down. Until they are fit for the universe to take them back, piece by minute piece.

He walks the beach now. Or haunts it. They find him there when he’s vanished from the lab again, disappeared from headquarters or his rooms in New York, lost another set of handlers. He’s solid now, mostly; corporeal, real; but sometimes he simply drifts. Wakes passing through space, wakes staring at the ocean. He can’t always help it. He doesn’t always want to. He walks for hours, barefoot, trying to feel it, the texture of it. Damp heavy sand. Splinters of wood. Sharp chitin, the broken shells of crabs. Fine grit. Sometimes the wind puts that into his eyes. He kneels down and runs his hands through the grains, lets it spill between his fingers like an hourglass. It unnerves the agents they send to collect him. After the first half-dozen times he starts picking up seashells, sand dollars.

“Starting a collection,” he says, and they smile at him again, pat him on the shoulder. They relax: this is a thing that people do. They codename him Beachcomber as a friendly joke. They give him empty bottles and jars as presents whenever he fills the ones he has. His apartment has shelves of beach glass after a while. Colored sand layered into bottles, mimicking the sunset. He has jars of sand that he can shake, turn from side to side, watch it run until it runs out. Grains of it cling to the sides of the glass, sparkling like diamond. It is like holding the dead. As precious as life is, this is what it returns to: this is all that’s ever left.

He does not say anything about that to Peggy. She would either be horrified, or mock him relentlessly.

“Did you always love the beach?” she asks him, months later, walking alongside him in rolled-up trousers and a baggy linen shirt. She sounds thoughtful but there’s teasing underneath, a happy note he hasn’t heard much in her voice lately. “I suppose if one’s an artist, one has to appreciate a good view.” A hundred yards ahead, Gabe is carefully holding Caroline above the waves while she shrieks and kicks at the water in delight. This is ostensibly a vacation, but Peggy brought about one hundred files with her to Howard’s guest house, and her little army of subordinates keep calling. She’s pregnant again, Steve thinks. She hasn’t said anything but she is radiating a little. Her energy signature vibrates minutely, now and then; he can see it shimmering. And Gabe keeps appearing in her office at odd hours, bringing sandwiches. Peggy pretends not to luxuriate in that kind of attention. “I never pictured you like this before.”

“Like what?”

“Standing out on the shoreline, gazing about like a Romantic poet.” She looks at him. “You’re not writing poetry, are you?” Peggy lowers her voice. “Tell me you’re not writing poetry.”

“Would that surprise you?”

“Steven,” she says, seriously. “You have never stopped surprising me. And don’t make that expression. I mean it in the best possible way.”

“Is that why you won’t put me in the field?” he says, suddenly. He doesn’t mean to, but he can’t stop himself. Almost as if he doesn’t care. He sounds bitter. “Because I’m a little too surprising?” Peggy stops walking. They both stop, and stare at one another. Caroline whoops in the distance.

“I won’t put you in the field,” Peggy says, “because I never know where you are.”

“I’ll draw you a map,” he says, and Peggy rolls her eyes.

“You came back, darling, but-“

“You think I came back wrong.”

“Changed,” she corrects, gentler now. “You came back in pieces, and you’re still coming back. You had to put yourself back together from atoms! It’s nineteen fifty-three, for Christ’s sake. It took you- you were gone for years. Years and years. Who could’ve- who could ever have imagined this? Imagined you?” She rests her hand on his arm, slides it around to tuck under his elbow. Her fingers squeeze him, lightly. “Nobody expected things to be the same.”

“What if this is the best I can do?” he says. “What if I never-”

“There’s nothing wrong with that, either,” Peggy says, flatly, like he’s being a fool. He probably is. “Nothing wrong with you. You’re different. We all are. Look around you, Steve.” She smiles down the beach at her husband, her daughter. Steve watches them wave. “Time marches on. Life marches with it.”

 

 

 

 

 

They’ve explained to Steve that there was no footage of the explosion itself but there were readings taken later, as soon as the reports started drifting in: a split in the sky, a raging white sun that sank into the horizon and vanished. They found the spot where the plane went down but it hadn’t mattered. Not really. There was nothing to recover besides his shield, still whole and pristine, which they presented to him that first week back, but still mostly discourage him from using. They found the wreck quickly enough, but they weren’t ready for the rest of it, for what was left behind. At first they thought mirages, some kind of visual distortion from excess energy, even radiation. But then some of Howard’s technicians fell into the flickering bits by accident and never came out of again. Steve wonders if someday they will. There were tears in the fabric of space and time; thin places where nothing was real. Too many to count. They fenced it off for miles after the search was over and the surveying done. Even disabled, Schmidt’s bombs tore holes in the world, holes that are still healing slowly.

“You don’t sleep anymore, do you?” Gabe asks, when he finds Steve sitting at their kitchen table in the middle of the night again. Steve can’t even remember how he got here: if he walked, if he ran. If he just thought about being here, and then was. It doesn’t seem important. Gabe pulls a chair around and sits down on it backwards, arms folded across the back. “I couldn’t either at first. None of the guys could, when we got back. But this isn’t that, is it? Not just good ol’fashioned GI insomnia.”

“No,” Steve says. “I can’t- I can’t make it turn off. My mind, my- my head. I can’t let go. Anything.” He looks down at the table. “I’m running simulations. From the security briefing Peggy handed out yesterday. I’m running them right now.”

“Jesus,” Gabe says, and rubs a hand across his face. “Okay. You’ve got to talk to Howard about it.” Howard suggests sensory deprivation, but after twenty minutes floating stiffly in the tank Steve wakes up half-naked on the boardwalk in Ocean City with seagulls screaming overhead and cigarette butts and sand stuck to his back. He steals a pair of sandals and walks halfway to Toms River before a harried-looking agent in a plain sedan finally pulls over in front of him. After that they try sedatives, powerful concoctions that would put an elephant out for a month. They make Steve woozy and nauseous, but they don’t make him sleep. They try meditation, holistic treatments that Howard scoffs at. Steve likes listening to the steady thrum of his own heart, likes listening to his apartment creak and settle around him. He can almost sleep like that, almost drown the world out, mute his whirring engines. But there are still no dreams. He is starting to forget what it’s like. There used to be bodies, faces in his dreams: touches and words, soft formless moments that would leave him warm under the blankets, happy. Or confused memories tipped over and reassembled absurdly. He used to tell Bucky his stranger dreams in the morning, sometimes, while they got ready for work. The funny ones, with mashed-up bits of their lives in them. Giraffes in church, the grocery store turned into a dancehall, all of them in suits with carrots on their lapels. Other dreams were only his. He used to dream about Bucky, Bucky Bucky Bucky, how could he not? There was so much of him. So much life in his body: being near him was like drinking from a cold tap when you were dying of thirst, cupping your hands and watching light dance on the surface of the water. In dreams Bucky showered him with kisses, bit Steve’s bottom lip and smiled and rolled over Steve in their narrow old bed, pulling a carpet of stars over their heads and erasing everything else. There was never an end to him, a limit to the things Steve wanted from him, with him; no limit to the things Steve would have given just to have his glances, the slightest touches, his smallest crumbs. Those dreams sometimes left him aching and hot and ashamed, but they were good, too; they were something to escape into, when the world was rough-edged and cold. But now there’s not even those.

Bucky has a cross at Arlington but he’s only gone there once to look at it: the real Barnes plot is at Holy Cross on Tilden Avenue. Bucky’s pa and his last grandmother died while Steve was in the ocean knitting himself together, so Steve goes over sometimes to meet Winnie and Rebecca and put flowers against the big plain stone with its lines of names and dates. Beneath their feet are two generations of Barneses, lying like bedrock. Bucky had beautiful broad shoulders, beautiful broad hands for the piano, for carrying his little cousins home from the ballgame when they were sunburned and tired. They are all like that, every Barnes he’s ever met or can remember. Strong people, backs like shields, arms that open wide. When Steve is being sacrilegious he stands at Holy Cross and thinks, upon this rock I will build my church. There is nothing under the ground at Arlington; not much left of him above it, either.

 

 

 

 

 

In July of nineteen fifty-nine, they try to kill Peggy. Caroline and Michael are with Gabe’s parents at the lake, and Gabe is in Los Angeles on assignment, and so it’s only Steve and Peggy and her latest secretary in the car when the bridge in front of them blows. Steve isn’t supposed to be in a car at all: he’s supposed to be on a flight to Washington, but he’s been particularly distracted lately and Peggy didn’t want to deal with another incident of him vanishing from the cabin at thirty thousand feet. The explosion sends chunks of concrete and metal into the sky and the center of the bridge sags dangerously, then groans and shudders and gives way. Three cars ahead of them plunge down, and Peggy skids and swings around nearly in time, but the truck behind them doesn’t stop. It plows into them and they go over. Steve barely has time to grab Peggy and put his shoulders up against the back of his seat. They are tipping into freefall when he kicks through the windshield and they burst through it together, her body tucked into his as tight as he can make it. He grabs wildly for the underside of the bridge, snags onto a handful of twisted scaffolding that’s still hot from the explosion. It sears the skin off his palm but he doesn’t let go; meanwhile Peggy wraps her legs around his waist and stretches out to grab a dangling cable. Between the two of them they swing up and crawl onto a ledge on the underside of the bridge, hands bleeding and shards of glass still caught in her hair and his jacket. Far below them, the car is burning.

“Christ,” Peggy says, with a hand over her mouth. “He was only twenty.” She looks at Steve. “Do you think you can get us up to the road?”

They go hand over hand across the scaffolding to a service ladder, then climb over the railings and slip behind the stopped cars. People are screaming, running back down the bridge with their bags and children in their arms. Steve inclines his head over the hood of the nearest sedan; the truck that drove them over is still sitting by the edge where the mangled bridge drops away. Next to him, Peggy unholsters her gun. “Split,” she says. She goes right, moving along the guard railing, while Steve moves up the center, staying low. There are two men standing in front of the truck, looking down. They’re both in military-style gear, dark jackets and holsters strapped to their thighs. Trained guys, who don’t startle when Peggy pops up and fires on them. They drop behind cover, then drop lower when her shots clip the rear-view mirror. They’re turning around the edge of the truck to return fire when Steve springs out and clocks the first one so hard his skull leaves a dent in the side of the truck. He wrestles the second one for his gun; the guy has moves, and Steve’s hand is already fairly mangled, but it’s over less than a minute later when Steve drives a knee into his nose with a sick popping sound. He opens the driver’s door and finds the cab empty and the keys in the ignition.

He’s hopping down when Peggy fires again in a barrage, this time sending her shots screaming right over his head. “Roof!” she shrieks, from somewhere to Steve’s right; and then a body drops onto his from above. Steve’s arm was already up, so the garrote wire digs into his firearm instead of his throat. The guy on his back is big, wearing some kind of armor, Steve thinks: the forearm around his neck is rigid as the shield, and it makes a strange ringing sound when Steve tries to bash the guy’s shoulder into the hood of the closest car. Steve gets a hand around the garrote and flips the guy over his back, into a windshield. He’s wearing the same uniform, no insignia, and a black balaclava over his face. He rolls away from Steve and slides a bowie knife out, lunges forward so quickly Steve can barely get a block up. Steve ducks and slams his fist into the guy’s stomach with all his weight, drives him back a couple feet, but the guy doesn’t stop, just flips the knife and goes for Steve’s other side, forcing Steve to block with his burned hand. For a second Steve’s too slow: the knife goes into his palm and the guy twists it. Steve feels a white-hot wash of pain and the world tears around him and then suddenly-

-suddenly he’s standing behind the guy, drifted away and back again, six feet off, no knife in his hand, just a river of blood pouring down his arm, and the guy has stopped, frozen in confusion for an instant, only an instant, but it’s long enough for Steve to kick him in the spine and drive his head into a passenger-side window. The guy shakes his head and stumbles, crouches with his fists up. He’s about to strike for Steve when a shot clips his collarbone, drops him against the car. Steve kicks out his knee, hammers him in the face. When the guy grabs wildly onto his jacket Steve plants a boot into his abdomen and rolls them, slamming the guy’s back onto the road, then swings up and straddles his chest, clocks him hard twice in the bullet wound, snapping the bone. The guy doesn’t scream but Steve can feel him seize up, can hear the anguished sound caught in his throat.

“Stay down, soldier,” Steve says. The guy makes that choked-off sound again and kicks his legs up, grabs Steve’s neck with his other hand, knees Steve in the back, and Steve punches him in the face until his head rolls back, until he spasms and lets go. Steve sits over him, panting. He can feel his heart racing, can feel- can feel everything, the sweat running down his back, the bruises that will start to heal in hours, the scraped-away places and the hole in his hand still draining hot blood onto the ground. Steve feels drunk, like every part of him is expanding into the universe, like he can feel the air where it touches his skin, the inside of his lungs.

“Steve!” Peggy calls. She’s running up, reloading as she goes. “Steve, is he down?”

“He’s down,” Steve says. He stares at the body under his, alive but barely twitching. The mask’s turned around: Steve is looking at his cheek instead of his mouth. He can hear the hitched, wheezing breath muffled underneath it. He doesn’t know why he does it. Has no idea what makes him reach for the top of the balaclava and pull upwards.

“I can’t believe-” Peggy is saying, and then she stops, and there is unbearable silence while Steve looks down at the face below him. The bottom lip is split; there’s fresh blood running from the nose and mouth, smeared in lines from where Steve pulled the mask off and away. There are tiny pieces of glass and road grit dug into the cheek. Peggy doesn’t say anything. Or at least Steve doesn’t hear her: he can’t hear anything beyond the animal sound that someone is making close by. His head throbs. He opens his mouth and a sob comes out. “God in heaven,” says Peggy, at last; it really sounds like a prayer. She’s kneeling beside him. Her hand is on the back of his neck, another on his shoulder, holding him up. He hears sirens now, in an overwhelming roar. “Dear God.” Peggy looks over her shoulder at the ambulances and police cars winding their way down the hill towards the bridge. “Steve,” she says, softly. “I think- I think it’s best if they don’t find-”

“No,” Steve says. “No, they can’t-“

“Have him,” Peggy says. “Certainly not.”

Peggy hotwires a car that still has a windshield and backs them down the bridge at full speed, nearly crashing them into the ambulance before spinning them around and driving straight off the side of the highway into the woods. A police car gives a halfhearted chase but after a couple of minutes they’ve pulled into a narrow country road and they’re the only car in sight. With one hand on the wheel, Peggy finds a map in the glove compartment and then drives eighty miles an hour towards town. When she looks at him in the rear-view mirror he meets her eyes and they both smile grimly at each other, remembering. It might as well be the Hürtgen Forest again, shells streaking overhead. Bodies in the ditches. There’s a streak of blood drying on her beautiful cheek. In the back seat, Steve holds Bucky Barnes across his lap, keeps his jacket pressed to the bullet wound. “Hang on,” she says. “Both of you, just hang on.”

“Yes, ma’am,” says Steve, and focuses on the heart beating under his hands.

 

 

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Chapter Text

The hospital is called Mercy; it’s the only word Steve catches when Peggy whips around the traffic circle and heads towards the back entrance. She parks sideways across the lane and turns around in her seat to look at Steve.

“FBI,” she says. “We’re FBI.” Steve gives her a jerky nod and she gets out of the car, one hand already digging in her jacket pocket for one of their false badges. Steve stays where he is, folded around Bucky in the backseat, one hand holding his jacket over the entry wound above his right shoulder, the other around his back, fingers tucked into his armpit, feeling the dull thud of his heart through the muscle there. He was never—he was never this heavy, this huge: his back is corded, the legs bent up awkwardly across the seat are thicker, denser, wound like rope. But Steve’s still sure. The face is his, unmistakably. Bruised and swelling. But this is the same fold of the ear, the same angle to his brow where it meets the bridge of the nose. Steve would recognize it in pieces; Steve could have measured it in pencil widths, in the span of his old narrow fingers. To draw the world you had to look at it, pick it apart and reassemble until it was shapes and lines, shapes and lines and planes curved over form. An eye wasn’t round like an apple, like in the comics. It tapered at the edge, thin fine flesh that gathered like crepe. Steve can almost see his chalk lines now, laid over reality like a sheet of tracing paper. Bucky was all movement: Steve’s spinning dime. He’d never sit still but Steve didn’t need him to, not really. Steve just had to know where he’d land, watch for the point that marked the start of his turns: the lift in the eyelashes; the curl of his chin; the strange sweet-sour angle of his mouth, like a kink in a drainspout. The softness is gone out of this face but Steve could draw him now, still; all strung on one bowed line, like a bent wing.

He hasn’t woken up yet, not completely. He struggled some but the pain had shuddered him out of consciousness a couple of miles back. Steve had just held on, babbled at him that he was safe, that Steve was sorry, that they were—that help was coming, that everything was going to be okay. He doesn’t know where the words were coming from. He didn’t know how to make them stop.

Steve looks up and Peggy is back already, hustling along a handful of nurses and a gurney; they get Bucky out of Steve’s arms and then they’re hurrying back inside, down broad hallways to a private room behind a set of double doors. Steve follows them in a daze. He tenses when a security guard turns the corner and makes a beeline for them, but Peggy just squeezes his arm and whispers, “Let me.” She pulls the badge out again and leaves Steve standing in front of the operating room. “Agents Driscoll and Clark,” she says, briskly, whipping up her fake credentials and dropping them again just as swiftly. “Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

“Ma’am, I don’t-“

“Young man, this is a matter of national security,” Peggy says, and snaps the wallet shut. Steve can see the guard’s spine leap to attention. “I need this area on lockdown. Quickly. And I’ll need your telephone.” The kid stares at her for a second, hand rising to his cap involuntarily before he jerks it back down.

“Yes, ma’am,” he says. “Right away, ma’am.”

Nobody stops Steve from following the nurses, then; inside the room they’re all too busy scrambling to get Bucky’s gear off, cutting the straps and sleeves away. Steve stands against the wall with his hands balling into fists. Once in a while they glance over at him and then quickly glance away, skittish, like he’s suspicious, dangerous. They’re calling out vitals to each other: blood pressure, heart rate. They figure there’s been serious blood loss. When Steve looks down at himself for the first time, he realizes he’s rinsed in it. It’s down the front of his thighs, his belly. His hands are smeared.

“The- body armor,” he says, when he remembers, but nobody looks at him. “The body armor,” he says again, louder, and this time everybody looks at him. “You have to get it off. Off of him,” he says, pointing at Bucky’s heavy left arm. Now the nurses are staring at him like he’s insane, and the one that’s been cutting off Bucky’s tactical jacket and shirt is standing over the bed with an ashen, terrified face.

“What on earth-“

“You have to get him out of it,” Steve says. “He could- something could be broken inside -“

“It’s- is this attached?”

“Christ Almighty,” one of the nurses says, dropping the scissors and backing away from the gurney, gloved hands up in horror, and now Steve can’t help it: his hand is picking up a plastic tray and tossing it against the far wall, where it loudly smashes into pieces. And now the nurses are shouting.

“Help him,” he says. He’s not yelling. He can’t get his voice to work properly, he can’t- he can’t think, can’t get the pressure in his chest to lift, can’t-

-and then he is standing on the beach with a long stretch of sky in front of him and seagulls wheeling overhead in fright.

Steve kneels down and puts his bloodied hands over his face, sucks in air hysterically while his head and heart throb; he tries not to vomit. He can smell- he can smell Bucky, his insides, the hot copper stench of drying blood everywhere, his own sweat and fear, the salt of the water, the warm flat smell of sand and driftwood, the ripe dark smell of rotting seaweed and trash at the tide line. He can feel himself sinking ever so slightly in the sand. “Come on,” he says, under his breath. “Come on, come on, go back, come on,” he says. He pounds at his own chest. He’s gulping air but he can’t breathe. “Come on, come on.” Steve presses his palms to his mouth, lightheaded, trying to get the scent closer, get him back; he tries to focus on the weight of him in his arms, the heaviness of that body, his fingers digging into Bucky's armpit, the flesh there, Bucky’s hands hitting him in the face, connecting, his knuckles splitting against Steve’s cheek—and now the nurses are screaming even louder, because he’s reappeared in the operating room on his knees, looking like a maniac and spilling sand across the floor.

“What is happening?” somebody screams.

Steve sags forward until his forehead just touches the linoleum. It’s cold. Colder than the beach. He almost feels like laughing. The bubble in his chest is too huge, too tight. I did it, he thinks. He lets himself breathe. Just for a second. And then Steve gets up. Puts his hands out. Palms up, showing cuts that he can already feel healing. Trying to look peaceful. Helpless. He comes over to stand beside the table.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t know any better than you. But please. You have to help him.” The nurse standing at his elbow looks up, meets his eyes. She’s a tiny woman and her expression is tired; too tired for shock, maybe. “Somebody did this to him,” Steve says.

“The arm?” she asks. “We don’t think it’s armor. There’s some, there’s scarring, around it. A lot of scarring.”

“Oh,” says Steve. His head is still spinning from the shift. How did- who, he thinks, but that is barely a question after everything: the answer comes to him immediately. It can’t be. But it has to be. What else could— could do this, would make this. This is his fault. This is his. “God,” says Steve, “God,” enraged, to the ceiling.

“We’ll take care of him,” the nurse says. Her small hand squeezes his wrist. Her fingers are surprisingly strong. “What’s his name?”

“Bucky.”

“Okay,” the nurse says, and lets Steve go. “Let’s give it a shot.”

 

 

 

 

But Bucky wakes up while they’re prepping him. Whatever they tried to give him for the pain wasn’t enough: he thrashes off the table and lands on the floor, springs up and smashes the surgeon in the face so hard the guy flies over the monitors and lies still by the sink. The nurses scatter in a panic and Steve leaps forward to hold him back, tries to get his arms around Bucky without pulverizing his broken collarbone any further. But Bucky’s writhing and screaming, words Steve can’t understand. He punches back with his left arm—the unbelievable metal arm, the one that’s not damaged—into Steve’s nose until it cracks, but Steve doesn’t let go. Can’t let go. “Buck,” he says, into his ear, thick, gushing his own blood into his mouth. “Buck, it’s me. It’s me. It’s Steve. I got you,” he says, desperately. “I got you, you’re okay.” The double doors fly open and there’s Peggy and a pair of security guards with young, shocked faces. They take a step back, and Peggy takes a step forward. “Peg, no,” Steve cries, and Bucky kicks out into his knee, crashes them into the table, down to the floor. Steve still doesn’t let go. He rolls them both over, heaving Bucky with him, so that Steve’s back is to the door, the guards. They’ll have to—through him, they’d have to. “Don’t, don’t shoot!“

“Stand down!” Peggy snaps, and Steve can feel Bucky freeze against him for a second, then tense and claw at Steve’s grip again. “I said stand down! Genug, Soldat. стоять вниз, солдат!” Bucky convulses and thrashes, bangs his head against the floor, and then goes limp. He’s shaking in Steve’s arms, face blank with terror. He doesn’t make a sound, even when Steve lets go of him and his mangled right shoulder drops down hard.

“Buck,” says Steve. He presses a palm to Bucky’s shuddering back, lightly. Just a touch. “Buck, it’s alright, you’re safe-”

“вставать,” says Peggy, and Bucky lurches up to his knees. He rises unsteadily and stands over Steve, faces Peggy but doesn’t look at her. He’s breathing shallowly in tiny huffs. His eyes have practically rolled back into his head. He stands perfectly still, except for the tremors that keep running through him. Steve gets up and wipes his leaking nose with his shirt. In the corner, the surgeon Bucky hit is crawling across the floor towards the exit. Steve helps him up and then watches him stagger backwards out of the double doors, knocking into the guards as he flees. Bucky still hasn’t moved. The security guards are arguing loudly with each other. One of them turns to Peggy.

“Ma’am, we have to-“

“We need another surgeon,” Peggy says. “Another surgeon. Now. When they arrive, you will stand in front of the doors. You will not come in, no matter what you hear. You will maintain the perimeter. Am I understood?”

“Ma’am-"

“Another surgeon,” Peggy hisses. “Go. Now. Or so help me God, they will be digging bullets out of you.” When they’re gone, Peggy puts a hand over her face for a second. She rubs her cheek, and gives Steve a strangely hollow look. “I’m sorry,” she says, to him. And then to Bucky: “покоряться.” Bucky’s body sags. “лечь.” He puts his metal hand against the edge of the operating table, hoists his hips onto it, lies back and swings his legs up. His eyes are still open, staring at the ceiling. His teeth are tensed so hard Steve can hear the sound, the high squeal they make grinding together. “The doctors- when the doctors come back, не прикасайтесь к врачам.” Her eyes are damp. "At ease, Sergeant," Peggy says.

The second surgeon comes in trembling, but his hands are steady.

“Is he-“

“He’s under control,” Peggy says. “For the moment,” she adds under her breath, only loud enough for Steve to pick up.

“He's in rough shape,” the surgeon says, later. It feels like an understatement. “This bone’s shattered. Torn muscle here- and the bullet’s still in there pretty deep.” One of the nurses—the kind one, Steve thinks—came back to get a blood transfusion going, running steadily down the tubing into Bucky’s flesh arm. Steve had to tell her his blood type. She’s terrified, he can see it in the stiffness of her arms as she works. But she hasn’t left again. She hasn’t quit. And she’s still being gentle, taking her time, being careful with Bucky, even though Bucky’s currently doing a damn fine impression of a rigid, staring corpse. Steve barely knows what to say, if he ought to say anything at all. Watching her work is only thing that’s making Steve feel like he might not float away again.

It takes three tries to get Bucky under, and there’s a moment where his pulse is frighteningly weak, but it’s back after a second, a slow but even beat rising and falling on the monitors. Steve and Peggy don’t leave the operating room, but they do put on the masks and coats they’re handed. Steve can’t watch them cut his shoulder open, can’t watch them digging the bullet out. He doesn’t know why- he’s watched men die gut-shot and screaming, he’s- he’s held their stomachs in with his hands, wet flesh spilling over his fingers, but he can’t look now. Can’t bear to look. Can’t believe that any of this is real. He’s afraid he’ll shut down and wake up on the beach: another disappearing act. Afraid he won’t be able to come back this time. That he’ll open his eyes and be somewhere else. A million miles away. Another universe, alone. In pieces again. Unmade. Gone. He keeps trying to center himself on the smell of the antiseptic, the sound his chair makes when he scrapes the leg across the floor. The feeling of his raw hands knitting themselves back together. The throb between his eyes; Bucky’s probably broken his nose. He is paralyzed by the thought that none of this is actually happening.

“What is this?” he whispers to Peggy, while the surgeon and two remaining nurses work. Peggy’s hand is resting on his back, in the same spot he tried to touch Bucky, to reassure him.

“Best guess? Extreme conditioning. Training under— duress.”

“Under torture.” Peggy doesn’t say anything. “How’d you-”

“I didn’t,” she says. She sounds grim. “The orders might not have worked, if he wasn’t so—obviously compromised. But I took a gamble on it being programming, that he wouldn’t stay down, even when-“

“When I almost killed him,” Steve says, and covers his face with both hands. “I could have.”

“Hush,” she says. Her hand circles against his spine. “You did what you had to. You kept us alive.” Steve’s head jerks up. Peggy startles, barely: his face must look wild.

“The kids,” he says, raggedly. “Peggy, your kids-“

“Are fine.” Peggy’s hand loses its rhythm for a second, and then makes another slow, steady arc across his back. She exhales. “They’re fine.”

“Jesus, I’m so sorry, I—they’re alright? Gabe? Everyone’s safe?”

“There’s a police detail with them now. They might move everyone to Howard’s, tonight. The house is an abomination, but it’s secure.” Her shoulders loosen a little. Maybe imperceptibly to anybody else. But now Steve can see she’s exhausted, holding together by strings. He can’t believe he was so selfish. That he needed her to comfort him, when her children- her babies, her family— “Gabe’s at the Los Angeles station. Says he’s going to camp there, sleep on a cot in the office.” Peggy taps him thoughtfully. “He said to tell you, just like the good old days.”

“Good,” Steve says. He feels boneless with relief. “Thank God, Peg, I’m so glad.”

“Glad, yes,” she says. “I think that’s the word.” Peggy’s staring at the doors. At nothing. “I don’t know,” she says. “What I’d do.” Steve sits up, reaches for her hands. Holds them both between his. Peggy laughs, soft and hollow. “Burn the world down, probably.”

“I’d help,” says Steve.

“I know you would,” she says. She turns back to him. Holds him with her eyes; curious, intent, like she’s looking straight through him. She hasn’t looked at him like that for a long time. Steve wonders what she’s seeing. “I know.”

 

 

 

 

Later, after Peggy’s taken a catnap in a chair and made another round of phone calls, and the nurses have come and gone through the recovery room twice, Peggy sits down next to Steve and murmurs, “The nurses are all talking about you.” Steve raises an eyebrow. “And not in the usual way.”

“There’s a usual way?” Peggy rolls her eyes. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to travel.”

“You never do,” she says, but there’s no heat in it. She leans closer. “Besides. You came back.” She nods at Bucky, lying silent in the bed. “You’ve never done that before.”

“I could never control it.” Steve flexes his hands. They’re mostly healed over, almost smooth again. His face still aches, but it’s dulling. It’ll take a couple of days, he thinks. Probably. He forgets these things, forgets his body, usually. But not right now. Right now he feels everything. It’s strange. And familiar. It’s a little overwhelming. “I just drift away.”

“So,” she says. “How?”

“Not sure.” He thinks about the beach. The smell of the hospital. “I focused. On little things. Like the first time, with you—your hands, your—your face, looking at you, thinking about the beach, the feeling of the sand. Wanting to come through. It was like—pulling myself through the world. Dragging myself there.” Peggy leans back, drums her fingers on the arm of the chair.

“Can you do it again?”

“What, right now?”

“Yes,” she says. “Could you go away—let’s say, outside, just to the street—and come back? Could you have that much focus?”

“I was desperate,” Steve says, quietly. “I don’t know.”

“You could try.”

“I could end up in the goddamn Bahamas,” Steve snaps. “I’m not gonna leave you here. Leave him here. What if there’s another attack?”

“That’s precisely why,” Peggy says. “If it isn’t just a loss of control, if it can be focused, practiced; can you imagine the advantage? It could change things. It could change a great many things.” Steve stares at her, finally understanding.

“You’d put me back in the field.”

“You’ve been back,” she says, a little too quickly. “For years now.”

“Sure. Escorting dignitaries. Security details and tech drills with Howard. I’m talking about the field, Peggy. You’d put me back on the board.” For a long moment, Peggy’s silent. Her mouth is twisted at the corner, like she’s trying to chew her words carefully.

“If you could,” she says, slowly. “If you could. Hypothetically. You’d be the piece they could never track. Never predict. Just you—in and out. Gone. No extraction point. Just gone. Nobody has an operative who moves like that. Nobody.”

“You’ve thought about this.”

“Never seriously,” she says. “Well. Never concretely. It seemed like a remote possibility, given your—wanderlust.” She gives him a faint smile. “But perhaps I was waiting. Hoping.”

“For what?”

“For you to find something you could hold on to.” Peggy’s eyes drift across the room. “What do you think?”

Steve closes his eyes and thinks about the street. The lurch when Peggy spun around the traffic circle: the crunch of tire on curb. He focuses on the sign in front of the building, a heavy rectangle planted in the shrubs. It was glowing when they pulled in. Blue letters on white, radiating. And a blue cross. The surface of the sign was smooth plastic, bowed a little at the center. The letters were crisp. Steve focuses on them, on those lines. Traces them in his mind.

M

E

R

Steve opens his eyes and reads.

Mercy, it says.

Above him, it’s starting to rain. The sky is greying: it’s colder here than in the recovery rooms, breezy. The air touches the skin of his face, his throat, like an exhalation. Raindrops hit his shoulders, darken his shirt. He opens his mouth and tilts his head back like a child. He thinks about the body in the bed: Bucky’s frightened, rabbiting eyes. Peggy’s children asleep, toys clutched in their delicate little arms. Their car burning under the bridge, the kid in the backseat that he couldn’t save. Steve stands in the middle of the traffic circle and lets the rain open up overhead. He stretches his arms out.

“Hey, buddy!” somebody calls. It’s a guy in a station wagon, honking his horn. “Get the fuck outta the road!”

Steve waves and smiles at him, pretending he doesn’t understand. He closes his eyes again. Thinks about Bucky’s hand, curled in the blankets, slack. The purpling flesh on his cheeks. Peggy’s dark eyes on him, watchful. Assessing. The softness of her hands, and the smell of the disinfectant and floor cleaner.

“Good God,” Peggy says, startled, when he reappears. “The nurses are right; that is unsettling. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it.”

“I can do it,” says Steve. “I can do this.”

“How did it feel?” she asks.

“It feels,” Steve says, and stops. Touches his hand to his damp shoulder. “Like living. Like being alive again.”

 

 

.

Chapter Text

It’s close to midnight and the hospital is strangely quiet: not silent, but still. There are overnight-shift nurses at the station in the hall. But the visitors are gone, and the lights in most rooms are off, and even when Steve strains to listen to the muffled conversations outside the door, all he can really hear is tired people trying to keep their voices down. Peggy’s asleep on a cot, with her jacket pulled over her shoulders. Steve is leaning on the edge of Bucky’s bed with his head down on crossed arms. He’s watching Peggy. It’s hard not to feel like a voyeur, tracking the way her eyes move in flickering starts behind her eyelids. She’s dreaming. He doesn’t begrudge her that. There’s no jealousy. He can appreciate her ability to throw open a window he can’t seem to find anymore. When he was sickly he used to chase sleep sometimes, trail after it grimly through the pain; after the serum he could sleep anywhere, sitting in a stool in the corner, in the back of a rickety jeep, face-down on a bedroll with leaves still stuck into his shirt collar.

She’s beautiful like this. Beautiful always, but like this, too. Soft, the way she isn’t really, inside. Underneath the silk there’s stone, radiant marble, possible to chip but never to bend. Michelangelo would have known her, Steve thinks; he would have set his chisels down and left her like this, exquisitely unfinished like his Prisoners, awakening. She rolls further onto her side and her mouth opens in a silent sigh of breath. Her hair’s so long, so much longer than it used to be. Sometimes the months slip away from him, and he forgets: forgets to look closely at her, at Gabe and Howard and the children, the people he should be marking in his mind. The people he should be hanging on to. The fine lines that gather at the corners of her eyes are starting to stay all the time, not just when she throws her head back and laughs with her lids screwed shut. But right now her face is peaceful, younger than he can believe. She looks almost the way she did before they said goodbye. That kiss, a brief touch. The last day, before yesterday, that everything felt real.

Bucky’s hand twitches in the blankets.

Steve lifts his head slowly, trying not to startle him. He looks at Bucky’s face. He’s not sure what he expects to see: fury, maybe. Pain. Or that terrible flat emptiness. But he’s— he looks frightened, and wary and wild, and—God, he looks familiar. It’s him. He’s in there, Steve thinks, desperately, and his heart hammers in his chest. He’s in there. He’s alive, and somehow he’s here, he’s—Bucky. He has to be. “Hey,” Steve whispers. He stands up and pulls the heavy dividing curtain across between the bed and the cot; Peggy deserves to sleep a little longer, if she can. He sits down again and leans close. “Hey.”

Bucky’s propped halfway upright on the pillows, staring rigidly ahead, but now his eyes slide over to glance at Steve. He doesn’t say anything. But those eyes are wide and confused. They don’t stay in one place for long. There’s sweat on his forehead. His breath’s coming faster. Steve should have asked what they were giving him, should have paid more attention to the names—phenobarbital before the surgery, maybe? Something else after? He should have asked more questions. Steve reaches for his hand, the flesh one that’s gripping the sheets. He puts both his palms over the knot of Bucky’s fingers and they go limp, boneless. Bucky stares at the place where they’re touching, and now he does look terrified. Christ. “It’s me,” Steve says. “I’m here. You’re okay. You’re safe.”

“Don’t,” Bucky says in English, but he cuts himself off just as quickly, shaking his head in a tiny, violent tremor. His dirty hair flies across his face. Steve gives his hand a light squeeze. It tenses, and so does his metal hand on the opposite side, but he doesn’t squeeze back. He’s trying to stay motionless; Steve wonders if that’s because his sutured shoulder hurts.

“How’s the pain?” he asks. “Too much? I can get you something.”

“мой отчет?” Bucky says, haltingly. It sounds like a question, but one Steve can’t answer.

“Just tell me if you’re hurting.”

“работающий.”

“Sorry,” Steve says. He tries to form his mouth into a smile, something friendly. Something safe. Even though what he’s feeling isn’t very safe at all, isn’t very kind. Someone did this to him. Took his words away, took—someone meant to do this. “I don’t speak Russian, Buck.”

“Buck,” Bucky repeats. His face twitches. “Buck.” Steve can’t believe himself: he laughs, faintly. He actually laughs. He doesn’t even know where it came from, that feeling. It rose up in his throat, in his guts: it squeezed past the rage somehow. Bucky turns slightly to stare at him. And there he is: there he is again. Steve can see him, peering up through the layers, that strange barely cracking shell, through whatever it is they did. He looks a tiny bit irritated. It’s incredible. Anybody else could miss it, would miss it, because his face is still so blank and rigid, but Steve would recognize that expression anywhere, the faintest flicker of that expression, the slight sloping pitch of his mouth, the way his eyes narrow a fraction. Steve would recognize that expression through a five-dollar telescope, looking down at earth from the moon. He feels on the edge of hysteria. It’s a little hard to breathe. He wants to cup Bucky’s face between his hands and hold him, warm him, until the strangeness melts away, until he is well and pink and smiling. There must have been a world—of all the worlds that have slid through Steve’s fingers, all the strange empty places he has crossed—there must have been a world where he could do that. Where he has. Bucky watches him, waiting for something.

“You sound like a chicken,” Steve whispers, absurd even to himself. Where the fuck is this coming from? This ancient, terrible joke. Bucky used to elbow him savagely for this when they were nine. Right now he says absolutely nothing. Maybe Steve’s made him angry. “You know?” Steve nudges him, very gently. “Buck, buck.”

“I don’t know,” Bucky says. Low, like he doesn’t want to be overheard. He drops his eyes to their joined hands, then looks back up at Steve. “I don’t know,” he says. His pronunciation in English is stiff, artificially slow. Pained.

“What don’t you know?” Steve asks. “I’ll tell you.”

“That word,” Bucky says.

“It’s,” Steve starts, baffled. “It’s your name, Buck, it’s—yours.”

“No."

“No, what?” Steve says. “Do you—James, you always hated, you made me call you—”

“I don’t—have that,” he says. He turns his face towards the wall, and the tentative expression slides off of it like rain beading down glass, trembling for a second and falling away. “No name.”

“Bucky—”

“No,” Bucky murmurs, and curls his shoulders in with a wince, bringing his metal arm up defensively across his chest, like he’s going to rear back and hit Steve across the face. Like he wants to. But he doesn’t. He holds himself tightly, tremoring the tiniest bit. He’s fighting something, Steve thinks, and then realizes it must be himself. “That’s not. I don’t.”

“Did they—did they not call you,” Steve says, trying to frame it somehow. He tries to keep his voice gentle, even though it’s cracking. He could scream. “They called you something else?” Bucky doesn’t answer. “I called you Bucky,” Steve says. His face feels warm. “I always called you Bucky, Buck, you—do you remember that?” Bucky’s face is blank. “Do you remember anything? Do you remember me?”

“No,” he says.

It doesn’t sound like a lie.

Steve leans his forehead down onto the mattress, unsteadily. His head’s too heavy to keep upright. He breathes in the smell of laundry soap and lint and wonders why he feels dizzy until he realizes he’s crying, dry and silent at first and then hard, making choked-off noises into the blanket. He hasn’t cried in—he hasn’t cried at all, he hasn’t been able to, not since he came back, he couldn’t. He couldn’t get to that point. He was too far from himself. His body didn’t remember that place, that feeling. But now he’s crying. And he can’t stop. He tries to. His throat is thick, his eyes burn. He’s still holding Bucky’s hand, he realizes after a second. It’s warm against his cheek. It only makes him cry harder, pathetically, holding himself tight to keep from making a sound. He presses his mouth to the back of Bucky’s flesh and blood fingers, kisses that hand, he can’t help himself. He can’t stop himself from doing it, no matter how—embarrassing it feels, no matter how vulnerable it makes him. Bucky could knock him away, could probably throw him off, snap his neck; maybe he will. Steve doesn’t care. He doesn’t care. The pulse pounds in his ears like a drum; he kisses Bucky’s hand once more and presses it over his eyes. He is going to kill the people who did this. He is going to kill the people who knew about it. He is going to pull the world apart and crush the pieces. “Да,” Bucky says, above him, softly. Steve lifts his snotty, reddened face and realizes he’s been babbling. He said all of those horrible things out loud. But Bucky’s expression is strangely peaceful. Not smiling. But there’s something in his eyes: a light, almost. The bright tip of a candle. “все верно,” he says, and his fingers curl around Steve’s just a fraction. Just the barest pressure.

“Okay,” Steve says, softly. He doesn’t know what he’s promising, what Bucky thinks this is. But it doesn’t matter. He can have anything.

Everything.

 

 

 

 

It’s only a matter of time before more police show up, before they’ve attracted too much attention to stay. When a couple of cops rolled in after the surgery to question them about the strange reports the nurses were giving, Peggy’s fake badge held them off. But they’ll be back, and when they come again there will be pointed questions, and then handcuffs. They can’t risk it. So when Peggy wakes up at three o’clock in the morning they get Bucky out of bed: they tie his filthy boots back on and get him into a coat that Steve stole from the waiting room, a long raincoat with a belt. Bucky doesn’t resist this time, doesn’t do anything but stand placidly and loosely while they angle his metal arm into the sleeve. His right arm is in a sling to keep his pinned collarbone still, but when Steve checks on the sutures at his shoulder the skin around them is already pink and healing a little.

“Like you,” Peggy says.

“Like me,” says Steve, bitterly. Bucky lets Steve slide his hospital gown back up and tie it in place, lets him pull the coat around his right shoulder and tuck the empty sleeve up, belt the coat around the waist. His face is still purpled but the swelling’s gone down already, more evidence of a rapid healing factor that might even rival Steve’s. He still looks lopsided and suspicious but it’s the best they can do. Peggy goes first to clear the hall for them and Steve urges Bucky out as quickly as he can, gets him into the back stairwell, trying to move fast without jolting him too much. But apparently Bucky’s already grasped that this is a discreet exit: he moves silently, stays close to the wall. He doesn’t talk to Steve, barely looks at him unless it’s to receive the next order to move. He’s better at this than Steve is, even with a wrecked shoulder and the last of the surgery drugs cycling out of him. It’s unsettling. But somehow this is the least terrible, least startling thing: he was good at this before, too, at moving between cover without making a sound. At lying still for hours, waiting for a shot. They could be in the Böhmerwaldgau at dusk, under the spruce trees. Steve makes him wait as he opens the door on the first floor and checks for security guards, but there’s only a pair of nurses pushing a cart down the hall, chatting. They stay in the stairwell until they’ve passed, then Steve gets Bucky into the hall, headed for the back entrance where the delivery trucks sit. Their luck is holding until a uniform turns around the corridor and freezes, arm up and finger pointing.

“Sir,” he says. “Sir, I’m gonna ask,” he manages, before Bucky has lunged forward past Steve and grabbed the guard by the throat with the metal hand. Bucky slams him up against the wall and the guy’s heels scrabble against the plaster. Steve puts himself between them, tries to wedge Bucky back, wrap his fingers around the unyielding wrist.

“No, Buck, no,” he says, low and urgent. Bucky’s face is rigid with fury. The guard’s eyes are bulging out; his breathing's strangled. Steve squeezes Bucky’s shoulder, touches his face, and Bucky’s angry focus breaks for a second: he gives Steve a searching look. “Don’t do this. We don’t have time for this. We have to go.” Bucky stares at him a second longer, then drops the guy on the ground in a heap. The guard lays on his face on the tile, gasping; Steve kneels and checks him quickly before he stands. "Thank you," Steve says, because he doesn't know what else to say. "For not killing him." Bucky moves his good shoulder in a tiny gesture that could almost, almost be a shrug; but then he's gone again, loping away towards the loading dock doors, glancing back only once to make sure Steve is still with him.

That's familiar, too.

In Peggy’s nondescript stolen Ford, Bucky sits in the back seat and stares out of the window absently, answering only direct questions, mainly in crisp Russian to Peggy, but half in murmured English to Steve. It’s almost like he’s making an effort: it visibly costs him something to make those words come out. Steve tries not to turn back and stare at him the entire time, and only somewhat succeeds. Whenever he does look back, Bucky is watching him, too: silently, intensely. Steve doesn’t know what to think about that. Whether it means that he remembers more than he says, or less: if he is trying to figure Steve out from scratch, from nothing, or if there are still pieces with which to rebuild.

"Has he told you anything?" Peggy asks.

“He doesn’t know his own name,” he says, quietly. He knows Bucky can overhear him: knows he’s actively listening, even though it seems he won’t interrupt. But it feels polite to keep his voice down. Peggy frowns and changes lanes. “He says he doesn’t have one.”

“No,” she says, slowly. “I suppose he wouldn’t. To fight like that. Obey like that. A name would only be a complication.”

“You don’t sound very surprised.”

“Dehumanization is exactly what it sounds like,” she says, but there’s something odd in her voice; Steve hears it catch. Her hands are tense on the wheel.

“Peggy.”

“Steven.”

“You said you didn’t know,” he says, twisting in his seat to face her. “You said you weren’t sure.”

“I’m not.”

Peggy.”

“While you were away,” she says, and Steve grips the dashboard so tight it cracks in his fingers.

“Jesus Christ,” he says.

“It was a theory,” Peggy says. “And not a good one. Not one we pursued.”

“Somebody pursued it,” Steve says. “Somebody did, Peggy, who?” He cut his fingers open on the broken glove compartment, but he can barely feel them. “Whose idea? Howard, tell me it wasn’t Howard.” Peggy shakes her head. “Who?” She’s silent for a moment, as stonily unreadable as Bucky in the backseat. “Who, Peggy,” Steve says.

“Zola.”

For a second everything is white noise and static: Steve has to grip the inside of the car door with his bloodied hand so that he doesn’t fade out right there, vanish from the car, from the world. He tries not to feel the beach, hear the seagulls calling. It tugs at him for a second, and it’s so tempting to imagine reality sliding away out of his fingers. Everything could be unreal again, unmoored and drifting: he could probably spend the rest of his life floating outside of the world like a shadow. But he hangs on through the sensation, listens to Peggy’s voice calling for him urgently, saying his name. Steve, she’s saying. Please don’t. Don’t go.

“I’m not,” he manages, after a minute of dragging himself back. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“It was Joint Intelligence,” she says. “We only found out after the deal was made.”

“You never—”

“What was I supposed to say? Nothing he ever fielded went anywhere. His ideas were horrific. Nobody would work with him. Howard took a few of his better schematics, but nobody wanted to actually share a lab. He was nothing. And then he was dead.”

“What?” Steve says. “When?”

“In forty-nine. A heart attack, apparently.”

“Apparently?” Steve echoes. “Look at him. Look at him, Peggy. Zola had him the first time, Zola knew—he knew he’d have the, the serum, the copy, he fucking gave it to him! We let this happen,” he says. “You. Me. Howard, the fucking—the whole fucking SSR, we let this happen. We let it!”

“You weren’t even—”

“I should have killed him,” Steve says. “I should have caved his head in. Christ."

"Steven—”

"That snake. How could you let—”

Let?” Peggy snaps. “You flatter me. I spent forty-five to forty-eight trying to get them to listen to a goddamn word I was saying.” She flashes him a hard look. “Is that what you really think? You think I’d let this happen?”

“No,” Steve says. “No.” He scrubs his clean hand across his face and takes a deep breath. “Peg. I’m sorry.”

“I’m not proud of—everything,” Peggy says, tightly. “The choices we’ve had to make. Not all of them. But I don’t have to be proud. I have to keep working. Do you understand? I have to work.” There’s silence in the car for a long minute, and Steve glances to the backseat. Bucky’s eyes meet his and hold for a while. Steve was afraid they’d be accusing, angry: you did this, they would scream. You did this to me. Bucky’s face never used to have secrets. But right now his eyes are like bird’s eyes: curious. Alien. Steve can feel them cataloguing him, his weak spots and pressure points: he feels the long pin slide into place through his heart, fixing him like a beetle to a board. After a long moment, Steve blinks first.

He looks back at Peggy, watches her watching the road.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“You’ve said that.”

“For leaving,” he says. “For not coming back.”

“Steve,” she says, softly, surprised. “You don’t owe me that.”

“I was gone,” he says. “You were here. Working. I don’t get to judge that.”

“That is,” Peggy starts to say, and then the corner of her mouth quirks up. “Charmingly uncharacteristic of you, darling.”

“I don’t—”

“Yes, you do,” she says.

 

 

.

Chapter Text

The turnpike is still unnerving on some level, even after the last few years: he’s lost count of how many hours, days of his life he’s spent now shuttling between New York and Washington in the back seat of an armored car, running security detail for a dignitary that will either ignore him or ask probing questions about his time “away.” More than once on a long car trip he’s stared out the window too long and the world has slipped through his fingers, left him somewhere else. It’s still an alien place, the highway, with its big broad lanes like runway strips, and thousands of cars going sixty miles an hour past one another, cutting in and past like racers. He’s used to it now, the sound of it, the hot flat tar smell, the way it segments the world sharply into asphalt and green. It’s not the speed he doesn’t like. Nothing’s faster than slamming a supersonic plane into a nosedive, if you’re really comparing notes. It’s the flat unnaturalness of it, the sterility: the way it turns towns into passing names on a signboard, lights that vanish in the rearview mirror. Still, it has its uses. And Gabe loves the turnpike, so much so that the enthusiasm’s almost catching. Sometimes when Steve shows up in their kitchen at night, Gabe shrugs and gets the car and drives them across the river and they just go, and go, and go. Windows rolled down and music up, blowing down the lanes, Gabe tapping the door in time and Steve listening mostly to the wind; nobody else out but truckers and other joes who can’t sleep. “If God didn’t want me to drive this fast,” Gabe says, sometimes, “He wouldn’t have made a road this smooth.”

Peggy takes the Holland Tunnel into the city, winds them through towards Lexington Avenue and parks them around the corner from the office, and then sits in the driver’s seat for a long minute, looking between the two of them and frowning.

“You probably ought to wait here.”

“I should go up, too,” says Steve. “Grab a few things.”

“Do you think that’s wise?” Steve glances at the back seat. Bucky’s sitting silently, watching them. He doesn’t look ruffled by the traffic noise, sharp honks and raised voices; not even the customary, almost welcome sounds of someone busting open a sidewalk with a jackhammer. Steve should have expected that, maybe. They were bred in city noise, formed inside it like seeds. He wonders if it’s as comforting for Bucky right now as it is for him sometimes, particular moments when he’s feeling untethered from life, when he wants to remember what it was like to be a person the way that he thinks he was before, the way that everyone else is. Noisy, insistently flesh, pounding their heartbeats. “I’ll be as quick as I can,” Peggy says, and then she’s gone. They sit in the cocoon of the car alone. With nobody else to watch them, Steve feels less strange about just sitting there and staring at him, letting Bucky stare back, no pretense of polite distance. He feels like he’s starving for this, just for this—to take him in, to be taken in.

“How do you feel?” Steve asks. Bucky doesn’t answer; the question almost seems to bore him. He stares a hole into Steve’s cheek instead, his neck, his hand where it grips the edge of the driver’s seat. “Are you hurting?” Steve presses, because he can’t not. “Any pain left in your shoulder?” Bucky lifts his eyes to Steve’s and then flicks them away. But he slides the shoulder of the trenchcoat off with his metal hand, pulls the hospital gown down a few inches. Offering himself for inspection. The pink scar’s still vivid but not angry anymore. The swelling’s gone down and the skin’s knitted together more fully. Steve wonders if the same is true inside, if the bones are setting right. He wonders, too, if it hurts as much as it always does for him. “You heal fast,” Steve says, for lack of anything better to say. Bucky’s bare shoulder is overwhelming him. Bucky slides his clothes back on and looks away, out towards the street. Steve turns his head too, and together they watch a hot dog cart be pulled slowly down the sidewalk. Followed by small herd of businessmen, and a family with a waddling dachshund puppy on a string.

“Forty point seven one two seven. North. Seventy-four point zero zero five nine. West,” Bucky says, tonelessly. Steve looks at him, but Bucky is still staring out the window, his mouth a thin flat line. “New York.”

“Home,” Steve says, hopefully. “We were born here.”

Bucky doesn’t say anything about that. But he doesn’t look away from the window for a while; he doesn’t look away from the pigeons picking apart dropped hot dog buns and wrappers, from the old lady with a guitar case slowly crossing the street against the light. It’s something, Steve thinks. If he was going to remember anything it ought to be the city, probably: it ought to be something this big. This much a part of you.

Peggy’s only gone for twenty minutes; she comes back with a briefcase and a small suitcase and a bag that Steve recognizes as his, the one he keeps under his desk with a spare change of clothes and shoes and a roll of money. It’s the bag the agents bring when they pick him up the from the beach, just in case he shifts without something important; it’s got sand perpetually gritting around in the bottom. It was kind of her to remember. She puts everything in the trunk and starts the car and pulls them carefully into traffic, but she doesn’t aim them towards the park. Instead she cuts back across midtown; after a minute or two Steve realizes she’s heading back for the tunnel. “I thought everyone else was at Howard’s,” he says.

“Everyone else is at Howard’s, yes,” Peggy agrees. But that’s not exactly the question he asked, and she obviously knows it. “There’s another place, just a bit further west. Quiet. Secure. Designed for a moment like this, actually. You know how paranoid he can be.” Steve clears his throat like he wants to speak, but Peggy talks over him. “You’ll have everything you need. And it’s only temporary. Until we can sniff out who’s pulling the strings.”

“I don’t see why—”

“My children are at Howard’s,” Peggy says, bluntly. She glances over at Steve. She looks sad, and fierce as a lioness.

“Peg,” Steve says. His throat’s gone dry. “He’d never.”

“I’d like to believe that,” Peggy says. "I would."

 

 

 

 

They don’t talk for a little while, while Peggy takes them through the tunnel and out into New Jersey, heading towards Passaic. It’s not an area Steve knows well; there’s the city and the shore and everything west is kind of a blur in his mind. Bucky’s ma used to have a cousin that lived out here, someplace—Rutherford, maybe? He can remember going to the movie theater there as a kid, staring up at the crystal chandelier that glittered faintly in the dark like starlight while the projector ran— Jesus, Steve thinks, abruptly. Bucky’s ma. Winnie’s probably sitting alone in the house off Livingston Street, working on another quilt, unless Rebecca and the kids are there. What day is it, Steve wonders. They started off in the car on Tuesday morning, and now—so Rebecca will be at work right now, sitting at her desk in the front of the law firm office, typing and filing, and the kids will be at school; Steve could call her, could call Winnie, and tell them—Steve doesn’t know what he’d tell them, but they’ve got to know. Bucky was—God, there was nobody that didn’t love him. Nobody who’d ever known him, really known him, who didn’t. He can’t imagine what they’ll say, how they’ll feel. This’ll change everything for them, he thinks. Bucky coming home.

Bucky taps him on the shoulder.

“Yeah?” Steve says, snapping out of it. He blinks; his eyes are a little damp again, Christ, this whole thing’s got him falling apart. He hopes Winnie’s heart has been alright, the shock could be something to worry about. “What is it, Buck?”

“Tail,” Bucky says, to him, and something else in Russian to Peggy.

“The black car?” she says, craning a glance into the mirror. “Three behind?”

“да.”

“Well,” she says. “Thank you, Sergeant.”

“You think they picked us up downtown?”

“Seems likely.” Peggy decreases her speed a little, but doesn’t change lanes. “They must’ve been waiting.”

“So they know about the office.”

“Yes, Steve, I imagine they do,” Peggy says, frustrated. She scowls and glances over her shoulder at the rear window. “Hang on.” She pulls them abruptly into the right lane, directly in front of a tractor-trailer that squeals and swerves into the left lane, blocking the view of their tail for a second. She pulls swiftly onto the off-ramp, taking a sharp turn that makes the car shudder. There’s the sound of brakes and a crash behind them, and then a black sedan is roaring down the ramp after them, gaining fast. Peggy blows past the yield sign and merges onto the county highway, weaving between cars; she goes through a red light blaring the horn and makes a sharp left over the divided road. There’s a snarl of honking cars as they pass, blocking the lanes. Peggy winds them through a few more turns, then finds a back road and takes them to seventy miles an hour, turning the few scattered houses into a blur. “Anything?” she calls back. Steve turns in his seat: Bucky’s sitting with one knee up, body loose and casual, his metal arm leaned on the back dash as he watches the road vanish behind them in a cloud of dust. Far in the distance, a car whips onto the road.

“все еще там.”

“Fuck,” Peggy says, and slaps the wheel. “Steve, we may have to—”

“Give me the gun,” Bucky says. Steve gapes at him, mostly because it’s the longest, clearest sentence in English he’s formed so far. Bucky stares flatly back. “The gun,” he says, slowly, like Steve is an idiot. “Give it to me.”

“I don’t have—”

“She does,” says Bucky. Steve looks at Peggy; she swerves them around a deep pothole and swears under her breath. “Give it to me.”

“Buck, you—"

“Хуй тебе,” Bucky says, not flat at all: his face is suddenly livid, eyes narrowed murderously. “You promised.”

“What are you talking about?” Steve asks, bewildered; behind them, the black car is racing up. There are at least three men inside: one of them sticks an arm out and fires wildly. Shots ping off the back of the car and the side mirror cracks. Peggy swears and swings them across the lanes and the next few shots miss entirely. Bucky spits a long chain of Russian and Peggy yells something back that makes Bucky grit his jaw.

“What did you tell him?” Peggy demands. A shot shatters through the back window and lodges somewhere in the roof; Peggy and Steve duck and Bucky just sits there with his long hair whipping across his face, rigid and furious. “Steve, what’s he talking about?” Bucky snarls something complicated.

“What’s he saying?”

“He says you promised,” Peggy yells, over the roar of the wind. “You promised death.”

Steve looks back at him. There’s hair stuck in the corners of his mouth, blown across his eyes. His metal hand is gripping the edge of the back dashboard so tight the fabric’s ripping away between his fingers. There’s window glass in his hair, strewn all across the seat and the shoulders of his trenchcoat. He hasn’t even brushed it off. He doesn’t look back at the car shooting at them. He’s only looking at Steve and his eyes are betrayed, like a dog’s. Winnie’s son: the boy who used to feed cats by hand from his tuna salad sandwiches. Steve reaches across Peggy to the shoulder holster he knows she keeps under her jacket, takes out her long-nosed revolver. “Steve,” she says, low and warning, "he's not—" and there’s another short volley of shots that makes her jerk the car. Her eyes are wild. “Are you sure?”

Steve gives the gun to Bucky, handle-first.

Bucky rests it on the seat and turns around, up on his knees; he uses his metal hand to bust out the last chunk of the rear window. He picks up the gun and steadies his arm on the edge of the dash.

“Slow down,” he says, and Peggy does it; she jerks the car a little to pretend like they’ve hit something, then shifts down her speed until the other car is practically on their back bumper. Steve watches Bucky rest down on the back of the seat, breathing slow and deep, in through his nose and out through his mouth. One of the shooters in the car is leaning out of the window, a rifle tucked against his body. Bucky catches him through the chest, maybe an inch over the heart; he tips out of the window halfway and the car behind them swerves but doesn’t go into the ditch. Bucky’s second shot goes into the driver’s forehead. The car careens off the road and into a field; it rumbles along crookedly for a second, like a drunk, and smashes into a stand of trees. Bucky offers the gun back to Steve just the way he gave it, handle first. Steve hands it to Peggy, who tucks it back into her holster one-handed, eyes still on the road. She looks at Bucky in the rear view mirror, which is somehow still intact.

“Excellent shooting,” Peggy says. Bucky shrugs with one shoulder, minutely; it’s such a small gesture it could almost be mistaken for a tic. He settles back in his seat and says something back to Peggy in Russian. She looks surprised, but smiles into the mirror. “Yes,” she says. “He is.”

“Who’s what?” says Steve.

“Apparently,” Peggy says, amused, “you’re a man of your word.” She looks at him and then sighs. “Steven, you’re bleeding again,” she says. He puts a hand up to his face and it comes away red and wet: one of the shots must have clipped his temple. It’ll heal in an hour and he doesn’t really feel it. He looks at the back seat. Bucky's face is doing something odd: it takes Steve a second to realize that he's trying to smile.

Steve smiles back, heart in his throat.

“Спасибо,” says Bucky.

“Anytime," Steve tells him. For once he doesn’t need a translation.

 

 

.

Chapter Text

After the third day at Howard’s absurdly decorated safehouse, Steve realizes he’s going to have to pretend to sleep. If he sits downstairs in the study all night, flipping through page after page of Peggy’s files, or puttering around the basement workroom, Bucky will shadow him silently until morning. He didn’t realize at first what was happening. Steve set him up in the nicest bedroom, the big one at the end of the hallway—the one with an attached bathroom without any windows, because Steve has watched him calculating sight lines continuously since he came through the door. But instead of sleeping Bucky’s probably been sitting crouched behind the study door or standing motionless in the hallway outside the workroom. From the looks of the sheets he hasn’t even touched the big bed upstairs, or even piled blankets up in the bathtub, which was honestly Steve’s next best guess. Steve should have realized his own strangeness would arouse Bucky’s curiosity, if not his apprehension. Who knows what he’s thinking. Bucky seems determined to try and stay awake as long as Steve does. But it’s been seventy-two hours, give or take, and the most Steve’s seen him rest are ten-minute catnaps on the floor behind the sofa in Howard’s hideous rec room, when he thinks nobody’s around. Steve needs him to sleep. Bucky’s drawn and weary, though trying not to show it, and now his shoulder seems to be hurting him more and more.

On the fourth night Steve makes a show of tidying up his papers, the reports and maps Peggy gave him before she went back to the city, and stretches up into an exaggerated yawn. It’s easy to feign the boredom, if not the exhaustion. There’s nothing in the files so far that gives him any kind of lead. Bucky watches him from what’s now his usual seat, an armchair wedged into the most defensible corner of the room. Steve is pretty sure he’s hidden a blade into the upholstery: slit the seam under the seat and tucked a kitchen knife in just far enough that he could still slide the handle out in half a second. Steve didn’t bother telling him not to, didn’t bother trying to round up the knives and rat poison and gardening equipment and put it in the vault in the basement. If Bucky wanted to kill him he could have, he could have killed them both in the car with the bullets left in Peggy’s gun. Even if he’d shot him and Peggy in the back of the head as they barreled down the road, odds are he’d have survived the crash. They are alive on purpose. So Steve doesn’t mind the knives in the armchairs: they’re not for him. They’re obviously for whoever Bucky believes will come after them. After him. And Steve thinks he might be happy to let Bucky gut those people like fish.

He was a good Catholic, once, before he blew himself to pieces. Or maybe he was just a better person. He’s afraid of that, afraid of slipping away into something else, something less—human. Sometimes he ponders the mysterium fidei and the thoughts that come are tangled. Circuitous. Blasphemous. What is a tesseract: a door that opens to infinity, a passage beyond life and death? Could it take you to Eden? To Hell? In the darkest watches of the night, when Steve could barely hold onto the room, the world, his own heartbeat, he’s wondered if in his strange not-death God had permitted him knowledge he could no longer remember, given him something and taken it away again, pulled the veil aside for one shining second and then dropped Steve back here into a half-life: damned him, maybe. For pride. But no, that couldn’t be right: there’d been no pride left, after Bucky. Maybe God had looked into his heart and known the pathetic truth. His noble sacrifice for millions, the thing they kept giving him medals for. Maybe God had seen it clearly, in the second before he pushed the controls down; seen Steve choosing to die.

But then there is today, tonight, now: Bucky alive and mostly healed and watching him, crouched on the seat of an expensive pinstriped chair, wearing a spare pair of baggy coveralls they found in the garden shed. Steve has no idea what God is trying to say with this. If it’s wrong to even ask that kind of question. His heart moves into his throat and sticks there like a broken hinge every time he tries to think about it.

“I’m gonna turn in, Buck,” Steve says.

He pushes away from his notes and goes upstairs into the second bedroom, the one that looks over the gravel circle at the front of the house, and turns the bedside lamp on. He turns the covers down and goes to rummage in the closet for a while. Howard’s got a much smaller frame—not to mention abysmal taste in patterns—but Steve turns up an oversized bathrobe that wraps around him alright. He pads around the bathroom in that, brushing his teeth and drinking a glass of water. But there’s something in the room behind him, a pointed stillness that raises the hair on the back of his neck. He knows without looking that Bucky is standing in the bedroom, watching his back as he stands over the sink. Steve turns around to face him. He doesn’t mean to stare. He doesn’t know if Bucky minds it, if it makes him feel uncomfortable: watched. Monitored. Steve’s trying to act—he’s trying to be as normal as possible, as calm, as polite as he can be, hoping that somehow that’ll—that Bucky will know he’s safe, understand it, understand that this place is nothing like wherever they were keeping him. That Steve is nothing like those people. But there are moments when Steve is just—staggered by it. By him. By this. There are long seconds where he can’t look away. How did he ever hide this, all those years? It must be written on his face, all over him. It makes him want to hide his head in the dirt like a cartoon ostrich. He must be like a pane of glass.

The lamp’s low and yellow, almost like candlelight, like the lanterns they used to find sometimes when they camped in barns, sleeping in hay and taking turns on watch, whispering nonsense to each other and smoking with their hands cupped over the lit ends. Well, the rest of them smoked: Steve’d never gotten a taste for it. After Bucky fell Steve could still smell cigarettes on his clothes, his pack. It made him dizzy and sick. It had turned his head, made him look around corners, just a scent of it. In this light Bucky looks almost like he used to: chiaroscuro and softly orange, painted halfway by darkness and bursting into color when he moved. But not even warm lamplight can hide the circles under his eyes. If he’d appeared like this after Austria, been an apparition in the forest, a silent stone-faced ghost, Steve would have, yes, Steve would have gone with him, walked out into the dark to be the lesson in a fairytale. And now—Jesus, listen to me, Steve thinks. Maybe Bucky’s not the only one who needs a good night’s sleep. “Get some rest,” Steve says to him. Bucky doesn’t say anything, but he goes into the hall and across to his own room.

Steve lies on top of the bed in his silly bathrobe and switches the light off after a minute; the house settles and creaks around him and eventually goes still. There’s barely any sound outside besides the wind passing through the oak trees, rattling the branches against one another. The house is set far back from the road, up a gravel drive towards the top of the hill: there are clear views in all directions, and a reinforced vault in the basement with its own supply of clean air and water and a door that locks from the inside. Howard’s paranoia has its charms. It’s only a twenty minute drive to town, but Steve could run it roughly that fast if he had to. Thirty minutes, maybe, if he was carrying someone. Someone heavy. He’s had several restless nights to think about that.

Steve closes his eyes.

There are some things he remembers.

He’s never sure whether he should press harder, try to make things come more sharply into focus; if there’s something important, something helpful, that he could pull back across the void to use. Or if he should be trying to forget. There’s nothing from the plane, the crash. Nothing at all. But afterwards there was light, paths of it, spilling from everything. Years ago when he got back, during a series of interminable and inconclusive tests, he stood transfixed in a hospital room staring at illustrated posters of the human vascular system, fixated and blank for so long that they had to call Peggy to come and snap him out of it. He couldn’t look away from the veins, the rootlike connections stringing life to life to life to life. For a moment it had sparked a memory. And then it was gone again, blurred away. But there’s something in that, probably. Something that the tesseract meant for him to see. He meditates with that thought, sometimes, when he is trying to sleep. To get himself to rest.

He traces the patterns of veins in his head, builds them in a body, lets the body become a seedling, a tree. Lets it grow and morph and twist. Focuses on the feeling of sunlight and radiant warmth, on the sensation-

“Что это?” Bucky says, at his ear, and Steve scrambles upright and bangs his elbows on the headboard. Bucky is crouched on the floor at the edge of the bed. Steve glances over: Bucky’s feet are bare, and the coveralls rolled up at the ankles to keep them from swishing. He’s even better at silence than Steve even imagined, and now he’s watching Steve suspiciously. “What,” he says, in that strange halting English, “are you doing?”

“I’m trying to fall asleep,” Steve says. He tries to sound irritated. It’s not especially difficult. “Jesus, you gave me a heart attack, sneaking up.”

“You don’t sleep,” Bucky says, frowning.

“Neither have you, not in three days,” Steve says. “You have to get some rest.”

“Why don’t you sleep?” he says.

“I will, when you—”

“Liar,” Bucky says. They stare at each other in the dark. “How,” he says, and stops, like he’s struggling to get hold of himself. Steve leans forward and Bucky freezes, his flesh hand making a fist where it rests on the edge of the bed. Bucky scowls at his own hand, and slowly the fingers start to uncurl. Steve waits, and doesn’t touch him. Eventually, Bucky looks up. “What did they do,” he says. “To you. How did they do it?”

“To—oh,” Steve says, and feels monumentally foolish. Of course. “No. No, nobody did this to me.” His mind reels. It’s an intelligent assumption, really. That Steve’s a product of the same kind of, whatever you want to call it: conditioning. Experimentation. Super strength, fast healing. And no need for sleep: a variation, another—skill set, maybe that’s how he’d think about it. Bucky’s made a damn good logical leap. Maybe if he remembered anything, if he remembered Steve, he’d have remembered the argument they had after Azzano, throwing canteens at each other. Neither of them really angry, Bucky just so goddamn surprised. Here, now, Bucky’s raising an eyebrow at him, just slightly, another expression that’s almost—but not quite—the way it used to be. “Really,” Steve says. “I mean, I used to be—I was smaller, but that’s not—not sleeping, that’s just, me,” he says, awkwardly. “That’s just something that happened. An accident.” Bucky glances across Steve’s body, and back up to his eyes.

“You were damaged.”

“In a manner of speaking,” Steve says. “I was in a—a crash. A plane crash, and it took me a long time to recover. Nothing’s been the same. I haven’t been the same.” It seems like an understatement, but at the moment, it also feels like the best he can do. Steve swallows. “I don’t sleep anymore. I don’t dream. I—do things. Strange things. Like in the fight,” he says, and winces internally. That’s the last thing he wants to talk about. But Bucky nods thoughtfully. He must remember Steve’s vanishing act at the bridge. “I can move. Through space.”

“полезный,” Bucky says; whatever it means, it sounds approving. After a second he says, tersely, “Tactical. Advantage.” Steve shrugs.

“It can be.”

“Yes,” Bucky insists. “You beat me.”

“Buck,” Steve says, taken aback. “I didn’t know it was you. I swear to God, I had no idea. And I’m sorry.” Bucky shrugs, but it’s—it’s not his gesture, his broad easy old shrug, it’s not his at all. It’s a mimic of Steve’s shrug, the stiff one he made a second ago, shoulders turned inward. Steve feels oddly disoriented: a sensation of having your own memories told back to you, wrong. A favorite record played backwards.

“You won.”

Christ,” Steve says, and puts a hand over Bucky’s wrist. “I know you don’t—you don’t know me. But when I say, you are the best friend I have ever had in this world, you can believe me. I hope you’ll believe me. Okay?” Bucky doesn’t say anything. He is looking at Steve’s hand again, the one on his arm, almost curiously. The way he did in the hospital. “I’ll never fight you again,” he says. “I don’t ever want to hurt you again.”

Bucky turns his hand over slowly, slides it over just an inch, so that Steve’s open hand is flush against his own. Lets it sit there. Like he is pressing his hand against something flat: a wall. A window. Steve can feel his warmth, his pulse, through the skin of his palm. He wonders if his face is going red.

“странный,” Bucky says.

“You need to get some rest,” Steve says, and lets go of him. Bucky shifts and stands up. “I know your arm’s still bothering you. You heal fast, but you’ll heal faster if you get some sleep.” Bucky seems like he’s considering it. He looks around the bedroom, glances into the tiny bathroom, walks a small circle on the rug at the foot of the bed.

“You,” he says, nodding at Steve. He looks tired. Almost like he’s letting it show, like he’s finally too exhausted to care. “You’d keep watch?”

“Yeah,” Steve says. “Of course, Buck.” Bucky drags the rug around to the gap between the bed and wall. He shakes it out and lies down on it on his back. He folds an edge of the rug over between his metal arm and his neck. The world’s most uncomfortable pillow, Steve imagines. He gestures at the bed, starts to swing his legs off the side. “There’s a whole—take the bed, Buck, it’s a lot more—”

“Keep watch,” Bucky says, stonily, without opening his eyes.

“Yessir,” Steve says, delighted. God, that was—that was undeniably Bucky, not the thing they tried to make out of him. He can’t help smiling. He props a pillow under his neck and folds his hands across his stomach. Settles in. Bucky sleeps for nine hours straight; he kicks a little in his sleep and makes pained noises, but he doesn’t wake up. Steve lies on his back the whole time and stares up at the ceiling and tries not to fixate endlessly on the warmth in his hands, the slow way they pulled apart. Tries to just listen to him breathing, the sound of the eaves creaking in the wind. Tries to focus on the roots, the veins, the tree: the paths they make, the strings they tie between every living thing.

In the morning, Bucky disappears.

 

 

 

 

Steve made eggs and toast and sausages yesterday morning, out of some grimly determined desire to accomplish something; he’d peeled apples, too, and baked them with cinnamon, and Bucky had been lured in by the smell and then vocally approved of everything, chewing with his mouth open, even though he pushed away his plate halfway through breakfast and went to sit in the basement afterwards with a blank expression on his face. So when Bucky’s still dead asleep at nine-thirty in the morning, Steve goes downstairs quietly and rummages through the cupboards, sets two places and gets to making breakfast. He starts sausages in a pan, slices bread and pops it into Howard’s enormous four-slice chrome Toastmaster. But even after he’s laid everything out, and the whole house has started to smell heavenly like Sunday afternoons at the Barnes’ house, like the best greasy spoon on Flatbush, Bucky doesn’t come downstairs. Steve goes up to see if he’s still sleeping, but the rug is rolled next to the bed, and the bedrooms are empty.

“Buck?” he calls. There’s only silence.

Steve searches the house from the attic to the vault: after a first pass he goes through rooms with a roll of painter’s tape on his wrist. He searches under beds and through closets, and shuts the door afterwards and puts a strip of tape across the slit of the door and door frame, so that he’ll know if anyone opens it again, if Bucky is just playing ghost, slipping from room to room out of sight. After an hour and a half Steve has a house full of taped-over doors, a cold breakfast, and nothing else.

He runs the grounds on foot, searching under hedges and on the other side of the low garden walls; he finds a stand of pear trees and then a pond, and runs straight into the water in his pants and shoes feeling naked, shaking terror. But Bucky’s not dead at the bottom of the pond, not alive in the garden, not anywhere around the perimeter wall, and the security gate’s still locked shut.

He’s gone.

Steve walks back to the house in a daze; everything feels numb, deadened. His hands dangle at his sides and startle him when they brush his hips, when they remind him that he’s here, a body in space, not just—not just a cloud lifting into the air, floating into nothing. He didn’t realize until this moment how real everything was, with—when Bucky was there, how solid he felt, how alive, how sure he was when their fingers pressed together, when he could see him and be close to him and just— his body was real, his heart and his lungs, his hands, he was sure he was a person, human, when Bucky was looking at him.

There’s a car in the garage and a key in the cabinet; Steve drives into town with his heart pounding and knuckles white, trying not to vanish from the stress. He doesn’t know what will happen if he drifts, if he lands on the beach or somewhere else, if he could tether himself back without something to hold onto. Maybe he could focus on the house, the rug, the spoiling breakfast. The details. He’s done it before, now: he could probably do it again. He has to stay calm. In town he parks on a side street and walks the main drag for a while; he finds a payphone at the corner by the pharmacy and digs in his pockets for change. He dials the emergency number Peggy left and waits for somebody to pick up.

“Hello?” a man’s voice says at the other end. It’s not one he recognizes.

“This is Mr. Robinson,” Steve says.

“Mr. Robinson, kind of you to call. Is there anything we can help you with?”

“There’s been some rainfall,” Steve says, feeling foolish. But it can’t be helped: Peggy told him he’d have to play these games, until they knew where the information was coming from, whether they were being tapped, or worse. “I’m concerned about flooding.”

“Ah. Do you need a plumber?”

“I think—” he starts, but something catches his attention at the edge of the sidewalk, across the street. A man looking in a store window: big and broad-shouldered, standing perfectly still. It’s the lack of movement that’s the giveaway. Most people fidget, shift from foot to foot. Certain people don’t: some athletes with low resting heart rates. Snipers. Steve ignores the phone in his hand, lets it dangle down. He can hear someone talking faintly on the other end.

The man on the other side of the street is staring into a window display of suit coats and hats, like he's considering the advertisements. When Steve looks more closely he can see that his clothes look new, but they don’t fit him especially well: the grey twill jacket’s tight at the shoulders. His hat’s half a size too small. Nobody’s paying him a second glance as they walk by. But Steve watches him. Strangely, it looks like he’s trying to stand like the gentleman on the poster: an oversized watercolor picture of a stylish, sharp-lined fellow, leaning elegantly on a tall umbrella. The man in front of the window has one hand in his pocket, the other floating in space, poised where a phantom umbrella would be. He’s wearing a glove on that dangling hand, a dirty canvas work glove, like the ones Steve found in the garden shed yesterday, looking for more coveralls. Steve puts the phone back up to his ear and clears his throat. “Never mind,” he says.

“Never mind?” the guy on the other end snaps. “Sir—”

“I said never mind,” Steve repeats. “All dry here. Dry as a bone,” he says. And hangs up. Steve crosses the street. Bucky looks at him as he walks up. There’s no surprise. He’s stuffed his long, slightly greasy hair up into the band of his hat. The heavy circles under his eyes are less prominent, but there’s something dull and sad in his face that wasn’t there yesterday. He looks back at the window display and puts both hands, dirty glove and all, into the pockets of his suit. On somebody else it would be a casual gesture; he looks like he’s just been put into handcuffs. He doesn’t say anything to Steve about the clothes. About finding him.

“хорошо,” is all he says. “I will go back.”

He walks with Steve to the car and gets inside, sits down in the passenger seat and stares straight ahead with his hat in both hands, while Steve’s mind whirls and whirls around like dead leaves whipping in a gust. Steve gets in the car. Doesn’t turn the engine on, yet.

“I’m not mad,” Steve says, slowly. “You can go whenever you want.” Bucky gives him a look that manages to be both slightly confused and oddly withering, but Steve shakes his head. “I mean it. You’re not a prisoner. You go when you want to go. But things aren’t safe yet. For either of us. Next time, could you—leave a note, or tell me you want—”

“I want to know something,” Bucky interrupts. Steve stops. Smiles. Every time he asks for something, it feels like a good sign. Something righting itself.

“Okay,” he says. “Ask me anything.”

“Was I,” Bucky says. He turns a face on Steve that is—haunted. Not scared, but something past it, past fright, scraped to the bone. “Last night I saw,” he says, and gestures around the crown of his head, in front of his face, and Steve suddenly understands the gesture: dreams. “So many,” he adds. He looks disturbed by this. “I was different,” Bucky says. “I had—I was more like the window. The drawing in the window. I didn’t have this.” He lays his metal hand out on the seat, palm up. It’s the first time Steve’s seen him treat it like anything less than an extension of himself: like something alien. “I didn’t have this,” he repeats. He watches his own metal fingers open and close, the plated joints barely making a sound. “You said you knew me. До. Was it before this? Before I had this?”

“Yeah, Buck.”

“Was I a person?” Bucky asks, looking up.

Steve breathes in deep through his nose and out through his mouth. For a second the whole world goes rushing past in his head, screaming by in a wave so heavy it deadens his senses. He sits in silence, feeling like he is underwater, collecting himself. Trying to remember how to be that: a person. A body in the world. He reaches for Bucky’s hand. He keeps doing it, even though he knows that someday, maybe someday soon, Bucky is going to remember what he is, who he was, and Steve is going to have to stop. Bucky won’t mind, he never minded, he was always slinging an arm over Steve’s shoulders, but that was—that was then, and things are different, and Bucky will know. He’ll see. He will ask Steve gently, kindly, pityingly, he will—and Steve will have to swallow the hurt and accept it, and be glad for it, for the chance for Bucky to do anything to him at all, even break his heart. But right now, to stop the universe from spinning him off, he puts his right over Bucky’s left, twines their fingers together. Bucky could probably crush his hand to powder, but he doesn’t: he folds Steve’s hand into his with the lightest pressure imaginable.

“You are a person,” Steve says. “A good—a real person,” he adds, and feels his eyes welling up. “The most important person, to me.”

“I was—”

“You were then, and you are now,” Steve says. “Nothing will ever change that.”

“But,” Bucky says. His mouth twists. “Different.”

“I exploded once, and now I don’t sleep anymore,” Steve says, and Bucky gives him look that's almost bemused. “Different doesn’t bother me at all.”

“странный,” Bucky says.

“You said that before,” Steve says. “Earlier. What does it mean?”

“It means strange,” Bucky tells him. He settles back in his seat, but doesn’t let go of Steve’s hand. He gestures at the road with his hat. “Driving now?”

“At your service, your highness,” says Steve.

 

 

.

Chapter Text

It’s like a dam has burst. Bucky’s dreams don’t stop: every night he shifts and mumbles on the rug next to the bed. Sometimes he jolts awake, panting, teeth bared, and it’s all Steve can do to talk him down from it, talk him out of hurting himself, from banging his head against the hardwood floor to make the images stop. Once he lunges over the bed and holds his metal hand against Steve’s throat, pressing down until Steve sees stars—but drops him after a second, rolls onto the floor onto his knees with his empty hand spasming in the air, terror in his face. Steve sits with him for a long time after that, talking with him about nothing, until Bucky gets up and pads into another part of the house, where he sits cross-legged on the floor with his back bowed, elbows on his knees and hands knotted in his hair, breathing so shallowly that he doesn’t make a sound. But sometimes, like this morning, Bucky sleeps late and eventually rolls over and mashes his face into his flesh arm, rubs his hands over his eyes, yawns awake slowly. The nights he sleeps for more than six hours at a time, he looks like a bus ran him over, but in a good way: it’s like he’s regrowing some part of himself, and the effort of that is visible everywhere. He stretches on the floor on his back, rolls onto his knees and curls his spine up gracefully, arching into a bridge, while Steve steadfastly looks at the ceiling and keeps his hands folded over his stomach.

“Good dreams?” Steve asks, cringing at himself. There’s no answer. He dares a look at Bucky, who is now kneeling at the side of the bed and considering him with a sleep-rumpled face. Bucky tilts his head a little.

“I had a—сигарета,” he says, and waves his hand in front of his mouth. He looks at Steve and then says, “Cigarette.” Steve’s heart skips for a second. “Sometimes a handler gives me these,” Bucky says. “Not much. But I had my own, that nobody gave me.”

“You used to smoke,” Steve says. “You’d tell me it was a bad habit and light one up anyway.”

“You got any?” Bucky asks, and for a second Steve doesn’t realize it, it doesn’t register at all, it’s just Bucky looking at him asking you got any, even though he should know Steve won’t, he ought to know Steve never—and it’s the most familiar thing in the world, except that it isn’t anymore, he’s stringy-haired and huge and usually kind of Russian now, but somehow, somehow, at least for a second, everything stiff and tight dropped out of his vowels and he just—it was Brooklyn, for a second, Brooklyn nineteen thirty-nine, radiating out of his voice. Steve feels vertigo run up his spine with cold feet.

“Buck,” Steve says. “You sound like— say it again,” he asks. Begs. Bucky frowns.

“You have these?” he asks. “Cigarettes?”

It’s gone.

“No,” Steve says. “Sorry.” Bucky makes a dismissive noise and lies back on the rug. It would be, if Steve didn’t feel so lost right now, objectively hilarious.

Bucky has edged closer to the desk every day while Steve works, and now after breakfast he sits on the opposite side of the table running his fingers over the maps, stopping idly once in a while and saying, here, and letting Steve mark the spot in pencil. Sometimes it’s a place he thinks he remembers travelling through, recon or drills, a base site or a camp: most of them are out in the middle of nowhere, places where it’d be easy to hide a bunker, set up a firing range or a training ground or something more elaborate. Every so often there is a place Bucky calls скверный, something that makes Bucky sit on the floor with his back against the desk for a while, shaking and staring at nothing. They’re mainly in Russian territory, though not all: there are points in Belarus and East Germany, sites that seem to be transport depots, waystations. There’s a single point in Siberia, something that makes Bucky’s hand shake, make his teeth chatter like he’s freezing, until Steve gets him two blankets and Bucky rolls himself up in both and lies in the sun under the windows in the library. There’s a lot of points Bucky doesn’t seem too sure about, things that obviously keep moving in his mind: he’ll rub at Steve’s pencil mark and then frown and correct himself, or wander away and come back half an hour later and look at the map and say wrong, wrong, and grab the eraser himself. He almost rubs a hole through the paper, scrubbing a couple of places out. But it’s starting to look like something. Steve can start to see the pattern emerging: the main hubs and the satellites, a network stretching through the wilderness but with tendrils reaching into the cities, keeping each edge of the web connected. And there’s no doubt anymore about who they’re up against. Bucky’s response to Steve saying the word Hydra was—pretty goddamn conclusive. Two days ago he gave Steve a flat look about the name Zola, but then screamed all night and dug his metal fingers into the floor like he was being dragged away to hell in his dreams, so there’s that.

Steve doesn’t know what to do for him. If this is—helping, or hurting, to try and get him to remember. To tell Steve what he knows. When Steve asks what they were training him for, what they’ve asked him to do, Bucky says,

“Killing,” incredulously, like he can’t believe Steve hasn’t been paying attention in class.

“They sent you to kill Peggy,” Steve says, and Bucky nods. “Did they tell you anything about her?”

“Margaret Carter Jones,” Bucky says, automatically. His voice has gone totally flat. “Born 1921. British. Intelligence officer. Priority target, considered dangerous. Remote kill preferable.” He twitches. “Mission failure.” Twitches again. “Failure to report.”

“Hey,” Steve says. He puts his hand up to Bucky’s cheek before he can stop himself, and Bucky looks into his eyes, startled. Maybe Steve is imagining things, but it’s like—it’s almost like Bucky leans into it, into the pad of Steve’s thumb, where it rests against his cheekbone. “It’s not—it’s not your mission anymore. You saved our lives in the car. You chose to do that. And you did great.” Steve leans back and puts his hands on top of the desk again, pulls himself together. “You’re doing great. This is all good intel. Is there anything else you can think of? Anything they said about Peggy? About me?”

“Not you,” Bucky says. “They told me nothing about you.” His face makes a strange expression. After a second it eases into a smile, like Bucky’s just had a nice thought. “Nobody told me to kill you,” he says. “That’s good. If they don’t know about you.”

“I’m pretty sure they know about me, Buck,” Steve says, ruefully. He looks down at the map they’ve been working on, picks up a ruler and turns it around, thinking. “They just didn’t know I’d be in the car. You and me spent years shooting at them and blowing their factories up, so.” He traces a line between one of the hubs Bucky sketched and Moscow, does a quick calculation of the distance. Half a day’s travel, give or take? Easy to get supplies back and forth. Bucky hasn’t answered, so Steve glances up. He looks troubled: his brows knit together, mouth downturned sourly. “Buck?”

“I don’t want that,” Bucky says. He pushes away from the desk; the chair legs squeal against the floor.

“Bucky,” Steve says.

“No,” Bucky says. “Shut up.” He knocks the chair over, walks out; he goes into the garden and disappears behind the tree line while Steve watches from the window, wondering. He doesn’t want to follow him, crowd him, but whenever he’s out of sight Steve feels panic coiling in his guts, rolling nausea at the thought that anything could happen to him. Steve looked away for a second, once: turned his face into cold metal and cried when he might have been watching, might have paid attention; sometimes he thinks he shouldn’t have let himself shut his eyes, selfishly. If he’d thought about it for a second, if he’d been able to think, maybe he’d have—he’d have seen him land, maybe, he’d have known there was a chance—he’d have made them all go down just to be sure. He should never have looked away. It’s not a rational thought, but knowing that doesn’t keep him from having it. He follows Bucky outside, into the yard, and finds him sitting with his back to one of the pear trees, thumbing a bruised, browning piece of fruit with his flesh hand. Steve sits on the ground, not too close. “You’re right,” Bucky says, finally. “They know.” He sticks his fingers through the pear, bitterly, and then flings it away: it sails about twenty feet and rolls under a bush. “There were three in the car. Two I shot.” He scowls at his wet hand. “The other one, I should have gone back. Made sure.” Steve’s heart clenches.

“None of this is your fault,” Steve says. “Not a damn thing.” Bucky looks up at him. He looks angry.

“They’ll make me kill you,” he says.

“We’re not gonna let that happen,” Steve says. “You and me.”

“I want to kill them,” Bucky says, raggedly. “They’re the ones I want to kill. But they make me. Again and again and I want to kill them but I don’t. I don’t do it.” He’s rocking a little and banging his head against the tree when he jolts back. Steve rises to his knees and tries to hold onto his shoulder; Bucky shakes him off.

“Buck,” Steve says. “That’s not your fault. They,” he starts, and has to breathe through his nose for a second, trying to keep his voice calm. “They hurt you.” Bucky makes a noise in the back of his throat and digs into the dirt with his metal hand while the plates whir and click. “You’re okay. You’re okay. Hey, you got a lot of fight in you, you know? You fought back. Like you said: you got two of them last week. That’s just the start. You’re not going back,” Steve says. He puts a hand around Bucky’s kneecap, splays it out so his thumb can rub the groove of his patella. Bucky’s starting to still. He’s watching the motion of Steve’s hand, following the small circle of touch. “You’re gonna fight. I’m gonna fight with you.” They sit like that for a while on the grass, Steve absently rubbing Bucky’s knee, and Bucky staring transfixed. The world’s so quiet around them. Not silent, not exactly: there’s birdsong and rustling from the squirrels, wind in the leaves. It’s nothing like home, like home used to be. It’s missing the music of pipes in the walls and somebody singing while they string laundry up on the fire escape. But Steve can understand why people would like this, too. He never used to like feeling alone, totally alone: totally alone meant deserted streets, empty buildings. There was always someone humming as they walked, a neighbor dropping spoons upstairs, Bucky tapping his feet while he did the dishes. But now he minds quiet less. He’s not the same as he used to be. He missed a lot; and anyway, now, other people mostly expect him to be silent, strong, dumb. Peggy says mysterious but Peggy doesn’t have to watch how their faces change when he starts talking. He never knows what to say anymore. He could be like this, apart from the world, probably, if Bucky was here, too: he could live in the woods, on the moon, if Bucky was there, too.

It’s been five minutes or so when Bucky clears his throat, swallows a couple of times like his windpipe feels rusty, and says,

“You’ll fight?”

“The whole world, if I have to,” Steve says. “Anyone who ever—any one of them who made you do something you didn’t want to.” Bucky rolls away and stands up; he’s ridiculously graceful when he wants to be, or maybe it’s when he’s not thinking. He’s got dead grass stuck to the backs of his legs. He still hasn’t really washed his hair, for all the splashing Steve’s heard him do in the tub upstairs.

“Come,” Bucky says.

Steve follows him back into the house, into the study; Bucky pushes aside the maps of Russia and Europe, digs through the papers with mounting frustration. He pulls an atlas out and opens it to a map of the United States. He points at the east coast. “Bigger,” he says to Steve. “You have a bigger map of this?” Steve finds him one, and Bucky hovers his finger along the outline of Virginia. He sets it down firmly over the western edge, at the green border of Shenandoah. Steve peers close. The names don’t mean anything to him: Sperryville. Castleton. Nethers. “Here,” Bucky says.

“Here?” Steve repeats, confused. It clicks. His insides go cold, freezing: it shakes him inside like an iceberg cracking, like rage. “Jesus,” he says. “They’re here. They’re already here.”

“да.”

“And that close to Washington,” Steve says. “Is it a safehouse, a base—how many people?” Bucky shrugs.

“There are many levels.”

“You’ve been there?”

“Technicians for this,” Bucky says, and swings his metal arm up and down. “Calibration for mission.” Bucky’s voice shifts, raises a register, and gains the hint of an unfamiliar drawl. “If it gets dinged up, bring it back here to level three for maintenance before transport.” Steve realizes he’s doing an impression of someone, maybe a tech, a handler. Someone who talked past him like he was a machine, an object. A thing. Damn them, Steve thinks. Damn them. If there is a hell, God will lay this horror at their feet.

“What’s the protocol for a mission failure?” Steve asks. “Where were you supposed to report?”

“Handlers, here,” Bucky says, and points to a tiny town in the middle of nowhere.

“You think they’re still expecting you?” Bucky shrugs, but it’s less noncommittal than evasive. Nervous. He withheld this all day, Steve realizes. He was hoping not to share it. Because if he did—if he did, Steve would figure it out. Like he’s doing right now. There’s an advantage here: a hand to play. There’s a chance they’ve realized that Bucky has broken away from the programming—or is trying to. So there’s a chance they’d cut their losses and shoot him on sight. But there’s an equally good chance—better than equal—that they’d rather he was recaptured. The arm alone is complex, even awe-inspiring. It had to be difficult to produce. Maybe they made five, or fifteen, but odds are better that they made one or two, prototype and field model. Steve’s never seen anything like it, not in the files or on any of his rinky-dink protection details. Frankly, it’s the kind of thing Howard would shave his vain head bald for, or burn down his favorite garage, just to get a look at. And Bucky’s training is high-level, expert. The kind that takes years. He was crack shot good, miraculous angle good, back when he had two flesh arms and a Springfield; but now? They’ll want him back. Alive. Bucky seems to know it. He’s watching Steve’s face, watching him mull it over. He obviously doesn’t like what he’s seeing, what he thinks Steve has figured out: the hard line of his mouth is drooping, just a little.

“You do want me to go back,” he says.

“No, I—no, Buck, not exactly. But if they think you’re coming in, we could set a trap for them. Draw them out.” Steve tries to hold his gaze. “You’re not going back. I promised, didn’t I?” Bucky’s eyes slide down, but he doesn’t disagree. It’s something.

“If I go back,” he says, woodenly, “they will—do things. Here.” He points to his skull.

“What kind of things?”

“There is a chair,” Bucky says. “High voltage, it—like this,” he says; he clenches his teeth and makes his whole body spasm for a second, shakes his shoulders until Steve realizes he’s miming electrocution. Steve’s stomach flips violently; he puts a hand to his mouth. “They do this and I forget I want to kill them.”

“Fuck,” Steve says, into the side of his fist. He’s tasting bile. “How many times?”

“Always,” Bucky says. “All the time.”

Steve puts his forehead down against the desk for a second; the wood is cool, and his face feels hot, boiling. He thinks he might throw up. It makes sense, of course: it makes sense that they’d have to keep erasing him. Steve thinks about the way he sleeps longer and longer, asks more questions, the way his mannerisms have started to spill out here and there, drop by droplet. They’d have to keep weeding him, digging him out. Whatever they did to him, he still springs back. His—will, if you want to call it that. His self. Scrabbling up the side of the hole, towards daylight. It’s overwhelming to consider. Steve sighs and leans up on his elbows, scrubs his face with one hand. Sits there with his palms over his eyes. After a second, there’s a slight weight on the back of his neck. Cold, like the desk. But gentle. The weight just rests there, and doesn’t press; it sits perfectly still, curled around the line of his vertebrae. Steve lifts his head a little and the weight disappears. He watches Bucky pull his metal hand back, dangle it against his side. He looks awkward for a moment, gangly, the way he hasn’t since they were fourteen. It hits Steve in the center of his body like a punch. “You want me to do this,” Bucky says, after a moment. “Pretend, to them.”

“You can say no,” Steve says. “We’ll find another way.”

“I’ll do it.”

“Are you sure?”

“No,” Bucky says, and shrugs again. “But, fuck them.”

“Christ,” Steve says, snorting a laugh. “We ought to get that on a pennant.” He knocks gently into Bucky’s shoulder, and without changing his expression Bucky punches him back in the arm. He pulls it. Mostly. Steve refrains, somehow, from yelping.

Steve drives into town in late afternoon and calls the emergency line; he leaves an embarrassing message about ordering an encyclopedia set, as per Peggy’s instructions. He hopes that the guy on the other end feels at least marginally as humiliated about taking it as Steve feels delivering it. Before heading back he picks up a big sack of greasy cheeseburgers and piping-hot fries and drops them into the passenger seat. He eats out of the bag one-handed while he’s driving and licks the salt off his fingers. He brings everything into the house and Bucky pops out nose-first from behind a door.

“That,” Bucky says. “Give me that.”

They eat on the back porch, not bothering with plates, spreading wrappers across their knees and watching the sun coast down over the garden. Bucky eats three burgers without stopping and then sits glassy-eyed on the bottom landing for a while. Steve watches him from the top of the steps, lets his eyes linger over the details, cataloguing his differences, his changes, his continuities: the old curve of his wrist where it drapes over one knee; new cords of muscle that even coveralls can’t hide. The softening side of his cheek painted in pink, dying sunlight. The persistent stubble that’s slowly making itself into a beard. He’ll be disguised, soon, a little; at least his face. There’s not much they can do for the arm, or the piercing eyes. He’s so beautiful. Steve’s hardly an objective observer, but still: how to hide it, the handsome raw-pine loveliness of him, the insistent knots and tidelike, swooping whorls. It feels like anybody could see. He never knew how people could look away.

Steve digests. Steve waits. Just after nine-thirty, the secure phone in the study rings.

“Howard’s House of Horrors,” Steve says. On the other end, he can hear Peggy cough lightly to cover a laugh.

“Abuse of the secure line?”

“How are you, Peg?”

“Oh,” she says. “Well. They retrieved the car a few days ago,” Peggy says. Her voice is a little strained. “It seems Thomas didn’t suffer.”

“I’m sorry. He was a good kid.”

“You rang,” she says, sweeping him along. He can imagine her straightening her shoulders, squaring off, pushing the sadness down, away. “And I can’t imagine this is a social call, so let’s have it.”

“I’ve got a location. Two locations, actually. One extraction point. One base. Bucky’s willing to make it seem like he’s coming in.”

“You think they’d take the bait?”

“I know they would,” Steve says. He can hear Peggy chewing a pencil, a habit she’s picked up in the last few years; the only outward manifestation of her complex internal gears.

“Get me the coordinates and I can see about setting up a false trail for Barnes. Where was he meant to cross the border? Howard has something he’s been itching to get off the ground, literally—”

“He wasn’t going to cross over,” Steve says. “They’re here, Peg. They’re on American soil.”

There is a pointed silence.

“Where,” says Peggy.

“An hour and a half from DC,” he says. He hears her suck in a breath. “Two, maybe three hours from where they blew the bridge. They were right here. Waiting for us. This isn’t just a mole in the office. Bucky says the facility’s at least three levels. We’re talking technicians, labs. A communications relay, probably. They’re dug in. God knows how long it’s been.”

“He’s sure.”

“He’s sure,” Steve says. “He’s said some things,” he adds, lowering his voice. “About the conditioning process. I think he’s trying to give us everything he can.”

“He’s a remarkable man,” Peggy says, softly. “The two of you, you’re alright? No more—incidents?”

“It was nothing, before,” Steve says. “False alarm.”

“Really.”

“You don’t have to worry. Not about that. He’s,” Steve says, and swallows what he’d really like to say. It’s not that Peg doesn’t—that she doesn’t understand, at least as much as anybody would. More. But there are some things he knows he can’t say. That he shouldn’t burden her with. They’d have to be secrets, and Peg has enough of those. “I don’t think he’d hurt me. He’s been—kind,” Steve says. “The things they did, and he’s still—he still remembers how to be kind.”

“God,” Peggy says, with feeling. “I want to burn them out, Steven.”

“We will,” he says. “And I think I know how.”

 

.

Chapter Text

The aerial photos Peggy managed to wrangle are at least a year old, maybe two, but according to her they show the farmhouse clearly, a dot on the landscape flanked by a barn and a decrepit silo, set back about two hundred meters from the road. The fields around it are dense and overgrown. There are at least two of them in the house, from the reports of Peggy’s field agent; by Monday she had him on the ground selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door in town and watching the farmhouse at night. Her intel says the property has changed hands a few times in the last several years, with the ghosts of sad stories lingering between the lines: a string of holding companies seem to have been passing it back and forth following a foreclosure. Bucky can’t remember if he’s been there before or not, so there’s no way to know whether it was picked as a convenient squat, or whether the current owners are Hydra hiding behind an inane commercial front.

“The Bona Fide Group,” Steve repeats, after Peggy’s read her notes aloud over the phone. “Actually, that does sound sort of evil.”

“Don’t judge a book by its cover, Steven.”

“And he doesn’t think they’re moving.”

“Gibson says one was in the market on Wednesday, picking up what looked like another few days of provisions. So they’re not packing up yet, but neither have they settled in. I think your instincts are right—if we’re going to do this, it has to be soon.”

“Okay,” Steve says. “Speaking of Dan. How’s business?” On the other end, Peggy laughs.

“Bit too good. He offered to resign yesterday; said he’d got better prospects in sales.” He can hear her shuffling papers. “He has a fine team,” Peggy says, conversationally. “Excellent, even. The Washington office has nothing but praise for them.” Someone else might miss the edge in her voice, but Steve’s been making her tense for an awfully long time, now: years and years. He can hear the upturn where she’s trying to keep things light. “They could handle this in a matter of hours.”

“We’ve talked about it, Peggy.”

“You’ve talked,” she says. “I’ve listened. Have you thought—no, don’t interrupt me, Steven. Have you thought about the risks, really?”

All last night he played it over and over again, staring at the ceiling. He can’t control it. He’s not fast enough. Not precise enough. He disappears at the wrong moment. He can’t come back. He stands at Montauk and watches the seagulls wheel while Bucky kneels and they shoot him in the back of the head. Or they don’t.

“Yes,” Steve says. “This is something I have to do.”

“For him?” she says. “Or for yourself?”

“I don’t know,” Steve says. Maybe it’s both. Maybe that’s true: for him, and himself, and whatever they used to be, whatever they’re going to be from now on; for the tidal line where one begins and the other ends.

For the last three days Steve’s been feeling stir-crazy and pent-up, waiting on Peggy to get enough intel to move forward; it’s taken all his restraint not to get into the car and go screaming down the interstate towards the problem. Instead, he’s spent all his time practicing the shift. It’s easier to pull himself towards something he can feel—some concrete detail, some piece of sensory data, the scrape of a chair on a board floor or the sensation of shaved soap dissolving in warm water, Bucky’s heartbeat, the earthy smell of standing out under the pear trees. He’s popped between the house and the yard at least fifty times in the last twenty-four hours; traveled between the first floor and the second, between the basement and the attic. He’s tried to control the exact position by focusing on the spot where he wants to land, the way he wants to be standing—forward, backward, crouching, ready to spring—and it’s only a moderate success. It’s hard to send himself somewhere that he can’t see; harder still to push himself at someplace he doesn’t have a strong sense impression to guide him towards. But he’s finding that it’s not impossible. Still, something’s holding him back. He wonders if it’s the disappearing act itself: there’s a moment, sometimes, mid-shift, when he almost forgets what he was doing, when the journey leaves him disoriented. When he goes out of himself and back again, there’s a disconnect, a floating second where he’s so untethered from anything, when he could fly off into nothing if he’s not careful. He doesn’t always sense it but he knows it’s always there, waiting for him: empty space, like air pockets between the walls of the world.

Bucky’s been watching him for hours with unabashed fascination, sitting on his heels on the back porch and eating over-ripe pears and commenting on Steve’s inability to land exactly on the couch cushion he’s using as a marker.

“Left,” he calls out; pear juice runs down his chin and he wipes it away carelessly with his sleeve. Steve is beginning to wonder if Bucky’s decided that the opposite of brutal Soviet programming is actually willful hedonism. “Too far to the left,” Bucky says. “Try again.” Steve bites back a smart remark about the chain of command here, because frankly Bucky giving orders feels like a good thing, and pops dutifully back to the upstairs bedroom. He doesn’t face the window, the way he did the first few times. It’s harder to shift without looking, but he’ll need to do it, he’ll need to know that he can. He stands and looks at the inside of the closet, shadowed by the angle of the sun coming through the curtains. He stares into the dark for a second. He tells himself he’s letting his eyes adjust, but really—really, he’s just so goddamn tired. He was so sure before yesterday that he could do this, make himself work the way he should. If he’s got to be like this he might as well turn it into a skill, a—not a weapon, exactly, but something close. Jesus, he might as well be useful. He lets his eyes relax. He used to get those tiny spots that passed in front of his eyes—floaters, the doctors called them; the little cobwebs that drifted across his vision in bright sunlight. They’re gone now, with the tinnitus and the flat arches; the world doesn’t even look the same from the inside anymore.

Sometimes he wonders why he didn’t—when he put himself back together, if that’s really what he did, down in the ocean, or out in the wherever—sometimes he wonders if he could have come back differently, the way he used to be. If the blast could have made his body forget the change, remember itself differently. Sometimes he imagines what that would have been like for everybody else: Steve Rogers coming out of the surf small again, lungs heaving, ready to be shelved like a tattered book. The first day he came out he rambled about that, Peggy said. Asked if he was done now—if everything was done. Well, it isn’t. He isn’t. Steve squares his shoulders and stares into the shadow and something makes him think of the floaters again—a dust mote, maybe, passing in front of a ray of light. A reminder that seeing is a screen, layer on layer: that we are always filtering something, that there will always be a lens, a glass, before us.

Steve stares into the darkness, and something inside him just—adjusts. Loosens, in some indefinable way. He rolls his shoulders and leans into it and shifts, and reality drags behind him like a veil. He’s pulling himself through faster than he’s ever gone; there are trails of light coming from his fingertips where they cut through the fabric of the universe. He is soaring down a long dark tunnel and leaping the airless gulf at the end, the yawning thing that threatens to swallow him: Steve tears past it, through it, and lands on the couch cushion dead in the center, crashing back through reality like the nose of a jet. He touches down so hard that the cushion explodes, foam spilling out of the seams. Steve’s heart is racing. At the other end of the yard, Bucky stands up, dropping pears out of his lap. “Ну ни хуя́ себе́!” he yells, and throws a core out into the yard. He points at Steve; he’s actually smiling. “Holy shit,” he says, and for a second the accent slides away again. “Holy shit, Steve!” For a second, it doesn’t register. And then Steve’s insides flip over.

“Buck,” he says. Bucky doesn’t notice; he’s come forward to kick at the couch cushion and marvel at the stuffing sprayed out on the ground. “Bucky,” Steve says. He feels weightless, cloudlike.

“Incredible,” Bucky says. “How?”

“Please,” Steve says, helplessly, and Bucky looks up at him, sees the expression on his face. “Did you—you just said.” He feels like he’s cracking. “You said my name.” Bucky’s face shutters strangely. “Did, are you—can you remember—”

“How did you hit it so hard?” Bucky asks, not looking at him. He crouches down to pick at a handful of the foam. “Right in the middle.”

“If you remember anything,” Steve says. “Anything at all.”

“I don’t,” Bucky says, roughly. “Don’t talk about this. Tell me how you did it. Tell me how it works.” He’s holding the foam in his hand tight enough to crush it; he shoulders are set. He’s bracing himself. Steve shuts his eyes for a second, takes a breath through his nose into his belly, lets it rest, and exhales slow and shaky. He tries to make his voice steady when he says,

“I realized something. It’s hard to put it into words. But there are these layers, that I’m passing through. To go out of the world and come back,” he says, and sketches a shape, almost like a door, in the air in front of him. “I don’t know. But when I was traveling through it just—it all made sense. I knew where I was going. I knew where I needed to be, and I just went.”

“Do it again,” Bucky says.

Steve sends himself to the top of the roof. He perches on the edge and smells the wind; hot summer air that’s heavy and searing, cut through with the sharp smell of drying grass. The shingles are rough against his hands. He thinks about the garden, about the gravel path through the hedges; one particular white rock that sparkled when he walked by. He can’t remember where it is, precisely: somewhere between the boxwoods or the arbor vitae. But it doesn’t matter. He wills himself to the rock and shifts: closes his eyes and falls through the world and opens them standing on the path. Bucky meets him a second later, skidding to a stop from his sprint. Steve lifts his shoe and underneath it is the white rock, pulverized; crushed into powder.

Inside, the phone rings.

 

 

 

 

Steve drives all night on back roads, all the way down to the edge of Fauquier County. He pulls them into a truck stop just before dawn and looks at Bucky in the back seat. He’s rolled in one of Howard’s heavy blankets, with a burgundy suit coat wedged under his head for a pillow. The fabric is probably from Milan. Steve wonders if Bucky considers the setup an upgrade from the rug.

“How far,” Bucky asks, without opening his eyes.

“Thirty, forty miles further,” Steve says. “We meet Gibson in an hour. You can catch a little more shut-eye, if you want.”

“No,” Bucky says. He unrolls himself and stretches compactly: rolls his neck and shoulders, curls himself down and up. Steve hears his spine pop softly. He gets out of the car to get into the front seat, and Steve pulls them back onto the road. They ditch the car three miles from the farmhouse in a thick stand of trees, and go on foot through the scrubby woods that line up to the back side of the property. Bucky’s got some of his old tactical gear on, under the coveralls; Steve packed it up when they left the hospital, thinking at the time that it might yield a clue. But it was all standard-issue stuff, tagless, with no insignias. There’s a bullet hole in the shoulder of the vest, which Steve winced at, but Bucky had strapped it all on with practiced movements and said nothing. Howard’s safehouse didn’t have much in the way of small arms; from what Peggy says, his proposed doomsday scenarios mostly involve security systems, mounted guns and hired guards. But it did yield them a solid Springfield rifle, which Bucky is carrying in a sling over one shoulder, and a set of decent hunting knives. Steve has one taped to his leg, and Bucky has the rest tucked away in places that aren’t obvious.

They wait at the coordinates Peggy sent, and it’s only a few moments of waiting before Bucky puts a soft hand against Steve’s knee and goes deathly still. He jerks a tiny nod in the direction of the road, and a minute later Agent Gibson comes through the underbrush quietly, both hands up at the level of his shoulders. He looks almost the same as he did the last time Steve saw him in Washington, on some sad political milk run: he has a weirdly young face that never seems to show what he’s thinking. He has a sense of humor, though. He used to tell stale old jokes to Steve while they waited in the back of towncars, keeping his face just as flat and mild as a wheel of swiss. Maybe it was practice; Gibson trying to develop the skills that made him ideal for security task force meetings.

“Steve,” he says, evenly. His eyes don’t move off Bucky, who is crouched on the ground with a knife in his flesh hand.

“Dan,” Steve says. He puts a hand on Bucky’s shoulder. “Bucky, this is Agent Gibson. He’s a friend of mine.” Bucky murmurs something unintelligible in Russian, just loud enough for Steve to hear, and doesn’t shift a muscle. Gibson doesn’t look offended. He’s got a long rifle bag in one hand and a bag on his back, a wide flat duffel. He brings the duffel around his shoulders slowly to set it on the ground between them.

“Little something we thought you might appreciate,” he says, to Steve. Steve bends down and unzips the bag and pulls the shield out; it comes into his grip like a familiar handshake. The weight of it centers him. It’s a surprise, how right it feels. He swings his arm a little, relaxes into the stretching tug of the pull, the force of the velocity it gathers.

It’s been a while.

Gibson’s leading them on to the edge of the property, to the spot where he’s been watching the house at night; it takes a minute for Steve to realize that Bucky’s hanging back, shooting Steve urgent glances. Steve walks a little slower, so that they’re side by side. “What’s going through your head?” he asks, quietly.

“All I have to do,” Bucky says, haltingly, “is—pretend.”

“Like we practiced,” Steve says. “It’s not going to be subtle, but it doesn’t have to be. We’re just dangling a hook. Dan and I will handle the rest. Just remember, when you get down, you stay down. I’ll give you the all-clear.”

“Okay,” Bucky says. He glances ahead to Gibson, and keeps his voice low. “Promise that I’m not going back.”

“I promise,” Steve says. “I swear.”

“Kill me,” Bucky says, “if they're going to take me.”

“No, Jesus,” Steve hisses, and Bucky stops, grabs his arm with the metal hand.

“Say it,” Bucky says. “I’m not going if you don’t.”

“Bucky,” Steve says, and Bucky shakes his arm, hard; squeezes his wrist so hard the bones almost grind together. They stare at each other. Even Gibson’s frozen, watching. Steve can’t tell if he’s got his hand on the gun in his jacket. “Bucky,” Steve says, low. “If they take you, I’m already dead, and I can’t help you. Okay? If they take you again, it’s over my dead body.” Bucky’s face is rigid and his eyes are showing the whites, but after a second he gives Steve a jerky nod, and lets go.

They part before the field: Gibson and Steve heading for the lookout point, and Bucky for the road. He doesn’t say anything to Steve when he hands him the Springfield and walks away, but he does look back, just once, before he vanishes into the trees.

“You okay?” Gibson asks, quietly, while he unpacks his own rifle. They’re on their stomachs in the scrub, Steve watching the drive up to the house through binoculars.

“I’m fine.”

“He okay?”

“I trust him,” Steve says.

“Good,” Gibson says, and settles down to wait.

 

 

 

 

Just after dawn, when yellow light snakes across the top of the farmhouse and cuts a bright line down the drive, Bucky staggers into view. He comes out of the brush at the end of the gravel road and stands in the middle of it for a while; he zig-zags a little, walks stumbling and kicking at rocks. He’s got his right arm pressed close in like it hurts him. He staggers and flops forward, overbalanced, just catching himself in time not to fall.

“Dramatic,” Gibson murmurs, next to Steve. “He’s got style.”

“Always did,” Steve says.

There’s movement in the house: a tall man in a barn coat and jeans comes out onto the porch. He’s got a Kalashnikov in his left hand. He calls over his shoulder in Russian and a second man—shorter, older and bearded—comes through the screen door. They talk animatedly at each other for a second, and then the younger man walks down the front steps slowly, and starts inching towards the driveway.

“идти вперед медленно,” he calls, towards the road. Bucky stiffens and staggers forward mechanically: one, two, three more steps. The guy lifts his gun a fraction and yells a long string of commands, and Bucky drops forward onto his knees. He sways for a second, then tips sideways and rolls down into a shallow ditch. He twitches a couple of times, and lies still.

“And the award goes to,” Gibson whispers. They watch while the younger guy turns back to gesture at the man still on the porch: he lifts the rifle and makes a frustrated shrugging motion, but gets waved forward. He starts walking in Bucky’s direction. “Ready?” Gibson asks.

“Ready,” says Steve.

“Go.”

Two things happen at once. Gibson shoots the younger guy in the shoulder; the bullet catches him in the top of the joint and hits with enough force to turn him backwards as he drops; and Steve shifts, pushing through the skin of the world, out the tunnel. He rips through space like an arrow and lands right in front of the man on the porch, poised on the balls of his feet, striking as he lands. He’s already got the shield up and moving before the guy knows he’s touched down: he doesn’t even have time to look surprised. Steve slams into his chest and knocks him backwards, flying him right through the decrepit screen door. It clatters down on its hinges and the guy scrambles out of the screen, skidding across the bare boards in the hall. He moves quickly: the guy’s already rolling to push himself up, grabbing for a knife from his belt, but Steve hammers him again, breaks his wrist with the shield in one brutal crunch. The knife goes skittering away. The guy grunts and spasms and curls into himself, gasping. Outside, the Kalashnikov is firing wildly, but there’s another crack from Gibson’s rifle and then silence. Steve circles through the first floor of the house quickly, clearing corners; he pops to the second story and finds a skinny guy—practically a kid—under a window, hastily trying to load a bolt-action rifle and dropping rounds onto the floor. Steve flings the shield and clips him in the head. The kid goes limp and Steve grabs him, tips him out the upper-story window to roll down the long, sloping roof onto the driveway.

He shifts to the basement, clears it, and then shifts back to the hallway; the guy with the broken hand has gotten hold of a gun. He lets off three rounds that ricochet off the shield while Steve charges him, knocks him through a ladderback chair and bashes him twice in the face. After that it’s not hard to wrestle the gun out of his hand; the guy is blinded by blood in his eyes, dazed and blinking.

“Steve?” Gibson calls, outside.

“Clear!” Steve yells back.

Steve hauls the guy with the bloody face up and drags him out to the porch with his unbroken arm twisted behind his back. Gibson’s standing with one foot on the bottom step, the rifle slung over his shoulder and a long-nosed revolver in his right hand. The kid Steve tipped out the window is kneeling in the dirt with his hands behind his head, bleeding thickly out of his nose and down the front of his shirt. There’s a body out in the driveway. Steve makes the guy he’s dragging kneel in the driveway next to the other one. Gibson hands Steve his gun and handcuffs them both; Steve tries not to feel a stab of disgust at himself when the older guy yelps and cradles his broken wrist.

“You know who I am,” Steve says. Nobody disagrees. There’s a ripple across the boards of the porch, just the faintest change in pressure, but it makes Steve lift his head. Bucky’s suddenly standing at the opposite side, staring silently at the two men kneeling in the dirt: one greying, and the other with a dishwater-blonde crew cut. They don’t look like anything: like two men that might drive a pickup truck down main street on any day of the week. Like nobodies. It’s making Steve’s eyes burn, to look at them. “Did you know who he is?” Steve asks, and the older man stares up at Steve with flat, calculating eyes.

“Yes,” he says. For a second something huge and terrible passes through Steve; his hands tremble where they hold the shield. His fingers clench and unclench. He doesn’t swing.

“You were his handler,” Steve says. “For how long?” He doesn’t answer. “I want to know how long you—worked with him.”

“No,” the man says. “You want to know what’s left. The answer is nothing,” he says. His mouth tilts up. “There is nothing left of your friend.” Steve raises his arm above his head and swings the shield into the wall of the house. It splits the siding and buries itself ten inches into the wall, and Steve yanks it out again in a shower of splinters. The crew cut kid puts his cuffed hands over his face and jerks like he’s burying a sob. Nobody else moves. Steve drops his arm to his side and breathes in-out, in-out, slow-slower, the way his mother used to coach him.

“You have a way to communicate with your base,” Steve says. “A radio.”

“No radio,” the guy says. Beside him, the kid twitches. Steve glances at Gibson, who rolls his eyes.

“On your feet,” Gibson says. The kid gets up, shaking, and Gibson leads him into the house. Steve grabs the older guy by the shirtfront and follows him.

“Stay here, Buck,” he says, over his shoulder. “Someplace out of sight.”

Upstairs, Gibson drops the kid into the back bedroom and keeps the gun on him while he taps the walls.

“There’s a hidden panel in here somewhere, I think,” he says, to Steve. “But I’ll need a hint.” He aims the revolver at the kid’s left knee. “Trust me, pal,” Gibson says. “We’ll find it eventually.”

“There,” the kid says, immediately. He points at the far corner. The older man hisses something at him in Russian, and the kid shakes his head. “I don’t want to die,” he says. “It’s right there. The radio is there.” Steve points his face at the corner and feels something buzzing, tapping, humming against the wall of his skull. He presses his cheek to the plaster; it’s like he can sense the waves, the pulse of it inside, somewhere. The way he can sometimes hear heartbeats now, feel the strange buzz that bodies give off: the aliveness of things. Energy.

“He’s telling the truth,” Steve says. Gibson presses a few panels and finds the radio rig tucked behind the bookcase. He swings it out and takes a seat and notes the frequencies, gathers up the scribbled notes they left on scrap paper by the receiver. “You have protocols for bringing him in,” Steve says, to the greying guy. “What are they?”

“You know so little,” he says. “We know everything about you. Your weaknesses. You think you can fight us, when you cannot even see us.”

“I want the protocols,” Steve says. “This doesn’t have to get ugly.”

“Ugly!” the man laughs. “This world is ugly. We are making a new one.”

“I’ve seen your ideas for a new world,” Steve says. “We’ll pass.”

“You think you can win,” the man says. He’s not laughing anymore. “But you’re a ghost.” Steve feels a cold shudder pass through him, but he fights it, fights to stay still. The man’s eyes are boring into him. What is this? “A ghost cannot kill us. Cut off one head,” he starts to say, and that’s it, that’s the limit, Steve is reaching for him, he can’t help it, he’s just so fucking furious, he just—just wants to shake him, and shake him, and shake him, and scream—

—and then they’re gone, gone out of the world; Steve’s lost control. His hand’s around the guy’s neck and he’s just—dragged him, dragged him along and through the veil, pulled him like taffy out of reality, and the guy is writhing in his grip, staring at things Steve can’t even see: great swirls of darkness soar by them like clouds. They pass through Steve and shred through the man he’s holding, until he is like a tattered flag in Steve’s grip. Everything rushes by: the world thunders in Steve’s ears, roars like a wave, and he tries to pull himself back, tries to think of the ragged farmhouse and the peeling wallpaper and the buzzing in the walls—

“Jesus,” Gibson says, when they land back on the bedroom floor, Steve heaving and gasping, the guy lying sprawled like a corpse. The kid has crawled into a corner and is sitting there with his hands cupped over his bloodied mouth. “You okay?”

“Fine,” he huffs. “Fine—check—”

“He’s alive,” Gibson says, with his fingers against the guy’s throat. “What happened?”

“I don’t know.” He shakes his head, dizzily. There’s a long shadow in the doorway: Bucky. Bucky’s standing over them, coming closer. He kneels beside Steve and puts his metal hand to the back of Steve’s neck again, briefly, softly. It’s cool to the touch, and makes something shivery in Steve’s bones settle. He gathers himself. “I’ve never taken anyone else with me, when I—jumped. It was an accident. I’m not sure—” he starts, and the guy on the floor sits up shrieking. He screams and kicks his legs and beats his broken wrist against the floor and the kid screams and that only makes the guy scream louder, high-pitched and terrified. Bucky leans forward and grabs him by the shoulder and shoves him back to the floor, holds him down viciously until Steve eases him off and pulls the guy upright.

“What have you done,” the guy babbles. His eyes are rolling back in his head. “What have you done what have you done,” he sobs, and rubs his face into his bloodied sleeve. He’s crying, Steve realizes. Sobbing like the kid. “Save me, save me, don’t make me go back. Don’t make me go back to the dark, don’t make me,” he gasps. “It’s so empty. I don’t want to look.”

“The dark?” Steve asks. “The place I took you?”

“Never,” he says, and shakes his head wildly. “Never again, never again, I never want to look, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, please!”

“Tell me what I want to know,” Steve says. The guy protests, but Steve yanks him forward. “Tell me,” he says. “Or I’ll take you back there.” Steve holds him by the chin, tilts his face up. “And this time, I’ll let go.”

It goes quickly after that. Gibson writes down the protocols as they’re babbled, and afterwards he signals the base; his encoded message informs them that two handlers will be bringing the asset in for maintenance following unexpectedly high levels of field damage. They request a twelve-hour window to stabilize the asset and clear the safehouse before transport. And then they sit in the room, the five of them, and wait for a reply. The handler shakes and sobs softly into the floor, the kid stares into his knees, Bucky stares at Steve, and Steve stares at the hands folded in his lap until his eyes blur. Gibson chews a piece of beef jerky and does a crossword puzzle from a book that was apparently in his pocket this entire time. Finally, there’s a reply. A confirmation, and a password for the security perimeter.

“Okay,” Gibson says. He stands up and dusts off his pant legs. He nods at the two handlers still curled up on the floor. “I’ll take them. I have a team on standby. They can get them to Washington, start wringing out anything useful.”

“I’ll talk,” the kid says.

“Good for you,” Gibson says. Bucky stands up and puts a hand across the doorway.

“No,” Bucky says.

“Buck—”

“He knew who I was,” Bucky says. He moves past Gibson, leans down and grabs the older man by the hair; the guy’s so far out of it that he barely makes a groan. “He knew—I was a person,” Bucky says, suddenly sounding overcome, wild. “He knew that.”

“I know,” Steve says. He kneels close. “I know. But he’s never getting free again. You don’t have to hurt him. He’s done. He’s finished.”

“Not good enough,” Bucky says, and raises his metal fist. The guy starts to cry brokenly, snotty and choked-sounding, and thuds his head back against the floor.

“убей меня,” the man says. “I don’t want to go back,” he babbles. “The dark. The dark,” he sobs. “убей меня.”

“Steve,” Gibson says.

“Wait,” Steve says. “Just wait.” He watches Bucky stare down into the guy’s battered, swelling face. The handler gibbers and begs, murmurs in Russian and English. Bucky doesn’t strike. Just sits there poised, flesh hand knotted in the guy’s thinning hair. His metal arm, in midair, is starting to shake. Tremors run down it. His face crumples.

Bucky lets him go.

He stands up on unsteady legs, leans down, and spits in the guy’s face. He doesn’t even look at the kid. He walks out, away, down the hall. Steve looks at Gibson, who for once actually seems surprised. Gibson shakes it off.

“I’ve got this,” he says.

Steve goes out and finds Bucky in the field, standing in knee-length brush behind the house, his hands stretched out to sweep against the tips of the weeds. He stands beside him in silence, watching the wind wave a sea of grass. It ripples like water. Smells like cornflowers and ragweed, cow manure, dry earth. When they were kids they used to think Fort Greene Park was nature; by comparison Prospect Park was a vast swallowing wilderness, the land of wanderers. They got lost once, and Bucky had made determined notches in the trees like Robinson Crusoe until they realized they’d been circling the woods around the music pagoda for nearly an hour. The notches stayed for a while after that, since trees cover their scars slowly: they used to pass them sometimes, rambling in the green with a bag of sandwiches when they had the same day off. Bucky would pick at the ones he found with his pocketknife, just to make sure they lasted another year. Steve wonders if they’re still there. Faint lines crossing the bark, skin scraped to flesh.

“Part of me wanted you to kill him,” Steve says. Bucky looks at Steve. His eyes are red but dry. He looks worn down, like a heel. “But you know what?” Steve says. “You’ve always been better than me. Smarter than me.” Bucky makes a frustrated noise; his hands curl into fists at his sides. “I mean it. You always had your own way of seeing things. I pick every damn fight, but you pick ones that matter.” Steve plucks a stray stalk of wheat, winds it between his fingers. “I don’t know if I could have walked away like that. But you did.”

“He was,” Bucky says. He makes a disgusted face. “жалкий. Not worth killing. He begged.” He grabs a handful of grass and weeds and crushes it in his metal fingers; green paste and flower petals squeeze out through the rivets. “He begged for it like a dog, a thing, like—” Bucky chokes, and turns his face away. But Steve hears it anyway, feels it, the word he didn’t speak. It floats in the air between them, like a breath. “I should have broken him into pieces,” Bucky says.

“You pitied him,” Steve says.

“He was pitiful,” Bucky says, sourly.

“He was a liar,” Steve says. “A piece of shit liar. He said there was nothing left of my friend.” Steve reaches out and touches his shoulder, the metal one, lightly. “He lied. My friend is right here,” he says. “I’m looking at him.”

Bucky looks back for a long time. He turns a little and takes the hand that Steve left sitting on his shoulder. The motion makes Steve’s breath catch. Bucky’s thumb presses the long bones running across the back of Steve’s hand. And then Bucky leans down and presses his mouth to it, just for an instant; it lands as softly as a moth. It is, unmistakably, a kiss.

“Buck,” Steve says. His voice shakes.

“You did that,” Bucky says, “to me.”

“I know I did, I,” Steve rambles. “But, I was worried about you, you don’t—”

“Nobody ever,” Bucky says. “Not before you. Or I can’t remember.” He doesn’t let go. Steve’s anxiously conscious of how exposed they are: Gibson could be at the window, coming around the side of the house. But Bucky’s hand is warm against his and Steve’s pulse is drumming in his ribs like hard rain. He feels like he’s been turned to stone outside, motionless; inside, he is falling apart like a broken vase, cascading into little pieces. He doesn't feel like he's about to drift. He feels like he might never drift again: like he is rooted to this spot, this touch. The whole world turns, dizzyingly, around it. “But this,” Bucky says, and rubs his thumb over the bones of Steve’s hand again, like violin strings. “This, I felt.”

“Oh,” says Steve.

 

 

.

Chapter Text

They follow Gibson to a nondescript motor court outside of Alexandria; he passes off the handlers and meets them in the shabby suite his team is using to run operations. They’ve taken a second table out of another room to spread out maps and aerial photos, and they’re arguing over it when Steve walks in with Bucky shadowing at his shoulder. The volume dies down suddenly.

“Uh, sir,” one of them says; a narrow-faced man with a thicket of brown hair that’s trying desperately to curl out of its pomade. “Agent Gibson said you’d be, uh. Joining this op.” He stretches a hand out and watches it closely as Steve shakes it. “It’s an honor, sir.”

“Honor’s mine, Agent—” Steve says, and trails off pointedly. The guy straightens up, looking embarrassed.

“Reed, sir.”

“Can you bring us up to speed?”

While Gibson was running surveillance on the farmhouse, his team was scouting the base. Aboveground, it looks like a decrepit textile mill being very slowly—lazily, even—renovated by a construction crew. Reed has some choice words about the sloppiness of the front, particularly about the fact that Hydra apparently runs an empty cement mixer every few days to make it seem like work is progressing. But the unmarked trucks that go in and out of the loading dock have a particular look: canvas siding, and an old shipping company logo painted over on both doors. Gibson’s team has refitted a truck to match the ones they’ve spotted, and that’s what he and a second agent will be driving in through the perimeter gate. Steve will be in the back of the truck, bandaged up and wearing a ratty wig and work gloves, just in case any of the perimeter guards decide to demand a look at the asset they’re bringing in. They have nine hours left in their window, and two full strike units ready to move in on Gibson’s signal.

“It’s not going to fool them long,” Gibson says. “Maybe a minute or two. But even that would be enough, once we’re inside the gate.”

The strike teams will be neutralizing—what a word, Steve thinks—threats while attempting to take as many prisoners as they can. Peggy’s orders are to recover as much information as possible; she’s right, they’re flying too blind, too many steps behind. But Steve will be heading right for the technicians on level three. Now that he knows he can carry a second person, he’ll be popping down to grab them, then shifting back aboveground to deposit them with Gibson’s waiting support team. The collateral existential damage the trip might cause is, frankly, not worrying Steve much. Bucky’s described the white rooms to him, to try and help him pinpoint his landing place: a few nights ago he talked about the steel tables and the hated chair, bristling with electrodes; a stall where they’ve hosed him off perfunctorily between surgical procedures, before something he calls the гроб, a word he refuses to translate. Steve listened until he could taste bile in the back of his throat, until he could almost feel the antiseptic burning in his eyes. He’s not going to have a problem hitting that particular mark. With technicians in hand they can maybe—maybe—get a better handle on what’s happened to Bucky, and find out if any of Zola’s other horrific fantasies are being played out here or elsewhere. There could be others, Steve thinks. More blank-faced soldiers somewhere, stacked like cordwood, ready to kill on command. People with families. Men who never came home.

Speaking of.

Steve gets a key from one of the agents and leads Bucky into one of the adjoining rooms; Bucky sits dully and stares into the wallpaper, flexing and unflexing both his hands as if they ache. He’s barely spoken since the field, since after his act of mercy. Steve sets him up with a glass of water and a couple of sandwiches he took from the tray in the ops suite, and kneels on the floor at his feet, touching his arm softly to try and get Bucky to focus. Bucky’s eyes slide down to meet Steve’s. He doesn’t look angry. He looks like he did at the hospital: flat. Steve puts his hands over Bucky’s, and under his palms the muscles in Bucky’s fingers stop clenching for a second. Steve smiles up at him. Well, he tries to.

“You need anything?” Steve asks. There’s no answer. “If you do, you just knock on the wall or the door. They’ll get you anything you want. Dinner, or something to read, or—more pears if you want, anything. Whatever you ask for. There’s going to be an agent outside until I get back. Someone standing guard the entire time. Keeping watch for you.” Bucky’s hand squeezes his briefly, reflexively; but his face stays slack and expressionless. Steve was expecting a fight over this, some kind of protest. He assumed Bucky would argue over wanting to kill them, all of them, personally. He’s been talking about it since the first day. Steve thought he’d be outraged at being left behind while they raid the base. But something’s drained away, out of him, from the minute they left the farm. Steve doesn’t know why. But he’s watching it right in front of his eyes: Bucky just sinking back into himself. He doesn’t know what to do. How to help. “I’m coming back in a few hours. Okay?” Steve asks. “Bucky, can you—can you say something? Just, anything. Just let me know you’re hearing me.”

“I’m hearing,” Bucky murmurs.

“Okay,” Steve says, relieved. He presses their hands together harder, and Bucky’s face makes the smallest twitch; the corners of his mouth almost, almost rise. “Okay, Buck. You stay here. You stay safe. And I’ll be back as soon as I can.” On impulse he dips down, presses a brief, dry kiss apiece to the back of Bucky’s hands, flesh and metal. Bucky said he felt—if it helps, if it makes him feel—safe, good, there’s no real harm in it, is there, being gentle like that. Still, he can’t believe he’s letting himself do this, again, acting like—well, maybe it’s temporary insanity. He’s scared to let Bucky out of his sight. Terrified, if he’s being honest. But there’s no way he’s letting Bucky anywhere near that place, Jesus. Pull it together, Steve thinks at himself, viciously. When he glances up, Bucky’s watching him, his tension loosening a fraction. “I’m coming back,” Steve says. “I’ll always—I’ll always come back for you, Buck. From now on. Forever.”

“You,” Bucky says.

“Me?”

“You make me,” Bucky says, and his face softens. “Trust you.” There are dark circles under his eyes; he only pretended to sleep in the car last night. But he’s so gorgeous. More beautiful than a painted saint, a movie star. For some strange reason, it makes Steve think of the way he used to dance until he’d sweated through all his clothes, until it streamed into his eyes and he’d dance on, blinded. Christ, how Steve adores him. He doesn’t even feel ashamed.

“That’s,” Steve says, helplessly. “I, I’m—glad.”

“But.”

“But?”

“I think I trusted you before, before this,” Bucky says, low, secret; and while Steve freezes, stunned by it, he leans down and cups Steve’s face with both hands and pulls their mouths together. Steve can’t make his mind work. Can’t make his body move—he doesn’t push away, he can’t make himself— instead Steve fists his hands in the front of Bucky’s dirty coveralls; he thinks he makes a noise in the back of his throat. His head spins. Bucky holds him, kisses him deep and thoughtful; carefully, curiously, considering it. Considering him. Steve feels vulnerable between his hands, exposed, like every nerve is being pulled apart. The bright roots of the universe are stretching into him, into everything, filling life and death with waves of light: he has never loved the world as much as he loves it right now. Never loved anything this much, never loved Bucky more, never known that he could: that loving more could swell his heart a hundred sizes, burst him like a star. It is spring, sunrise, cold water on hot wrists, all the trees on Washington Avenue blooming at once. Bucky kisses him and lets him go and they sit like that, inches apart from each other, breathing through their open mouths.

“Bucky,” Steve says. Everything’s trembling. “You don’t, you don’t have to,” he says, because he’s afraid of his own greed. His hands are already longing to draw him back in; Steve holds himself tight. “You don’t have to give me anything. You don’t owe me anything.”

“I feel this,” Bucky says, and pulls him close again by his jaw, the curve of his chin. Steve is falling apart, feeling Bucky’s big hand soft and warm against his cheek. He looks like he’s radiating: Steve can see a haze around him, almost a mandorla. Like he’s leaking holy light. Steve’s eyes water and he blinks against it, but it’s still there, pure and gorgeous and shining. Maybe he’s hallucinating. Lost his mind. Maybe this is all—maybe this is all in his head, and he’s dying somewhere; maybe he’s on the other side of reality, gone through a shimmering mirror, and he doesn’t even know it. “You feel this, too,” Bucky says.

God,” Steve says. He closes his eyes, and leans back. “God. Yes,” he says. He opens his eyes and gives Bucky a shaky smile. “I—I feel, I. I love you,” he says, nakedly. He feels scraped raw, like the grass Bucky crushed in his hands. “Every second, my whole life, I,” he says, and swallows hard. “But Buck, you don’t remember, it’s not fair to you, we shouldn’t. Not like this.” Bucky’s face absorbs it, and his glow fades a little. “What I feel,” Steve says. “How I—I care about you, that will never change. No matter what you—or what I, no matter what we do. No matter what. We don’t have to—be like this, if you don’t want to, we weren’t ever—like this. Before.”

“We weren’t,” Bucky says, slowly.

“No,” Steve says. He can’t lie. That would be cruel; horrific, even. To steal away one more ounce of Bucky’s truth. “We didn’t. Do things like that.” Bucky gives him a searching look, and then settles back on the bed calmly, like he’s figured something out.

“It’s different, you said.” He gestures at Steve with his metal hand. “Us. You used to sleep.”

“That’s,” Steve says. “Not exactly, uh."

“I looked like the suit man in the window,” Bucky says. He leans forward and gives Steve a smug face. “And you. You were small.”

“Oh my God,” Steve says.

“See?” Bucky gestures at the room around them, like he’s demonstrating a particularly damning closing argument for the prosecution. Steve gapes like a fish. “I remember some things.”

“When did you—”

“Dreams,” he says. “Lots of things. Your face on a little body, yelling so loud.”

“Huh,” Steve says. “Why didn’t you say?” Bucky looks away, nervously. “Buck. You can tell me.”

“It’s not good to remember,” he says. “Not—tolerated.”

“Goddamn them,” Steve says, and Bucky gives him the barest smile. He still looks heavenly to Steve, like a banner of sun over clouds. “I’m going to—I’m gonna take care of them,” Steve says, thickly. “They’ll never hurt you, or anybody else, again. Not when I’m done with them.”

“And then,” Bucky says. “Come back?”

“Yeah,” Steve says. “Yeah, right here, to you.”

Before he leaves he tries to show Bucky how to work the television set, and then realizes that Bucky already knows—Howard had a big clunky set in half the rooms, even a little one in the kitchen—and he is laughing at Steve, and somehow that makes Steve feel better, makes something hot and hard and terrible lift from his chest. He is going to come back and Bucky is going to keep remembering things, bit by bit, and they are going to—they’re going to be okay. He doesn’t need Bucky to—do that, to feel that, and when he remembers, they’ll still be okay. Steve finally knows that in his heart. He’s not scared of it anymore, Bucky knowing. Bucky’s the best man on earth. Maybe in a few days, they’ll call Winnie and the girls. He’ll find a way to tell them. To explain. And if Buck's not ready yet, that's fine, that's fine, he can take his time, and Steve will take care of him. And when he is ready, Steve’ll help him pick out a nice suit and tie and comb his hair, and Steve’ll take him home. And he’ll be—he’ll be with his family, he’ll be loved, and safe, and if anyone so much as touches a hair on his head again, ever, Steve will kill them.

He goes back out and Reed catches him as he’s closing the door; there are a pair of agents behind him, tall serious-faced young men with holsters under their jackets. Steve tries not to flush or panic; nobody knows what he did, what Bucky—nobody could see them, nobody would ever assume that he was, he’s Captain fucking America, for fuck’s sake. That ought to be good for something, he thinks. It ought to be enough to hide behind, for now. It makes him feel scared and small and that makes him furious inside, burning like a block of firebombed houses, but he can’t do this right now. He can’t. There’s too much at stake. Steve gives the three of them a restrained, serious smile, like he’s got a lot on his mind. It’s entirely true.

“I will take complete, personal responsibility for his safety,” Reed says; he even puts a hand over his heart as he’s talking. He motions to the agents, who move to stand at either side of the door. “We’ll make sure he’s secure and comfortable the entire time.”

“Thank you,” Steve says. He feels absurdly moved, somehow. Everything inside him’s been shaken, and is still settling. “Thanks.”

“Of course,” Reed says. “Now, sir. If you’re ready.”

Steve can’t see the motel from his place inside the back of the truck, as they’re driving away, so he doesn’t know whether or not Bucky watches from the window. He lies on the floor in his costume, his back braced against the cab, closes his eyes, and pictures him standing with the curtains open a fraction, looking out. Imagines him putting his hand against the glass, palm up.

 

 

 

 

The password works at the perimeter. From inside the canvas-walled truck, Steve can hear Gibson talking to the guards. There’s an even patter of heartbeat coming from the cab: Gibson’s a cool customer inside as well as out, it seems. After a minute or so the truck starts up again, rumbling over the gravel road towards the old factory. Gibson taps on the back wall of the cab, two knocks. Steve taps back. They’re go.

Please God, Steve thinks. Prays. He's at a loss for what exactly to say. He’s not sure God will listen to him, considering. Considering the void he’s touched; the thing he’s become. Considering what he is about to do. But then, they prayed in foxholes, sometimes, when they remembered to. Prayed before they pumped bullets over the rise. Not much holy about it. The truck comes to a stop, pulls into the loading dock. He can hear Gibson and the other agent getting out, coming around the side. Steve pulls his shield out of the compartment at his side, steadies it in his hand. Someone kicks the back tires: right, then a pause. Then left.

Steve inhales, long and deep. And shifts like a bolt of wind, like a meteor: straight to the foot of the chair.

He is alone in the room, by some stroke of luck. It’s dark, except for a strip of safety lighting near the exit door. In the faint glow his eyes can’t make sense of it at first: a snaking reflection along the floor resolves itself into long cables curling around the base, running up to the wall; the paddles that lower onto the—the head? The chest? Are like moth’s wings in the dark, casting long shadows across him. Steve stares at it, waiting for the pieces to come together. He shakes the shield in his hand, shakes his head, and then just—smashes the shield across the top of it, snapping the bars that hold the paddles, spraying sparks across the ceiling. Steve hammers it down again, shearing the cables off; he twists them around his hand and rips them out of the wall, pulling panels off as he goes. The door opens abruptly and Steve whips the shield at the first person to come through it; it’s a guard in a tailored uniform. The shield crunches against his skull and the guard flies backwards, smears the wall with blood as he sags to the floor. Behind him, there’s a trembling technician in a white coat. Steve shifts forward to close the eight feet between them, grabs him by the throat, and shifts into the wood just outside the perimeter. The universe tears past him and through the man he’s holding; when they land, the tech rolls onto his knees and vomits stringily on the ground, over his splayed hands. One of Gibson’s agents comes out of cover, rifle trained on the technician. Steve nods and there’s an explosion from the base, the sound of a decoy truck loaded with C-4 blowing the roof of the old textile mill to smithereens.

Gibson’s given the signal, then.

Steve drops to one knee, swings the shield onto his back, and dives out of the world.

 

.

Chapter Text

The explosion rattled the lower levels: when Steve shifts back to the labs there are chunks fallen from the ceiling, crushing some of the equipment and a handful of guards. The floor’s slippery with blood and some kind of fluid leaking from the tanks embedded in the wall. It smells like antifreeze. Steve finds a second technician alive underneath a bank of data processing machines. When Steve grabs for him, the tech actually sticks a gun in his direction and fires; there’s barely time to swing the shield up and ricochet the bullet into the ceiling. Steve clubs him and drags him out and shifts to the woods, rolls him kicking and screaming into Gibson’s drop-off zone, and heads back. He makes his way through the level while security alarms sound. A squad of guards rounds the corner and Steve runs straight for them; he vanishes when he’s a foot away and they empty their clips into air. He shifts back into place behind them and bashes their heads together, kicks another one in the stomach and pops one through a glass observation window. Steve hits them until they stay down. It’s over in a matter of seconds.

It doesn’t feel good. It never has, it—Steve tries not to think about it. The next technician Steve finds just lies on the ground when Steve lets go of him, after the shift; the guy stays on his face in the dirt, crying silently, heaving with sobs like his heart’s been ripped out.

Steve’s headed up to the rendez-vous point to touch base with Gibson’s strike teams when a tremor runs through the base. He’s slammed back by it, some invisible wall of energy, a pulse that drops him to his knees. It’s a wave crashing over everything, suffocating him; it’s a brick to the back of the head. Steve curls up and screams with his hands over his ears but he can’t even hear himself, he can’t hear anything at all but that brutal pounding. He crawls into a storage room and kicks the door shut and lies there gasping until the feeling passes. The pulse dies back, but it’s still there, a deep humming Steve feels in the back of his skull, the long bones of his arms and legs. He’s shaky but he can stand, so he does. Back out in the hallway, a guard spots him and spits a code word into the radio mounted to his shoulder; Steve knocks him down with the shield and blocks a spray of bullets, then hammers him in the face until he flops back, boneless. Another guard rounds the corner and Steve wills himself forward, pushes at the skin of the world and—

—nothing happens.

“Fuck,” Steve cries, swinging the shield up and diving for cover. He skids into a lab and flips over one of the steel tables from Bucky’s nightmares. Bullets ping off the back of it and over the top. Steve tries to shift again, tries to send himself topside, but even though he strains and pushes, he just—can’t. He can’t disappear. His body is rooted here, somehow, trapped: stuck. The pulse thrums down his spine from where he’s touching the floor. That’s got to be it. They’ve done something, flipped a switch somehow, they’ve—caught him. They’ve caught him. Jesus Christ.

“Captain America!” someone shouts from the hallway. “Surrender now, and spare yourself the,” they manage to yell, before Steve bursts through the wall with the shield over his face, careening into a knot of guards. He spins and clips them in the head, knocks them back and sprints for the stairwell. He wrenches a bar off the staircase and wedges it into the door to buy a few seconds, and takes the stairs at a dead run. Okay, so, he’s doing this the old-fashioned way. He used to do this, he used to be good at this. He’s been drifting for years, too long: his feet pound the stairs and his blood thunders and the shield doesn’t feel like anything at all, weightless, it’s like carrying a dandelion. His body remembers how to do this. He just has to keep moving. The door at the top of the stairs is bolted, but Steve snaps the bolt and takes the entire door with him, shoving it into the group of guards clustered at the top of the stairs. He’s almost all the way through, headed for the vault-like doors he saw on a schematic downstairs, what’s got to be the exit to aboveground. The hallway curves around; at the other end of it, there’s a bunch of guards leaning around the corner to fire down the hall at somebody else. Steve takes them by surprise, bashes them into the ceiling and then the floor, and comes face to face with Gibson at the next juncture.

“Steve,” he says, breathlessly. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” He’s bleeding from a bullet wound in the shoulder; his face is pale and there’s a gash across his temple. He looks terrified. “I didn’t know, believe me, I—you have to get out. I’ll hold them at,” he starts to say, and there’s the crack of a gunshot and Gibson’s brains blow out across the wall.

Steve ducks under the shield and catches Gibson by one arm as he falls; there’s a second shot that slings over his head, missing by bare inches. Gibson’s dead before he hits the floor, and Steve lets go to roll around the corner, back against the wall. He wipes the blood out of his eyes with his gloves, smearing it across his cheeks. Holds back the urge to throw up.

“Captain Rogers,” a voice calls down the hallway. “Need a time out?”

Everything goes in slow-motion for a moment; the thrum of the pulse, the staccato of his heart. Gibson’s arteries still pumping out onto the floor. Steve thumps his head backwards against the wall, squeezes his eyes shut to force away the rage, to try and think, he—he was so stupid. This is all his fault. Mary, mother of God, how could he, how could he not—how didn’t he see this. Stupid, stupid, fuck! “Captain Rogers,” Reed calls. “Sir.” It’s light and mocking; a parody of the shy, stammering voice he used on Steve at the motel. “Are you listening?” Steve puts a hand over his face and swallows his panic. Bucky is alive. He’s got to be alive. They wanted—they’ll keep him as a bargaining chip, they would. All he has to do is survive. Get free. Find Bucky. He has to. He promised.

“I’m listening,” Steve says, willing his voice not to shake.

“How’re you feeling? Little—blocked up?”

“Try me,” Steve says.

“Good,” Reed laughs. “Good! We’ve been working on it ever since you popped up again. An update of Doc’s old designs for the tesseract.” Steve’s hand goes reflexively through the linoleum, tearing up a corner of the floor. “I won’t bore you with the how. You can imagine the why.”

“Reed,” Steve says. “You should know you’re not walking away from this.”

“No,” Reed says. “You’ve got it all wrong.” Steve hears a radio crackling. “Strike one, report. Yeah, confirmed,” he says. Steve strains to hear the response. “All of them? Good. Kill them,” Reed says, and there’s a burst of gunfire and static at the other end. “Well,” Reed says, raising his voice to carry down the hall, “there goes strike two. I’m afraid backup isn’t coming.” Steve looks up at the ceiling. There’s an access panel for the venting system above his head. “Steve?” Reed calls. “You ready to talk?”

“Go to hell,” Steve says.

He makes it to the vents, just barely; one of Reed’s loose strike thugs clips him in the leg. It burns, but it’s superficial. The pain in the ass is the blood trail it leaves as he twists and turns through the air shafts, trying to lose them. Steve drops out of an access port and wraps his calf up and goes back in, towards another juncture. Behind him, they’re sending gas canisters into the vents. He hears the hiss and drops out into what looks like a big storage bay, slamming the panel back behind him and pushing a crate in front of it. There’s a forklift and stacks of more crates at one end, and a roll-down metal security door. The pulse throbs again in the back of his head, deadens his senses, and Steve has to kneel behind a crate and breathe through his mouth until he stops feeling nauseous inside. He has to find the center of it, somehow. He puts his hands to the floor and tries to feel it, really feel it, even though it makes him sick, like his guts are getting shaken around on a coaster. There’s something—a line, a power draw from somewhere deeper. Eastward. If he can trace it to the source, maybe he can turn it off, stop it somehow, at least long enough to shift out of here.

Steve runs his hands along the floor one more time, then goes quick through the bay, pries his way into an empty elevator shaft: he slides down the cabling at least a story while the pulse swarms him, resonates inside like a drum. He’s starting to feel close. He kicks his way through a wall, hammering the cinderblock partition until he can scrape through. He rolls onto the floor and a couple of technicians scatter; bullets burst over the shield and Steve pushes over a bank of supercomputers for cover. They spark and whine and the pulse is so close, so close it’s tearing him apart. Steve swings the shield over his shoulder, ducks out to grab a glance across the room before the bullets pin him down again. There’s a massive machine at the center of the lab that’s radiating a familiar blue light. The center looks like an electromagnet, like something Steve’s seen in Howard’s R&D suites. But the columns running up it are something else: they flicker and vibrate like an optical illusion, like they’re moving so fast that they’re blurring space and time around them. He’s got to turn it off, somehow. Destroy it. Steve vaults over the computer banks and knocks out the closest guard, tosses the technicians into the wall. One of them goes flying into the circular machine and just vanishes, writhes in midair and blinks out of reality with a cut-off scream.

There’s a length of cable hooked to a compressor unit; Steve rips it apart, but the humming doesn’t stop. The warning lights flash, and something in the base of the machine starts to rumble. There’s a crackling sound and a voice in the intercoms mounted at the corner of the ceiling. Reed.

“Captain Rogers,” Reed says, tinny and fraying in the speakers. “It’s over. Lay your shield down, and let’s talk about this like men.”

Steve hammers the shield at the machine but it can’t connect; there’s something blocking it, or else it’s just—it’s not really there at all, somehow. It’s half phased out of the world, sitting there like a block in a storm drain. Keeping Steve from passing through. Hitting it feels like hitting air. There’s got to be another way. He turns to the data banks, whirring away against the wall. Spinning reels of tape. Steve hurls the shield just to watch them burst apart in a shower of wires and plastic fragments. He goes down the row crushing them, bashing their control panels in, making them hiss and smoke, and the machine starts to thrum erratically. Steve can feel the energy cascading out of it, spilling out around him. He can feel the machine losing control. “Rogers!” Reed yells through the intercom. “That’s enough.” He’s starting to sound angry. “You have to push it, don’t you? You want to make me do this. He’s a good soldier,” Reed says, and Steve stops. Stands in the middle of the room. The computers are burning behind him. “A good weapon. Useful. But weapons can be damaged. Replaced.”

There’s a button on the wall to speak with the control room. Steve pushes it.

“I want to know something,” Steve says. There’s a pause, a staticky sound like Reed breathing.

“And what’s that?”

“I want to know what you’re afraid of,” Steve says, with his thumb on the button. “Is it pain? Death? Is it weakness?”

“Rogers, you—”

“Bucky was afraid of going first. Not for himself,” Steve says. “For us. He couldn’t bear thinking that he’d go off and die and leave us all struggling without him.” There’s silence on the other end. “It was war. But that’s what really scared him.”

“Touching,” Reed says. “Is there a point to this?”

“You made a mistake,” Steve says. “You, Zola. All of you. You failed. You couldn’t ruin him.”

“Captain—”

“If you wanted a killer,” Steve says, “you should have taken me.”

Steve slams the shield into the intercom, cutting Reed off with a squawk. He turns to the machine, slings the shield onto his back. Sinks into the pulse and finds the rhythm of it, settles his heart to the strange beat. Finds the point where it presses against him, where it’s holding him back, holding him down. And Steve lets go. Stops trying to find a way past it. Opens himself up, lets it come through him, into him. When the plane went down there wasn’t any pain, any fear: he was gone in an instant, erased.

Steve shuts his eyes, and pulls himself apart.

 

 

 

 

Howard says that space is a vacuum; that there is no air, no sound. There’s no warmth in space, even where the sun touches your skin. Howard says that he’s going to put a man on the moon, if it ever gets out of fucking subcommittee. Howard says he’s going to put a man on Mars, on Jupiter; the whole thing where Jupiter is one continuous thunderstorm does not seem to be a deterrent. This, somehow, is what Steve is thinking about when he opens his eyes. It’s blank where he is. But then everything adjusts: faint pinpricks of light at first, and then handfuls of sparkling dust that resolve into stars. Constellations. Sprays of them like clouds, stirred into coffee darkness. He is nowhere at all, watching the universe being born. He can feel the tree winding around him, body and soul, veinlike, soothing; the finest wisps of roots burrowing down for water.

He’s not alone.

There is something else with him, something that is not exactly a person, not exactly a mind. A heart, maybe. A consciousness. An alive thing that is curious for him, searching. Questioning. He doesn’t know what it’s asking. But it feels impolite not to try and answer.

I’ve been here before, he thinks. There is a rumble of response at that. It’s so huge it sweeps across the chasm of the sky and shivers the stars. It makes waves without thinking, without meaning to. It’s just so vast, it can’t help it. If it took a step, it would delve valleys and raise mountains. But it’s not a body. And it doesn’t quite understand Steve’s. His insistence at being flesh. This is what I am, he thinks. Body and mind, connected. For things like me. People. There is, somehow, an invitation. A feeling that tugs him across the emptiness, pulls him onward. He could fly between the stars, move them. He could let himself dissolve. He would be inside of everything, outside of the world. There would be no death. No limit. No, thank you, Steve thinks. Steve can feel—not confusion, not exactly. He’s not sure this thing can be confused. It’s been inside his brain, read his—his soul, if he has one, if that’s the sort of thing that can be read. It has turned every page in him. But it’s not Steve. Not human. And so it wants to know why. Because, Steve thinks. It’s not even a choice. He thinks about that cold hand on the back of his neck, pressing right where the knob of his spine curves up.

If you’re God, Steve thinks, to the boundless mind around his, then you know why.

And if you’re not, then get out of my way.

The darkness thickens and stretches, undulates like a ripple of silk, pulls itself away from him. It spins itself into a tunnel, and the stars are streaks of light, and he is falling through, faster and faster, he is falling through. Steve wakes up face-down on the floor in the machine room, dirt and ash ground into his face. Everything’s on fire. The machine’s been cleaved in two, shattered apart as if it’s been struck with a gigantic hammer. There’s no more glow, no more pulse. No more hum. Steve shakes his head to clear it, digs for the shield under the rubble. His legs shake for a second, but then he stands. He holds the shield in his left hand, finds his center. Focuses on the sound of one voice. Steve drifts topside like a ray of light, slips easily away from reality and back; he is suddenly standing next to a battered truck at the edge of the construction site, where a handful of men in strike team uniforms are milling around and watching the ruin of the building burn. The flames are two stories tall and raging. For a moment, nobody turns around. Nobody notices him.

“I don’t care what orders you have,” Reed is shrieking into a radio. “Drag that thing out of the truck and shoot it in the fucking—”

Steve shifts forward into his spin; he picks up velocity as he goes, and when he swings back into reality and strikes, the shield’s momentum caves Reed’s head in like it's made of eggshells. Reed collapses. Bullets clip off the side of the truck, just next to his head; Steve ducks and hurls the shield and the agents scatter behind the trees. He pops up and catches his own throw, turns the shield in midair to hammer down on a strike agent, then kicks the next one in the chest. He tracks the rest through the trees systematically, knocks them down and leaves them; the last member of strike one, he finds trying to hide among the corpses of Gibson’s second strike team. Their shocked faces are still turned up to the sky, streaked with blood and dirt.

“I didn’t want to,” the guy says, with his hands up. “I didn’t want to. I worked with these guys. I didn’t want to kill them. They told me to.” Steve pulls the guy to his feet and shifts. In the howl of the void, Steve lets him go. Just opens his fingers and—lets go. The void closes around him, and Steve pulls himself back to the woods. He doesn’t know where the technicians went: if they escaped, if this was all for nothing. He doesn’t know if there’s anyone left from Gibson’s team. But it’ll have to wait. He has a job to do. Steve kneels down and tries to tune out the sound of the building collapsing into rubble. The distant wail of sirens. He thinks about Bucky; about pear juice running down his chin. Stubble. Hair falling into his eyes. He shifts so quickly it’s almost violent; he tears through the skin of the world faster than he’s ever gone. And lands in the back of a moving truck, sealed up and dark.

There’s a body on the floor next to him, cuffed and motionless.

“Buck,” Steve says. He rolls him over, wrenches the cuffs apart with his bare hands. They cut into the soft flesh of Steve's joints, but he doesn’t stop until the metal groans and splits. Steve runs trembling fingers over Bucky’s wrists, his face; checks his pupils, his heartbeat. Holds a hand up to make sure he’s breathing evenly. He’s been drugged, by someone who knows his metabolism better than the doctors at Mercy did. He’s fully under. But alive. His pulse is steady. The truck lurches around them, goes around a bend and over some debris in the road, rattling. Steve touches Bucky’s cheek. “I’ll be right back,” he says.

When he pops into the cab of the truck, he knows it’s a mistake. There’s no room to swing, he’s trapped between two guys in strike uniforms. He throws a hard elbow into the passenger’s face and kicks up with his left leg, but the driver swerves and Steve loses his balance, shoots forward and cracks his face hard into the windshield. He’s pushing back to knock the driver out when the passenger manages to wedge a gun into his back and shoot him point-blank under the ribs. The world whites out for a second and Steve is rolling on the side of the road, getting battered on gravel. He looks up, dazed, and sees the truck about five hundred yards ahead. He shifted—shifted unconsciously from the pain, Jesus! Steve vaults up and pushes himself back to the cab, grabs the passenger’s wrist and breaks it, takes the gun and shoots the driver twice in the chest. Steve opens the door and shoves the passenger out, then takes the wheel and eases the driver’s twitching foot off the gas. He slows the truck and pulls it to the side of the road, and then sits there panting for a second with his hand over his guts, trying not to pass out again, trying to keep himself here.

He gets out and makes his way to the back, opens the gate and climbs up. Sits next to Bucky, on his knees. Pulls the shield back onto his back, slowly. His tactical jacket is starting to soak through with blood. Steve shakes him a little, calls his name. But it’s no good: Bucky is out, really out. Steve’s gonna have to get him away from here. But not on foot: Steve’s guts throb painfully and he doubles over for a second, gritting his teeth. His leg’s burning again. Maybe he could drive the truck? But not if it’s being tracked. There could be others on the road looking for it by now. Looking for them. The truck’s marked.

There’s one way out.

Steve stretches out next to Bucky and watches him breathe for a minute. Unconscious, he might not feel anything—might not see anything. It might pass like a dream. Besides, Steve thinks. There’s something out there. Something that understood. Not in the void, but in the roots of the tree—in the stars, woven through everything. There’s something that listened to Steve. Helped him pass. It wouldn’t hurt Bucky. Might even protect him. Steve feels oddly sure. He lies down and pulls Bucky into his arms, curls his hand around the back of Bucky’s neck and covers his face. His other arm goes around his waist, under his armpit. He hooks his knee over the back of Bucky’s, links them together. He isn’t letting go. Not for a second, no matter what. He’s thought it before, over and over: he is never letting go again. Steve presses his cheek to the top of Bucky’s head, closes his eyes. “Okay,” he says. He tightens his grip. “Okay. Here we go.”

And they drift together, one body, into the beyond.

 

 

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Chapter Text

“What on earth,” Howard says, from somewhere above them. “Sullivan! Sully! Somebody get Sullivan. These guys are bleeding all over my floor.” He leans down and taps Steve’s cheek. “Rogers,” he says, wonderingly. “You fucking maniac.”

Steve blinks up at him dizzily; the pendant lamps running along the lab ceiling are starting to halo, blurring like the world’s been rubbed with Vaseline. It’s the strangest sensation. Is he actually about to pass out? He can’t remember the last time he was unconscious. His whole body feels like a wet sack of sand. He is spilling out onto the floor, sagging against the tile. Howard always keeps this room so cold. Says it’s to keep the data banks from overheating. That sounds reasonable. Steve’s cold on his back, but not his front. There’s a warm weight on him, a heavy weight: it’s nice, being blanketed like this. It feels like he doesn’t have to get up at all, ever, like he could just lie here and shut his eyes and let the tide carry him down, under a rolling bank of waves. His joints feel stiff. They’re locked around—

“Howard,” Steve says. He jerks up, and Bucky slides bonelessly out of his grasp a little. Steve tightens his arm around Bucky’s middle, bends his leg to stay wrapped around him. “Howard. He’s been drugged. They gave him something, I don’t know what. You have to help him.”

“Yeah, pal, sure,” Howard says. He’s trying to pull them apart. Steve grips harder, reflexively. “Rogers, ease up.”

“I can’t let go,” Steve says. “I can’t let him go. It’s not safe.” He knows he’s not making sense, but his mind seems to be fairly far from his body; he’s floating somewhere, watching himself babble. “I don’t know what happens if I let go.”

“If you let go,” Howard says, firmly, “Sully can get a blood sample going, and—Jesus H. of Nazareth,” he says, as he rolls Steve over. “SULLIVAN!” Steve can feel his hand pressing carefully at the edges of the hole in Steve’s back; it hurts, but everything hurts, and also doesn’t. He just feels cold, and tired. He barely remembers the drift. Everything was ripples of light, pulling through him like long golden threads. He doesn’t think Bucky felt it. It might be okay. He didn’t let go. That’s what matters. “You look like mashed hamburger back here,” Howard says, bluntly. “Let go of him, Steve.”

“I can’t,” Steve says. “I can’t.”

“Oh, Christ,” Howard says. He pats Steve’s arm stiffly, making a strange face that blurs and stretches in Steve’s vision. “There, there.” He talks to someone else over his shoulder; Steve hears them talk back, but his ears are ringing a little. “Where the fuck is Peggy? Yes, now. No. Sure, if you have to. I’m not qualified for this.”

Steve manages to pull himself together, after a minute. He lets Bucky go and Howard’s assistants ease him onto a stretcher. Steve insists he can stand up, and he can, even if he has to climb upright on the side of a bolted-down lab bench. They stagger him into another room and cover a table with a clean dropcloth. Steve pulls his tactical jacket off, most of the way. Some of the fabric’s crusted into the wound on his back, and the pain of tugging it away almost whites out the world for a second. The assistants cut the rest of it off, and Steve lies down on his stomach and lets them disinfect him and get to work. Howard’s got a local anesthetic for him, something he cooked up a few years back, that doesn’t burn off right away; but Steve can still feel it a little. He tries not to focus on it. Besides, in a way—in a way he deserves it, deserves to feel every second of this. He took his eyes off Bucky, let somebody, let somebody get hold of him, and if he hadn’t been fast enough—if they’d shot him first instead of Gibson, if he’d died down in that basement, Bucky would be on a truck still, he’d be tied down in a room somewhere, getting prepped for a chair—

“Captain Rogers,” the voice at his back says. They’re holding his wrist gently. He blinks at them. “Could you let go of the table?” He looks down at his hand, which has been bending the edge of the steel into crumpled knots.

“Sorry,” he says. He puts his face down into the sheet, where nobody can see it. His head is throbbing, it feels heavy as a rock. He winces when his forehead touches down, but he grits his teeth and doesn’t say anything. “Sorry.”

The hands on Steve’s back are gentle but confident; they dig the bullet out and patch him up in what seems like short order. Howard employs mostly engineers and physicists, but the guy in the white coat sewing Steve up seems to know exactly what he’s doing. He also seems familiar. Like someone Steve remembers from a dream; probably from all the years he’s spent drifting in and out of the labs and offices, from haunting Howard’s cocktail parties and summer blowouts; all the faces he passed in his half-life, as he remembered how to be a man almost like the man he was before. Steve used to have a good memory for faces, for—people.

“Daniel Sullivan,” the guy says, when Steve asks. His skin’s a shade darker than Gabe’s, and he’s wearing a pair of thin, wire-rimmed spectacles. When he finishes pulling his gloves off and washing up, he shakes Steve’s outstretched hand. “May I take a look at your pupils, Captain Rogers?”

“Steve,” Steve says. “Sure.” Sullivan flashes a pen-light into Steve’s eyes, asks him to focus on the finger he holds up as he moves it from side to side. When he turns Steve’s head gently, Steve winces and makes an involuntary gasp.

“Did you hit your head?”

“Cracked it,” Steve says. “Windshield.”

“You have quite a serious concussion,” Sullivan says. “Possibly a skull fracture. We should take an x-ray.”

“I’ll heal.”

“Humor me, Cap—Steve,” he adjusts. He gives Steve a faint smile. “I don’t get patients very often. I spent half a decade in medical school, and Mr. Stark mainly has me calculating hypothetical bone stress for jetpack landings.”

“Alright,” Steve says. He slides off the table shakily, and tries to ignore how the room still spins when he stops. “For your sake, Doctor.”

Steve’s skull has a hairline crack, but there’s not much swelling; apparently, his body’s working overtime on this one. It’s probably why he feels so drained. Sullivan insists he takes a cot in one of the back rooms and submits to getting some monitors attached, and an IV drip to keep him from getting dehydrated. Steve rests for a while, as his head throbs and the room swells and swims around him. Whenever he closes his eyes, he’s afraid he’s drifting again, because everything seems so quiet, so faraway—he sees the lights behind his eyelids and feels himself sliding away on a current of peace and stillness and that thought snaps him awake again, gasping. He can’t let himself go like that, he’s got to stay here, stay where Bucky is. Where he’s needed. But after a few times, a few slow slides into almost shifting, he realizes, he’s not shifting at all. He’s not going anywhere. He’s falling asleep. He’s so unbelievably tired that it’s just, almost, overcoming his broken inability to let go. He’s actually getting close to falling asleep. He’d forgotten what it was like. He couldn’t even recognize the feeling anymore. The thought makes him sad, somehow, achingly sad, sick at heart. It makes him feel monstrous. He lies in the dark with dry, burning eyes and thinks that this must be it, that he must have crossed the line without noticing. He’s not human anymore. He killed today; it’s not the first time. But today he wanted to, or at least some part of him did. It must have. For him to—do those things. He used to be a person, he used to be—and now he’s not, he’s just some strange creature that that looks like one.

There’s a tap on the door.

“Steven?”

“Peggy,” he says, and sits up. “Pegs, I,” he starts, and she comes to the side of the bed and puts her hands against his shoulders, leans him back, touches his cheek lightly. “Dan’s dead. Strike two, they’re all—I failed,” he says, desperately, and Peggy leans down to kiss his cheek and quiet him.

“No,” Peggy says. “No, darling. No. We’re the ones who failed. Failed to see what was in our midst. You just had to bear the fallout. I am so sorry.”

“They had him,” Steve says; his voice is breaking. “They had him again. I let it happen.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Peggy says. “And he’s fine. He’s down the hall, drinking a cup of hot milk. He’s alright, Steve.”

He can’t even speak, he’s crying so hard. Noiselessly, shaking. His nose is running, snot and leftover blood. He puts his hands over his face and one of the monitors pulls off and starts beeping; Peggy pulls his hand away and clips it back on and Steve hiccups with an abbreviated sob. They stare at each other, and Peggy pulls the sheet up and wipes his eyes with a corner of it. “Do you feel better?” she asks.

“Fuck,” Steve says. “No.” She laughs and it makes him laugh, too; startles a tiny, surprised out of his chest. His breathing calms down. “What’s happening?” he asks. “What can I do?”

“The DC office is scrambling,” she says. “There’ve been a dozen arrests in the last hour. I’m due back upstairs in a moment.” She frowns. “I don’t want to ask this, but do you feel up to giving a report? Just to me, here? Anything you remember will help.”

“Yes,” Steve says. “Yes, absolutely.” He gives her his account with as much detail as he can, and Peggy scribbles notes in her own odd coded shorthand. He gives her names and faces, the layout of the facility, draws the markings on some of the crates with a slightly wobbling hand. After about twenty minutes, Peggy tears her pages out, folds them up and tucks them into her jacket. She leaves the notebook and pen on the table and pats his leg.

“Alright,” she says. “More than enough. Now get some rest. If you remember anything else, jot it down.”

“I’m fine,” Steve says. “I can go upstairs with you, sit in on the calls.”

“No, you most certainly cannot,” she says. “What you can do is lie in this bed until we’re sure your brains won’t tip out.”

“Peggy.”

“Steven,” she says, firmly. And that’s that. Peggy goes out, and after a while Howard comes in, drumming his fingers on a clipboard. He looks nervous, almost. Spooked.

“So,” he says. Steve looks up at him. “That’s really—”

“Bucky,” Steve says. “It is.”

“Yeah, Christ,” Howard says, exhaling with a rush. “Peggy told me everything, but. Him. In the flesh. He’s something.”

“Did he say anything?”

“Didn’t remember me. Looked at me like I was a tin can he planned on kicking, mostly. But that’s hardly a surprise.” Howard shrugs, and sits on a stool by the foot of the bed. He flips the clipboard around for Steve to look at, and then flips it back a few seconds later. Oh, well. Steve’s eyes were still a little too crossed to read it. “Workup says he’s healthy as a horse.”

“And the drugs?”

“Flushed out, mostly. He was groggy for a while, which was good. Made him slow enough to bungle murdering my staff.”

“Let me see him,” Steve says, and kicks the covers off. His guts convulse painfully, and he has to hold a hand to his side. “You can’t let anybody—”

“Hurt him?” Howard frowns. “What kind of operation do you think I’m running? Of course nobody’s going to hurt him. Don't worry, he stopped kicking as soon as we said you were in the next room.”

“Oh,” Steve says.

“Oh is right,” Howard says. “Put your blankets back on. At least until I can get somebody to bring you clothes.”

 

 

 

 

Steve drifts.

He’s not sure if he’s sleeping or not; whatever it is, it feels good. Calm. He can’t feel the aches in his body, beyond the dull heaviness of being weighed down into the mattress. He feels cocooned. The world is spinning around him slowly, like a canoe paddle being dipped into water, curving under in a stroke, pulling miniature whirlpools. You could get boats in the park, clunky rowboats, for a nickel; they used to splurge sometimes and row themselves around in circles for hours, getting their money’s worth. Steve would watch the muscles in Bucky’s arms as he pulled, and think about not going to Heaven; about being there already.

There’s a light pressure on the bed, a hand against his face. Steve opens his eyes and Bucky is hovering over him, one knee at Steve’s hip.

“Shh,” Bucky says.

“Buck, what—”

“The guard’s changing,” he says, in a whisper. “There’s nobody in the hall. Get up.”

“Guards?” Steve’s mind snaps awake. “This is Howard’s. We’re not prisoners.” Bucky gives him a furious look, leans down, and rips the cord out of the back of the machine monitoring Steve’s heart rate. It dies with a soft pop. “Bucky, Jesus, you don’t have to do this.”

“I complied,” Bucky hisses. “I complied for you, to keep them from—do you know how much I wanted to pull out their eyes? Get up.”

“Complied?” Steve thinks about what Howard said. That Bucky stopped fighting them when he heard that Steve—when he heard that they had Steve, too. Oh, God. “Buck, no, that wasn’t, they weren’t threatening you. They wanted you to know I was here. That we were together. They took care of me. Look.” He pulls back the blankets, shows Bucky the cotton bandages wound around his middle. Bucky looks stricken, then livid. “I got shot. They patched me up.”

“Maintenance,” Bucky says, accusingly.

“No, no,” Steve says. “No. Howard’s my friend. He was your friend, before. During the war. You guys always got along. You knew him.” Bucky looks flat at this, even cold. He’s not buying it. “He remembers you, even if you don’t remember him. He wouldn’t hurt you. And Peggy’s upstairs. Peggy, from the—she drove us to the house, remember? She’s upstairs. I saw her a couple of hours ago. I brought you here because this was the safest place I could think of. I shifted us. You were unconscious. I couldn’t think of another way to get us out of there.” Bucky’s managing not to look shocked, but he stiffens up at that a little. “I wouldn’t have done it, unless I was really desperate. And I was pretty goddamn desperate.”

“I went with you?” He looks down at his own hands and turns them over, like he’s trying to discern invisible changes. “I thought,” he says, haltingly. “I thought I saw. Like a dream. There were lights. A sky.”

“You remember that?” Steve asks. “How do you feel? Are you okay?”

“Functional,” he says, automatically, like it bores him. “So, not a dream. I traveled.” He gives Steve a curious look. “The one you took before, he screamed.”

“Yeah.”

“But it wasn’t frightening,” Bucky says. “It was quiet.”

“I think there’s something out there,” Steve says. “A kind of consciousness. A—a power, something. I spoke to it. I think it listened. I thought it would, I don’t know. Protect you. If we went together. I don’t know how, but I knew it would be okay.” Something occurs to him. Something he hasn’t thought before. “The others, I think—they’re rotten at the core, they saw horror out there, and I think—I think maybe they were looking in a mirror. But it wouldn’t show you horror,” Steve says. “Not somebody like you. Somebody good inside.”

For a long moment, Bucky doesn’t say anything.

“They put something in the food,” Bucky says, after a while. “I should have not eaten. Stupid.”

“Buck—”

“I was on the floor watching them drag me away. I could watch, but my arms wouldn’t work. I was on the floor and I knew, I knew I was stupid, a stupid idiot, to trust you.” Bucky looks away. “I thought, he did this to me.”

“Bucky,” Steve says. He feels like he’s choking. “I’m sorry.”

“I felt,” Bucky says, and clenches a hand in front of his chest, grabs at his shirt. “Inside, like a bomb. Angry. And then I thought, when they said they took you too, they would—hurt you, I thought. I thought so much, I felt crazy. I don’t want to look at you.”

“I’m so sorry,” Steve says, helplessly. “They tricked me. I’m the one who was stupid.” Bucky makes a noise and sits down on the edge of the bed, puts his hands over his face. Steve doesn’t know if he can touch him, if that could just set him off. He doesn’t deserve to touch him. He keeps his hands clenched uselessly in the blankets.

“I want to leave,” Bucky says.

“Okay,” Steve says. “Okay. We can go anywhere you want. Back to the safehouse. Or Peggy will find us someplace else.”

“No,” Bucky says. He looks at Steve. His eyes look red. “I want to leave, alone.” Steve can’t speak. Doesn’t feel like he’s breathing. The room shrinks and expands and Steve hears white noise. Waves crashing. “You said I could.”

“You can,” Steve whispers. “You’re free.” Bucky stands up and Steve kneels up and grabs hold of his hand. “Please. Don’t just go. Let Howard give you—let him give you supplies. Weapons. Take money, Howard’s got plenty, take all the money you need. You have family,” Steve says. God, he meant this to go differently. He’s just blurting it out. But he can’t keep this from him. “Your ma, your sister Rebecca. Your ma's alive, Bucky, she's alive, she'd be—you don't know how happy she'd be to see you. They’re in Brooklyn still. They’d take you in. They’d remember you. You don’t have to just, go wandering. You could go home.” Bucky shakes his head.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I want to be alone. That’s all I want, I want to be alone.”

“Please don’t go empty-handed,” Steve says. “I’ll give you the address. Please. Just in case.” Bucky stares down at their joined hands. He doesn’t shake Steve off. After a second, he gives a curt nod. “Thank you,” Steve says. “Thank you, Buck. Please take care of yourself. Please,” he begs. “Take all the numbers. So that you can call if you need us. If you need me. I’ll go anywhere. I’ll come anywhere for you. Any time, any second. I can be there in a heartbeat if you need me.”

Steve scribbles everything down into the notebook Peggy left for him, and presses it into Bucky’s hands. And looks at him, really looks: soaks him in, the curve of his thighs and arms, the drawn lines of his face, the hair scraping his shoulders. Tries to cram it all in, memorize it. He feels like he’s dying, sucking in a last gulp of air. When he meets Bucky’s eyes, he jolts. Bucky’s looking at him like he’s doing the same thing. “I mean it,” Steve says. "I meant what I said, I love you. I do." It’s only the second time in his whole life. It fills him with vertiginous terror, saying it now. Bucky’s got to—he’s free, Steve isn’t a liar, Steve isn’t a jailer. If he wants to go, he can go. It’s his right. But Steve is never, ever going to give up. They won’t be apart forever. They can’t be. He is Steve’s whole—he is where Steve belongs. “I won’t ever stop.”

“You came back,” Bucky says. “I know. But I,” he starts to say, and doesn't finish. His voice is trembling. Steve’s never heard it like this: not before, not ever. He sounds like he’s being torn apart. Steve knows the feeling. He's opening his mouth to say something foolish when Bucky leans in quick and kisses him. It's deep and intense; he feels Bucky lick into him before he pulls away. It's too much. And not enough. It could never be enough. “I’ll come back,” he says. “If I can.”

He closes the door behind him, and Steve shoves the back of his hand into his mouth and screams until he thinks his blood vessels will burst.

 

 

 

 

"What the fuck is going on," Howard demands. Steve's surprised him in the office upstairs: Howard's sitting at a gigantic mahogany desk that's had all its drawers pulled out, even the secret compartments in the legs. Howard points at Steve. Steve is still wearing a bedsheet and his stained uniform pants; nobody could find things to fit him, so they've sent an assistant to Macy's. "I had ten thousand dollars cash in this desk, goddamnnit."

"Bucky needed it."

"How the hell did Bucky know about it?"

"You have the same desk at the house in Passaic," Steve says. Howard deflates.

"Well. He could have asked. What else did he take?"

"About fourteen guns," Steve says. "Two prototypes."

"Jesus wept."

"Undoubtedly," Steve says. He's so tired he doesn't feel tired anymore. He feels dead. It's strangely relaxing. The wound in his back is mostly healed up, at least at the surface. Inside it's a different story, but, well. It doesn't hurt too badly to walk. Everything feels fuzzy. He's not upset about not having a shirt, or not being a person anymore. Frankly, that would probably hold him back.

"So, what now?" Howard asks.

"I don't know," Steve says. "Did Peggy get anything out of the handlers?" Apparently, Gibson had turned their captives in to two of the only non-HYDRA agents on his immediate team, so two interrogations have been running since yesterday. The smallest sliver of luck.

"Yeah, the kid's singing like a chickadee," Howard says. "Gave up another base in the Northeast."

"Good," Steve says. He turns to leave.

"You've got a traumatic brain injury," Howard calls after him. "At least go put a helmet on!"

Steve makes himself smile.

 

 

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Chapter Text

“This time, I make the team,” Steve says. He looks across the room at the people hastily gathered around the conference table: Peggy and Howard, Gabe, and a bunch of suits whose names he perpetually seems to forget. It’s probably intentional. He can finally admit that to himself. “I’m willing to die, if that’s what it takes, but I draw the line at getting shot in the back.”

Nobody argues.

“Gabe,” Steve says. “I know it’s asking a lot—”

“Don’t even finish that sentence,” Gabe says. He’s holding Peggy’s hand under the table. They never do this in meetings. Steve can feel their heartbeats both rise for a second. Peggy doesn’t even have to look at Gabe; she doesn’t need to. They both know what the other is thinking. Steve envies them that, and feel desperately glad that they have it. Somebody ought to. “I’m in.”

“I want the two real agents left from Gibson’s team,” Steve says. “What are their names?”

“Kochalski and Brewer.”

“Okay, good. Somebody get them briefed.” Steve stands up. He’s still got an ace bandage wrapped around his middle to remind him not to stretch too fast. His kidney’s almost finished reknitting itself, so says Dr. Sullivan. “I’ve got a phone call to make.”

Jim picks up after the third try. He sounds frazzled. He stumbles over the name of his own architecture firm. “Is your secretary out?” Steve asks.

“Steve,” he says. “Hey. Been a while.” Now he sounds happily surprised. “And yeah, actually. Food poisoning. Did you know everybody who calls here is a fucking idiot?” Steve laughs. He doesn’t have to force it.

“I wish this was a social call.”

“You don’t make those,” Jim says. “What’s going on?”

“Bucky’s alive.” There is a long silence, punctuated by the sound of someone trying to form, and say, words.

“You’re,” Jim says. “You’re gonna have to explain that.”

“It’d be easier in person.”

“Well, sure,” Jim says. “Fly me out on Carter’s dime.”

“Uh,” Steve says. “Hold on.”

He thinks hard about Jim, the last time they saw each other, more than a year ago: the faded corduroy coat that he insisted on wearing, even while his girlfriend—his wife now, Sheila, Steve’s only met her once—rolled her eyes behind him. The smell of the bay laurel trees in their yard, Jim’s disturbingly good impression of Dugan sitting on a dud mine. Steve shifts out and away, feeling the world swim past, and lands in the lobby of the firm, standing in front of a small circle of chairs where guests read their magazines. He turns around and Jim is standing behind him, bent over the reception desk with the receiver dangling out of his hand.

“You,” Jim says.

“Me,” Steve agrees.

“What,” says Jim, “the fucking fuck.” He throws the receiver over his shoulder and the phone cord tangles up and drags the whole thing off onto the floor. “What the fuck!” He points a finger at Steve and takes a shaky step and bangs his knee on the desk. “Ow, shit cock balls!” He lifts his hand and points again. “So. You. So when you told me, in nineteen fifty-four, that you felt like your experiences had left you—” here, Jim makes extremely sarcastic air quotes, “different—”

“I wasn’t lying.”

“You weren’t telling the truth, either,” Jim says.

“It was classified, technically,” Steve says. “Everything about me was classified. It took them a long time to figure out I wasn’t a danger to other people. And I just,” he shrugs. It’s a thin excuse, even if the part about being classified was true. But he knows why he didn’t talk about it, really: he hadn’t seen the point. He couldn’t control it. And it wasn’t a gift. It wasn’t anything, then. “I don’t have a good reason. I should have told you.”

“Does it—does this have something to do with Barnes?”

“No,” Steve says. “Not really. That was HYDRA. Is HYDRA.”

Jim stares at him for a second, and then turns on his heel and goes into his office. He comes back a second later with a bottle of whiskey and a single glass. He pours himself a double and drinks two-thirds of it in two gulps. He offers the bottle to Steve, and Steve takes it, takes a swig. He doesn’t see why not. It tastes fantastic, but doesn’t feel like much of anything.

“Okay,” Jim says. “Okay, let’s talk.”

 

 

 

 

Steve shifts back that afternoon; Jim sticks around to pack what he needs and explain things to Sheila in a way that doesn’t make him seem like he’s cracking up. Peggy’s got him booked on a private red-eye to New York. Steve sits down with Kochalski and Brewer, both of whom seem to be simmering at a low boil over Gibson.

“Base is here,” Kochalski says, spreading the maps out. “It’s not as big a facility as Virginia, more of a depot. It’s off the major flight paths, so not much in the way of aerials.” he says. “It’s dug into the side of a hill. Hard to see, unless you’re looking for it.”

“We have eyes on it?”

“No,” Brewer says. He and Kochalski glance at each other. Something silent passes between them. “Not officially,” Brewer amends. “Friend of ours.”

“Not from the department, I take it.”

“No,” Kochalski says. “Little hard to know who to trust.” His face is trying to stay expressionless—he’s one of Gibson’s, after all—but he can’t quite manage it. He’s furious. Good, Steve thinks. Good. After a second, Kochalski must realize that Steve is watching him. He makes an abortive little shrug. Like he doesn’t want Steve to think he’s not going to be a team player.

“It’s southeast of Telos Lake.” Brewer points out the ridge at one side of the valley. It’s the edge of a string of scattered foothills and scooped basins that trail southward and rise up towards Katahdin. “Local police have got some of the passes blocked off, they’re keeping civilians off the trails. They have to know we’re coming. Virginia was, pardon my French, a shitshow.” Steve smiles bitterly, and Brewer tenses up. “Sir, I don’t mean—”

“Call it like you see it, agent.”

“We’ve got to assume they got a message out before the power cut,” Kochalski says. “Now our guy tells us the whole base has gone silent. Like they’re waiting.” He looks up at Steve. “I know you said this is a five-man op. But.”

“Think of it as a ration card,” Steve says. “We’re gonna do more with less.”

When Jim gets in they take a pass through the lab, since Howard promised Steve he’d pull out all the stops. He does. And then he stands behind them and criticizes their choices.

“You don’t want that,” he says, pulling a detonator out of Jim’s grasp like he’s a baby reaching for keys. “I only keep this around to remind myself what failure looks like. Here,” he says. He hands him a string of linked detonators with attached timers. “One and done, or all together. Your choice. And here’s the cherry. Remote wireless triggers.” Jim dangles the string and frowns.

“Howard,” Jim says. “I hope you got plastique. Otherwise, it’s going to be a nice necklace for my funeral.”

“Forget plastique,” Howard says. “I’ve got a whole new compound. Totally new plasticizer, keeps it pliable in extreme conditions. Polyisobutylene instead of—you know what, fuck you, Morita, if you’re going to make that face. I don’t know why I bother.”

Steve watches them squabble their way down the bench; behind them, Kochalski and Brewer are following along and answering questions when asked and visibly trying not to act overwhelmed. Steve forgets that Howard is—Howard, sometimes. Most of the time. When he first came back there were so many hours spent running scans and blood samples. He didn’t sleep, and sometimes neither did Howard, when he was doing complex calculations and swearing at his chalkboards. They tried so many things. Steve even got back into the Vita-Ray machine once, just to see what’d happen: he ended up on the beach and the Vita-Ray machine ended up exploding. But Howard kept trying to help him. Help him understand what he was. He hasn’t been fair to Howard, maybe. Definitely. Hasn’t been enough of a friend. It’s like Steve can see himself, finally. Like he’s rubbed a layer of dust off his eyes. When he looks across the last seven years all he can see are moments, fragments. A life he couldn’t manage to grasp hold of. He looks down at his hands; flexes them so he can see the bones across their backs, the points that Bucky rubbed with his thumb. He can remember every second of the last week. Every place they touched, everything he said. The way the light fell through the windows, the sound of the floorboards under their feet. It feels like digging into a raw wound, to think about that. But it also feels good, somehow. To think that he could learn how to do that again. To pay attention to living. To other people. Steve might not be human, but his friends are. Bucky’s not the only one who deserves better from him.

“You shouldn’t have,” Jim says, as Howard hands him a submachine gun that he’s promising, crossing his heart, will never ever jam.

“I got nothing for you,” Howard says, turning to Steve. “Every time I try to give you something good, you end up—just wanting a goddamn stick or a pan or something.”

“It’s more than enough,” Steve says. “You never disappoint, Howard. Thank you. For everything.”

“Alright,” Howard says. He’s trying to frown but he can’t manage it; the corners of his mouth have turned up. He looks genuinely, involuntarily, pleased. “Alright, get out of here. You’re all Peggy’s problem now.”

The time before they leave passes slowly. Kochalski, Brewer and Jim get cots downstairs, to catch four or five hours of restless sleep. Steve sits with Peggy, going over the material from the handlers. When he catches her yawning and blinking deliberately to keep her eyes from closing, he gets another cot put in the office, and then he’s alone, sitting with his feet propped on the edge of the windowsill, staring out at New York. It’s dark and the lights are out, a carpet of color that renders the stars mostly invisible overhead. But Steve can still see them, when he stares and focuses. They appear one at a time, shyly; slipping out by cosmic sleight of hand.

He doesn’t mean to think about Bucky. But that’s like not meaning to breathe. He does it anyway, and the sensation of it fills his chest, his airways; it pumps blood into his heart. On breezy evenings like this they used to sit on the fire escape or the stoop, watching people come back slowly from the bars. When Steve’s mother was working overnights in the summer he’d stay up late sometimes just because he could, because there was nobody to bother; more often than not Bucky would swing down the block to play rummy with Steve until midnight or dog-ear the pages of his library books. Bucky used to fall asleep mid-game, draped over the side of the sofa, dropping his whole hand of cards onto the floor. There’s a picture of that in his sketchbooks, somewhere, wherever they ended up: Bucky loose and dreaming, one arm draped gracelessly over his own face, all his soft edges smudged in graphite. They probably threw his things away, when he didn’t come home. When he died. Steve never asked to have them back.

The worst thing is, Steve could go right now. He could be there in the blink of an eye. Less than that. It wouldn’t matter where he was, how far apart they were, whether it was—night or day, in the middle of the ocean, the top of a mountain. He could think about Bucky’s beautiful wide shoulders and his mouth softening in a smile and Steve could rocket through the fabric of the universe and pull Bucky into his arms. But he’s not going to. Not unless Bucky needs him. Not unless he asks. Steve just hopes he’s found somewhere safe to hole up. Someplace comfortable, that’d be nice. Maybe Bucky’s across town at the Plaza, spending Howard’s cash and eating lobster thermidor in a monogrammed bathrobe. That’s actually—that’s actually not a terrible idea, Steve realizes. It almost makes him smile. It’s probably the last place on earth anyone would be looking for him. Watch over him, Steve prays. To God or whoever is listening. Keep him safe. It’s not very different from the prayers he said every night at Lehigh, when he still weighed half an ounce and Bucky was squatting in the bottom of a boat in the churning Mediterranean, puking and wondering if getting shot would be better than drowning. Lord, guard him. Heal every illness; save him from hunger. Hobble his enemies and jam their guns.

When everyone’s ready they load into the van; Gabe hangs out the window to talk to Peggy in low tones. He holds onto her hand for a lingering second even when she leans away to let him go. Steve pretends not to be watching. He feels a stab of anger at himself. He shouldn’t have asked him for this: Gabe has a family. Jim, too. He should have realized how selfish it was to drag them into this. The engine starts and they pull away, and then they’re driving through the empty streets on their way to the airfield. Steve thinks about asking Kochalski and Brewer to pull over and let the others out.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Gabe says, breaking the silence. He’s sitting next to Steve; Jim’s in the back with his arm curled tenderly around the case for his submachine gun. Steve glances over. “Don’t, okay?”

“I’m thinking about your kids,” Steve says. “I’m thinking about how I could ever look them in the face again.”

“Steve, my own wife sent me after an East German gun runner last year,” Gabe says. “Stop. This is what I do.”

“Not me,” Jim says. “I’m supposed to be designing a shopping center.”

“I should never—”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Jim says. Gabe snorts and shakes his head. “Steve,” Jim says. “Cap. I can’t say I’ve missed it. Years of my life, face-down in the mud while you jumped motorcycles and exploded? It was shit. The war was shit. I’ve tried hard to forget it.” He leans forward. “But I’m not going to sit on my hands like a fucking asshole while Nazis take Maine.”

“This is my fight,” Steve says.

“Oh, like hell,” says Gabe.

 

 

 

 

They land at a private airstrip just east of the Canadian border; after that, it’s another few hours by Jeep to the rendezvous point. Brewer takes a brief turn at the wheel, then Steve. He hasn’t driven a car in years, at least not with passengers: he was always terrified to lose control and vanish, he could never be sure. But he feels focused, present. Awake in himself. Gabe and Jim are snoring in the back, propped up on crates; that particular detail is giving Steve a strange sense of déjà vu. Steve takes them through the back country and swings them up onto a service road behind the peaks. Their rendezvous turns out to be a shack tucked away in a thick stand of fir trees. There’s a big man waiting on the porch with a shotgun across his knees when Steve pulls them up the dirt track and parks in front. Kochalski and Brewer get out, and the sound of the doors wakes Gabe and Jim. Jim wipes his eyes and then sits up abruptly and stares through the window, nose practically to the glass. Next to him, Gabe starts to laugh.

“That’s,” Gabe says.

“Fuck this,” says Jim. “I take back everything. I quit.” He gets out of the Jeep and bangs the roof. “I quit!” He points at Brewer while Steve gets out. “Drive me back to the fucking plane.”

“Dugan,” Steve says, overwhelmed, walking towards him. Dugan stands up and meets his offered hand and shakes it, hard. Then pulls him in and claps him on the back violently. Steve shoots a look at Kochalski and Brewer. They’re both giving off an undercurrent of extreme embarrassment. “This is your friend?”

“Gibson’s boys,” Dugan says, nodding at them. “They were on my rotation for a bit, before—”

“Before you had a heart attack,” Gabe says. He and Dugan share a bear-hug. Gabe’s still laughing. “I thought you retired!”

“Peggy shitcanned me,” Dugan says.

"She did not."

“Well, not literally," Dugan admits. "But she told me I’d work myself to death, like that wasn’t the general idea.”

“So, what,” Steve says. “You’re sneaking around on ops behind her back?”

“What else was I gonna do?” Dugan asks. “Argue with her?”

“She’s terrifying,” Brewer mutters.

“I cannot believe it,” Jim says as he walks up. “All the fucking Maines in the world, you’re crowding this one.” Dugan and Jim sling their arms around each other and Dugan pats him hard on the back, grinning like a maniac. “Let go of me,” Jim says after a minute, scowling, delighted. “Let go. They ought to make you into a bearskin rug.”

“I missed you, too,” Dugan says. He looks at Steve. Gabe and Jim do too; after a second Steve realizes that they’re all looking at him, even Brewer and Kochalski. They’re all looking to him. It’s been so long since—it’s been so long since what he did, what he said, really mattered. It floors him. Squares him away, in some odd sense. He's got to tuck his shattered bits under the rug for them. For this. He can’t let them down. He can’t be anything less than they need.

“I put that plane into the water thinking, at least it’s over,” Steve says. Kochalski and Brewer’s eyes slide away for a moment, respectfully; Gabe, Jim and Dugan just set their jaws. “But it wasn’t over. It wasn’t over for Bucky. They had him—fourteen years, they,” Steve says, and his voice cracks. Nobody moves. Nobody breathes. “They had their chance. Now we have ours.” He looks down at the valley. “I’m not leaving one brick standing on top of another. I’m not leaving a scrap. I’m going to wipe the ground clean.”

“Deputy Chief Carter’s asked us to. Collect intel, if at all possible.” Kochalski shifts in place, like he’d rather not being saying it. “She’d like prisoners.”

“Then you can take some,” says Steve.

 

 

 

 

They’re ready for him.

The pulse starts up as soon as Dugan starts hammering the outer wall with the rocket launcher. Steve is still standing midway up the ridge, but he can feel the wash of energy spill over the top of the valley like sea foam. Kochalski and Brewer are sending the dummy Jeep down the hill, packed with a duffel of Howard’s fancy new plastique. He watches it roll and bump down and then blow the gate open into scrap metal and powder. On the other side, Gabe and Jim are slipping in through the service bay, headed for the lower levels to plant charges as they go. Steve flexes his hands on the shield and closes his eyes, feels the pulse. It’s steady, rhythmic. This is a better design than the last machine: the wave is more intense.

They probably think it’ll hold him off.

Steve shifts into it, lets it rinse through him like a shower of light through glass. It can’t hold him back; it doesn’t even slow him down. Instead it’s like a beacon, driving him to the heart of the complex. He breaks through the surface of the world right in the center of the machine and the force of his landing blows the room apart around him, spraying chunks of steel and glass into the walls. Technicians stagger around, clutching at their eyes and guts, screaming. Steve mows through them. He knocks one down and hammers another in the throat, kicks a third into a broken-off glass column that’s embedded itself into the concrete. The next door’s sealed so Steve cracks the handles off the door and kicks it down, rockets his shield into a handful of waiting guards and beats the guns out of their hands. He works his way through the floor. He hits anything that moves: drives his shield up into foreheads, down into kneecaps. He fights his way up to the ground floor and meets Gabe and Jim inside the communications room, where Gabe’s fiddling around with the radio, scribbling down the marked frequencies. There’s a spray of blood on one wall, and uniformed guards slumped under the desk.

“Look at this,” Gabe says. He’s moved to the bank of mounted television monitors. They’re on a closed circuit, showing the inside of the base, the courtyard outside, and the perimeter at the gate. They all take a second to watch the chaos in the yard; Dum-Dum’s apparently still raining down hellfire from halfway up the hill. Gabe points to an empty hallway, taps the glowing screen when it flickers. “Looks to me like a vault door.”

“Oh please,” Jim says. “Please tell me these motherfuckers are hoarding gold.”

“I’m on it,” Steve says, and shifts away. The vault’s still sealed, so he pops through on the other side, and finds himself standing in a tiled room with a steel table in the center. There’s a series of channels and a drain in the floor. For a second he can’t move. He makes himself drag his eyes away; there’s a grid of smaller access doors set into a big wall unit—sealed doors, ringed with rubber and locked with pressure handles. Steve opens one and swings it out, and a rush of cold air spills into the room. He realizes, belatedly, that this is a morgue.

There’s a body inside.

Steve rolls the steel tray out slowly, not breathing. It’s a man, but it’s not—it’s someone with dirty-blonde hair, cropped off above his ears. Lean muscle and a scarred-up face. He looks young, younger than Steve. No older than twenty-five. Someone’s done a y-incision and scooped out his insides and then just left him here, left him like this, hanging open in flaps. There’s something inside that catches the light, and even though Steve’s close to vomiting, he leans in anyway, gently pulls back the skin to glance in. It’s metal, running close to his ribs—Jesus, no, it is his ribs. Dull metal strips that look like they’ve been fused to his skeleton. Steve pulls his hand away and has to bend down for a second with his hands on his knees, feeling a violent seizing in his stomach. He almost pukes. Maybe he’d feel better if he did. He rolls the tray back inside and shuts the door.

The rest of the room is cabinets of tools, banks of monitoring equipment, an oversized tank set against the wall, with tubes leading out to a set of pumps. Steve demolishes the tank and fluid runs out onto the floor, spirals down the drain. There’s a box on the wall that looks like a breaker switch, but when Steve opens it, there’s a blinking keypad inside. He feels for the seam of a door and finds it, hidden along the edge of the corner. He doesn’t bother trying to figure out the code, just shifts himself to the opposite side. It’s an office. A remarkably unremarkable office, with a desk and writing pad, a telephone, a bookshelf and a reel-to-reel tape machine, some stacks of books and folded charts. There's a camera with a flash bulb attached and photographs pinned across a board on the wall; Steve glances over them and stops dead, staring. They’re a horrorshow. Bodies and limbs, sutures and autopsy pictures, haunted faces, it’s— “No, God,” Steve whispers, exhaling. It punches out of him.

His hands fumble over the board and rip one picture off the wall; Steve cradles it in his cupped fingers and looks at it with his eyes burning. It’s a jawline and a neck and a shoulder, nothing else. It’s poorly focused. Old, wrinkled. But it’s unmistakable. He’s trailed kisses up it in his dreams since he was thirteen and small and stupid, longing with all his guts, his soul, for something he can't have. In the photograph the jaw is bruised and the shoulder ends abruptly, tied off with rags. Steve crumples the picture up in his hands without meaning to, clutches it against his face; he brings the shield down onto the desk and smashes it in half. He wrenches it back out and keeps hitting it until it’s kindling. Steve doesn’t even feel himself screaming. He doesn’t realize he is, until he has to suck in another ragged breath to keep going. He bashes through the wall and the security panel blares a siren until he rips the wires out and throws them across the room. Steve slides down with his back against the wall and sits on the floor for a minute, staring at the other hundred photographs. Bucky’s is still in his fist. Steve makes himself get up. He takes the pictures down as fast as he can, stops only to find an envelope big enough to stuff them into. There are files inside the broken drawers, some of them torn up a little from his tantrum. But he folds everything together and stuffs it all inside his tactical jacket, and buttons it up tight again over the bulge. If there’s anything in here—even names, Steve thinks. Even names. The rest of them must have had somebody that loved them, somebody who might still be waiting. Wondering. Visiting an empty grave.

“Captain!” he hears, from outside the door he just broke down. It sounds like Kochalski. “Captain Rogers, you in there?”

“Clear,” he calls back, hoarse. Kochalski comes through the busted-up doorway, gun in hand. Steve can see Brewer through the hole, watching the hallway. He’s got a dirtied face and blood on his knuckles. “I think it’s about time to wrap up, sir. If you’re ready.”

“You get what you needed?”

“Agent Jones and Dum—Dugan are corralling whoever’s left. We got a handful.” Kochalski glances around at the shattered desk, but he doesn’t say anything. “Did you get what you needed?” Steve doesn’t answer. He’s looking at the bank of tape machines on the far wall, on the other side of the bookshelf. He didn’t notice before; he was too caught by the photographs. But one of the machines is making a faint clicking sound. After a second, Steve realizes that’s because the loose end of the reel is flapping against itself over and over and over as it turns.

The tape machine is still running.

Steve works fast; he pulls his gloves off and spools the end of the tape onto the second reel and winds it back. When it’s gone far enough, he plays it.

“—ubject five three alpha,” it says, in a nasal, accented drone. “Disappointing results in the area of regenerative tissue development.”

Steve shuts it off. All the hair on the back of his neck is standing up. He feels frozen inside, like breath caught in cold air.

“Take this,” he says; he pulls the tapes off the reel to reel and puts them in Kochalski’s arms. He looks around. Grabs every other reel he can find. Breaks open a locked drawer and finds a bin of them, labeled with strings of identification numbers and dates: November, nineteen fifty-seven. March and April of fifty-eight. June of this year. There are dozens. “Take it all,” he says.

“Sir?”

“Get all of this out. Okay? Don’t leave a single one behind.” Steve slings the shield onto his back. “When you get to the others, tell Gabe and Jim to hit the button and blow this place to hell.”

“You’re not coming?”

“I’m going to search the woods. He can’t have gone far. I’ll meet you back at the rendezvous.” Steve glances around the room: the tiny glass-block windows, the single exit. “He was just here,” Steve says, enraged. “He was here, and we missed him by—it could have been minutes, fuck, he was right here!”

“Who?”

“Zola,” Steve says. “He’s alive.”

He leaves Kochalski standing in the rubble of the office, and heads for the pines.

 

 

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Chapter Text

The shockwave from the base shakes the valley.

Steve barely notices; he’s shifting between the world and beyond when it happens, and he lands as the air is still ringing and the spray of rubble is still taking its time to arc and fall. There are men in the forest, but none of them are Zola. Steve finds them one by one, running, uniform jackets stripped off—deserters who fled in the chaos. He swings the shield into their backs and they sprawl forward hard, the wind knocked out of them. They roll onto their knees and put their hands up and say,

“Please,” at him. “Please.” He can imagine Bucky saying it, when they started in on his arm. When they put the bite plate into his mouth. A thousand years ago, when Steve was still a kid—a stupid kid—he’d imagined that brave souls don’t beg. They didn’t in radio plays, in matinee showings of The Eagle and the Hawk. But his mother had begged for water, once or twice, before—and she’d asked for things he couldn’t bring her, like his father. Like the songbird she’d had in Cork when she was small. I begged, Bucky told him, in a dirty tent outside of Bitburg, in total darkness: Bucky had to blow out the lantern before he would talk. You don’t know, Bucky had said, you don’t know what you’d do until you’re doing it, and that was so true it burned. Steve drags the deserters upright and shifts them up the hill and drops them at Kochalski’s feet, where they lie on the ground and babble and clutch their stomachs. It’s so tempting to let go in the void, but he’s afraid of it now, somehow: the line he already crossed. The photographs made him sick and he still feels sick inside, putrid, like a jack o’lantern slowly rotting behind its teeth. He doesn’t trust himself to know what is right to do with them—to them—and so for now he doesn’t allow himself the choice.

He searches for hours, shifting again and again and again to cover the ground more quickly, up to the top of the ridge and beyond for miles. The sun is going down behind the hills when Steve finds it, back-tracking: a tunnel way over on the far side of the ridge, hidden behind an overhang of bowed trees and camouflage mesh. It’s big enough for a vehicle, and it leads in one direction back towards the base, and in the other towards the road. Zola’s miles away, then. He was looking in the wrong place. Steve wants to tear the mesh down and break the trees between his hands; instead he shuts his eyes and thinks. He focuses on a memory of Zola, the last one he has. He didn’t sit in on the interrogations later, he didn’t— he couldn’t. He doesn’t remember much of the ride back to base in the jeep, doesn’t remember who met them at camp. Those are pieces of his life that are just gone, erased. He wasn’t awake for them. But he remembers sitting across from Zola on the bench as they bumped down the valley road, staring at the crack in his glasses. When they broke into the compartment Zola had gone for a pistol with fumbling hands and Gabe had knocked his face against a door. So the glasses were broken and Steve kept staring into them, dully; sinking into the single hairline crack that caught the light. Zola had squinted at him, pinched and assessing. Steve hadn’t even thought about killing him. It feels ludicrous now—Steve would kill him in a heartbeat, he thinks. He would wring his neck between both hands. But at the time it hadn’t even crossed his mind. It makes a certain kind of sense: he was two days out from the plane, the ice. The dead can’t kill the living. They don’t have that power.

Steve focuses and shifts, tries to pull himself through the world the way he did with Bucky—the picture feels clear, Zola’s smirking face swimming at the forefront of his mind. But it’s like walking through molasses, running against the wind. Steve feels the drag of it slowing him down. He pushes harder, grabs at the nothingness with both hands and tries to wrench himself through. But everything is fighting him, pushing back: stars are bursting behind his eyes and his whole body, his whole being shakes, and shakes and shakes and tears and he is screaming—

—and he lands on the forest floor and rolls over a knot of roots and heaves up against a tree, coughing and choking. His whole body spasms and he curls into a ball to try and stop the violent shivering. After a second, he rolls onto his knees and stands up. Everything aches. His bones feel like they were peeled off and shoved back in. He looks around, and realizes the camouflaged tunnel is still right behind him. He traveled about three feet, give or take; and the universe just spit him back out.

He doesn’t know what that means.

There’s another, smaller burst of an explosion, and he looks over the top of the ridge: smoke is still funneling upwards in great dark plumes. The base will burn underground for days, probably, until it smothers itself.

Steve wipes his dirty face with the back of his glove and heads up to meet the others.

 

 

 

 

Howard gets them five reel-to-reels and five transcriptionists and sets them working around the clock, turning Zola’s tapes into documents. Two of the transcriptionists quit within the first twelve hours: they walk out with their hands over their mouths and their eyes starting to brim over. Another one throws up in a trashcan in the hallway. Howard gets new transcriptionists and puts them all back to work, and afterwards Steve finds him drinking in his office without the lights on. Howard startles when Steve comes in, and then sinks back into his armchair with a half-empty glass dangling in his hands.

“You’re a lightfooted son of a bitch,” Howard says. “For being nine feet tall.” He tips his glass from side to side and the ice cubes clink together. He doesn’t sound drunk, exactly. Steve’s heard him shouting at his Halloween parties. But there’s something thick and heavy in his voice. Something pressing down on his words.

“Did you know?” Steve asks. Howard gives him a sharp look: not drunk at all, in fact.

“About Zola?” Howard holds his eyes for a moment, and then empties his drink. “Maybe. Maybe I did. Heart attack—heart attack my ass, all that little piece of shit ate was carrots and dandelion leaves. Maybe I was just so fucking relieved that he was gone.”

“Howard—”

“No,” Howard says, serious now. He sets the glass down. “No. I didn’t know. I would have—well, Christ knows what I would have done, but I would have done something.”

“You would have,” Steve agrees. “So what happened?”

“He was going to Stockholm for some, I don’t remember, international genetics conference. He was always chasing Erskine. There were no living relatives. Supposedly the body was shipped off to Geneva and buried in some old family plot. I don’t think anyone examined it too closely. He was finally off our hands. Frankly, I think there might’ve been champagne involved. Peggy probably told you I was stealing his patents. Which is a lie,” Howard says. “I was improving his fucking patents. The man had no sense of—no sense at all for dynamic design. No poetry. No movement. Everything was just a goddamn blunt instrument. Oh, they worked. But they’d burn out fuel cells, cause he wouldn’t put a limiter in. The casings would crack from impact stress. He was a fucking hack.”

Steve is taking that in when a thought catches him; something that must show on his face, because Howard is watching him, keeping perfectly still until Steve looks back at him, and then he sags down like a sack of grain’s been draped over his shoulders. He looks—for the first time he looks old to Steve, worn off in patches here and there. He isn’t old, not in any real sense: they’re only a few years apart, give or take being broken apart into atoms. But Howard looks tired. Tired, and a little ill. Steve realizes, abruptly, that Howard is waiting for him to get angry. He doesn’t feel angry. Stunned, maybe: like he’s been clubbed and he’s still waiting for his senses to come back. The world feels dulled. It’s hard to understand, but not impossible. He should have—maybe he should have seen this. Maybe he’s the one who should have known.

“If you’d known, you’d have stopped it,” Steve says.

“I’m the fucking genius,” Howard says. There’s no irony in his voice at all; Howard’s sin might be pride, but it’s not vanity. “I’m supposed to know. I’m supposed to open my goddamn eyes, I’m,” he says, and leans back to look up at the ceiling. He doesn’t look at Steve this time. “It was a schematic for a prototype, and he’s got this fucking—he hasn’t even thought about the weight, the counterbalance it’s going to need. He has this obscene harness instead. Just strap it on and worry about it later. And I sit there, I’m thinking about how I’m going to get a piano onto the yacht, how I’m going to get twice the range for the remote sensor rig that Senator whats-his-fuck thinks is gonna keep out Russian submarines, and it just comes out of my mouth,” Howard says, bitterly. “It comes right out of my mouth. Hollow-core rods instead of the solid armature, and a plate to,” he chokes a little. “Jesus. Reinforce the joint. Jesus Christ.” Howard covers his face with one hand.

It’s so easy to picture it: Howard running casually down the diagrams, pointing at something and flipping the top page onto the floor, then the second, and the third, one after the other, irritated at having been called upon to negotiate someone else’s imperfections. Casually marking them up, frowning at their inelegance. Here and here and here. And then moving on down the bench, down the row. To the next room, the next floor, the next need, the next whim, the next shiny thing that piques his interest. Steve’s still not feeling the fury that Howard is waiting to absorb; Howard is visibly bracing for it. Maybe it just hasn’t connected. But Steve can still see the boy in the morgue with his clumsy, cracked-apart ribs. The person who'd done that hadn't understood much about the body they'd done it to.

“Whatever you did, it must have made a difference,” he says. Howard drops his hand away and stares with the most baffled face Steve’s ever seen him wear. “It doesn’t seem to hurt him, most of the time. It’s not—I mean, it’s still—that,” Steve says, and feels a hot spike of rage for a second, thinking about the photographs. “But it doesn’t hurt. That’s something.”

“Something,” Howard echoes, incredulously.

“What do you want me to say?” Steve asks. “You think you should’ve known?”

“At least—”

“I left him there,” Steve says. “I left him in the mountains. It’s not even a contest.”

“What,” Howard says, “the fucking train? Steve, how—”

“He was alive. I should have known. I should have listened. Zola gave him the knockoff serum, the, whatever it was. He—I wasn’t paying attention,” Steve says, and suddenly the fury comes. But it is flowing inward, a torrent of it, like the tide. He is furious at himself, coldly furious, like he is looking downwards from the sky and he can see the thoughtless, tiny, insignificant shape of his younger self floating like a speck on water. “I should have listened to him. To everything he was saying. He felt different. He said that. He felt different inside. If I’d listened I would have gone back. I would have made them all go back. But I didn’t. You want to pin the blame on somebody, Howard, you pin it where it belongs. You pin it on me.”

“Wow,” Howard says.

“What?”

“You actually believe that,” Howard says. Steve pushes his chair back like he’s going to get up and stalk away, and Howard throws a hand out to stop him, leaning over the desk. “No. Jesus. Come on. Sit down. Alright, we screwed up. We screwed up. Okay? So now what.”

“There are more sites,” Steve says. “Outside of Moscow. One in Siberia, East Germany. Zola could have gone to ground anywhere.”

“You can’t just,” Howard says, and waves his hand in Steve’s direction. “Dial him up?”

“I tried. I couldn’t get through. Something shut me out.”

“You think they ramped up the pulse design?” Howard sits forward. “Different wave pattern, maybe? They could have altered a cascade chain. Did it feel like a cascade chain?”

“No. It was,” Steve stops, and thinks. Remembers the way his whole body seized up and fought him, the tearing sensation inside when he tried to shift. “It was like hitting the end of the universe. There was nothing past it.”

“Huh,” Howard says. He looks thoughtful.

“I’m going back to the safehouse for a few things,” Steve says. Howard nods vaguely, staring at some unfixed point past Steve’s ear. “How soon do you think we’ll have transcripts?”

“Five,” Howard says, and then blinks. “What was the question?”

“Transcripts.”

“Oh, tomorrow at the earliest,” Howard says. “Thompson keeps taking puke breaks.” His eyes start to drift away again. “Could be a physical blocker,” he murmurs. “Vibranium absorbs percussive force, but not electrostatic. Or then again—”

Steve sees himself out.

 

 

 

 

The safehouse is undisturbed. The dishes Steve left to dry on the counter are still sitting there, bowls and plates resting on their rims, two forks and two knives side-by-side. Steve stands there for a second and stares at them, feeling like he’s disturbed something by coming back here; something that shouldn’t have been disturbed, shouldn’t have been touched. If he hadn’t come back they would have stayed here like this, waiting. Signs of—not happiness, exactly. But something good. After a minute he shakes it off and puts them away in the cupboards, then bags up the trash and drags the can out to the end of the driveway, leaving it just past the security gate. Maybe he should have done it before they left. Maybe Howard was going to send someone to clean it up, close it down again. He didn’t think about that. He wasn’t thinking much past the base, past getting Bucky some answers. Steve goes upstairs and finds the book he was reading still sitting on the nightstand in the second bedroom. The rug’s rolled up at the foot of the bed, and there’s a dirty towel on the floor by the side of the tub, dried into stiff peaks and streaked with mud from the garden. Bucky must have used it to wipe his feet.

Steve can admit it to himself, now: he thought they were coming back here. Hoped they might. It was quiet and safe, as safe as anywhere has ever been for either of them. They could have come back and eaten all the pears. Eventually someone would have needed Steve again, but until then they could have been here doing almost nothing. There were decks of cards and a pegboard in the lounge: Steve could have won a round of cribbage for the first time in his life, at least until Bucky remembered how to beat him. It was never very hard.

He’s grateful now that he left the maps here when they went to meet Gibson: who knows where they would have ended up. The ones that Bucky marked up are still rolled up inside Howard’s desk, untouched. Steve is slipping them into the duffel he brought when he stops and stands up and looks around the room for a while, trying to figure out what’s caught his eye. There’s something out of place. Something that doesn’t line up with his memories. He scans the bookshelves, the edges of the furniture, the long curtains. And it clicks: the hideous floral armchair that Bucky monopolized isn’t in the corner anymore. It’s sitting in the center of the far wall. Steve sets the bag on the sofa and runs his hands over the chair, looking for the slit Bucky made in the cushions to hide his knives. His fingernail snags on a seam, and finds a folded piece of paper shoved into the gap between the foam and the frame of the seat. It’s a yellowed newspaper clipping. Clipping is the wrong word, technically: it looks like it was torn out by hand. Steve wonders if this means Bucky’s been vandalizing the archives at the public library. The story’s from the Brooklyn Eagle: there’s a grainy photograph of Union Square packed to the gills. There’s no date, but Steve doesn’t need one. He can remember how cold the day was, March wind cutting down the backs of their collars. Thirty-five thousand people, the papers said later; Steve had showed up with friends from the Flatbush socialists’ club, but the only unifying ideology in that crowd had been hunger and anger.

Bucky’s added something in the margins. His accent vanishes sometimes, sometimes on purpose, but they didn’t change this, or else they couldn’t, or they didn’t care: either way Steve is grateful. This, this is something they didn't touch. Steve can see his hand scratching over the paper; can almost hear the strokes. His handwriting is the same. Bold and square and plain. TWO BLACK EYES, it says.

Bucky’d found him hours after it was over; the cops tried to break up the mob, literally, and in return the mob had tried their best to break up the cops. Steve had ended up walking back over the bridge with a crowd of other folks from the Heights; somebody was kind enough to let him hold onto the back of their coat, because he’d taken hard elbows and some sidewalk to the face and both of his eyes had swollen up like plums. He’d sat on the back steps waiting for his mother to get home from her shift because like always he couldn’t find his key, and instead Bucky had heard about the riots and come over straight away, expecting Steve to be half—or full—dead. He’d said as much, arms crossed over his chest, still in the grocer’s apron his uncle made him wear. Steve had stared up at him sullenly through puffy, stinging eyes and told him to go back to work.

“I ought to,” Bucky had said. “You look like raw chuck. I ought to leave you here and let the Mullaneys’ fucking dogs eat you by mistake.” Instead he’d manhandled him upstairs and washed his scrapes out and chipped ice into a rag for Steve to hold over his face. He’d called Steve a righteous horse’s ass and still, afterwards, he’d stuck around to read the scores aloud from the paper. He wasn’t tender about it. But it happened anyway, without trying, without thinking: kindness fell out of Bucky like crabapples from trees. If there really is a hell for people like Steve—people who feel the things he feels—then Steve will just have to go there: there is nothing even God could do to make him stop.

Steve folds the piece of newspaper up and tucks it into an inside pocket in his coat, and looks around the house one more time. He doesn’t know what he’s hoping for, but he doesn’t find it. There’s a stash of canned foods missing, but nothing else has been left behind. There’s only that clipping, those three words. He’s remembering things, which is—good. Healthy, probably. And he wants Steve to know it, but he doesn’t want to talk. Or to be found. Which, okay. That’s fine. Steve can accept that. It’s not his place right now to do anything else.

When he gets back to New York he goes to find Peggy; she’s in one of the conference rooms upstairs with incomplete transcripts spread out in piles across the table. They transfix Steve in the doorway. There are just so many. Peggy sees him looking and shrugs; she must think he’s surprised that they’re finished.

“I couldn’t wait,” she says. “They’re bringing them up a page at time now, because apparently I’m a tyrant.” She starts to pull out the chair next to hers, but then hesitates with her hand on the back of the seat. “Do you think you can handle it?” she asks. “I’ve only just started, and it’s—it’s ugly, Steven. It’s not kind.”

“I owe him this,” Steve says. Peggy looks unimpressed.

“He’d be the last person to tell you that,” she says. “And I think you realize it.” Her voice turns gentle. “Howard said—”

“Howard doesn’t know,” Steve says. “Alright? I was the one who was supposed to—and I didn’t.” He can’t seem to control the flinch in his voice. “He doesn’t know.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Nothing,” Steve says. “Nothing.” He throws his hands up and goes out of the room. In the hallway he leans against the wall and has to pull himself back from shifting; for a second it’s like he can hear the waves again, tugging at him. He grabs the front of his own jacket and thumbs over the buttons, reminds himself where he is, what he’s seeing, sensing: a long dull hallway and an even duller linoleum floor covered in light scuff marks. The laces of his shoes, one tied ever-so-slightly tighter than the other. The faint buzzing of the lights. It’s not panic or terror, not exactly. But looking at those transcripts, at the stacks and stacks and stacks of them, it just—those are years, years of horrors he didn’t stop. He should have—Zola should be dead, or sitting in a cell downstairs, or floating in the fucking void, he should have done something by now. Instead Zola is loose and they’re no fucking closer to knowing how far, how high, this whole thing goes. It was for nothing, after all, it was for absolutely fucking nothing. Steve blew himself to smithereens for this and Bucky got taken to pieces and the world went on turning and nothing was fixed, nothing was—nothing was over. Nothing is ever over. There are reams of paper now to prove it. Steve fists his hand in his jacket tighter and tighter and finally he just gives up, drops out of the world like a rock and finds himself staring at the tideline, the long fragmented edge of the shore that recedes into moving water. The sun is going down and the sky is a sea of warm light, strokes of red and gold and violet running from the edge of a palette. The clouds are thin, worn into strands like the cheap brushes he used to buy: the hairs would fall out one by one and get stuck in his watercolors as he painted. Nothing he’s ever done has been perfect.

Steve stands and watches the sun go down, and for a little while he tries not to think at all. When he gets back he has a phone call.

“Gave her name as Mrs. Barnes,” Kochalski says, and Steve snatches the phone right out of his hand.

“Winnie?” he says. “Ma?”

“Hello, Steven,” she says. “I don’t mean to bother you at work.” She sounds—off. Not frightened, quite. He ought to know; Steve remembers her shocked greeting from the first time he’d showed up on her doorstep again after he died. “But I thought you wouldn’t mind just this once.”

“I don’t mind at all. Are you alright?”

“I’m fine, Steven, thank you,” she says, oddly careful around the I’m. So she’s not alone. Steve thinks frantically about the best place to shift to inside the house—the roof, maybe? But then getting in unnoticed might be a problem. The basement? He jerks a gesture at Kochalski to get his attention, then mimes holding the shield and a gun in quick succession. Kochalski blanches, but he turns and makes for the equipment lockers at a dead run. Good man. “We haven't seen much of one another lately. I just wanted to make sure you know that you can drop by anytime.”

“Winnie, I know there’s someone in the house with you,” Steve says. “Tell me how many. Say it in days. Tell me how many days you’d like me to come visit. Three days? Four?”

“No, there’s no-one here,” she says. “Rebecca is at work and the children are at school.” Steve wrings the phone cord with impatience.

“Should I come there? Right now?”

“Well, certainly, if you're free,” Winnie says, and Steve can't hold it any longer, he doesn’t even wait for Kochalski, just shifts in the middle of her sentence and lets the phone drop. He lands in the front foyer by the coat-rack and goes silently through the house on the balls of his feet. He’ll do it with his bare hands if he has to, he’s seeing nothing but red: Bucky's mother for Christ's sake, Bucky's house; they played in this hall, they ate supper at that table—but Winnie’s in the kitchen still talking into the receiver with her back to the doorway. “—upper time? Hello? Steven?”

“Ma,” he says, softly, and Winnie turns around and shrieks. “You’re alright, you’re alright, I’ve got you,” he says, and goes to catch her as she stumbles forward. Her hands grip his arms and her eyes go wide and she lets out another cry, softer this time, so terrified it’s little more than a squeak. “It’s okay. I’m sorry,” he says. “Sorry to scare you. I got you.”

“Steven,” she breathes. “How, how—”

“I’ll explain later,” he says. “I promise. Just tell me, is there anybody else in the house?”

“No, no, there’s nobody—Steven, I don’t understand.”

“Okay,” Steve says. He pulls out a kitchen chair and eases her down into it. “Okay. I thought, nevermind what I thought. You sit.” He gets a glass out of the top cupboard and fills it at the tap. “Here.” Winnie takes it and sips from it, glancing back at him every few seconds with round, wild eyes. Steven holds onto her other hand.

“Well,” she says, after a moment or two. She sets the glass down and squares her shoulders. Her voice has already stopped shaking. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Steven. It’s not some kind of a party trick, is it?”

“No, ma’am,” he says.

“This is—part of the work you do for the government?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

“Well,” she says, more confidently. “Well, then.”

“What’s happened?” he asks. Winnie holds herself still and upright, but the hand he’s holding shakes violently and then squeezes his fingers tight. Her face is trying to hold itself together but she can’t; she breaks into a radiant, trembling smile. She's suddenly blinking away tears.

“I have something to tell you,” she says, almost in a whisper. “I couldn’t say it over the phone. I was afraid that—anyone else would think I was crazy.”

“You, crazy?” he says. “Did a strange man appear in your kitchen?” She laughs nervously, gaspingly, and Steve wraps his other hand around hers. “I’m not going to think you’re crazy.” Winnie’s eyes are watering harder; a fat tear spills down her cheek, and she dabs at it with the back of her knuckles.

“He,” she says, and Steve’s heart skips. “I saw him, Steven. I saw, I saw my son.” Now she’s really crying. “My baby. My baby's alive.”

“Ma,” Steven says, helplessly. He slides onto his knees and pulls her forward into his arms and she shakes against him, sobbing, burying her face in his shoulder.

“I'm not crazy,” she says. “He’s alive, I’m not going crazy.”

“I know,” Steve says. “I know you’re not.”

“He was outside on the street. Right outside this house, it was him. It was him. Oh, God, he looked so tired, but I knew him, I knew him right away.”

“When was it?”

“Yesterday morning,” she says. “And again last night. I heard a noise downstairs and the back door was open. This was on the table,” she says, and pulls a wrinkled photograph out of her apron pocket. It’s Bucky and Rebecca, eight and twelve, a print from one of the boardwalk photographers. Rebecca’s smiling, uncharacteristically angelic in pin-curls, and Bucky’s hair is swept back from his forehead, unruly and sticking upright like a stand of weeds. He’s scowling like the sun’s in his eyes. Steve feels a rush of vertigo and almost reaches out to take it from her hands, to run his thumb over the curls that wouldn’t stay down. “It was in the albums upstairs. He’d been through them all. They’re still sitting on the floor in his room—his room, it’s his room again, God, my God,” she says, and chokes on a fresh sob. Steve pulls her close again and rubs his hand across the back of her shoulders. “How could it be?” she murmurs. "How could he come home?" She’s worn herself out; she sags against him. “I begged God for answers,” she says. “I’m still begging. I can’t understand it.”

“Did you see anybody else?” Steve asks. “Was he with anyone? Did you see anyone else hanging around the house? Like they were watching him? Watching for him?” Winnie pushes herself upright and stares down at him with dawning, pointed curiosity in her expression. Steve tries to meet her eyes steadily. No offense to Barnes the elder, who was a fine and decent soul, but Bucky hadn’t gotten his smarts from his father.

“Steven,” she says. “You’d better tell me everything.”

So, God help him, he does.

 

 

.

Chapter Text

It’s been a little more than twenty minutes of talking when the doorbell rings, startling them both. Winnie, wide-eyed and white-knuckled with the edge of the tablecloth twisted between her fingers, starts to rise out of her chair on pure instinct.

“I’ll get it,” Steve says. He pats her hands and gets up stiffly from off his knees. It’s only in the hallway that it occurs to him it could be a diversion; if they think Bucky’s close, nearby, even in the house, they might—but it’s Kochalski on the front stoop, holding what’s probably an empty suitcase and wearing an oversized raincoat that’s obviously meant to hide the guns on his hip and shoulder. A second ago he was trying to look unassuming: when Steve opens the door, Kochalski’s shoulders straighten and his face takes on its usual sharp, assessing quality. The car at the opposite curb looks like it was parked in a hurry. The dramatic exit must have spooked him, and now here he is playing cavalry. For some absurd reason, this only makes Steve blurt out, “You selling Avon?” Kochalski’s eyebrows lift. Steve feels ridiculous; there’s just something about standing here on this particular stoop that’s got him feeling more dislocated than usual.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Kochalski says. “But I’m not sure I know you well enough.”

“Well enough to—”

“To know whether a joke like that means somebody’s got a gun to your back, or if you’re just being, uh,” Kochalski says, and his mouth tilts upwards a little bit, almost a grin. “A bit of an asshole. Sir.”

“It’s that second thing,” Jim calls up, from the bottom of the steps. Steve swings the door open wider and it gives him a view of Gabe and Jim standing at the edge of the sidewalk, giving up on trying to look like nonchalant pedestrians. Both of them have the same kind of formless raincoat draped over them, but Jim’s is only sitting over his shoulders, so that he can keep a hand on the shotgun tucked against his leg. “You know, we did about eighty on the bridge coming over.”

“I should have called,” Steve says. “I didn’t think, I just went.”

“Nothing new there,” Gabe says. He comes up the steps to clap Steve on the shoulder. “Everybody okay?”

“Yeah,” Steve says. “Yeah, we’re alright.”

“Is that Gabriel?” Winnie says, from the hall behind Steve. She’s come out of the kitchen, standing with one hand braced against the doorway. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize—I can make a pot of coffee,” she says, but her voice shakes, and she lifts a hand over her face for a second to hide the tremble in her chin. Steve and Gabe both move to support her, and she rests a hand on each of their arms. “Hello Gabriel,” she says. “How are you? How’s your beautiful wife?”

“We’re fine, Mrs. Barnes.”

“And the children?”

“Tall as weeds,” Gabe says; he helps Steve ease her back into her chair, and then Steve moves to put the kettle on the stove.

“It’s been too long,” she says. “After the wake—you were so very kind,” Winnie says. “I’m not sure I ever said that.”

“You didn’t have to,” Gabe says. Steve watches them with his heart in his throat; Gabe looks up and his eyes are curious, then understanding. “Why don’t we give you some privacy,” he says, and Steve gives him a grateful, wordless nod. Gabe goes out; Steve can hear him talking to the others in the hall in low voices. Steve busies himself getting mugs out of the cabinets and setting them on a tray. He’ll get coffee made and bring it out for them when it’s ready. In the meantime, he pulls a chair close to Winnie’s and sits down. Her hands stretch out and he takes them, tries not to pay attention to the way they suddenly feel frail and papery in his hands. She’s gotten old, Steve thinks. Gotten old while he wasn’t looking. He should have been here every Sunday, letting her feed him Salisbury steak and asking after the neighbors. If he—if he lives through what’s coming, he’ll come back here. Be more like the son his own mother would’ve wanted him to be.

“This is how it ought to be,” Winnie says, into the quiet. Steve glances up at her. She’s reading his mind the way Bucky used to: his slightest shrugs and frowns used to give him away. “All of you around the table. All his friends,” she says, and puts her fingertips to her lips, smiling with damp eyes. “It’s just how he’d want things. Maybe now,” she says. “Maybe when he’s ready.”

“Maybe,” Steve echoes. “That’d be—good.”

“He loves you, you know,” Winnie says, just above a whisper, and Steve has to hold himself still to keep from jolting. “We all do, Steven.” He keeps staring at her hands, at the knuckles where she’s curled her fingers around his. He wills his heart not to race. She doesn’t mean that, she doesn’t know. It’s alright.

“He always looked out for me,” Steve says. “He’s still looking out for me.”

“He would,” says Winnie. She squeezes tight. “That boy would.”

 

 

 

Just before midnight Steve makes another round of the house, checking the doors and windows; Winnie said she’s been leaving everything unlocked and ajar in case Bucky decides to come in during the night, but he’s hardly the only person who might. Zola never showed an inclination to target Bucky’s family, as far as Steve knows, but that might change now that he’s shaken their tree. By tomorrow Kochalski will have arranged for an agent to watch the house around the clock—someone trustworthy. Tonight it’s just Steve.

He stands in the parlor for a while in his bare feet, feeling the threadbare rug under his soles. It’s the only room of the house they never spent much time in. The bay window facing the street is swathed in lace curtains, but the orange light of the lamps outside still radiates through. Once in a while sharper headlights swing slowly down the street, or someone’s footsteps go pattering past, marching a body home to its bed. Steve runs his fingers along the edges of the end tables and the curved back of the sofa. His hands come away clean; Winnie always kept things aggressively spotless in here even while her husband and children draped their dirtied shirt-collars over the banisters and tracked leaves through the front door. She has the same framed photographs sitting over the mantle, old clouded silvertypes in velvet frames: soft faded silhouettes of bygone people with Bucky’s thoughtful, pensive eyes and soft mouth, tucked into starched collars and cravats. There are things changed here and there: new caned chairs in the kitchen, a sleek two-door refrigerator that looks like the hood of one of Howard’s cars. There are new photographs hanging along the staircase: Rebecca’s children sitting posed for school pictures, looking older and older in each one. But otherwise it’s the same. The house’s bones haven’t changed since they were children. How could they?

Steve pads through the hallway and the kitchen, circles the back foyer and then climbs the stairs slowly, skipping the fourth and eighth treads. Bucky had them memorized, the right places to step, and the places that would creak and shriek into the darkness and rouse the house. He used to put a finger to his lips and shush Steve and wink over his shoulder when they came back drunker than they ought to be for being only seventeen; Bucky would tiptoe upstairs laughing to himself under his breath, and sometimes Steve would step on the wrong stair on purpose, just to make Bucky tip over and swear out loud and clap a hand over his mouth too late like a slapstick comedian. Steve glances into Winnie’s room, just for a second: she’s sleeping like the dead, mouth open, snoring lightly, arms flung across her side. After she sent everyone else home from supper with napkins full of fresh rolls, she took one of the sedatives her doctors gave her for nerves and fell asleep in her chair. Steve woke her and managed to get her upstairs, at which point she slid out of consciousness again with the trusting ease of a child being carried home from midnight mass. Steve shuts her door and goes down the long hall to Bucky’s old room.

It looks—it looks almost the same. It takes Steve a minute to realize what’s really changed; he has. The bookshelf used to be higher, the dresser once came up nearly to his chest. He used to be able to sit on the windowsill on his bony ass with his feet propped against the bottom rail of the bed, perched like a bird while he ranted at Bucky over the top of a newspaper section. There are still clothes in the closet and paperbacks on the shelf, cigar boxes in the closet that Steve knows must still be full of playing cards and photographs and ticket stubs and junk, things, material proof of a life that was only paused, but never really concluded. The photo albums are sitting on the floor where Bucky must’ve left them, strewn haphazardly with pictures pulled out here and there. Steve sits on the edge of the narrow single bed and just—

—he was dead. He was dead to Steve only weeks ago, he was dead, and all the boxes of playing cards and pictures in the world could never have brought a scrap of him back.

Steve lies down sideways and rolls his face into the pillow. The linens are clean and they smell like sunshine and pollen from being dried outdoors; Winnie said she changed them this morning, just in case. Just in case. He presses the pillow to his face and inhales and laughs into it once, a laugh that is somewhere between a gasp and something else. Everything is so wrong, everything is broken, but there’s also—this. It’s so selfish. So very goddamn selfish. But Steve can’t help it. He’s not sure he deserves to feel this joy, but it’s not a choice. It’s a reaction, as natural as breathing. A part of him that was buried in the ground at Holy Cross has come alive again, put up a tiny curl of leaves.

He lies in the dark and listens to the house settle, listens to distant car horns and the rushing, silvery sound of night traffic on wider roads. He shuts his eyes and focuses on that feeling, the sensation of having roots that are unfurling in the earth. He finds the tree in his mind and traces its line through the bright wash of the universe, spiraling through webs of galaxies and spreading paths of comets. The lines of the tree are thick and the roots are deep, they stretch beyond and beyond and beyond, but for the first time there is something else. Something—gone. Steve notices it, finds the edge of it: a crack, a fine splitting in the fibers. There is something missing. There is a knothole in the tree that is pure nothingness, a gap that aches to see: his chest burns and his head aches and he rolls over, gasping, opens his eyes to see Bucky in the doorway.

“Buck,” he says.

Bucky stands and watches him with one hand on the doorknob. He doesn’t look surprised, exactly, but he’s still and tense, holding himself tightly like a reed fighting the wind. Steve sits up but doesn’t stand, letting his hands stay loose in his lap. Waiting. Bucky’s shaved and changed his clothes; he’s wearing a leather jacket and jeans like a biker in a movie. In the soft, veiling darkness of the room he looks like Marlon Brando but for the hair falling loose into his eyes. There’s a glove on his metal hand. He shuts the door silently and considers Steve.

“You followed me?”

“No,” Steve says. “No. Your ma—she saw you. Here, around the house. She thought she was going crazy. I came when she called.” Bucky exhales slowly. “I can go,” Steve says. Bucky doesn’t respond. “Just, would you—stay the night here? She’ll have a protection detail by tomorrow. I just don’t want her left alone.” Bucky makes a sour face.

“You don’t have to tell me,” he says. He looks at the wall, the albums; anywhere but Steve. “She’s my mother.”

“You remember her?”

“Some,” he says. He runs his fingers along the edge of the bookcase, tipping the spines of the books out gently, one at a time. “I remember this,” he says. “These are mine.”

“You read a lot,” Steve says. “You used to read for me when my eyes were tired.” Bucky gives him a strange, sad half-smile.

“Little you,” he says.

“Yeah,” Steve says.

Bucky walks to the edge of the bed, stands with his legs crowding Steve’s. Looms over him like a long shadow. He puts his knees on either side of Steve’s hips, drives him backwards until Steve’s falling, surprised, onto his elbows. “Buck,” he says, unsteadily, but Bucky leans down and meets Steve’s open mouth in a kiss. He pushes Steve gently down into the bed and engulfs him, covers him like a wave, and Steve drowns in the swell of him. Bucky’s metal hand is curling over his shoulder; his flesh hand is on Steve’s neck, pressing the pulse in Steve’s throat with his thumb. Steve doesn’t know what to do, how to—he ought to put the brakes on, probably, he should—but he feels everything, he feels so alive, how his heart is hammering and his breath is coming fast. He can feel the seams in the quilt under him, the seams of Bucky’s jeans against his hips, the muscles in his cheek when he runs his hands along them. Everything’s connected, a loop, a circle of sparking wires running through him into Bucky and back and around and into every place they touch. He runs his fingers through Bucky’s hair and tugs lightly and gets a deep, rumbling moan into his mouth; without thinking Steve raises his knee to bring Bucky down flush against him, rolling their hips together. “Bucky, God,” Steve gasps, when they break for air. “Don’t,” Steve says, “you’re not, not like this,” he stumbles, and Bucky makes a dismissive snort, sits back on his heels.

“I’m like this,” he says, flatly.

“You weren’t,” Steve says. “I was. I am. But you weren’t.” He can’t make his voice sound less—hurt. He doesn’t mean to. But he’s making himself do this, because he has to. He’d rather push this away than get it under false pretenses. That would be—unimaginable. But Bucky just frowns, peers at Steve’s face in the dark like he thinks Steve might be lying.

“You say that all the time," he says. "But I remember I watched your hands. Watched them work.”

“What?”

“I remember these,” Bucky says; he picks up Steve’s hand by the wrist and puts it on his waist, slides it under his jacket. “You can touch me.”

“Bucky—”

“Don’t tell me what I can want,” Bucky says. He leans down and then his lips are moving against Steve’s throat, “I know what I want.” His teeth graze Steve’s skin and send shocks down his nerve endings. “Do you?”

“I want you,” Steve says, desperately. “I’ll take—I’ll take anything from you,” he says. “Anything you give me.” Bucky rolls his hips down again and Steve sucks in a breath, arches his head back. Bucky’s half-hard already; he leans in and pulls Steve’s undershirt aside and starts sucking a mark into his collarbone. “God, God.”

Bucky pulls him up and Steve lets him drag the undershirt off his chest and over his arms; he presses Steve onto the quilt on his back. The zippers of his motorcycle jacket drag over Steve’s bare skin. Steve unzips it and sticks his hands inside to splay his fingers over Bucky’s chest, his sides, the meat of his back. He digs in with his fingertips and Bucky groans again like he’s overwhelmed. He rests his forehead against Steve’s cheek for a second and just breathes. He sits back on his heels again and pulls the jacket off, then the t-shirt beneath it; his thick arms flex overhead and Steve feels a bright, terrifying wave of arousal that’s so intense it almost blanks him out. He can’t imagine what kind of stupid face he’s making. Whatever it is, it makes Bucky stare down at him with something like surprised tenderness. He leans over with his metal hand resting on the bed by Steve’s ear.

“You like this,” he says, and draws a finger across his flesh shoulder, down across his chest, pointing at himself, circling the muscular curves down to his ribs. Steve’s cock jerks in his shorts like Bucky’s pulled his strings. Bucky smiles, but then his eyes flick over to his other arm, planted by Steve’s face. “And this is,” he says, like it’s a question that he can’t quite finish. There’s something shy about it, even in his utterly unselfconscious nakedness.

“Christ, yeah,” Steve says, automatically, fervently. He tilts his head and kisses Bucky’s metal wrist. It’s warm from where he was holding Steve. Bucky’s eyes widen a fraction. “I like you. I just like you.” Bucky leans down and kisses him softly, almost chastely, and then he lowers his head and gives Steve’s pebbled left nipple an exploratory lick. “Fuck,” Steve hisses, and he can feel Bucky’s mouth smiling against his ribs. He nibbles the flesh over Steve’s stomach—curiously, like he’s wondering at the taste, the feel of it—and Steve squirms and knocks into him, and then they’re almost sliding off the bed. They’re both too big to fit across it. “C’mere,” Steve says; he rolls over and tugs them up to lie properly across the mattress, legs tangled together. For a few seconds there’s just fumbling: Bucky elbows him a little and Steve’s knee goes into Bucky’s soft inner thigh, but after a second it’s working again, it’s good—it’s better than good when they find a slow, grinding rhythm, when Bucky’s holding him by the hips to move them together. He’s still in his jeans and Steve’s in nothing but shorts; his dick’s tenting the fabric and almost poking out of the waistband, straining up and starting to trail a wet spot on the front. Bucky palms him and Steve’s leg jerks and the bed frame creaks, loud as a cry. Steve freezes and puts both his hands over Bucky’s to stop him, which Bucky misreads as encouragement. He bears down a little harder and Steve almost comes in his pants right that second. “Somebody could—” he starts, and Bucky puts his flesh hand over Steve’s mouth.

“Shh,” he says. He grins, and his other hand strokes up Steve’s cock through his shorts, once, twice, three times and that’s it, Steve arches up and grabs Bucky’s arm and comes and comes and comes. He doesn’t drift, not exactly: his body stays right where it is, locked up and shaking and pressed safely under Bucky’s firm, warm weight. It’s just his mind that shoots out of reality for a second, so briefly it’s almost like he imagines it: starbursts and cascade waves, the overwhelming, yawning pull of the void, and then he’s falling like a shooting star, tumbling back into his flesh while he pants and sweats and Bucky kisses his throat sloppily.

“Bucky,” Steve says; his voice sounds hoarse for some reason. “Bucky, oh God.” He feels like he’s been scraped across the galaxy.

“Mm,” Bucky agrees, understanding him somehow, easily. He runs his hand through Steve’s hair, fingernails in Steve’s scalp, and Steve’s dick gives a final, spasmodic little twitch in his shorts as his spine goes limp. Steve pulls him down and kisses him and Bucky opens his jeans, unzips and pulls himself out. He’s red and thick and so wet at the tip he’s already glistening; Steve wraps a hand around him. He’s hot as blood and heavy in Steve’s palm, he’s making the most wonderful held-in moans. Bucky leans over Steve and lets Steve jerk him, lets Steve talk broken, helpless, breathy nonsense into his ear about how beautiful he is, how much Steve loves him, Christ, God Almighty, how Steve never dreamed he’d want this, how this is all Steve’s ever wanted—and Bucky’s hips stutter forward a couple of times, he fucks Steve’s fist with his flesh hand clasped around Steve’s fingers, and then he comes across Steve’s stomach in long ropes.

The mess doesn’t seem to bother him; when Bucky’s done twitching he just drapes himself over Steve’s side like a blanket and his softening cock drools a little down Steve’s pelvic bone. He mouths a lazy, unfocused kiss on Steve’s chest and closes his eyes. Steve wipes his sticky hand and stomach off with the undershirt he discarded, then rubs Bucky with it too, trying not to get anything on the rumpled quilt. Jesus, imagine having to bundle that up for the wash and explain to Bucky’s mother—and there, that’s the most effectively unerotic thought he’s ever had in his life, and it crushes the halfhearted second erection that was beginning to stir under Bucky’s weight.

Steve stares at the ceiling and brings both his arms up to cradle Bucky against him, puts his cleaner hand in Bucky’s hair and rubs absently, petting the longer hair into place along his neck, down his spine. Bucky hides his face in Steve’s armpit and tightens his grip around Steve’s waist.

“Bucky,” Steve says.

“Don’t talk,” Bucky says, into his skin. “I don’t want to talk.”

“Okay,” Steve says. He kisses the top of Bucky’s head and Bucky relaxes against him, sags down completely like a carpet of stones, like he’s been holding himself tight too long. “You want to get some rest?”

“Yes,” Bucky says. He’s still got his face tucked firmly into Steve’s side. When Steve starts to roll up, so Buck can take the narrow bed for himself, Bucky doesn’t let go. “Like this?” he says. His voice is muffled, but Steve can hear the faint note of hesitation in it.

“Sure, Buck,” Steve says, and settles down to hold him.

After a while Bucky’s breathing evens and slows, his mouth parts slightly and his limbs drape over Steve bonelessly. He’s really out. Steve tries to focus on the low sounds he makes, the feeling of his lungs filling up against Steve’s ribs. Every so often his feet twitch and brush their toes against Steve’s soles. Steve’s not sure if he feels—different. If he should. This was—this was everything he ever—God, he hopes it wasn’t wrong, he hopes Bucky doesn’t—if Bucky felt obligated, somehow, if he thought Steve—because Steve would rather die than hurt him. Bucky makes a low, distressed sound in his sleep and Steve brushes his hand across his naked back in soft circles until he settles again. Steve shuts his eyes and sees the hazy echoes of light behind his eyelids that everybody sees; if he focuses he can picture the space between the worlds, fathomless and pinpricked with distant constellations. He tries to think about the knot in the tree but the picture won’t come again. Instead he can see himself, his hands, pushing through space like it’s water, making ripples that roll outwards unendingly. He dips his hands and feels the universe slide off of him in droplets, and he dives into the current, lets himself be taken, and suddenly, inexplicably, Bucky is there—Bucky bathed in golden light, surrounded by strands of gold thread so fine they are like spider silk; Steve runs his hands through Bucky’s radiance, tangles his fingers into the threads and weaves them between his knuckles, and—

wakes up.

He sits bolt upright in bed, bare-chested and disoriented; he’s alone, and there’s pale dawn light coming in around the curtains. He glances at the floor: Bucky’s jacket is gone, but his t-shirt is draped over the end of the bedpost. Steve’s dirty undershirt is missing. Steve swings his legs up to stand and his shorts bunch and stick to him uncomfortably. He has to grit his teeth and yank them off; he manages not to make a sound when some of his short hairs come along. There’s nowhere to put them, hide them, that wouldn’t—in the end he has to stuff them into the pocket of his own jacket, feeling like the worst kind of degenerate. He pulls his pants on, and Bucky’s t-shirt, and stands in the room staring at everything like it’s a strange wilderness. He couldn’t possibly have been sleeping, could he? Steve opens the door a fraction, then goes into the hall. Winnie’s door is still shut. He goes down to the kitchen and puts the kettle on, for lack of anything better to do. His eyes feel weirdly crusted over. He rubs it away, stinging a little. He hasn’t done that in years. His head feels heavy and light at the same time, his body feels strangely awake: the muscles in his legs feel tight until he stretches out from his ankles, and then they feel loose and good and re-strung like bows. He reaches overhead and pops his back gently and breathes in deeply from his diaphragm.

If not for the—reminders, he thinks. If not for those, he might have dreamed it, all of it. Jesus, dreaming. He's been dreaming. He dreamed. He goes into the bathroom to look at himself in the mirror, but he looks normal, he looks the same. He doesn't know what else he could have expected. If Bucky left any marks on his neck they’re gone already; there's a little indent on his face from the pillow, but that's it. Steve runs his hand along his throat and feels a phantom flush of delight, of—lust, maybe, for the feeling of Bucky’s hands on him. He can’t really believe it happened. He shakes himself a little, snaps himself out of it. He can’t think about it. Can’t wear it on his face. Can’t ever. Not just for his sake, but for Bucky’s. Nobody can ever know that he’s like this. They’d think—they’d think it was the procedures, the torture, they’d think he was broken somehow, made wrong. They would never understand. Nothing in Steve’s entire life has felt less wrong. He feels, instead, like a jigsaw puzzle that’s finally half-done: no longer just a pile of pieces, but a picture coming into shape.

“Steven?” Winnie calls.

She’s standing on the stairs in a dressing gown, blinking. He goes to her and holds out his hand and she takes it for the last few steps. “I shouldn’t have taken that pill,” she says, shaking her head, and looks up at him anxiously. “It always—I did so want to hear if he came in. Do you think he did? Did you see anything?”

“I—yes,” Steve says. “He was here. He left before—you got up.” Winnie puts a hand on his arm, and he tries not to tense. Get it together, he tells himself.

“Did you speak to him?” she asks. Steve nods and she clutches him tighter. “What did he say?”

“He said he’s remembering you,” Steve says. “He’s remembering home.” Winnie makes a little noise and sags; Steve catches her and holds her close, one arm around her shoulders.

“Lord Jesus,” she says, towards the ceiling. She turns back to Steve and her face is kind, concerned.

“Are you alright?” she says. “It must have shocked you, the first time. You still look shocked,” she says, and reaches up to pat his cheek. “Are you alright, Steven?”

“Fine, ma,” he says. He squeezes her shoulder. “Just fine.”

 

.

Chapter Text

“Okay,” Howard says. “New plan.”

They’re gathered around the benches in the lab, Peggy and Howard at one end, Gabe and Steve on the left, Jim and Kochalski and Brewer on the opposite side. Dugan’s standing at the far edge, looking like a man who’s been hollered at all morning and still isn’t sure it’s not about to start up again any minute. He keeps casting sidelong glances at Peggy, who is resolutely ignoring him like he's a beetle.

“We could hit every base and still never find Zola,” Peggy says. “Targeting one site at a time lets them stay a step ahead.”

“And so, voilà,” Howard says, and pulls the lid off a small crate; inside are a series of what look like unmarked fire alarm boxes. Jim opens his mouth to say something, and Howard shoots him an intense glare. “Of course, to the lay idiot these look like common fire alarms.”

“They’re cameras,” Peggy says. She takes one out of the crate, flips it over, and depresses a series of tiny latches. A panel pops open, revealing a tiny camera set amidst an even smaller array of gears and knobs. “Set on timers. One photograph every hour for fifty hours. If they’re put in several places, we’ll start to get a more complete picture of the comings and goings. We can begin to observe their movements, their rotations. Maybe capture images of key players, if they're in the right place at the right time.”

“The camera units are easy to swap out,” Howard says. He plucks the box from Peggy’s hands, presses his thumb at one side of the camera and drops it out into his palm, then sets it back into place with a click. “Less than thirty seconds to take it off the wall, swap the camera, and put it back. So if nobody catches you at it, surveillance can be more or less continuous.”

“When you say you,” Steve interrupts, pointedly. Howard shrugs.

“That’s the tricky part. We’ve got one shot to get these in undetected, and it happens to be you. You’d need to shift into the base, plant the cameras in key locations, and shift out again without being seen. Retrieving the negatives would be the same drill.”

“Sounds like a lot of variables,” Gabe says. “The last base had closed-circuit surveillance.”

“I thought you’d bring that up,” Howard says, pointing at him. He pulls a suitcase out from underneath the table and Jim rolls his eyes, mutters something under his breath to Brewer that sounds like an unflattering comment on amateur magicians. Howard opens the case, pulls out a webwork of circuits and coated wires that looks like an extremely uncomfortable set of suspenders. “Signal jammer,” he says. “Portable, goes where you go. It’ll work on their security systems, video monitors, radios, the whole shebang. You’ll essentially be invisible to anything that isn’t a set of human eyes.”

“Something like a Faraday cage?’ Steve asks, and Howard’s head swivels slowly around towards him, his face wearing a look of dawning, demented glee. Steve frowns. “I pay attention in here, Howard,” he says.

“Well, apparently,” Howard says, still grinning. “But no, not exactly. A Faraday cage would block signal. This’ll disrupt the feeds entirely.”

“Okay,” Steve says. He takes the contraption from Howard’s hands and drapes it across his shoulders, buckles it at the waist and across the chest. It’s bulky and strange but not too obstructive; he swings his arms from side to side a little and the whole thing flexes with him. “Okay.”

“You’d be on your own,” Peggy says. “In and out.”

“And no witnesses,” Howard says, without looking at Steve. He’s fiddling with one of the cameras, getting it packed back into the crate. “They see you, they see these, and it’s back to the drawing board.”

“I understand.”

“What about us?” Dugan says. He nods at Jim and the others. “I ain’t got magic powers, but I sure as hell don’t want to hang around waiting.”

“In your condition a little rest might do you good,” Peggy says, dryly. But her eyes flick down, and her smile turns up. “Don’t worry, Timothy. I have something in mind for you.”

“Please say it’s shooting at Nazis.”

“It’s shooting at Nazis,” says Peggy.

 

 

 

 

Steve shifts in stages, from New York to the eastern coastline of Nova Scotia, from there to a point just outside of Reykjavik. He studied the atlas before going, memorized the map of the terrain for each point he has to hit. In addition to the handful of aerial photos they managed to scrape together Peggy found him a set of photography books printed by National Geographic, to help him anchor himself in his head before each shift. He doesn’t know how far he can shift at once; he made it to California in one stride without any trouble, but he’d rather not discover his limit crossing over the Atlantic. When he lands in Iceland it’s dusk and the light is disappearing over the far side of the mountains; he tilts his head back and inhales like he’s drinking clear water. He shifts to Norway from there, to the Oslomarka woods outside the capital, a place he only knows from picture-postcards. He startles a herd of deer grazing at the edge of the forest and they flick their tails up and scatter away from him, slipping between the trees. There are four bases on his list tonight: one north of Moscow, the other east of Novgorod, the Siberian base above Lake Baikal that Bucky refused to talk about, and one west of Minsk. He’ll start with Minsk and work his way over. He told Peggy that was the logical progression, but it’s not the only reason he wants to hit Siberia last. He’s not sure what he’s going to find there. He doesn’t think it’s going to be good.

From Oslo he lands by the side of the Krylava Reservoir; his boots sink into the marshy sand at the edge, where the water’s lapping quietly. He trudges through the scrub forest towards the road and orients himself east, then shuts his eyes to focus on the exact longitude and latitude. He pulls the map apart in his head and sinks into it, tries to imagine himself dropping through the paper and ink like he drops through the veil. It’s a struggle for a second, without a sensory hold to cling to, but he makes himself relax, lets the shift pull him through. He knows where he has to be. He just needs to let himself go, let himself slip between the currents of here and there. He lands in a crouch between two pine trees and lets his eyes adjust: he’s at the low point of the valley, just above a rambling stream. He can see a stone building set halfway up the hill. It looks like a medieval manor—a monastery, maybe—that’s crumbling at one end. But the other end has scaffolding set against the side, and worn sheets of canvas flapping slowly in the breeze. Steve shifts up the hill to crouch below the wall and glance around the edge; there are tire marks and footprints in the dirt road leading up to the reinforced wooden gate. Not archaeologists, from the look of the boot treads.

He uses the shadows to creep along the perimeter wall, and freezes when he hears distant voices from above, two men in conversation. He tilts his head up and sees a flare of a cigarette being lit and a puff of smoke blown out, dark against the fading orange sunset. They move along after a second, and Steve shifts up to where they were just standing, keeps low against the upper wall. The base is laid out in a long half-circle, with roll-down bays that lead into the side of the hill. There are two entry doors with glowing keypads below, and a handful of guards loading a truck parked in the center of the yard.

Steve clicks the switch on his vest, which he’s got hidden under a black tactical jacket. He can actually feel the moment when it starts to work, like an itch that raises the small hairs on the back of his neck. It feels like static from rubbing socked feet on a rug. Down below, one of the guards says something into his radio, then taps the radio with the flat of his hand. He motions to the rest to keep working, then heads for the access door on the far side. Steve shifts down to the courtyard, to a spot behind a stack of empty pallets. He creeps along the wall to the opposite access door and waits, listening. There’s no movement behind it, no footsteps. This is his moment. He takes a breath and drops out of the world and slides back in on the other side of the door.

He’s alone.

He plants a camera unit on the wall parallel to an actual security alarm on the opposite side, facing the access door. They look almost identical: two nondescript grey boxes with a forward-facing speaker and colored buttons. He’ll be surprised if anyone gives them a second glance. Steve moves through the hall quickly and puts his ear to the next security door. Staying low, he shifts inside and finds himself in a dark storage room filled to the brim with dozens of crates and equipment lockers. The room smells like sawdust and there are hammers and nails lying on the floor around the last crates: whatever they’re doing, they’re doing it in a hurry. He pulls two camera units from the bag on his back and stops in front of one of the crates, lifts the lid up a fraction. It’s packed with a layer of foam, and beneath the foam is what looks like a huge, sleek, complicated power cell, with angular electrodes and glass tubing running along both sides. On impulse Steve plucks a tiny camera from an alarm casing and sticks it under the lip of the power cell’s housing; it’s got the same slightly silvery look, almost like the camera is just another slider to lock the tubing into place. When he packs it back into the foam it’s completely hidden.

The base is smaller than Maine, and considerably smaller than Virginia; he’s able to make his way through most of the complex in less than half an hour, planting a handful of camera units in discreet places as he goes. More than once he shifts directly into a storage closet to avoid guards passing in the hall; he waits in the total darkness and listens to them complaining in a language he doesn’t know, while their radios squawk and spit static. Howard is really very good at what he does.

He shifts out into the woods and checks his bag; nineteen units left, out of twenty-six. It’s going to be a long night.

 

 

 

 

At the sprawling, labyrinthine complex outside of Moscow, Steve loses his way for a moment: he heads left instead of right, and runs straight into a pair of guards who are more shocked than he is. They don’t have time to raise their guns or their voices; Steve grabs them both by the front of their uniforms and drags them swiftly into the void and lets go. It’s barely more than a second, and then he is back on his feet in the hallway with his fingers still outstretched. He keeps going, stalking through the base on silent feet, repeating to himself inside his head I had to I had to I had to. He plants nine cameras in Moscow, one of them trained on the glass wall of a control room inside the experimental wing. There’s an empty room with old rust-colored stains seeping through fresher paint, and a bank of switches and levers on the other side of the shatterproof window. All the technicians are clustered in another part of the laboratory wing, working nonstop on a series of tiny devices that look like miniature versions of the power cell Steve saw in Minsk. He watches them through the slitted cover of an air vent and leaves another camera in place when he goes. Novgorod is little more than a transit station, squat cinderblock buildings and garages full of pallets and trucks. But like Minsk and Moscow, there’s signs of growing activity. Everywhere Steve goes they’re gearing up for something, loading crates and writing on clipboards. He puts a couple of the extra cameras into the crates and tucks them under the headlights of the trucks when he can; if nothing else, it might help them track the wider network. They’re obviously about to go on the move, but the question is where. They’re energized, focused, walking quickly and shouting orders briskly, an army of Nazi ants scurrying around in their tunnels.

The Siberian base, by contrast, is full of ghosts and snow and rocks. There’s not much else. It’s a series of long wooden bunkhouses that are mostly empty; some of the doors and window shutters are hanging off their hinges, snapping against the walls in the wind. It was a gulag camp once, he thinks. During the war. There are still worn-out pairs of leather shoes and old ratty straw mattresses piled inside some of the shacks, frozen solid and covered in mouse shit. But buried at the far edge is an underground bunker with a series of access hatches, like vault doors leading into the ground. There are a couple of older guys in uniforms sitting on stools by the main hatch, inside the first sublevel. They’ve got their rifles leaned up against the wall, and they’re playing cards and passing a bottle back and forth. Their radios squeal a little when Steve passes by in the opposite corridor, but neither of them even look up from their game. The whole base, it seems, has mostly outlived its usefulness to its owners. They haven’t even bothered replacing light bulbs: he has to use a flashlight when he’s past the main corridor. The security tech is outdated; no cameras or keypad locks here, nothing beyond a simple bank of monitoring equipment in what looks like the medical wing. Medical, Jesus. That’s not exactly the word for it. There are rusted bone saws and clamps hanging from a pegboard on the wall, but all the tables and gurneys have been taken out. The hallways and storage closets are empty. The first sublevel is barracks and a surgery and training facilities; aside from the usual heavy equipment there’s a huge cage in the center of the floor with two D-rings bolted into the concrete. The floor is mottled with old stains. It’s big enough for bear fighting. Or for men.

The lower level is more cages. The lower level—the lower level is like descending into hell. There is nobody down there, and so there is nobody to see Steve bend over and put his hands on his knees and retch into an open drain. This is the place. Steve knows it; he can feel the horror leaking from the walls. It’s like touching the void.

This is where they broke him.

At the end of the complex there’s an incinerator with a big smokestack that leads aboveground; Steve swings the hatch open and peers inside. It looks like it’s been years since it was fired, but there are still bone fragments, white slivers mixed into the dust. Some of them have twisted bits of metal fused on, evidence of failed experiments like the boy in Maine. Steve clicks his flashlight off and stands in the pitch dark for a while and listens. There’s a slow drip from a crack in the wall. But otherwise there’s silence, compressive silence that crushes down on his body, squashes in against his eardrums. It makes him hyper-aware of his own breathing. There’s not even much of an echo: the rooms are flat and squat and the walls dampen everything, eating the sound. If he stayed down here long enough, he might lose his mind. Might forget how not to be a frightened animal begging for air, for light. The ceiling feels like a block lying on his chest. The darkness is not soft or living or pricked with stars; it’s not velvet, formless, depthless, like true night. It is flat, and blank, and dead.

Steve shifts aboveground and stands in front of the row of hatches that lead below. And one by one he turns them until they’re tight, tighter, tightest; he takes the bars and jams them through the hinges and twists them off into a knot. The metal screams in his hands and then is still. Against the wind, it takes a second for Steve to hear the banging. Confused at first, and then frantic. The scraping sound of someone trying to turn an impossibly jammed lock, and then giving up and hammering against the hatch with their soft human fists. They’ll try the others in a moment. They’ll run back and forth for hours, looking for something to pry the doors off with: crowbars or picks, saws. Grenades. They might not find any. But they’re the ones who built a tomb.

He shifts back to Oslo, traces his steps back to Iceland, Nova Scotia. He lands in New York and leaves his empty bag and Howard’s clunky vest in the lab, draped across the bench; a couple of Howard’s assistants try to talk to him but he brushes them off. He ought to make a report but he can’t at the moment. He can’t. He doesn't want to. When he leaves, Brewer’s in the hall. He sees Steve and their eyes meet for a second. Whatever’s in Steve’s face makes him nod, and turn, and go without saying anything.

Steve shifts to his own apartment and lands in the middle of the living room rug, in the spot where he keeps thinking he’ll put a coffee table. Something plain, maybe with a little drawer to hold magazines. He’s been thinking that on and off for about six years. He’s never gotten around to it. He doesn’t actually subscribe to any magazines. He goes into his bedroom and strips his shirt and pants off, drops his shorts into his laundry basket. Pads into the bathroom and takes a shower. He scrubs his scalp and his face, his hands; it takes him a long time to feel clean. There’s no towel on the rack when he pulls the curtain open, so he has to walk into the hall and find a clean towel in the closet. He can’t remember the last time he did laundry. Steve goes back into his room and gets dressed again, and goes into the kitchen. All the food in his refrigerator’s spoiled: rotten apples in the crisper and curdled milk in the door shelf. The butter is probably okay. He has stale All-Bran flakes on top of the cabinet, so he eats that out of the box with his hands until the sick ache in his stomach is less clenching, dulled. He drinks two glasses of water and goes out to his living room and sits on the sofa in the dark with his knees drawn up. When he was smaller he could wrap his arms around his knees and bury his face in them; now that he’s all muscle it’s a little harder, a little more awkward to curl up into himself. There’s more of him, and yet the parts he has are further away. After a while he gives up and lies down and turns his face into the back of the sofa, breathes into the cushions and tries to will himself to relax and settle, to go soft and calm the way he did with Bucky. Tries to remember how warm it was with the two of them pressed into that narrow bed, Bucky’s exhales hot against his side and his hand tucked into Steve’s armpit. But it’s no good. He lies awake and doesn’t dream. In about forty-eight hours he needs to do this all over again.

All his jars of beach sand are lined up neatly across the room on shelves, glistening a little with reflections from the streetlights outside. For the first time they strike him as morbid, even pathetic. Grotesque hourglasses overflowing with wasted time. They used to be comforting. Right now he wishes they were all in a closet somewhere, buried in cardboard boxes. He doesn’t want to look at them.

It’s just after seven in the morning when his phone rings; Peggy, at home by the sound of things. There’s bright, childish laughter in the background. For a second it swells him with a tiny balloon of happiness to hear all of their voices calling over each other. He doesn’t know if they’re all still camped at Howard’s. Maybe it was foolhardy to come back here, to his own apartment, but if Steve is being honest with himself, it’s probably the last spot anyone would expect him to be. It’s nowhere. It’s not work, and it’s not home: that word never crossed his mind here. Home was the Barnes brownstone, sometimes, or Gabe and Peggy’s garage, when he was feeling especially good and present; once in a while he almost felt that way about Howard’s garish Italianate summer villa on the shore. Mostly, though, home was somewhere gone. Not a place, but a time, and a time that had passed.

“You didn’t make a report last night,” Peggy says.

“Sorry.” Steve rubs at the kink in the back of his neck. The sofa isn’t a long-haul prospect, no matter how straight your spine is. “I can head in now.”

“I’m not calling to chide you,” Peggy says. “I want to know if you’re alright.”

“Fine.”

“I know you have your pride,” Peggy says, gently; low, so that nobody on her end can hear. “But you don’t need to hide things from me. Not from me.”

Yes I do, Steve thinks. From everyone.

“I’m just tired,” he says.

“That’s not usual, is it?” Peggy sounds surprised. “You don’t—”

“No. But the other night I managed. And everything since has been a little, I don’t know. I don’t actually need to sleep.” He scrubs at his face with his free hand. “I can’t tell if it’s my body that’s tired, or just—everything else.”

“Ah,” Peggy says. He can hear a child shouting in the distance, and Gabe’s voice answering calmly. “The cameras won’t be ready to swap for another day and a half,” she says. “You should stay home until then. Take a rest.”

“I don’t need it.”

“You haven’t stopped pushing since the bridge,” Peggy says. “You’ll burn yourself out.”

“Not sure I can.”

“Well, I’m sure you can. And it’s a risky proposition for all of us if you do.” Peggy sounds like she’s frowning. “If you need any more persuading, here it is: I’m ordering you to take the next thirty hours off. If you come into the office I’ll have security escort you out.”

“I’ve seen our security,” Steve says. “It’s not much of a threat.”

“Pretend for a moment that I am in charge here,” Peggy snaps.

“Yes, ma’am,” Steve says, subdued.

“Thirty hours,” Peggy says, and hangs up on him.

 

 

.

Chapter Text

Steve empties his refrigerator into the trash can and wipes the counters down and sweeps his floors and scrubs out the bathtub; it eats about forty-five minutes of his mandatory, unwanted thirty-hour furlough. He doesn’t bother trying to go back to sleep. Instead he pulls a jacket on and goes to Winnie’s house. On foot this time; another twenty-three minutes shaved off his total.

He doesn’t know why he still lives in Brooklyn. Why he chose this, back when it hadn’t mattered to him at all: Brooklyn couldn’t fix him. It hadn’t. He still barely even knows his neighbors. At first he’d taken the apartment Peggy suggested, a place in Manhattan that was close to headquarters, but he’d ended up on the beach every week, sometimes twice. He could never remember where it was he lived: he’d go out to get a sandwich or a pair of pants and find himself standing on a streetcorner staring up at the sides of high-rises whose shapes swam away from him, blurred into nondescript sandstone cubes. And then he’d get angry with himself and crumple the bag he was carrying and usually that was enough to send him sliding through reality, into another long afternoon of sheepishly taking the Long Island railroad back and wondering when he was going to be right again. Brooklyn had seemed like the natural place to be after that, if he was going to be anywhere: if he was going to be a walking ghost forever he might as well haunt familiar halls. But part of it seemed like an admission of failure—no, not failure, not exactly. More like falsehood. Part of it seemed like a lie. Captain America goes back to Brooklyn. Homecoming! Empty suit returns. In the first few years he hadn’t belonged in Brooklyn any more than he’d belonged on earth.

Listen to yourself, Steve thinks. Give it a rest. Give it a rest. He stands at Atlantic and waits for the light to change, watching cars go by, bicycles, women with strollers. The air is warm already, bordering hot, even at this early hour; it already smells faintly like gasoline and damp sewer. It doesn’t bother him at all. It’s oddly reassuring after Siberia, after the cold stench of fetid water and rot beneath stone. It smells alive here. There’s a group of girls in ponytails waiting on the opposite side of the street, talking loudly and elbowing each other and swinging their bags carelessly. Nobody looks at Steve twice, in his drab boxy coat. Sometimes somebody does: he’s given autographs to children and posed for photographs with tourists a few times. Once or twice somebody’s saluted him, which he makes himself smile at, even though he would rather nobody ever did it again.

The plainclothes agent is pretending to read the paper in his car across the street when Steve goes up Winnie’s front steps and rings the doorbell. Whoever the guy is, he’s well-trained enough not to nod or make any sign. That’s something. Steve hears hard-soled shoes in the hall, and then Rebecca opens the door.

“Steve,” she says. “Mama said you might come by.”

Winnie’s in the kitchen nursing a cup of tea; she smiles up at Steve and pushes a plate of gingersnaps across the table. He helps himself to two and sits down, and Rebecca moves to the sink to fill the kettle again. She’s in a crisp blouse and linen skirt, with a matching suit jacket draped over one of the chairs. She must have stopped off before work. Her hair’s sculpted on top but coming loose at the back of her neck, like she’s been worrying it. She used to sit in church and twirl her hair around her fingers obsessively, unconsciously, until Winnie gave her a bracelet to fiddle with or a piece of paper to fold. He’d forgotten about that. But he can see it again now, vividly, the twist of her curls; he can almost feel the chill of sitting in the nave. The muted, familiar awe of staring up into the great arches with his head leaning back against the pew. She was three grades above them, popular, excelling in math while they all floundered; tall and dark-eyed and quietly reserved like her father, where Bucky was open and forthright like his mother, with light eyes that silently laughed. Once upon a time Steve had thought he might grow up and marry ‘Becca, if she didn’t mind how short he was always going to be. He’d thought he might marry her and be Bucky’s brother for real, forever, live in the same house and never be apart again, ages before he realized what wanting that might mean.

“You’ll never guess what he’s been taking,” Winnie says, sounding delighted. Rebecca gives her an unreadable look over her shoulder, one that only Steve catches. “Fifth Avenues.”

“The candy bar?”

“I had one in the tin there,” she says, and gestures towards the counter. “I put two more in yesterday night and they were both gone this morning. They were always his favorite. I’m going down to the Woolworth’s to clean them out. I’ll put a Fifth Avenue on every shelf in the house. Imagine!” She laughs, and Rebecca thumps the kettle down onto the stovetop a little harder than she might.

“Steve,” Rebecca says. “Can I talk to you?”

“Sure.”

Rebecca leads him down the hall into the parlor, and then turns her back to the window with her arms folded across her chest.

“I don’t know how to ask this,” Rebecca says. Her eyes are sharp and her mouth is pulled into a thin, unhappy line. It’s like the face Bucky used to make when he was going to say something Steve wouldn’t want to hear: go home and get back to bed, Steve, you look like shit. I’m not saying you gotta keep your mouth shut, I’m just suggesting you don’t open it as wide as you might. Rebecca clears her throat. “Mama’s not—she’s nobody’s fool, but when it comes to— she always hoped. You know she always hoped. But it’s all too strange. You’re—you’re sure it’s him?”

“Becca,” he says. “I’m sure.” Her iron eyes look hurt, suddenly; her whole face looks younger, vulnerable, almost afraid. He sees now that she wasn’t letting herself believe. Easier to think Winnie had retreated into fantasy, maybe; however upsetting that might have been, it was better to brace for a letdown than a real shock. Rebecca the eldest, the pragmatist. He holds his arms out and she comes into them, folds herself against Steve and lets out a sob against his shoulder that’s no louder than a sigh. “I’m sure,” he says. He rubs a circle on her back. Doesn’t say what he might say, what feels like the truth: I’m surer of him than I am of myself. Bucky is the most real thing in the world.

“She told me he’s been—hurt,” Rebecca says, muffled against his chest. “And he’s trying to get better.” She hiccups and leans back and rubs her cheeks a little, wiping at stray tears like she’s embarrassed to have let them slip away. “I assume that’s her way of understating things. Fifteen years, I don’t,” she says. “I can’t imagine.”

“Prefer you didn’t try,” Steve says, mildly. “But I’ve never been able to tell any of you what to do.” He rubs a thumb across her cheekbone and it comes away damp. Rebecca looks up at him with surprise, and he realizes—he hasn’t really touched her, been this close to her, in years. She used to hold his hand sometimes on the way back from the pictures. Maybe she’s remembering that, remembering how Bucky used to pinch both of their elbows on the trolley, slyly, to make them snap at each other until they realized the trick. A smile stretches slowly across her face.

“Huh,” she says.

“What?”

“I should have expected,” she says. “If he came home, you would, too.”

 

 

 

 

Strictly speaking, Jim’s hotel is not the office. It’s a technicality that will only hold water if Peggy doesn’t catch him. Steve knows the address he’s staying at but not the room number, but that doesn’t really matter: he goes through the lobby and gets into the elevator alone, and when the door closes he focuses and shifts. He concentrates on the idea of standing in front of Jim’s door until he is. He knocks, and after a second Jim opens the door and then laughs in his face, clapping him on the shoulder and ushering him in.

“I told you,” Jim says, shutting the door behind them. He’s not talking to Steve: Kochalski and Dugan are sitting around a side table covered in a bunch of folders and binders, with empty paper wrappers that smell like egg and pork fat crumpled beside them on the bed. Jim points to Dugan. “You owe me five bucks.”

“I do not.”

“I said we’d see him in four hours and it’s been,” Jim checks his watch. “Three hours, forty-one minutes. Pay the fuck up.”

“You said three hours.”

“I said four. Did that heart attack blow your eardrums?”

“I don’t owe you a dime, you fancy California son of a bitch. My hearing is perfect.”

“I assume this is normal,” Kochalski says, to Steve.

“For a given value, yes.”

“Peggy think she’s found something,” Dugan says, and hands Steve an oversized binder with classified markings all over the spine. It’s the transcripts from the tapes. It’s marked seven of eight. “In this one right here,” Dugan says, and taps the cover. “We thought you’d want a look at it sooner rather than later.”

“She let you take this out of the building?” Steve asks. Kochalski, Jim and Dugan exchange a look. Strangely, Steve feels himself grinning. “So she’s going to murder all four of us when she finds out about this, instead of just me.”

“You distract her, we'll run,” Dugan says. “Sacrifice bunt.”

“There’s a change in the experimental program,” Kochalski says. “Far as we can tell, in nineteen fifty-seven Zola stops recording notes for almost a full year. When he comes back to it in fifty-eight, he’s shifted operations. The, uh, body modifications,” Kochalski says, and briefly looks away to the papers in his lap, “those change gears. There’s more attempts at—mind control. Coercion. Less emphasis on physical augmentation. And there’s a lot of new protocols for energy field generation.”

“Like the pulse machines they built for me.”

“Yeah,” Kochalski says. He takes the binder and flips through it for a minute, opens it to show Steve a page that’s covered in the margins with Peggy’s fine, indecipherable personal shorthand. “He only figured out the wave settings about a year ago. Before that, according to all the testing notes, those machines don’t work. At all.” For a second Steve can still hear Reed’s voice taunting him from the hallway: Doc’s old designs. So some of that was a lie. They weren’t as ready for him as they pretended to be: Reed spoke as if they’d been lying in wait for half a decade, biding their time. But something happened. Something new. Something is driving things forward.

“Any idea what spurred the change?”

“None so far,” Kochalski says. “Deputy Chief Carter’s listening to the tapes before and after the gap today, to see if there’s anything she can pick up. Voice cues, background noise. There might be something that isn’t indicated on the transcript.”

“And what’s she got everyone else doing?”

“Jailbreak,” Jim says, at the exact moment that Kochalski says, “She’d rather we didn’t—” and Dugan laughs out loud. Kochalski’s face stiffens just slightly, and Jim leans his chair back and steeples his fingers behind his head.

“She thought you’d want to get involved,” Kochalski says, sounding apologetic.

“Yeah, she’s met him,” Jim says.

“It’s about the handlers you and Gibbs took in,” Kochalski says; he flinches minutely after he says the nickname, obviously because he couldn’t stop an ingrained reflex from rolling it off his tongue. Steve pretends not to notice. It’s odd to think of Gibson as having had a nickname at all, something so casually intimate, bordering on diminutive. He hadn’t known it. He would have used it, maybe. Gibson never said. “Officially, they’re still in the custody of the DC office. They were supposed to be shipped to New York for further interrogation. Unofficially, the DC office has effectively been taken over by the CIA.”

“And those guys are acting like pricks,” Jim says. “So I hear.”

“They want the handlers buried,” Dugan says. “They want all of this buried. They’re worried about a potential Russian response.”

“So you’re getting them out, or setting them loose?”

“Peggy leaked the transport plans,” Dugan says. “To a couple of questionable pipelines. Our job is mainly to act surprised when the handoff goes sour, and put up a token resistance. We honestly don’t know if HYDRA will come to get them. But it seems likely. Somebody will either want them back, or want them dead.”

“And depending on who we get,” Kochalski says, “there might be a way to trace back where our information is getting out. The handlers will be wearing radio trackers. Stark’s design, which ought to buy us a little time before they figure out how to disable them.”

“It’s a gamble,” Dugan shrugs.

“Okay,” Steve says. “Good.”

“Good?” Jim echoes, and lands his chair forward onto all four legs again with a thump. “Dum-Dum, translate that for me, is he saying he’s gonna stay behind?”

“I’m not saying that,” Steve says. “Necessarily. I’ll go where I’m needed.”

“You’re saying you don’t want to parachute in over the handoff,” Jim says, deadpan, and Dugan cuffs him across the shoulder. “Ow, fuck, your hands are like paddles.”

“Carter doesn’t want you in on this,” Kochalski says. "It'd have to be against orders." He chews the inside of his cheek a little. Gives Steve a calculating look. “That said, if they figure out the trackers faster than we expect—”

“Then I’m your best chance to pick up the trail again,” Steve finishes, nodding. “Where do you want me?”

“Out of sight, that’s for sure,” Dugan says. “Bait or no bait, nobody’s gonna bite with Captain America sitting in the front of the truck.”

“Would have been fun to see the DC guys’ faces, though,” Jim says. “Apparently, you scare the CIA shitless.”

The handoff between the DC and New York offices is scheduled for just after noon, at an empty warehouse across the river; Dugan says that Peggy made excuses about heightened security measures at headquarters to get them to agree to the location, but if Steve knows her she’s betting on it being a shootout, and wanted them as far away from the city crowds as possible. By eleven fifteen Kochalski and Dugan are waiting with the truck by the loading bay, trying to look casual; Jim’s hidden on the roof of the next building over with a sniper rifle; and Steve’s two buildings further, sitting on an old factory catwalk with the shield on his back and a radio in his hand, waiting for the signal. Gabe’s backup team is sitting in a garage two blocks away with their own radios, twiddling their thumbs. The day’s slithered into a brutal heat, the convoy from DC is running late, and the waiting is beginning to grind on everybody a little. Finally, a few minutes after one, Jim says heads up into the radio and a pair of windowless work vans turn the corner off the road.

“Second van has a mighty big, might fresh-looking scrape across the right side door,” Jim says, narrating quietly into his handset. “Already had company en route, maybe.”

“Second unit into position,” Gabe says.

“They’re pulling in,” Jim says. “Driver’s getting out of the first vehicle. Something feels weird. I dunno, does that guy in the passenger seat look like CIA to you?”

“You’re the one with eyes on him,” Gabe says. “You tell us.”

“I’m a fucking architect,” Jim says. “How the fuck—okay, he’s got a giant scar across his throat, that seems like it’d stand out at the office.”

“HYDRA?” Gabe sounds thoughtful. "Russian?"

“No idea,” Jim says. “I’m good with accents, maybe he’ll order a sandwich.”

“For the love of Chr—Kochalski, what’s the tracker saying?” Gabe asks.

“It’s reading them both,” Kochalski says, low, into the radio. The air around him sounds muffled, like he’s sitting in the cab of the truck. Probably is, to keep the tracking receiver unit out of sight. “The handlers are in the van, or at least their ankles are.”

“Why would they bring them here?” Jim says. “That’s not the fucking CIA, but who the hell else would actually come to the handoff?”

“Somebody else looking for answers,” Steve says. His mind’s racing; he jumps down off the catwalk and starts heading for the warehouse, towards the others. This isn’t what they planned for. This is something else. He should have seen this coming; now all he can do is try to stop all hell from breaking loose. “Stay alert, there’s a third party headed in. This is bigger than we thought. I’m coming to meet you.”

Steve?” Gabe says, after a second of staticky silence. “Is that you?”

“Uh,” says Jim. “No, that was me.”

“You assholes,” Gabe says, angrily, into the radio. “You don’t—” he starts, and there’s the sound of an explosion outside that rocks all the upper-story windows above Steve’s head. He can hear Gabe snap into gear and start calling out commands: “Second unit, move, move!” Steve clips the radio into his jacket and shifts to the truck. He lands to the right of the cab, just in time to pull Kochalski down under the shield. Bullets spray the side of the door; he can hear the heavy burst of Jim’s rifle returning the favor from overhead. Steve and Kochalski duck behind the open warehouse door and Kochalski leans around the side to lay down cover fire for Dugan, close at their heels. The three of them crouch with their backs to the wall for a second while Kochalski reloads. Dugan’s radio squeals.

“Two delivery trucks blocking the driveway,” Jim says. “Gabe, it’s a bottleneck. I’m seeing ten, fifteen guys in— motherfuck,” he snaps, over a barrage of gunfire. He cuts out, and Steve hears the whistle-crack of the sniper rifle again from outside. The radio hums to life again. “Fifteen or so, guys in tac gear. HYDRA’s here,” Jim says.

“Copy,” Gabe says, curtly.

Steve shifts up to the second level and crouches behind an exhaust pipe, looks across to see Jim on the opposite roof lying on his stomach picking off the figures that pop up on either side of the delivery trucks. Steve looks down to see the guy with the scarred throat running between buildings, dragging the older handler along by his cuffed hands. There are three guys chasing him, all in black uniforms and balaclavas. Steve launches himself off the roof, leaps and shifts in midair; when he slings himself back into the world the momentum of the jump carries him like a slingshot into the last guy in the pack and knocks two of them into a heap on the ground. The third guy he misses: he whirls and fires on Steve and the bullets ring off the shield. Steve sprints the half-dozen feet between them and drives the shield forward at an angle, bashing his arm aside and making him fire wildly, then crushing upwards to shatter his jawbone and send him flying backwards. The other two are on their feet already; one of them manages to dodge and grab Steve’s shield arm and knock the air out of him with a solid knee to the gut. Steve doubles over reflexively but clamps a hand around the guy’s arm and rears back to crack a headbutt into the weakest part of his skull. He goes down. The third one has already turned to run after the handler again; Steve catches up to him and drops him with the shield, looking up just as the guy with the scarred throat puts a pistol up to the back of the handler’s head.

“Stop,” he calls. “I’ll shoot.” His accent is heavy, and familiar: he sounds like Bucky did, those first few days. Steve straightens up and stares across at him, cataloguing the angles of the walls. It’s a narrow shot with the shield, but he might make it. The handler is wide-eyed and ragged-looking, one step away from babbling, staring at Steve with fear in his eyes: Steve’s not sure who exactly he’s more afraid of. “Back away.”

“Drop the gun,” Steve says. “Put your hands up.” The guy clicks the hammer back.

“Fucking American,” he says. “You don't understand anything.”

“I understand you’re surrounded,” Steve says. “Put your hands up, keep your life. Simple.” The guy grins at him, wildly.

“My life,” he says. “Ha.” He pushes the handler forward, like he’s surrendering him; but when Steve moves forward to grab him and get him under the shield, the guy shoots the handler unceremoniously in the back of the head. Steve dodges, cursing, and launches the shield at the wall. It snaps back at the perfect rebound to clip the guy in the neck; he drops like a sack of bricks but at the same instant Steve’s tackled from behind by two more guys in tactical uniforms. One of them grabs him by the hair and slams his face into the ground twice; blood sprays hot and irritating into Steve’s eyes. He pushes upwards to shake them off and one of them punches him hard in the spine while the other tries to wrap some kind of strap around his arms; it throws his balance off and he ends up grappling backwards with one of them, punching out with his elbows to connect with their throat. The strap’s still caught around his wrist and the second guy grabs for it, twists Steve back and makes him land with his arm bent under him unnaturally; the small bones in his wrist almost snap. He grunts and the guy kneels on his chest and draws a gun from the holster at his waist.

“Hail Hy—” he says, and then a rifle shot cracks the middle of his forehead into a crater, and he topples backwards across Steve’s knees. Steve shoves his twitching body off and wipes his cheek to look down the alleyway at Jim.

It’s not Jim.

“You,” says Steve, blankly.

It’s Bucky.

Behind them, half a block away, gunfire is still rattling through the corrugated warehouse walls. It sounds like someone hammering futilely away at the shell of a panzer. For a moment Steve forgets himself entirely, forgets everything: he’s on the banks of the Meuse listening to artillery thunder, watching the back of Bucky’s tucked-down head while they hunkered between the trees, thinking to himself, God, whatever else I do, let me protect him. The thought, the force of it, almost carries him away.

“You throw your only weapon,” Bucky says. Steve opens and shuts his mouth without making a sound. He doesn’t know what to say.

Bucky’s in clothes that make him look like a mechanic: a faded army-green jacket and jeans with stained knees. He’s tucked his hair into a short-brimmed cap, and there’s still a dirtied leather glove on his left hand. He’s holding a rifle to his shoulder, an old-looking hunter’s Remington with a torn canvas strap that looks like he got it out of the back of somebody’s father’s closet. He looks at Steve and then at the body on the ground, and there is something terrible in his face, something scraped raw and bleeding. It passes quickly, like a cloud, like Bucky is wrestling himself for control. For stillness. Steve gets up, unwinding the strap from his wrist with a held-in groan, and Bucky lowers the rifle a little, watches him with sudden softness in his face.

“You okay?” Steve asks him, and Bucky gives him a narrow, unsurprised look.

“Am I okay,” Bucky says. He slings the rifle across his left shoulder and stalks forward over the body, grabs the front of Steve’s tactical jacket and peers closely at his face for a second, probably looking for the source of all the blood smeared down Steve’s chin. It’s as intimate as a kiss, though they’re barely touching. Satisfied, he pushes Steve back with the flat of his hand over Steve’s heart.

“Buck,” Steve says, unsteadily. “You—”

“This one’s alive,” Bucky says, turning to toe the scarred guy with his boot. “You want him?”

“Yeah, we need—” Steve starts, and another explosion rockets a piece of one of the delivery trucks upwards in a jet of fire. His radio blares with chatter. He’s torn, but only for a second: Bucky’s already got the rifle back up, braced and ready. He looks at Steve, and his gaze is perfectly even. There’s no fear in him, in the coiled-spring tension of his shoulders. He’s just waiting for what happens next. God, Steve hates himself in this moment. He should tell Bucky to run and never look back. But his heart is pounding too loud. How unbelievably fucking selfish he is. “Buck,” he says. “Can you—grab him, get out of sight?” Bucky doesn’t even bother with an answer, just leans over to haul the guy up by one arm and drape him across his shoulder. “I’ll take cleanup,” Steve says. “You stay out of it. Okay? Stay safe.” He feels like an idiot—Bucky’s not the one with a smashed-up face who let somebody get the drop on him—but Bucky gives him half a smile and then drags the guy bodily towards a loading dock between two stacks of crates, and vanishes behind a set of heavy plastic flaps. Steve grabs the shield and jogs between the buildings; he surprises three more guys in HYDRA gear and dismantles them as quickly and efficiently as possible, his veins thrumming like downed electrical wires. This time he doesn’t make any sloppy mistakes; he’s in and around them like wind, crashing against them furiously. Bucky’s at his back. He doesn’t know how. He only knows he’s got to clear the field. Cut Buck and the rest of them a path out of here. His wrist doesn’t hurt, his arms feel like weightless steel. Steve could fight the fucking Wehrmacht with a toothbrush right now.

He kicks a guy through a wall and meets Dugan and Kochalski again; Kochalski’s been winged in the arm and there’s a ripped-off sleeve tied around his bicep. He looks pale.

“It’s a scratch,” Dugan hollers, but he’s helping keep Kochalski braced up against the side of a panel van. He doesn’t look as happy as he sounds. “Still wouldn’t mind an exit strategy, Cap.”

“You got it,” Steve says. “Sit tight.”

Steve shifts to the roof and finds Jim pinned down behind a skylight frame; Steve locates the shooters and shifts up behind them, spinning into the landing so that the shield knocks them together like bowling pins. One of them stays down; Steve breaks the other one’s knee and pulls the frame of his pistol apart into two mangled pieces.

“Steve!” Gabe calls. Steve swivels and sees Gabe posted behind the remaining delivery truck. The other one’s still burning aggressively about twenty yards away. Steve shifts over and crouches next to him. “Okay,” Gabe says. “I forgive you for showing up.”

“I’m sorry,” Steve says. “Should have—”

“Later,” Gabe says. “How many do you make?”

“That was ten.”

“My team’s got two in custody. Plus three Russians from the vans."

“Dugan and Kochalski are at the far corner,” Steve says, jerking his chin in their direction. “Kochalski’s got a slug in his arm. Can your guys get them out?”

“Yeah,” Gabe says. “You taking perimeter?”

“You know me,” Steve says.

It takes less than twenty minutes for Steve to hunt down three more guys in tactical getups and sweep back and then call the all-clear; at first he stands at the edge of the warehouse block and focuses himself outward, tries to sense rapid heartbeats, to fix himself on the bodies of strangers moving through space. It takes a minute—not something he can do in the middle of combat, not easily, not with any surety—but after a second they start to register at the periphery of his senses, the faint awareness of life that comes sometimes when he least expects it. Steve shifts and startles two of them as they’re trying to barricade themselves into an old office; he grabs them both and drags them hard through the void like rubber bands pulled tight, and when they land in the dirt behind the burning truck they both snap and collapse. One of them pukes. Neither of them fight Gabe’s agents as they swarm over to cuff them. The last one make a desperate charge and Steve drives forward to meet his fists with the immovable center of the shield, shatters every bone in both of the guy’s hands.

And then it’s over.

 

 

 

 

Smoke is rising above the warehouses; local police and fire showed up in a panic a few minutes ago and Gabe is trying to coordinate everybody, which is like asking a herd of badgers to stand in an orderly line. As usual, it takes repeated confirmations from about half a dozen junior agents to get the cops to accept that Gabe is actually the one in charge; Steve likes to stand directly behind Gabe with his arms crossed, frowning over his shoulder, at moments like those. Kochalski and Dugan get piled into an ambulance; Dugan's still insisting it’s a flesh wound that Kochalski’s about to shake off, which for some reason Kochalski seems to find amusing, or maybe just distracting. Jim slips coming down off the roof, but is otherwise fine, and Gabe’s got two agents with concussions and minor burns headed to the hospital in the back of a police van.

“Not a bad day’s work,” Gabe says, when he has a moment to breathe. He raps his knuckles against the shield on Steve’s back. “Your thirty hour vacation isn’t even up.”

“Tell Peggy—”

“Nuh-uh,” Gabe says. He puts his hands up. “No way. You can tell her yourself tomorrow. I’m not getting between that.” Steve ducks his head, and Gabe grins. “Don’t worry. I don’t think she’s gonna be too hard on you, considering.”

He leaves to talk to his remaining team and and Steve only lingers for a second, waits until nobody is watching, then slips between the trucks, shifts back to the corner of the warehouse where he last saw Bucky. He goes through the plastic flaps, follows along the wall under the high windows. There’s a rusted security door left ajar at the far end, and Steve pushes it open. It’s dark in there, cooler than outside. His eyes adjust, and he sees Bucky sitting casually behind a crate, his rifle propped up in front of him like it’s a makeshift bench-rest. It’s a good position. Covered like this and steady, he could drop men as fast as they came through the door. Steve gives himself a second to admire the planning. The Russian guy with the scarred neck is handcuffed to a radiator behind him, awake now: he’s sitting as far away from Bucky as possible, to the point that his arm’s stretched out unnaturally and the cuff is cutting into his skin. His face is rigid, like he’s trying to keep a grip on the terror he feels. When he sees Steve, he visibly jolts. The cuff rattles against the pipe.

“солдат, отпусти меня,” the guy says, to Bucky. His voice is thin with fright, but he still manages to make it sound like an order. Bucky turns to look at him. “убей его!” he says, imperiously. “The American. убей его!” Steve wonders what it means, because it makes Bucky smile. Bucky leans over, still smiling, and the guy shrinks away, but not fast enough: something flashes in Bucky’s fingers, and then he’s burying a short hunting knife in the guy’s cuffed hand and pulling it back again. The guy yelps and then stuffs his other hand into his mouth and bites into the meat of it bluntly; Steve realizes he’s trying to make himself stay silent. He’s seen other soldiers do it. Other prisoners. It makes his gut twist.

“Хуй тебе,” Bucky says, coldly. “вы не давая заказы.”

“Buck,” Steve says. He holds his hand out, palm up. “You don’t have to do this. You don’t have to hurt him.” Bucky gives Steve a flat look. “I just need to ask some questions.” Bucky looks at the guy on the floor, who’s still got his knuckles tight between his teeth, and shrugs. He sits back and gestures at Steve, be my guest.

“You have a name?” Steve asks. The guy releases his hand and stares up; his eyes are boiling with fury. He doesn’t say anything. “You’re Russian military,” Steve says. “I met a lot of Russians in Hungary in 1944. They all hated Nazis.” The guy spits. Steve allows himself a faint smile. “But somehow you ended up in HYDRA.”

“невежественные кусок дерьма,” the guy scowls, and Bucky leans down and grabs him by the throat with his metal hand until his eyes bulge.

“Talk in English,” Bucky says, and releases him. Bucky’s eyes flick up to Steve, almost guiltily, and then go back to watching the doorway behind him.

“What’s a Russian soldier doing in HYDRA?”

“HYDRA are traitors,” the guy says, vehemently. “Fucking bastards. Fuck HYDRA.” It takes Steve a second to process that. Apparently, Gabe’s team wasn’t the only one using the handlers as bait: the Russians intercepted the CIA but brought them to the rendezvous anyway, to get at HYDRA somehow? To draw them out?

“You were working with HYDRA, but they betrayed you,” Steve says. It’s not a question, and the guy doesn’t treat it like one. He stares up at Steve flatly. It’s as much agreement as he needs, to run with this idea. “What did they do?”

“Stole from us,” he mutters. “Fucking traitors.”

“What did they take?”

It’s the briefest glance, firefly-quick and darting, but it gives him away. It gives everything away. The guy cuffed to the radiator looks at Bucky involuntarily and then makes himself look back at the floor immediately. Steve goes still and icy all over, like someone is running cold water along his nerves. Bucky doesn’t look at either of them. His shoulders are stiff.

“Weapons,” the guy says, evasively.

“You were working with Zola,” Steve says, making his voice soft, and the guy’s head jerks up, his eyes widen ever so slightly.

“Swiss fuck,” he says, and swallows hard. “Not anymore.”

“Because he stole from you,” Steve confirms. “He told you the—weapons belonged to you, and then he took them back, is that it?” The guy looks like he’s trying to shrink into himself, but it’s not working. His back is pressed into the radiator hard enough to leave marks. “When was that? When did he start stealing from you?”

“Not long,” the guy says.

“Be specific,” says Steve, through his teeth.

“Nine months ago, maybe. Maybe a little longer. Not long.”

“That’s,” Steve says. “Good to know.” He leans over the guy and snaps the chain of the cuff with one hand, and the guy seizes up like he’s going to scream. He doesn’t. Steve pulls him up by the front of his jacket and looks at Bucky. “I’m going to take him to Gabe,” he says. “Will you wait here?” Bucky doesn’t meet his eyes. He shrugs. “Bucky?”

“I don’t know,” Bucky says. His eyes flash up. They’re pink at the edges. His mouth is a hard line; it gives Steve a strange déjà vu in reverse. He was just watching Rebecca make that face, trapping him in a memory that goes around and around. “I don’t know.”

“Okay,” Steve says. He makes himself smile, even though what he wants to do is beg. “Okay. I’ll come back,” he says. “Just in case.” Bucky nods, after a second. It has to be enough. “See you in a minute,” Steve says, even if he won’t.

Steve shifts with the Russian in his grip, pulls him through the void and doesn’t linger, even though it’s tempting to let him see as much as he wants in there; when he lands at the edge of the clean-up area a couple of agents startle. Steve drops the guy and lets him roll miserably into the sidewalk and groan. He waves to one of the faces he recognizes from headquarters. “One more,” he says, and they come over to haul him upright and snap cuffs onto him. “He’s been stabbed,” Steve says, indicating the bloody hand, and somebody goes to get a field dressing. He shifts back to the warehouse as soon as they’ve got him in custody, but Bucky is already gone. Steve looks inside and out. It’s barely been two minutes, but he’s nowhere. Steve stands in the dark room and looks at Bucky’s makeshift bench, the places where his boots scuffed in old layers of dust.

And then he sees it, scratched into the side of the crate. A crude little symbol. There are flecks of blood at the edge; he must have used the hunting knife.

It’s a pear.

Bucky wants to be followed.

 

 

.

Chapter Text

The safehouse is dark when Steve shifts to the back garden, right into the familiar stand of pear trees; he stands for a minute listening to evening winds lifting all the leaves and setting them back again gently, rustling the world like a silk skirt. The air is humid and heavy and everything smells like drying earth. He ought to water the flowerbeds, maybe. They’re all drooping a little. The rain’s late in coming.

Steve crunches up the gravel path, not bothering to hide his footsteps. It’s fair warning, just in case Bucky’s changed his mind about seeing him. Out of curiosity, Steve walks all the way around the side of the house, towards the front, and stops short at the sight of a handsome-looking blue sedan parked against the hedges. It’s not new, but the paint is still neat and the white-walled tires are only relatively muddy. Steve can almost hear Gabe in his head, narrating approvingly, as he looks it over. It’s got a couple of dings in the front fender on the driver’s side, but other than that it looks like it ought to be parked in the driveway of one of the crisp, boxy little houses in Levittown.

“Buick Roadmaster nineteen fifty-five,” Bucky says, from the top step of the front porch. “Very reliable automobile.” He materializes out of the shadows and leans against the rail on his left hip. “The sign in the windshield said that.”

“Were you standing there waiting this whole time?” Steve asks. Bucky shrugs, blasé, like the very question’s beneath him, and turns to go into the house. Steve follows him up, closing the door behind them. He leaves his shoes on the mat and they go down the hall together, him in socks and Bucky barefoot, walking silently. He wonders where Bucky’s leading him; it turns out to be the kitchen. “Well,” Steve says, watching him take a pitcher of cold water out of the refrigerator, moving self-assuredly like he’s lived here all his life. “You got a head start. I had to debrief for a bit. Think they’re still processing the guys we took in.” Bucky nods, listening, and cuts a lemon in quick slices, drops it into the water. There’s something intentionally easy in his shoulders, like he’s trying to stay loose even with a knife in his hand. Steve wonders if it’s a put-on, if he’s trying to—be somebody. Somebody he’s started to remember. It’s strange to watch him try it on. Not sad, not wrong, quite. Just strange. It makes Steve want to be gentle. Cautious. “Your stolen car’s very nice,” Steve tells him.

“I like nice things,” Bucky says. He’s taking glasses out of the cabinet, but he looks over his shoulder and his eyes scrape up and across Steve like putty knives. It’s the least subtle thing he’s ever done and it leaves Steve hot inside, surprised, like water just rolling into a boil. He wonders if it’s showing in his face.

“You saved my life,” Steve says. “I didn’t even have time to thank you.” Bucky shrugs again but it’s not nearly so nonchalant; his eyes stop hungrily cataloguing Steve’s chest and dart away, flickering over the glasses and the water he’s pouring, but not landing anywhere. He pushes a glass across the table towards Steve and his movements are slightly jerky again, direct and efficient. Steve’s briefly sorry he broke it, whatever spell Bucky was trying to cast. He didn’t mean to spoil anything for him. “You’ve always looked out for me,” Steve says, more carefully. “But I’m sorry you had to—do what you did, today. I don’t want you to have to do that again.”

“I’m not sorry,” Bucky says.

“Buck,” he says. “I’m not saying—”

“Everywhere I looked,” Bucky says, “everything I saw.” He puts a finger up to his own temple abruptly, shaking with—something, with anger, maybe, or with something less focused. Steve can see he’s making an effort to get a sentence out, to have it make sense when it arrives. To pull it together from pieces. Steve understands. He waits, doesn’t interrupt, and Bucky calms a little. “Everywhere I looked, I saw you. You’re in here,” he says, and taps his skull. “I can’t stop seeing you. You think I can just—let go of you, like that? Let you go and throw your shield and let them shoot you? I just got you. I just got you,” he says, desperately, and Steve can’t hear any more: Steve reaches for him and Bucky gets there first, pulls him to his chest and cradles Steve’s face with his flesh and blood hand. He presses his mouth hard and eager over Steve’s, backs him into the counter and makes Steve’s spine bow while he clutches at Bucky’s arms and digs his fingers into the meat and metal. They break apart, but neither of them let go.

“You don’t have to kill anymore,” Steve says, raggedly. “Not for my sake. I won’t ask you for that.”

“You didn’t,” Bucky says.

“I know,” Steve says. He runs the tips of his fingers against the back of Bucky’s neck; his long hair is a little tangled from being under a hat. “But I saw the way you looked at him, after.” Bucky tilts his face away, and Steve squeezes the arm that’s still wrapped around his waist. “I don’t know how you feel, but I know how I feel. It doesn’t feel—good.”

“That’s how you want me to feel?” Bucky asks, in a murmur. “Good?” He shifts a little, makes Steve lift his fingers off Bucky’s neck so that Bucky can turn his face into Steve’s hand. He rests there for a second with his eyes closed and cheek pressed against him, like he’s listening to Steve’s pulse through the skin of his palm. He opens his eyes. Sets his jaw, like he’s chewing an uncomfortable thought. “I’ll do what I have to do,” he says, after a beat. “I decide for me. You decide for you, me for me.” He doesn’t sound hesitant but his eyes are anxious, too wide, like he’s afraid Steve will pull his hand away, push him back. Reject him for this, somehow. For making up his own mind. Steve can’t think of anything he wants to do less.

“Yeah,” Steve says. “Okay, Buck.”

Bucky’s eyes go soft and he leans in again; his kisses are deliberate this time, steadier. The house is moonlit and quiet around them. There’s only the soft sounds that Steve’s making in his throat when Bucky runs a hand down his side, trailing fingers over his hip. Bucky catches the little groan and looks intrigued, keeps going; he cups the meat of Steve’s ass, bolder now, prods him until Steve gets the idea and lifts his knee to hook it around Bucky’s hip. Bucky holds his leg up effortlessly, metal fingers around and under his thigh; he hitches him up to grind against him like Steve still weighs roughly nothing, showing off, and all the blood in Steve’s body feels like it’s instantly hurtling towards his dick. Steve puts an arm around his neck, tilts his hips up further so his cock can rub the tension-hard thigh inside Bucky’s jeans. Bucky works a hand down the back of Steve’s pants to knead him with his flesh hand, and Steve throws his face towards the ceiling and almost comes in his clothes for the second time in only days. “Jesus, Bucky, God,” Steve groans. “Can we—upstairs,” he says, and it’s almost a coherent thought. Bucky drops his leg and gives Steve a feral smile. He pulls his jacket off and drops it on the floor, and then he says,

“Race you,” and shoves Steve backwards gently. Bucky spins on his heel and sprints down the hallway while Steve is still sprawled, flabbergasted, with his elbows bumping the kitchen counter.

“What,” says Steve.

“Losing,” Bucky yells from the hall, and Steve snaps out of it, runs after him. He catches Bucky on the first landing and Bucky wrestles Steve’s button-down shirt off, flings it into the air and watches it land crumpled on the banister. He pulls Steve’s undershirt halfway up, too, like he’s being helpful, and then leaves him like that, arms over his head and fabric tight across his face; Steve can hear Bucky laughing under his breath as he takes the stairs two at a time. Steve feels unbelievably lightheaded. He can’t believe this is happening. It’s—does he remember? Is this him, remembering? Maybe he does: oh, all the games he used to make up. The ridiculous rules he invented and then bent continually; it used to make Steve go nuts catching up, finding shortcuts to winning, to make Bucky cry uncle and laugh himself sick. It was never very hard. God, they used to play.

“Cheat!” Steve calls, muffled by his own shirt. He drags it up and off and leaves it on the second landing, but stops dumbstruck in the doorway at the sight of Bucky, naked now, bending down to pull his scrunched-up jeans off the bottom of his legs. Bucky straightens up and glances back at him, and for a second Steve can’t breathe, just—his body is so beautiful, it was always beautiful, but it’s his face, his eyes, that strike Steve in the middle of his heart. Bucky’s glowing at him, radiating with anticipation. He looks happy. He wants—he wants Steve, he still wants this, he—he’s smiling. He looks happy. Steve can’t breathe. Something inside him has cracked like river ice, and the warm currents are pulling his shell apart, thawing him. All the moving water under his surface has been turned up, turned out, to face the sky. There are no words big enough, strong enough, for what he’s feeling.

“Come on,” Bucky says. He reaches out a hand to beckon him closer, impatiently. Steve kicks his own pants off, slides his shorts down and meets him and twines their fingers together.

“I love you,” Steve says; they seem like such tiny little syllables. Barely anything. Bucky doesn’t look like he minds.

“Tell me more,” Bucky says, and pulls him in.

“I want you,” Steve says, and they roll to the bed together, and Bucky brackets himself over Steve and murmurs, more, more, in his ear, and Steve wraps his legs around Bucky’s waist and says “I want you, God, I want you so much, I want you in me, inside me,” and Bucky’s hips jerk and his cock rubs a wet line against Steve’s stomach. He makes a stunned face.

“You—”

“Sorry,” Steve says, reflexively. He shouldn’t have—there are some things—he doesn’t know the rules. Doesn’t know how far is too far. He’s never been good at that, not in any sense. “It’s okay if you don’t—want to do that.”

“But you do,” Bucky says. He stares down thoughtfully; Steve feels framed like a picture between his corded arms, and can sense his own cheeks going flamingly pink. “You—want me like that.”

“Yeah,” he says, a little embarrassed. “I think I do.”

“You know how?”

“Uh,” Steve says. “Basically.” Bucky smiles, sort of crookedly, holding a bigger smile in check. “Oh my God,” Steve says. “Are you laughing at me? About this?” Bucky answers by leaning down and kissing Steve open-mouthed, slow and careful and sweeter than wine. He rests down on his elbows and presses their stomachs together and kisses Steve until they’re both rock-hard and close to the edge but boneless everywhere else, skin-warm, just starting to sweat; the world is sliding away. Steve feels like a ray of sunlight slowly crossing the floor, inch by luminous inch. “We don’t have to right now,” Steve says, against the corner of Bucky’s mouth. “I just wanted you to know. That I do. That I would.”

“I would give you that, too,” Bucky says, reverently. He’s not teasing anymore.

They take their time; Steve rolls Bucky onto his back and kisses his way down his stomach, rings his cock with finger and thumb and licks the head, takes it into his mouth while Bucky stares and arches up, groaning loud and unashamed. Steve takes him as deep as he can, pulls back and down again to suck him, up to stroke him, until Bucky’s thighs are trembling on either side of Steve’s head. “I’m, please,” Bucky says, and comes with a gasp just as Steve is pulling off to ask what he means. It catches Steve in the face and dribbles down his throat and Bucky looks surprised and apologetic and then guiltily fixated. Steve licks his lips and Bucky’s entire body twitches involuntarily.

“That’s on me,” Steve says, to make him laugh.

Steve comes with two of Bucky’s flesh fingers up his ass, slick with spit, jerking himself rough and desperate while Bucky watches, fascinated, at the place where he’s disappearing into Steve’s body. His metal hand is tight on Steve’s thigh, and the fingers dig into the muscle a little when Steve cries out and spills over his own hand. He keeps fucking Steve for a few seconds after he’s come, in a way that makes everything brighter and sharper and overwhelming, and Steve’s head is pounding in time with his slowing pulse by the time Bucky slips out of him and wipes his fingers on Steve’s discarded shorts. Bucky curls into his side and Steve wraps him up tightly, both arms around his middle, Bucky’s eyes shut and pressed against Steve’s neck. For a while they don’t say anything. For a while they don’t move. The ceiling seems very far away, and the room is quiet, and Bucky is emanating warmth like a hot water bottle, and Steve feels—calm. Safe. Sweat is cooling on his skin, and all the hair on his legs has been rubbed the wrong way and is standing upright, prickly, like it’s been startled. There’s a bruise starting to pink on the inside of his thigh. He wonders how long it’ll last.

He thinks to himself, unbidden, we are alive.

“I want a bath,” Bucky says, drowsily, shifting to scrub at his face with the heel of his hand. “You want a bath? This house has so many bathtubs.”

“Pick us a good one,” says Steve.

 

 

 

 

In the dream he doesn’t remember, later, in the dream that he forgets, Steve is wound in the roots of the tree, encircled by them; they wrap his wrists and ankles and around his waist, cradle his knees and elbows, support his neck so that he can float bonelessly between them, within them. He can feel light in his veins, though he is cocooned in soft wonderful darkness. His feet are cool and the soles of them touch soil, or sky: it doesn’t seem to matter. He is growing into the roots and they are growing into him. When he reaches upwards with his mind he can see the glittering cloud of the universe shining down on all his leaves. He has been small all his life, inside. Alone in his body, one mind hammering the walls. But now he is everywhere, and everywhere is here. There is a voice inside the tree, and it is speaking. Steve can’t hear the words, but he can hear the meaning.

Yes, he thinks, when it hums into a question. Yes, he thinks. I would.

He feels sure.

 

 

 

 

Steve’s woken up in the morning by the sound of the front door being unlocked. Whoever it is, it’s taking them a second to find the right key. For the first moment Steve just registers it and does nothing, thinks nothing; he’s under a sheet, curled up with one arm over Bucky’s waist, and everything in life is good and right and still. He must have slept again last night, comforted to sleep by the even beat of the heart in the body beside him. It feels miraculous. His whole being feels like a piece of slate, heavy and solid and real.

The lock turns, and something inside Steve tumbles into place. Holy shit, Steve thinks, and sits bolt upright. Bucky goes rigid next to him, jerked to awareness, and turns his head to Steve with a silent question in his eyes. He freezes when he hears the jingling keys.

“I don’t know who it is,” Steve whispers. “Stay here.” The door opens and shuts downstairs, and Steve slides out of bed and scrambles to find his pants and pull them on. His shirt—his shirt’s hanging from the front staircase, Jesus Christ, Bucky’s jacket is on the kitchen floor, the entire house is covered in their fucking clothes. How could he have been so fucking stupid? Steve closes the bedroom door and runs down the stairs, grabbing his undershirt off the landing and pulling it over his head. He skids down through the hall and comes into the kitchen just in time to see Gabe bend down and pick Bucky’s jacket up off the floor. Steve feels a wash of dread pass through him like a crossbow bolt, right in his lower gut. He makes himself stand still. Keep his voice down. “Hey,” Steve says.

“Hey yourself,” Gabe says, smiling. He drapes the jacket over a chair. Steve makes himself look away from it. “Peggy asked me to pick you up. I think she wants you hand-delivered this morning.”

“She knew I was here?”

“You weren’t at home. She guessed you might have wandered back.”

“She knows I don’t actually need a ride anywhere, right?” Steve says. He makes his face grin. Gabe gives him a strange look, and then shrugs.

“She knows,” Gabe says. “And anyway, there’s some files, thought you could read in the car. When you’re ready.”

“Sure,” Steve says. “Just give me a minute.” He pads back into the hallway and upstairs, and finds Bucky crouched naked behind the door in the master bathroom, a gun in one hand and a second clip in the other. “Gabe,” Steve whispers. “It’s fine. I’m going to head out with him.” Bucky stands up and gives Steve a mechanical nod. “I’ll—see you?” Steve murmurs. “Back here again?” Bucky glances away like he’s only considering it, but his eyes dart back to Steve too quickly.

“Yes,” he says, quietly. “I’ll come.”

Steve leans in and kisses him on the cheek, tries not to feel devastated by the way that Bucky closes his eyes and turns his face into it. When he goes downstairs he finds his button-up still crumpled carelessly on the floor under the railing. Right where Gabe wouldn’t have missed it. Steve pulls it on numbly, tucks it into his pants, steps into the shoes he left on the mat. He’s not going to think about it. There’s nothing to think about, he tells himself. All a discarded shirt says is: this man’s a slob. Who knows, he might be. He should start leaving things askew at the office. He opens the door and walks down from the porch and freezes for a second mid-stride, because Gabe is standing next to the blue Roadmaster parked against the hedges, running his hand over a little ding in the trim.

“Nice car,” Gabe says. “Bucky’s?”

“Yeah,” Steve says. “Don’t ask where he got it.” Gabe laughs. “He thought he’d stay here for a bit, keep his head down.”

“If you’re gonna lay low anywhere, might as well be Howard’s,” Gabe says, shaking his head. “You know, it took one week—one week, before my kids started to ask me when we’re going to get a movie projector installed at home, just like uncle Howard. I told Peggy she had to start paying me more.” He opens the driver’s side door of his own sedan and climbs in, and Steve breathes slowly through his mouth for a second before doing the same. “Maybe it’s strange to ask this,” Gabe says, “but you think he’ll ever want to see us?”

“The guys?”

“Yeah.” Gabe starts the car and turns them down the driveway, waits for the security gate to slowly open. “I don’t know how much he remembers. Or if it’d just—bring up the war for him, you know. Bad memories.”

“I can ask,” Steve says. “He’s remembering some stuff. His family.”

“That’s good,” Gabe says. “And he’s got you for the rest of it.” He turns them onto the main road and changes lanes. He smiles at Steve, sideways. “If somebody ever tries to strip my memories out, I'd trust Peggy to tell me who I am. If anybody knows it's her, right?”

“Right,” Steve echoes.

"Maybe that's a bad joke," Gabe says. "Don't tell him I said that." There’s silence in the car for a while; Steve focuses on reading the files Gabe brought for him, but the words keep sliding away. He reads the same page three times and can’t remember what it says. He’s got to stop thinking about—nobody knows, nobody suspects, they’ve been friends their whole lives, for fuck’s sake, there’s nothing to assume. They’re fine. They’re absolutely fine. “Steve,” Gabe says, quietly.

“Huh?”

“I just,” Gabe says, and shifts his hands on the wheel. “It doesn’t change anything, okay? Not to me. That’s all.”

The world almost whites itself out, right there on the county road. Steve’s ears pop from the sensation of vertigo, the near-miss of almost sliding out of the world and back again.

“It’s not,” Steve says. “What you think.”

“Steve, you—”

“It’s not what you think,” Steve says, stubbornly. Gabe glances at him like he’s concerned.

“Okay,” Gabe says. “But, if it was.”

“It’s—”

“If it was,” Gabe says, over him, “it’s okay with me, is what I’m saying. It’s none of my business. And I wouldn’t make it anybody else’s business.” Steve sits holding the file, paralyzed, and doesn’t speak. Gabe sighs. “Christ, Steve. I had to get married in England. You know that.”

“Yeah,” Steve says. He drops the papers onto his knees and rubs his face with both hands, holds them over his eyes for a second. “Yeah, Gabe. Sorry. Okay.”

“I didn’t mean to make you nervous,” Gabe says. “I shouldn't have just said it like that. Put you on the spot. I'm sorry.” Steve lets out a tight little laugh that’s more of an exhale.

“Nobody can ever,” Steve says. “You know that nobody can ever know. About him. They’d think it was Zola. That somebody did it to him. Ruined him.” Gabe gives him a sharp, surprised look.

“That didn’t—occur to me.”

“It occurred to me,” Steve says. “Nobody, Gabe. I mean it.”

“You have my word,” Gabe says. He nods at Steve, and goes back to watching the road. “We still get letters sometimes,” he says, conversationally, but Steve’s not fooled. Gabe’s voice is never lighter than when he’s being deadly serious. “The usual stuff. It’s not natural. Like they know what natural is, these people. The ones about me, I’ve heard it all before. The ones about Peggy make me mad. You love somebody, you hurt for them. But the ones about my kids,” Gabe says, and gives Steve a thin, bitter smile. “The ones about my kids. Hurt’s not the word.”

“Jesus,” says Steve, enraged. “Who’s sending them?”

“People,” Gabe shrugs. “Just people.” He takes them onto the exit for the bridge. “Nobody’s going to hear about it from me, Steve.”

Steve is struck by the steadiness in his voice. He and Peggy were made for each other, really; they’re like two squared-off cornerstones holding up a skyscraper. Two sides of the same arch, keeping a bridge above water. Steve loves them both more than he could ever say.

“Thank you,” he says.

It’ll have to do for now.

 

 

.

Chapter Text

Peggy is in her office when Steve comes upstairs, sitting in the morning light under the big bank of windows and putting covers on a small stack of confidential reports. She doesn’t look up when Steve comes in, but her movements become slightly stiffer, more deliberate, as if she would really like him to realize and understand the depths to which she is currently ignoring his presence. He waits. After a minute she sighs and puts the files down across her knees and looks up at him, silhouetted by the sun.

“I suppose I was lulled into a false sense of security,” she says. “All those tedious jobs the last few years. You played the part surprisingly well. But the truth is, you’ve never learned to follow orders. You’ve just been bored.”

“Peggy.”

“I’m not angry with you,” she says. “I tried to be.” She smiles at him ruefully; with her back to the windows, face in shadow, he has to read it in the curve of her cheek, her jaw. Like he’s feeling his way in the dark. “But you were in the right place at the right time, and I’m grateful for that.” Peggy’s smile shifts a little, sharpens. “And you did bring me a very talkative Russian.”

“I know you prefer those to flowers,” Steve says.

“You read the file in the car?”

“Yuri Domashev. Former Red Army tank division commander. And I understand the scar is a souvenir of Kursk.”

“He told me he kept the bayonet. Charming man,” Peggy says, dryly. “The Russians would like us to think that he’s an independent operator, and they’ve provided documentation to that effect.” She waves one of the folders. “Warrants for arms trading, assault. Who knows, they might even be real. They’re pretending to be blasé about the arrest, but the subtext is clear. He’s KGB.”

“They’re not just disavowing him?”

“They are not,” Peggy says. “Not as such. Which is just a shade unsettling. Whatever HYDRA’s done, it’s rattled them to the point that they’re willing to have a conversation. Even if said conversation is conducted entirely in lies.” She leans back and the sunlight floods half her face, shading her features in gold. “The State Department’s spinning wheels at the moment; they keep handing our paperwork back to be redone for one reason or another, God help us. And I have two diplomats downstairs. Officially, those two are here to cover their bases for an extradition. Unofficially,” Peggy says, and shrugs with both hands in the air. “They want to know what we know, and they’re not going to do it by asking. Howard’s keeping them company. We ought to have quite a decent international incident on our hands before noon.”

“Let me know how I can help.”

“You can help by remaining functionally invisible,” Peggy says. “Nobody knows the full extent of your abilities, let alone that you can cross international borders by thinking about it. Honestly, you’re a diplomatic nightmare scenario.”

“Thanks, I think,” Steve says. He mulls it for a second. “Actually, that gives me an idea.”

“Does it involve you keeping a low profile?”

“Not exactly.”

“Well.” Peggy sighs, and taps the reports on the edge of the desk to straighten the pages. “I tried. The cameras must be close to ready. When will you leave?”

“Late afternoon,” he says. “Early evening. Timing it for their overnight.”

“Alright,” she says. It feels like a dismissal, so Steve turns to go; he’s stopped at the door by Peggy clearing her throat. “One thing,” she says. “Domashev was brought in with a fresh knife wound to his hand. Not defensive, from the look of it.” There’s a beat, in which Steve doesn’t add anything. He’s not sure how much she already knows; how much she’ll be able to guess, just from that. “I know you feel—different,” Peggy says, cautiously. “But that’s never been your style.”

“No,” Steve says. She looks at him for a long moment, and then something passes over her face, ripples across it like a fluttering sheet on a line. It’s surprise. Just a hint of it: Peggy’s not much of an open book, unless she’s feeling especially relaxed. But he can see curiosity plain in her features for a second, before she flattens it away.

“Is he— back?”

“I don’t know,” Steve says. “He’s here. He’s alive. It’s more than I,” he says, and stumbles over it, tries to reel himself in. “A lot more.”

“Yes it is,” Peggy says. She smiles again, gentle this time. “I always thought he was a man with priorities. I see they haven’t changed.”

“Some things don’t,” says Steve.

 

 

 

 

The diplomats are in a reception room, sitting across the table from Howard and laughing uproariously at something he’s just said. Well, one of them is laughing: the older of the pair, white-haired and white-bearded, with a paunch under his waistcoat. The other one—young, surprisingly young, younger than Steve—is only pretending to laugh, with one hand raised to his mouth in a fist, covering his expression. When they see Steve they both stop and stand up, pushing their chairs back.

“Captain America,” the older one says, his voice breathlessly eager; he extends both hands. Steve shakes them and smiles at him, and underneath the beard the diplomat grins wider and wider. “This is an honor. This is an honor to be meeting you.”

“The honor is mine, Minister—”

“Kutepov,” he says, and his eyes actually crinkle at the corners like a kindly grandfather. If it’s an act, it’s fantastic. Steve’s met movie stars less convincing. Kutepov presses Steve’s hands tightly. “My friends call me Yegor. This is my attaché, Aleksander.”

“Pleased to meet you,” the younger man says; it sounds like a bald-faced lie to Steve. This kid doesn’t appear to be pleased by much of anything. His accent is less heavy, and the hand he gives Steve to shake is cold and strong, like a thin bar of steel. He’s narrow and whippet-like, softly spoken, with dark hair smoothed back tightly against his scalp and a pair of wire-rimmed glasses perched on his nose. “Mr. Stark was gracious enough to make a demonstration for us of his most recent advancements. But we are truly privileged now to meet his most famous experimental subject.” He peers at Steve with frank fascination. Not the flattering kind: it’s the familiar sensation of being a bug under a microscope. Steve’s never going to enjoy it. “How did it feel?” he asks. “To be remade by genius?”

“Sasha,” Kutepov says, quickly, and Aleksander’s eyes flash a spark of rage for a second, although his face barely twitches. Steve keeps his eyes on Kutepov’s broad, apologetic face and pretends not to notice the ill-contained flare-up; without looking at Howard, he knows that across the table he’s doing the same thing, busying himself putting a few scattered pages back into a file. Howard has undoubtedly just reached the same conclusion as Steve: whoever this kid is, he’s not a diplomat. He was important enough to be sent, important enough that his lack of impulse control was considered within acceptable parameters for—whatever this is. Which means Kutepov is the window dressing. The handler. The kid is the problem.

“My apologies,” Aleksander says. “I have overstepped.”

“His English has a good sound, but there are many subtleties needed in translation,” Kutepov says. “He’s too young to know them all. I am letting experience be his teacher.”

“Foot in mouth disease,” Howard says, nodding pleasantly. “They tell me my own case is incurable.” Kutepov beams at him, and Howard stands up. “Well, since the donkey-cart of justice moves so slowly, could I interest you gentlemen in some light refreshments upstairs? I’m not sure our vodka will impress you, but they’re doing simply fantastic things with bourbon nowadays.”

“Please,” Kutepov says, and puts his hands together, like a prayer. “Lead the way.”

“How long will you be in New York?” Steve asks, as they’re filing out of the room into the hallway. “And do you have any plans tonight?”

“I hope that it will not be too long a visit,” Kutepov says. “I am sure you understand. Perhaps we will have time to see a performance by your Metropolitan Opera before we go. This evening, however, we are entirely free.”

“Then,” Steve says, “may I invite you both to dinner?”

“Dinner,” Howard echoes. His face isn’t giving anything away, but he’s looking at Steve extremely carefully.

“You too, Howard,” Steve says, smiling. “Dinner. Tonight. Say, eight o’clock? Eight-thirty?”

“An honor and a pleasure, we accept,” Kutepov says, clasping Steve’s hand again warmly; Aleksander merely gives a curt, affirmative nod. Howard leads them into the elevator and turns back once to look at Steve, while the others are facing towards the doors; he looks at Steve like he’s concerned that Steve’s lost his mind. Steve shakes his head and Howard rolls his eyes, goes back to talking a steady, conspiratorial stream about last year’s substantial improvements in battery technologies, improvements that Steve knows for a fact Howard rendered obsolete about two months ago. So Peggy’s got them all running in rings, keeping the circus flags flapping to distraction. Good.

Steve takes the stairs down, heading for the lab; Kochalski’s probably still in the hospital, but Jim and Dugan might be around somewhere. He’d like to get somebody else’s take on the kid, see if they can’t work out a rotation to keep tabs on him. When he comes out into the hallway on the lower floor, there’s a janitor’s cart stuck haphazardly out of the bathroom entrance, partly blocking the way. He pushes it just out of his path and squeezes past it, but a guy in coveralls and a painter’s cap pops out of the restroom and shoves the cart into Steve’s midsection, almost pinning him against the wall.

“Hey,” Steve has time to say, and then the guy looks up. “What the fuck,” Steve blurts out, and from underneath the brim of his hat Bucky grins: lopsided, smug. He keeps getting the better of Steve, and he knows it. “How the hell—”

“Did I get in?” Bucky says. He raises his eyebrows mockingly. “How do I get anywhere?” he asks. He’s obviously trying to land it like a joke, but it falls strangely flat; they both know where his skills come from. He’s still holding the cart firm, pressing a hard line against Steve’s hipbone. There’s a broom poking him in the gut. Bucky’s got a plastic nametag clipped to his chest: FRANK. He has rubber gloves on, and he’s purposefully shrugging his shoulders in, stooping, making himself look smaller than he is. It would work pretty well, probably, on somebody who wasn’t Steve. Somebody who didn’t know how he moved, the exact tilt of his walk, the minute shifts in his face when he speaks. He’s good at this, though. Steve has never been able to make himself shrink, blend, no matter how hard he’s tried: the first few weeks he had it, his big body was like a rattling, cavernous steamer trunk that he was trapped inside. He couldn’t keep himself from bumping the edges of everything he passed, apologizing like a clumsy valet. Nothing left bruises.

“What are you doing here?” Bucky gives him a bored look and grinds the cart deeper into Steve’s belly and knees, making the bottles of cleaning fluid rattle. “Bucky, I swear to God,” Steve says, and pushes back, feeling absurd. Bucky picks up a roll of toilet paper and tosses it into his chest; Steve lets go of the cart to catch it, fumbling, and Bucky rolls everything out of his reach, heading for the ladies’ room like he’s going to mop the floors or something. “Bucky,” Steve stage-whispers. He doesn’t know what to do with the toilet paper he’s holding now, besides hurl it at Bucky’s back. It connects hard—as hard as toilet paper can—and Bucky turns around, gives him a narrow, deadly glare that actually makes Steve’s knees feel slightly warm and wobbly, because apparently he is deranged, he’s not all together inside. “You started it,” Steve says, ludicrously. Bucky’s just starting to crack a grin when a door creaks at the other end of the corridor. In one rapid, startlingly efficient gesture Bucky scoops up the toilet paper roll, pushes the cart into the ladies’ room, and shuts the door behind him. Steve’s left frozen and alone in the hallway, waiting: Dugan comes out of the far door a second later, talking to the doctor that patched up Steve after he was gut-shot. The doctor looks up and smiles pleasantly.

“Captain Rogers,” he says.

“Doctor Sullivan,” Steve nods. Sullivan pats Dugan’s arm and steps away briskly towards the elevator; Steve can’t help but flick his eyes over to the ladies’ room, which now has a small OUT OF ORDER plaque hanging from the doorknob. For Christ’s sake.

“He says Kochalski ought to mend fine,” Dugan says to Steve, oblivious to his fixation with the bathroom sign. “Bullet clipped the bone but didn’t break it.”

“Good,” Steve says. “Jim’s ankle okay?”

“Jim’s ankle is fine,” a muffled voice calls, from just behind the lab doors. “But Jim could use a fucking cup of coffee!”

“Right away, your majesty,” Dugan mutters. Steve follows him back into the lab and catches them both up on his meeting with the diplomats; neither of them had more than a minute or two to observe them as they arrived, but Jim and Dugan agree there’s something up with the kid. “He’s a creepy little ferret,” Dugan says. Jim gives him a look. “What?”

“Nothing,” Jim says. “Agreeing with you’s just so strange.”

“Jesus,” Dugan says, rolling his eyes. “So Cap, you want us to watch him?”

“Yeah. Howard and I’ll have them at dinner tonight, but we’ll need somebody on the hotel.”

“Wait a second,” Dugan says. “Tonight? Aren’t you kinda—occupied?”

“That’s the idea,” Steve says. “Hiding in plain sight. If the Russians are breaking ties with HYDRA, they’ll have surveillance on the bases, too. Guaranteed. Peggy’s concerned that they may already know how far we’ve gone after Zola.”

“How far, literally, you mean.”

“I can hit most of the cameras before we get to the restaurant. Maybe all. If I have to, I'll take a couple of phone calls during the meal. And we’ll ask a waiter to take photographs before we leave. Give ourselves an official story strong enough to debunk any rumors of me traipsing around Moscow. If they try to call our bluff they’ll only make themselves look paranoid.”

“That’s pretty clever,” Jim says. He frowns. “Or it’s idiotic. I actually can’t tell anymore.”

“I can take the hotel overnight,” Dugan says. “Get Brewer to swap out in the morning. You want us to find somebody who has some Russian? Tap the phone?” There’s a soft sound—barely a sound at all, more like the ripple of displaced air—of a door swinging open behind them, and Dugan barely looks up as he says, “Come back later, pal,” at whoever came through. Steve looks up and can’t help the tremor of surprise that runs through him, because it’s Bucky, Bucky in his plain janitor’s uniform, slumped down a little, holding an empty trash can in his gloved hands. Steve feels frozen in place, caught between wanting to ignore him, to keep up the charade, and being utterly unable—incapable—of pulling his eyes away for a long second. He does, finally, but it’s too late: Jim has looked at Steve, and then at the guy in the coveralls, and now his mouth has dropped open in surprise, and he’s staring wide-eyed past Steve’s shoulder.

“Sarge,” he says, on an exhale, and Dugan’s chin jerks up. Neither of them say anything else: not a word. They stare at Bucky and Bucky keeps his eyes on the trash can he’s holding, turning it around slowly by the rim, inch by inch, between his fingers. He looks up.

“I have some Russian,” he says. Steve’s heart rolls into his throat, like a baseball in a gutter.

“Jesus H. Christ,” Dugan says, with feeling. His huge face has crinkled up like wrapping paper, and his eyes are shiny. “Ain’t that a bit of an understatement?” He looks at Bucky wonderingly and Bucky’s face tenses for a second, not afraid but wary, not quite meeting Dugan’s eyes. He looks shy, but Steve can read the tight curl in his shoulders, the hitched way he’s holding himself, like he’s worried he’ll move too quickly, do something too sharp or sudden. Not for his own sake. For theirs. It’s so obvious. He doesn't want to startle them. Doesn't want them to have to think about how different he is, how—changed. He hasn’t been close, really close to anybody he knew; nobody but Steve, really, not yet. Trust yourself, Steve wants to say. Trust us. But judging from the tension he’s carrying he doesn’t think Bucky would want him to say that out loud, expose that nerve, right now. “How you been keeping yourself?” Dugan says, leaning forward like he wants to shake Bucky’s hand, touch his shoulder.

“Don’t crowd him,” Jim says under his breath, crowding Dugan, pulling at his arm. “You’re like a fucking talking chiffarobe.”

“I’ll grab another uniform,” Bucky says. “Stick close to them.”

“Hell of an audition,” Dugan says, gesturing at the coveralls. “Swear to God, I woulda looked right past you.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Buck,” Steve says. “I think you ought to stay as far away from them as possible.”

“You don’t think,” Bucky says, but he doesn’t finish that sentence; his gaze slides away from Steve, and his mouth tightens, like he’s trying not to show anger. “What good is someone to follow them, if they won’t understand.” Dugan and Jim are glancing uneasily between them, like they’re not sure where to look. “I can do this. I’m good at this.”

“Yeah,” Steve says. “You are. But I don’t want you close to them. Not these guys.”

“It’s not your call,” Bucky says, jutting his chin out, meeting Steve’s eyes. He’s not ducking his shoulders anymore, and for a second it’s so—it’s 1943 and he’s leaning across the hood of a jeep to tell Steve to shove his echelon formation up his ass, because if they try it they’re all gonna be rolling down the side of the hill long before they get to hit the bunker. It’s dizzying, vertiginous. Beside him, Steve can feel Jim and Dugan shifting in their boots; they’ve been caught by surprise in the same memory, or one just like it. He wonders if it’s as surreal and dislocating for them as it is for him. Bucky’s glaring at him, and Steve feels his blood go hot, his imaginary hackles rise, the way they used to; he remembers what it felt like to argue movements with him behind a tent flap and carry it to breakfast and through supply runs and back to the mess and then the tent again; remembers the way Bucky used to methodically take his plans apart and help him put them back together better, smarter. They never really fought flat-out, but they never really stopped not-fighting, either: it was just a rhythm they kept to make the time go. Everything was one long impassioned discussion that shifted gears over and over, morphed into Bucky sitting in a foxhole telling Steve that Steve’s fantasy Dodgers batting order was a fucking mess, just like his approach to tank columns. It was as if he liked working him up, liked to put the red into his cheeks a little, Jesus, the way Bucky made him feel. Alive. Alive and present, and working, and fighting to stay that way. Maybe it'd been the same for him.

“He called you a weapon,” Steve says. “Yuri Domashev. Remember? He looked right at you and said that Zola stole a weapon, and he meant you. And now there's two fake diplomats prowling around? I don’t want them anywhere near you.”

“I can deci—”

“You decide for you, I know,” Steve snaps, and instantly regrets it; it slipped out without thinking, and it sounds so cruel from his mouth. Bucky looks slapped for an instant, before all the feeling wipes off his face like a clean windshield; for a second his face goes slack and his whole body jerks like a shiver, and then he’s perfectly still again. Steve feels a rush of shame at himself, but he can’t do this right now, he can’t give up this ground. “You didn’t want to do this,” he says. “Any of this. I pushed you to go after the handlers, and it was a mistake. I got you involved—they almost had you again, it was my fault. It was the wrong play, and I won’t make it twice.”

“I saved your life,” Bucky hisses. “You didn’t mind then.”

“It was a firefight,” Steve says. “What was I supposed to do? Put you in a cab?”

“You can't—”

“This is different,” Steve says. “These guys are top level. Who knows what they can do. Who knows what they know about you! What if they have— some kind of tech, some kind of control, like the handlers tried—”

"It didn't work," Bucky says.

"What if it had?" Steve snaps. "These guys know more than us, they know more about what happened to you than we do!"

“Cap,” Dugan interrupts. “Maybe we should—cool off. Think about it. It could help to—”

“You want to help?” Steve says. “There’s got to be somebody else in the building who speaks Russian.”

“Okay,” Dugan says. He and Jim give each other another look, and Jim gives him a tiny shrug, as if to say, what the fuck are we gonna do about them? Steve’s conscience gives him another swift kick under the ribs. He’s being an asshole. But this is too important. They have to understand that. “Alright. We’ll see who we can dig up.” He looks at Bucky while they’re turning for the door. “It’s good to see you again,” Dugan says. “Real good.” Bucky doesn’t say anything; after a beat he gives Jim and Dugan a quick nod, barely a gesture at all, just a flicker of movement up and down.

“Take it easy, Sarge,” Jim says. He follows Dugan out, looking over his shoulder twice before they’re gone.

“Buck,” Steve begins, when they’re alone, but Bucky’s faster, Bucky grabs him by the front of his shirt and backs him into a workbench, snarling.

“You don’t own me,” he says, viciously. “Just because I—doesn’t mean you own me.”

“Of cour—”

“Was it a joke to you?” Bucky says. His face is still like marble. It shocks Steve into guilty silence. “I decide for me, that’s—did you lie?”

“No,” Steve says. “No.” The fight’s leaving him; he feels winded by the loss of it, emptied. He shouldn’t have pushed so hard, the look on Bucky’s face—he didn’t mean to put it there. The hand knotted in the front of his shirt is metal, unyielding, under that goofy rubber glove. Steve puts his own hand over it. “Nobody owns you. Least of all me. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I said—that.” His face is hot, embarrassed. “I shouldn’t have. But I don’t want them to ever have a chance at you again.” Bucky has to see that. “You used to look out for me,” Steve says. “You always looked out for me. That’s all I want to do, Buck. I want to look out for you.”

“I looked out for you,” Bucky says. He lets go. “But I never stopped you.”

And that’s—Christ.

It’s true. All the broken beer bottles and the times he walked home in the snow instead of using his change for the trolley; the rallies that got busted up with clubs and kicks in the back, the pamphlets he read aloud, the jackass self-righteous things he said to people in bars, on the subway, at the beach. He never stopped, and Bucky never stopped him. Oh, Buck cleaned him up and rolled his eyes and backed him up and argued for going up the steeper gradient if it meant better cover; he'd tell him what a shit he was being, make him laugh, tell him better luck next time. He never left Steve alone to face it, never left him holding the bag. Never kept his mouth shut about a plan he didn't like. But he never made Steve quit. He could have. Everybody knew he had some kind of— power over Steve, if that's the right word. He was beautiful and smart and smart-mouthed and everybody liked him, and for some ungodly reason he liked Steve as he was, and didn't try to hammer him into somebody nicer. Somebody easier. Maybe he should have, maybe he—but he didn’t. Steve was a pipsqueak, a loudmouth, a troublemaker, a cuss: he probably should’ve been sealed in a barrel and fed through a straw, to spare the neighborhood. But Bucky never made him feel like that. Bucky told him when he'd crossed a line, Bucky always gave him a hand back over it. But he never told him what he couldn’t do. Who he couldn't be.

Steve looks at him. Really looks. Bucky’s face is still hard, but it’s not furious. It’s final. Concrete. He’s cast-iron, poured lead. He used to be stubborn but there was always some ounce of softness in it, some joint where he’d bend. But if it’s there, Steve can’t find it. A minute ago he was transported by the sameness of him, the certainty of his memories, but now they’re no help: Bucky never looked quite like this, back then. He’s changed. Steve thought he knew that. But this is knowing, here: finding a piece that doesn’t match. Might not ever again. He’s not the same as he was. And how could he be? Steve said things, said he was okay with the difference, but this is push come at last to shove. Maybe Steve’s been wrong this whole time, thoughtless, pretending; maybe in the deepest cobwebbed corners of himself he’s been hoping to just buff the grime off and set him back where he was, where Steve remembers him, sitting on top of the mantle like a figurine. I’m like this, he said, the first time they—like he knew. Like he was sure. Getting to sure. He’s been paying better attention to himself than Steve has. God, how many times will they have this argument? How many times does Bucky have to tell him who he is: who he's still working to be? How many times can Steve try to push him into place, get angry when he doesn’t quite fit? He can’t pretend it’ll ever go back to normal.

There’s no such thing.

“Buck,” Steve says. “I’m sorry.” Bucky leans closer and glares into his face like he’s looking for the fine print, but there’s nothing Steve wants less than to hide from him. “You’re right." Bucky’s mouth doesn’t move, but his eyes do: up and across Steve, flicking from point to point. Unsure. “You called me a dummy and a goon sometimes. You said, sometimes I think—”

“You like getting punched,” Bucky murmurs; his eyes trace Steve’s mouth, his cheek, where it always bled and bruised.

“Yeah,” Steve says. “For the record, I hate getting punched.” Bucky gives him the thinnest smile in the world; it fills Steve’s heart like a balloon anyway. “They were my mistakes,” Steve says. “You let me make them.”

“So many,” Bucky says.

“Hey,” says Steve, indignant. “I’m trying to apologize.” Bucky’s sliver of a smile turns into a half-moon, and Steve feels himself smiling too, helplessly, dragged in his current. Some things don’t change, that’s true. But other things must: like him. He thinks he can. He has to try. “I’ll do better,” he says. “I will. I’ll try to—follow your lead.”

“Really,” Bucky says, but he sounds hopeful.

“Cross my heart,” Steve says, and does it with his free hand. He hasn’t said it to anybody since he was fifteen, probably; definitely. He can’t remember what he was promising back then: not to cheat and do the crossword first by himself before Bucky got back, so that he’d look like a goddamn stuck-up smarty-pants when Bucky said uh, twenty-two down, sister of Clio. Not to tell Rebecca where Bucky was getting his cigarettes. To be there at exactly nine-thirty, and not a minute later, and to remember the firecrackers. Bucky must have been the last person he ever said it to. And now the first, the first of his second life, and Bucky’s, too. “Stick a needle in my eye,” says Steve.

“Blegh,” says Bucky.

 

 

 

 

Dugan peeks his head around the door half an hour later; Steve has a moment to appreciate the happy incongruity of a man Dugan's height moving like a skittish cartoon mouse. Bucky doesn't pull his attention from the piece of paper he's drawing on, intent on tracing exits. They picked a restaurant off Fifth Avenue, one of Howard's old favorites; Steve's been half a dozen times and he's got a pretty good idea of where the doors and windows and staircases are, but they'll get somebody to confirm things. Meanwhile, Bucky's got a few ideas about moving Steve in and out of the dining room if and when he needs to shift.

"We've got, uh," Dugan says. "Couple of prospects. One from the transcription team."

"Thanks," Steve says. "Put one of them on standby, in case Howard can rig up something for the hotel phones."

"And tonight?"

"Buck's got them."

"Oh," says Dugan. "Good." He scratches his mustache, and tries to keep a grin from showing. "You know," he says, thoughtfully, "you're a couple of miserable shitheads."

"Fuck you, too, Dugan," Bucky says, without glancing up. Dugan looks like he might cry. He ducks back out again.

"Can we go back in?" Jim says, from the other side of the door. "Why are you smiling? What the fuck is going on?" Dugan says something to him in a low voice that Steve doesn't catch. Their footsteps fade out, after a minute or so. The elevator dings at the end of the hall, and in the next room it sounds like one of Howard's techs is thumping a compressor coil with a stick.

"Here, I think," Bucky says. He puts the tip of his pencil on a side door. "And here."

"Okay," says Steve.

"Okay?"

"Yeah," says Steve. "I trust you."

Bucky rubs out his lines and starts again, to make it perfect; when his flesh hand shakes a little, Steve pretends not to notice.

 

 

.

Chapter Text

He planned to vary his route this time, for the sake of the gentler subterfuge Peggy’s always tried to instill, but something about Oslomarka calls, something makes him want to stand in the wild again, if only for a moment. And so for that moment he stands on the ridge behind the pine trees and looks down into the valley one more time, at the edge of the horizon where the sky has cooled to purple. Not sunset anymore but soothingly depthless night. There are animals in the trees, wary of him, wary of the way he appeared before their senses alerted them to trespass. He’s an unnatural thing sometimes, without trying to be: the way he doesn’t register. Even rain can be smelled before it comes.

Tonight is bound to be tricky. He could just aim for the bases again, hit them one-two-three, but he put at least a third of the cameras into shipping crates and God knows where those ended up. Just finding the cameras again—focusing on their housings, the careful way they snap into place, their slightly plastic smell—may lead him further afield. Hopefully it will give him a glimpse of what they’re planning, and where. But first thing’s first. Steve concentrates on Minsk, the crumbling monastery set into the hill, the bootprints he saw last time stamped into the dirt road, and shifts like an arrow in the direction of darkness.

The crates and trucks are gone, as he expected. Steve tucks himself around corridors and pauses in the same storage closets when the patrols pass, but the place is mostly deserted this time. No activity in the courtyard, no grunts hustling boxes around. Just a skeleton crew keeping the lights on and the generators running. He’s able to find the half-dozen cameras he stashed, empty their spent film and re-load them, and shift back into the woods in about half an hour. He wraps the film up inside his bag and moves on. His watch reads almost sixty-thirty—New York time—when he’s wrapping things up at the base above Moscow. Novgorod took him less than fifteen minutes: there were only four guards left at that little waystation, playing cards around a folding table and betting with beef jerky and cigarettes. The warehouse and its single remaining cargo truck were both empty. Moscow is still a hive of activity, with people moving between the laboratory floors and the rest of the base, but the lines of crates Steve saw last time are gone. The long workbenches where the power cells were being assembled have been taken down, moved back into the experimental wing. Steve plucks the rolls of film from the cameras, swaps them out, and does his level best not to get seen. Howard’s signal disruptor seems to be working overtime on that count: it makes the guard’s radios squawk and hiss, which renders it an outstanding, if unintentional, proximity warning. It’s coming in handy whenever he can’t see around the corners. He should probably buy Howard a birthday present this year.

With slightly more than half the cameras in his duffel, Steve shifts about a mile from the Moscow base and crouches down in a stand of trees, tries to focus his senses on the cameras in the crates. He pulls up the plastic housings and then the smell of sawdust and cut wood, the high metallic smell of the power cells. He didn’t bring the shield but he does have a baton and a sidearm, at Peggy’s insistence. There’s no telling where the crates were headed. What he’s walking into. He gets a fix on something—a flicker of familiarity, the weight of the wooden lid in his hand, the splintered edge of an uneven board—and goes towards its, lets himself fall through. He lands in pitch darkness, a crushing close space, crouched behind what feels like a stack of crates. It takes him a second to register the slight rocking sensation under and around him, the sway of the space itself. He’s in a cargo hold. When his eyes adjust he can dimly make out the outlines of rows of crates, dozens and dozens, packed tight. Several shipping trucks’ worth, Steve estimates. So this is where they were all headed. He pries the lid off of the closest one carefully and finds those strange power cells inside, nested inside straw stuffing. Steve goes through them as swiftly as he can, picking up the cameras here and there as he finds them, and hammering the lids back on afterwards. At the last crate he takes one of the cells and covers over the empty spot, stirs the straw around. The cell goes into his duffel, wrapped in his shirt, for Howard to puzzle out later.

When he’s finished he puts his palms against the metal door and listens for a second, then shifts just to the other side, into an empty corridor lined with pipes. There’s a metal ladder bolted to the wall and he climbs it up to a hatch. The hatch is stuck, like somebody wedged it tight or put something heavy over it; he pushes until it starts to groan and squeak, and then he rolls his eyes and shifts to the other side of it. Steve lands in a bigger chamber than the last one, also piled with packing crates, but these ones have company labels and logos printed on the sides, and there are security lights glowing faintly by the exits. The hatch he just tried to come through is hidden underneath two enormous pallets of tin cans with Russian labels.

Steve makes his way through the ship as silently as he can; if he can find a manifest, or something that shows their heading, he can get the information to Peggy before they’re even docking. He’s climbing up an outer railing onto the upper decks when a guy in coveralls turns a corner and startles, dropping a can of soda that rolls away, spraying foam. Steve vaults up onto the deck and grabs him, and the guy puts up a halfhearted punch, but gives up as soon as Steve pushes him against the wall with one arm twisted behind his back.

“Not them,” the guy says, in accented English. “I don’t work for them. Please. I just need to work, okay? I have a family. I need to work.” Steve shakes him and the guy shuts up, presses his face into the wall; his shoulders shake helplessly like he thinks Steve is going to kill him. Jesus. Steve thinks as fast as he can, and then turns the guy around, wraps his hand tightly in the collar of his coveralls.

“Where are you from?”

“R-Riga,” the guy says. “I have a family,” he repeats. He might be lying, he might be HYDRA to the bone, but frankly Steve doesn’t have the luxury of getting to the truth here. He can’t trap him in the hold: he could die down there in the airless dark, or he could get out and warn the rest of the crew, and neither option is acceptable right now.

“Think about home,” Steve says. “Think about your home, your street. Think about the buildings, what they look like.” The guy stares at him like he’s insane, and then shuts his eyes. He looks like he’s saying a prayer under his breath, like he still thinks this is the warmup before Steve murders him. It can’t hurt to have one of them focusing intently on a real landing point, even if only to keep him distracted during the shift. Steve doesn’t know if this will work: he’s got no sensory data of his own to cling to here, nothing to bring up a feeling about a place he’s never been, and he doesn’t have the luxury of meditating with a map. But he knows the shape of the Baltic, and he’ll do his best. Steve tightens his hold on the guy with both hands, and yanks them through the veil.

It’s rocky for a second, like forcing a stuck door, but Steve gets them through; the guy’s eyes are still shut but he’s wailing, low and distressed, as they peel through the shivering screens of the world. Steve drags him through it, up layer by layer like surfacing out of deep water, and they land ungracefully onto a cobblestoned alleyway, the guy collapsing to his knees and dragging Steve over, unbalanced. Steve lets him go and the guy pitches onto the ground, putting his hands and cheek against the street. He’s moaning softly.

“I am dreaming,” the guy says. “I am dreaming.” He looks up at Steve: not madly, like the handler, or sick with shame like so many others Steve’s manhandled through reality. He just looks disoriented, blinking like he’s trying to clear his head. “This is a dream.”

“If you ever tell anyone about this,” Steve starts, and the guy holds a hand up to stop him.

“Never,” he says. “Never, I swear.”

“I’ll hold you to that,” Steve says. “I can find you anywhere.” The guy puts a hand over his heart and swears, looking awed, which is—Steve really doesn’t have time to deal with this. He steps back and shifts for the ship again, cutting smoothly through space and landing at the same point on the deck where they vanished from. The soda can is still foaming over, rocking a little as the ship pulls through the current. Steve tries not to think about how all of this, his silly cloak-and-dagger plan tonight, could be for nothing if the Russians ever get hold of that sailor.

He finds a manifest and shipping documents in the captain’s cabin, inside a locked cabinet that doesn’t feel like staying locked when Steve pulls on the handle. He replaces everything quietly, even manages to slide the mechanism back so that the door will still seem secure until somebody tries to open it. There was nothing about the piles of HYDRA crates in the hold, but there was a destination. Several destinations, in fact: Gdansk. Rostock. Rotterdam. London. It’s enough to get the intel and cameras back to New York; he’s got the name of the ship and the schedule, and Peggy will be able to get somebody onto their trail.

He lands on the roof at headquarters and shifts down to Howard’s floor, which is unexpectedly buzzing. There are people running by with bolts of heavy fabric and hammers, technicians pushing vats of chemicals on carts, everybody nervously excusing themselves when they bump into Steve in their hurry.

“I want it done in three minutes,” Peggy’s calling out, when Steve opens the door from the hallway. She turns, an order on her lips, and it shifts to a smile midway. “When—oh, hello, Steven,” she says. She points at the duffel he’s holding. “There’s your starter pistol,” she announces to the room. “Get to work, everyone.” Two young women in lab coats run up to take the bag from his hands before he’s even finished taking it off his shoulders.

“Big night?” says Steve.

“Commandeering Howard’s storage niche for the cause,” she says. “We needed a second darkroom if they’re going to get me a full set of negatives from every camera by nine.”

“Nine seems a little tight.”

“Tight as a drum,” Peggy says. “And I’d push it to eight-thirty if I thought it wouldn’t produce a critical level of whinging. I don’t like sending you off to dinner with those two without knowing what’s on those cameras, but you forced my hand, didn’t you. Half-cocked, business as usual,” she says, waving dismissively at the bustle in front of them. “Did you find out anything about where they’re shipping those cells?”

“Four ports on the shipping documents. Last stop London. So they’re either all headed there, or they’re dropping crates as they go. Either way, we’ve got a place to start.”

“Good,” Peggy says. “Good work. Write it all down for me and then go get dressed. And find a way to wipe that look off your face.”

“What look, exactly?”

“The one that says you’ve been running about outdoors, exerting yourself for the common good,” Peggy says, archly. “If you really want them to think of you as an unthreatening cartoon, you need to look as if I keep you in boring meetings all day, like the petty tyrant I am.”

“Yes, ma’am,” says Steve.

“It’s your majesty,” Peggy corrects, and then swings over to inspect the seams on their makeshift darkroom door. “Are these my office curtains?”

Steve goes.

 

 

 

 

“All in one night, huh? And without eight tiny reindeer,” Howard says, draped across the back seat of the limo. “Father Christmas America.” Steve shoots him a dirty look but Howard can’t see it: he’s already gazing upwards into the roof, caught in one of his proprietary visions. “We could merchandise that,” he says. “Red and green suit.”

“If you’d like me to burn it like a Yule Log, go ahead.”

“Touchy,” Howard sighs. He brightens up, remembering. “So the sensory transfer works? You think you could do it again?”

“Probably,” Steve says. He watches the city go by, slowly, in a haze that’s half twilight and half the heavily tinted windows. Fifth Avenue is another landscape when the streetlights and marquees come on. He can see the limo sliding past, shark-like, reflected in long slivers along the countless plate-glass windows. He wants, suddenly, desperately, to be wherever Bucky is. Crouched with surveillance equipment in the room above the restaurant, or tucked back into the kitchen with the dish-washers, anywhere. It doesn’t matter. It’s an animal sensation, a desire for proximity that makes his chest feel tight. He asked that sailor where home was and he knew, immediately. He didn’t have to think about it. Steve wouldn’t, either. “To tell you the truth, I don’t know where we landed. Could have been anywhere, I didn’t stop to check a map.”

“But you think it was Riga.”

“I think it was Riga.”

“Sensory transfer,” Howard says, eagerly. “Imagine. You hold onto my coat collar while I think hard about St. Moritz, and in two minutes we’re on the slopes.”

“Sure,” Steve says, “perks for jet-setting’s exactly what I had in mind for—this.” It sounds petty and cutting as soon as he hears himself say it. Howard puts both hands up.

“Uncle,” he says.

“Sorry,” Steve says, and shakes his head. He is, already. He tugs at his tie. The antsy, unsettled feeling that’s crept up on him won’t go away. “Maybe this wasn’t my best idea.”

“Too late,” Howard says. “I think you’d have to pry the fancy jacket out of Dugan’s cold, huge hands.” Howard leans forward to pat Steve’s arm. “You took care of the cameras. Jim and Gabe will be hitting the hotel as soon as they leave. The restaurant’s already bugged, and Dugan tells me Barnes has got all the kitchen staff suitably terrified. So relax and we’ll play host. The hard part’s already over.”

“Wouldn’t that be nice,” says Steve.

As it turns out, the hard part is keeping Howard from spitting a twenty-dollar pour of champagne across the table when Dugan—in a curling black wig and pressed cravat—looms over the appetizers and asks if everyzing is to zere liking in a hideous French accent that would have made Dernier pull the pin on a grenade in indignant rage.

“Everything is fine,” Steve says. He looks over at Kutepov, who is still engrossed in his tartare, and Aleksander, who has been watching Steve a little too closely since they all shook hands and sat down in a private booth. There’s an unpleasantly knowing smile dawning on his face that makes Steve want to fling the centerpiece through the window and demand answers. Aleksander knows this is somehow a farce, and Steve knows that he knows, and he knows that Steve knows, for Christ’s sake. The finest oysters in the city—according to Howard—taste like dirt in his mouth right now. He’d honestly rather be sitting in the hold of a dirty freighter again, wrenching lids off crates. Aleksander’s mouth curves up a little wider, like he can hear Steve’s self-recriminations, and Steve tamps everything down, brutally. “Everything is delicious, in fact,” Steve makes himself say to Dugan, smiling theatrically as if this isn’t already a failed effort. It was his idea. He’s responsible for rallying it however he can. “Compliments to your chef.”

“I vill make sure to tell heem—” Dugan starts, and Howard has a perfectly-timed coughing fit. Dugan excuses himself. When the entrees arrive, Kutepov leans over his leg of lamb and inhales deeply, shutting his eyes with relish.

“When I was a younger man I read an American novel,” Kutepov says, as they all dig in. “I cannot think of the name in English—Зверобой,” he adds, to Aleksander. Aleksander stares blankly back at him, and Kutepov blows an exaggerated sigh. “Why do I ask you,” he says. “This boy does not read novels. It was a novel of America before it was America, of its wilderness. Зверобой,” he repeats, more forcefully, again to Aleksander.

“Beast-slayer,” Aleksander says, sounding bored, as if it’s beneath him to follow the conversation. “I don’t know it.”

“The Deerslayer?” Steve asks. Kutepov raps a knuckle on the edge of the table and smiles.

“That’s it. That’s the one. I remember thinking, if I visit America, I will do as they must do, and eat deer—venison. Every day.” He laughs. “But your lamb is even better.” He takes another bite and chews it thoughtfully. “We perfected the novel. I am always telling him this,” he says, gesturing at Aleksander with his knife. “The strongest of all warriors are these two, time and patience,” Kutepov recites, and then gives Steve a sly grin. “Tolstoy did not meet you, I think. Perhaps his two warriors would have had other names.” Steve smiles mildly at the compliment but spares a brief glance at Aleksander; he’s looking at Kutepov again now, almost angrily, as if he’s said something he shouldn’t. Steve still can’t make sense of their dynamic.

“So what do you read?” Howard asks. Aleksander puts another forkful of sautéed mushrooms into his mouth and grimaces.

“Nonfiction,” he says.

“Biographies?” Howard asks, cheerfully, as if his terseness were an invitation. “Philosophy? History?”

“Psychology,” Aleksander says.

“Ah,” says Howard. “You’re interested in the mind.”

“Very much, yes.”

“If you want to understand the human mind, the human soul, you should read more novels,” Kutepov says.

“Should I, old man?” Aleksander says; his voice has gone low, almost soft. On anyone else it might seem intimate, teasing. From him, there’s an unmistakable edge of danger in it. On the opposite side of the booth, Howard tenses, but Kutepov laughs and digs into a dish of creamed spinach.

“I will loan you my library,” he says. “Anything for your education.”

 

 

 

 

In the pause before dessert, while Howard’s describing his plans for the Malibu house in excruciating detail, one of the waiters Steve doesn’t recognize comes to his shoulder and says there’s a telephone call for him.

“Excuse me,” Steve says, injecting as much aw-shucks as he can into his voice. “Family business, won’t be a minute.”

He drops his napkin and follows the waiter out of the dining room, winding between tables, trying not to look excited. He expects Bucky, Bucky in a chef’s coat or a fitted service jacket, waiting to tell him something, give him an angle to play with the Russians, but instead there really is a phone waiting in a private booth for him, and a little glass door he can shut after himself for privacy. Steve closes the door and sits and puts the handset to his ear. “Hello?”

“Steven,” says Peggy. “Where’s Barnes?”

“What?”

“Where is Barnes,” she repeats, urgently. “Does anyone have eyes on him?”

“He’s supposed to be watching us,” Steve says. “He bugged the dining room hours ago, Dugan—what’s going on?”

“You need to get him out of there,” Peggy says. “Send him back here. Right away. And the rest of you should think about wrapping it up.”

“Peggy, explain.”

“The negatives,” she says. “He’s on the negatives.”

“Kutepov?”

“Aleksander Lukin,” she says, and Steve’s blood goes cold. Somehow he already knew this. Already felt it. Why didn't he— Jesus, he should have pushed harder. “They arrived in New York early this morning, but less than forty-eight hours ago, he was at the Moscow base shaking hands with Zola. Get Barnes out of there.” Steve drops the phone and runs back, turning for the service hallway. He finds Dugan at one of the waiters’ stations, talking quietly into a pocket radio.

“Bucky,” he says, breathlessly. “Where?”

“Upstairs,” Dugan says. “Little room in the west corner. What’s going—” he starts, but Steve’s already shifting to the upper floor, banging the doors open on a couple of empty stockrooms piled with banquet chairs. He finds it, a room barely bigger than a closet, finds a radio and a reel-to-reel sitting on the floor, a pair of discarded headphones.

“Buck!” he hisses, walking back through the halls upstairs. He ducks into every room, pounds on the walls, calling for him. “Bucky!” Dugan comes running up the stairs, wig off, looking rattled. “Has anybody seen him?”

“Brewer’s on the back entrance, nobody’s gone in or out.”

“Jesus Christ,” Steve says, grabbing his hair with both hands to stop the sensation of vertigo from spilling him out, away, over the world. “Okay. Okay. Get everybody to stop what they’re doing and find him. Now. He’s got to get out of here.”

“What’s happened?”

“The kid is HYDRA. High level. I told him, I—fuck, let’s just move,” Steve says, and pushes past Dugan to the back stairs.

He takes the long way through the restaurant, checking the bathrooms and the coat check and the kitchen; a couple of guys in white jackets look affronted and yell at him to stay out, but Steve ignores them. He pops into the back alleyway and exchanges a tense nod with Brewer, then heads back inside, weaving through the tables and looking at everyone’s faces, trying to gauge if there are any plants in the room, plants that aren’t theirs. Their faces blur together, a room full of rich people smiling with all of their teeth. Steve goes back to the private booth and finds Kutepov and Howard laughing at something together, Howard leaning forward to make a point. Aleksander’s gone, his napkin left discarded on the edge of the table. Steve picks it up and clenches it in his fist as if he could break it, grind it into powder, even though that’s impossible. “Where is he,” he says, standing over the booth, face rigid. Howard blanches, but Kutepov doesn’t. He doesn’t look surprised, or fearful. He doesn't startle at all. Steve realizes it for the first time, at last, what he really looks like: someone trying very hard to enjoy their own funeral. The jokes were all too thin, the warmth was an effort to keep his own blood from freezing. Kutepov is already a dead man.

“He went to find your friend,” Kutepov says. For the first time he looks exhausted: the mask of joviality is gone. “The weapon they made.” Steve reaches across the table and grabs him by the front of his coat, yanks him upright across the empty dishes, kicking, arms wheeling. Howard scrambles out of the way and Steve pulls Kutepov bodily over the entire table; throws him, sprawling, onto the floor. In the main dining room people have started rising out of their chairs, calling for help, scattering like a flock of terrified birds. Steve stands over him and shakes him by his collar, and Kutepov puts both hands up, shuts his eyes.

“What’s he doing?” Steve demands. “What’s he want?”

“He’s the devil,” Kutepov says, with his eyes still squeezed tight. “He wants what the devil wants. To send us all to hell.” Steve lets him go and Kutepov rolls over, pushes himself to his feet. “I’m sorry,” he says, swaying.

“Fuck you,” says Steve. “Fuck you.”

“He killed my,” Kutepov begins, and the plate-glass window next to them shatters as a bullet catches him in the shoulder. Kutepov grunts in pain and tips over, falling behind the back of the booth. Steve stares out through the crumbling window and sees the silhouette of a man in a waiter’s uniform on the opposite edge of the sidewalk, arm still raised to fire again. His arm’s extended all the way and yet it’s perfectly steady, perfectly still. Steve can’t see his face but he doesn’t have to. There’s only one person it could be. He doesn’t have to think about it: he lifts the closest chair and flings it through the rest of the window, smashes the glass away and follows his own swing with a running leap out into the street. The man fires again and Steve dodges, rolls his back onto a parked car; when he breaks and sprints off Steve follows him at a dead, desperate run. He can't lose him. He can't.

“Steve!” Howard shouts behind him, over all the people screaming, the car horns blaring. “Steve!”

But they’re already gone.

 

.

Chapter Text

Bucky runs like a man possessed, full-tilt through the thin crowds on the sidewalk. He’s fast, brutal, relentless, shoving bodies into Steve’s path, pushing them out of his own. At this hour there are couples coming hand-in-hand out of the theaters, little lines forming at the doors of clubs; Bucky plows through them like a blunt axe-head splitting wood, all force. Steve follows in his wake, trying not to trample anybody, yelling for them to clear a path.

“Get out of the way!” he yells, waving his arms in the air. He must look insane; people are startling, freezing like deer as Bucky barrels down on them. “Get out of his way!” Bucky skids around a corner into an alleyway, grabs the bottom rung of a ladder and vaults onto the fire escape, and now Steve’s on him, shifting a level higher to block him as he starts up the stairs. “Buck,” he says, desperately, clutching for the lapels of the waiter’s jacket, and Bucky clocks him in the face with the metal hand. Steve reels back but doesn’t let go. Bucky grabs the railing above, curls his knees up, and kicks Steve backwards, off of him, like a spring. Steve goes sprawling down and Bucky climbs up, higher and higher, pounding the thin steel stairs; Steve grits his teeth and shifts to the rooftop. It’s only fourteen stories, but it’s enough that Steve has a second to steady himself before Bucky’s face appears over the top of the low retaining wall at the edge of the roof. There’s nothing and nobody up here, nothing but used buckets and broken television antennae, a pile of old melting tar-papers left behind by some lazy roofer. Steve’s got to contain him, keep him away from the streets, the crowds, until he regains himself. Because he can. He will. “I’m not going to fight you,” Steve calls. Bucky climbs up, swings his leg over, and stands at the far corner, watching him. “You remember that?” Steve says. “I don’t want to fight you. I never want to hurt you again.” Bucky cocks his head. Stares at him flatly with a motionless face, distant eyes. Like he’s waiting for something. Some kind of signal. Some kind of sign. For a second Steve’s filled with hope, an electric thrill that runs through him—he knows me, he’s fighting it, he thinks, until Bucky pulls a snub-nosed handgun out of the back of his uniform pants, swings it up, and fires at Steve’s chest. Steve drops, just barely in time: the bullet catches him almost on the left collarbone, digging a gouge across the top of his shoulder. Bucky’s closing in, so Steve thinks fast, hooks a bucket with one foot and kicks it up to clip him in the face. Dirty rainwater splashes into Bucky’s eyes, gives Steve a second to tackle him and flip him onto his back, struggling with the gun for a second before Steve gives up and kneels on his chest and bangs his hand repeatedly against the roof to make him let go.

The revolver skids out of his grip and Steve tosses it away so violently that it disappears over the chimney into the dark. He doesn’t hear it land. Beneath him, Bucky’s blank face suddenly clenches in fury. It makes something inside Steve flinch with shame, but only for an instant. “I didn’t say I was gonna lay down and die, either,” Steve snaps at him, and Bucky jerks up, plants a fist in his gut and twists to push himself upright. Steve hangs onto his waist like a deadweight, heaves him down face-first, sprawled ungracefully. He kicks Steve in the guts, then frees a leg and kicks him in the face twice, hard, until Steve sees starbursts. He blinks and rolls onto his stomach, pushes up, sees Bucky walking in the direction of the gun. But then he stops. Stops dead, cocks his head again, like at the edge of the roof. Waits. But this time, his hand drifts up towards his ear, like he’s about to brush his hair back, or readjust something in his—“Son of a bitch,” Steve breathes, and sprints for him. Bucky whirls and catches him in midair gracefully, uses Steve’s own momentum to slam him into the ledge of the retaining wall. “Bucky, stop,” Steve wheezes, and Bucky slams him back again. “It’s not you, stop,” Steve says, and grabs at his hair, trying to get at the radio earpiece he must still be wearing. Aleksander’s got to be transmitting to him, somewhere close, playing the puppet master. If he can get it off—he yanks at Bucky’s ear and Bucky chokes him, cracks his head against the brick. Steve goes limp and Bucky lifts him up under his arms, hauls him over the side of the ledge like he’s going to throw Steve right off the roof. “Buck, no, nono—” Steve yells, scrambling for a grip on the wall, on Bucky; his feet skid off the roof and he feels himself start to tip outward into space.

Bucky gives another heave and Steve grabs for him and shifts frantically, still struggling, tearing the skin of the world off and tossing them both through. The shift’s hard and fast, uncontrolled: just as they’re flickering away Bucky pushes him, claws at the hand on his arm, and Steve loses his grip. He reaches blindly out but Steve’s fingers go through the place where Bucky just was, catching nothing but empty air and trailing light. Bucky’s sliding away, sliding out of the current, down layers and layers and layers, a rock dropped into a stream. And then he’s gone. He’s gone and Steve is floating in his absence like a speck of dust, dwarfed by a million distant stars, by galaxies, devoured in the yawning echo of the nothingness behind the world.

He screams a name, and nothing answers. Steve calls out until he’s hoarse, but he can’t hear himself; he can’t hear anything at all but the pounding drumbeat of his own heart in his ears.

This can’t be happening.

Steve doesn’t know how long he spins there, turning around and around, pushing through the layers of the void, rooting through the currents until his hands should bleed, until his lungs should burst. Nothing is real enough to touch but he can feel himself blocked, hemmed in, trapped here, away from Bucky. But he keeps going. He keeps digging, peeling away the world to look beyond, deeper than he’s ever gone, until he realizes he’s digging for roots, digging for the tree. Trying to find a center to orient himself. Trying to find help. Steve shuts his eyes and concentrates, and the no-space around him whirls faster and faster, dizzyingly, yanks him through the void like a link in a chain, drags him to the base of the tree. He feels it rather than sees it; feels the gnarled surface suddenly take form under his hands. He reaches to embrace it, to run his palms along it, a span of a single root hair that’s broader than his arms can reach, one of thousands on one twisting root, longer than the longest river of reality. Steve is—there’s not a word for it, at first. It fills him and empties him all at once. It feels like standing at the foot of a new skyscraper and lifting his face upwards, head tilted back, to feel the weight of its scale press on him, to be washed in the thrilling flush of height in opposite: to know how small you are to life, to living, and be able rejoice in it. To be a single part of something, and no more. To be a grain of sand, a seed, a drop of rain. To belong.

Steve tilts his head back and thinks about sunlight, thinks about—

 

 

 

 

—salt, the smell of saltwater and sand, vinegar and popcorn.

He’s on the beach again, at least in his memories. But now he remembers why.

It was his last free dime of the weekend, the last change in his pocket except for his subway fare, and he'd spent it on a greasy sack of french-fried potato chips at Nathan’s, the kind drenched in coarse salt so big it crunched between your teeth. He'd planned on eating them one by one while they walked, savoring it, so that later he could say he was too full for dinner, instead of admitting to Bucky that he was broke again. Bucky would have tried to spot him for dinner. Even worse, he’d have been nice about it. But broke for Bucky was different, fundamentally: broke meant needling his father for another dollar or two to last him to payday. Steve never asked his mother for money if he could help it, not that there was anything wrong with asking, on principle. It was just that Steve barely ever saw his mother nowadays, now that he worked early and she worked late. She fell asleep most nights on the sofa with her shoes still laced. Steve never wanted to say anything to her that wasn't pleasant, wasn't helpful. And besides, there were crackers at home, a tin of peas. He was sixteen, as old as his parents had been when they first met: he had to learn to keep a budget or suffer the consequences. The chips would be a treat, and he'd worry about the rest later.

Except he'd handed them to Bucky to flip through an issue of National Geographic for a minute, and when he’d been shooed away from the newsstand he found Bucky a hundred yards away on a bench, wrist-deep into the bag, pulling out a huge handful of chips and stuffing them into his mouth. He’d chewed them and waved to Steve all friendly-like with shiny, salted fingers. And then he’d thrown a chip to a seagull.

“Over here,” Bucky’d said, like Steve’s usually squinty eyes weren’t already narrowed down into Buck Rogers-esque laser-pistol beams that could’ve bored a hole straight through him and out the opposite end. “These are real good,” Bucky had told him, reaching into the bag again.

“I gave you those to hold,” Steve remembers saying, before he'd snatched them back. There was less than a third of the bag left by then, and Steve had eyed it dolefully like a marooned sailor watching a freighter pass twenty miles off.

“Wanna get hot dogs?”

It was only the mouth-watering smell of the remaining chips that had kept him from wadding up the whole bag and popping it right into Bucky’s face, dinner be damned.

“No, I don’t,” Steve said. “Not sure I’d even get a bite, with your greedy—”

“Alright, alright,” Bucky had said, starting to laugh. He’d put his hands forward, like he was about to be cuffed. “I’m guilty, I surrender.” They walked on and Steve had fumed as he ate his chips, without really meaning to; he had a bad temper and a tendency to sulk that he knew was unattractive. Made him sort of a pill. But Bucky didn’t say anything for a while. On their way back he’d slung an arm over Steve, and Steve had almost been mad enough to shove him off. But he didn’t. He didn’t, and Bucky took it as a sign that things were okay, that he’d already cooled off. “My greedy something or other, huh?” Bucky had said, and rubbed his knuckles over Steve’s ear to make him squirm and elbow Bucky in the gut.

“You’re like a sinkhole.”

“Yeah, sure.” Bucky had squeezed him around the neck playfully and they’d gone on walking. His voice had been light, easy. “Love you, too, pal.”

It hadn’t been—

—it wasn’t anything to Bucky, he’d been sure; people said it all the time for a thousand different reasons. It wasn’t actually the first time Steve had heard it from him, but it was the first time since they’d been kids, little kids, bigger than six or seven, heads knocking together over a comic book. They didn't say it to each other, and Steve sure as shit hadn't said it to anybody else besides his mother. Love was a word for movie scripts and real girlfriends, things neither of them knew anything about. Girls already loved Bucky, the Bucky that could dance and comb his hair back like a matinee star, but the real Bucky was odd sometimes, prone to clamming up or talking too loud in mixed company, saying too many cheap lines he'd picked up from the movies, or going a steady stream about something he’d just read. They were getting older, and Bucky was catching up a lot faster, in ways that could make Steve jealous; but sometimes Steve would still find him in a corner talking a blue streak about The Master Mind of Mars to somebody who looked ready to gnaw their own arm off. Steve loved that about him: loved that the brain behind his beautiful face ran just as off-track as Steve’s, sometimes, even though it tended to return faster, and on a smoother rail. Compared to Steve Bucky was perfect, should have been bronzed and put in the Brooklyn Museum; but then again there were still bits of him that other people didn’t pay attention to, didn’t seem to appreciate. If he’d really been a bronze, those bits would have been the little marks where the sprues were chiseled off, rounded places that were burnished a little too smooth. But those were the things that made you appreciate what you were looking at, let you know that somebody had worked and toiled and sweated and loved the thing in front of them, had wanted to bring something new into being just for the sake of art, of work; for the sake of wanting to be alive in a world that was beautiful. Those were some of the bits of Bucky that Steve liked best.

It hadn’t been anything to Bucky to say it, but it had been something to Steve, those words, simple as they were; Steve had carried them around for years, playing them over and over on the Victrola inside him. Letting them run wild. Imagining it: imagining Bucky on his side of the spare bed in the dark, mouthing them again in silence after everybody else had gone to sleep. Saying them against the back of Steve’s neck while the sun came in through the upper windows, saying it with his eyes squeezed shut while Steve kissed his way down Bucky’s belly to take him into his mouth. Steve had lain in his sheets at home and worked himself over to the sound of those words in his mouth, had come in his hand guilty and lonely and heartsick, knowing he’d never hear them the way he wanted to say them back. But for a second or two it was enough, sometimes. It was enough to listen to Bucky inside his head saying, love you too, love you too, enough of a meal of happiness that Steve didn’t starve. Bucky might not have loved him but he still gave Steve everything, was more than enough, just being everything he was. This was the end of the story. This was the thing that Steve forgot, that he’s just remembering now: the memory that makes the other one slide into place. He’d eaten all of Steve’s chips on Sunday but then he’d come by late on Monday night with the end of a roast and a dozen new potatoes wrapped up in paper, shrugging, saying his mother was worried it’d go to waste, sinkhole or no sinkhole. He’d eaten his plate at the kitchen table with Steve, waiting for Steve’s mother to get home, and stayed to do the dishes after she ate, even though it was close to midnight.

Steve had watched him clearing their plates, looked at his bare arms with the sleeves rolled to the elbow, the napkin still tucked into the neck of his shirt. He’d been saying something about Burleigh Grimes, and Steve had thought two things at once. The first was that nobody had sent Bucky at all. Winnie was a saint but Bucky had never needed sending. And the second hadn’t been a thought at all but a feeling, one that he’d had rumbling inside for years, one that he’d been shoving down, stomping on, trying to push aside. But he couldn’t anymore. It had happened slowly, one laugh at a time, one look, one touch, and then it happened all at once, and it happened forever, over and over, again and again in new ways, over Steve’s entire life. When he rebuilt himself, it was already bricked into his foundations. It’s been pulling at him all this time, even though he’d forgotten how and why. It's sent him to the beach over and over and over, whenever he lost his grip on the world, on himself, it dragged him back to the center. To this point. This feeling. It is a chain death couldn’t break.

He reaches for it now, and it doesn’t fail him. Steve feels it stretching across the distance, across the void. Steve weaves it out of nothingness and wraps it around both wrists, tight, tighter, feels it anchor itself inside him and around him: the veinlike root that is the conduit of all life, the pulsing heart of the thing inside him that won’t let go.

Steve pulls for all he’s worth. He pulls and strains, and drags, and feels it yank—

 

 

 

 

—and opens his eyes to radiance, the warmth of the sun.

He’s found him.

Bucky is suspended in the void, frozen in mid-fall, arms outstretched as if he’s wheeling through the air. But he’s floating, weightless. His eyes are shut. He almost looks peaceful. Steve grabs onto his metal wrist, locks his fingers around it. Feels the panic in his chest ebb a little. He should get them out of here. And he will. But there’s something—mesmerizing, about him, like this. Something hypnotic.

Something comes over Steve like a sensation, a shiver. A whisper over his shoulder. There are thin tendrils of light snaking around Bucky, disappearing into his skin. Making him glow. They’re so gentle, so elegant, curling like script, as if Bucky was covered in illuminated letters. But they vanish like clouds when Steve reaches out to brush his fingers through them. All but a few. A few loose threads dangling from him, invitingly, trailing like kite strings. Steve runs his hand along the curve of Bucky’s arm and pulls one tiny, translucent thread. It spools between his fingers and goes taut, and when Steve tugs he can see a whole network forming like spiderwebs, creeping up Bucky’s neck. He finds another string at his waist and joins it with the others, watches it knit itself around Bucky more tightly, like a shining net. Steve tangles his fingers in it, tugs Bucky closer, not letting go of his wrist. Bucky’s glowing like an ember now, warm and inviting: the threads are shimmering around him like a cocoon, growing brighter, so bright it hurts to look at him, and Steve is still weaving the threads back into place, one by one, each where it belongs.

He finds the last loose thread and tucks it over, under, and Bucky is waking up, Bucky is looking into his eyes, Bucky is opening his mouth—

—in silent, rigid horror.

He gasps and pushes Steve away and Steve startles, almost lets go. Steve tries to pull him closer and Bucky writhes and fights him, kicks out, and in desperation Steve hangs on tighter and shifts quick as he can, pulls them out of the void without even thinking of a destination. He just—goes, pushes off, and they land and roll down a soft slope of sand, collapsing on each other just at the tideline. Bucky shoves him off and stumbles to his feet, staggers a few steps away and collapses onto his knees, head down and arms cradling his skull, shaking. Steve gets up to follow him, to see where he’s hurt.

“Stop,” Bucky says, muffled, into the wet sand. “Get—away,” he says, and a sound like a sob cracks out of him. Only one: he sucks in the next one, wrenches it down. He’s himself, Steve thinks. The programming, the wipe, whatever they did, it’s over. He’s himself again, but—“Don’t touch me,” Bucky says, raggedly, when Steve inches closer.

“Bucky—”

“Get away from me,” he says. “Get away from me.”

“Okay,” Steve says. “Okay.” He puts his hands up but Bucky doesn’t even look at him, doesn’t turn around. After a moment of watching his back rise and fall unevenly, Steve clears his throat. “You didn't hurt me," he says. "I'm okay. And Kutepov should live. Nobody got killed." Bucky doesn’t respond. "Did they—was it the earpiece?” Steve tries. “You have to take it out. Buck, maybe you should,” he's saying, but Bucky has already done it; he crushes it between his fingers and throws it across the sand, into the water. The water swells up and swallows the pieces, drags them away like trash.

They stay there like that for a few minutes, and then a few minutes longer. On the beach at night time slows and stretches; there’s barely any sound but the waves rocking steadily. Bucky shudders for a long while until he’s able to hold himself still. He folds his arms across his stomach and leans down until his head is almost on the ground; his metal fingers clutch his other arm so tight that the skin has turned white. Steve wonders if it’ll leave a bruise. He stands and waits and watches Bucky breathe. He doesn’t know what else to do. He can’t leave him. Back in the city they must still be running in crisis mode, wondering what the hell’s going on. If either of them are still alive. He ought to shift to Peggy or Gabe, at least just for a second, let them know Bucky’s—whatever he is. Okay. Back in control. Steve looks out across the shore, at the houses dotting the coastline. They’re in Montauk, or somewhere close, he thinks. The first place he came ashore is probably less than a mile away. It feels like another country now, this beach. It’s changed. He’s changed. At every moment back then he felt existence sliding away from him, drifting out of his hands like dandelion seeds. But that seems like a long time ago.

“What,” Bucky says. “Did you do?”

“Huh?” Steve snaps out of his thoughts. “What did I do when?”

“What did you do to me?” Bucky says. He looks up at Steve and it’s—it’s Azzano, looking out of his face; it’s the haunted, sick eyes he turned on Steve the first night free in the woods, when he said he wasn’t hungry, he was fine thanks, he didn’t want a drink of water or a blanket, give ‘em to somebody else. He’d laid between the tree roots with his arms around his guts like he was afraid they’d fall out, rot into ribbons. Steve had been too scared to touch him, scared he’d wrap his arms around Bucky’s banged-up body and never let go again. “What did you do to me?” Bucky repeats, and Steve jerks like Bucky’s hit him.

“I don’t know,” Steve says. “I didn’t do anything.”

“You did,” Bucky says. “I can feel it.” His hand makes a claw against his chest. The tips of his fingers press in. “Somehow.”

“Did what?” Steve says, and Bucky puts both hands over his face, sags down again. “Jesus, you’re scaring me, Buck.”

“I remember,” Bucky says. “I remember everything.” He’s crying now, silently: the tears leak out from under his hands, spill down over his chin and down his neck. Steve kneels down and tries to touch his shoulder and Bucky sways back, reels away. “God, God, why did you do this,” he says. He’s shaking. “Why did you make me.”

“I didn’t do anything, Buck, I swear, I just tried to find you,” Steve says. His hands are in fists. He wishes Bucky would let him closer: if he could just hold him, make sure he's alright, if he could do anything useful, instead of sitting here like a confused lump. “I’d never leave you behind. I swear, Buck, I didn’t—” he says, and stops. Thinks about the golden threads. The net they made around him, the way they grew brighter—glowed, radiated—when Steve joined the ends together. When he drew them out, connected them. Wove them back into place— Jesus, God Almighty. What has he done? He didn't know. He didn't understand. “You—you feel different?”

Bucky takes his hands away from his face and stares at him, hollow-eyed, tear tracks smudged down his cheeks.

“I remember everything,” he says. “Everything.”

“Oh, Christ,” says Steve.

 

 

 

 

Bucky doesn’t talk after that, but he does get up when Steve begs him a fourth time. He won’t let Steve touch him at first, but eventually he lets Steve hold onto the back of his ripped-up jacket and shift them to Steve’s empty apartment in Brooklyn. He's done crying. He looks like a used-up rag. He stands in the middle of the living room and stares at nothing while Steve makes a phone call.

“Where the hell are you?” Peggy asks, when Steve finally gets her on the line. “Where’s Barnes?”

“We’re in Brooklyn,” he says. “My place. Don’t send anybody, he’s—he’s fine. He needs a minute. But he’s fine. He’s—under his own control.”

“Howard says Lukin started speaking Russian the moment you got up from the table. A string of words, very precise. And then he excused himself. We’ve got the tapes. Barnes was recording everything.”

“He was listening in,” Steve says. “They gambled on that. Used trigger words, somehow. He had an earpiece, too, that Lukin must have given him. Did we find—”

“We’ve got three teams hunting for him now. And Kutepov’s alive, under guard. I think he’ll talk.”

“If he won’t talk to you,” Steve says, “he’ll talk to me.”

“Let me worry about that,” Peggy says. There’s the sound of a door shutting on the other end, and the room she’s in is suddenly much quieter. “You’re sure that you’re both safe,” she says, low, and Steve glances down the hallway. There’s no sound from the living room.

“We’re alright. I’ll keep you posted.”

“Be careful, Steven,” she says, and hangs up.

When Steve comes back Bucky is gone; he finds him sitting on the floor in the bathroom with the lights off, back against the tiled wall, knees drawn up. He’s shucked his jacket into the tub and he’s got just a white shirt on, coming untucked from his pants. Steve turns the lights on and they both flinch. He turns them off again, and crouches down on the rug. Bucky keeps his eyes on him, but not the same way he’s been watching Steve the last few weeks: the birdlike curiosity is gone. He’s not cataloguing Steve, trying to fit pieces together. There’s something deadened in his face, in his eyes. But also something familiar. Something in the twist of his mouth, the way he holds his shoulders. Barely anything at all, but it breaks Steve’s heart to recognize them, these parts he didn’t even fully realize were missing, sliding back into place. Bucky's little chisel marks. His unmistakable being.

“They had other GIs,” Bucky says, casually, as if he's continuing a conversation they started earlier. Maybe there was one, in his head. Steve doesn't interrupt. “Banged-up kids they were tired of torturing.” His left hand twitches, resting on the floor. “Guys we probably served with. I beat a lot of them to death,” he says, and watches Steve’s face. Steve can feel himself frowning. He doesn't want Bucky to take it the wrong way.

“They tortured you,” he says, and Bucky looks at him like he’s said something unbelievably stupid.

“At first.”

“Buck—”

“At first,” he says, softly. “You say no, and you say no the second time, and when you’re done shitting blood, and your hands and feet are knitting back together, they ask again. They don’t stop asking until you don’t remember what they’re asking anymore, you don’t remember why you’re saying no, and the next time they ask it seems,” Bucky says, and chokes, and puts a hand to his forehead. Tries to keep his voice level. “The next time it seems better, it almost seems better, than pissing yourself when they shock you, than having to watch—it almost—you almost want—Christ. Christ, I wish you’d killed me,” he says. “I wish you’d killed me on the bridge. I wish you’d done it.”

“Bucky,” Steve says. The horror inside him is cold, writhing, like a coiled snake. “I wouldn’t.”

“You should have,” Bucky says. His eyes are red. “You could have bashed my head in with the shield. It’s not hard to do.”

“Mother of God,” Steve says. “Bucky.” He reaches for Bucky’s arm, his left one, because it’s closest; Bucky recoils and pulls the metal arm up, towards his shoulder.

“Don’t touch this, fucking—thing,” he says. “Don’t.”

“There’s no part of you I’m afraid of,” Steve says, and Bucky’s face seizes for a second, does something strange.

“It’s not,” he says, and digs at his opposite shoulder with his flesh hand. “It’s not, it’s not fucking—get away from me, get away from me,” he says, and rips at his sleeve, starts tearing at the seam between his skin and the metal joint. He shoves Steve away when he tries to pry his hand off, gets up and stalks out of the bathroom. Steve follows him and Bucky tugs at his own arm frantically, like he’s working himself up into a panic. “Get it off,” he says. “Get it off, get away from me.” He’s drawing blood: red blooms on his shirt, around the shoulder, running in thin ribbons under his arm.

“You have to stop. Please, Buck, you’ve got to stop,” Steve says, and manages to get a hand on Bucky’s flesh forearm. Bucky tenses but doesn’t throw him off. He’s still twitchy and wild around the eyes, but he looks tired. Unbelievably tired. Bone-weary. “Come on. Please.”

“I can’t make it stop,” he says. His mouth quivers. “I can’t stop seeing it. I had pieces but now I can't, I can't make it stop.”

“I’m sorry,” Steve says, helplessly. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know. I didn’t know anything, I’m so sorry, I am.” He puts a hand up to Bucky’s cheek, slowly, carefully, and Bucky doesn’t startle away. He leans into it, just a fraction. “I’m sorry.”

Bucky sinks into himself, deflates a little. He lets himself be led into the bedroom, where Steve pulls his shoes and socks off, helps him get out of his pants and the ruined formal shirt. Bucky slides between the covers and turns his face into the pillow, lies still, so still that Steve holds his own breath for a terrified, irrational second to make sure he’s still breathing. Steve sits on the other edge of the bed in silence, wondering what to do. How to help. He doesn’t have a fucking clue. He feels so foolish. So terrified. His fingers worry the seam in the blanket endlessly. After a long time in which neither of them say anything—an hour, maybe, or only half of one—Bucky rolls over slightly, just enough to look over his shoulder at Steve, and says,

“Could you,” and then rolls back without finishing his sentence, curls in on himself. “You don’t have to.”

“Could I what?” Steve says, leaning over. “Anything you need.”

“Could you,” Bucky says, and jerks his chin at himself, tucks his shoulders tighter, like he’s making himself smaller for Steve to—oh, Steve thinks. Steve kicks his own shoes off and lies down on his side, facing Bucky’s back. He hesitates for a second, and then slides an arm around his waist tentatively, lightly. Puts his palm against Bucky’s stomach. Bucky shudders all over, like he’s been freezing, and settles into the bed a little.

“Before,” Steve says, to the back of his head. “You didn’t want—me to touch you. I thought, maybe when you remembered, you—changed your mind.”

“No, I,” Bucky says. It trails off. “No,” he says. “I didn’t.” He tucks his elbow over Steve’s wrist, holding him in place. Like he wants to be sure Steve won't pull away. For some reason this is it, the thing that snaps Steve's composure completely in half, makes his face heat and crumple like he's going to cry. He's so ashamed. God, he can't believe— he's never wanted to hurt someone less in all his life, and he has. He has.

“I wish it had been me,” Steve says, and Bucky goes stiff as a board in his arms. But it's just spilling out, he can't help it. “On the train. Me instead of you.” There is a long, apprehensive silence. Bucky doesn't say anything. Steve wipes his face on his own arm and pulls himself together. And then Bucky finally exhales a slow, uneven breath. Steve still feels like he’s holding his own.

“Don’t ever say that to me again,” Bucky says, quietly. “It doesn’t help.” He takes Steve’s hand off his belly and brings it up, over his heart. Covers it with his own. Closes his eyes and nudges his feet back until they’re touching. Steve lies behind him, belly to back; so close he’s able to feel the moment he slides into sleep.

Steve closes his own eyes, and waits.

 

.

Chapter Text

Sleep doesn’t come, but his mind drifts in the small hours, so far off into the clouds that he comes back to himself only when Bucky turns over, and then turns over again, restless, on the other side of the mattress. It’s late morning and the sun is burning in long thin stripes along the edges of the curtains. Steve pulled them shut last night, hoping Bucky would stay in bed and take all the rest he needed. But Bucky’s awake, watching him. Lying on his side with his hands tucked under his chin.

“You remember Harvey Beattie?” Bucky says out of nowhere. Steve blinks. Tries to place it.

“Eighth grade?”

“Yeah.” Bucky sucks his bottom lip into his mouth for a second, worries his teeth over it, the way that used to mean he was thinking hard about something. “He used to call you a fairy behind your back.” It takes Steve a second, but then it pushes a startled little laugh out of him.

“Wow,” he says. “Is that why you put his bike in the river?”

“No,” Bucky says. “That was for cutting a picture of my sister out of a yearbook and keeping it in his pocket like a fucking creep.”

“There’s one in every class,” Steve says. They lie in comfortable silence for a minute, Steve trying to remember exactly what Harvey looked like: was he the one with glasses, or the one with the perpetually untied shoes? Maybe he was the one with the fancy department-store sweaters who used to steal things from the cloakroom. He barely remembers eighth grade: he had two fevers over the winter that kept him out for weeks, and by the time he got back in the spring it was like everybody had forgotten he existed. Steve mostly remembers keeping his head in his notebook that year, doodling figures into the margin to show Bucky later, pirates and smugglers and guys out of the Detective Story Hour. It was considered supremely babyish by some of their classmates to still be listening to the Detective Story Hour at the ancient age of thirteen, but Bucky was already tall and popular enough that nobody would have said it to his face, and it was widely known that he’d hit anybody who hit Steve.

Bucky makes a soft, throat-clearing sound.

“I ran into him again at basic,” he says. “He said it was a good thing, you getting 4-F’d. That I’d finally stop having a queer shadow.”

Steve doesn’t say anything. He knew, he sort of—he definitely knew, when he stopped to worry about it, what it would mean for Bucky if his best pal ever got caught out for being what he was. That brush would have tarred him, too. But Bucky really was his best friend, the person he liked most in the world. It was Steve’s one true selfishness, the one thing he never tried to make himself give up. Cutting Bucky loose to spare his reputation, for a fallout that was probably inevitable, was just unthinkable. It was too far. Steve would have done anything to spare him, except for give him up.

“Did I really make it hard for you?” Steve asks. He doesn’t know what he’ll do if Bucky says yes, yes, you made it awful, impossible, but maybe he did, and didn’t know. Bucky back then would never have told him. This Bucky might.

“No,” Bucky says. “No. If Harvey’s alive, I,” he says, and now something like a smile flickers across his face, lights his eyes for a second. He buries part of his cheek in the pillow. Steve’s missed something. “Could send that dipshit a fruit basket.” He takes a look at Steve’s confused expression and says, “I was slower than you. Alright? I had to catch up.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“Let me paint you a picture then, Michelangelo,” Bucky says. His mouth is still making that strange, half-sideways smile. Like he wants to smile but can’t quite manage it, but isn’t going to stop trying. “The barracks smell like wet socks and all anybody does is complain all fucking day long. I’m crawling around on my belly in the mud. The only decent thing is that every couple of days, like clockwork, I get a letter. And not just any letter. Two pages long, three pages long, lots of cartoons. News about my ma, my sister. I have a fat stack of letters this high, and everybody treats me like an asshole because they think I’m dating two, three girls at once, to have that many letters in my trunk.”

“Jesus,” Steve says, with a hand over his face. “I was that bad?”

“You were worse,” Bucky says, gently. “And here comes Harvey, telling me it was all about to get better, because while I was gone you were finally gonna find some other poor, pretty sap in the neighborhood to follow around.” Bucky pulls Steve’s hand away from his eyes, and doesn’t let go of his wrist afterwards, just holds on with his fingertips against Steve’s pulse. He looks a little nervous. “Do you know what I thought? My first thought?”

“No,” Steve says.

“I thought, if Steve finds somebody else while I’m out here, I’ll wring that guy’s fucking neck,” Bucky says. “That’s what I thought.” Steve can feel his face coloring, his throat closing up just a little. He never—Jesus, back then? “I didn’t know, until I knew. And then, God, there you were. I got clubbed by about a decade all at once.”

“Bucky,” Steve says. He doesn’t really trust himself to say anything else. And then Bucky slides his hand up until their fingers tangle, tugs them closer, and presses a kiss to the back of Steve’s hand, the way Steve did in the hospital, at the motel. When they’d barely just come back to each other. His eyes lift to meet Steve’s.

“I’ve got a lot of things in my head,” he says. A supreme fucking understatement, Steve thinks. Bucky’s half-smile is fading. “But that’s the thought I woke up to.” He shrugs like it’s simple enough, but Steve can see something in his face that’s a little uneasy, that’s still waiting. He needs Steve to say something. “So there you go.”

“I love you,” Steve says, because it’s true, and reaches for him; part of him can’t help but think it’s a kind of first time, isn’t it, saying it to all of him, to all the returned pieces and the new ones, the whole of him. Bucky closes his eyes and lets Steve draw him in, pushes his face against Steve’s neck and goes almost boneless, lets Steve cradle the back of his head and wrap an arm around his waist, knock their legs together over and under the blanket. “I love you,” Steve says, into his hair, kissing the side of his head. Bucky presses his face in, harder, and hangs on.

“You should,” Bucky says, and stops, and inhales. “You should take me in,” he says, and then talks over Steve’s protests. “You should hand me over to Carter. Right now, today. I’ll tell her everything I know. It could hurt them. Help you.”

“Buck, you barely—”

“I’ll go alone and turn myself in,” Bucky says, “but I’d rather go with you. Alright?”

“Yeah,” Steve says. “Okay.”

“Okay.”

Neither of them move.

“How about, in a minute,” Steve says, and the exhale Bucky makes against his throat is almost, almost, a laugh.

 

 

 

 

They’re nearly the same size, but not quite: Steve’s clothes fit him poorly, but they do fit. He’s broader in some places and narrower in others, just an inch or two shorter. Steve’s pants are tight on him around the thighs, and they droop over the tops of his shoes just a little. Bucky was never a clotheshorse but he used to keep things neat, cuffed and creased. Right now he doesn’t seem to mind, and Steve doesn’t bother saying anything about it. Bucky’s taken a shower and his hair’s still wet when he combs it back; between that and a close shave it’s a transformation, a step back in time. Except that his posture’s stiffer, his face more squared-off; there’s an old break in his nose that healed fast but not perfectly. Steve catches him looking in the mirror at himself with a flicker of pain, but it passes when he sees Steve in the open doorway.

“I’m ready,” he says.

Steve calls them a cab and Bucky waits inside the stairwell, gloved hands in his pockets, alternating between pacing and standing stock still against the wall, eyes twitching to the door when he hears a sound. It was his idea and he doesn’t seem to be regretting it, exactly. It just seems like everything’s been amplified for him, the world’s been turned back up to a level he can’t ignore or filter out, like the first days he was living as a person again. Steve thinks about him at the safe house, sitting on the floor in the basement, and makes a point to bump their knees together in the back seat of the cab, to keep his hand on the seat next to Bucky’s thigh. On the sidewalk in front of headquarters Steve leans over and says,

“When you want to leave, we’ll leave.” He squeezes Bucky’s arm gently, above the elbow. “You’re done whenever you say you’re done. You give me the word and we can go anywhere you want. Anywhere in the world, I mean it.”

“Yeah,” Bucky says, staring up at the façade. “Thanks.”

They walk in through the front door and Steve takes him through security carefully, describing everything that’s going to happen in advance. Steve doesn’t let them empty his pockets or pat him down, and nobody corrects him or invokes protocol, which he supposes is a perk of having exploded yourself for your country at twenty-five. At the desk he watches Bucky write James Buchanan Barnes into the register with an unsteady hand, and feels something inside of him swell with an indescribable ache.

Peggy is waiting for them in her office, sitting on the edge of her desk instead of behind it, with her hands clasped in her lap. The whole room is bathed in warm sunlight: it takes Steve a minute to realize that’s because the curtains are still missing. She’s gotten somebody to haul two armchairs into the corner, and a tea table set with a pot of coffee and mugs from the staff canteen. Her notebook and pen are waiting on the far chair. She stands up when Steve comes into the room, and then she looks over her shoulder and her face changes, softens a fraction with something between old happiness and fresher grief.

“Hello, James,” she says.

“Peggy,” Bucky says, in a voice that barely shakes. “Long time.”

“About two weeks, technically,” she says, and smiles, and Bucky’s shoulders relax a fraction. “Please, sit. I have coffee, unless you’d prefer something else.”

“Coffee’s fine,” he says. He steps forward, but as he passes Bucky touches the edge of his hand, his little finger, to the end of Steve’s sleeve. Just brushes it, in a gesture that would seem unintentional to anybody else. But he takes a deep breath as he does it, and then moves away. Takes a seat, feet flat on the floor and back straight.

“Howard’s downstairs,” Peggy says, to Steve. “He has a few things to talk to you about.”

“I’ll find him later.”

Bucky looks between the two of them, and then at his hands, resting on the tops of his thighs.

“I’m alright,” he says. “Go on.”

“I don’t mind staying,” Steve says. “Just ignore me. I’ll be here if you need anything.”

“Steven,” Peggy says. “Could I speak to you in the hallway for a moment?” And then she grabs his arm and marches him out before he has a chance to say yes. When they’re around the corner, she stops and turns him around. “Go downstairs,” she says. “We’ll call if we need you.”

“But—”

“In all likelihood, there are things he doesn’t want to say in front of you,” Peggy says, over him, and Steve stops talking. “You being who you are. Him being who he is. That’s as clear and polite as I can be about it.” Steve opens his mouth and shuts it again, and nods his head. “Good.” They walk back and Bucky’s still sitting in exactly the same position, not even fidgeting.

“I’m not going far,” Steve says. “Okay? You need me—”

“I got it,” Bucky says. He looks up, and there’s the hint of a thin smile on his face. “Tell Howard his prototype pulse gun was a piece of shit, will you?”

“Yessir,” says Steve.

 

 

 

 

“—and the guy leans over and says, congratulations, sir. You really are a monkey’s uncle.”

“F minus, Stark,” says Jim. “You need some new material.”

“Redirect some of your R&D budget,” Steve says, from the doorway, and they all turn around: Howard and Jim and Dugan and Gabe, faces shifting from bored to eager, suddenly and anxiously expectant. Dugan immediately stands up, like somebody jerked the string that holds his head upright.

“He okay?” he says, and Steve’s hit by the worry in his face. He wishes Bucky could have been a fly on the wall for this, just for a minute. To know what he means to these people, even after all these years.

“Back to himself,” Steve says.

“Peggy said.” Dugan sits back down. “But he’s—alright?”

“Mostly,” Steve says. He sits down on a stool at the end of the table, next to Jim. “As okay as he can be, for now.”

“Does he remember what happened?”

“He remembers everything,” Steve says, and sucks down a wave of guilt that stirs in his stomach. “He remembered shooting Kutepov. Hearing the trigger words.”

“About that,” Howard says, and snaps his fingers. He pulls the reel to reel over from another bench and plugs it in, starts fiddling with the controls. “We caught all of it on tape. Really clear audio. Whatever other skills he’s got, Barnes sure knows how to set up a covert microphone. It took my guys half an hour last night to even find it.” He winds the tapes back and presses play, and Steve can hear Kutepov talking about novels, crisp as a bell. A minute or so later, Steve hears his own voice apologize for stepping out. “Here it is,” Howard says, and turns the speaker up. There’s a rustling noise from Lukin putting his napkin on the table and pushing back from his seat, and then he clears his throat. On the tape, Howard starts to ask if there’s a problem.

желание,” Lukin says, distinctly. “Pжaвый, семнадцать, pассвет, печь, девять, добросердечный, возвращение на родину, oдин, грузовой вагон.” It takes less than fifteen seconds for him to say them all, enunciating clearly, voice ringing above the background chatter and clinking forks. And then there’s Kutepov laughing at him, saying something about speech-making, telling Howard it’s from an old poem about soldiering.

“That son of a bitch,” Howard says, under his breath. He stops the tape.

“We’ve translated them, but the words are meaningless individually,” Gabe says. “Some of them are numbers—one, nine. They wouldn’t work as triggers on their own. So it’s got to be the order, the way they’re delivered.”

“A cascade,” Steve says. “Say it right, one after the other, and the cumulative effect washes him away.”

“Were you this smart before I electrocuted you?” Howard says, and then waves the question away with both hands. “Don’t answer that.”

“So what can we do? Can we break the triggers somehow?” Steve glances around the table, and Howard’s suddenly not looking at him, and then neither is Gabe. Dugan and Jim look at each other for a split second. “You’ve already talked about this,” he realizes. “And you don’t think I’m going to like it.”

“There’s a lot of things we don’t know,” Gabe says. “We don’t know if this was a one-time thing, their version of break glass in case of emergency. We don’t know if the words work every time.”

“And there’s really only one way to find out,” Howard says.

“No.”

“Steve—”

“I said no,” Steve says. “You’re not putting him through that. Not again.”

“Then we have no way of knowing what happens, the next time somebody gets close to him,” Howard says. “We have no way of knowing if he’s a time bomb.”

“He’s a person,” Steve says, through his teeth. Howard’s face is bitterly sad.

“He’s a lot of things,” he says. “But he’s a danger to himself, and to everybody around him, if somebody else takes control again. Lukin’s in the wind. How many more people know those words? If we can figure out the triggers, work backwards, try to switch them off somehow, that’s his best shot.”

“We should give him the choice,” Gabe says. “I think we should at least give him the choice.” Steve looks at him, and then at Jim and Dugan. They both give him a nod.

“We can make it easier on him,” Howard says. “Make sure he knows he won’t be put in a position to hurt anybody.” Steve stands with his arms folded across his chest for a long minute, and everybody watches his face, and waits.

“You’re right,” he says, at last. “It’s not my call. It’s his. Do your prep, do whatever you need to do. But if he says no, then that’s it.”

“Yeah, of course,” Gabe says, at the same time that Howard says,

“Of course, Jesus, who do you take me for.”

They start talking about padded rooms and soft restraints, sedatives, about what might calm him down without putting him out, and Steve has to leave the room, has to get away. Nobody tries to make him stay. He finds an empty stairwell at the end of the hall and sits down on a landing with his head in his hands, thinking about the empty eyes Bucky turned on him on the rooftop, the flat expressionless face that loomed over his while Bucky choked him. He’s doesn’t know how the programming broke the first time, really, doesn’t understand much about the last twelve hours. If Bucky vanishes under that mask again, under that—iceberg, that nothingness, Steve doesn’t know if he can take it. But that’s such a self-centered thought, he tries to push it down. He’ll be whatever Bucky needs him to be. Do whatever Bucky needs him to do, even if it’s to stand in a room and watch helplessly while he plunges under again. Steve tugs at the roots of his hair and tries not to think about anything at all for a while, tries to listen to the sound of the surf inside his own head.

It’s hours before Bucky and Peggy come downstairs, both of them looking like they’ve pulled themselves together after falling apart. Steve’s been sitting at the far end of the workbench, watching Howard take his stolen power cell apart. Apparently, like Steve it runs on tesseract energy, or it should. There’s nothing activating it right now. “It’s deader than a doornail,” Howard says, turning its tiny glass casing over in his hands. “The design’s intended to amplify energy, not generate it. So presumably there’s something bigger that it’s meant to feed from.”

“Oh, hooray,” says Jim.

“Sounds a little ominous,” Bucky says, from behind them. He’s got his metal hand in his pocket, and Peggy at his side. He looks at Steve, and then away, but his eyes flicker back now and then. He seems to be trying to say that he’s okay.

“Heya Sarge,” Dugan says, quietly, and Bucky gives them all a jerky nod. Everybody looks like they’d like to move closer, but they don’t. Except Steve. He takes the power cell from Howard’s hand and holds it up for Bucky to take a look at. Bucky frowns.

“I saw designs for those,” he says. “Earlier this year.”

“Know anything about them?”

“Not much,” he says. He stands closer and leans in to consider the blue light. “I know everybody was in a frenzy about it. But I was only being moved in and out. Didn’t catch a lot.”

“Sergeant Barnes has already been exceedingly helpful today,” Peggy says. “One thing in particular, I think you all should hear.”

“Zola,” Bucky says, and Steve can see what it costs him to say that name. “Zola’s not Zola.”

“Uh,” says Dugan. “Huh?”

“In what sense?” says Howard.

“In a real literal sense,” says Bucky. “It’s his body, but he’s got another passenger. I don’t know exactly how long it’s been going on. But as of—a year ago, maybe longer? There’s somebody else in there running the show.”

“What, like—he’s possessed?” says Jim.

“Yeah,” Bucky says. “Like he’s possessed. And whoever is in there either has all his memories, or,” he looks at Steve, and his throat bobs. “He knew us. You and me.” Bucky turns his face away for a second, tries to hold his features still. Steve can see the whites of his eyes. “He definitely knew me.” Steve can’t help himself: he takes a step forward and pulls an arm around Bucky, around his shoulders, so Bucky can turn his face away from everybody else. He doesn’t give a good goddamn what anybody thinks about it, if they think anything at all. The archangel Michael and his flaming steak-knife couldn’t pry Steve’s arm off of Bucky right now. “Alright,” Bucky says. He makes a hoarse little laugh, but he doesn’t move away. The laugh sounds faked, and he's close to shaking. “Alright, big guy.”

“Well, that redraws the goddamned map, doesn’t it,” says Howard.

“It certainly does,” Peggy says. They all start talking over each other, talking about who it might be, what kind of power that would take, who on earth would want to go through life pretending to be Zola of all people, but Steve’s brain is caught on something. He’s snagged on a nail, somewhere. He’s got to follow the yarn back. He lets Bucky go, and looks at the cell still in his hand.

“I wonder,” says Steve. He concentrates, holds it tight in his fingers. “Be right back,” he says, and shifts just as everybody’s asking him where the hell he’s going.

He sits in the void for a moment, letting the currents sweep him; focuses on the pulsing energy that shimmers outwards, invisibly, from the endless field of stars. There’s so much of it out here. So much and so little, both at once. So much energy, so much life. But he’s felt stirrings of another consciousness out here. Maybe many. He’s spoken to them. Heard them. He’s never been alone in this emptiness, not really. Steve holds his hand out and lets everything come to him, flow through him, the way he did when he was trying to open a path for himself inside the base. When he shattered the machine from the inside out. He soaks it in and dives down and plunges up.

When he shifts back, he opens his hand. The dead cell’s glimmering, glowing bright blue against his palm. Alive and burning like a candle. Howard gapes like a fish and everybody crowds around, knocking their stools over.

“I know who it is,” Steve says. He looks at Bucky, and he thinks that Bucky must know, now, too. “You were right, Buck. He knew us, and we knew him. All of us.”

“Who?” Peggy demands.

“I crashed his plane,” says Steve.

"Jesus H. Jehoshaphat Jack-Jumping Christ," Howard says. "What?"

 

 

.

Chapter Text

Kutepov is sitting upright in his hospital bed eating red Jell-O awkwardly with a spoon when Steve comes in, flanked by Brewer and Gabe. Gabe sits in the chair closest to the bedrail, Brewer leans against the opposite wall, and Steve stands at the foot with his arms folded across his chest. Kutepov licks the back of the spoon and sets it down on his tray. His right arm’s in a sling, taking pressure off the bullet wound in his shoulder.

“Hard to eat this,” he says. “Wrong hand. Next time, if your friend could choose the other shoulder, please.”

“That can be arranged,” Brewer mutters.

“You called Lukin the devil,” Steve says, tapping the footboard. Kutepov looks up at him wearily, and then back down at his lunch. There are dark circles under his eyes. “You said he wanted to pull us into hell.”

“Those whom God wishes to destroy,” Kutepov says, “he drives mad.”

“But it’s not hell, is it,” Steve says. “It’s the void. He wants to open the void.” And now Kutepov’s eyes snap up, losing some of their dullness. He looks at Steve with a guarded curiosity that’s almost respectful.

“I knew his father,” Kutepov says. “A good officer. His body is in a hole outside of Stalingrad. I thought if the son was half of the father, he would be worth training. He learned very quickly. He learned how to kill, how to keep secrets. I was the one who first sent him into that den of serpents, thinking we would use what he found. I taught him everything I could. But I made a mistake,” Kutepov says. “I did not teach him how to be Russian. Not well enough. He has no loyalty. He would burn the покровский собор if the Skull ordered it.”

“How will they do it?” Gabe asks. He’s got a pocket-sized notebook open, and Steve feels a swell of surprise when he realizes that Gabe’s scribbling in his own version of Peggy’s arcane shorthand. Frankly, Steve didn’t know there was another living human who could read it, let alone reproduce it. It’s oddly touching. He wonders, distractedly, if the kids know it, too. It would make any schoolroom note-passing impenetrable. “What’s the plan?”

“There is a wall around the world, yes?” Kutepov says. “They will make holes in it until it falls.”

“How, exactly?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “I would tell you if I did. But the plans were made without me. He no longer trusts me. He took my brother, and said it was to ensure my cooperation through the final phase. But my brother is dead now, so I am feeling very uncooperative.”

“I want to know why,” Steve says. “What are they looking for?”

“They’re not looking for anything,” Kutepov says. “They found it. They are tearing a hole big enough for it to come through.”

“What do you mean, it,” says Gabe.

“You must remember the Skull,” Kutepov says. “You remember he believed in—”

“The old gods,” says Steve, suddenly. “He believed in the old gods. Odin and Thor. The wolf and the serpent, and the end of the world.” Gabe and Brewer both stare at him blankly, but Kutepov smiles grimly and settles back on his pillow.

“We all laughed, then. The Germans thought magic would save them, and they could not even face our winter.” He picks up his spoon again and sticks it into the rest of the Jell-O like a miniature flag. “But now it is not so funny.” Gabe and Brewer ask more questions, things about their transit schedules and contacts, any details they can start putting together, and Kutepov answers them dutifully wherever he can. After about twenty minutes Gabe frowns and flips his notebook shut, and stands up.

“I’ve got enough to take to Peggy,” he says. He turns to Kutepov, who has been making slow work of unwrapping his Saltines. “Keep in mind that for the time being, you’re still in the custody of SHIELD. Your government’s not exactly racing to reclaim you.”

“I will think of it as a vacation,” Kutepov says, dryly. The others head into the hall, but Steve doesn’t follow right away. Brewer, with one hand on the door, shoots him a questioning look.

“Be right there,” he says. Brewer glances between him and Kutepov and then shuts the door behind him. Kutepov’s stopped fiddling with his crackers. He’s holding still, as if that might make Steve overlook him. “You make a point to draw a line between your work and HYDRA’s, I take it.”

“I do.”

“Then you should know that I won’t,” Steve says. He puts both hands on the footboard and leans in, just a little. “I won’t care what uniform they’re in.”

“You people are not very good at borders,” Kutepov says, mildly.

“The last Russian I talked to thought that you guys had some kind of claim on him,” Steve says. “You don’t. Nobody does. It’s over.”

“Certain assets—”

“I will kill anyone who comes for him,” Steve says. “With my own two hands. I swear before God. Tell your friends.”

“Captain America,” Kutepov murmurs, incredulously. “Can he keep that kind of promise?”

“I don’t know about him,” Steve says. “But I will.”

 

 

 

 

When they get back Steve finds Bucky in Peggy’s office, alone, staring out of the naked windows at the buildings across the street. One is all offices, and the other is a hotel. Most of the curtains are pulled tight, but once in a while there’s a gap, a room that’s being cleaned, or just someone who’s tired of looking at nothing and no-one. Bucky doesn’t seem to be watching for anything in particular: his brows are drawn together and his jaw is tight, like he’s been chewing at his lip again. There are papers on Peggy’s desk, fanned out like someone was just reading them. Steve takes a quick glance, and then has to try to hide the brief jolt of shock that runs through him. Of course, he thinks. It was foolish not to have thought of it already. He's been a little preoccupied. He stands next to Bucky, who makes a wan smile without turning his head.

“Apparently,” Bucky says, “I’m alive.”

“I noticed,” Steve says, softly. And then: “Ghosts don’t eat that many English muffins.” It’s probably thoughtless and terrible, but it makes Bucky actually duck his head and grin at Steve for a second, before his face slips back into something tired and pensive.

“Lot of paperwork not to be dead anymore,” Bucky says. “I'm getting an honorable discharge. I think I have one less arm than they’re comfortable with.” So it's his turn to say something inappropriate, which is how Steve remembers this game used to go; Bucky looks gratified when Steve huffs a laugh instead of just looking stricken. “There’s back pay, which sounds alright to me. And,” he says, and stops, and his thumb worries the edge of Peggy’s filing cabinet. “Medals, which. Don’t.” They stand in silence for a minute. Across the street, a maid throws open the curtains and stands in the sunlight with her arms still outstretched. Steve slips his hand into Bucky’s left one, cool metal against his own warmer skin. He links their fingers together, and after a beat, Bucky squeezes them gently.

“They gave a Purple Heart to your ma,” Steve says. “And two Crosses. She keeps them in a box on her dressing-table.”

“Great,” says Bucky, flatly. “Still room in the box?”

“Think so,” says Steve.

“I can’t do it,” Bucky says. “I can’t.” His voice is cracking; his hand squeezes Steve’s tight enough to bruise. He probably doesn’t mean to. Steve doesn’t say anything. “I won’t stand up there like some fucking— you can’t ask me to do that.”

“I won’t,” says Steve.

“I killed people,” Bucky whispers. “I killed—guys who were barely nineteen, shipped from fucking Iowa, I—I killed a woman once, a guard, I put her head through a glass—fuck,” he says, and shakes his head, grabs at his hair. “Fucking—Christ, Steve,” he hisses, shuddering violently. He’s rigid and shaking for a second, and then he leans in unexpectedly, rests his cheek on Steve’s shoulder, lets Steve fold over him protectively, an encircling wall. “I can’t take a medal,” he says. “I can’t live with that.”

“Okay,” Steve says. He doesn’t let go. They stand like that for a while, wrapped in each other. “You don’t have to want it,” Steve says, eventually. “You don’t have to take it. But you don’t have to feel like you don’t deserve it.”

“Right,” Bucky says, bitterly, and lifts his head. Pushes away. “Because they’re giving medals to rabid dogs now.”

“You weren’t—”

“Don’t tell me what I was,” Bucky says.

“Alright,” Steve says. “Alright. Just, the medal’s for bravery. And whatever else you did, whatever else you think—living is brave, Buck. It is.” Bucky's face is clouding with anger; he's opening his mouth to say something, and so Steve cuts in, abruptly, “I could have landed the plane.” It takes a second for the words to register, but when they do Bucky stops, startled into stillness like a single frame of film. “Maybe,” Steve says. He feels a cold flush of shame creeping up, up his whole body from his knees to his stomach to the back of his neck, like he’s being lowered into ice water. He’s never admitted this aloud. Not to the subcommittee at the hearing, not to the shell-shock shrink Peggy made him see for four fruitless months. Not to Peggy. Not even murmured to the tidy grave on Tilden Avenue. The official story has always been necessity. Not a split second to spare. But he doesn’t know if that’s true. He doesn’t know, not for sure. He may never. “I don’t know,” Steve says, while Bucky searches his face, wide-eyed, still holding him by the arm. “I’ve never flown anything in my life, so who knows, but I didn’t,” he says, and has to swallow back the thickness in his throat. “I didn’t try. So if you think—if you think you don’t deserve—”

“Stop,” Bucky says, and Steve does. “Are you saying—”

“God help me,” Steve says. He feels like he’s choking, like he might drift. Bucky’s hand is still tight on his wrist: he focuses down on that, on the point where they touch. Wills himself to stay. “I was a coward.”

“Shut up,” Bucky says, furiously. “Shut up.” He reaches up to rub Steve’s cheekbone with his metal thumb. The door is open, and maybe they should care, but Steve can’t. “Christ,” Bucky says, frowning, like Steve's full of shit. "You, a coward."

“Bucky.”

“Nobody talks about you like that,” Bucky says. “Not to me.”

“Now you know how I feel,” Steve says, and Bucky makes an irritated grunt. And then, miracle of miracles, rolls his eyes, like they’re nineteen and arguing about something unbearably mundane, like how much is too much to spend on a hat, or why it is exactly that Steve’s shitty socialist friends never seem capable of picking up a round.

“Fuck off,” he says, but lets Steve peck him quickly on the forehead before he lets go.

Bucky’s got more paperwork to do, so Steve sits next to him at the desk and fills in anything he doesn’t know, or doesn’t feel like finishing; he pencils in Winnie and Rebecca as Bucky’s next-of-kin in the little boxes, and writes down the number and street of the Barnes place under “PERMANENT ADDRESS.” Bucky catches him doing it but doesn’t say anything; after a hesitation he starts to write that into the forms, too. “I told Howard okay,” Bucky says, when they’re done. “On one condition. That you’ll—be there. The whole time.”

“Yeah, of course,” Steve says. “Wouldn’t make you do it alone.”

“I mean,” Bucky says, “to stop me. If I try anything.”

“Oh,” Steve says. “Yeah, Buck. I can do that.”

“Good,” Bucky says. He slumps back in his chair, eyes unfocusing the way they used to do in the safehouse sometimes, when eating a real meal or watching television or being spoken to like a person was all becoming a bit too much to handle. “Good,” he repeats, and runs his hand reflexively along the armrest.

“It doesn’t have to be today,” Steve says. “I can check in with them, go over the protocol. You can go to my place, get some rest.”

“No,” Bucky says, thoughtfully. His eyes are still fixed above the bookcases. “Sooner is better.”

“Whatever you want.”

“What I want,” Bucky says. He smiles, but it’s not happy. “Sure.”

 

 

 

 

There’s a control room on the bottom level with a tiny shatterproof observation window and an intercom, a setup Howard uses when he needs to test something that’s a little louder and a little more volatile than the upstairs labs can handle. He and Gabe were obviously scrambling to make it look less like the photographs of the terrifying surgical facilities that Steve brought back from the base in Maine; the first thing Steve notices when they go in is Peggy's tea table sitting in the corner, now topped absurdly with a potted fern. Bucky stops in the doorway and looks at it for a long time with raised eyebrows, then looks at Steve, and then in the direction of the little shatterproof window that’s just above their sightline.

“What?” Howard asks, tinny through the intercom. “It was either that or begonias from my file clerk’s desk.”

“It’s,” Bucky says. “Thanks.”

There’s not much else in the room, for a fairly obvious reason: the same reason that both of them have changed into plain athletic sweatsuits and socks. No shoes, no weapons. Steve refused to bring in the shield, which he imagines Bucky is still pissed about. Steve feels a small rush of disgust at himself when his eyes wander over to the tea table and he finds himself wondering if it’s the kind of thing somebody could—under duress—manage to smash into a stake. If, five minutes from now, Bucky’s going to be holding it to his neck. Or vice versa. Jesus, he wouldn’t. He just can’t shut that part of himself off, sometimes. Even if he wishes he could.

“Okay,” Gabe says. Steve sees his hand wave across the top of the little window. “This is how it’s going to go. We’re going to read the words. If they—if it takes effect, we’ll do a short series of tests.” Beside Steve, Bucky suddenly stops breathing.

“Can you describe the tests?” Steve calls. In a murmur he says, “It’s okay. You want to walk out, we can walk out right now.” Bucky doesn’t look at him, but he manages to shake his head firmly: no. He’s holding his arms incredibly still at his sides.

“We’ll ask you to raise and lower your hands, repeat a couple of phrases. That’s it. Nothing beyond that,” Gabe says. “That’s a promise. That sound alright?”

“Yeah,” Bucky grits out.

“If you start to get—distressed,” Gabe adds, carefully, “then we’ll have Steve try to talk you down. See if he can get you to remember where you are. That you’re safe.”

“And if that doesn’t work?” Bucky asks. He looks at Steve, then at the window. “You better have something on hand that won’t flinch.”

“I won’t,” Steve says, and Bucky ignores him.

“No, I mean it,” he says. “What have you got?”

“Knockout gas,” says Howard.

“Excuse me?”

“Chamber’s sealed up tight as a drum. I pump it in and in about sixty seconds you’re both taking a nap.”

“Howard,” says Steve.

“Hey, hand to God, this stuff is not going to do any damage. Tried it on two of my assistants yesterday. They slept like babies for about three hours, woke up perfectly fine. A little hungry. It’s a new recipe, couple of tweaks. I crunched the numbers for your metabolism, Steve, ought to take you two about a quarter of the time to burn through it.”

Howard,” says Gabe; it’s muffled, like he’s just put his hand over the microphone. “Your assistants?”

“It’s in their contracts,” Howard says, “they have to sign waivers for—hey,” he says, and then there’s a brief banging noise, the sound of shoes scuffling around. “Hey, Jesus!” The sound cuts out.

“You guys having a problem?” Steve calls. There’s a brief silence, and then the low whine of the microphone being switched back on.

“Good to go,” says Gabe.

“Whose voice—who’s going to,” Bucky says, and doesn’t manage to finish.

“One of the transcriptionists we picked up to do Zo—some work, recently,” Howard says, awkwardly. “Russian grandparents. Lucky hire. Say hello, Maria.”

Здравствуйте, Mr. Barnes.” A woman’s voice, low and musical. Bucky tenses, then makes himself breathe slowly through his nose.

хорошая девушка как вы, в таком месте как это?” he says, and there’s a bright, surprised laugh buzzing through the speakers.

“Everybody ready?” Howard asks.

“Ready,” says Steve.

“Ready,” says Bucky. Under his breath, barely a whisper, he says, “Don’t let me hurt you.”

желание,” says Maria, steadily. “Pжaвый, семнадцать, pассвет.” Her intonation’s clear and her voice is strong; there’s a thin film of sweat breaking out on Bucky’s forehead. It’s difficult, almost impossible, for Steve to keep himself from reaching out, from murmuring comforting nonsense. But he can’t. He can’t interfere. He stands to the side and watches Bucky lock his arms and legs, go rigid to keep from trembling. It’s something out of a nightmare, and he’s helpless to stop it. “печь, девять, добросердечный, возвращение на родину, oдин, грузовой вагон,” she intones, and then there’s silence, heavy as a wave. “солдат,” Maria says. “Are you ready for instruction?”

“No,” says Bucky. “No, I.” He looks at Steve. There’s terror in his eyes, shaking terror that makes him look like he might bolt. But something else, too. It takes Steve a second to realize what it is, to recognize it, how he knows it, where he knows it from: a look from the top of the Parachute Jump, staring out in frozen fascination across the fairground lights for the first time. Bucky had opened his mouth but whatever he said was taken away by the wind, by the drop, by his fierce grip on Steve’s elbow. It hadn’t been a fair at all but a sea of stars, a flood, that swam up to meet them.

It’s wonder.

No?” Howard repeats, curiously.

“No,” says Bucky. “No, I don’t—I don’t want any fucking instructions, Jesus,” he says, and he looks like he might cry. His hand comes up to the collar of his sweatshirt, clutching at his throat. He’s starting to panic. “I want air,” he says, “Steve—” and Steve scoops an arm around him tight and just goes, goes right to the roof, shifts them in one sharp sprint to the very top. He lets Bucky go and Bucky takes a handful of shuffling steps forward and then drops to his knees and—laughs. He laughs hysterically for a couple of seconds and then covers his face with his forearm, wipes at his leaking eyes, the trails where his nose has started to run. “God, what a fucking— sorry, let me just,” he says, hiccuping, babbling. Steve kneels next to him, rests a hand on his shoulderblade, and Bucky looks up. Smile shakily. “Hey,” he says. “Hey, you.”

“How d’you feel?”

“Free,” Bucky says, raggedly. “I feel free. I can't believe it.” Steve pulls him into his arms and Bucky grabs at him, fingers tight in the meat of his back. Steve helps him stand up. Swipes a thumb under his eye, and it comes away damp. Bucky’s still smiling at him with a kind of wobbly, unselfconscious joy. There’s orange light streaming between the skyscrapers, hitting the edges of him; the sun’s fading down. He looks, for the first time, about as young as he really is. As they both really are. “I didn't feel a thing," Bucky says. "They were just words. They were nothing. I think whatever you did just—unhitched it, somehow. Broke it. I think you broke it.”

“Maybe it was you, remembering,” Steve says. “Who you really are. Maybe you just beat it.”

“Maybe,” Bucky says. He doesn’t sound convinced, but he slides a hand around Steve’s hip. “Maybe. You and me.” They’re exposed like this, out on the rooftop; the chimneys and fan units could hide them a little, and the offices around them are emptying out by now, but somebody could still—Bucky presses in, pulls them together, and Steve’s brain goes fuzzy, like it’s being polished away by a pink rubber eraser.

“We can’t—”

“Probably shouldn’t,” Bucky says, but he drags Steve closer anyway, presses their mouths together, kisses him deep and slow and then desperately, drowningly, like Steve’s the only thing he can feel. Steve wraps him up, opens his mouth against Bucky’s and lets him take and take and take. They break apart and Steve leaves brief kisses on his cheek, his throat, feeling lightheaded and foolish and happy, so happy it’s a physical ache, a bruise. Bucky keeps his eyes closed for that; his mouth looks rumpled and full, still smiling slightly, soft as a sliver of moon.

“What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know,” Bucky says. He opens his eyes, and his smile starts to collapse. “I don’t want to think right now. That okay? I just— I don’t want to think about anything.”

“That’s fine,” Steve says. “Can you stay here for a second? I’m gonna tell the guys you’re alright. And then we can go anywhere you want.”

“Someplace with a sandwich and a couple of pillows,” Bucky says. “That’s it.”

“You got it,” Steve says. He squeezes Bucky’s wrist. “Be back in two shakes.”

“You’re no lamb, pal,” Bucky says, and Steve’s already laughing, delighted, as he vanishes. It makes the shift rise around him like champagne bubbles, like confetti. A sensation he’s never known, never imagined. A brightness in him, like the sun.

 

 

 

 

There’s a deli two blocks from Steve’s apartment, a place with photographs of ancient men in butcher’s aprons behind the counter, and stools that have probably been splitting a little at the seams since Steve was a teenager. They don’t recognize him, or else they do and they don’t care, maybe because he tips too much and never says anything when they forget the onions. They give him four roast-beef sandwiches in a heavy paper bag and he carries them back to his building, up the stairs to his apartment, walking instead of shifting, instead of running, because of the fluttering tremble in his heart, the strange feeling that seized him and won’t quite let go. It’s exhilarating and frightening, urgent and frozen; he’s never wanted anything more in his entire life than what he wants right now, which is to run full-tilt up the stairs and wrap himself in Bucky, to bury himself in Bucky’s arms and tell him every thought that crosses his mind, to let him hear every breath in his chest and every rumble in his stomach, to fuse himself into something that could never be separated again. And at the same time, he thinks he might get to the top of stairs and forget how to talk. What to say. So he walks, and takes one step at a time, and unlocks his door and shuts it behind him, quietly. Bucky comes into the hall barefoot and looks at him, the paper bag in his hands, the plain jacket he pulled on to walk the street.

And Steve thinks, oh. Oh. He looks just the same. Just the same as I do.

Steve leaves the bag on the kitchen counter and pulls his jacket off and without saying anything Bucky walks him backwards into the cabinets, hands against Steve’s face, kissing him hard and hungry, and Steve gives it back, starving for him. He runs his hands along the backs of Bucky’s arms, the small of his spine, cradles his hips and pulls him closer, closer, until his belly is pressed to Steve’s and he’s straddling Steve’s leg. God, he feels good, the bulk of him, holding Steve against the cabinet doors, thick thighs trapping him in place. Steve reaches down, pressing his fingers into the muscle and meat, digging in to feel Bucky against him. Bucky lets him go for a minute to tug at the hem of his button-down and Steve pulls it off, over his head, popping off a couple of buttons and sending them skittering under the fridge. Bucky looks him up and down and his eyes go soft and dark for a second, and Steve heats all over, flushes like a kid, clumsy-handed and eager and suddenly hard as a fucking rock. He fumbles with his belt, eases his pants and shorts down over his dick while Bucky yanks his own shirt off. Steve changed to grab dinner but Bucky was still wearing the sweats they left in: he pulls the pants down and then he’s naked in Steve’s kitchen, nothing underneath.

“Oh,” says Steve, shorting like a faulty radio. It’s not the first time, but it’s still sort of—well, apparently Bucky just doesn’t have much of a concern for underwear anymore. Steve’s not going to have any trouble adjusting to that. “The whole time?” Bucky shrugs noncommittally and puts his hands on Steve’s waist, spanning his hips with his fingers. Steve swallows hard, then turns in his arms, leans forward just a fraction against the cabinets so that his ass rubs Bucky’s cock. Bucky makes a sound low in his throat and clutches at Steve’s hips again, drives himself between the fold of Steve’s thighs like he’s already inside him, skin hot and dry and soft as silk.

“God,” he groans. “Steve, do you want,” he says, and Steve rocks back.

“Would you—fuck me?” he says, and Bucky jerks, and his cock leaves a damp, shiny trail along the inside of Steve’s leg.

“Jesus Christ,” he says.

“That a yes?”

Bucky’s flesh fingers curl around Steve’s asscheek, trail a warm line underneath and up to where he splits; he just brushes the spot, but Steve’s entire body lights with anticipatory pleasure, so sudden and rich it almost makes him feel sick. He can’t control the noise he makes, the way it turns to a whine when he clamps his hand over his mouth.

“Yeah,” Bucky says. “Yeah, it’s a yes. Jesus, look at you.” Now he does touch Steve’s rim, parts him to skim it lightly with his thumb, a slow careful circle with the barest pressure, and Steve puts his elbows down on the counter and tries not to faint or send himself halfway around the world. “Uh,” Bucky says. “Do you have—”

“Bathroom shelf,” says Steve. “I’ll get it, I want to,” he stops, and feels his face color, involuntarily. “Clean up, first.”

“Clean—” Bucky starts to ask, and then a faint slash of scarlet appears, just in his cheeks; he doesn’t turn blotchy all the way to his collarbones the way Steve does. “Oh. Yeah.”

He doesn’t really know what he’s doing: there’s nothing in the library that he could, or would, check out to tell him about this. Maybe it's stupid of him not to know, but he's not sure it matters. He trusts Bucky isn't going to make fun of him. He's just never gotten this far; all the times he was desperate or lonely enough it was hands or mouths, strangers who wanted it to be as quick and easy and forgettable as he did. But he does his best and washes his hands and looks at himself in the mirror for a second, at the pink in his cheeks, the way his hair’s gone straight up in the back from Bucky’s hands. He’s never thought of himself as good-looking, even afterwards. His face had stayed almost the same, and he frowns all the time without meaning to. He knows he does. But even to himself, right now, he looks handsome. Good. Sometimes in his horrible jingoistic comics they used to say chiseled, and other words that made him sound stony, implacable. Artificial. But the man in the mirror looks human, and nervous, and almost sweet. When he comes out Bucky kisses him on the mouth again and says, to the dazed look in Steve’s eyes, “You alright?”

“Yeah,” Steve says. “Are you?” The question makes Bucky's face go soft for a second. Like it still surprises him to be asked.

Yeah," he says. "Come here."

They make it to the bedroom, just barely; there’s a second where Bucky has him pressed against the doorway with one hand between his legs that makes Steve think, deliriously, that he’s going to get fucked for the first time right on his feet, hands clinging to the frame and back bowed while Bucky works a finger into him. But Bucky eases out again and walks him to the bed, kneels over Steve where he’s lying on his belly and kisses his shoulderblades, the back of his neck. Steve twists to put a hand in his hair and kiss him at a better angle, and Bucky slips a Vaselined finger back in, then two. It’s a stretch at first that starts to warm him from the inside out, until he’s humping his blanket unconsciously to the slow rhythm Bucky’s set. “You can give me more,” Steve says, and Bucky swears like a sailor for a second, breathy and startled, and then gives him three fingers, coated and slippery and filling Steve with a solidity that curls and uncurls his toes. “Come on,” Steve says. “Come on, please.” And then Bucky’s slicking himself up and getting right between Steve’s thighs, touching the back of Steve’s neck and asking again, needing to be sure; and then the blunt head of him is touching Steve’s rim, pushing in, all of him feeling fat and huge and punching a sound out of Steve’s lungs that makes him turn his face into the pillow in embarrassment.

“Hey,” Bucky says. His voice is frayed like old rope, like he’s trying not to come inside Steve right this second. “This okay?” he says, and Steve shakes his head yes, lips pressed together; he’s afraid he’s going to yell, to cry. Bucky inches forward, sinks closer, and suddenly Steve is full of him, hot and hard and overwhelming, like every nerve inside Steve is lighting at once. Steve makes a helpless, guttural ah-ah-ah when Bucky pulls back a fraction of an inch and rocks gently forward again, his cock sliding slick and heavy inside. They start to move together just a little, testing it, rocking and sliding. Bucky doesn’t pull too far out, and Steve doesn’t want him to; he wants it deeper, he doesn’t want this to end. “God,” Bucky whispers, mouthing at the skin of his back. “Jesus, Steve, you feel so good, you’re so good.”

Bucky takes it slow, grinding him down into the bed, shoving Steve’s cock against his belly again and again until it’s suddenly too much: Steve shoots without warning, clenches around Bucky and goes rigid all over and comes on his own stomach, smearing it into the blanket. He gasps and buries his face in the crook of his elbow, exhales hard, inhales shakily, catching his breath in a way he never has to. “Stevie?” Bucky says, concerned. He stops rolling his hips, starts to pull out and Steve reaches back to hook him with one hand. His heart’s throbbing in his chest; Steve hasn’t been called that in twenty years. Not by anybody. He never liked it, except when Bucky said it, and Bucky—

“Bucky,” he says. “Sweetheart, Bucky, give it to me.” Bucky drops his head and moans, muffled, into Steve’s skin; pulls his hips back and drives forward just a little harder, fucks Steve like he’s desperate to be inside. Steve groans his name, reaches back to grab at him, any of him, and Bucky grunts and digs into his hips and comes, still thrusting jerkily. Steve can feel it, the strangest sensation of heat inside, the tiny twitches as he empties. It’s not unpleasant, just shockingly intimate and new. He thinks, suddenly, about Bucky coming inside him again, twice, three times, leaving him wet with it, and feels a hot rush of surprised arousal pass through him. He didn’t know he’d like it so much, or at all. Bucky plasters himself across his back and hangs on, and Steve reaches over his shoulder to pet his hair and murmur to him. He can’t stop smiling. His face feels like it aches, but he can’t stop. Bucky’s softening now, slipping away as he rolls over onto his side. It's a little too much for a second, the sensation of him pulling out, and then it's alright. He can feel the flesh inside him, the muscles, still sort of— raw isn't the right word, but it's all he has. It feels odd, and good. Steve turns up towards him, resting his cheek on one arm, feeling himself starting to slide into boneless calm. Bucky strokes his back with one metal finger, cool and perfect. It makes Steve’s eyes slide shut with the simplicity of that sort of pleasure, the easiness in his touch.

“Was that,” Bucky says, almost shyly, “good?” Steve opens his eyes again.

“You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” says Steve. Bucky stops stroking his back for a second and just looks at him.

“You really mean that,” he says.

“Yeah, I do,” Steve says, and settles his head back down on his arm. “Keep up." He laughs when Bucky shoves him. Later they eat their sandwiches standing up at the kitchen counter, and take showers one at a time; Steve sits on the toilet lid and clips his fingernails while he waits, feeling weirdly like an actor in a play about happiness, some unbelievable joyous parody of himself. It makes him keep grinning for no reason. He tries to come back down to earth before Bucky notices what a goon he's being. Bucky lets him towel-dry his long hair afterwards and then run a comb through it, even though Steve's a little clumsy working out the tangles. When he apologizes, Bucky looks at him and says,

"Didn't hurt that much, comparatively," which makes Steve clench up for a second, until he realizes that Bucky's mouth is twitching; he's trying not to smile.

"Asshole," Steve says. "Asshole."

"Some things they couldn't burn out," Bucky says, gravely, and turns his face up for a kiss.

 

 

 

 

In bed that night he sleeps soundly, face mashed against Bucky's spine, dreaming about clouds rushing by; great rolling stormclouds cracked by lightning. The clouds roll and roil and become seafoam, cresting waves that beat against the shore. The waves become a waterfall, a torrent, a coursing river, as if he is moving upstream, flowing backwards, unspooling in time. The waterfall is pierced by rocks, jagged rocks rising along the shore, and the bottom is nothingness, a pool of darkness that devours all light, all senses. Steve pulls back and lets himself be carried upwards, floating on a crystal stream, back to the spring where it bubbles forth from the earth itself, cool and sweet and purer than air.

"Drink, if you wish," says a woman's voice, and Steve turns to look at her. The dream leaves everything unfocused: it's hard to see her face. She's tall and regal, graceful in the same way that the river is, a beauty that conceals power. Her eyes are the only clear thing about her; they're ancient, and bright, and wise. "You've earned the right." Steve looks at the gurgle of springwater pooling in a rock basin and pouring around his ankles, down into the streambed, and away. It feels like icewater. He thinks, unbidden, that it would taste like wine.

"No, thank you," he says. The woman looks at him, and laughs.

"To thine own self be true," she says. "Are those not your poet's words?"

"Yes, ma'am," says Steve.

"Do you also know this?" she asks. "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."

"Yes, ma'am, I do," says Steve. "That's Thomas Jefferson."

"There is another tree," she says. "The tree of life. Do you know whose blood refreshes the tree of life?"

"No," says Steve. "I don't think so."

"Ah," she says, and smiles at him. She looks nothing like his mother, this woman, he doesn't think; but for some reason he finds himself pulled back twenty years, remembering the way she used to tie her hair back in the morning, the sound of her voice. Her long thin fingers threading needles, holding a cool cloth to his forehead. The way she used to read the paper and shake her head at news of the Spanish war, frowning the same way he does now at everything; how she'd close her eyes listening to music, and hold up one hand for an invisible partner to take. His father, maybe: the ghost only one of them knew.

"Whose blood?" Steve asks.

"Lovers," she says, and the water rushes up, up, up out of the ground and takes him in the current, and he is spun away.

 

 

.

Chapter Text

Waking up is like crawling out of shallow water; it takes Steve a moment to realize that he’s only face down in the sheet, pillow crumpled around his forehead, and not belly-down in mud, gasping and struggling to push himself upright for air. His face is flushed and his whole body’s warm from where he’s been pressed into the bed. The other side is empty, rumpled, pillow askew from his tossing and turning, but when Steve concentrates he can feel something, someone there in the other room—an aliveness from nearby, the faintest sensation; like a moth landing on the back of his hand, only on the fine hairs of his consciousness. Not gone, then. Close by. It still feels like a miracle, Steve thinks: waking up to that, to him. It might never wear off. He’s got a song in his head, something catchy, sort of inane. When he realizes it’s Cheek to Cheek he puts his face back into the mattress again and grins like an incredible fool. They must have seen Top Hat four or five times between the two of them, Bucky with at least two different girls and Steve once with his mother. And once it was just them, two dateless mooks with a nickel bag of popcorn, humming along to songs they already knew. Bucky’d danced like a showoff on the way home and tripped into a garbage can and Steve had laughed at him until he got the hiccups and had to sit down.

He can actually remember how it felt, suddenly; the memory is shaking his sometimes-distant body back to awareness. How his stomach ached when he leaned across his knees and brayed helplessly. Bucky had rolled and come up looking like a vain cat who’d missed a jump onto a table and was real raw about you noticing it.

“Like to see you try it,” Bucky had said, and Steve had gotten up and struck a pose and then kicked the garbage can on purpose, mockingly, and then they’d been chased down the block for making noise. If there’d never been anything else, any of this, he might’ve been happy with that for the rest of his life, bumming around after a double feature and watching the streetlights carve Bucky’s face into tenebrist hollows, striking and profanely handsome as Caravaggio’s dark-eyed Christs. Steve mulls it for a moment and then laughs at himself. Peggy’s right about him, maybe: he’s turning into some kind of maudlin seashore poet.

All of him feels awake now, if pleasurably lax. When he stretches his legs out he feels the barest tremor of the muscles between them, the place where Bucky slid inside him last night. They were slow and careful and anyway he heals quick, he knew he wouldn’t have much left in the morning, but still. Still. It’s nice to feel something. Steve takes his time pulling a shirt over his head, stepping into a clean pair of shorts. He hums that silly song as he goes, takes a shuffling step around the foot of the bed. He’s a rotten dancer, somehow, still; he can somersault perfectly a dozen times in a row if he wants to, but when somebody puts a record on it feels like getting taller only gave his knees more places to knock together. Down the hall, he can hear the faint hiss of the burner going on the gas range. Maybe there’s already coffee started, and they can drink it together at Steve’s perpetually unused kitchen table, like—like they used to, sometimes, at their old place, or at Bucky’s ma’s on a holiday, with a pot of coffee and the newspaper and the satisfying kind of hangover, and the whole day ahead of them. They don’t have the whole day—they should probably be hunting those fucking power cells around creation already, and in a minute they’ll have to—but something in Steve longs for that moment, for the simplicity of it, for a cup of coffee and a pause of pleasant silence just looking at his face. A Monday’s happiness, the kind he never takes, like a man and wife getting ready for the day. Not bothering to savor it. Unafraid that it could end. He goes into the kitchen and stops in front of the refrigerator, staring across the table, and the last bit of his humming dies in his throat.

“Good morning, Captain Rogers,” Lukin says.

He’s sitting on a metal stool, one of the counter-height ones that Steve bought to that he could eat without sitting at the table, his big bare kitchen table that he’s never kept so much as a bowl of fruit on. Lukin’s got a gun trained on Bucky, who is standing blankly next to him, stock-still, eyes planted on the doorway like he’s been wiped clean and is waiting for orders. He’s wearing one of Steve’s spare undershirts and a pair of sweatpants, and his hair’s flat on one side, the side he slept on while he held Steve all night with an arm across his waist, heavy and gentle as snowfall. His metal arm seems strangely limp, dangling at his side, but otherwise he doesn’t move a muscle, make a sound. His face is like a sheet of typing paper.

“Bucky,” Steve says.

“That’s touching,” Lukin says. “You call it by name.”

“Buck,” Steve says, helplessly, over the rushing noise in his ears. He doesn’t look at Lukin. Lukin is garbage. He’ll knock Lukin’s head in, in a minute, smash it against the side of the stove, as soon as he knows Bucky’s alright. The gas range is still hissing. Steve can’t quite feel his hands. They’re clenched too tight. This can’t be happening, they—they fixed this, stopped it, this can’t be happening. “Talk to me. Hey.”

“It can’t hear you,” Lukin says. “Not when it’s been activated. Did the scene at the restaurant teach you nothing?”

“Bucky, shake it off,” Steve says, raising his voice without really meaning to. “You can do it. Bucky.” He can’t hide his terror, he doesn’t bother to try. He steps closer and Lukin tilts the gun barrel upwards, aims it right at Bucky’s head. Steve looks at him, now, eyes narrowing down. “Shoot him,” he says, “and you know what happens next.”

“I do,” Lukin says. “But I’m not here to kill him. I’m here to have him kill you.” He smiles. “It will make things very neat for us.”

“You’re Schmidt’s errand boy?” Steve says. “He’s using a Russian for his dirty work?”

“The Skull and I have shared goals.”

“Sure. Maybe you can ask Zola about that. Or any of the other suckers he used up and burned.” Lukin’s mouth quirks.

“You’re trying to make me angry,” he says. “So that I’ll make a mistake. Good strategy. But I think you’re the one who’s angry. I think you’re furious. I think you’d like to rip me limb from limb and scatter my pieces around the street. Like an animal. And do you know what, Captain Rogers?” Lukin says. He leans forward and laughs. “I think you would. I think if I pull this trigger, you would. Imagine that in your comic books.” Steve’s face heats; for a second his eyes slide around the room, flitting from one thing to another: the stools, the chairs, the toaster. Could he get something to hand fast enough? What if he flipped the whole fucking table? He could throw the coffee pot, boiling water and all. But if he misses, if he’s a second too slow, Lukin will—and Bucky won’t even move out of the way, not like this. That’s the problem. If Steve’s off by a heartbeat Bucky might stand there like a fencepost and let Lukin shoot him in the head. Maybe Steve can shift between them, grab Lukin, or— or just take the bullet, he’s not—

—but as his eyes flicker past Bucky again, jerkily, frantically, something happens. Steve doesn’t let himself focus on it, tries not to make it obvious that he’s watching Bucky’s face, which just—it’s hard to describe, until it happens again, and then Steve has to hold his face very still and his hands very loose, because Bucky just deliberately blinked his left eye slower than his right, and then his right slower than his left.

He’s faking.

Lukin must have surprised him. His left arm is hanging awkwardly; Lukin must have deactivated it or damaged it somehow, before he said the words. Bucky’s playing possum. Jesus Christ, Steve feels like he might throw up.

But if Bucky’s playing for time, Steve will give it to him.

“You’re right about me,” Steve says. He shifts about a foot to the left, like he’s agitated and can’t stand still, to force Lukin to look a little further away from Bucky when he faces Steve. He’ll give Bucky an opening if he can. Even without the arm, he could probably snap Lukin like a pencil. Lukin is giving Steve a mildly amused once-over, like he expected more of a protest about his character.

“There’s so much the world doesn’t know about you,” Lukin muses. “Setting aside your… unexpected deviance. Take your disappearing trick,” he says, and Steve lets himself visibly flinch at that, and in response Lukin makes a pleased, smug face. “I saw you at the edge of the roof,” he says. “I thought my eyes must have deceived me. I went to the alleyway and looked for your body. But of course it makes sense. You are the Skull’s bland American mirror. So even your powers would be an echo of his.”

“But not exactly the same,” Steve says, struck by the phrasing. “An echo’s distorted.”

“Very good!” Lukin says. “Yes. Your power moves you through space. No more sophisticated than an automobile. He has perfected another kind of travel. Through the consciousness. He can take possession of the soul. Command it. Controlling his puppet Zola is nothing. You will see the true shape of his power when the void is opened.”

They found it, Kutepov said. They went looking for something, and they found it. But not just something to unleash, to set free; something to possess? Steve’s mind races, and the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. He can’t mean—

“He’s mad,” Steve says. “He’s gone completely mad. Whatever you found in the void, you can’t control it.”

“He can,” Lukin says, “and he will.

“What is it?” Steve demands. “What exactly did he find?”

“Why don’t you ask your god,” Lukin says. He smiles humorlessly and recites, “And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up.”

“Leviathan,” Steve breathes.

“Jörmungandr,” says Lukin. “Hydra, if you prefer. He'll bend the beast to his will. The end of your world will be the beginning of ours.”

“There’s a flaw in your plan,” Steve says. He’s trying not to look at Bucky; out of the corner of his eye, he can see the very tips of his metal fingers start to twitch. The arm’s waking back up, maybe. Steve glares at Lukin and folds his arms across his chest: he watches Lukin track his movements and ignore Bucky’s, like Steve’s the only threat in the room. “The cells don’t work. Not on this side of the universe.”

“They will,” Lukin shrugs. “Thanks to you, we know exactly how to make holes.” The plane, Steve thinks, crashing the plane. Detonating the tesseract bombs. “The cells are merely to hold them open.”

“Holes?” Steve says. “Plural?”

“I think I am done answering your questions,” Lukin says. He’s stopped smiling. “I think I have let you stall long enough.” He turns to Bucky. “солдат,” he says.

готов подчиниться,” Bucky says, in a flat, toneless voice. Lukin lowers his gun at last and then hands it to Bucky, who takes it mechanically in his flesh hand and holds it at his side.

“You don’t have to do this,” Steve says, loudly. “Fight it.”

“Aim the gun at his heart,” Lukin says, and Bucky does it. “Captain America killed by unstable male lover,” Lukin says, grinning a little. “No novel could have a more shocking twi—” he barely has time to say, before Bucky pivots lightning-fast and puts the barrel of the gun against Lukin’s temple and pulls the trigger twice. The first shot goes straight through the center of his skull; Lukin’s head scarcely has time to snap sideways before the second shot is catching him lower, blowing a hole through his jaw and downwards out of the other side of his throat. His body collapses against the sprayed wall, tumbling off the stool, and Bucky stands over him and empties the clip into his chest and guts, making Lukin jerk and jerk and then lie uncannily still. In the apartment next to Steve’s somebody starts screaming. Through the ringing in his ears Steve can hear his neighbors running down the hall for the staircases, pounding on each other’s doors. Bucky’s breathing heavily; his entire face and chest is a wash of gore, little rivulets of red that are running into his eyes, down under the collar of his borrowed undershirt. The coffee pot has stopped whining and started shrieking. Steve shuts the burner off, moving unhurriedly so that Bucky can track him easily as he goes.

“Hey, sweetheart,” Steve murmurs, coming forward. He wraps his fingers around Bucky’s stained wrist. “Buck. Give me the gun,” he says, and Bucky loosens his grip and lets Steve take it. He turns his head and he looks like a nightmare, like a player in a horror movie, a kid dosed in paint for a haunted house; except for his eyes, which look ancient and sickened. Steve puts the gun on the counter and pulls his own shirt off and rubs Bucky’s face with it, gently, getting some of the worst mess. He still looks like he’s been in Dracula’s bathtub, but Steve kisses him on the cheek tenderly, and then again for good measure when Bucky shuts his eyes and drops his shoulders, like Steve just pulled a full kit off his back. Steve rubs blood away from his closed eyes before he opens them again. “Is your arm okay?” he asks, “does it hurt?” Bucky looks down slowly at his metal hand, flexes it slightly in surprise, like he’d forgotten for a second that it’s still attached.

“He had a,” Bucky says, and gestures with his finger and thumb, pressing air. “Switch. Reset switch. Five—I think a five minute cycle. S’coming back.”

“Okay,” Steve says. “I’ve got to call Peggy. Okay? Come sit on the couch.”

“Copy,” Bucky says, hollowly. He follows Steve into the living room and drops onto the sofa, scrubbing at his streaked face with both hands. Steve dials headquarters and gets Peggy’s assistant to hurry her up from the parking garage.

“Getting an early start?” she says, when she picks up.

“I just killed Lukin,” Steve says, and Bucky’s head snaps up. He stares at Steve. “He broke into my apartment.”

“Oh, God,” says Peggy. “Are you—”

“We’re fine. My neighbors are calling the cops.”

“I’ll send a crew,” Peggy says. “But just in case, get out of there.”

“Where do you—”

“Howard’s. The Manhattan house. Go now,” she says, and hangs up. Bucky’s still staring at him, looking lost.

“What are you doing?” he asks.

“You just got your name back,” Steve says. “I’m not going to let anybody—come on, we have to go.”

“Steve.”

“Later,” Steve says. “Okay? Later. Come on.” Steve gets Bucky up and has him strip in the bathroom and pull on a clean set of clothes. Steve throw some essentials into a duffel bag, but their gear and his shield are still sitting in the equipment lockers in the lab, so there’s not much they really need. He looks around his bedroom for a second, the bare walls, the dusty top of his dresser and nightstand. There’s barely anything to take. The last thing he does before they leave is grab a pillow and blanket from the bed and drop it onto the sofa, so that it looks like somebody nested there last night. Bucky watches him do it with a flat, drained face. He’s run a wet washcloth over himself at least, so maybe Howard’s staff won’t immediately call the police.

Speaking of which, there are sirens getting closer.

“You ready?” Steve asks, and Bucky nods and wraps his arms around Steve’s waist, and Steve curls around him and pulls them through the world.

 

 

 

 

Gabe shows up after they’ve each showered and pulled on some of the clothes Steve brought; he’s sitting downstairs in the living room while Howard’s butler tries valiantly not to pace back and forth along the side of the sofa, in a spot where the carpet already seems especially thin. He’s a good guy; more than once he’s seen Steve sitting outside alone in the courtyard during a party and pulled the curtains over the French doors so that nobody would go out and bother him. Steve knows he has a pretty wife that he likes to talk about, but not much else about the man himself; just another regret from sleepwalking through the last half-dozen years. Gabe stands up when they come in, looks them both up and down.

“Nobody’s injured?”

“No,” Steve says. “We’re good.”

“Peggy said.” Gabe gives Steve a considering look. “She also said you killed Lukin.”

“That’s right,” Steve says, without looking at Bucky. Gabe frowns.

“Just got off the phone with Brewer,” Gabe says. “He's got the scene. So—you put nine rounds into Lukin? That’s what you’re saying?”

“That’s what I said,” Steve says, mulishly. “Is this an interrogation?”

“For Christ’s sake,” Gabe says, rolling his eyes. “Relax, Steve. It’s just a little, well.”

“He was in my kitchen,” Steve says. “I took the gun away from him and he triggered this—device, a switch of some kind, it scrambled Bucky’s arm. So I just,” Steve trails off, and shrugs. Gabe glances at Bucky, who lifts his metal hand and makes a loose fist.

“Reset switch,” he says. “Knocks it out for about five minutes. That’s all it does, but Steve didn’t know. Probably looked like I was having a stroke.”

“Okay,” Gabe says, slowly. “Well, he was a fake diplomat, but the Russians might choose to ignore that, if this gets out.”

“If there’s blowback, it’s on me,” Steve says.

“That’s exactly the kind of thing I thought you’d say,” Gabe sighs. “This is how you want to play it, then that’s how we play it. I’m not going to contradict anything you put down.”

“Thanks,” Steve says. “Thank you.”

“You ought to know by now,” Gabe says. “You want to fistfight the world, that’s fine, but pull punches on us once in a while, huh?” Steve grimaces, feeling ashamed of himself, and Gabe smiles and turns to Bucky. “You told me once, he was always like this. Piss and vinegar.”

“Vinegar to his friends,” Bucky says. Steve looks at him. “That’s a compliment,” Bucky says, and Gabe laughs out loud.

Alone, upstairs, getting ready to drive back with Gabe to headquarters and make a full report, Bucky pulls him into one of Howard’s fourteen walk-in linen closets and kisses him frantically, grips the back of his neck so hard it’s like he has Steve by the scruff, like he’s going to shake him the way a terrier shakes a rat. Steve hangs on and lets Bucky open his mouth and clutch at Steve like he’s terrified that it’s the last time. It won’t be, it’s not, Steve thinks. It’s not. “You jackass,” Bucky says, when he lets him go. “You’ll run your own name through the mud, but not mine?”

“Well, yeah,” says Steve.

“I’d do it again,” Bucky says, and now he sounds desperate, scraped away. “I’m not ashamed. I’d do it with my bare hands this time, to be sure. Fuck him, fuck them, fuck them,” he says, viciously, and Steve wraps him and holds him through a tremor, and the silence that comes after. “You kept your promises,” Bucky says, finally, muffled in his shoulder, and Steve thinks about the hospital. It seems like more than weeks ago. Bucky didn't even know him. But he'd still trusted Steve. All the cruelty they'd dished out, and he'd still been able to trust the first person he met who was kind to him. He'd still recognized kindness, knew what it was worth. They really didn't have any idea, Steve thinks. They'd been beaten before they began. “You don’t know how much I dreamed about it.” Steve kisses his hair. “It doesn’t feel real.”

“It’s real,” Steve says. “I promise. He’s done, Buck. Believe me.”

“Okay,” Bucky says. His eyes are closed. “I do.”

 

.

Chapter Text

Steve’s report takes less than twenty minutes; Gabe gets somebody to bring them coffees, stands around while he finishes filling out the paperwork, and then tosses everything into a file folder and says, “Peggy’s waiting for us,” and pats Steve on the shoulder as he leaves.

Bucky’s been sitting in the hall, waiting. He stands up when they come out of the doors and Gabe nods at him, smiles, and heads for the stairs.

“We’re good,” Steve says.

“Uh-huh,” Bucky says, under his breath.

Peggy’s standing at the head of the table when they all come in, poring over an enormous rolled-out world map studded with little makeshift markers; she’s left her checkered jacket over the chair and pulled her long hair back, and so for a moment under the harsh yellow lights it is nineteen forty-two again and they’re looking for places to duck behind the German line. Sometimes they actually did this at a command post, some requisitioned cinderblock factory that smelled of mildew and machine oil and idling jeeps; once or twice it was a bombed-out school or a hotel in towns with names he’s forgotten. Mostly it was in tents, edges staked into the ground and the bottom two feet of the flaps stained grey with mud. But it’s Peggy he remembers most, Peggy radiant and intent and warm enough to burn, candle-bright; raising her voice whenever the men started to talk over her. They often did. He didn’t interrupt them, after the first time. She’d asked him not to. They wouldn’t ever listen, if Captain America had to keep introducing her like a second act. So he’d had to hang back and hold his tongue and watch her work, and by God he’d learned a few things. Life had taught him not to run; she’d taught him what there was to do besides stand around and wait for the other guy to swing.

“I’ve just rung off with our friends at box five hundred,” Peggy says as they come in, and looks up at Steve with a dry half-smile. “I left out the bit about the biblical dragon, but they’re sufficiently concerned.” Gabe and Howard and the others crowd around the map, but Bucky hangs back, tracing his flesh hand along the edge of the table. “Your ship arrived yesterday,” Peggy says, tapping a marker into place. “They have it quarantined in Thames Haven.”

“And the cargo?”

“They made drops in all three cities. Local authorities have the cargo from Gdansk and Rostock. Someone in Rotterdam wasn’t fast enough, so there’s at least one set of crates in the wind. The London cargo seems to still be on board. Apparently the harbormaster wasn’t especially subtle demanding an inspection, but perhaps we’re past that.”

“It’s a line of latitude,” Gabe says, close at Peggy’s shoulder, looking over the markers she’s been setting out. “All the drop cities. Here, here, here, and London. Not a precise line, but close enough.”

“What are they trying to do?” Jim says. “Take the top of the earth off like a hat?”

“Maybe it’s a chain reaction?” Dugan suggests. “Something about them all being in a row.”

Howard snaps his fingers.

“A thousand miles an hour,” he says. He stares down at the table and mumbles something to himself, then starts rummaging for a pen.

“Enlighten us,” says Peggy.

“That’s how fast the earth is spinning,” Howard says. He’s making notes at the edge of the map: FREQUENCY?? HERTZ CALC STEVE, and then a series of complicated figures. His other hand is gesturing in midair. “But they’re trying to punch straight through into another universe, right? Another plane. Odds are, it’s not spinning at the same speed. Or at all. So it could be like putting a stick through a bicycle wheel while it was rolling. Messy. Dangerous.”

“If that’s true, what about the Valkyrie?” Jim says. Bucky stops fiddling with the table edge. “Putting that down didn’t deflate the planet.”

“No,” Howard says, and puts the pencil down for a second. “It did punch a few holes. But more importantly, I think—look. The effects drifted, basically along a latitudinal line. Impact was here,” he says, and points to a spot on the Arctic Circle that seems so—small. “We saw aftershocks and thin spots here and here. Like it pulled a trail after itself. Could be they want to mimic the effect, so they’re scaling up. Longer. Wider.” Howard keeps talking, but something’s making it hard to listen. Steve’s hearing something like engine noise, a low droning hum. He doesn’t know why. On paper the place looks like nothing, a hand’s-breadth from Canada. He probably could walk that far. Imagine that: him crawling his way out of the wreck. Going on foot to Nova Scotia. But maybe he could have done it, without freezing to death. Him alone in the snow. There’s a thin line tracing the top of the ocean like a crisp, neat boundary. But there hadn’t been any boundary, no lines at all. Nothing to show him what to do. The clouds had come so fast and the ground hadn’t been ground at all but ice, hard ice in great white sheets: it seemed like less than a second that he’d been looking at nothing, at the glare of sunlight coming through, and then—

“Knock-knock,” Bucky says, under his breath. He’s at Steve’s elbow, not touching, but close enough that Steve can feel his presence: real and solid and immovable as the shield. The ice, and the thin looming edge of the void, slide away. Steve looks at him and raises his eyebrows, embarrassed, and Bucky gives him a faint smile.

“Who’s there?” Steve murmurs.

“Stick around, find out,” Bucky says, and nudges their shoulders together, rubs a thumb over Steve’s wrist as he goes, in a show of squeezing past him. He moves to stand between Jim and Howard, craning his neck to look at whatever Howard’s pointing at.

“The Valkyrie was a hell of a payload,” Howard says. “But even with all that firepower, the holes still closed on their own. Not before we lost a couple of good people. O’Daniels, God rest his soul, my favorite geologist,” Howard says, and puts a hand over his heart for a split second, reverently, like he’s just whipped an invisible fedora off for the national anthem. He clears his throat. “So the real pain in the ass is going to be those cells, because as long as they’re drawing on the void, they’ll make the tears bigger and bigger and bigger. Cataclysmically bigger.”

“Tell Gdansk and Rostock to destroy the crates they confiscated,” Steve says. “It’s a start. I can go hunting for the rest.”

“We have the where,” Peggy says, “but still not the when, Steven.”

“How long would it take to install your replacement?” Steve says. Peggy closes her mouth abruptly and stares at him. “An estimate’s fine.”

“Excuse me?” says Gabe.

“There’d be an acting deputy chief immediately,” Peggy says. She glances at Gabe; something invisible passes between them, and he puts his hands into his trouser pockets in a gesture that feels like a shrug. She looks back at Steve. “Hearings and clearances would take longer.” Her voice has gone studiously cool, but her eyes give it away. She’s not mad at him, just curious. “The security council would undoubtedly have a few things to shuffle around.”

“How long?”

“About a month. Maybe less.”

“Who’s the most likely candidate?”

“Steve,” Gabe says. “Is this off track?”

“There’s a list,” Peggy interrupts. She’s still watching Steve intently, like she’s trying to puzzle something out of his face. “Most likely it would have been,” she starts, and stops, and a strange light comes into her eyes. The corner of her mouth twitches. “Wilde. From the DC office.”

“Goddamn,” Dugan breathes.

“What?” Jim asks. He elbows Dugan. “Who the heck is that?”

Reed—that rat bastard, may he burn in hell, pardon my French, ma’am,” Dugan adds, and Peggy gives him a flat, unsurprised look. “He reported directly to Wilde,” Dugan says. “He was one of the guys we nabbed as HYDRA after Virginia went tits u—uh, wrong.”

“Criminy fuck,” Jim says, reasonably.

“If it had gone the way they wanted, they’d be getting Wilde into place right now,” Steve says. “Exactly where they wanted him for when the bombs started falling. I think their clock is running down. I think we’re looking at a matter of days.”

“The way they wanted, huh,” Gabe says. He’s got a hand resting on the small of Peggy’s back now, like it’s the only thing that’ll ground him. His face is tight. Steve ducks his shoulders, a wordless apology, and Gabe just shakes his head. He looks furious, but not at Steve. “You’re right. We’d have been going down a rabbit hole looking for,” he says, and trails off. His anger’s ebbing. He looks at Bucky. “Somebody not so easy to find.”

“We’d have been blindsided,” Steve agrees. “Scrambling.”

“Oh, we’re still scrambling,” Howard says. “But I guess it’s a damn good thing you don’t do well in airplanes.”

“That’s not exactly—”

“Can it, Howard,” Bucky says, a little too loudly. He stands disconcertingly still for a second after he says it, like in his hindbrain he’s still anticipating some kind of correction for talking back to anybody who isn’t Steve. The flat of a hand, maybe. Steve doesn’t want to imagine, but some part of him can’t help it. Whatever Bucky’s tensed for doesn’t come; Steve can see the instant he forces himself to relax and glance away, jaw working as he bites the inside of his mouth. A bad old habit, like chewing his lip. Everybody’s watching Bucky while pretending that they aren’t; Peggy and Gabe have the presence of mind to turn to each other, but Howard and Jim both look away to either side, so out of desperation Dugan lifts his eyes skyward and studies the air ducts like a man contemplating the mysteries.

“Alright,” Howard says, uncharacteristically tranquil about being told to shut up. “Ignore me, Steve.”

“Get it in writing,” says Jim.

 

 

 

 

“You’re not going alone,” Peggy says, stonily. “Don’t think I missed that look.” The others are still in the lab down the hall, bothering Howard while he tries to rig a portable detector that will register anything humming at Steve’s strange vibrational frequency. Like, say, an energy bomb twiddling its thumbs in a Dutch port, waiting to be triggered. Steve was trying to slip away unnoticed and head for the equipment lockers, but instead he’s here, having been dragged into a storeroom by the arm. He’d protest, but she hasn’t left him the opportunity. Opening his mouth doesn’t seem like a winning play. “No, that’s final,” she says, louder than his thoughts. “And if you won’t hear it from me, maybe you’ll hear it from Barnes. Or Dum-Dum. I don’t think they like you haring off any more than I do.”

“Peggy, I can move faster—”

“And if it’s a trap?” she says. “What if what Schmidt wants is you?” The thought freezes him in his tracks for a second; Peggy sees the opening and takes it. “He’s confident that he can tame a leviathan. Would you be more of a challenge? You’re the ideal vessel. Better than Zola, for what he has planned.”

“I don’t,” Steve says, and falters. “I’m not sure he could. I’m not—exactly sure.” Peggy gives him a hard look, and then her eyes go kinder, almost sad. The hand gripping his elbow turns into a light squeeze.

“Oh, Steven,” she says.

“It’s not,” he says. “A problem.”

“You’re still not sure you’re real, are you,” Peggy says, quietly. “All these years. You’re not really certain.”

“We can’t wait,” he says. He can’t talk about this with her right now. It’s not important. They don’t have the time. “We’ve got days, maybe. Maybe only hours.”

“I’m aware of that.”

“What am I supposed to do?” Steve says. “Wait around for a transatlantic flight with the guys?”

“No,” Peggy says. “I think it’s time we stretched your gifts a bit further. Come with me.” She leads him back out into the hallway; Brewer and Dugan are leaning against the wall, poised in the act of lighting a cigarette apiece. “He keeps hydrogen tanks on this floor, somewhere, and God knows what else,” Peggy says, briskly, and both of them give her a guilty look and stub the cigarettes out against their soles. “I have an experiment for you two. Actually, get the others. Anyone Howard can spare.”

Howard all but shoves Jim out, but comes into the hall himself to ask if they mind leaving Bucky behind.

“Mind like a steel trap,” Howard says. “Hand like a steel trap, too. Better than a bench clamp. He’s got a couple of ideas for the battery regulator. If it didn’t make me a supreme asshole, I’d say I wish I had three of him.”

“It’s up to him,” Steve says. He doesn’t mean to smile so big at Howard’s compliments, but he can’t help it. Bucky was always the one they called when his uncle’s beast of a delivery truck stopped running; he and Jim used to fix the walkie-talkie together, crouched in a root cellar with tools on their knees, complaining about the plastic handset that was always cracked. Bucky comes out of the lab while they’re talking; somebody’s gotten him a flat-brimmed cap like the technicians wear, and he’s got his long hair stuffed up into it, staying out of his eyes. Steve hopes nobody else can tell that he goes breathless at that, at Bucky looking like he’s about to pop a hood and start rummaging around. Bucky’s just so—capable. Real, Peggy asked him. Does he feel real? He does right now, looking at Bucky. God in Heaven, he fucked Steve last night and nobody knows but the two of them. Bucky looks at him, and it’s like he can read Steve’s mind, or maybe the heat rising in Steve’s blood: his eyes go sharp and pleased for a second, just a second, before he sweeps everything else off his face.

“I’ll stay,” he says. “Unless you need me.”

Steve will always need him.

“We’re good,” he says, instead.

Peggy parades them all up to the roof; once she’s got them standing in a circle she turns to Steve and says,

“How many people could you shift at once?”

“Uh,” says Jim. “Wait a second.”

“I’ve taken two,” Steve says. “But it was a little—bumpy.”

“HYDRA guards,” Peggy says, breezily. “You weren’t exactly being cautious. I’m talking about carrying a team with you.” She looks around the circle: Jim and Steve, Brewer and Dugan. “If anyone’s too frightened to try, feel free to run away now.”

“Sure,” Dugan mutters. “When you put it like that.” Peggy grins at him. Nobody moves.

“I need to keep contact,” Steve says. “It’s not exactly a—friendly environment. I can’t risk letting go of anybody.”

“Right,” Peggy says. He can see her brain whirring against the problem. “Belts, everyone. Handshake hold, strap yourselves together.” She holds her wrist out to Jim, at her left.

“What,” Jim says. “You too?”

“Come on,” she says, and presents her hand again. “We haven’t got all day.” When everybody else is linked together, Steve grabs Dugan’s forearm and wraps his own belt around their joined wrists, then wraps his free arm tightly around Peggy’s shoulders. “For heaven’s sake,” she says, rolling her eyes. She slides free and then tucks Steve’s arm firmly around her waist, looping her right arm over his neck securely. It’s a better hold. She smiles at him wryly, up close. “Giving birth twice,” she says, sotto voce at his ear, “not to mention dressing shrapnel wounds, rather relaxes one’s capacity for bashfulness, darling.”

“Just, stay together,” Steve says. “Hang onto each other. No matter what. Everybody ready?”

“Aye-aye, Cap.”

“Ready.”

“Ready, Steve.”

“Tell my mother I loved her,” Jim says. “Yippee ki-yay.”

And so Steve shuts his eyes and focuses on them, the little living circle of them, their quickening hearts; he can feel energy traveling through and around them, moving through their joined hands. He centers himself in that, feels the current passing between them, and shifts through the skin of the world like dipping into a shining pool as vast as the sea, fast and light and gentle, immersing himself into the cold tide of the void. They’re pulled together with him and they surface into the spray of starlight and emptiness, gasping as the stars burst above their heads, outward for millions of miles. Steve clings to Peggy and Dugan, feeling Jim and Brewer pulled in the wake as they slide through space, and then in a second they’re landing on a patch of grass, giddy and unstable. Dugan goes down to his knees and takes Brewer and Jim with him. Steve staggers mostly upright and holds onto Peggy, and all of them take a second just to breathe hard and look around at one another like excited, uncertain children. Steve’s blood feels like sparkling water. His heart’s turning over and over.

“Well,” Peggy says. She lets go of Steve and wipes her eyes with the back of her hand, shaking a little. “Well, I,” she says, and lets out an unexpected giggle. She claps a hand over her mouth. Dugan’s laughing, too, kind of a musical sound for such a tough-looking guy. Brewer has tears in his eyes, but he’s smiling. Jim just looks winded.

“What the fuck,” Jim says, and sits back in the grass; Peggy tumbles sideways now, and then they’re all laughing for real.

“Is it always like that?” Brewer asks. “So—much?”

“It’s different,” Steve says. “For different people. I think it’s,” he says. “It’s better when you’re not alone.”

“Where are we?” Dugan asks, glancing around at the woods; they’re on the crest of a little hill above a stream, and the air is cold and lightly salt-smelling.

“Uh,” says Steve. “Norway.”

Norway?”

“I was going to try for Central Park,” says Steve, sheepishly, “but it didn’t seem like a challenge.”

“Dragging four people uptown through the fabric of reality,” Jim says. “That didn’t seem impressive enough for you.”

“Take us back, please,” Peggy says, holding her arm out. Steve bends down and lets her loop it around his neck again. “We should get Howard to modify some handcuffs for this. Quick-release.” She makes a thoughtful face. “How much equipment do you think you could carry?” Her eyes go wide. “Steve. You don’t think—what about a truck? If everybody held onto the doors—”

“Can you let me focus for a minute?” Steve says.

“Certainly,” Peggy says, and then, “what about an armored car?”

“Next stop, Brazil,” warns Steve.

 

 

 

 

They leave for Rotterdam at twenty-hundred hours, to hit the shipping warehouses in the small hours of the night, which gives Howard about five hours to rig quick-release wrist cuffs for everybody and finish his frequency detectors; Peggy’s pulled Dugan and Gabe up to go over more city maps and call some of Dugan’s Belgian friends, and Brewer and Jim are taking naps in the makeshift infirmary downstairs. And so nobody really pays attention when Steve and Bucky go into the elevator together and don’t press a button for another floor. They wait until the doors shut, and then Steve says, “Do you,” and Bucky reels him in and presses a kiss to the side of his neck and says,

“How about a ramble through the pear trees,” and so Steve hangs onto him and shifts them to the safehouse, which is as still and quiet as a library in the fading warm light of the afternoon. They really do take a walk through the orchard; Bucky pulls his flat cap off and itches his hair and seems like he has things he wants to say, but can’t quite find the way to dredge them up. So Steve just follows him and nudges his shoulder once in a while and Bucky sighs and twines their hands together, leans into Steve’s side, walking lopsided so that they can fit together. Steve plucks a couple of crunchy, under-ripe pears down and they eat them in comfortable silence; the trees are really starting to get heavy with them, as the summer winds down and the weather turns cooler at night. When they get to the back porch Bucky leans down from the top step and kisses Steve again, tugs him in by his shirtfront and slants their mouths together, messy and still sweet from the fruit. “Feeling tired,” he says, after, and he’s showing it in every movement, so Steve follows him upstairs to the second bedroom, the one that’s still got the rolled-up rug wedged between the mattress and the wall. Steve sinks down and Bucky curls around him, rests his face on Steve’s shoulder and starts to drape his metal arm across Steve’s waist. He hesitates for a second, like he doesn’t want to put the weight on him—they slept the other way around last time, with Bucky’s flesh arm over him instead. But Steve reaches up and pulls the metal arm tight around him, and he feels Bucky’s whole body settle into a loose line against his side. Of course he’s exhausted, Steve thinks. Lukin was just this morning. It’s still surreal. He holds Bucky and they doze like that for an hour or so, maybe a little longer, Bucky actually asleep for most of it and Steve just meditating, feeling Bucky’s heartbeat pound slowly. He traces tree branches in his mind as if they were under a canopy of them, resting out in the mild air under the leaves, just two small alive creatures tucked into a hollow between the roots of a great spreading oak. It’s a nice fantasy, even if it makes him feel a little silly. He keeps his eyes shut and thinks about dappled sunshine on his eyelids, about waking up warm and safe and careless.

After a while he can feel Bucky stir beside him, so he runs his fingers along the seams of his metal hand, up his wrist and forearm, tracing the places where his veins would be. Bucky makes a soft sound and rubs his cheek into the meat of Steve’s chest.

“You can feel that?”

“Kind of,” Bucky says, muffled. “It’s—hard to explain. There’s some pressure, some sensation. It feels—yeah.” Steve runs his fingers along the underside of his upper arm, almost to the armpit. He used to be ticklish in that spot, Steve remembers. Bucky does, too, maybe; or else he still is, because he flinches away a little, making a face. “Cut it out.”

“Sorry,” Steve says, and jerks his hand away. Bucky sighs. He reaches the metal hand out, turning his forearm over and nudging it against Steve’s hand like a dog demanding to be petted.

“You don’t have to stop, just don’t tease,” he huffs. Steve smiles and goes back to tracing patterns inside his elbow, and Bucky relaxes.

“You like it?”

“Jesus,” Bucky says. He sounds embarrassed. Steve realizes why, when Bucky shifts closer and Steve can suddenly feel his half-hard dick through his pants, pressed against his hip. “Yeah. Like you have to ask.”

“Oh,” says Steve. “You really like it.”

“Yeah, Sherlock,” Bucky says. “It’s—I just, never, nobody ever,” he says, and swallows. “I didn’t know until now.”

Steve feels stupid for not realizing it.

“Nobody—”

“Who the fuck was ever trying to make me feel good,” Bucky says, sharply. He’s turned his face downwards away from Steve’s, even though his cheek is still on Steve’s chest. “They calibrated the fingers for trigger pulls. That was it.” Steve thinks about that for a second, and then takes the metal fingers between his, tangles them together and lifts them to his mouth. “Steve,” Bucky says, lifting his head, and Steve puts Bucky’s trigger finger between his lips, circles it and sucks lightly, presses the point of his tongue to the warming metal tip. “Fuck,” Bucky hisses. Steve pops a second finger into his mouth and bobs on them a little, swirls his tongue just slightly, like it’s a shy suckjob. Bucky’s hips jerk against Steve’s thigh, and he’s hard all the way now, grinding on him reflexively. “Fuck,” he breathes, again.

“You could,” Steve says, “if you wanted.”

“What?”

“Fuck me with these,” he says, and sucks on Bucky’s finger again for emphasis. “Put them inside me.”

“Jesus and fucking—Mary,” Bucky says. He looks stunned. “What—what if they—”

“You’re not going to hurt me,” Steve says. “I want you to do it.”

So Bucky pulls him out of his clothes; it takes a while because he can’t stop kissing Steve, sloppy and hungry and achingly tender, in between almost every button. He pulls Steve’s pants off and kisses the inside of his knees, his thighs, kisses up his hipbones, presses his cheek onto the tiny bit of softer skin above Steve’s cock and kisses up to his belly, while Steve trembles and says his name softly in surprise with every sensation. “Buck,” he says finally, desperately, when he’s leaking onto his own stomach, and Bucky’s barely done anything to him yet. He spreads his knees wider, tilts himself up in invitation. He’s red in the face, but it isn’t from shame. He’s not ashamed about this. He just wants Bucky, that’s all, wants anything Bucky’ll give him. “Please.” Bucky puts his own metal fingers into his mouth, wets them with spit, and presses one to Steve’s hole, and Steve almost shoots off right then, just at his touch. Bucky does him with one until he’s asking for two; three ends up being a little rough with just spit, but then they can’t find the Vaseline anywhere in Howard’s upstairs medicine cabinets. “Where the fucking cocksucking fuck is it,” Bucky’s shouting downstairs, when Steve finally finds some in a bathroom drawer with the aspirin and burn ointment and band-aids. They don’t even make it back to the bed afterwards: Bucky finds him bent over, still rummaging in the drawer, and that’s that. Bucky gives him three metal fingers and then his cock right there on the bathroom rug, scraping Steve’s knees up wonderfully and making him come across the tile. Bucky comes in him again, but pulls out a little early, so that a rope of it smears across Steve’s asshole and he feels it sliding down the back of his thigh.

“Buck, oh, God,” he says, helplessly, and rests his face down on his arms, going boneless against the side of the tub. “Oh my God.” Bucky’s collapsed over his back, but he’s still mouthing at Steve’s spine like he’s got a second or third wind in him.

“You and your ideas,” Bucky says, and Steve laughs silently into the floor.

They clean up quick after Steve looks at the clock; there’s still almost two hours until go time, but they have to get back. He’s already writing excuses in his head, just in case anyone asks. They might not. They could be lucky. He feels so greedy for this, now that he has it, but it frightens him a little: who knows how long they can keep it up, hide it. How long they can stay like this, carving out pieces of time here and there. It feels tenuous, like a wire stretched between buildings. For a million reasons. Steve’s buttoning up his shirt and watching Bucky brush his hair back when the words rise up in his throat and stick there, and he’s got to open his mouth.

“If anything,” he says, and Bucky looks sideways in the mirror to meet Steve’s eyes. “If anything happens to me, I want you—you have to promise,” he says, haltingly, and Bucky’s face seizes up in horror.

“No,” Bucky says.

“Buck—if anything happens, you have a family. You have people that—”

“If you say people that love me,” Bucky says, low and dangerous, “I will throw this goddamned hairbrush into the mirror.”

“Buck.”

“Don’t do this,” Bucky says. “Don’t make me promise.”

“Bucky, I just need to know—”

“You want promises?” Bucky says, and turns to face him. They’re so close Steve can feel the heat coming from him, can feel the magnetic pull of his body. “Land the fucking plane. Okay? Promise me that no matter what, no matter what happens to me, to us, you’ll land the fucking plane. You won’t let yourself go down.” Steve feels a flush of shame, but Bucky leans further into his space, puts a hand against his chest. “Can you promise that?”

“I don’t know,” Steve says, softly.

“I don’t know either,” Bucky says. “Anything happens to you, I don’t know what I’ll do. Survive, probably,” he says. His mouth twists up. It’s not a smile. “Like a cockroach.”

“Bucky, Jesus, please don’t,” Steve says, and puts both hands on Bucky’s face to kiss him, his mouth, his forehead. “I’m sorry.” Bucky closes his eyes and swallows hard, and lets Steve rub both cheeks with his thumbs before he leans back, further out of reach.

“I’m— not trying to be hard on you,” Bucky says. “I really don’t know. I don’t know. I know my ma’s— I know. But I can’t promise.”

“Okay,” Steve says. “Alright.”

“You’ll try, though,” Bucky says, hesitantly. “Is that fair to ask? If there’s a shot, you’d try, right?”

“To come back to you?” Steve asks. Bucky nods. “Through hell itself, Buck. On my hands and knees, if I have to.”

“Alright,” Bucky says. He acts like he’s still mad when Steve pulls them together, standing stiffly in Steve’s arms, but he turns his face into Steve's neck, rubs his nose across the skin over his pulse. “Alright.”

When they get back Brewer and Jim are awake and going through the small arms, and Dugan and Gabe are taking their turns on the lumpy cots in the infirmary; the switch-over means that nobody really notices that Steve and Bucky were gone at all. Howard’s made the wrist cuffs work: they hold tight even when they’re yanked on hard, but break off easily when the catches are pressed with finger and thumb.

“This is nice work, Howard,” Steve says. Howard looks pained.

“I built you a shoulder-mount percussion cannon that you’ve never even used,” he says, “and you like the trick handcuffs.”

“He’s a man of simple tastes,” says Bucky.

 

.

Chapter Text

The shift to Rotterdam is oddly rocky, but Howard’s clip-on cuffs do their job. Steve lands them squarely at one of the central shipping terminals along the mouth of the river, in a spot behind one of the long lines of cargo containers, just out of sight of the security tower.

“We’re headed that way,” Dugan says, peering at his sketched map in the dark. “Rendez-vous with the Belgians in ten.” Apparently Dugan’s Belgian friends have got a lead on the missing crates, but no intel on anything like a tesseract bomb. Thankfully, Howard finished the frequency detector in time; Brewer’s got it out and starting to cycle up. Jim and Gabe are debating quietly about destroying the crates once they find them—Gabe feels a grenade’s a little showy, Jim thinks there’s no such thing—and Bucky’s still standing off to the side rubbing his flesh wrist absently, like he can feel a ghost of the cuffs on his skin. Steve didn’t think about that until right this minute, but now he feels ashamed for not realizing how unpleasant it’d be.

“Alright?” he says, under his breath. Nobody else hears him or looks over, but Bucky’s eyes flash up to Steve’s, and then away. He nods and then puts his hands stiffly back at his sides, like he doesn’t want anyone to see him fidgeting.

They make their way through the terminal, pausing to let the scanner run for a minute or two at each bank of containers. It’s the middle of the night but there are still people and trucks every so often, and floodlights over some of the main loops. They’re dressed in plain coveralls and canvas jackets, like forklift operators or freight haulers, on the chance that somebody sees them; Bucky and Jim’s rifles are in duffel bags, like Steve’s shield. At the far edge of the terminal Steve puts a hand up and the others flatten themselves against the side of a cinderblock building, sticking to the shadows. There are police vehicles and an unmarked surveillance van parked between the gatehouse and the corrugated shed next to it.

Right where their Belgians are supposed to be.

“Goddamn,” Dugan sighs.

“Dutch police?” Jim says.

“Interpol,” Gabe says. “Not a good sign.” He shares a look with Steve. “They shouldn’t be here. Director talked to our liason, but Peggy didn’t give him the rendez-vous tonight.”

“Why not?”

“Liason was working closely with our DC office until a year ago. Peggy didn’t like the timing.” Gabe frowns. “I think she doesn’t like him, period. And her instincts—”

There’s a burst of sound from the corrugated shed; somebody ramming their way through the door and making a run for it across the open pavement, heading for the grid of cargo containers. It’s a man in a drab jacket with his hands cuffed together. Two uniforms run out after him and Dugan swears and lunges forward, like he’s going to run in the same direction, until Steve catches his arm and swings him back behind the wall.

“That’s Niels,” Dugan hisses. “Let me,” he’s saying, when a shot rings out. They drop lower against the wall out of instinct—all of them—and watch as Niels takes a few stuttering steps forward, sinks, and then falls to his hands and knees before sprawling, unmoving, on the pavement. A pair of tall dark shadows detach themselves from the side of the parked van. The guys in regular police uniforms stop and stand back stiffly as the figures in black stride by, look down at Niels, and put another shot apiece into his back. Niels jerks and then stops jerking, and the shooters turn around—the floodlights catch the outline of their goggles, the chunky breathing masks, the harnesses and sleek helmets that haunted the corners of Steve’s mind for years, even after he was back; shapes that made him spin and raise his guard against an enemy that wasn’t there. He can’t imagine he’s the only one. The white insignia on their vests isn’t clear this far away, but it’s not like any of them would have forgotten it. “I’ll be damned,” Dugan whispers. Brewer cranes his neck around.

“Are those—”

“HYDRA,” Steve says. “It’s what their shock troops wore.” He looks at Brewer. “You served in Korea?”

“Yes, sir,” Brewer says. “Not a lot of kitted-out Nazis to look at over there.”

“Now’s your chance,” Jim says. “Couple of honest-to-go-fuck-yourself stoßtruppen.” He sounds almost awed.

“They’re not even hiding anymore,” Gabe says, low and tense. “Peggy was right, this is a trap.”

“We can’t leave without destroying those cells,” Steve says. "Or finding the bomb. It has to be here."

“Steve, they’re obviously waiting for us.”

“Take the guys around,” Steve says. “I’ll draw them out—”

“Did you not hear me say trap?”

“He heard you,” Bucky says. It’s the first time he’s spoken since they left. He doesn’t raise his voice, but there’s something sharp about it that makes everybody fall silent and look at him, like an icicle cracking from a gutter to the ground. He’s looking at the rifle in his hands, holding it close in the crook of his arm, flat against his hip; sometime in the last minute he slid it out of the duffel and loaded it without anybody noticing. Christ. Bucky looks up at Gabe. “He heard you. He just doesn’t care.”

“Bucky.”

“He wants to charge in and swing his dinner plate around,” Bucky says. He looks at Steve. “Right?” Steve feels himself flush.

“If that bomb goes off and we don't—”

“I’m not disagreeing,” Bucky says. “I’m just reminding everybody else what they’re in for.” Jim makes a smothered laugh, and Bucky looks between him and Dugan. “We’ll play it old-school.” He looks at Brewer. “Might not mean much to you.”

“No, I’ve seen these guys work,” Brewer says. “I’m good.”

“I’ll take the gatehouse,” Steve says. “Brewer, keep the detector running. Split up, find the crates. I’ll keep them busy.”

“I’ll be up there,” Bucky says, and lifts his chin towards the roof line. “Push them into the open if you can.”

“Everybody good?” Steve says. "You don't like it, now's the time for suggestions."

"Nah," Jim says. "Let's make a mess."

Dugan and Gabe roll their eyes, Brewer starts fiddling with the detector again, and Bucky just gives Steve an unreadable look before shrugging the rifle over his shoulder. Steve doesn’t know what to do with that: follow him or argue with him or apologize or just tell him to—be safe, he thinks, and then thinks about how stupid that might sound. But Gabe’s faster, this time. He catches Bucky as he’s about to slip around the corner of the building.

“Are you,” Gabe says, “alright with—”

“They’re just soldiers,” Bucky says, stonily. “I know how to kill soldiers.” And then he’s gone, sliding into the dark, taking the words that were lodged in Steve’s throat with him.

 

 

 

 

Fighting shock troops didn’t get any easier, but it didn’t get any harder, either. Steve breaks one of their masks on the edge of his shield and then slams them bodily backwards and down onto the floor, and the second one rushes him. Steve slips out of reality for a second and the guy runs right through where he was standing and hits the side of the door frame, and Steve comes back in time to bash his face against it until he drops. There’s a third and a fourth that are just as showily aggressive and slow as the others, and then he stands breathing hard in the hall, standing a small pile of HYDRA goons and listening to the rifle crack loud across the gatehouse yard once, twice, three times, barely a pause between shots. It’s too fast to be anyone but Bucky, and Steve knows he’s not missing. There’s a commotion from upstairs and another pair of HYDRA goons spill down, shouting when they see him; Steve shifts to the top step and knocks them down with the shield and then kicks them out through the main doors into the yard, leaves them stunned and rolling and ready for whatever Bucky feels like dishing out.

Inside it’s gone dark: they turned the lights out when the shooting started up, but Steve can sense movement, presence, on the floor above. He doesn’t know how many. He shifts up the stairs and flattens himself against the wall, listens to a couple of hushed voices whispering on the other side of the door in a scattered mix of German and Dutch.

“Gesundheit,” Steve says loudly from the hall, and shifts just as they all start firing at once through the door. He cuts through the void and lands on the far side of the room, behind three of them, but not all of them; a bullet stings across the side of his hip before he can spin and chunk the shield into the trooper’s mask, sending him flying. Steve curses under his breath and spins to knock two of the plainclothes guys over, dodging behind the shield while the third fires on him point-blank. He kicks out under a table and flips it, buys himself a second to drive forward and punch the guy backwards with enough force to volley him right through a window. The other two have rolled to their feet and one’s quick enough to kick him in the back, so Steve just shifts into the fall, lets himself slide through the world and gain momentum, until he breaks back through and kicks out in midair, busting ribs on one guy and knocking them both into a heap. One of them drops a flash grenade as they’re scrambling and Steve ducks behind the shield, squeezes his eyes shut. The world goes white behind his eyelids and it shouldn’t—it should be nothing, he should be able to blink it away, but even after the ringing stops he feels woozy, off-kilter. The last guy stands up and swings at him with a knife; it takes all of Steve’s focus to get his arms to move fast enough to block it, to crack his wrist on the edge of the shield and kick the knife across the floor. He goes down yelping and Steve staggers towards the doorway, leans against it for a second while he tries to remember what he was—what he was just doing, he has to go—

down the stairs, into the yard, no, that's not right, he’s supposed to be drawing them here, keeping attention off the others, he—

—down the stairs, into the yard— no, up, and,

DOWN
THE
STAIRS, Steve thinks, struggling with it, like his brain’s sloughing off a layer of skin, trying to fight what he needs to do, where he needs to be, he needs to go down the stairs and into the yard, he needs to go down the stairs and into the yard, to where Dugan and Gabe are, he needs to find them. He needs to go down and find them and

kill them, all of them.

Steve puts his foot on the top step, like he’s going to head down with his shield in one hand and his sidearm in the other, like he’s going to go down the stairs. But he doesn’t. He doesn’t move. He stands on the top step and stares down into the darkness of the hall and his brain supplies him with a series of pictures in flashes, like he’s watching a torn projector screen caught in the wind: flashes and flashes and flashes, while it flaps and sways and swells. Him walking down, him heading for the yard. Flashes. Him calling the all-clear and gathering them up. Him turning and putting a bullet, putting a bullet in—

putting a bullet in them, a bullet in all of them, a bullet in—

His right hand’s trembling; he doesn’t remember pulling the gun from the holster at the small of his back, tucked into his belt under the work jacket. It’s cold in his hand. He has to go downstairs and get everyone together. Call them in.

Down the stairs, Steve thinks, and turns around. He walks towards the window and his brain is screaming at him, shrieking furiously that he has a job to do he has one job and Steve twists and flings the gun out of the broken window, so hard he can hear it ping off the wall of the next building over and break with a clattering sound. There’s an earsplitting sound like a siren in his head, so loud he has to crouch down and put both hands over his ears and focus on his roaring pulse, the furious pounding inside his chest, thundering through all of him like a drum. Something real.

“Go to hell,” Steve says, grinding his teeth. He lifts his head towards the ceiling and his whole body strains against the movement. But his body is his own. The agony’s an illusion, something he’s got to fight. Steve clenches his hands to his chest, feels his heart beating. And stands. “Go to hell, you son of a bitch,” he says, and inside his head he can feel the Skull smiling.

I have been there, the Skull says; whispering at last. Steve’s veins throb a little less brutally. I am its master now.

“What bullshit,” Steve grits out, and shifts right into the pain.

He understands now why trying to hone in on Zola just made the universe throw him up, shake him off. Zola wasn’t home anymore. The gaping emptiness he’d been running up against was the Skull, the sick knot in the tree of the world, blocking his way. He hadn’t known what he was looking for. But now there’s a flare of red, a line like a curl of fire, snaking its way through Steve’s consciousness. He wanted to hook Steve like a fish, fine: Steve is gonna run right up that baited line and choke him with it. He can feel the Skull scrambling away from him, trying to sever the connection, so Steve shifts faster, lets the world run off his back like water, dives down and down and down and down and up at last, shattering the skin of the void like thin ice. He lands in an empty warehouse somewhere at the edge of the terminal—he can still hear Bucky’s gun going off in the distance, quick and devastating. But here, inside the empty warehouse, there’s quiet. The creak of settling beams. And somewhere, muted breathing. “I know you’re here,” Steve calls out, turning in a slow circle. There’s a faint shifting noise from the walkways above, crossing the ceiling. Steve lifts his eyes and sees a short silhouette at the end of the grating, about twenty feet up. When it comes into the light it’s Zola, Zola without his pinched little glasses, in a black belted trenchcoat. Steve doesn’t know what he expected. But it’s just him, balding and squinting and human. He’s aged a little, worn down. Looking at him is like looking down a train tunnel backwards, into the before of Steve’s fractured life.

“If only your mind was as powerful as that circus physique,” the Skull says, out of Zola’s mouth.

His phrasing is off. Steve’s struck by that at first, the wrongness in his syllables. And his gait is awkward, a small man walking like a larger one is pulling the strings. It’s all a strange kind of double vision, a missing page in a flipbook that makes the picture skip. The effect makes Zola look somehow unreal. Nightmarishly familiar and unrecognizable all at once. He’d forgotten how small Zola was, actually. Schmidt seems to have filled him to the seams. “But there is a weakness in you,” Schmidt says, haughtily, cutting across Steve’s thoughts. “I am not surprised. Erskine chose to work with inferior stock.”

“Big talk,” says Steve. “You had your shot at me, and you blew it.”

“You are not my concern anymore,” Schmidt says. “My destiny lies beyond humanity.”

“Sure,” Steve says. “You want that big snake to eat you.”

“How dare—” Schmidt, clenching at the railing in outrage, and Steve hurls the shield up and follows it in the shift. Schmidt ducks the shield neatly but not Steve: Steve pops back into reality right there on the grates and lands a brutal haymaker square on Zola’s ear, staggering him sideways to clutch at his face. “You overgrown gutter rat,” Schmidt shrieks, cursing in German, and swings at him, but Zola’s arms don’t have the reach or the power he imagines, and his punches go wild. Steve cracks him in the jaw and then rabbit-punches him in the gut, and he grunts and doubles over. He lunges for Steve’s midsection and Steve tips back with the railing as a brace, kicks him in the chest hard, and then plants a foot on Zola’s sternum and punches both feet out to send him backwards, reeling, right over the opposite railing and out into space. Zola’s body falls like a stone from the catwalk, arms wheeling and legs kicking; he plummets and then cracks violently against the edge of a rolling metal staircase. His body tumbles downward and sprawls onto the floor in a boneless, silent heap. For a second Steve stands against the side of the railing and stares down, waiting for—he’s not sure what he’s waiting for. But Zola—Schmidt, whoever—doesn’t get up.

Steve shifts down to the ground and stands over him: face down in a growing pool of blood, legs wedged at painful angles across the bottom of the stairs. One hand is stretched out like he was reaching to grasp at something, anything. The fingers are loosely curled. Steve turns him over slowly with the toe of his boot. There’s a horrific, curdling gash across the side of his head, the spot where he hit the stairs. His skull’s cracked at the point of impact, and Steve can see—dear Jesus. He can see right inside. Whatever mind was present in there at the moment he hit, monstrous übermensch or not, it doesn’t matter anymore to the body. The body is dead. And in death he looks—pathetic. Grotesque. His eyes have bulged out, his tongue lolls. Steve can’t stop looking at his clawed hands. At the knuckles and fingernails: his index finger on the right is broken. They’re small hands, delicate. A tailor’s hands, or a surgeon’s. While Steve was in the ice, these were—they were cutting Bucky apart, these hands, these fingers—they were sawing Bucky’s shattered arm off, putting screws into the bone, shocking him until he couldn’t—these hands, these fingers, right here, gone slack and bloodless and dead. Gone powerless. Steve has a sick urge to stomp on them, to grind them with his boot heel, to smash them into hamburger with the edge of the shield; he has to turn his face away and hold a hand over his mouth and ride the hot rush of shame that follows the thought. It’s not decent, not—human, he thinks. That kind of idea. He rubs at his face and straightens up and listens for a second, tries to sense the direction of the fight. He’s not naïve enough to think that the fall killed Schmidt; he’s probably sunk his claws into somebody else, one of his masked goons, maybe. Time to find out.

When he shifts back to the wall behind the gatehouse, he catches sight of Gabe and Jim almost immediately; there’s a splash of blood on Gabe’s sleeve but both of them look alright. Jim’s reloading behind a dumpster while Gabe keeps an eye on the parked van. They don’t even really startle when Steve shifts into place a few yards away from them.

“Fancy meeting you here,” Jim says; he pops in another magazine and flicks the bolt forward. “You find the other Belgian in there?”

“No. Found Zola.” Both of them whip their heads around to stare at him. “He’s—took a fall,” Steve says. “Dead. Not Schmidt, though. He’s probably shifted to another one of their guys.”

“Jesus,” Gabe says. “Alright. Dugan’s on the other side, that way. I think Barnes is on the opposite roof. He was trying to get a better angle.”

“Let’s move,” Steve says.

The shooting’s stopped, for now; they cross the gap between the gatehouse and the closest warehouse quickly, Steve in the lead. Backs to the wall on the far side, they hear a low, musical trill. Somebody’s whistling “Camptown Races.”

“Dugan,” Jim says, grinning. "Learn a new song, you mook." He whistles the second half of the chorus, and a big shadow comes out from around the corner. Jim steps forward. “Glad to see your ugly—” he’s saying, when Dugan raises his right arm and shoots Jim in the chest. For a second the world has a frozen, shocked-still quality: it’s like Steve can see the path of the bullet stretching backwards, see the vibrations in the air around Jim the second it makes impact. The sound of metal hitting flesh is louder than a bomb. There’s a shrill ringing in his ears like the void is roaring at them. Like the void is here. Steve should have seen this coming. Steve should have known, should have— this is his fault.

“Dugan!” Gabe shouts, and scrambles to catch Jim, who’s stumbling backwards with one hand against his chest and his rifle still clutched in the other. He flails and tips over and Gabe’s got his arms out, hollering at Dugan, at Steve. Dugan’s aiming at Gabe now and Steve slams out and back into reality with the shield forward, knocks Dugan backwards onto the pavement. Dugan’s eyes are glowing red, bright as new blood, and he’s looking at Steve from on his back, baring his teeth in a grin, putting the gun to his own temple, and there’s a shot that cracks out like thunder but it’s not Dugan’s, it’s a wild, impossible shot that picks the gun right out of Dugan’s hand, blowing off the tip of one of his fingers and making him scream. Steve kicks the gun away and holds him down with an arm across his chest, shakes him while Dugan shrieks in rage and bats at him with both hands, smearing blood from his gushing finger across Steve’s eyes.

“Let him go,” Steve says. “Let him go!” He thumps Dugan against the ground. But Schmidt is laughing out of Dugan’s mouth, hysterically.

Dies ist nur ein Geschmack,” he says. He bares Dugan’s big, white teeth. “Das ist der Anfang.”

“Steve!” Gabe shouts. “Steve, we have to get him somewhere!” He’s got both hands over Jim’s jacket front, and they’re slick with blood. “We have to go!”

Dugan heaves up and punches Steve flat in the face, and Steve just takes it and hangs on, holds him down. There’s the barest sound behind him and then there’s Bucky, rifle on his back, touching Steve between the shoulderblades: it’s less comfort than a warning, something to register his movement, but Steve arches up into for a second just to feel the press of his hand. Bucky drops to his knees and wraps his hands around Dugan’s throat, cutting in hard on the side with his metal fingers. Dugan bats at him and snarls but it’s choked-off, weakening; in less than a minute his eyes roll into his head and he’s gone limp in Steve’s grip. Steve lets him go and sits back on his heels, wiping blood out of his eyes. He looks at Bucky.

“Carotid arteries,” Bucky says. “Come on. Time to go.”

“Brewer,” Steve says, desperately. “The crates.” Bucky rolls a little piece of rounded glass into Steve’s palm. He must have been carrying it close to his body; it’s warm to the touch.

“Found ‘em,” he says. “Jim rigged them to blow. We did what we came for.”

“Steve!” Gabe calls.

“We have to find Brewer,” Steve snaps back.

You have to go,” Bucky says, and wraps a hand in his jacket to pull him up. Steve shakes him off and Bucky makes a frustrated huff and leans down to snap his cuff onto Dugan’s wrist. He starts dragging Dugan closer to Jim and Gabe. Steve gives him a hand, and together they get Jim and Gabe cuffed in a chain with Dugan. Jim’s still conscious, but starting to look pale. There’s a stain of blood on the ground under him. “Okay,” Bucky says. He stands up, and Steve’s stomach drops into his knees. Bucky looks at him and scowls. “Don’t waste time arguing,” Bucky says.

“Barnes, you don’t,” Gabe starts to say, but Jim makes a choking cough under his hands. “Goddamnit, Steve, he’s—”

“I’ll find Brewer,” Bucky says. “We’re not leaving anybody for them.”

“No way in hell,” Steve says, “am I gonna leave—”

“Steve,” Bucky hisses, and leans close to his face, puts his metal hand on the side of Steve’s head, shakes him minutely. It’s not tender, but it’s— grounding. Solid. “Get the fuck out of here. Go. Come back for us,” he says. His hard eyes falter for a second, go gentle. “You always do.” He lets go and steps back and Steve thinks, irrationally, about a stream in the mountains, rushing water, something he’s forgotten. There’s something cold against his spine, in his senses. He can feel the tide hammering at the back of his heels, sucking the sand away by inches, taking his footing.

“Take it,” Steve says, suddenly, and holds the shield out. He slides his hand out of the strap to offer it up, and Bucky stares at it. At him. “In case. Take it.” After a beat Bucky does, wordlessly. He slips his left hand into the grip and lifts it easily, stands with it in the crook of his arm. And for a second Steve’s overcome with it, the picture he makes. Just for a second. He can’t help it. Behind him the shadows change: the rifle could be a sword, the bulky coat a cuirass. Bucky would laugh at him for this, but Steve’s heart is turning over, just to look at him. The shield’s nothing holy, but Bucky is. He could be trampling the dragon underfoot. Donatello’s Saint George was tall as a reed and boyish too, soft-faced in a way that neither of them are anymore, but he was never this alive. Steve grips Dugan’s wrist, and Gabe’s, and shifts fast with Bucky held in his eyes, stark and lonely like a tree in a cleared field, a single standing caryatid, a silhouette that the void pulls out of sight.

He lands them gasping in the lobby of Brooklyn Hospital; it’s bedlam the second Steve drags them back into reality, with night-shift workers shrieking and pushing each other out of the way, chairs knocked over, nurses rushing from their station in the hall. It was the best he could do on short notice, feeling so scattered. For a second in the drift he’d felt himself unconsciously pulling towards St. Anthony’s and forced himself to turn aside from it; the vertigo had been terrible, terrifying, like the swirl of his being getting tugged down a drain. He hadn’t meant to. But he’d been picturing the closed doors to the consumption ward, the tall bare windows—the first death, the first real death. God forgive him, his father hadn’t really counted. He couldn’t even remember his face. There was no help at St. Anthony’s anymore, not the precise kind of help, the kind of shelter, that Steve had suddenly longed for with everything he had. There were nurses on the ward there, but none of them were Sarah Rogers. They wouldn’t have known his face. Or cupped it between thin, wire-strong hands and said, it’s alright now. It hadn’t been. It isn't now. Steve snaps the cuffs off the others and stands up, finds a nurse who’s pushed her way through the others, upstream, to get closer to them. She’s a stocky woman in a starched uniform who looks him up and down and demands,

“What in God’s name is this?”

“Ma’am,” Steve says, and draws himself up inside as best he can. “I’m Captain America, and these are my men. Two of them have just been shot.”

The nurse says something unprintable and crosses herself rapidly. And then she grabs two passing orderlies by their elbows.

“You,” she says. “Gurneys. Double time.”

Steve helps them get Dugan and Jim up and onto the trolleys, and then follows helplessly in their wake as the nurse barrels them all down the hall towards the surgical suite. He and Gabe are bloodstained and ragged-looking, and everybody stares as they pass by. Most of them look frightened. But a couple of people recognize him and whisper behind their hands frantically. He’s just blown the lid on his abilities, probably, by landing somewhere so public. There’ll be reports in the papers, unless Peggy can do something about it. Steve can’t summon up the will to care. After a couple of minutes with the doctors Dugan wakes up without Schmidt in his head, so that's something. Half his finger's gone, but the rest is probably salvageable. He doesn't remember shooting Jim, but when Gabe gives him a quick version of what happened he excuses himself to the bathroom with his gauze-wrapped hand and red, swelling eyes. To cry, Steve thinks. Dugan's heart is as big as he is, he knows. He's going to take it hard.

They can’t go into surgery, so they’re all left standing in the hall, looking like a bunch of murderers. And if Jim dies I really will be, Steve thinks. There'll be nothing to absolve him of this.

“You should go back,” Gabe says, wearily. “There’s nothing you can do now.”

“Can’t leave you two like this,” Steve says. He gestures at their clothes. They weren’t carrying ID in Rotterdam, in case they got separated, in case Steve couldn’t get all of them at once—hospital security’s too stunned to be suspicious at the moment, but that could change. “If the police—”

“I’ll call in,” Gabe says. “Second you’re gone.” Steve looks at Dugan, who nods, and manages to give him a crooked, miserable smile. Gabe tugs Steve to the side and lowers his voice. “We're alright," he says. "Go get him, Steve.” Steve pulls Gabe into a fierce hug, claps him on the back; Gabe has the grace to only be startled for a second before he loops an arm around Steve and hugs back, briefly. “Don’t get mushy on me,” he says, even though he keeps a hand on Steve’s arm, squeezing lightly, as they let go of each other.

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Steve says.

He ducks into a stairwell and shifts fast, focusing on Bucky: thinking of the dip in the back of his spine, the warm curve of his neck that Steve’s pressed his face against to fall asleep. The strength in his hands. It’s so easy to go towards him. So different from forcing himself to hit a point that he can’t sense: it feels like falling through the warmest, softest air. He goes effortlessly like a penny dropping through a sewer grate, tripping lightly through the nothingness, the silvery edge of his wake winking under starlight. He lands right beside Bucky, crowded into the front seat of the passenger van from earlier. Bucky’s halfway out the door, crouched down and fiddling with the wires under the steering column. The shield’s slung over his back, and the second Bucky registers movement in the cab he’s spun around and put it up between them, gun raised towards Steve’s face, all in one beautiful snap like a diving hawk. Steve puts his hands up and smiles at him, probably looking like a goon. He's okay. Steve took too long but he was okay, he's fine, he's okay.

“Jesus,” Bucky says. “Your aim’s getting better and better.” He tucks the gun away and reaches for Steve, pulls him in and touches the side of his neck, rubs the skin of Steve’s throat with his thumb like he’d rather be kissing it. “Jim?” he says.

“Don’t know yet,” Steve says. “You find Brewer?”

“Yeah,” Bucky says. “About that.”

 

 

 

 

“We can tell Mr. Stark the energy detector works, I guess,” Brewer says. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

They’re standing inside a shipping container, illuminated by a haze of cold white light so strong it hurts Steve’s eyes to look at it directly. It’s getting brighter. The device radiating in the center of the container is roughly the size of a washing machine, and it’s humming louder and louder as they stand watching it. There’s no countdown clock, no red or green wires, but Steve knows without a doubt that this is it. This is how they’re going to tear a hole in the universe. He looks at Bucky, who seems to read the thought right off his face.

“When we blew the crates, they turned this on and then got the hell out of Dodge,” Bucky says. He makes a faint, feral smile at Steve. “Well. Some of them.”

“We can’t turn it off,” Brewer says. “We tried.”

“Yeah,” Bucky says. “That’s why I was hotwiring the truck. Thought if—then we could at least get some distance.”

“I don’t know if it’s that kind of bomb,” Steve says, uneasily. He steps up and sets his hand against the side of it, feels it beating against his palm like a human heart, like a vein throbbing under the skin. And not like it at all: crackling energy running along the surface stands all his hairs on end. Nothing about this belongs here, on this plane. It simply shouldn’t be.

“You think you can deactivate it?” Brewer says. “Like the thing at the base in Maine?”

“Maybe,” says Steve.

He shuts his eyes and concentrates on the pitch of the humming, tries to find a point where he can slip between the waves and settle his consciousness into it; it takes him a second, but he finds it, and sinks down into the heart of the bomb. It's more of a machine. A rumbling engine that's designed to overheat. There’s something cold and empty in the middle, where there ought to be something—alive, Steve thinks. It ought to be alive and instead it’s dead and burning, a pale imitation. How does he know that? Everything trembles around him, and Steve can feel something crawling up the back of his mind, like a raindrop running in the wrong direction, water gurgling up the pipes. Water rushing up. Cold water, like a river under ice—a salt ocean hidden by a white mirror, heavy churning water fountaining up through the cracked windshield, through the glacier, through the walls of the world, through—Steve shudders and feels himself falling, crunching through ice, the air crushed out of him, the brutal punch of all the bombs going off at once, tearing him to bits. He didn’t remember. He didn’t remember any of this, didn’t remember the moment. He thought there was nothing, no pain, no—but this is pain like he’s never felt, pain that erases the body, whites it out, a memory of unmaking. But there’s something else, too, that he sees at last. He understands now, he should have gone to pieces for real. There was never meant to be anything left. He should have gone to pieces and been wiped away forever, but there’s a thread around him, a missing thread tying him off. He’s seeing it clearly for the first time. Blue light like a blue vein, on the soft inner flesh of his arm. It’s tugging on him. At him. It’s running through him like a net, coming to life. Burning him awake. Pulling him apart layer by layer, nerve by nerve, unspooling him to atoms and cupping them in its insensate, inhuman hands—

—there’s a stinging slap against his cheek and Steve startles awake, jerks up to find Bucky kneeling over him on the floor of the container.

“Fucking Christ,” Bucky says, raggedly, eyes wild. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah,” Steve croaks. His throat feels raw. “What happened?”

“You fell down and started screaming,” Brewer says, from over Bucky’s shoulder.

“What’d it do to you?” Bucky says. His hand’s wrapped tight around Steve’s shoulder, bracing him up. “What the fuck was all that?”

“I saw something,” Steve says. “Remember those—remember the weapons they made off the tesseract? It’s like that, but it’s all wrong. It’s like they can’t,” he says, “they can’t make it work the way it did before, because something’s missing. They don't have the tesseract anymore, so I think— something's not connecting.”

“Does that mean it’s not going to go off?”

“No,” Steve says. “It’s definitely going to go off.” He looks back at the machine; somehow, it’s only gotten brighter, stronger. “I’m just not sure I can stop it.”

“Could you move it?” Brewer asks. “Drop it in the Atlantic, at least?”

“Uh,” Steve says, “let me,” and he pushes upright, reaches out his hand and feels a stronger crackle of current quake up his arm and down his spine. When he fights it, tries to get a firmer hold, there’s a sudden snapping and a wave of power blows him backwards into the wall of the cargo container with terrific force. He rolls and shakes it off, feeling like a piece of bacon, and says, woozily, “Okay, I don’t—think so.” Bucky makes a disgusted noise and hooks his metal hand under Steve’s armpit, hauls him upright and touches the crown of his head for a second, like he’s making sure Steve didn’t bust himself wide open. Oh, God, Steve thinks, jolting back to reality. He has a flash of Zola’s crushed-in face on the warehouse floor. Bucky doesn’t even know.

“Then we’re going,” Bucky says. “Are you okay to shift us?”

“I don’t—I don’t know that, either,” Steve says. He reaches out to test the edges of the void but everything’s starting to fray: the machine is ripping at reality with sharpened teeth. He feels dizzy. “I can’t. Not this close. It’s—it’s pulling everything apart,” Steve says, helplessly, and Bucky’s jaw tightens.

“Plan C it is,” Bucky says, grimly.

Steve’s only wobbly at first, but Bucky doesn’t let go of him; the three of them haul ass to the truck and Bucky finishes hotwiring it, and then they pile into the cab together and make for the service road that leads towards the city. There’s a locked chain-link gate but Bucky just steps on the gas and says, “Hold on,” and plows them through it, busting half the windshield out and denting the hood. The air whips across them and next to Steve, Brewer is swearing and picking bits of auto glass out of his hair. “How far do we have to get?” Bucky hollers, over the roaring engine and the sound of wind rushing past.

“I don’t know!” Steve calls. He thumps the roof in frustration. “I don’t know! It could rip apart the whole goddamn city, the whole goddamn Netherlands!” He thinks as fast as he can. There’s no time to call it in, no chance for an evacuation. There’s got to be something that can stop it. Some point of weakness. Some hole. He thinks about the uncanny peeling sensation he felt inside the machine, about the veins, the tree—and then he thinks about Bucky’s radiant mandorla, the haze of gold he saw in the void, the threads that Steve pulled tight. “I have an idea!” Steve yells. Bucky turns them onto the service road at about eighty miles an hour, tires screeching, and looks at him. “I have to go back,” Steve says. “I have to go back, Buck.”

“Don’t you fucking dare!” Bucky yells.

"What?" yells Brewer.

“I have to,” Steve hollers. “I have to try!”

“Pigheaded son of a bitch,” Bucky says. He grabs for Steve’s arm, and Steve tries to jerk away, and the whole van skids sideways while Bucky tries to keep his other hand on the wheel. His face is rigid with fury. “You’re not going any—”

Steve reaches for him and pulls their heads together for a second, while Bucky bats at him and tries to grab his wrists.

“Love you,” Steve whispers into his ear. He doesn’t know if Bucky will hear him over the wind, over his own shouting. I'll come back for you, for you, Buck, Steve thinks, doggedly, and pushes himself away, tears himself off the world like a leaf from a sketchbook, like sheets blowing out of a folio and lifting into the sky.

Steve drops, barely, in front of the machine. He has to drag himself back together with effort, pull himself in from the corners, to make the landing. It’s nearly a miss: he nearly goes screaming off into the void, a chunk of his being at a time. He can still feel himself shaking. There’s a thrumming halo around the bomb now, distorting the cargo container like it’s a water balloon, swelling the edges out and sucking them inwards, rippling the ground at Steve’s feet. It’s going to blow any second. But he can do this. At least in principle. He meant it, when he said he had to try. It’s what he’s supposed to do. God help him, it’s what he’s for. “Here goes nothing,” Steve says, just to hear his own voice, before the howling silence takes it.

He stretches his arms out, closes his eyes, and lets go.

 

 

.

Chapter Text

Going through the void this time is like tearing through thick spiderwebs, through a fog so dense his hands vanish before his eyes. When he surfaces on the other side he floats there for a moment, exhausted, gathering all the straining pieces of himself, trying to focus on his body: the slight ache in all his muscles and the sting in his hip, where the bullet graze is just starting to stiffen and crust over. He comes to clarity with that split in his skin. Steve turns slowly through the cloudy waves of mist, parting them with his hands and feeling them begin to fade and dissipate. He looks up and realizes he is somewhere at the base of the massive root structure he’s seen so many times; not close enough to see it now, but close enough to sense it, to feel its thrumming strength. He wills the mist aside, centers on the crackling sensations of the machine, and when he breaks through another clear skin of light, passes to another layer, he sees it, and feels his mouth open in mute, stunned surprise. He did it. Well, part of it. The first part. He couldn’t touch the machine, couldn’t move it—not in the physical, familiar sense.

But he’s done it: he’s looking at the machine from the opposite side.

From within the void, Steve can see straight through the tears the machine is making, the long strokes it’s clawing into the fabric of the world. He can see it clearly now. He couldn’t before. The edges of the holes are spilling light, as if the machine is tearing through a curtain of stars, pulling apart seams in comet trails. But if he probes at the edges he finds what he’s looking for: tiny threads of reality, frayed ends. Like Bucky’s golden tendrils, the soft trailing banners of his mind; just on an immense, immeasurable scale. It’s staggering, how many there are. He really couldn’t have imagined. But he knows the mechanics of it. Feels them, at least. He might be able to pull this off.

There’s a ripple from the machine, a hard shockwave that must be the beginning of the blast. Steve steadies himself and reaches for it, reaches through the void and tries to grip at the shockwave itself, to pull it in.

It’s not—easy.

It sears his skin and bones, makes him feel like he’s gathering an armful of flaming coals; it rakes across him, tears at him the way it’s tearing at the world, but Steve keeps tugging and plants himself in the tree, imagines the roots wrapping around his waist. Imagines them snaking around his legs, holding him fast. He focuses on their strength and feels a sudden anchor take hold. It’s like being pinned in place: like all the world is being forced to turn around him. Steve digs in and yanks and pulls savagely, gives one great heave and feels the machine come through, feels the hole in reality stretch and tear slightly, giving way, and the machine bursts into the void just before it finally explodes. Steve goes spinning into darkness, punched away by the force of it, but his back’s still to the tree—he clings to anything he can feel, and rides through the jerking violence of impact after impact. The blast blinds him, wipes everything away: he thinks he might be screaming.

Steve hangs on.

A second passes. And another. And then he can flex his hands again, loosen where they’re knotted in the fine root hairs. After another minute—or eternity, he doesn’t know, he can’t be sure—he can open his eyes, crack his knuckles and stretch his spine. There are little chunks of the machine floating around him, twinkling with reflected light. He stretches his hand out and bats them away. It’s like being inside a school of fish, bright-tailed and quick, departing for deeper currents. They’re slowly dissolving. Like the void is a great stomach, or a slow climb of the tide, wearing them away. Before long, as he watches, they vanish into trails of dust, into pure energy that the void swallows.

And then there’s nothing but Steve and the holes, leaking inky void-stuff, with their frayed-light edges. They’re not as big as they could have been, Steve thinks. Pulling the machine through, blowing its energy out into the void—instead of out across Rotterdam—seems to have changed the nature of the damage. At least he hopes. He runs his senses along their edges to find the loose threads, the places where they’ve been broken, sliced through. He tugs one up, finds a place to weave it over, through, and feels it radiate between his fingers, feels it grow whole again, and strong. It’s like a miracle. It’s possible, he thinks, wildly. It’s actually possible.

So Steve gets to work.

His fingers find the first thread, a long loose strand still rippling from the blast. He spools it on his wrist and pulls until it stretches across the hole, then knots it above, joins the ends to make a shining silver line of light, like a harp string, across the gap. Along the length of it, it starts to glow. So far, Steve thinks, eagerly, so good.

He tugs each thread, weaves it under and over, knots the ends; he thinks about Bucky as he works, the beautiful golden ends that made him look like a stained-glass saint at sunset. There are endless, countless tiny threads. It’s tedious work but it’s also—it feels good, pure somehow in its mindless mindfulness, surrendering to the rhythm of the warp and weft. His hands move in a blur, his mind is already fixed on the next row, and the next.

As the tears grow thinner they begin to knit together more easily, and Steve begins to feel something rising in his chest, a powerful heaviness, a weight that swells behind his ribcage, like he’s swallowed a flood. He feels like it’s flowing out of him, down his arms, through his nerves; blinding blue light stringing in his veins, touching together the shimmering, silvery edges of reality. He recognizes it immediately, joyously, without knowing exactly what it is—what it means. It’s the force that pulled his pieces together, remade him, those long years in the water, in the void. It’s alive and singing in him, somehow. The more he works, the stronger it gets, the louder it feels, the closer he is to touching it, naming it, knowing it—no, Steve thinks. Not only knowing it.

Remembering it.

He weaves and threads and knots and slowly draws the gaps together, pulls for all he’s worth, by the tips of his fingers and the slivers of his fingernails. The blue light in his chest grows stronger, and Steve lets it run, lets it pool in his hands and skim up his arms and crash over him like a waterfall, lets it carry him away. He is flying over the seams of the world, playing them like a guitar, running his hands through them like a field of wheat, like shining blades of grass; he is flying, he is soaring, he is free.

He doesn’t even notice the moment when the holes close with a final shiver, and the skin of the world vibrates with a long inaudible note; he is cresting on a wave, a great black wave that’s picked through with the shadows of galaxies, and a thin blue thread of light is pulling him away.

Steve follows, without knowing where it leads.

 

 

 

 

He wakes up, aching and hungover, on the floor.

There’s a sour taste in his mouth and his head’s pounding; when he rolls onto his side and pushes up on one elbow all his joints scream for a second, and then die down to grumbling. The floor is cold and looks like veined marble, the kind of marble that looks like staring into a telescope, drifting with great celestial clouds. Steve tilts his head back, dizzily, and sees a ceiling overhead, shining and domed and vast.

“What,” says a booming voice, a man’s voice, resonant and deep, “is this?”

Steve turns himself around with some effort, and then leans back to gape upwards at the largest man he’s ever seen in his life. He is tall as a mountain, broad as an oak; he's radiantly dark-skinned and his bare arms look polished as new bronze, as perfectly smooth and faultless as the curve of the shield. He’s dripping with golden ornaments, head to toe, but mostly Steve is overwhelmed by the presence of him, the piercing eyes and planted feet, the incredible spread of his shoulders and the weight of power in his voice. He’s stepping down from a golden dias, eyes locked on Steve, those mighty arms coiled like springs. He’s alarmingly magnificent, as soaringly grand as a cathedral, but for some reason Steve doesn’t feel afraid in the least. Just—awed.

If this is God, Steve thinks, some folks are in for a shock.

“I’m Steve Rogers,” he says, and immediately feels like the universe’s biggest dipshit. “From Brooklyn,” he adds, as if that makes it any better. Sure, he thinks, maybe there are two Steve Rogers running around heaven already. Wouldn’t want him to get confused. Jesus. But the man in gold standing over him just raises one eyebrow with a dry, unimpressed expression.

“So it seems,” he says. “But how came you here?”

“No idea,” says Steve.

“None at all?” He studies Steve’s face carefully. “No falsehood there, I see,” he says, and frowns. “This is a strange course we are set on.” Steve refrains from making any remarks about his phrasing; the old-fashioned speech would probably sound stupid on anybody else, but there’s something grave and elegant in the way he says it. And divine or not, Steve supposes that this guy is tall enough to talk any way he likes.

“Do you mind my asking, where here is?”

“I do not mind,” he says, seriously. “But neither do I think it wise to tell you. You should never have come this far.”

“Alright,” says Steve. “Fair enough.” He ignores the twinge in his hip and he stands up and dusts himself off, straightens the bloodied canvas work jacket that he’s still wearing. The man watches him impassively, and Steve bristles a little under the silent attention. Not heaven, then, maybe: Steve’s not sure you’re supposed to feel irritated with Him when you’re actually enjoying the privilege of standing before God. Unless he really is just the worst Catholic of all time. “If it’s all the same to you, I’ll be on my way.”

“Will you?” He sounds amused. “You do not know the road down which you came, but you mean to return by it?”

“That’s—about right,” Steve says.

“Then, by all means,” he says, and gestures broadly with one hand. Steve nods at him, hoping that it comes across as respectful, and steadies himself to shift. He’s having a rough time finding the shape of the void, but just as he does, the man’s eyes narrow and he springs back up the dias to pluck a giant staff—a giant sword, Steve realizes, with a jolt—out of the center. He leaps down and points it in Steve’s direction, and his hand goes up, palm forward, as if to halt Steve in his tracks. “Hold,” he says. “Hold. What is this you carry?”

“What is what?” Steve asks. He tips onto the balls of his feet, ready to dodge the sword and come up swinging. They’re not so different in size after all, maybe, now that they’re on the same level; Steve’s still almost a head shorter than him, and narrower, but that’s not always what counts in a fight. He ought to know. “I don’t have anything on me. No weapons.”

“Weapon or not,” the man says, “depends on who wields it.”

“Kind of hypocritical for the guy with a five-foot steak knife,” Steve snaps. The man stares at him, and then tips his head back and laughs so loud it shakes Steve’s bones a little. It’s throaty and genuine and loud as hell. After a second the man tips upright again and gives Steve a bright, dangerous grin.

“It’s been too long,” he says. “I had forgotten the nature of your kind. How fragile, and how bold.”

“Uh,” says Steve. His spine crawls a little. “My—kind.”

“Mortals,” the man says, and his grin becomes briefly more brilliant, and briefly more terrifying. “You have no idea what you carry, do you?” He lowers the sword to his hip and points at Steve’s chest, and Steve glances down and feels enormously foolish for the second time in two minutes.

He’s glowing.

“I’ve never,” he says, and looks back up in surprise. “I didn’t do this, before.” There’s bright blue light spilling from the center of his chest, radiating through his clothes. He pulls at the neck of his undershirt to look at himself: there’s a network of glowing blue veins spreading outward from his heart, across his shoulders, like the span of roots, or branches of a river. They pulse warmly with his heartbeat. “This is new,” Steve says. “This is—what is this?”

“Do you not know it?” he asks. “It is the door to all worlds, and the key also.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Think harder.”

Steve swallows a smart-aleck response and thinks about blue light, about doors. Open doors. He can remember his hand stretching out, reaching for something as it—

—as it fell.

“It can’t be,” he says. “Can it?”

“Can it be otherwise?”

It had devoured Schmidt: pulled him off his own bones and melted him to nothingness. It destroyed his body while Steve watched, helplessly, and the plane plummeted downward. Schmidt’s fingers had vaporized and the cube skidded away somewhere, across the floor, burning a trail as it went, and Steve—Steve had reached for it, unthinkingly, Steve had pulled it over to keep it from falling through, from falling into the ocean where it could burst or explode or kill somebody, where it could be found and turned into a weapon again, over and over, a tool for killing—it’d been blue light that blew out the side of the train, that had whipped the snow inside, blue light that tore a hole in Steve’s life and dropped Bucky straight through it. Steve couldn’t let—Steve couldn’t let that happen again. No more tesseract guns, tesseract bombs, no more goddamn tesseract, no trace left behind—it couldn’t be, it wouldn’t ever be, Steve would do anything, give anything to stop it. He’d clutched it to his chest while they dropped from the sky. He’d let the white ice take everything.

“I did die,” Steve says, softly. He didn’t know. Couldn’t let himself remember. “I did die. At least for a second. But it remade me.”

“And hid something of itself within.” The man in gold looks thoughtful. “There are those who would hunt you to the ends of the universe, and further still, for what you carry.”

“I know,” says Steve. He looks away. “They tried to make new—guns, and things, without it. Batteries. Bombs. Using the same frequency. My friends. They tried, but they never worked quite right. It was like that switch had been turned off.” He smiles, tiredly. “It drove Howard crazy for years. But it was sitting right here,” he says, and puts a hand over his heart. “I didn’t know. It doesn’t make any sense. Why would it—why would it break Schmidt apart, and put me back together?”

“Would you have used it for such a purpose?” he asks. “To forge greater weapons?”

“No,” says Steve. He looks away. “Never.”

“I think this is your answer,” says the man in gold.

Steve rubs his hand in a slow circle over the middle of his chest and tries to sense it, the distinct shape of it, and can’t quite: it just seems like his own flesh and heartbeat and breath. He doesn’t know how it’s supposed to feel.

“This is why I can close the tears,” Steve says. “It’s not me. It’s the tesseract.”

“It has the power to cross worlds and open doors,” he says. “That much is true. But close them? I do not know.”

“I have to go back,” Steve says. “They probably think I blew myself up again.”

“This happens to you—often?”

“Just once. So far.”

“I should not ask,” the man says. “As I cannot interfere, only watch.”

“Was it you?” Steve asks, suddenly. “That I felt in the void? I’ve sensed other beings. Other minds.”

“It was not I,” he says. “And I would caution you against looking for attention from those—other minds. They may covet what you have. And your world is not ready to meet them.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means devastation.”

“What can I do?” Steve says. “How do I stop it? What if I—what if I destroyed it? The tesseract. What if it didn’t exist?”

“Such a thing cannot be done.”

“Can’t be done,” Steve says, “or never been tried?”

“Oh, Allfather,” the man in gold says, lifting his eyes to the ceiling. “Save us from mortal questions. You, Rogers of Brooklyn, begone. If it soothes you, I will pull a veil over your world, to hide it a little longer. I will turn as many eyes aside from it as I am able. If you will depart.”

“Oh,” says Steve. “Sure. Thank you. Thank you very much.”

“Please,” the man in gold says. He sounds pained. “Do not speak of it.”

 

 

 

 

Steve lands on asphalt, feet-first, in the midst of—well, he doesn’t have language to describe it, exactly. The man in gold called it a bridge, but it felt more like falling through a tower of light. The world shimmers and then comes into shape, and when Steve looks down at his feet there’s a knotted pattern seared into the pavement, sizzling as it fades out of sight. He’s back amongst the cargo containers, but it’s got to be almost dawn. There’s pale light coming in around the edges of the buildings, spilling over the crest of the city and sparkling on the river. He can see rooftops in the distance, picked out by the first rays of sun.

It’s beautiful.

He makes his way quickly through the terminal, shifting out of sight when he sees fire and police trucks whizzing past. He climbs to the top of a bank of cargo containers and sees what they’re rushing towards: a smoking, blown-out ring of molten metal and charred brick, at the epicenter of where the machine was sitting. It looks like the blast destroyed about half a dozen huge metal containers. It blew through them like they were paper. But that’s all. The holes in reality seem to have really closed. And the city—hell, most of the terminal—is still standing. Steve feels a rush of relief, of gratitude, and rests a hand back on his chest for a second. Whatever he is—whatever it is, whatever they are—he did it. It worked. The world didn’t yank itself to pieces. At least not yet. In the distance he can see a crowd of port personnel gathering around the gatehouse, all of them clutching radios. Steve wonders what they’ll make of all the bodies in gas masks, stamped with insignias. HYDRA was confident enough to dress up for the ambush, but it’s not going to be so easy for them to hide this. And, he thinks, the Dutch really don’t like Nazis.

He jogs the perimeter and finds a part of the fence to slip through, and walks along the road for a minute to clear his head. The air’s light and humid and cool and his lungs feel clean, breathing it in. He spares a glance down his undershirt, but the glowing’s faded away completely. He doesn’t know if it’s something he’ll be able to control. Another thing to worry about later. He’s got to find Bucky and Brewer. Get back to Jim and the others. Steve prays he was fast enough, that there’s still a chance. Jim’s a tough son of a bitch, for all his mock complaining. He could pull through. Steve feels unusually hopeful about it. Another fire truck goes by, so Steve crouches down in the weeds and thinks hard about Bucky, about the curve of his shoulder and the wry corner of his smile. He shifts into it and lands in grass, on his knees in a median strip. He stands up and sees a dilapidated little farmhouse perched on the edge of a field. When Steve walks a half-circle around it, he sees the battered surveillance van with the busted windshield parked across a gravel drive, and Bucky furiously pulling communications equipment out of the back of it. There’s a bulky radio sitting sideways on the ground.

“We don’t know if he—” Brewer’s saying, and Bucky is throwing a length of wiring at him without even turning around. Brewer has to duck.

“Shut the fuck up,” Bucky says. “Grab this end.”

“Can I help?” Steve calls.

Both of them turn around to stare at him. He’s still about twenty yards out, give or take, but even from here he can see Bucky’s eyes go round and his mouth part slightly, like his chin is trembling. Bucky thumps Brewer in the chest with the rest of the wire he’s holding and starts stalking towards Steve with the pace of a bull about to charge.

“Hey, Rogers!” Brewer calls out cheerfully, hand cupped around his mouth. “You gave us a hell of a scare!”

“Hell of a scare,” Bucky mutters, as he comes closer. “Hell of a scare, sure.” Steve can see the fury in his face; he’s practically steaming. “Shift us,” Bucky says, when he gets close enough to grab out and wrench Steve closer by the front of his jacket. “Farmhouse is empty,” he says. “Shift.” So Steve does it, feeling confused; they land in a dainty little whitewashed kitchen, which somebody must’ve picked over ages ago. Bucky shoves him into the counter and Steve’s elbows send a bunch of blue-and-white china plates, and empty moldering tin cans, flying onto the floor. “You fucking son of a,” Bucky says, and yanks Steve close again and kisses him furiously, open-mouthed and overwhelming. Maybe, Steve thinks, maybe Buck’s trying to smother him to death in rage. It sort of feels that way. Bucky kisses him and reaches up to drag Steve closer by the short ends of his hair; he blankets Steve with his body and almost bends him backwards over the counter, gasping for air when they break apart, but not letting Steve loose by an inch. Bucky just breathes hard against his cheek, eyes closed and mouth red and wet, fingers clutching at the back of Steve’s skull. “Christ,” Bucky says. “Christ, Steve.” He actually sounds like he’s close to crying, Steve realizes, dazed. Steve pushes him back, just far enough to look at his face, and Bucky squeezes his eyes shut, shakes his head like he’s shaking the emotion away, holding it off. “It’s you,” Bucky says, and laughs thinly. “So I don’t know what the fuck I expected.”

“I’m sorry,” Steve says. “I’m sorry. I had to. But I am sorry, Buck.” He kisses the side of Bucky’s face and Bucky actually trembles, lets out a huge shuddering sigh, and then taps him lightly in the gut. Well, lightly for Bucky. “Oof,” says Steve.

“You are fucking unbelievable,” Bucky says, viciously. “You love me. You say that in my ear and fucking vanish, to go get yourself killed—”

“I didn’t,” Steve says. “I wasn’t trying to—”

“—run off to fucking martyr yourself, and first you say you love me, you make me—lose my fucking mind, I thought—”

“I had to say it,” Steve says, “I had to, Buck, I couldn’t bear—I couldn’t bear you, not knowing.”

“God Almighty, you dope,” Bucky says, pressing his cheek against Steve’s again for a second. His voice goes soft, indulgent; he strokes the side of Steve’s neck with his thumb, like before. “You think I don’t know?”

“Oh,” says Steve. “Good.”

“You said it like goodbye,” Bucky says. “That’s what I can’t bear. You said it like you were already thinking, goodbye.”

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Steve says. “I just meant it like— I do. And I will.”

“Stevie,” Bucky says, roughly, just that, and pulls him in again for a kiss that’s longer and slower and sweeter than it has any right to be, in a room that smells like bread mold and dried-out manure. Steve kisses back with his hands at Bucky’s waist, feeling the span of him, relishing how warm he is, the rough edges of his coat under Steve’s fingertips.

“Shouldn’t do this here,” Steve murmurs, when Bucky’s moved on to pressing kisses down his throat, sliding his hands up Steve’s undershirt.

“What are they gonna do,” Bucky says, and nips at him. “Send me to Dutch prison? Be like fucking summer camp.”

“Brewer,” Steve says. “And we have to get back.” Bucky sighs and pats his stomach, putting his clothes back in place, and then peels reluctantly away from him.

“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah.”

“Summer camp, Buck, really?” Steve says, and Bucky tips him gently into a wobbly china hutch.

Steve drops Brewer off at headquarters to start briefing Peggy—and to take a nap, finally, God knows he deserves it—and makes a pit stop at his apartment with Bucky, to change out of their bloodied jackets. Steve doesn’t even think before he walks into the kitchen barefoot, heading over to see if there are still bottles of anything in the refrigerator, but he stops short at the other end of the table when he catches startled sight of the dark stain still sprayed against the opposite wall and the huge ruined patch of linoleum below it. The cleanup team did a good job, but nothing really gets that out. Steve turns on his heel and walks out again; he and Bucky change in the bathroom, wiping down their faces and armpits first, and neither of them say anything about the kitchen looking like an abattoir. He tells Bucky about what happened in the void, at least most of it. He leaves out some of the details of the man in gold because, frankly, that bit’s been fading a little, like a bizarre dream, and Steve’s got no hard evidence that it wasn’t. He can barely remember what the other fellow looked like. When he’s finished explaining Bucky touches Steve’s chest with his metal hand and says,

“So it’s—in there?”

“I don’t know,” Steve says. “I’m not sure I understand how this works.”

“But you feel it,” Bucky says.

“Think so,” Steve says. He puts a hand around Bucky’s metal wrist, rings it gently and traces the edges of the plating with his fingertips. “Feel this?”

“That's not the question,” Bucky says, like Steve's being ridiculous, but his eyes go dark and flick down, and the edges of his mouth turn up, like he can’t look at Steve or he’s going to start up the farmhouse business all over again.

Gabe’s at the hospital, looking like he had a chance to run home and shower and change his clothes. Dugan’s got an even bigger bandage wrapped about his hand and he’s wearing an enormous pair of spare scrubs, because apparently he refuses to leave until Jim’s awake.

“He’s gonna make it,” Dugan blurts out, when Steve and Bucky come into the private waiting room that Gabe arranged with hospital security. His voice is thick and nasal, like he’s been trying to get hold of himself, and Bucky actually pats him the shoulder. “Goddamnit, it’s dry in here,” Dugan says, sounding even more choked up, and scrubs at his face.

“Nicked his lung, missed his heart,” Gabe says. “They operated half the night, but they just came in about ten minutes ago and said he’s looking pretty stable.”

“Goddamn little fighter,” Dugan says, and blows his nose into the front of his scrubs. “You guys get Brewer?”

“Got Brewer,” Bucky says. “Blew the crates. And then Steve knitted the fuckin’ fabric of the universe back together.”

“What?” says Gabe.

“What?” says Dugan.

“Kind of a busy night,” says Steve.

 

 

.

Chapter Text

For a while there’s nothing to do but wait; Jim won’t wake up for hours, and Peggy’s on the phone again with the Dutch, and apparently finishing the frequency detector put Howard in such a good mood that he worked cheerfully until two in the morning and then went home to collapse. When Steve pops to headquarters for a minute to look for him, all he finds are a couple of lab assistants still asleep in the makeshift bunkroom, belly-down and snoring in stained coveralls.

Back at the hospital, Gabe and Dugan are parked across the waiting room chairs with coats over their faces, dead to the world, but Bucky’s gone. He’s not in the waiting room, or in the mostly-empty cafeteria on the first floor. Steve paces the common areas for a little while, checking at the nurses’ station and in the mens’ room, but in the end he ducks into the stairwell and thinks hard about Bucky and finds himself on the hospital rooftop, looking out across Brooklyn while the edge of the sky starts turning soft and pink and bright. It hits Steve like a cold drink of water, like a warm hand on his spine: it fills his senses for a second, the hot line of the sun over Fort Greene park, turning the trees gold. He’s seen two dawns in one day, but this one he feels on his skin, warming his upturned face, pushing everything to the surface.

Bucky’s sitting with his back to a brick chimney, close to the fire door he’s propped open with an aluminum bedpan. He’s pulling apart a stale cafeteria roll with his metal hand and tossing it a few feet away for an adoring crowd of pigeons. He doesn’t say anything as Steve comes over and sits down next to him, just keeps tearing the bread into smaller and smaller crumbs and then releasing a whole handful of them like a cloud of smoke. The pigeons jerk around, pecking fast at the tar-paper and making jumpy, awkwardly threatening moves towards each other like a bunch of little kids fighting in a sandlot, and when Steve laughs aloud at them Bucky looks at him sideways and knocks their knees together.

“Reminds you of somebody, huh,” Bucky says, reading his mind. Steve flicks his kneecap, hard enough to sting, and Bucky just says, “Thought so,” and hums to himself, satisfied.

“Surprised you’re not downstairs, taking a nap,” Steve says. “Everybody else is.”

“Yeah,” Bucky says. “I tried for a minute.”

“Is it the hospital?” Steve says, and looks at him; there are circles starting to shade in under his eyes, but he doesn’t look as exhausted as Steve’s seen him before. “I don’t think I could sleep here, either.”

“Maybe,” Bucky says. He’s looking away, at the high white clouds chalked in thin lines across lightening blue. He doesn’t say anything else for a few minutes, and Steve doesn’t press. He sits with his back to the bricks and waits for the sun to fully rise. There’s only a little bit of a breeze; it’s still summer, even though the air is starting to cool at night, and the fever of long, sweaty days has broken. At the beginning of July he was sitting in his apartment on the floor under a fan, lying there and looking at the ceiling, too hot to move and too empty to imagine anything else, too far from himself to care. If he’d had even the capacity for a self-pitying fantasy he would have been imagining all the rest of the empty, broiling summers of his life stretching onwards, motionless and flat, but he hadn’t: he’d just been staring at the ceiling, not through it, or past it, like he was a baseball card in a shoebox, inert and featureless. It feels so strange, now that the feeling is so far away; now that it’s dulled, dimmed. Something like a shiver runs through him. It’s not just Bucky, only Bucky, although he’d be lying awfully if he said it wasn’t him at all. It’s him and everything else, it’s—doing, again. Something useful, something—needed, something he doesn’t have to do alone. He had a bag over his head all these years. I missed my friends, Steve thinks. He missed getting up with a plan in his head, a hope. Missed being in a team. At the heart of it, he just missed being in the world.

“I missed this,” Steve says, suddenly. Bucky turns his head. “Doing nothing. With you.” There’s a beat and then Bucky gives him a smile that’s warm and slow as the dawn, like he’s remembering the same shopworn places, stoops and alleys, wonderfully dull; the same long hours all stripped of urgency, melting lunchtimes and kick-the-cans and pointless conversations bleeding into evening, sliding into night. They used to leave the radio dial set to the same station and then complain that there was never anything good on, lazy and mindless and young. It wasn’t anything like lying on the floor alone, not one bit. When they were together it didn’t matter what they did. Everything was just as good, even boredom, even egg salad and a magazine you’d read three times; even misery was bearable, when somebody you loved was taking half.

“Yeah,” he says. He leans his head back against the bricks; his hand finds Steve’s. “Did a lot of nothing, you and me.”

“Too poor to do everything.”

“And probably too dumb to do something,” Bucky says. Steve huffs a laugh and leans down so that his head is resting on Bucky’s shoulder. He closes his eyes and feels Bucky shift just a little bit, tilt his own head so his cheek rests on Steve’s crown. “You know what I want?” Bucky says, so quiet it’s just a breath over Steve’s ear.

“What?”

“I want a rest,” Bucky says. He turns his face further into Steve’s hair. “There was a lot of waiting. A lot of silence. But never any rest.” Steve squeezes the hand he’s holding, brings the back of it to his mouth to press a kiss on it.

“I can take you to Howard’s,” Steve says. “Draw you a bath—”

“Not what I mean,” Bucky says, softly.

“Oh,” says Steve. He thinks. “Before, you said—”

“That I wanted to kill ‘em all?” Bucky says. He laughs, so dry it’s barely a laugh at all. “Yeah. But mostly,” he says, and falls silent for a second. He breathes with his eyes shut. Steve feels his lungs rise and fill and sink again, measured, like Bucky’s keeping it together for him. Or for himself. “I’m not saying I quit. Wouldn’t leave you out there like that. But after,” he says. “After. I think I’m all tapped out.”

“Alright, Buck,” says Steve.

“I won’t ask you to stop,” Bucky says. “I know what it means to you. To be in the fight. So I’m not saying—”

“It’s alright,” Steve says, still turning it over in his own head. “I mean that. I’ll put in a leave, or— longer. I’ll talk to Peggy. We’ll go away. Find a little cabin someplace. Or,” he says, and sits up, grinning, “we can be real slugs. We can move onto your ma’s block and sleep half the day and spend all night at Frank’s listening to somebody butcher the piano.”

“That’s,” Bucky starts, and Steve watches his mouth twist in disgust. “Jesus, Frank’s is still there?”

“It looks exactly the same inside,” Steve says. “Well. They had to cut the doorway to bring in a double refrigerator.”

“What for?” Bucky says. “Who the fuck would eat at Frank’s?”

“Me.”

“Oh, no,” Bucky says. “Oh, no you don’t.”

“I don’t get food poisoning anymore,” Steve says. He makes a thoughtful face. “You get used to rat,” he adds, and lifts his free hand in a shrug, and Bucky shakes with silent laughter beside him, shoves him lightly. They stop laughing and just sit and look at each other for a minute, and Steve says, “I don’t care about the fight.”

“Don’t lie,” Bucky says. He’s still smiling, sort of. “You’re lousy at it.”

“I don’t care about it more than you,” Steve says, seriously; Bucky’s eyes flick up to his, and they don’t flick away. “I served. I fought. I did what I meant to do. I won’t run away either, but when this is done—when it’s done, I’ll put it down, if you want me to. If you want something else. Some other kind of life.”

“What kind of life?” Bucky says. He sounds curious. “They’ll always—want something from you. And I’m,” he says, and swallows.

“Whatever we want,” Steve says. “Like I said.”

“Oh, yeah,” Bucky says. “Whatever we want. Sure. Me and my—arm, and you, and a picket fence—”

“—and a bulldog in the yard, some shiny Oldsmobile in the driveway. Meatloaf I don’t burn, if you’re real lucky,” Steve says, smiling, and Bucky’s eyes go wide, like Steve just stuck a knife in him. “If you want it, Buck, I want it, too.”

“Fuck,” Bucky says. He lets go of Steve’s hand. “You want to—make a joke, you—”

“It’s not a joke,” Steve says. “I wasn’t joking.”

Bucky stares at him.

“We can’t—”

“It wouldn’t be easy,” Steve says. “But nothing has ever been easy for us. Not once. I don’t care. I love you.”

“Jesus,” says Bucky.

“You’re it for me,” Steve says. “Okay? You’re the rest of my life, if you want me. I’d—” Steve says, and cuts off, feeling his cheeks break into a low flame. He must be turning pink; Bucky’s face is making a strange, caught expression.

“You’d what,” Bucky says.

“I’d marry you,” Steve says. “Would if I could. Swear to Christ.”

“Of course,” says Bucky, his voice gone soft and wondering. “Of course you would. You’d go ten rounds with God if he stooped low enough.” He pulls Steve in, mouths a kiss on his reddened cheek. “I ain’t dumb enough to fight you,” he says. “So I guess that’s that.”

“Don’t do me any favors,” Steve says, frowning.

“Oh, there he goes,” Bucky says. “Look at me. Look at me, baby.” Steve startles at that and Bucky laughs, cups his chin with the metal hand, cool and skin-gentle. “You want this mess, it’s yours. I’m yours. I do.”

“Buck,” Steve blurts, helplessly. “Bucky, I—”

“Shut up and kiss me,” Bucky says, so Steve hurries up and does it.

 

 

 

 

Eventually Steve leaves Bucky sitting with the pigeons and goes down from the roof in a daze, walking like his feet aren’t quite touching the stairs. He’s not sure if he just—and if Bucky really—but it feels like he did, and that’s enough that he needs to go into the bathroom and splash water on his face before he goes back into the waiting room. It’s a secret they’ll have to keep their whole lives, but just thinking it—their whole lives, their whole lives—fills his ears with rushing water and makes his heart pound. He’ll do his best to deserve it. Never in a million years did he ever dream—not even once, could he imagine. He looks at himself in the mirror and sees a kid with big watering eyes and kind of a dopey smile, ears that stick out a little, and he hears Bucky say baby again in his head, low and tender, and feels like he might die.

Christ, somebody loves him.

Gabe’s awake and puttering around the waiting room, filling out a couple of forms for Jim that nobody bothered with in the heat of things last night. He looks up when Steve comes in, and must see something in his expression, even though Steve tries to tamp it down, smother it. Gabe’s safe, he’s as good as guy as they come, but—maybe nobody likes it rubbed in their face. Even if they aren’t judging. Steve’s not sure what the limits are.

“You okay?” Gabe says. He looks at Dugan, snoring lightly with a sleeve across his face, and back at Steve. “Barnes alright?” he says, quietly.

“He’s fine,” Steve says.

“You have a talk?” Gabe says. He sounds concerned.

“Yeah,” says Steve, slowly.

“It go okay?”

“Yeah,” says Steve. He watches Gabe’s face for a second: one of the kindest, most decent faces he’s ever looked at. There’s not a trace of anything else in it. “We’re,” Steve says, haltingly. “Talking about—after.” Gabe nods. “Think I might take a leave for a while. Travel. Or just—take a break. A long break. It’ll—give him some room to figure things out. God knows he deserves it.”

“Good,” says Gabe. He smiles. “Good for you.”

“Thanks,” says Steve. “For—”

“You never have to thank me for that,” Gabe says, evenly, and goes back to his forms.

 

 

 

 

The hospital has exactly one speakerphone in the entire building, in the room they use for board meetings, and apparently they are absolutely delighted to turn it over to Captain America for official government use, particularly if Captain America would consider attending their next charity gala in October. Of course, Captain America is not obligated, simply very welcome. Steve smiles and thanks the administrators and says he’ll think about it. He actually might. Or at least donate something that they could auction. He ought to ask Howard for help with it, rounding up the names of every big hospital benefit in the fall: he used to do stuff like that, right after he came back, after they were sure he wasn’t going to explode unexpectedly or irradiate normal folks, but it’s been a couple of years since he spent much time on the charity circuit. People probably got tired of inviting him and having him frown absently through the speeches. Once or twice he went out onto a balcony alone and disappeared without meaning to, and needed Gabe or an agent to pick him up from Montauk. He was a terrible guest. He could be a good guest now, maybe. He could bring Bucky, if Bucky wouldn’t mind the crowd too much, and then he’d be the most pleasant guest in the whole world, looking at Bucky across the room in a tailored suit with his hair slicked back, striking and sensual as a Sargent portrait, too rich for Steve’s blood.

When it stops being the absolute middle of the night in California, Steve sits with Gabe while he calls and gets Jim’s wife on the phone, explains what’s happened, assures her that Jim is stable, and offers her a ride, at her earliest convenience, to New York.

“A ride?” Sheila says, her voice fraying through the telephone speaker. “You mean a flight?”

“Well,” says Gabe.

So just after nine o’clock in the morning Steve shifts to California, to Jim and Sheila’s beautiful house with the bay laurel trees out back, and walks up the stepping-stone path to ring their doorbell. Sheila opens the door a second later, neat and crisp in a pale yellow traveling suit, with a suitcase already sitting in the hall beside her.

“Steve?” she says, and then waves one hand loosely in the air between them. “No. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for that to sound like a question. Hello, Steve, won’t you come in?”

“Hello, Sheila,” Steve says. He steps inside and shuts the door and smiles at her, and she smiles back and drops her shoulders in obvious relief. She only has one shoe on; it’s making her list to one side when she walks, like an unbalanced ship. “Can I carry that case for you?”

“Gabe said it was—quick,” Sheila says, uncertainly. “What you do. I’m not sure I understand it completely. But hey, if it gets me to him faster than an airplane.” She shrugs and slips into her other heel and then stares up at Steve for a second, elevated a couple of inches. “Are you shorter than I remember?” she says, and claps a hand over her mouth. “Oh, Jesus, listen to me. I shouldn’t have had that—cigarette. I just felt—it’s hell to wait, isn’t it.” Her eyes are starting to water a little. “You’re sure he’s going to be alright, though,” she says, like she’s reassuring herself. “The doctors said he was doing well.”

“Even better than they expected,” Steve says. He picks up the case in his left hand and holds out his right. “Are you ready?”

“Okay,” Sheila says. “Yeah.” She takes a deep breath and shakes herself out from head to toe, gently. “Okay. Should I—close my eyes, or— hold my breath, or anything?”

“The only important thing,” Steve says, “is not to let go. I have a cuff, if you think—I didn’t want to presume—”

“No, I can do it,” Sheila says, sounding determined. He’s still holding out his hand, but instead of taking it she steps forward and just wraps both her arms around his middle, linking them across his back. She shuts her eyes tight anyway. “Okay, let’s hit the road,” she says. Steve smiles and curls an arm around her and shifts as quickly and smoothly as he can, trying not to edge too deep into the void. He skims reality and pulls them through into the upstairs waiting room at the hospital. For a long moment, Sheila doesn’t let go. “Anytime,” she says.

“Uh,” says Steve. Sheila cracks one eye and then startles and steps back, turning in a slow circle. Her hands shake.

“Holy tomatoes,” she says. She turns a stunned face to Steve. “Did I—did we really just go through a bunch of stars and—comets and things?”

“In a sense, yeah.”

“Oh, thank God,” Sheila says. “Thought I was cracking up.”

Jim’s anesthesia wears off not long after and they get to go in and talk with him—at him, actually, considering he’s still got a breathing tube stuck down his throat—for a while before the nurses shoo them out again. Sheila goes in first with the doctors, and then sends Dugan in by himself for a couple of minutes, and when Dugan pokes his head out, red-eyed and smiling like a loon, Gabe and Steve and Bucky all pile in and circle the bed and Jim stares up at them with dopey, exhausted eyes. And then he holds up a shaking hand.

“You want something?” Dugan says. “You want a drink? A cracker?”

“He’s got a tracheal tube, Dugan,” Gabe says.

“Well, he might want a cracker for later,” Dugan says, defensively. Jim’s hand turns over, like he’s trying to make a gesture but the muscle relaxants haven’t worn off entirely just yet. Dugan starts checking around the room to see if he’s pointing at something specifically. “Is it too hot in here? Too bright? You want a pencil? Piece of paper to write on?”

Jim makes a face of careful concentration, tucks all his fingers into his palm except the middle one, and then proceeds to flip off everyone in the room. Dugan looks baffled and Gabe laughs so hard he has to lean over and put his hands on his thighs. Steve feels like he could burst for a second, like he’s so happy the tesseract might start making fireworks; he folds his arms across his chest, just in case. Just in case. Bucky smiles and pats Jim’s blanketed right foot.

“Same to you, asshole,” Bucky says. “Same to you.”

 

 

 

 

Gabe leaves to collect his kids from his parents’ brownstone in the Bronx, and Dugan’s going to drive Sheila to the hotel and then probably crash there himself, and Steve’s caught Bucky yawning hugely behind everybody’s backs about three times already, so finally he says,

“Let’s get out of here,” and shifts them back to the safehouse on instinct, instead of his apartment. If Bucky thinks anything about that, he doesn’t say. They peel out of their clothes and climb into the big bed upstairs and Bucky’s out in minutes, breathing so slow and steady that Steve leans over him a couple of times just to catch the sound of him taking in air. He can’t sleep himself, but it’s alright. His mind’s going too fast at the moment. He lies with an arm around Bucky’s waist and soaks in the warmth of him, a warmth that’s not much different than the warmth he can sense from the tesseract where it sits inside him, radiating invisibly; the sunlike, healing warmth of life. When Bucky wakes up they take a bath and eat some of Howard’s emergency canned food for supper and watch his television for an hour or so without really taking any of it in; Bucky lies across him on the sofa and lets Steve run fingers through his hair slowly, over and over, like he’s combing it. Sometimes a gag on the variety show makes him laugh, and Steve gets to feel his side rumbling under the flat of his hand. This is what it’d be like, Steve thinks to himself; it’s the smallest, most embarrassing, most private thought, and he immediately pushes it under a mat in his mind like a spare key. But it’s there, still, when he checks beneath. This is what it’d be like. To be someone who came home to this every night.

In the morning, around eleven, Peggy calls everyone in for a briefing. There are piles of prepared sandwiches on a tray when they come into the conference room, and even though it’s barely lunchtime everybody helps themselves to about three.

“Item the first,” Peggy says, over the sounds of them unwrapping and chewing. “Our—former Interpol liason was just arrested outside of Brussels.” The noise stops for a second; Dugan freezes, halfway through biting into a submarine roll, and makes a surprised sound.

“I thought we didn’t have anything concrete,” Gabe says.

“We didn’t,” Peggy says. “But when I gave Brewer’s report from Rotterdam to Dutch intelligence, they traced the vans that were used in the ambush. The rental company turned out to be a front; seems our liason has been acting as a bit of a fixer for HYDRA.” She pauses while it sinks in, and then drums her fingers along the edge of the table. “To make a long story short, they now have him in custody, along with five of his associates and three trucks’ worth of explosives and gear.”

“Goddamn,” says Dugan, wiping his mouth. “Do they think he’ll talk?”

“They do,” Peggy says. “Unofficially, the Dutch are already talking about a task force, aimed at digging up their entire network in Western Europe.” She looks at Steve and smiles. “They were particularly enthusiastic about the possibility that you might be leading it.”

“Uh,” says Steve. He doesn’t look at Bucky; he doesn’t need to, to know Bucky’s not looking at him. Gabe is, though. “That’s—I’d consider it,” he says, stiffly. Peggy looks closely at him and then at Gabe; something invisible passes between them, and her brows lift ever so slightly.

“We can discuss it,” Peggy says, without taking her eyes from her husband. She turns her back for a second and pulls a map from the top of the cabinet, unrolls it across the head of the table. Gabe and Steve pull their empty wrappers out of her way. “Item the second,” she says. “This one’s a little more—complicated.” She puts the last couple of sandwiches on the corners of the map to hold it down. “There were reports of rocket attacks in an unpopulated area above Novgorod yesterday.” She looks at Bucky, who’s staring at the map like he could bore a hole through it with his eyes. “Soviet command is calling it a training exercise.”

“They’re raiding bases,” Steve says, surprised.

“Yes,” Peggy says. “The fracture between HYDRA and the Soviets seems to be terminal.”

“They want in on the task force, too?” Gabe says, shaking his head, but when Peggy looks at him sideways his jaw drops slightly. “What, really?”

“Not as such,” Peggy says. “But I had a rather unusual phone call early this morning. From our friend Kutepov.” She glances at Steve. “I think your run-in with Lukin left an impression on him. He said—and I quote—he respects your honesty. Care to shed any light on that?”

“Nope,” says Steve. He keeps his face perfectly still. "No idea."

“Well,” says Peggy, her mouth a flat line, "for whatever reason, he’s working to open the door a fraction. His agency has made an official request for information assistance through the correct channels. I don’t think I have to explain to you how—unusual that is. Practically unprecedented.”

“Steve shoots a Russian, and the Russians suddenly decide we’re pals?” Dugan says, chewing thoughtfully. “I’m not sure unprecedented really does it justice.”

“The photographs Howard's team processed have given us the Moscow base’s general schematics and a rough grasp on their scheduling,” Peggy says. “I’d like to give that much to Kutepov.”

“They’ll ask how we got it,” Gabe says. “Are we prepared for that?”

“Am I prepared to lie to the Soviets?” Peggy says, dryly. “Yes, dear.” Gabe puts his hands up, pantomimes an amused surrender. “As far as I’m concerned, the potential gains are too great to pass up. Goodwill and communication aren’t as concrete as a ceasefire, but this is a long game, and the point is to keep playing. That said,” Peggy says, and looks at Bucky. “If there are particular causes for concern—”

“Do it,” Bucky says. “Let them burn it to the ground.”

“I believe they intend to,” Peggy says. “Does anyone else object?”

“Nope,” says Dugan. “Let them fight it out. HYDRA’s not going to have a bolthole left.” He leans back in his chair and folds his arms, grinning. “Not a pot to piss in.”

“That’s the general idea,” says Peggy.

 

.

Chapter Text

Bucky jerks awake and rolls out of the bed onto his feet, so quick and light that Steve barely register it for a second; he sits up on the mattress and blinks into the dark, watching Bucky’s pale, naked back retreating into the bathroom. The light goes on and for a second Bucky is a cutout in shadow against the jarring yellow glare of it, and then the door shuts and the faucet turns on at full blast.

“Buck?” Steve says. He was asleep, or close to it; he feels groggy, displaced. Steve pinches his own thigh and pats at his face and gets up. He pads to the door and puts his cheek against it, and hears violent retching under the sound of the water. “Bucky?” Steve says, louder, alarmed.

“Give me a minute,” Bucky calls, through the door. He sounds hoarse. There’s more gagging. The water runs and runs.

Steve stands there uncertainly for a while and then sits down, curled up with his knee and shoulder pressed to the door, so that he can listen. Bucky probably doesn’t want him to, but if he chokes, or passes out, or—maybe it’s a thin excuse, but it’s not like a doctor’s seen him, like anybody knows what kinds of things could be in his system. Steve made that joke about food poisoning but some of Howard’s emergency cans were almost out-of-date; he doesn’t know if Bucky’s stomach is as cast-iron as his. Steve sits and forces himself not to fidget, not to tap his foot against the floor or his fingers on the doorjamb; Bucky would hear it. He thinks about what they’ve eaten and then thinks about something else. He feels foolish for not recognizing it; only, it's been so long since he had one. His horrors come in daylight, since the plane. Steve leans in close to the door and cups his hand against his mouth and says,

“Nightmare?” softly, and Bucky turns the water off. There’s silence from the bathroom for a long time. The toilet flushes.

“Yeah,” he says.

He doesn’t come out for a while; Steve hears rummaging in the cabinets and the tap running again and then a muffled thud, when Bucky settles down on the tile on the opposite side of the door and leans against it. There’s the gentlest thump when Bucky’s head touches against the wood. He must be sitting almost exactly where Steve is, in opposite, like a two-way mirror. Steve listens, focuses. Finds the rhythm of his heart beating. Slowing, now. Going easy and regular. Safe. Steve rolls himself in the pulse of it like a blanket, reassured, and waits for Bucky to do something.

“You need anything?” Steve asks, after a few minutes.

“No,” Bucky says. And then, with effort: “Thanks for asking.”

They sit.

Steve is tracing increasingly intricate, unconscious circles with his fingertip on the hardwood floor when he hears Bucky getting up and moving; he stands up just in time for Bucky to unlock the latch and pull the door open. In the harsh light of the bathroom he looks grey, worn at the edges. He’s rinsed with mouthwash; Steve can smell the tang of it from here. Bucky looks at Steve, and the corners of his mouth make a weak attempt at rising. “Sorry,” he says. “For waking you up.”

“You didn’t,” Steve says, and thumbs at the sad dip of his smile until it’s just a fraction less sad. “And I wouldn’t have minded.” He leans in and kisses Bucky’s temple, puts his hand against the warm side of Bucky’s neck, and Bucky turns his face into it, closes his eyes. “Can you come back to bed?”

“Think so.”

He pillows his head on Steve’s chest and lets Steve wrap both arms against him, tangles their legs together. He folds his metal arm into Steve’s armpit and throws the other over his waist and gulps air in and out through his mouth, sounding like his sinuses are still a little aggravated from puking. The same thing used to happen to Steve every time stomach flu rolled through their block. Eventually he sniffs a couple of times and resettles and his breath evens out, slowly, and Steve thinks he might actually be asleep, until his mouth moves against Steve’s skin and he murmurs, “Tell me again.”

“About—”

“You know what,” Bucky says. He pulls his arm up and covers his hand with his face, and says, “Tell me how he died,” roughly, like he’s ashamed. “Tell me it was real. You saw it.”

Oh, Steve thinks. Right. They talked about it before, while they cleaned up after Rotterdam; Bucky had looked blank and frozen while Steve described it, but after he'd seemed more interested in the tesseract, in Steve’s increasingly hazy memories of flying through some kind of rainbow of starlight. He’d touched Steve’s chest and wondered and then stayed silent and calm while Steve explained the whole strange story again to the guys at the hospital. And by now they’ve all read Steve’s dry, brief report. Howard had even made a couple of uncomfortable jokes about it. But Steve should have realized. He’s not the only one who’s good at shoving things down. At pretending things don’t hurt. They heal so fast at the surface.

Steve noses at the hair on top of his head and feels Bucky shiver in his arms and tuck in closer. Bucky’d curled against him like this once, only once that Steve remembers in the months after he’d—changed. Not the first night after the factory but weeks later, somewhere out in the French countryside, lying side by side in a dry, shallow trench with a tarp stretched over them, waiting for dawn until they could move out again. Dugan and Jim had been snoring twenty feet away. Steve had woken up with Bucky’s cheek pressed flat into his chest, Bucky’s arm around his waist, his eyes still tracking dreams behind his lids. He’d twitched himself awake in a couple of minutes but before that Steve had laid there motionless as a stillwater pond, not daring to put his hand around Bucky’s back, to smooth the soft, grimy skin at the back of his neck—he hadn’t dared do anything but turn his face into Bucky’s hair and inhale the pure sweet-sour stink of him, to shut his eyes and relish the warm weight of his body. When Bucky woke up he’d made a joke about it, easy as anything, and then he’d rolled away and never done it again. They'd slept back to back after that, mostly. Sometimes Steve had lain awake and stared at the curve of his spine, the rise of his shoulders so like a familiar hill; like a single beloved square of Prospect Park rising in the Schwarzwald. Steve used to think he was the only chicken in their unit of two; the only liar, the only queer. But Bucky was his reflection, or he was Bucky’s, even then. They shared everything. Canteens and pup tents, boots stuffed with extra socks to fit, longing and flop sweat and fear. If he wants Steve’s memories, he can have them. He can have anything that’s Steve’s, no matter how embarrassing, how shaming, how small. Steve did tell him about the—about what he thought about doing. About Zola's broken fingers, the sick things—but Bucky hadn't recoiled from him, hadn't done anything but listen. Later he'd leaned his cheek on Steve's shoulder for a minute, when Steve held onto him to shift away; he'd smiled and turned his eyes down when Steve ran fingers along the seams of his metal wrist. Steve had told him something ugly like that and Bucky still wanted to touch him. Maybe it was selfish to make him carry that, too. But Steve is done holding anything back where he's concerned. He's entitled to half but he can have everything. He can have it all. Steve doesn't care where he ends, where they begin.

“I found him in the warehouse,” Steve starts.

 

 

 

 

Peggy calls and arranges to meet them at a diner half a dozen blocks from headquarters, in a neighborhood filled with bored-looking businessmen moving in a churning sea of bodies. They swirl and eddy, flowing into the office high-rises like trench-coated salmon spawning upstream. She's sitting in a corner booth along a picture window, and she only glances away from her menu for a second as they slide into their seats.

“I recommend an omelette,” she says.

Bucky orders tomato juice and a Florentine omelette and Steve asks for hash and toast and scrambled eggs, and when the waitress hands out water glasses and takes their menus away, Peggy steeples her hands over her plate and says, “Moscow was warned,” in a quiet, measured voice. “Two trucks escaped. We don’t know what they were carrying.” Steve turns his face to the window so that the searing morning sun will force him to shut his eyes against it, filling his vision with the clean heat of daylight, the red of blood vessels under skin.

“Goddamn,” Steve says, under his breath. “Goddamn them.” He looks back at Peggy and the whole world’s soft-edged and too bright for a second. Steve rubs at his forehead between his eyebrows. Beside him, Bucky’s gone perfectly still; Steve nudges their knees together briefly, just a brush of their pant legs. He can't tell exactly what Bucky's thinking.

“It wasn’t a total loss,” Peggy says. “The base is gone. Razed to the ground.”

“Casualties?” Bucky says, without inflection.

“Forty-nine,” she says. “Eight were Soviet military. The rest,” she says, and makes a gesture that’s not quite a shrug. “If they've taken prisoners, I don't know. They haven't shared that. And I don’t know how much— if anything— they’ll release to the public. HYDRA’s been their shadow for fifteen years. They may choose silence.”

“We could pressure them,” Steve says. “Use the idea of the task force to push things into the open.”

“Was that a job application?” Peggy says, and Steve flushes.

“No,” he says. “I’m—saying this is a moment. Leverage.”

“I’m not sure how much leverage we have,” Peggy says. “That’s why I brought you here.”

“I don’t follow.”

“The leak wasn’t Soviet,” Peggy says. “They discovered the warning when they took the base’s communications center. There’d been a telegram from East Berlin. But we know now that the message originated in New York.”

“What?” Steve says.

Peggy sips her water.

“We cleaned our house after Virginia,” she says. “But it's not spotless.”

“Jesus Christ,” says Steve, blankly. He feels hot and cold at the same time, feels his pulse swell in a wave like he’s about to shift. He doesn’t. There’s a sudden cramp in his hand; when he looks down he sees that he’s holding the corner of the bench seat so hard he’s popped a thumb through the leatherette fabric and dented the metal edge. “Jesus Christ, Peggy,” Steve hisses, low enough that the clattering from the kitchen and the hum of the coffee percolator will still camouflage it. “Do we know who?”

“No,” she says. “Not yet.”

“We can rule the team out,” Steve says, and something cautious in Peggy’s expression gives him pause. “Peggy. No.”

“We can’t rule anyone out,” she says. “Not after Rotterdam.”

“You think he’s got somebody,” Bucky says, sharply. Steve glances around for a second, but Peggy chose her spot well: the high-sided booths block them from the rest of the room, and the counter seats all face the opposite direction. Nobody’s looking at them. “You think Schmidt’s inside one of ours.”

“I think it’s possible.”

“Can you find him?” Bucky says. “Could you find him right now?”

“I don’t know,” Steve says. “I can try.” He’s starting to push out of the booth when Peggy puts a hand on his arm.

“And when you find him, what then?” she says. “He hops into someone else, across the room? A secretary on the fourteenth floor? A policeman on the corner? We don’t know how to trap him. How to kill him. Unless you’ve had a miraculous revelation I’m unaware of.”

“What am I supposed to do?” Steve says. “Sit here and eat hash and wait for—”

“Howard may have ideas."

"But what if—"

"Yes, I've thought of that," Peggy says, darkly. "But if he has Howard, then God help us all."

 

 

 

 

That night Peggy goes to Howard's first, through the front door, like it's a social call; Steve and Bucky shift straight into the study and listen from inside as Peggy sends Howard's butler back to his own private wing—under protest—for the night, insisting that it's a matter of national security. Technically true.

"Howard's on his way," Peggy says, when he's gone. She grins. "Apparently he telephoned ahead to have a late supper waiting."

"He'll be disappointed," Steve says. Bucky makes a mock-frown.

"Don't look at me," Bucky says. "I ain't on KP anymore."

"Oh, Lord," Peggy says, in a breath; her whole face changes for a second, before she closes her mouth and stops looking so surprised. Bucky looks at her warily, until she shakes her head. "I'd forgotten. It was— Metz, wasn't it, or— I don't remember. No. It was that horrible little town with all the cabbages. You made the most terrible soup."

"Wasn't supposed to be soup," Bucky says, slowly. "Supposed to be—"

"Colcannon," Steve finishes for him, too eager not to interrupt. He can't believe he'd forgotten until just now. He can see it, crisp and unspoiled as a newsreel: Bucky's red face over the stewpot, Jim throwing the bowl over his shoulder in horror and Gabe laughing to bust a gut and Peggy, Peggy had been there, too, a rare wonderful treat. A briefing had run long and so they'd stolen a couple of precious moments of warmth and easy conversation, a reprieve before she was off again and they were back into the mud. He did love her so. Between her and Buck, he's gotten more than he ever deserved. "Colcannon," he says again, marveling at it. "I said I missed it, and you— but then every potato in town—"

"—was filled with the biggest fucking mealworms on earth," Bucky says. "The fucking famine all over again." Steve is laughing outright now, feeling his ribs quake with it; Peggy's got a hand curled against her chest, like she only just kept herself from putting it up to hide her smile. The corner of Bucky's mouth is twitching, irrepressible, even though Steve can see the far-off look that's crept into his expression. He ducks his head at Peggy. "Thanks," he says. "For reminding me." Peggy puts a hand on his forearm and squeezes it lightly, meeting his eyes, then Steve's.

"How could we ever forget?" she says.

When Howard gets in Peggy's standing in the foyer, waiting; he barely has time to make a surprised face before Steve shifts right into him, wraps both hands around his forearms and tears into the void, pulling Howard through the layers of the world until they surface under starlight, suspended in the nothingness. Howard is shocked and kicking at first, but halfway through the slide into the void his eyes go huge like dinner plates and his chin drops and he ignores Steve completely in favor of gasping up into the midnight-colored spread above and beyond them, the galaxies floating in and out of sight. He cranes his neck at an angle that's almost painful, trying to trace the path of a comet, a trail of stardust, as it winks out of sight. He doesn't say anything. He tries to form words a couple of times but then swallows them again, looking like a lost kid. Steve watches him closely. The light of the void is different, somehow; Steve thinks he can see what he's looking for. What he's hoping not to find. When he focuses, searches people, he can almost see through them; not all the way, but enough. Bucky glowed like a saint in here, hazy and divine in petals of radiant gold; when Steve shifted with Peggy earlier in the afternoon it was like admiring a sliver of moonlight, a crisp sheen like a sharp blade or the shining cut of fresh water. There'd been no trace of the red haze he felt from Schmidt, the cloud that had emanated from Dugan under his hold. He's got no idea how it works, exactly, but at the moment it's the only tool they have. And they need to be sure.

But Howard doesn't show any traces of the Skull, no flare of poisonous reds, no smoke-like trail that left such a bitter taste in Steve's senses. There's an edge of light all around him, flickering like darting fireflies, disappearing as he turns, like a mirror catching daylight, dancing on the surface. But as bright as it is, it's unsteady as rushlight. It's almost like Howard is tamping it down, swallowing his own efflorescence; Steve watches him and wonders at it.

Steve pulls them out again, back into the foyer, not long after. Peggy and Bucky are waiting, and Howard stumbles forward between them as soon as Steve lands and lets him go. Peggy steadies Howard by the arm, but he shakes her off and turns to Steve, wide-eyed. His face is hurt, and awed.

"You," he says. "That— place."

"We had to be sure," Peggy says. "Schmidt."

"I figured that out," Howard says, and laughs hollowly. "I figured that out."

"I'm sorry," Steve says. "It had to be a surprise."

"Sure," Howard says. He walks towards the hallway and puts a hand out to steady himself, leaning into the door frame a little. "You probably want to talk to me," he says. "Ask me to make a— thing," he says, and trails off. "Right? Fine," he says to himself, when nobody answers quickly enough. "Fine. But I'm getting a drink first." Howard wanders down into the study and pours himself a triple bourbon and sits heavily into an armchair, sliding down the seat just a fraction. Peggy arranges herself on the sofa opposite, next to Steve, and Bucky perches on the edge of the desk behind them. Howard sips from his glass and makes a face and rubs at his temple with one hand. "So we don't know who Schmidt's in," he says, "but he's in somebody we know. Is that the situation?"

"That's the situation."

"Okay," Howard says, wearily.

"We need a way to kill him," Peggy says. "Or failing that, contain him."

"Okay," Howard says, and sits up a little straighter. "Okay. There's— well, if you're talking about— the problem is his physical being," Howard says, with a gesture that nearly spills his drink. "Which doesn't exist. But if you're talking about wavelengths, he does exist. Concretely, yes. And in the right circumstances— look, I tried to do it for you," Howard says, turning to Steve. "I tried it on you, first. In the cascade chamber. Trying to anchor you to a fixed point, trying to get all your— energy to coalesce into a solid thing, a place. You were going in every direction, and we were trying to— funnel you to one direction, one stream. It was clunky the first time, but I've worked on it since then. In case we ever had to do it again. Which, pal, I have to tell you, first year or so, it seemed likely."

"How possible is it?" Peggy asks. "How much time would you need?"

"I don't know," Howard says. "I mothballed the stuff a while ago, but it's all functional. Per se. It's an idea."

"Whatever you do, you're going to have to do it quietly," Peggy says. "No assistants. None of the facilities at headquarters can be used. And no contacting outside help. I realize—"

"How difficult that'll be," Howard says, dryly. "Of course you do."

Peggy shows herself out afterwards, and Steve is going to do the same when he watches Howard set his drink down, unfinished, on the end table. Howard's saying something flippant to Bucky about fuel injection— Steve is really never going to care about cars— but just before the bottom of Howard's glass touches the wood, his hand shakes, a bad tremor that runs all the way up his forearm. Howard sighs and shoos them out of the study and rests a hand against his brow and sinks a little lower into his chair again, and Steve takes Bucky into the hall.

"We're not leaving yet, are we," Bucky says, reading his face. "Something happen in the shift?"

"I'm not sure," Steve says. He glances over his shoulder at the doorway to the study; there's still silence from inside. Howard hasn't moved. "Maybe."

"You want me to make myself scarce?"

"Only if you don't mind."

"Nah," Bucky says. "I'll go see the sights. You know, he told me once he had three pool tables."

"He has four."

"Well," says Bucky, pleased. "Goddamn."

Howard takes the hand away from his face when Steve comes back in, alone, and stares at him while he sits down.

"So," says Howard.

"You saw something," Steve says. Howard stares at him some more and then scrubs at his cheek without answering. "It's a strange place," Steve says. "If it's even a place at all."

"It's a place," Howard says, finally. "It's the whole world, Steve."

"It's overwhelming at first."

"Overwhelming," Howard repeats. "Overwhelming would be fine, it's— you don't even think about it, do you. You go right through it, but. Maybe it's because you're a part of it. Or it's a part of you."

"I'm not sure I follow."

"The most advanced telescope on earth couldn't have picked up a fraction of the constellations we just saw," Howard says. "I ought to know. Helped build it. We just wandered through the entire goddamn universe. And it's— everything I do, everything I've ever done, it'll only— look," he says. "Look, Steve. I've got no illusions. I never have. Maybe that'll surprise you. But I know the work I do is in inches. I know. Inch by inch, year by year, I've been plugging away at it. And I always thought, hell, an inch is an inch. An inch gets you closer."

"To?"

"To the future," Howard says. "To everything that's possible." He picks up his glass and sets it down again, stares at the transparent side of it for a long minute, almost as if he's forgotten he was speaking. "I spent all last year thinking about neutrinos," he says, eventually. "You know they're made in nuclear reactions. Like in the sun. Course, it turns out beta decay is a three-body problem."

"It's nice of you to assume I know that," Steve says, and Howard glances up at him and smiles, crookedly.

"I made a bomb," Howard says. "I didn't tell anybody about it."

"What?"

"The Soviets have a neutrino guy," Howard says. "I thought, I'll be damned if— so I went ahead. And I didn't just find neutrinos. I found— well, I told you what I found. I found something that could level Leningrad twice."

"Howard," Steve says, warily. "You didn't—"

"I destroyed everything," Howard says. "All my notes. Do you want to know why?"

"To keep it out of the wrong hands," Steve says.

"Good answer," Howard says, bitterly. "Good answer. Let's pretend that's why." He laughs. "I can't believe I'm telling you this."

"Why'd you do it?" Steve asks.

"Because it bored me," Howard says. "Because I was afraid the government would get excited and pack me up and I'd spent the rest of the fucking cold war trapped in a bunker outside of Las Vegas with only a fucking seismograph to talk to." His leg jiggles back and forth nervously for a second. "I'm not ushering in a brighter tomorrow," Howard says; all the false cheer's gone out of his sloganeering, wrung out of the words like a rag. His voice is quiet. Exhausted. "I'm not advancing mankind. Inch by inch. Christ, what a fancy lie I'm selling. I looked at all those stars, all those— and I saw it. I saw what it could be like. That's our future. That's our destiny. Out there. Up there. Beyond. And I'm down here making bullets. Bombs. When I could have— just think of everything I could be doing. All I should have been doing. I'm a fraud," he says, hollowly. His eyes are damp. "I'm a son of a bitch."

Steve sits with him for a minute and doesn't say anything; Howard closes his eyes and leans forward, puts his elbows on his knees and his face in his hands, breathing shallowly like he feels ill.

"Howard," he says.

"Oh, go away," Howard says, muffled, through his fingers. "I don't need a pep talk."

"Howard."

"What?" Howard says, and takes his hands away from his face. "What have you got to say?"

"You are sort of a son of a bitch," Steve says, mildly, and Howard's eyes go comically wide.

"Everybody who hasn't met you," Howard says, "thinks you must be so polite."

"You know I've carried Nazis through the void," Steve says. "People who've been killing for HYDRA for decades."

"Sure," Howard says. "I know. For the first time I feel sorry for those sick bastards," he says, and frowns. "Well. No, I don't."

"It made them cry and beg," Steve says. "It made them betray each other. It didn't make them contemplate the future, Howard," he says, as gently as he can. "It didn't make them think about how much more they could be doing for the planet."

"That's because they lack imagination."

"But you don't," Steve says. "And I trust you're going to put it to good use."

"That makes one of us," Howard says, sourly.

"Good," says Steve. "Good. That's what makes you the man for the job, I think." He stands up, and Howard stands too, shaking off his unsteadiness. Steve rests a hand on his arm and Howard looks at him with reddened, grateful eyes; too worn-out to even make another joke about it, at least for the moment. "Not everybody's going to like it, if you do stop making bullets," Steve says. "But I—"

"I know you won't mind," Howard interrupts, without any heat behind it. "If I worked for you I'd be making pots and pans."

"It's more of a saucer."

"Oh, for fuck's sake," says Howard.

 

.

Chapter Text

Steve has to sit in on a couple of interminable phone calls with Peggy and Gabe and the Director, while they talk around the idea of the task force with their new, squeaky-clean Interpol liason and Dutch intelligence and a handful of other agencies suddenly eager to get involved; even the East Germans are talking to them after the scare with the crates in Rostock, now that the Soviets have quietly given them the nod. Peggy’s pleased and cautiously optimistic. She’s still talking about the possibility that Steve might lead things once they get them moving, like she’s under the impression that Steve is deflecting out of modesty. Or else skepticism.

“It’s a good opportunity,” she says to him in the hall, before she heads back inside. “I wouldn’t press, otherwise. I know you’ve no desire to be a—mascot again. That’s not what this is.”

“I know,” he says. “I appreciate that, Peg.”

“That’s still not a yes,” she says. She looks at his face, really looks; her eyes go narrow and assessing. “There’s something you’re not saying.”

“I can’t,” he says. “Not—yet. Alright?”

“They won’t be put off forever. And neither will I.”

“I know,” Steve says. He turns his back on her and starts to walk away, something he never does—but she’ll see it in his face if he doesn’t, she’ll read it off of him like words on a page. Behind him Peggy is silent. She doesn’t follow. He glances back at the end of the hallway, before the stairs. “I know,” he says, apologetically, and Peggy watches him go.

 

 

 

 

The Roadmaster’s not in the driveway when Steve gets back to the safehouse; the mugs and plates from breakfast are still in the sink, but the bed’s cold and the tub is dry. He must’ve left almost as soon as Steve shifted away for his meeting. Steve focuses on him, reaches for him with all his senses, and lands in the hallway of his own bare, neglected apartment. Bucky’s sitting on the floor in the living room; he’s drawn up all the shades and the room is streaming with daylight. It’s been an appallingly long time since Steve dusted in here: the sunbeams are filtered with particles, making everything hazy, watercolor-soft. For a rare, sweet minute Steve gets that thing in his head like a photographer lining up a shot: a frame going around the world in his mind, the edge of a page. He could draw this, work it up in gouache if he wanted. Trace the pinched folds of Bucky’s jeans where he’s crunched up on the rug; swoop in the angle of his shoulders sloping into the elbows resting on his knees. Fine-tipped pen would get the strands of hair tucked behind his ears. And a light wash of dull, brick red for Steve’s plain modern sofa behind him. Howard pushed that on him in one of his redecorating sprees. It’s not much of a room, but with Bucky in it, it’s something to look at. He hasn’t wanted to draw much in years but this moment is printing itself on the backs of his eyelids, turning itself into ink lines and volume and shape; the next time he puts a pencil to paper, this is what’ll come out.

Bucky’s got Steve’s collection lined up on the rug in front of him, all the jars of sand and seashells and beach glass, pulled down from the shelves and out of the back of the closet. He’s turning one side-to-side in his hands, watching the sand slide down and back again, making little hills and valleys, each grain shimmering slightly.

“You said Peggy didn’t keep you very busy,” Bucky says, when Steve’s been standing there a minute, transfixed by the light in his hair, on his skin. Imagining shading in his edges, his hollows and curves. Bucky looks up. “You didn’t say you were this bored.”

“Bored is one word for it,” Steve says, dryly. He sits down on the rug, cross-legged, and picks up a jar of tiny snail shells, washed clean and bleached by the sun and the salt. They rattle when he shakes it lightly. “I couldn’t control my shifting,” he says. “I kept ending up back there, staring out at the water.” Steve sets the jar down with the others, beside an entire jar of fractured sand dollars. “Part of me thought if I could bring enough of it here, I could just—stay in one place. Like if there was enough sand in my apartment—”

“You’d stop looking for more,” Bucky says, and Steve looks over at him. “You ever figure out why?”

“Why the beach?” Steve says. “I think so.” Bucky waits for a minute, and then makes a fist and prods his knuckles demandingly into Steve’s thigh muscle.

“And?”

“I’m not completely sure.”

“You don’t want to tell me?” Bucky says. He raises his eyebrows, then smiles, shrugging it off. “You don’t have to.”

“It’s just,” Steve says. “Sort of—intimate.”

“Intimate,” Bucky repeats, incredulously. “Intimate. And I’ve had my fingers u—”

“Jesus Christ,” Steve says, and shoves him, laughing, and Bucky rolls into him, knocks him to the floor and pins him, hands gentle and easy around his wrists. Steve is breathless for a second with Bucky over him, hair in his eyes, handsome and smiling and haloed by the light of the windows, ducking down to kiss Steve’s open mouth. Steve twists and prods a knee into his stomach and Bucky grins like a wolf and goes down to nose his shirt collar aside and suck on his clavicle. “Oh, Buck, Jesus,” Steve sighs, and wraps a leg around his waist to draw him in closer. “Don’t—leave a mark, Buck, don’t—“

“I’m not gonna,” Bucky says, lips against his throat. He kisses the soft flesh under Steve’s jaw and Steve throws his head back, bares his neck a little more, happy and shameless for more. “Just want a taste.” He licks Steve’s pulse point to make Steve squirm and complain and push against his hands, but not hard enough to make Bucky let him up. Bucky can tell he’s faking it; it makes him grin harder. “Oh, how the worm has turned,” he says, sweet and low and smug against Steve’s ear. “You used to hate it when I pinned you.”

“Shut up,” Steve says, cheeks pinking. "Get off, you mook."

“Alright,” Bucky says, softly; he loosens his hands but lowers his hips down onto Steve’s; his cock’s going stiff in his bluejeans and Steve can feel every hard inch of him against his stomach. It makes Steve feel lightheaded, deliriously hot; makes him arch up to slide his own dick against Bucky’s, to feel the way Bucky keeps his weight on Steve to rub them together, like Steve’s a buck-ten again soaking wet, like Bucky could pin him all day if he wanted. He’s right, Steve used to go mean and sharp when Bucky threw his weight around, even in play, and it wasn’t all bluster; he really did get mad about it, sometimes. Being the smallest kid on the block was a real son of a bitch, and getting pinned had always hurt his back as much as his pride. So it makes no good sense that he likes it now, more than likes it; he feels desperate and hungry and thrilled, he wishes Bucky would hold him down and kiss him and fuck him wet and then do it again as many times as he wanted, he wishes Bucky would stay over him and around him forever, grounding him, blocking out the world. “You wanna get up?” Bucky murmurs. “Go take a walk, get a sandwich?”

Bucky.”

“Or,” Bucky says, and grinds down.

“Bucky,” Steve says, “yeah, sweetheart, please.”

Bucky kisses him and gets up for the Vaseline and comes back when Steve is still wrestling himself hurriedly out of his dress slacks; Bucky pulls them off dramatically by the ankles like he's a magician with a tablecloth, and they're both cracking up when he kneels between Steve’s legs. Later they knock a bunch of the jars over, scatter them around the floor. The lid comes loose on one of them and sand spills out and Steve’s foot kicks through it when he’s trying to brace himself to meet Bucky’s thrusts, and then there’s fine grit on the sole of his foot, grainy and soft, and the sensation’s just strange enough, pleasant enough, to push him over the edge early. Bucky pulls him up onto the couch afterwards, pulls him into his arms and they lie there sweaty and sated for a while, talking about nothing, but mostly not talking at all. Bucky’s got one of Steve’s hands in his, holding it up against the sunlight, tracing the lines on his palm with his fingertips. He runs a thumb along Steve’s lifeline, idly at first and then speculatively and slow, like he’s looking for the parts he missed. “It was you,” Steve says, into the quiet; his limbs feel heavy and his head feels calm and empty, and he’s not feeling shy anymore about explaining, not at all. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. He’s glad to tell it. He wants Bucky to know. “It was about you, I just didn’t realize. Not for a long time.”

“Oh?”

“I was remembering something. Kept remembering it without recognizing why it was important. It wasn't a big memory. Nothing like that. We were at the boardwalk, at the shore, and I got mad at you—”

“Uh-huh,” Bucky says, knowingly, and Steve reaches underneath to pinch his ribs. “Ouch. I rest my case.”

“I don’t think the memory’s the thing,” Steve says. “It was the feeling in it. I think I was trying— I think I was looking for you. Trying to be close to you again. I came out of the water looking for you, day one. I never stopped.”

Bucky twines his fingers around the hand he’s holding and pulls it across them, wrapping his arm around Steve’s chest. It’s like being held by gravity, by the earth’s slow turn; it’s the safest Steve’s ever felt in his life, even since before his mother died. Bucky’s heart is so even and steady at rest that Steve feels rocked by it, soothed, cradled in his warmth. He could sleep a thousand years like this. He could grow roots like an oak. He hasn’t shifted by accident in weeks. Maybe only once since Bucky came back, and that’s probably because he got shot in the stomach. He’s not drifting anymore. He’s not cut loose. Bucky’s got him. Steve shuts his eyes and lets himself be still. Lets himself be held.

“This close enough?” Bucky says, soft, mouth against his temple.

“Maybe,” Steve says, and turns his face to Bucky’s chest; burrows against him with his eyes closed, nosing at sensitive, bare skin. “Maybe.”

 

 

 

 

That night Steve takes his time over dinner; it’s just pork chops and baked potato and string beans, regular stuff, but he makes up the table and even finds cloth napkins in the hall closet, in an old bin of kitchen linens that Winnie must have given him when he came back. He serves the chops—they’re only a little too dry, instead of a lot— and puts a heaping plate in front of Bucky, but instead of saying anything about dinner Bucky is staring at the folded napkin under his fork and knife, looking at it like it’s going to jump up and bite him.

“Oh,” Steve says, realizing it just a second too late. “These are—your ma gave me these, she said she didn’t need them,” he says, and reaches for them. They're patterned with tiny, faded roosters. “We can use something else.”

“No,” Bucky says. He picks up his fork. “These are fine.”

Dinner is quiet but not strained; Bucky eats and then does the dishes and then afterwards he comes out into the living room and sits down at Steve’s feet on the rug. It’s unexpected. Steve’s been drawing—it took him half an hour to even find his sketchbook—and it’s blocky and terrible right now, but at least the muscles are moving again. But he puts it aside when Bucky settles next to him and stares at the space between Steve’s toes.

“What’s going on?” he says, softly. He’s thinking about the safehouse; Bucky sat on the floor instead of the furniture a lot in those first days, watching Steve like a wary dog, or curling up in the basement to stare at nothing. His face isn’t empty but it is unnaturally still, like he’s making himself turn things off, turn them lower, to not feel everything at once. When Bucky doesn’t answer, Steve slides down to the floor next to him and puts a hand on his thigh, and Bucky’s shoulders sag a little, relax.

“You used to cut my hair,” he says.

“You want a trim?” Steve says. “No problem.” Bucky relaxes a little more, and Steve reaches out to smooth his hand over Bucky’s scalp, push stray hairs from his face. “You want it real short?” he says. “Or just out of your eyes?”

“Dunno,” Bucky says; his gaze slides down again. “Just kind of raggedy. I don’t want—I don’t want her to see me like this.”

“Your ma?”

“Yeah.”

“You want to go see your ma?” Steve says. He hates that he can hear his own voice cracking; he’s not trying to make Bucky feel like it’s a big deal, but the corners of his eyes are stinging, he can’t help it. “I know she’d like that.”

“Yeah,” Bucky says.

“You want—right now?” Steve says. “I’ll get the scissors.” He stands up and looks down at Bucky, who’s still glaring at the floor, and Steve kneels back down again, turns Bucky’s face up gently with one hand. “Just so you know,” he says, and runs his hand through Bucky’s long, tangling hair and kisses his temple, light and quick. “I like this. Liked it short and I like it long. Reminds me of Tarzan. From your pulps.”

Bucky’s mouth quirks, coming back to life.

"You had a thing for Tarzan, huh?"

"No," Steve lies. He lets Bucky go. "Got a thing or two for you, though."

“Trying to swell my head?”

“Like a parade float,” Steve says. “Want you just like inflatable Eddie Cantor.”

“Jesus,” Bucky says. “Don’t threaten me.”

Steve cuts his hair a little shorter, cleans up the back of his neck but leaves it longer on top, so that he can slick it back if he wants to, or just part it and brush the longer side behind his ear. Steve’s out of practice cutting hair but he does alright. He makes it neat enough, and then Bucky spends a couple minutes arranging it, and then a couple of minutes shaving his week-old stubble off, and suddenly he looks like he just came back from a yachting summer. Christ, Steve's man is gorgeous. His cheeks are soft and Steve can’t help but rub his own cheeks against them, fresh and pink and sweet as they are. Bucky calls him a hedonist but he closes his eyes and holds onto Steve’s elbows while he does it.

There are still plenty of spare clothes in Steve’s closet, even a couple of suit jackets in unfashionable older cuts that have been sitting there collecting dust for six years or so. One of them is really ugly: it also happens to be the one he wore in the Life magazine spread that announced he was alive again. In the biggest picture he’s sitting at a desk, which he never does, in front of a teletype machine, which he still doesn’t know exactly how to use. They’d been making some sort of point about his role in a post-war economy. In another one they’d made him hold a flag. He barely remembers any of it. The slightly boxy shoulders fit Bucky’s arm better, drape a little easier so that the plates don’t catch and show. They’re not quite of a size but Bucky knows how to tuck things here and there to make them hang right. He hasn't cared about clothes at all since Steve's gotten him back, that much has been obvious. He sometimes seems like he'd rather still be wearing those worn-out coveralls. But something's different, today. Now that he's decided to present himself at home. He looks at himself in the mirror critically, then folds his trouser cuffs up and under and pins them in place, careful and precise, and when he’s done he looks nicer than Steve does in his own tailored clothes. Steve used to know how to do all that, all the tricks to make second-hand clothes look sharper: he used to be as good at it as Bucky, maybe even better, considering that sometimes he was sporting Bucky’s hand-me-downs. Bucky grew so fast and Steve hardly grew at all; in sixth grade Bucky shot up about a foot over the holidays and in February his ma had handed Steve three brand-new shirts with a resigned sigh. But Steve gets things cut to size, now. He can finally afford it. And nothing off the rack fits his goofy shoulders anymore.

“You look like a million bucks,” Steve says, behind him. Bucky is staring at himself: motionless, doubtful, like he’s not sure the body in the mirror is his.

“I feel like,” he says, and trails off. “Like a fake. A fake person costume.”

Steve thinks about it.

“Used to wear a costume all the time,” he says, and hooks his chin on Bucky’s shoulder. “I was real underneath. And you still saw me.” Bucky meets his eyes in the mirror and then nudges him off and turns around. He reaches for Steve with both hands.

“Sometimes, you’re so,” he says. “I don’t know what I’d do. Don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“Spend all day in bed reading comic books, probably,” Steve says, past the lump in his throat. Bucky’s eyes are shining.

“Sure,” Bucky says. “Sure.”

 

 

 

 

In the morning Steve makes the phone call while Bucky’s finishing his shower; it’s probably best that they give her a little warning. He makes small talk with Winnie for a couple of minutes and then asks if she’s free after lunch, if she wouldn’t mind him coming by.

“Oh, I’d never mind you, Steven,” Winnie says. “I was thinking about putting a bundt cake in the oven right now, should I put in two?”

“That might be good,” Steve says. “Because I’m not—coming alone. If that’s alright.” There is such a long silence on the other end that Steve’s afraid she’s hung up, or else dropped the phone and died. “Winnie?” he says. “Ma?”

“Is he there?” Winnie says, in a fragile, wavering voice. “Is he there right now? Are you looking at him? Does he look alright? He stopped taking the candy bars. Has he been eating, do you think?” Bucky’s come into the hallway in his undershirt and shorts, still pink and steaming. He’s obviously trying to listen in without coming any closer. Like a curious wild creature, caught by scent, waiting to see if it’s safe. Gambling on it. Steve watches him and he watches Steve, and Winnie breathes nervously into the receiver.

“He’s been eating,” Steve says, finally.

“Oh,” Winnie says. “Praise Jesus.”

They don’t shift over. They take the subway. Steve gets them off a stop early so that Bucky can put his hands in his pockets and walk with his head down for a bit, quick at first and then slower and slower as they’re getting close. Every now and then Bucky stops dead and stares at something: a street sign, a building. A corner storefront. A stoop. He doesn’t say much, and Steve doesn’t press him for explanations of what exactly he’s remembering. He’s processing it. He probably just needs time.

At the end of his own block Bucky says, “I—I can’t,” and his face crumples and he stops in the middle of the sidewalk and twists his fingers in the buttonhole of his jacket so hard Steve thinks he might tear it. “I can’t do this.”

“Alright,” Steve says. He steps closer, pretends like they’re just two regular fellows discussing something mundane. The weather. Stocks and bonds. He can’t think of a third boring thing. He checks his watch. “There’s a movie at three-thirty,” he says, conversationally. “Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure. Which I'm sure is debatable. We could see that instead. You can explain to me why his hair’s so short.”

“Short hair’s better,” Bucky says, absently, still spasmodically fiddling with the edge of his jacket front. “Long hair’s a handle. They’ll drag you by it. Hurts.”

Steve swallows down a swell of rage. It's not useful here.

“Want to keep walking?”

“No,” Bucky says. “No.” He puts a hand over his eyes, under his hat, and scrubs at his face. “Fuck’s sake, I just want to see my mother. I can do that, right?”

“Of course you can.”

“Ain’t asking you,” Bucky says. “Asking me.” He gives Steve a miserable, exhausted half of a smile. “You go up first.”

So Steve goes up the steps and rings the doorbell and there is a thunderous sound of running feet in the hall. Winnie swings the door open and looks at Steve and then past him, and her face falls a little. Steve turns around: Bucky’s not on the sidewalk behind him. He’s walked off.

“Did he—was he not—able to make it,” Winnie says. Steve feels a pang of guilt. He was so eager to help but Bucky wasn’t ready, and now Steve’s upset ma over it, and he should’ve—handled this better, given them both more time. Eased off the idea. He comes inside and shuts the door behind him, gathers Winnie up in a hug.

“He's been doing real well,” Steve says. “He's trying.”

“I understand,” she insists, muffled, into Steve’s shirt. “Oh, I—completely understand." A timer dings in the kitchen.

“Is that the cake?” Steve says, and Winnie nods, dabbing at her eyes. “I’ll take care of it. You go sit. Put your feet up. I’ll bring you a cup of tea.” It’s a sign of how crushed she feels that she doesn’t even argue with him, or try to get him to put his feet up and accept a fresh pot of coffee and a sandwich. She just shuffles away into the living room. Steve sighs and rubs at his face for a second, then goes into the kitchen and finds the oven mitts on a hook by the stove. He quiets the timer and gets the two bundt pans out and sets them on the sideboard; after a second of consideration he rummages up two trivets and puts the pans on top of those, just in case they could scorch the counter. Poor they might have been, but his mother didn’t raise a Neanderthal, Steve thinks. He fills the kettle and puts it on the stove and goes out to see if Winnie’s comfortable, but when he gets to the living room he freezes in the doorway in surprise.

Winnie doesn’t even look up at him. Her face is downturned and rapturously joyful. Bucky is sitting on the floor with his head resting on her knees. The glove is off his metal hand. He's draped his left arm down awkwardly, knuckles to the rug, like he’s holding it away from her, but his flesh hand is over his face, and his shoulders are shaking. He’s crying in perfect silence. Winnie’s running her hand slowly over Bucky’s crown, through the hair that Steve cut so carefully, petting it the way she must have when he was a little boy asleep. Smoothing his cowlicks, his slight natural curl coming free. She’s humming. Her face is beatific, nakedly radiant with love. It looks like the Madonna’s.

Steve walks himself backwards, then around into the kitchen; he gets down three mugs from the cabinet and waits for the water to boil.

 

 

 

Steve doesn’t bother them. He takes them a tray and then drinks his own tea in the kitchen, blowing over the top of the mug distractedly until it’s gone cold. He gulps it down and then swirls the last leftover drops, the little grit of leaves left in the bottom, a tiny contained whirlpool. He can hear them talking in low voices in the other room but he makes himself ignore it, thinks hard about the lyrics to the most obnoxious songs he knows. Slow, slowly, the sun begins to edge lower, sinking with the day. Steve sits and thinks about Howard’s device, about the task force, about Moscow; about the dishes still in the sink at the safehouse; about other, impossible things.

Eventually, Bucky appears in the doorway. His eyelids have puffed up.

“I’m gonna go upstairs,” he says; it comes out in a croak. “Just got to—lay my head down, for a second.”

“You alright?”

“Getting there,” Bucky says. He doesn’t elaborate. He goes up the stairs stiffly, like his whole body aches. Steve goes back into the living room and finds Winnie sitting in her armchair with a photo album resting over her heart, her arms cradled over it. She looks almost as tired as Bucky, but infinitely lighter. Steve takes her mug from the end table and she looks up at him with dazed, tender eyes.

“You’re a good angel, Steven,” she says. “You've been looking after him.”

Steve thinks about the warehouse fight; about Bucky standing over bodies with the long rifle in his hands. Bucky with his arm across Steve’s chest, strong as a band of iron, blood-warm and gentle. Steve’s resting place.

“Other way round,” he says.

Bucky sleeps through supper. Or else he hides. Winnie makes mashed potatoes and a little beef roast and she and Steve eat at the kitchen table with the radio on very low, both of them listening for feet on the stairs that don’t come. Steve tells her a little bit about the safehouse garden, about Bucky’s handsome new car, about how pleased all the guys were to see him again. There is a lot about the last few weeks he doesn’t bring up. Winnie soaks in it, smiling. She seems lit up from the inside, illuminated in a way that makes her seem younger than she is. Steve remembers her like this, just like this, from when he was a boy: she used to sing while she cleaned, and dance around the kitchen. Bucky might not have ever admitted it to anyone else, but that’s who he learned all his first steps from. Steve used to watch them push aside the kitchen chairs and foxtrot until they were laughing too hard to keep pace. Bucky's ma used to lead, until he was taller. Sometimes Steve and Rebecca would dance along, too, even though neither of them were any good, what with four left feet between the two of them.

Eventually, Winnie starts to yawn and nod in the middle of her sentences, and then she goes upstairs to bed, too. Steve tidies up the kitchen and tries hard not to think about what happened the last time he stayed the night in this house. He almost succeeds.

He’s sitting on the sofa at midnight with one of Bucky’s battered old books when the hallway phone rings, cutting through the pleasant silence of the night and startling the holy hell out of him. He goes into the hall and finds Bucky already standing at the top of the stairs, cat-footed and quiet, still dressed in his rumpled clothes. He looks tense, coiled: ready to fight. Steve gestures him back towards bed and picks up the handset.

“Little late, don’t you think?” he says, to whoever it is.

“Steve,” says the voice on the other end; it’s Peggy, sounding breathless. “Thank goodness. Nobody knew where you’d gone.”

“What’s going on?”

“Agent Kochalski’s been murdered,” she says.

“What?” Steve hisses. “When—how—“

“We don’t know much,” Peggy says. “Gabe and Dugan found him this afternoon at his hotel, bludgeoned to death. He'd been there a little while." Bucky comes down the stairs while she talks and stands with his head tilted towards the phone; Steve can tell he’s catching all or most of it. "He was back on desk duty as of last week. I had him processing all the reports from Rotterdam, but he hadn't come in for the last two days.”

“Anything at the scene?” Steve says.

“Very little,” Peggy says. “Well, one thing. Gabe found the confidential report folders in his briefcase. Not just from Rotterdam but Maine, too. Virginia. He'd taken them all home.”

“Mission reports?” Steve wonders aloud. “What was he looking for?”

“Brewer,” Bucky says, and Steve’s head whips around to look at him. Bucky looks grim. “Brewer.”

“What?”

“What’s he saying?” Peggy says, on the other end. “Steve, what’s he saying?”

“He noticed the difference,” Bucky says. “He was Brewer’s partner for years, right? He noticed something off. Started checking back in the reports. Maybe even asked him about it.” He lowers his voice. "You'd notice. If it were me. Vice versa."

Shit,” says Steve.

“Steve!” Peggy snaps. "Hello?"

“Schmidt could be in Brewer,” Steve says, into the handset this time, and hears Peggy’s sharp intake of breath. “Kochalski would have been the only person who knew him well enough to spot it.”

“Howard,” she says, urgently. “You need to check on Howard. I’ll send agents to the Moritas. There’s no time to waste.”

“We're on our way,” says Steve.

 

 

.

Chapter Text

Howard rents a string of warehouses in Red Hook under a shell company, something with a meaningless name like Harper Industrial Solutions. He uses it for all the things he doesn’t want Peggy’s bosses to know about, or his own corporate bean-counters to have a conniption over. Once he took Steve out there and showed him the latest prototype of the flying car, a trim single-passenger version that could generate a powerful magnetic field and then coast along it for fifty yards at a time. It was clunky and tipped around irregularly in midair but it was still something to see. Howard was calling it the hopper, and he was inordinately proud of it, considering that it could still only be ridden by somebody under ninety-nine pounds. When Steve had looked down into the hatch over the glassed-in seat he’d seen a smiling twelve-year-old wearing goggles and driving gloves.

“Technician’s nephew,” Howard had said, shrugging. “He’s a natural. Say hi to Captain America, Ted.” Steve had told Peggy and Howard hadn’t spoken to him for two weeks, except to mutter under his breath about a committee on un-American activities whenever Steve came into the room.

They have to make a pit stop for equipment—it’s not like he took the shield to Winnie’s—and then Steve shifts himself and Bucky right to the biggest warehouse, the one where Howard keeps his favorite prototypes. They sweep the perimeter first—Bucky doesn’t want to spook Schmidt right away, if he’s here—and find Howard’s car parked in a garage on one end, underneath his customary camouflage of a dirty tarp. The engine’s completely cold. There’s no other car in sight around the cluster of warehouses, except for a couple of parked trucks that Howard uses to move scrap metal around. Sometimes he pays guys to come drive them out and back again to keep up the illusion of being a functioning industrial solutions corporation, whatever that is. When Bucky’s satisfied they split up; he heads for the roof, to make his way inside through the upper windows, and Steve heads for the padlocked side door. Steve slips through the shift and lands inside, in almost total darkness; all the lights are off, except for a couple of red security lights along the catwalks, and the orange-colored spotlights outside aren’t doing much but throwing glare. Steve reaches out with his senses for Howard, finds a rabbiting heartbeat somewhere close by and launches himself towards it silently, ducking fast and light between equipment and avoiding knocking into any of Howard’s gangly, towering machines. It’s almost like cutting through deep forest, slipping between the branches, sensing rather than seeing the ground.

When Steve comes to the locked door of the chemical lab he pauses and puts his ear against it, listens intently. There’s nothing at first and then the faintest gasp, like someone behind the door is trying not to breathe at all. He steadies himself and shifts into the room, only to get blasted backwards by an ear-splitting punch of sound and displaced air. He puts the shield up almost in time but it catches him hard and thuds him into the wall, knocking his spine and shoulders and stunning him for a second. Half of a shelf of bottled chemicals tip over and crash down in the corner, and the air turns acrid and stinging like bleach fumes.

“Whoopsie,” Howard says, rising from behind the lab bench; there’s something in his hands that looks like a glowing traffic cone. “I thought you were Schmidt again.”

“What,” says Steve, staggering to his feet, “the hell, is that.”

“Sound cannon,” Howard says. “Controls are still a little wonky. All I had in a pinch.” He comes out from around the bench and now Steve can see that he’s limping, favoring his left foot; there’s a streak of blood smeared across his chin, coming from his ear.

“You alright?” Steve says, and reaches out to steady him. Howard leans into his grip only slightly, making a pained face. “Schmidt?”

“Yeah,” Howard says. “Son of a bitch got into the south building and surprised me.”

“He still here?”

“No idea,” Howard shrugs. “I managed to grab this, hit him a couple times, and run. I’ve been holed up in here for almost an hour, making like a statue.”

“Don’t be offended,” Steve says, “but—”

“No, no, I get it,” Howard says, gesturing with the sound cannon swinging in his free hand. “Go ahead, let’s get it over with.” So Steve grips his arm a little tighter and pulls them both into the void for a second, just far enough that he can see Howard’s shimmering aura; it’s pulsing nervously, but other than that, he’s just the same. Steve sweeps them back into the lab and eases Howard onto one of the tall metal stools. “Everything copacetic?”

“You’re not a deranged German eugenicist inside, if that’s what you mean,” says Steve. There’s a quick series of taps on the lab door; three quick raps and then a rolling knuckle strike, the cadence of Beethoven’s Fifth. That’s how Bucky’s pa always said you had to hit, if you were going to fight somebody and make him go down for real: jab, jab, jab, to get him off balance, knock the wind out of him, and then a good hard one, a real swing to finish the job. Barnes the elder had been a gentle man, a quiet man with little to no opinions about anything, until you started talking about manufacturing radio components, methods for cooking and serving roast beef, or boxing championships. Steve had tried to take his advice once upon a time, but until the Vita-Rays it was all academic; it wasn’t like guys stood still while they were trying to take your scrawny little head off. Nowadays all his hits are hard ones. Steve unlocks the door and Bucky comes in, shuts it after himself. Howard eyes them both, a little dizzily.

“Doesn’t he get a ride over the moon?”

“No,” says Steve. “It’s him.”

“And you know this how?”

“Secret knock,” says Bucky. Howard looks between them in horror. Steve shrugs.

“Jesus crap-shooting Christ,” Howard says. “And you idiots won the war.”

Steve and Bucky comb the rest of the warehouse briefly but Schmidt’s gone, along with one of the unmarked trucks. Howard’s sour-faced when they get back, leaning against an empty workbench littered with tools and soldering irons. “He took it,” Howard says. “The wavelength inhibitor. He must have.”

“Why?” Steve asks, surprised. “Why not just destroy it?”

“Best case,” Howard says, “he thinks he can use it as bait.”

“Worst case?”

“It’s designed to focus energy,” Howard says. “Right? Well, think about a vacuum cleaner. Draws in air. Unless you switch the suction and the discharge hoses. So if he tinkers with the inhibitor—”

“It sends energy outward,” Bucky finishes. “Scatters it.”

“Explosively,” Howard says. He glances at Steve. “I’ve handed him another bomb,” he says, hollowly.

“You didn’t hand him anything,” Steve says. “Come on. Bucky’s going to take you to headquarters.” Howard slides off his stool and starts grabbing at his bag and kit on the workbench, and Bucky’s eyebrows lift.

“Bucky is, huh?”

“I can track Schmidt,” Steve says. “And I know I can hold him off. Keep him out of my head. Taking anybody else is a risk.”

“Horseshit,” Bucky says. “You—”

“Oh!” Howard interrupts. They both turn to look at him, faces tight with frustration, and he blanches slightly. “Hey, I don’t need it in stereo.”

“What is it?”

“Got an idea about deflecting Schmidt,” he says, and rummages under the bench for a duffel bag. “Ha!” He pulls out a bundle of wires and webbing, untangles it a little, and suddenly Steve realizes what he’s looking at. “Recognize this?”

“The signal jammer,” Steve says. “Wore it inside a couple of bases,” he says, to Bucky. “Like a vest. It shorts out their cameras, radios—”

“Give me fifteen minutes,” Howard says, “and it’ll interfere with brainwaves, too. I can rig it to keep that German bastard out of your heads.”

“Is that a good idea?” Steve says. “Messing with brainwaves? For whoever’s inside it?”

“Uh,” Howard says. “It’s probably fine.”

“Howard—”

“Let him work,” Bucky says. “I’ll wear it. Not like it would be the first time somebody fucked around in my attic.” Steve opens his mouth and Bucky points a metal finger at him, jabs him lightly in the chest. “I said I’ll wear it,” he says. “You saying otherwise?” Steve closes his mouth, turns it into a flat line.

“Nope,” Steve says.

“Well,” Bucky says. It’s like he was expecting more pushback; when it doesn’t come, he folds his arms across his chest and pretends not to look pleased, almost weirdly fond. “Alright.”

Steve calls Gabe from the office phone and arranges for Howard to get picked up by a trio of agents. It’s a grim little precaution, sending three instead of two, but in case Schmidt gets into one of them and they turn—well, two against one is better odds. Peggy sent three over to Jim’s hospital room, but they sent one back, since Dugan was already vowing to stay camped out there with a shotgun and a deck of cards. When Howard’s finished they snap Bucky into the vest and adjust the tiny frequency scramblers. “I look like a spaceman,” Bucky says. Steve considers the irony for an awkward, guilty second and then pointedly doesn’t look at Bucky’s left side, but Bucky catches him glancing in the opposite direction and makes a face anyway. “Yeah, yeah, genius,” he drawls. “Of course I remember I have a metal arm.” Steve flushes and doesn’t say anything. Bucky obviously decides to ignore him after that; he looks over his own shoulder and tugs at the straps. “What do you think, Howard? Right out of Marvel Tales?”

“That’s out of print,” Howard says, stripping and twisting two wires.

“Really?”

“Yeah,” Howard says. “The reading public doesn’t share our sophisticated tastes.”

“Chumps,” says Bucky.

 

 

 

 

Tracking Schmidt isn’t hard, per se, but it is unpleasant: the man’s consciousness is like an oily fog that Steve has to dip his hands into, up to the elbows. He searches for Schmidt, for the red haze, and feels a responding twitch not far away. They go into the shift with Bucky’s metal arm locked around Steve’s elbow, leaving them each a hand free—Bucky’s for his gun, Steve’s for the shield. The minute they land somebody starts shooting at them; Steve swings the shield up and they sprint together for cover behind the closest parked car.

“Where are we?” Bucky says, over the sound of bullets pinging off the hood. It’s all shuttered brick warehouses, all familiar but not registering just yet. Steve’s trying to get a line of sight on their shooter; his head swivels and he catches the looming shape of the Brooklyn Bridge overhead at the same time Bucky does. It’s a great dark beam cutting the night sky in two, strung with a line of yellow lights that don’t do much to dissipate the gloom on the ground. They’re right underneath it, Water Street, or close to it. “Nevermind!” Bucky calls, and vaults across the car trunk, running for the opposite side of the street. Steve watches him take cover in a doorway, then bash the lock open with his metal hand and slip inside, upstairs, heading for the sniper in the broken upper-story window. He was always quicker at sighting those than Steve. Steve checks down the rest of the street and sees a moving shadow darting between cars. He runs after it, staying low, shield up high and tight to his side. There’s a crashing noise behind him; a body in tactical gear being pitched out of that same upper window and landing hard on the roof of a Chrysler two-door. Bucky’s quick at everything, honestly.

They catch a second shooter right at the foot of the bridge as they’re crossing under it; he pings a couple of shots off Steve’s shield and then gets it in the teeth when Steve launches it at him. Bucky kneels down and strips the balaclava off his face to get a look at him, and for a second Steve has a gut-wrenching déjà vu: in his mind he is standing on the bridge again, helpless, vision tunneling, looking at the wreck he made of Bucky’s face. But the guy on the ground is unfamiliar, just another Aryan-looking tough, some boringly heinous HYDRA goon. Bucky looks up at him, shrugging. Steve tries to control his face. “Anybody you know?”

“No,” Steve says.

Brewer is waiting for them at the edge of the water, not even hiding, standing at the point of the dock where the old ferry used to launch. There’s nobody else out here at this time of night—barely morning, technically—and he’s just a silhouette against the river, and all the faint dancing lights that shiver on the surface as it moves. Steve and Bucky split on instinct when they catch sight of him, making a pincer with Brewer in the middle, but he doesn’t make a motion to run. He stands still, coat whipping a little in the wind. Bucky’s got his gun up, aimed steady, as he inches closer.

“Captain Rogers,” Schmidt says, in Brewer’s gruff, normal voice. Steve’s struck again by the wrongness of it. “Do you know something? I have looked at you through four pairs of eyes, now. Would you like to hear what I’ve seen?”

“Not especially,” says Steve. Brewer’s face twitches into a narrow, mocking smile.

“I’ve seen how weak you are, how easily wounded, when it comes to those you call friends.” He looks at Bucky and his thin smile widens, horribly. “I wonder. If this is what will break you completely.”

He stretches out a hand towards Bucky and Steve feels a great wave of vertigo, a swell of something passing across him: Schmidt is throwing himself out of Brewer and into Bucky right in front of Steve’s eyes, he’s forcing the red cloud out and over the distance between them like a jet of water from a firehose, hard and fast. Bucky rocks a step back and puts his arm up in front of his face, like he can feel the sting of it. Steve’s moving towards him, between them, calling his name, when Brewer makes a pained sound and staggers sideways.

“Cap,” he says, “Cap, help—”

Brewer’s eyes are huge and wrecked, horrified. Steve catches him by the elbow and eases him to his knees, then lets go and turns for Bucky. The red cloud is still passing around him, swooping like a flock of birds, radiating with fury. But it hasn't landed. Bucky’s got a hand over his ears but the other’s still on his gun; when Steve puts a hand on his shoulder he flinches but doesn’t startle.

“He can’t get in,” Bucky says, raggedly, but still himself, “I don’t think—Steve, I don’t think he can get in.” Schmidt’s consciousness roars down on both of them in retaliation, pressing on the back of their skulls and raking down Steve’s mind in agonized ribbons, but Bucky hangs onto his arm and Steve hangs onto Bucky, and the vest’s scattering field holds firm. The cloud passes over and through them like a hard wind, and then it’s gone. Bucky breathes into Steve’s shoulder for a second, and then they break apart when Brewer coughs behind them, hacking and sharp.

“Well,” he says, in Schmidt’s strange cadence. “That was unexpected.” Steve lunges for him but Brewer’s hand comes up, out of his pocket, and it’s not empty: it’s one of Howard’s blinking little high-yield explosives, like the chain of timed detonators he made for Jim. Steve freezes, and swings the shield up to cover himself and Bucky. “Ah-ah-ah,” Schmidt says.

“Let him go,” Steve says. “It’s over. You’re done.”

“You could never have resisted me on your own,” Schmidt says, ignoring Steve and turning all his attention to Bucky. “You know that.”

“Enough,” Steve says. He looks at Bucky; Bucky’s face has gone white as a sheet, even though he hasn’t lowered his gun. Suddenly Steve remembers what he said, before they knew about Zola’s passenger, before they realized what was really going on: there’s somebody else in there running the show, Bucky had told them. He knew us. You and me. The mind-control experiments, the brain wipes. Bucky had been in Schmidt’s hands for a whole year.

“That Swiss fool had no idea about your worth,” Schmidt says. “He wanted a perfect weapon. But you were a perfect vessel. All your thoughts, your will, scraped clean. Emptied for me. I would have worn you like a glove, and you would have let me. You would have welcomed it.”

“Shut your fucking mouth,” Steve hisses; he can feel his face heating. He lunges at Schmidt but Brewer’s arm raises the detonator again, and Steve stops in his tracks, caught, twitching with the effort of holding back a strike.

“Take off that device, creature,” Schmidt says, softly, “and I will prove it to you. I will show you what you are.”

Bucky shoots him in the foot.

Schmidt howls and tips over, going onto one leg; Steve swings the shield into his wrist to make him drop the detonator. It flashes red and Steve thunks the shield down over it, throws his body weight down to hold it against the ground as it goes off. The blast blows downward with incredible force, cratering the pavement and knocking Steve sideways. He rolls away and Bucky grabs him, hauls him up. Schmidt is trying to limp off, but he collapses after about ten feet and Bucky pushes him over easily and then sits on him, locking his arm behind his back. “Geh zur Hölle, du Hund!” he spits, struggling. “Scheisskerl! Hurensohn!” Bucky leans down, grinning with brutal sharpness.

Fick dich ins Knie,” he says. Steve actually doesn’t need that translated; plenty of guys shouted it at him, once upon a time in Heidelberg.

“Buck,” Steve says. Bucky glances up at him, reads his face.

“It’s a foot,” he says, defensively. “Better than having his top half blown off.”

“Good point," says Steve.

“You will be the first to die,” Schmidt says. “Both of you, you will be the first, tonight, when the walls go down, you will die screaming.”

“Tonight?” Steve says. Bucky rolls Schmidt over and shakes him ungently. Schmidt pants open-mouthed in pain. “Tonight? Where, tonight? When?”

Schmidt laughs.

“Here,” he says. “Now.” His eyes roll back into his head and Steve feels a rush of something pass by, like a rising mist.

Brewer moans.

“Cap,” he says, and Bucky almost drops him in surprise. He slides a hand under Brewer’s back to support him. Brewer reaches for Steve, takes him by the arm. “Cap, the truck,” he says. “We gotta find the truck.”

“We got you,” Steve says, and Brewer nods, pulling himself fully upright in Steve’s grip. “You’re alright, we got you.”

“Sorry about the foot,” Bucky says, and Brewer shoots him a dry look.

"I'll return the favor sometime,” he says, and then turns back to Steve. “He’s got something in the truck, sir, something of Howard’s. It’s heading—” he starts, and then there’s a noise like thunder from overhead. From the bridge. All three of them stare up in horror as the cables tense and the bridge itself seems to—twist, somehow, for a second, towards a yawning vortex that’s starting to spin just above it. For a split second everything turns, sick and dizzying, like a wheel, and then everything blows outward, scattering, and the cables snap and chunks of the bridge fly a hundred feet in every direction with a deafening, unreal pop. Steve barely has time to swing the shield over their heads before the shockwave is on them. They’re all thrown backwards a dozen feet, landing hard against a concrete retaining wall, and debris rains down on their heads in a cloud of pulverized brick and metal shards. Steve coughs and staggers to his feet. He can’t see. There’s blood running down into his eyes; he wipes it away and gets up, pulling the shield to his side.

“Buck!” he shouts, waving the dust away from his face; the whole sky’s heavy with it, and there are screams coming from the bridge, from the neighborhood. “Bucky!” Bucky lurches into view, swinging his leg over the concrete barrier—he went all the way over the side of it, behind it, thank God. He doesn’t look to Steve like he’s hurt. Steve checks him anyway, running hands over his arms and legs, his face.

“I’m fine,” he says. He nods over his shoulder at a crumpled shape draped over the barrier. “But—Brewer.”

“Jesus, no,” Steve says, and goes to him. He goes to check his pulse but Brewer’s still and limp like a ragdoll, his head loose on his shoulders. The impact must have snapped his neck. His eyes are open, sightless. “Jesus Christ,” Steve says, kneeling next to him. Bucky puts a hand on Steve’s hair, runs along it to rest at the base of his neck. “It's my fault, I should have—”

“Don’t,” Bucky says. "Don't do that."

They look up at the bridge together: there’s a gaping wound in the side of it, and snapped cables are swinging loose. There are cars in the water, and more teetering on the edge, and people running in terror towards either end. And above it, in midair, a shimmering rip in the sky, in the world. It’s the brightest thing in the entire night-lit city, a shining line that’s struggling to tear itself wider and wider by the second. It hurts to look at it.

Bucky puts his hand in Steve’s. “I'm ready,” he says, "let's do it," and Steve shifts them up.

While Bucky’s up on the bridge pulling doors off trapped cars and getting people off the roadway, Steve’s in the water, shifting between cars as fast as he can and wrapping his arms around the passengers, dropping them one or two at a time on the banks of the river and making sure they're breathing and going back for more. Seven cars and a delivery van dropped and he hits them all until he’s sure they’re empty. He surfaces fast and grabs a couple of people he sees floating, ones who must have dropped from the bridge into the water in a panic, but they’re bodies when he gets them onto dry land, people who were dead on impact anyway. He tries not to think about it while he works, shifting up again to help Bucky pull a couple of cars back from the edge and let trapped passengers out. They’re not on their own, entirely: a bunch of folks got out of their cars and started herding other people towards the bridge exits, carrying children over their shoulders and breaking out some windshields to help the last stragglers get out. Steve's grateful to see it. Police and fire crews start to pile up at either end, but now the bridge itself is swaying under the force of the rip in space above it, and Steve knows what he has to do.

He shifts to Bucky and gives him the shield, and Bucky stares at him, dirty and bloodied; there’s a long tear in his jacket from getting a kid out of a mangled Ford, when he got caught on what was left of the roof. “You did it before,” Bucky says. “Right? You can do it again.”

“Yeah,” Steve says. He can feel the rip pulling at him, hard and angry, like undertow. It’s moving so quickly, stretching so far he can barely get a grasp on it. It didn’t feel like this the last time, when he was already inside the void. The shockwave is still pushing outward, invisibly. This is exactly what he didn’t want to happen in Rotterdam. “I can do it,” he says, anyway, and Bucky pulls him in to hug him, tight, desperate. When Bucky lets him go he looks stricken, like he’s trying to hide something and can’t manage anymore. Like he’s afraid. “Buck?”

“Go,” he says, voice cracking. “Do what you have to.”

Steve steadies himself and looks upward and reaches for the rip with both hands, drags himself into the current, and disappears.

 

 

 

 

Everything feels wrong.

Energy is bleeding outward in every direction, sliding right out of Steve’s grasp whenever he reaches for it. He’s struggling to find the strands of things, the golden threads that he wove together in Rotterdam, but everything he manages to grab has a loose, dangling end, like he’s rifling through a haystack instead of a great tapestry. Blasting through into the void has severed some of the connections, made it harder to work. But it’s not impossible. Steve just has to keep at it, working to find the strong threads and tie them off, weave them under and through. He’s starting to get into the rhythm of it, letting everything else drift away. He starts to let the energy draw through him instead of fighting it, trying to hold onto it. It goes easier, like that. The tesseract seems to like it, too, and when Steve looks down he’s glowing from his center, warm and steady, and trickles of blue light have gone down both his arms into his hands, running through his palms in lines like veins.

It’s starting to work, he thinks. It’s starting to—and then there’s a great rushing feeling against his back, and a noiseless wave hits him and blows him across the void like a dandelion seed. Steve clings to the edges of the tear, holding it together as much as he can, straining against the blast and the terror of losing hold. He almost manages to keep the hole from ripping any wider. When it passes over him—passes into the deeper void, a long edge of energy that rattles its way across the stars—he stares out towards the genesis of the shockwave and feels a creeping terror in the pit of his guts.

He can feel it: another tear opening. Another hole, somewhere.

Steve works faster, frantically; he reaches into himself and shoves the tesseract forward for the burst of power it gives him. The tesseract knits more golden threads together, but Steve can feel something else sucking away light and air and feeling, something far-off but also at his back, running cold hands along his spine. He can’t stand it anymore. He wraps up what ends he can and shifts back to the world, to reality, and finds himself standing at the edge of the hole in the bridge, staring up at a tear in the sky that’s gone fainter and smaller, holding together at least, for now. It’s not finished, but it’ll have to do for the moment. He has to know what’s happened. Has to find the other hole. The sun's all the way up now, bright and blinding, and nobody but emergency fire and engineering crews out on the bridge. It must have been hours and hours in the void, for him.

He shifts to headquarters and finds everyone in a panic, rushing through the halls; he spots Gabe and Howard crossing from one lab to another. They double-take at him briefly and Steve realizes he must still be covered in blood and brick dust.

“What’s going on?” he says. “I felt another explosion. In the void. Something else opening up.” Gabe and Howard share a quick, unhappy look.

“We don’t know yet,” Gabe says. “Peggy’s on the phone with—“

“Everybody,” Howard says. There are circles under his eyes, and his head’s been bandaged up neatly. “Barnes says Schmidt blew the bridge with my inhibitor. Tore a hell of a hole.”

“Yeah,” Steve says. “I’m working on it.”

He goes to find Peggy, and true enough she has two speakerphones going on her desk, and an assistant waiting nervously nearby with another call on hold. Peggy holds up one hand at Steve and then says,

“One minute, everyone, I need to speak with Captain America,” and there’s a rush of sputtering male voices from the phones, everybody demanding Peggy’s attention. She ignores them and stands up, sweeps Steve into a smaller private room a few steps away. “Two bombs,” she says. “Maybe more. But two at least. One of them went off in the northern sector of Moscow. The other hit the center of Stalingrad. We have no idea about casualties, but it looks—catastrophic, already.” Peggy looks grim. “Now we know what happened to the two trucks that escaped the Soviets.”

“This is revenge,” Steve says. “HYDRA’s going down, and they've decided to take the entire USSR with them.”

“Seems so,” Peggy says. “First reports are saying that the shockwaves haven’t stopped. That they’re getting larger.”

“They’ll tear the whole world apart if they’re not closed,” Steve says. “I have to go.”

“Steve,” Peggy says. Her hand is still on his arm. “Is there anything—”

“Another inhibitor, maybe,” Steve says. “If Howard can get one working, aim it at the hole over the bridge. I did what I could for now, but there’s energy spilling everywhere. It might help.”

“We’ll try it,” Peggy promises. And then, more softly, “He’s safe downstairs. He had a gash in his leg, I sent him to Dr. Sullivan. He worked half the day after you shifted. Getting civilians out.”

“Of course he did,” Steve says. He can’t look at Peggy for a second, afraid of what—but she’s looking at him with so much love, it breaks his heart. “You know what he’s like,” Steve says, rawly. “You know why, I.”

“I really do,” Peggy says. She leans forward and kisses his cheek. “Go with God, Steven.”

Steve goes downstairs to say something to Bucky, just to let him know where he's headed—but then he catches sight of him through a doorway, sitting in a chair in the lab, answering something that Howard is asking. He’s talking animatedly over some pieces of a battery array, and Steve just stands in the hall and watches him. He’s wiped off with a wet towel or something, but there’s still dirt and blood crusted along his jaw, behind his ears, a little down his neck. His hair’s a mess. Steve doesn’t know what to say to him. There is nothing he hasn’t said already, no other language he has to say it with. He’s given Bucky all his heart, all his body, everything he has. Bucky has to know.

He slips into a service closet to shift, but before he does, he closes his eyes. He doesn’t pray so much anymore, except in moments of real terror like this one. Maybe his long silences are a sign of disbelief, after all; maybe God has figured him out and stamped him with some sort of divine 4F. Or maybe God appreciates that he saves it for emergencies.

Lord, if there is anything left of me, after this, he thinks, please send it back to him. It’s his.

 

 

.

Chapter Text

For a second after he lands Steve just lies in the rubble that he collapsed into, breathing dust and waiting for the sucking vertigo to let go of him. Coming through the void towards the tears was like ripping himself in half with both hands; like hurtling through a storm in a little tin-pot two-seater airplane, letting thunder rattle you to the bone. He's not sure he's in Moscow, not really. He's not sure he's on earth. There's a broken stone wreath on the ground in front of him, in scattered pieces like fallen branches after a storm; it takes him a second to realize that it's a piece of a facade, a decorative lintel that's been smashed down, pulverized, powdered like plasterwork. They look like laurel leaves. A poet's wreath. A work of art.

There are sirens blaring, so loud they barely sound like noise at all: it's indistinguishable from the ringing in his skull, until it isn't, and then it's a terrible cacophony. Human voices, too, over some kind of loudspeaker. They're speaking Russian, he realizes. He landed in the right place after all. Steve shakes his head and cups his hands over his ears for a second, tries to get his balance back. His hands are scraped up from falling down as he landed, and trying to crawl his way upright, through the crushed-up bits of pavement and tangled metal around him. His palms are already healing. He's on a city block, what used to be a street of tall, stately houses: the left side is still mostly standing, but the right has been torn away. The railings from the staircases and the windows have been peeled off and flung away in the blast. They’ve shriveled up like dried-out vines. Beside him, a woman's body is lying underneath a pile of bricks. Steve doesn't need to check her pulse to know that it's too late.

"Помоги мне!" somebody is screaming, from the end of the row. The air's too thick to see any real distance clearly, but Steve can make out movement, panic. "Помоги пожалуйста!" He doesn't know what the words mean, but he knows the tone. Knows the desperation. Steve gets up.

There's a cluster of people at the end of the street, some of them with wide-eyed kids shocked silent in their arms; four men are trying to lift a massive metal beam off of a door. They're barely budging it. When they see Steve half of them freeze, staring at him. At his face, his chest. One of the women starts pointing at him; she puts a hand out like she's going to touch him, then draws it back. He looks down at himself in surprise. He didn't think about that. He's still wearing his uniform, the plain one he put on to go after Schmidt in Brewer's body; the shield stayed clipped to his back, even when he landed and fell over like a drunk. They kept making Captain America movies, Captain America comics, even after he came back; maybe he was just seeing things in hindsight, but the uniform seemed to get brighter and sillier-looking every time they copied it. By comparison, his own suits got more and more muted, the less they wanted Steve to stand out. The less they wanted Steve to stand up. But he didn't think about coming here in stars and stripes. He just went. No wonder Peggy never lets him lead diplomatic programs.

"Help," one of the men says, in English, pointing towards the door, desperately. "People," he says, "more. More, here. People."

Steve gestures for them all to stand back and braces the edge of the beam against his hip; it's solid steel but once he gets a grip on it he can haul it up and over. A couple of the guys come back and give him a hand, calling for others. They shift it off the door easily and drop it to the side, and more people rush into the gap it leaves, pry the door up, and start digging. There's a pair of teenaged girls in the rubble, both alive with their arms around each other, and a middle-aged man in spectacles, crushing a satchel to his chest, blinking at them through thick layers of dust and blood. They all gape at Steve, when he comes down to pull them out of the hole and hand them up, and people start patting their faces, their forearms, checking for broken limbs.

"ты в безопасности," Steve tries, haltingly, sure he's mangled it. "Safe. безопасности." He doesn't think about why he taught himself to repeat that; why he asked Peggy for those exact words. One of the women gives him a doubtful, pointed look, and gestures upwards. His eyes follow her finger; through the clearing dust he can see thick clouds swirling overhead, a maelstrom raging in the sky, ripping at the horizon. Behind the clouds, there’s an eerie light, a radiation. The air feels like it's vibrating. The tears are widening. There's barely any time. The woman is still watching Steve. Waiting for something. "Yes, ma'am," he says, nodding, wondering if she'll understand him. "That's what I'm here for."

"It’s you," one of the teenagers says, her voice rough from breathing rubble: a skinny girl with thick dark hair. It looks grey, powdered with dust and ash, like she's aged a hundred years overnight. "I know you. Captain America." She nods her chin upwards. "Can you?" she asks. "Stop it?"

"I have to try."

The girl sticks her hand out. Steve shakes it, gravely.

"Good luck," she says. "Break a leg. Captain America."

 

 

 

 

Steve can barely get a grip on the surface of the void; ironically, it forces him deeper and deeper. Instead of surfacing at the tears, in the storm, he comes up in pure darkness, soft as cat’s feet, inky black, with only the faintest hint of stars when he blinks. The void is so empty that it presses closely at him, cold and quiet, smothering. He shifts through it slowly like murky water, parting it with his hands. There’s a shimmer of light as he peels himself through this reality to the next, to the next; layer by layer he pulls himself upwards, until he is looking out at the damage from a vast distance, like staring upwards at the moon. The bombs have torn two huge gashes in the fabric of the world, so vast Steve can barely find their edges. Though the blasts were hundreds of miles apart they’re bleeding into one another, already stretching outwards, widening with every second that he watches. Their edges are flapping like sheets on a clothesline, buffeted by invisible currents; ripping raggedly up, across, away. He forces himself forward, clings to himself while the void tears at him from both directions. He latches onto a thread and pulls hard, slings it around his wrist and shifts upwards, drags a shining golden line across part of the gap, and knots it firm.

It quakes, and shivers, and stretches—and holds.

He grabs a handful of loose ends and weaves them together into a stronger rope, feeling the force of it sear his hands. It wrestles with him, fights his grip. He drags it upwards and secures it, grabbing another handful to drag downward as he goes. He works quick and sloppily, trying to catch the corners where it’s unravelling the fastest. He rakes his fingers through the threads, feeling the world leak out around his hands, flowing backwards and forwards at once, into the void and out again; reality is battling the void and the void is battling back, fighting for the same strip of space and time. Steve gathers threads in armfuls and hauls them upwards, knits and knots and weaves until his arms are glowing blue and his chest is radiating like a nuclear reactor. The tesseract feels hot, burning: it’s come awake inside him, bright and sharp.

Things are starting to cohere a little—things are starting to take shape, he’s battled one far edge into something like a holding pattern—when the tesseract gives a mighty shiver, a tremor that almost quakes him out of the sky. He lets go and tumbles down across the tear, catching on every loose end; he grabs at a bundle of threads and hangs there limply for a second, clutching at the uniform over his heart. His whole body throbs. It’s like the tesseract is trying to tear itself free, shake him off. His eyes cross from the pain, and he rights himself, clutches harder at the threads. But there’s a dark shape growing in the sky overhead, the looming edge of the bigger tear. Something’s come loose, and now it’s circling like a feather caught on the wind. A piece of reality come unmoored. The world itself is coming off in pieces. He has to blink, looking at it. His vision’s not adjusting, or else—it just doesn’t look real, the way it slides across the boundless ceiling of his vision, the empty void. The great dark mass soars overhead and keeps soaring, and Steve tries to track the end of it, tries to make sense of the way it coils and—

—it’s not part of the tear at all, he realizes, with a kind of perfect coldness. The tesseract has gone still inside him like a block of ice: like a cube. It’s not part of the tear, up there; it’s not a flapping slice of cut-away reality. The shape becomes a soaring line, longer than the side of a skyscraper, wider than a river; its shadow blots out the light of stars. It opens its mouth, and the sound it makes strips the world away, strips the void away; Steve can’t even hear his own screaming. Behold now, Steve thinks, blank with terror. Behold now. Behemoth. In the midst of everything he can feel something familiar, a sensation laid as lightly as a line of chalk; a burning smell, a mist caught in his nostrils like faded, rancid perfume. The creature closes its mouth and tilts its great scaled head downwards. It looks at Steve.

Its eyes are red.

Now, it says, inside Steve’s head; it strikes the thought down like a hammer, beating on the softer surface of his mind. Now, the beast thinks at him. Now do you believe? A mouth the size of a yacht arches into a hideous, malignant smile, rippling with rows of teeth that are bigger than Steve’s arms. You fool, Schmidt thinks at him, through the creature’s terrible, ancient forebrain. To think that you could stand against me.

Steve unslings the shield. His hands only shake a little.

You have nothing, Schmidt hisses. No chance. No hope at all.

You just don’t know me very well, Steve thinks.

The leviathan darts for him, crashing towards the tears with surprising speed; Steve shifts light and quick and cuts upwards with the shield to slice at its enormous, reticulated eyes. It lunges away from him and back again, crushing him hard with the side of its jaw. He shifts again and misses on a long swing; the beast isn’t just huge but fast, liquid-smooth in its movements. It stops on a dime and tries to snap at him and Steve shifts away, out of reach, closer to its tail, trying to size it up. The beast loops around completely, making itself into a giant churning wheel, and spins for him. Steve ducks and vanishes and pulls himself through the void at tremendous speed; he surfaces by the head and strikes for the left eye a second time; this time he pops one of the jewel-like plates off with a crunch. It snaps away and floats off and there’s a jet of hot fluid gushing from the hole, clear and steaming and putrid-smelling. The beast shrieks and shakes its massive head wildly; Steve barely dodges the point of its nostrils, while it tries to batter him like a ram. It opens its mouth and roars again and Steve tries to shift to the right side, but it—or Schmidt, or both—is thinking more quickly this time, guessing he’s going for the other eye. It moves like light, like sliding ice: the beast feints and catches the shield between its teeth, crunching down on Steve’s wrist and shattering his forearm.

Steve screams and shifts hard, away, out of reach, doubling over into a ball; the leather straps of the shield drag at his pulverized limb unbearably, whiting out his nerves for a second. He struggles to slide the shield upwards, brace it tight against his side to protect his dangling, useless, throbbing left arm. Meanwhile, what must be half a mile away, the beast circles around like a tidal wave and rolls back for him, a grin peeled back in delight. Its long tail is thrashing at the tears in space, flicking at the seams he’s made, casually toying with the edges. It’s going to tear it open again, if he doesn’t stop it. It’s going to slide right through.

You first, it says, inside his head, as if it can hear his panic. You first, and then every living creature who resists me.

The beast ripples like the surface of water, gaining speed; it’s coming straight for him. Steve shifts further off, distracting it away from the tears, heading deeper into the void, but not so deep it’ll lose him. It flicks upward smoothly and chases after him, and Steve takes another leap, just barely staying out of its reach. He doesn’t know how far he’s gone but the darkness is growing on all sides; the void seems thicker, colder again. Steve looks out at the void, squints at the far-off stars and the mist of the closest nebula; his arm spasms and he grits his teeth. He doesn’t know how long he can do this, how far he can take it; if Schmidt tires of the chase and goes back for the tears, Steve doesn’t know if he can stop it. He can’t let that happen. He can’t keep running. That’s not how this works.

Schmidt’s almost on his heels; Steve can feel the cold fury of the beast at his back, and the returning warmth of the tesseract in his chest, warming his heart, down to his hands. Steve turns and watches the beast come: pounding, relentless, riptide-strong. And he has an idea. He holds his good hand out and feels for the surface of the void, the layers upon layers that form the places between worlds. He reaches for the next layer and finds—a gap. The tiniest gap. He fixes himself on it, thinks about water flowing through cracks, sunlight coming through a drinking glass, the nose of a plane dipping down through clouds. He feels his body begin to relax, his mind begin to slip. Like the moment before the shift.

The beast rages forward. It rears its head back to strike him, to swallow him whole—and Steve shifts into it, and the beast goes right through him, pulling through his body like a breath of wind.

Steve stays where he is, and the beast passes across him on another plane, all around him, engulfing him without touching him. But from inside the beast he can see the shape of things, the invisible forms of its true being: it’s like seeing Bucky’s golden tendrils, Howard’s jittery torch-lights. Here, in this transparency, poised inside it, he can see its terrible, ageless consciousness—a great stone-like mind, a wedge of granite, that’s been widened a crack. Schmidt slipped in and poisoned it: Steve can see plainly now, where there’s a thin trail of red lacing through the beast as it flows around him. Steve reaches for it, as if he were reaching for a tendril of light, as if he were grabbing at a cloud. He winds it between his fingers like one of the world’s threads, like catching a lover’s hair gently in his hands, like dipping into moving water to watch it trail and eddy. He curls around it. Finds his grip.

And he yanks, hard.

The beast screams and Schmidt screams and Steve shifts himself deeper, drags the line of red along with him like a kite string, until he reaches the tail-end of the beast and shifts back to the upper void with an audible pop, a burst; there is a tearing sound like the screech of an enraged hawk, the beast curling upward in agony, and Steve looks at his wrist, at the red mass gathered on his hands. There’s a pulsing curtain of—flesh, it seems like, some kind of ragged organic matter, like a sheet of scales torn from the creature’s back. The red of heart’s blood, a sickening color; Schmidt’s mist solidified and torn right out of the leviathan’s body. Steve can feel it seething, trying to latch onto his mind, trying to burn his skin away, to crawl inside. It’s desperate.

Du erbärmliches Geschöpf, it spits at him, inside his head. It’s oddly disjointed, fading in and out of range. It feels different. Like dragging it out of the beast by force has weakened Schmidt, destabilized him: like physically shifting him out has coalesced him, somehow, locked him in place, and now Steve’s torn him loose. Yanked him away. Steve can hear him in German and English, babbling obscenities, threats. Mischling! Destroy you—destroy your—bastard, verfault, son of a—you’ll fail, you’ll fail and die and I will rise

Curiously, the beast has gone mostly still. It ripples where it hangs in midair. Coiled and waiting. Steve raises his right arm, still grasping the mess of Schmidt. The creature raises its massive head, mirroring him—fluid still seeping out of its ruined left eye—and snorts once, like it’s taking in the scent. Its lips peel back from the horrible rows of teeth.

Schmidt falls silent.

Steve shifts a little further away and lifts his hand again, shaking the red mass a little, and listening to Schmidt’s whispered threats become—bargaining. Pleas. The beast ducks its head and sniffs and rolls forward, opening its jaws.

Here, boy, Steve thinks, and the beast makes a hideous face. Its mouth splits and its shining, depthless eyes narrow. He thinks it might be laughing. Steve shifts deeper, far away, and the beast races for him, chasing after the wreck of Schmidt’s torn-off consciousness, trapped in Steve’s grip. Schmidt shrieks and batters at him, tries to climb into his mind, but Steve holds him off, heading deeper and deeper into the void, further than he’s ever gone; far into the quiet dark, going past stars and fields of comets, outpacing them and dragging out of their trails. The beast stays on his heels, neck stretched like a thoroughbred’s, intent and hunting. Finally Steve reaches a chasm: a split in the void beyond which there is no light, a space so completely empty that it looks flat, matte like the surface of a canvas. Steve draws back and flings what’s left of Schmidt out into the darkness, hearing the dying shriek in his head, and then the beast sails past him, so close its scales almost sandpaper off Steve’s eyebrows as it goes by. It soars hissing into the dark after Schmidt, and there is a high-pitched animal scream as its great tail disappears into the breach, and then vanishes completely into the night of the world.

And then it’s just Steve, feeling the throb of his pounding heart and his broken arm, alone in the void for a million miles.

 

 

 

 

He doesn’t know how long it takes, shifting back towards the Moscow tear. Hour, or days. Or weeks. God, he’s not certain. It’s a struggle to go back, and it feels like the deep void is pulling at him. The tesseract has started to burn again, insistently, touched by the deep void. There’s something inside it that longed to sink into the darkness, too; a force that almost compelled Steve to follow the beast into the quiet. The tesseract is awake and keening. More than once he has to stop and pant and hold a hand tight over his chest, convinced that it’s ripping out and away from him. He doesn’t know what that means. He can’t think about it. He still has work to do.

But the tears are where he left them, and miraculously they look about the same size—still intimidatingly huge, and spreading, but not much bigger than they were before the fight started. Steve feels a surge of hope, a strange lightness. He slides the shield gingerly back down his arm—biting his lip to keep from screaming a couple of times—and secures it on his back again. There’s already a rip in the front of his uniform, where the beast’s teeth caught at him, so he rips it a little wider and tucks his left hand into it for a makeshift sling. And then he gets to work, one-handed. Knots and weaves. Pulls a strand free of a tangle and strings it upward across the gap. But it’s slow going. Slower like this. And for every repair he makes, another space seems wider when he returns to it. He looks across at the second tear and realizes it’s still moving outward, if slowly; even if he works at this for days, every moment will only bring more work. He has to get ahead of it. The tesseract burns in his chest and Steve rubs at it absently, thinking. He pulls his palm away and stares at the blue lines threading through it. He holds his palm up towards the holes, turning his own glowing lifelines, his threads, towards the golden threads of the world that are dangling free, damaged. They pull upwards and secure themselves with a snapping quickness, turning briefly to a radiant, brilliant blue.

Jesus, Steve thinks, surprised. He looks down at the humming tesseract, brighter through the hole in his uniform. You’ve been holding out on me?

There’s no answer, just a newly urgent humming: the tesseract has had a drink from the void, maybe. It feels restless. Caged. It’s trying to leak outward: maybe that’s what’s happening. It’s reaching outward and away from him, its human shell. Maybe it’s tired of being tethered to him. Bound to earth, bound in a body. Especially now that he’s been testing its limits, stretching his powers, waking it from a long, monotonous sleep. He skims the surface of the tears again, concentrating on pushing the energy of the tesseract outward, and this time it’s easier going. There are still knots in places, gatherings where he needs to dig his hands in, but the more he pushes the tesseract out, the faster things connect, the faster the holes begin to shrink. He’s feeling weak, lightheaded, but he pushes on. It’s working. He’s doing it. His vision starts to swim a little so he hangs onto some loose ends for a while and studies the pulsing blue veins of light in his hands. It’s like the tesseract is coming out of his fingertips drop by drop when he runs his hands along the seams in the world; like it’s a glue that is pulling the edges together, rearranging things back into place. It’s fascinatingly strange.

Steve works and pushes and works and knits and seals and slowly the holes become less massive, less gaping; slowly two enormous holes become a huge map of thinner points, networks of holes and solids, like a map of island chains. Steve strings them together and forces the tesseract outward, concentrating on sending it into the holes, drawing it further and further out of himself, no matter how hot it burns. And the holes begin to look like thin curtains, like lacework, like Winnie’s curtains blowing gently in the summer breeze; like the holes around the necks of Bucky’s undershirts, the way he always pulled them overhead carelessly, like—

—Steve drifts, and suddenly he’s floating, and he jerks back to himself for a second and grabs into the net of golden threads, disoriented. He can’t remember what—what he was just doing, why he was—but the tears, he thinks, and goes back to work, and pushes the tesseract energy forward, and on and on. He works and ties and works and ties and hums and the tesseract flows and radiates blue like the water under the boats in the lake, like the lake at Prospect Park, the boats and the ducks waddling at the water edge, begging for the ends of sandwiches.

He feels heavy: not his body but his mind, his self, weighted like an anchor, so he lets himself go for a second. Lets himself sink.

He can’t feel his arm, anymore. He’s not in any pain. He feels soft and weightless and forgetful, easy; he feels like he’s being warmed in a patch of sunshine, with soft light falling on his face. Steve blinks and smiles and reaches his right hand out to touch it, the small blue sun that’s risen in front of his eyes. It’s not round, this sun. It’s a—it’s a square, he thinks. It’s a square. He doesn’t know why it feels so familiar. He touches it and his hand is hot, shiveringly hot, like touching ice—and suddenly Steve shakes off the stupor, and realizes what he’s looking at. The tesseract. The tesseract is floating in front of him. He grabs at his chest but it’s gone. The blue light inside him is gone. The tesseract’s let go. The tesseract has let him go.

He stares at it, and again feels that strange pull from before—the deeper void sounding a note that has him longing to follow. There’s something out there, beyond the beasts and the pure starless dark, something much further on, and everything in Steve is pulled towards it for a moment, and the tesseract, too: the tesseract shivers and clicks gently, rearranging itself, stirred up like the surface of a cup of coffee. The tesseract is moving. It shimmers and starts to dissolve in front of Steve’s eyes; he reaches for it, but it’s already passing away from reality like a cloud. There’s nothing to hold. In another second there’s nothing at all, except for the faint feeling of warmth, and a need to blink tears from his eyes. Nothing but a residual gleam, a trick of the light.

It’s gone.

He’s all alone.

Steve glances down at his hand and startles. There’s thin threads of blue still stringing on his heartline, curled in his palm like a snipped-off thread. Something left. His right hand is glowing a little at the center.

He doesn’t understand.

If the tesseract was the source of his powers—the source of the shift, he thinks, wildly, waking abruptly out of his stupor like from a heavy dream, my only way home—he doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do. Doesn’t know what it means, this tiny gleam. This last piece. Enough to get back on, maybe? Enough to push himself through. To struggle back to the world. It might do. But—Steve looks up at the fabric he’s been weaving back together, the tapestry that’s formed itself back into being. It’s nearly whole. Nearly complete. Threadbare here and there, but whole. Starting to heal. Except—

—except for one last rip, a spot he didn’t finish. One last rip, tugging away at its own edges. Still jagged and angry. One place where the seams won’t hold.

Steve’s hand curls into a fist.

He doesn’t—he doesn’t want to be angry, but—but he is angry, suddenly, ragingly, in a flood of it. He’s furious. He tugs at his chest and tries to summon the tesseract up, tries to pull it forward, but there’s nothing, nothing but flesh and lungs and the meat of him, nothing but a human body, strong and fast and utterly helpless. He shuts his eyes to think but the backs of his eyelids only show him the void, the endless void, the curtains of stars. He opens them again and stares at the final rip, and feels everything leave him, the fury, the lightness. He hangs in the void for a long minute, weighted as a stone.

I don’t want to die, he thinks.

All that time he spent, feeling lifeless. And now I’m afraid. He is thinking of the pear trees, the stinging first frost that hasn’t yet come. The way the floorboards move when Bucky walks on them, barefoot, the way they sigh. The first time Peggy put her daughter in his arms. He is thinking of headquarters, the way it goes quiet sometimes in the afternoon when everyone is typing and Howard’s stopped cranking the generators just to see if—and Steve can stand in the hallway and listen to nothing in particular, close his eyes and be filled with the sensation of being inside a hive, a house of purpose and work; a moment when Steve can imagine his life to have both smallness and meaning. The feeling of pressing his knees to the soft underside of Bucky’s.

His whole wretched, strange, beloved life.

Steve raises his palm up to the final tear, runs his hands along its edges to be certain, to have the deftest twist of the threads ready. He only has one try left in him. He only has one chance. He steadies himself. He takes a breath.

Please, he thinks, through the hole in the world. Through the last window home. He can’t see the other side from here; just the light it gives off. Please, send me back somehow. Send me back as anything. As a bird that sings on his windowsill, but not too loud. Send me as a ray of sunshine that falls on him in the morning when the bed’s still warm; as someone who’ll always leave a newspaper in the booth for him at Harry’s. Please, send something. Send me back as a kindness. Please. Let me be something for him.

Steve flattens his hand against the threads, curls his fingers, and pushes—pushes the energy out of his fingertips and runs it along the tear, and it’s like being jumpstarted, like channeling a starburst, like exploding, like soaring a rocket through the—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Four days after the bombs there is a flash over Moscow at two-thirty in the morning, so bright the entire city is bathed in something like daylight for a full five minutes. It’s enough to wake people out of their beds, out of the emergency tents erected in the southern half of the city center, to raise them from their cots in the makeshift shelters; enough to raise farmers, eighty miles away, and lead them grumbling into the cold to settle the horses. It can’t be seen in New York. It’s too far away. There’s a telegram reporting it to SHIELD headquarters around two fifty-six. It’s dinner time in Manhattan. Peggy reads that one, makes several phone calls, and waits. There’s a second telegram that arrives three hours later. She doesn’t cry when she reads it. She’s been awake for twenty-two hours and she’s too tired to do anything but close the door to her office and turn off the lamp and sit there in the gathering dark of sunset, trying to feel anything at all.

When she goes downstairs she finds Gabe and Dugan first, and then Howard in the lab with five assistants, all of them bent double over an inhibitor casing and arguing with each other about the capacitor coupling. Howard glances up and then down again, and then raises his head slowly a second time, looking at Peggy’s face. He sets his soldering iron onto the bench.

“May I have the room?” she says, without raising her voice; Howard’s assistants look between them and scatter.

“Peggy,” Howard says, when they’re alone. “Did they—”

“Is Barnes here?”

“No.”

“Dugan said he’s been down here with you all week.”

“He is. He was. Disappeared around—oh, six-thirty, I think,” Howard says. He gestures at an empty stool; there’s a coat thrown across it. “Stood up and walked out. Like he had to be somewhere.” Peggy puts a hand to her mouth. She thinks that she might scream.

“It’s over,” Peggy says. “The tears are closed. They’re reporting no further disturbances.” For a second, she has to close her eyes. “He did it.”

“Peggy,” Howard says again. “Tell me there’s—”

“There’s nothing,” she says. “Nothing at all.”

“We thought that last time,” Howard says, heatedly. “We can’t make the same mistake. I’ll take the team over there myself.”

“You should.” They stare at each other for a long minute. “But you felt it, didn’t you.”

“I don’t—”

“You felt it,” Peggy says. “It was like a door locking.”

“I don’t know what I felt,” Howard says. But he puts a hand against his chest unconsciously as he says it, and now Peggy knows. “It’s unverifiable. Hindsight. Gathering facts to meet a theory.”

“It was him,” Peggy says, softly. “It was him. Oh, Howard, I don’t know how,” she says, over his halfhearted protest. “But we all went with him through that place, and we all felt something. I asked the others. We all felt it. At the same time. Everyone who traveled with him.” Howard looks stricken. “Only Barnes knew right away what it was.”

“Jesus,” Howard says. He sits down and stares blankly past her. “Jesus Christ.”

“You have to finish,” Peggy says. “His work at the bridge is holding, but we can’t—”

“No,” Howard says. “I know. I'm almost there. I’ll have it running in six hours. Probably less.”

“Good,” she says, and then falls silent.

“We have to find Barnes,” Howard says, after a while. “This kind of thing—he went off before, alone, but Steve would want—”

“We will,” Peggy says. “I will.”

“Jesus,” Howard repeats, hollowly. “Is this—is this just what we do? Clean it up? Mop up the pieces? And go on breaking them again, over and over?” He looks up now, meets her eyes. “Is this all we can do?”

Peggy thinks.

No. That's what Steve would say: Steve would say, no.

“No,” she says. “Not anymore.”

 

 

.

Chapter Text

On the morning of Steve Rogers’ second funeral, Rebecca goes back inside to find her mother’s heavy scarf—forgotten in the hallway between phone calls, draped over the banister in the place where they have all been leaving their coats and bags for thirty years—and finds the door to the little back yard unexpectedly ajar. The window is unbroken; there’s no sign of muddy footprints coming in, despite the heavy rains yesterday and all through the night. The door is just resting on the jamb, propped open by the latch. Rebecca pulls it open cautiously and stands in the open doorway, looking down into the little square of concrete and grass. She takes a single step down to scan across it. Winnie has rosebushes against the high back wall, and there’s a space to put the garbage cans against the house, but it’s not much more than that: just a piece of turf for patio chairs and the remains of the old brick fire-pit that her father had been so proud of.

The day is overcast and dark, still, at nearly ten o’clock; that’s probably why it takes her so long to register the body slumped over in one of her mother’s old-fashioned cast-iron garden chairs, the man sitting with his elbows on his thighs and his face hidden, doubled over, in a dark dress overcoat and cap and heavy boots. For a second she freezes on the top step and thinks burglar—escapee—call the police—and then the body makes a choked-off sob and buries its face deeper into its gloved hands, and Rebecca thinks, frozen solid inside, trembling: that’s my brother.

There’s no mistaking.

She doesn’t know how she knows, exactly; before a judge with her hand on the Good Book she’d never be able to explain what twitch, what sound, what sign, made her sure. But it’s Bucky. It is. Maybe it was the held-in gasp of his crying. He’d always felt the need to hide it from her, from their parents, and especially from Steve. Always from Steve. He’d cried into his sleeves once when he was ten years old, heartrendingly, after seeing a priest outside of Steve’s house during a frightening round of bronchitis. When Bucky found out he was only getting communion at home, he’d said something rude about getting Steve a cracker if he was so hungry, and Rebecca had swatted him, and on their walk home he’d said, “I was faking,” in a nervous, unconvincing voice. His fists had been tight in his pockets. Even if she’d wanted to—which she hadn’t, as a teenager, at all—she couldn’t have taken his hand. “I wasn’t scared,” he’d said.

Rebecca comes down the steps softly, like she’s trying not to spook an animal; she’s still holding her mother’s scarf in one hand but she’s forgotten it, forgotten everything, caught in the strangeness of the moment. How long has it been? It’s been forever: it was another life. It’s been since breakfast in nineteen forty-three. She can’t remember what they had to eat. Bucky came downstairs late with circles under his eyes and sat splay-legged at the table and devoured—eggs, it’d been eggs, scrambled, it looked like half a dozen of them—and then he’d put his hat on and kissed Winnie on the cheek and pinched Rebecca on the forearm and said not to wait up, but she’d caught him in the hall, her dark-eyed smiling brother, and seen the raw fear in him, the hurt at—at what, exactly, she didn’t know. At everything. At having to leave, at having no time, no time left: the hurt at knowing something none of them would be able to admit for years.

That he was never coming home.

Rebecca puts a hand to her cheek and finds that she’s crying, too.

“Bucky,” she says, and for a long minute the body doesn’t move; he sits the same way, slumped and boneless in that uncomfortable old chair; and then he scratches his gloved fingers across the back of his scalp, under his hat. He rubs at his eyes and sits up and turns to look at her, and Rebecca feels like she’s been hit in the stomach, winded, when his wet face turns up to hers and it’s—it’s Bucky, it’s Bucky, she can remember carrying him in her arms when he was three years old, curly-headed and giggling and always kicking his feet. Rebecca bursts into hysterical crying for a second and covers her mouth with both hands. He watches her with the whites of his eyes showing; something tight and hard in the line of his mouth. That’s different. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m sorry, I just—I didn’t think,” she says, and Bucky stands up, unfolds himself, and now she sees what Steve meant about him being changed: her brother’s big as a house, like something they took apart and rebuilt. He’s so much larger than her, instead of only taller and a little wider. He comes closer and opens his arms just a fraction, hesitantly, like he expects her to back away, and Rebecca lurches forward to wrap her arms around his waist.

She cries into the scratchy wool of his coat and after a second Bucky puts his arms around her, locks her in, and this at least is familiar: the encircling wall of his hug. He leans his cheek against the top of her head.

“Becks,” he says, in a voice that’s soft and raw, and she tries not to cry harder; she hasn’t been Becks in ages, she wasn’t ever going to be Becks again.

They stand like that for a while.

Bucky rubs at her shoulder blade and she digs her fingers into the back seams of his big coat; she can’t help running her fingertip along the edge like she’s worrying at one of her bracelets. Her hands always seem to need something to do. When her face is too hot she pushes back gently and he eases her away, keeps his hands on her elbows like he can’t quite let her go completely. Rebecca puts her hands to his cheeks and wipes at the tear tracks with her thumbs. His face is slightly grimy, now that she sees him up close. The coat is heavy and expensive-looking, right for a funeral, but he looks like he’s been sleeping rough. His eyes are bright and red-rimmed, but this is her brother. This is her baby brother. She can’t help but keep marveling at it. This is the little boy she used to lead around on a string. The man she’d barely gotten to know before he was gone.

“Mama said,” Rebecca starts, awkward now for some reason, in front of this fragment of a dream, “she’s heard you around upstairs lately.”

“Yeah,” he says, and his eyes dip down, and Rebecca thinks, with a flush of shame: he didn’t have anywhere else to go. She rubs at his arm.

“Good,” she says. “Good. Mama wants you here. You’re always welcome.” She tries to keep her voice from cracking a little bit. She needs him to know how sincere she is. All kinds of things have changed since forty-three, but not this. “We want to know you’re alright,” she says, and that was the wrong thing to tell him, maybe, because that hardness creeps back into his mouth, settles around his eyes. His face was never meant to set that way, she thinks. He was born for laughing. She thinks again about what Steve said: how they hurt him. Treated him worse than a dog, Steve said, that day, when Winnie was out of earshot. He knew Rebecca would need to know, would need to be thinking about—the practicalities. The limits of what love could do. She knew that, already. “You know what I mean,” she says, gentling her voice. “We want you warm and fed. We don’t expect anything,” Rebecca says. “We’re not asking anything. We only want you safe.”

He gives her a look.

“Steve,” he says, and trails off, shaking his head. “Told you things.”

“Some,” she says. “Enough to know that you might not ask for what you need,” she says, and Bucky’s face does a sad, ugly thing for a second, before he pulls out of her arms and turns his head so that she can’t look at him up close. “He was looking out for you,” she says. “You know he—” she continues, but then Bucky turns back and there is something dull and cold in his eyes, something hurt. She sees it now, the things they did to him: sees their echo for the first time. Their chill. “He loved you,” she says, abruptly. “He always—”

“If you have to say, like a—brother,” Bucky says, low and mean, “you—”

“Oh, Bucky,” she says. “No. I know,” she says, and his face crumples; when he squeezes his eyes shut, fat tears well out again. “Oh, Bucky,” she says, and pulls him into her arms. He gasps open-mouthed into her shoulder, like he can’t breathe, and she holds him as tight as she can. “Bucky, I know. I know. I love you. I love you.” She doesn’t know what else to do.

Nobody was there when her Paul died, nobody at all but orderlies and an old couple in the hall waiting to hear about their daughter. There was nobody there to take her by the hand and lie, kindly; nobody to say it was going to be alright. It had happened suddenly. She hadn’t even had time to go back inside and get her coat. It had been April, unseasonably warm, and the truck driver hadn’t tried to stop. He hadn’t seen Paul, and Paul hadn’t been fast enough: dear Paul, her merry old medic. Her husband, who always sang while he helped her peel potatoes, who sang at night to the radio, who sang in the morning while he got the babies dressed, so that she could leave for work on time. They are all of them widows now, all of the Barneses, her and mama both, and Bucky a widower too, all of them missing a shadow, a body, a strong pair of hands, warm space in the bed; a voice they’ll forever be turning to hear. Paul has been dead longer than they were married but she hasn’t stopped waiting for him to join in with Bing Crosby, to hear his beautiful tenor fill the ceiling. Will Bucky be the same? Will he turn around in the grocery store with a bag of dried peas and stare out into the empty aisle, wondering what on earth he was going to ask? Once you’ve had it, held it, known it with every part of you, can you ever stop missing it? Can you ever let it go?

Rebecca holds her brother, and wonders.

 

 

 

 

Bucky doesn’t go to the funeral. He wipes his face and goes quiet and tells her to go on without him, that he’ll see her there. And maybe he does: maybe he does see her, but Rebecca doesn’t see him. There’s nobody in the crowd that looks remotely like Bucky. Then again, between the press and the military escort and what seems like an entire office building’s worth of Steve’s drably-dressed coworkers—and Howard Stark, who’s probably never worn a drab thing in his life—there’s no guarantee that Rebecca would have been able to see Bucky anyway, even if he was holding a sign that said I’M STANDING RIGHT HERE.

Someone on the stairs says that there are two hundred people inside the chapel already, and two hundred more outside, waiting to watch the coffin go by. Rebecca thinks they might be underestimating. The crowd’s ten deep out there, all along the lengthy stretch of the driveway, and pushed into the churchyard besides. At least they’re not in Arlington. Apparently someone was nervous about digging up the last empty coffin to put a new one in, so they’re sidestepping the whole thing by putting him at Tilden Avenue. There wasn’t quite enough room beside the flat, tiny marker for Sarah Rogers and her poor soldier-boy, but they found him a spot close by. Rebecca feels both glad and unhappy about it. It’s where he belongs, that’s for sure: by his parents, in a green field that’s backed up by rowhouses, above Avenue D. But part of her is afraid of planting him in a spot so right. Afraid that now he’ll truly settle, truly sink into the earth and float to heaven, never to return. For Bucky’s sake, she is praying—without much hope—that he could pull the same trick twice. He came back, somehow, the first time, despite the pomp and circumstance and wrongness. Or maybe because of it. There was nothing particularly Steve-like about the twenty-one gun salute and the horse-drawn float covered in thousands of red, white and blue carnations and the tall marble statue they planted above his grave in Arlington, showing him raising the flag. He hadn’t ever carried a flag, she doesn’t think. He’d worn it. Their old neighbors used to say, God sends the cold according to your clothes, and God sent Steve winter after winter.

If he really has gone to heaven, though, Rebecca hopes he’s happy there, that he’s forgotten all his old aches and miseries, his long grief, his impossible personal standards. Steve was always a worrywart, sensitive, just like Rebecca in that way; he was constantly uncomfortable, but always looking to other peoples’ comfort first. A complainer on everyone else’s behalf, but never his own. For that, Rebecca always loved him. Like a brother. And it truly doesn’t matter what the Bible says about that business, or what people say it says: if Steve isn’t going to heaven then nobody else is, either. God would have to keep the loneliest house in the world to keep him out.

She’s still not sure—exactly—how Steve died.

Peggy Carter gets up and speaks for him, and her husband afterwards, both of them looking tired and serious. They talk about Steve’s character, his will to do right. They talk about sacrifice. They look familiar with it.

“Proverbs says, as iron sharpens iron,” Gabriel says, looking across the chapel, “so one man sharpens another.” He looks down into the front rows, where Winnie and Rebecca and Peter and Julia are sitting, and then across to where Rebecca knows the others were placed: Jim and his wife, who she’s never met, and Howard Stark and Timothy Dugan, and Gabriel and Peggy’s dear children, sitting quietly with their little hands folded in their laps. “Steve demanded only one thing of us—of all of us. Our best selves. And what he demanded, he gave.” Gabriel’s face is solemn, like a priest’s. “We are all better for having known him. In big ways and small. In ways we don’t yet recognize.”

It’s a beautiful service.

And there are plenty of people there to appreciate it. There are Russian dignitaries, in addition to all of the suited American officials; graveside, two of them struggle forward with a massive wreath of yellow lilies and place it over the top of the casket. They say something in Russian to Peggy Carter, who smiles and shakes their hands. Hopefully, Rebecca thinks, it’s something like “we have decided to cease all production of nuclear weapons and immediately declare global peace, and we are also opening a school for poor children called the Steve Rogers Academy,” or something else that’d be equally appropriate. She can dream.

After the coffin is lowered down the crowds start to drift away; the journalists scuttle after Stark and the Russian entourage, and the gawkers head for their cars, but Steve’s friends stay standing around the hole in the ground, looking strangely lost, like children who’ve strayed too far in Macy’s and are waiting for their parents to come and scoop them up. Like all of them expected—well, Rebecca knows what they expected. An interruption. A mistake, somehow. A miracle.

Winnie is a few yards away talking to Gabriel—patting his children on the head and exclaiming about how grown-up they look—and Rebecca is just staring out across the lawn, wondering if Bucky is in the disappearing crowd somewhere, when Peggy comes up to her elbow and touches it gently with one gloved hand.

“Have you seen him?” she asks. Rebecca shakes her head.

“This morning,” she says. “But not since. I don’t know if he came.”

“I don’t blame him,” Peggy says. “It was hard enough for me, the first time. I can’t imagine,” she says, and trails off. “Will you tell him something? Would you remind him that—he has friends,” Peggy says, almost awkwardly. Rebecca’s only a little stunned: Peggy’s always seemed like the most impressively composed person alive. Her hair never seems to be coming loose at the back because she fidgets with it. “Whatever he might think, he’s the furthest thing from alone. He has all of us. He always will. Should he need anything—anything at all—he shouldn’t ever hesitate.”

“I’ll tell him.”

“Please,” Peggy says. Her mouth makes a little twist, like it’s trying to smile, and can’t quite muster the will. “Steve considered you family. And—it should go without saying that—”

Rebecca puts a hand on her arm.

“It does,” she says. “Thank you, Peggy.” Now they both smile at each other, and finally Peggy huffs out a breath that’s nearly a real laugh.

“I just keep waiting,” she says, “for him to pop out and—Christ,” she says. “To forbid the banns, you might say. To make a fool out of us. What I wouldn’t give.” She dabs at her eyes. “I’m so sorry. I’m talking nonsense. I know, your husband—I’m terribly sorry.”

“I’ve had the same thought a thousand times,” Rebecca says. “I used to think—just around this corner. Just up this flight of stairs.” Her chest aches suddenly, and she makes herself grin. She hopes it doesn’t look too sad on her face. She was never much of a smiler: that was Bucky. “If you keep pretending you aren’t doing it, it mostly goes away,” she says. Peggy gives her a thoughtful look.

“You, just then,” she says. “Steve was a bit of a Barnes, too, wasn’t he,” she says.

“He was ours,” says Rebecca, shrugging. “We were his.”

 

 

 

 

It’s a very quiet Christmas; an even quieter New Year. On the news all they can talk about are the US-Soviet accords, the disarmament and trade talks that have been going on since the beginning of December. Apparently, Captain America dying heroically in Moscow was a bit of a kick in the pants for everybody. About time, Rebecca thinks. About time. Of course, Steve would be furious that it took the world almost ending.

But he’d be pleased, too. That’s something.

All through the winter Bucky disappears, here and there and back again, with no warning; Rebecca will catch him standing at the top of the stairs sometimes in the morning, when she drops the children off at Winnie’s, but he’s always gone before suppertime, often for days at a time. Once in a while he stays and sets the table and carves the chicken for Winnie, whose hands hurt more often these days, and they all eat together in the kitchen. Those nights are beautiful and strange: her children seem to have accepted with startling ease that their uncle, thought dead, isn’t. Rebecca warned Peter and Julia not to ask too many questions, but Bucky doesn’t seem to mind them at all; even if he does answer with half-truths, pleasant lies, or evasions that involve him telling sanitized old war stories. For the moment, they appear to think he was in the merchant marines. They keep begging to see his tattoos.

“Why else would he wear a glove all the time?” Rebecca catches Peter telling his friends. “I bet he has a big anchor or a flag, right here.”

“I bet he has a dancing girl all down his arm, with barely any clothes on,” says the shortest boy, Gregory Something-Or-Other; Rebecca makes a mental note to keep an eye on that one.

On a Saturday night in the middle of February the doorbell rings unexpectedly and Rebecca comes away from Perry Mason to answer it—but Bucky is there in the hall already, wearing a button-down shirt and a pullover sweater. He opens the door and Gabriel and Timothy Dugan are out on the stoop, carrying paper bags of canned beer and Chinese take-away. They look like they’re as surprised about being invited as Rebecca is surprised to see them, but they’re obviously trying to hide it with cheer. Both of them clap Bucky on the back and fuss over setting things up in the kitchen, and when they get deep into a convoluted card game Rebecca drifts away, back to watching television with her mother and the kids. There’s long bursts of laughter from the kitchen once in a while that make her close her eyes and tilt her head back and smile towards the ceiling, in hope.

Heavy snow comes in March, a late surprise; the schools close and Bucky drags Peter and Julia around until dusk on a neighbor’s sled. He is, at least for that day, their favorite person in the entire universe. Unlike Rebecca, they don’t pay any attention to the fact that he never seems to get tired; that he can pull two growing children in heavy boots around snowbanks for five hours without breaking much of a sweat. It doesn’t worry her, at least not when he’s doing things like sledding and working on rebuilding the wobbling back steps. It does worry her when he comes back bruised; when he’s gone for long stretches at a time and she stumbles across him sitting on the floor in the hall, barefoot, with blood under his fingernails. One night after Winnie’s gone to sleep early she finds him sitting blankly in his room, staring at an old copy of Treasure Island left dog-eared on the floor, with a huge gash across his naked chest that’s barely healed. There’s dark blood oozing through the scab. He’s been gone for weeks, this time. It’s nearly April. For a second he doesn’t answer to his name: he looks at Rebecca like she’s a stranger. And then he sits up straighter, wipes his face.

“Sorry,” he says, like it’s his fault that somebody—did that to him, hurt him, practically tried to murder him. “I’ll clean up.”

“For the love of God,” Rebecca says. “Go in the bathroom and wait.” He does, meek as a lamb. Rebecca has to stand in the dark and take slow deep breaths, and then she goes in and helps him clean up and sanitize it and wrap himself up. By the time he does, the wound already looks better. She wonders what the hell that means. There are some things Steve didn’t have time to explain. She supposes he meant to be there—to be there for this, for him. To help. Dear God, she wishes he was. “Are you going to keep doing this?” she asks. They are sitting on opposite edges of the bathtub, facing each other. Bucky’s head hangs low in shame; he hasn’t cut his hair in a month or so, and it seems he hasn’t shaved at all while he was missing this time. He looks like a mountain man. Like somebody clinging to the edge of a mountain, actually. Like someone barely hanging on. “I don’t know what you’re doing, Bucky, but it’s not helping you. What are you doing? Are you fighting? Is it—for money?”

“No. Jesus, Becca. I can’t fight— regular people.”

“Then what on earth—”

“I’m almost done,” he says. “Digging them out. The pieces.”

“HYDRA?” she says, in a whisper; Bucky nods. “Bucky, aren’t there—there’s whole agencies, teams, plenty of other people to—”

“They don’t know everything I know,” he says. He gets up and only barely winces at the tug of his midsection. “Don’t ask me to stop.”

“I am asking,” Rebecca says. “Bucky, stop. Stop tearing yourself up. Steve wouldn’t,” she says, and sees him flinch at that, worse than the wound. “It’s not what he’d want for you.”
He looks down at her.

“He wanted me to be free,” he says. “That’s what this is.” He doesn’t sound angry. He doesn’t even sound sad. His voice is colorless, featureless. Deadened. He frowns. “I’m sorry it’s so ugly.”

“He wanted you to be happy.”

“Well,” Bucky says; bitter now, turning, like a leaf. “He knows where to find me.”

He leaves again before Easter, and is gone for three entire weeks. In church every Sunday Rebecca looks up at the stained-glass window showing Christ in Majesty and thinks about what it would have been like if he had to roll the stone away Himself—to wake up in the grave-clothes and have to unwrap your own buried body; to stand up alone, alive, in the dark. On the first of May Rebecca brings all the grocery shopping inside, kicking the door shut behind her, and Bucky comes into the hall with his hair cut and his cheeks shaved and he takes the bags from her and puts the canned goods away.

“Are you alright?” Rebecca asks him. She pulls out a candy bar—the last thing in the bag—and slides it across the table towards him. “You look thinner.”

“Funny, I feel thinner,” he says. He unwraps the candy. He gives her half. They eat it in silence, and Bucky wads up the wrapper and puts it into the garbage bin, and then he sits in one of the kitchen chairs staring absently out of the back window for a long time. “We talked,” he says, out of nowhere, after Rebecca has finished stowing everything in the freezer. “A little bit. A couple of times.” She closes the door to the refrigerator and looks at him, waiting. “About another life,” he says. “About living a different kind of life.”

“Different than—”

“A quieter life,” he says, and looks down to where he’s fiddling with the edge of the tablecloth. The children are at a friend’s house. The glove is off, and his metal fingers catch light from the window. “A person’s life.”

“Is that something you want?” Rebecca says, quietly. The look he gives her would be unreadable, if she wasn’t his sister. He was never very good at asking for anything real, anything that wasn’t a dollar or a sandwich, prisoner of war or not. “Okay,” she says. “Then we have to help you get it.”

“How?”

“Bucky,” she says. “Since when am I the one with imagination?”

It’s more than a relief, to make him laugh; it’s a knot slipping free.

 

 

 

 

Bucky stops disappearing. They look in the paper for jobs, idly at first and then seriously, with a pen and notepad. He doesn’t know what he’d like to do. He knows what he’s good at, but, well. Rebecca thinks he ought to work for one of the bizarro science-fiction magazines he used to like.

“As what?” he says, incredulously. He flexes his metal hand. “A cover model?”

“As a copy editor,” she huffs. “You always got good marks in English.”

“I could work as a translator,” he says. His mouth does something funny; the thought must have just occurred to him, ambushed him somehow. “I could do that.”

“Plenty of call for Russian speakers, especially now,” she says, making a note. “Government work, maybe. You could ask Peggy.”

He doesn’t. Rebecca doesn’t push him. At least not yet. She tries not to say anything about being—proud of him, thrilled to see him looking at the future, however hesitantly. He doesn’t deserve the pressure of it. He has the rest of his life to decide how he wants to spend it. For the moment, he seems to want to spend it with them. He’s taking the children out more. Going to matinee movies with Winnie. Playing cards with Gabriel and Timothy once in a while. He’s even taken his turn in the kitchen a few times, making Sunday roasts the way their father used to: checking the oven too often and then carving the meat on the big wooden trencher-board that came from grandma Barnes. She’s caught him looking speculatively at the old brick fire-pit out back, like he’s considering how to build it back up again. She wonders if he’ll do it in time for June; if he’s starting to think about picnics and barbecues and the impending school break, the way that Peter and Julia are. If a little less obsessively.

She’s thinking about that—about summer, about the possibility of them all taking a trip together, down to the shore, or up north to the mountain campgrounds, someplace quiet and pretty and restful—one night while Winnie and the children are dozing to Lawrence Welk, and Bucky is in the kitchen doing the dishes. She’s dozing, thinking about rowboats and ice-cream and new swimsuits—Peter is almost four inches taller than last year—when there’s a tremendous crashing noise from the kitchen, the sound of plates clattering to the floor and cracking into pieces. Winnie sits up abruptly and the children startle, but Rebecca shushes them all and says, calmly,

“I’ll see if Bucky needs any help,” and goes alone to check on him. If he’s—blanked out again, for lack of a better term, like he did a few times before, she’d rather be the first into the room. But Bucky is leaning backwards against the pantry doors with his hand gripped into the fabric of his shirt, gasping like he’s been struck. His eyes dart around the room and land on her. “Bucky,” she says; she has to step over the fragmented ruin of broken plates and the dropped dishtowel to get close to him. “Bucky, what—”

“It’s Steve,” he says. His face looks stunned. “It’s Steve.”

“What’s Steve?” she says, carefully, and he lurches forward and grabs her wrist, shoves her hand against his chest, where his heart’s beating wildly.

“It’s Steve. It’s Steve,” he says.

“Bucky,” she starts, trying not to sound unkind or condescending, and the phone rings in the hall. Bucky lets her go and skids for it, smashing over the shattered dishes like they aren’t there at all.

“Peggy?” he says, into the handset. “Yeah. Yeah! Christ, yeah, just then. Did you—him, too?”

“What’s happening?” Rebecca calls, but Bucky waves impatiently at her.

“I think I know,” he says. “I think I know. I’m going now. Try to—yeah, soon as you can,” he says, and hangs up. “Rebecca, I need your car.”

“My—car?”

“Just come on,” he says, and snags her keys from the hook in the hall, already going to the mat to toe his boots on. “Come on, hurry.” He turns a slow circle in the hall and puts his hand in his hair, rubbing it like he’s confused, trying to clear his head. “Blankets? First aid kit? Ovaltine?” He looks at Rebecca and his face breaks out into the broadest grin she’s seen him make since they were teenagers. “I don’t know. I don’t know what the hell I need, what he’ll need, I don't know—come on, Becks, get your goddamned shoes on!”

“Where are we going?” she says, but she finds her shoes under Peter and Julia’s anyway, and pulls them on. “I don’t understand what this is about.”

“Steve’s back,” he says, radiantly, awed; his voice shakes. “Steve’s come back.” He flings the door open and goes down the steps and Rebecca’s heart drops into her feet. He’s—lost his mind, maybe? Or else— he wasn't getting better at all, she thinks, with fright. He wasn't settling into life. He was settling deeper into fantasy, into the thought that Steve could return, would return, that Steve was on his way. Oh, Bucky. “COME ON!” he shouts, from the sidewalk.

“Mom, what’s Uncle Bucky doing?” Julia says, from behind her. She’s rubbing at her eyes. “Did he finally go bonkers for keeps?”

“No,” Rebecca says. “He’s—and we don’t talk about people like that, Julia, we—just stay here, alright? Stay with grandma, I’ll be back in—half an hour,” she says, and it might be a lie, but she doesn’t have time for anything else. She has to go with him. She doesn't know what'll happen if he goes out alone. She scoops her light jacket off the rack and follows Bucky, shutting the door behind her. He’s already down the block and climbing into the driver’s seat; he starts the engine just as Rebecca yanks the door open and gets in.

“Took you long enough,” he says, and they roar out into traffic.

“Where are we going?”

“Montauk!”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” says Rebecca.

Bucky takes them down through Queens and towards the Sunrise Highway, passing cars furiously and weaving them through intersections like a stunt driver in a movie; it’s only the shock of it all that keeps Rebecca from screaming as they pass a series of trucks at ninety miles an hour by ducking into the opposing lanes. They go through Levittown and Farmingdale and Bay Shore in what feels like a blur. It’s a miracle that nobody pulls them over. On the way Bucky tries to explain it, the sensation that rocked him when Steve died— vanished, he says, when Steve vanished— and then again, in reverse, while he was drying the supper dishes, the electrifying current that filled him, made him somehow sure that it was Steve, Steve coming back. Steve alive and coming through and waiting for him, needing him somehow. “But why Montauk?”

“It’s where he came through the first time,” Bucky says. “I asked Howard about it months ago. He thinks there’s a—thin spot, is how he put it. That Steve coming through left a kind of mark. It might be enough to help him cross over again.”

“Bucky,” she says.

“I know,” he says, and grits his teeth, and smashes the gas pedal down a little harder; they rocket past a van and a trailer and a car full of gaping teenagers who were already doing seventy-five. “I know it’s crazy. But this is crazy,” he says, and raises his metal hand. “What Steve can do—that's crazy. It’s all crazy. Our whole fucking lives. I have to,” he says, and whips them around a turn. “I have to believe, he’s—I have to.” Rebecca considers it: considers what she’d do, how far she’d go, if she thought there was a chance—even an inkling. A feeling. A sign. She knows that she would drive to San Diego, to Mongolia, to the moon. She’d leave right now, without a bag, without a dollar in her pocket or a forwarding address. Without anything at all but a fool’s hope; without anything at all but deathless, unkillable love.

“Okay,” she says. She reaches across the bench seat and puts her hand over his flesh one. He squeezes back, hard. “Okay.”

But there is nothing and nobody at the beach in Montauk. Bucky runs the length of it, more than half a mile, until Rebecca loses sight of him in the dark. She can hear him screaming for Steve, and splashing into the shallows to make sure he didn’t stumble and wash up somewhere wounded or disoriented, helpless. Bucky goes into the brush and searches the rocks and calls for him for over an hour, until Rebecca is freezing even with a blanket from the car wrapped over her shoulders. There was a flashlight in the trunk and she’s been pacing the beach and the parking lot and the small shelter buildings while Bucky hunts everywhere. There’s no sign that anyone has been here at all, besides the usual Coke bottles and abandoned bonfires that kids like to make up. When it’s past midnight and they’ve struck out about as completely as anyone can, Rebecca tries to gently tell him that it’s time to go home.

“I’m not going anywhere without him,” Bucky says, Steve-stubborn.

“He’s not here.”

“Then I’m not leaving.”

“What are you going to do,” she says, bewildered, gesturing around at the empty, moonless beach and the thin horizons of city-light in the distance. “Sleep here? Stay here forever?”

“He’d wait,” Bucky says. “He’d wait for me.”

“I know, but,” she says, tiredly, and the sky splits in two.

 

 

 

 

At first Rebecca thinks it’s a nuke, we’re all dead, and drops flat to the sand in terror, waiting for the blast to incinerate her completely; when it doesn’t come she shields her eyes and looks up against the burning glare and sees a column of fire cutting down from the heavens, like a great fountain of shattered, shining glass. Bucky’s still standing up, watching it; she can tell that he shifted to stand in front of her on instinct, putting himself between her and the terrifying beam. But now he’s watching the light show in wonder, turning colors from the radiance of it. It’s frighteningly beautiful: like the dance of a candle, or the shimmer of a rainbow, in a concentrated ray of light that hums and thunders and pulses where it hits the sand. It’s brighter than moonlight but chaotic as a handful of marbles, spilling color everywhere.

And then it cuts off abruptly, and there is a tall figure out on the beach, standing alone in the dark. Bucky reaches down to give Rebecca a hand up, and by silent agreement—in almost the physical telepathy they used to share as kids—they both walk towards whoever it is, the massive shape barely silhouetted by starlight. Their feet hit something in the dark. When Rebecca looks down, she sees a scorched weave of—glass, is it glass, in the sand? In a complex pattern that her eyes can’t quite make out. She looks up, and her eyes have started to adjust a little. There’s a massive man, dark-skinned and hugely powerful—bigger than Bucky, easily—clad from head to toe in unbelievable, liquid-looking gold. He’s carrying a roll or a sack in his arms, almost like a rolled-up carpet; it can’t be heavy, from the easy way he holds it. He stands and waits for them to approach, but it’s only when they get closer that Rebecca sees the massive golden sword the man carries at his hip. It winks starlight as he walks, changing color like the beam of light that surrounded him, and the sight of it fills Rebecca with fresh terror. “Holy Mary, Mother of God,” Rebecca breathes, and grabs blindly for Bucky’s arm. “Bucky, Bucky,” she says, warningly, and pulls hard at his sleeve. She thinks—and it’s such an impossible thought, but she has it anyway—she thinks, he’s an angel, an archangel, not just any but the archangel Michael and his fiery sword. He came down in a ray of holy fire, what else in God’s name could he be?

But Bucky doesn’t pay her any attention; he shakes her off almost unconsciously. He’s fixated on the bundle in the man’s gleaming arms. The man in gold shifts what he’s carrying and suddenly she can see it, what’s caught Bucky’s attention so completely: the shock of blonde hair at one end of the bundle. The pair of pale pink feet at the other. Now she sees the lumps under the fabric are elbows and knees, the bundle is a body.

Rebecca sinks to her knees.

Oh, God, she thinks. Oh, merciful God. It’s Steve. An angel has brought Steve Rogers’ body back. It’s entirely impossible but she is witnessing it, she is witnessing an honest-to-Christ genuine miracle. An angel’s brought him home. Now Bucky will have at least as much as she did, at least this: not a cherished lifetime but a last chance to touch a cherished hand, a last kiss to a cherished forehead, a cold cheek. He’ll know, for certain, where that precious body rests. Oh, it’s so little. It could never be enough. But it’s not nothing. Thank you, God, Rebecca prays. Thank you, Lord.

Bucky doesn’t look like he’s praying. He stretches both his hands out to shoulder-height, demandingly. His arms don’t tremble at all but his jaw does, his whole face.

“Give him to me,” he says to the angel, unafraid, like iron. “Give him to me.”

The angel’s beautiful face makes a frown.

“I should tell you,” the angel says, kindly, in a resonant voice that reaches to her bones, “that he is—changed.”

Give him to me,” Bucky says, and then the bundle in the angel’s arms twitches and shifts, and lets out a low, breathy groan. Bucky and Rebecca both jerk like they’ve been electrocuted, and it would be hilarious, probably, if her heart hadn’t just stopped for a split-second and then started hammering twice as fast, if her insides hadn’t just whited out and then come rushing back to life. This can’t be happening. This isn’t— “Alive,” Bucky chokes out, just that word. His voice tilts up at the end, a question he barely dares to ask. He staggers where he stands, like his body’s taken one blow too many. “Alive, is he—”

“He lives,” the angel says. “He heals. He will need your—”

“Please,” Bucky says, raggedly. “Please, give him to me. Please,” he says, and the angel lowers Steve into his outstretched arms. It looks like Bucky takes his weight alright, but Rebecca gets up and rushes to help him anyway, to cradle Steve’s head; together they lower him to the sand, and now Rebecca can feel how hard Bucky’s shaking, how hard he’s struggling not to drop him, how his face is seizing with something between blank terror and unspeakable joy. “Steve,” he whispers, and it is Steve, without a doubt; Bucky pulls the blanket back and they stare together into his familiar face. It seems narrower and pale, like out of a memory, a glance over their shoulders at their old, shared life. He looks smaller, maybe. She can’t tell in the dark. Bucky leans down and cups Steve’s face in his hands, and for a second she thinks with mild surprise that he’s going to kiss Steve right there—in front of her and the angel both—but instead he just presses his face to Steve’s face, cheek to cheek, skin to skin, like he’s trying to meld them together. He murmurs something in Steve’s ear and Steve stirs a little without waking up, shifting in his wrapping, and then Bucky does kiss him, kisses his temple and then at the corner of his mouth, sweetly gentle and familiar, like he's done it a hundred times; like he is promising a thousand more. Rebecca looks up at the angel as he does it, to watch his face. Holy or not, if he so much as frowns, Rebecca will wrestle him up one side of Montauk and down the other, like Jacob. But the angel doesn’t bat an eye.

“I leave him in your care,” the angel says, when Bucky’s hauling Steve up again, telling Rebecca to get the car. Bucky looks up, startled, like he’d forgotten anyone else was even there.

“Thank you,” he says. “Thank you.”

“We will not forget,” the angel says, “that in defending your world, he also protected the borders of ours.”

“Good,” says Bucky. “That's great.”

For the first time, Rebecca sees amusement pass across the angel’s regal, impassive face.

“Perhaps it’s best we speak another time, son of Barnes,” he says, and Rebecca and Bucky are both opening their mouths to ask the same question when the beam of light strikes down again like a thunderbolt, pure and shining and magnificent, and when it’s retreated just as quickly as it came, the angel is gone. They gape into the dark like fish for an embarrassingly long time. And then Rebecca rubs her eyes and says,

“Bucky. Bucky,” and nudges him. “Did we just—”

“I’m not sure,” he murmurs. He looks down at Steve, curled in his arms. “I don’t know. Let’s get out of here.”

Rebecca drives back, not slowly but cautiously, the way she did when Peter and Julia were tiny things, helpless innocent babies with pudgy hands that terrified her in their delicacy. She drives them back on the Sunrise Highway before the dawn comes up, and when she looks into the rearview mirror she sees Bucky in the backseat with Steve held tight in his lap, Steve’s head supported against his heart. Steve breathes even and deeply and Bucky looks down into his sleeping face, reverent and tender, hiding nothing; content and adoring and justified in faith, like a received saint.

Back at Winnie’s they smuggle him upstairs and unwrap him and dress him in spare pajamas and put him in Bucky’s old bed. Rebecca notices with wonder that he is definitely shorter and slighter than he was last year, but taller and heartier-looking than he was in forty-one. Somewhere in the middle, like a strange reconciliation of two possible Steves.

“What do you think he meant, changed,” Rebecca asks in a whisper, kneeling at the foot of the bed. Bucky brushes Steve’s hair away from his forehead, smiling as Steve’s brow folds into a mild crease. He doesn't wake.

“I don’t care,” Bucky says.

“What if he’s not—or if he doesn’t know us, if he can’t remember—”

“I don’t care,” Bucky says. “If I’d never remembered him, he still would have been my friend for the rest of my life.”

“True,” Rebecca says, considering it, but they are saved from any more of that line of questioning when Steve sits up shortly after dawn and blinks and says,

Bucky?” in a raw, fuzzy voice, and Bucky turns white and buries his face in the blankets at Steve’s hip and Steve stares down at him in blurry disbelief and then slowly, slowly, puts a shaking hand to the back of his head. Right around then Rebecca excuses herself and leaves the door ajar and goes downstairs to make everyone something hot to drink. She makes her own cup of tea and blows across the top of it for a while before she tries to take anything upstairs. They need their own time. They will have a lot of things to talk about. A lot of things to be silent about, in wonder. More than anything, they will have each other.

Rebecca turns her wedding ring on her finger, and smiles.

 

 

.

Chapter Text

AUGUST, 1960

 

 

Steven Grant Rogers never comes back.

“Just as well,” Steve says, looking over the paperwork that Peggy’s laid out across the desk. “Think they’d make me refund the funeral?”

Peggy rolls her eyes.

“All I need is your new surname,” she says. “I can generate the rest myself. You can put down whatever you like.”

“Not the whole thing?”

“No,” she says. “You’re not a protected witness. We’re not trying to hide you. Not exactly. You’re—forgive me, but Steve Rogers is officially dead, and you officially don’t exist yet. Using your own first name isn’t going to raise any flags.” She makes a face. “Don’t change it, please. I’ll never be able to get your attention across the room again.”

“Ah," Steve says. "That's—"

“Steven Undecided,” Peggy says, warningly.

“It’s not undecided,” Steve says. “I’ve got it. I need your help with something else.”

In the end it’s an easy decision; the only natural choice. He’ll always be his parents’ son. Nothing can change that. But the truth is, he’s not the same boy who scrambled off to war; not even the same man who returned from it. Not completely. He’s older, which doesn’t count for much in some people; more importantly, he’s had the chance to truly examine his priorities. If you asked him right now where he belonged; if you put him to the question this minute, where he was meant to be, who he belonged to, he wouldn’t hesitate. It wouldn’t take him any time at all.

“Let’s see—oh, hell,” Bucky says, standing up in the hall. The chair legs squeak as he rises. He must have gone out for a sandwich while he was waiting for Steve to fill out all his forms in triplicate; he smells like oil and vinegar and fresh bread. He comes towards Steve, wide-eyed, and stretches his flesh hand out to ruffle through Steve’s hair. He combs it out with his fingers curiously. Steve’s glad it’s getting late and there’s nobody around in their offices anymore; not because it’s incriminating, but because it’s mildly humiliating. He’s about an inch shorter than Bucky now and trying to ignore that fact most of the time. It honestly doesn’t matter, and in certain ways it’s actually wonderful, but it’s still not easy for him to think of height as an entirely neutral value. Especially when someone—anyone—is patting the top of his head. Well, anyway. It’s alright. Steve came back different, not perfect. His pride survived the trip. “Did Peggy do this to you?” Bucky asks, petting the freshly-dyed hair back into place. It’s a warm, subtly reddish chestnut-brown, just a shade or two lighter than Bucky’s—Peggy helped him pick a color that could pass for natural. It looked alright in the mirror when he was finished, but it could be different under the hall lamps than the bathroom vanity. He’s not sure. Bucky seems surprised by it, but not put off. That’s a start.

“Did it to myself,” Steve says. “Well, mostly. You know how long you have to sit with this stuff on? I'm surprised women don’t commit more murders.” Bucky grins and Steve plows ahead, trying to squash his nerves if he can’t settle them. “You think it’s alright?”

“It’s different,” Bucky says. “It’s fine.”

“Could you get used to it?”

“Sure,” Bucky says. “I’ll get used to anything you like.”

“Okay,” Steve says. “Remember you said that.” He hands Bucky the folded-up copies of his forms; stops himself from rubbing at the back of his neck or covering his hands with his face or running down the hall out into the street, all of which seem like good ideas. This is the craziest thing he’s ever done, including the stuff with the leviathan; their friends will all know why he did it. He won’t be able to pretend any different. Strangers won’t have any idea. He can lie and say they’re cousins, if it comes to that. They wouldn’t be the first who tried it. But all their friends will know for sure. It ought to scare him. But it just doesn’t feel like such a terrible thing anymore. It almost feels exciting. Hell, only about a dozen people know that he’s alive at all: only the ones they know they can trust. “Just tell me if it’s—too much, or if you think it’s a bad idea, if it’d—cause problems for us, if anyone—because I can just as easily—”

“Steve,” Bucky says, in a strangled voice.

“It can be Buchanan instead,” Steve says, hastily. “Or anything else. It’s your name, so just say you don’t—” he says, and without warning Bucky grabs him by the lapels of his jacket and hauls him forward, hungrily. “Oh,” Steve says. “You,” and then Bucky’s leaning down that inch to press his mouth hard over Steve’s. He kisses Steve like a teenager, clumsy in his urgency, in a way he never is anymore. It’s thrilling. Steve hangs on for dear life. Christ, there’d really better not be anybody in the hall, Steve thinks, from the stratosphere.

There isn’t.

Bucky kisses him and wraps his arms around Steve’s waist and then lifts him bodily into the air, turning him around in a half circle with his face in Steve’s neck, before he drops him and kisses him stupid one more time, his mouth hot and red and beautiful as a rose, as the garden of Eden. Okay: Steve really, fiercely, doesn’t mind being just that tiny bit smaller. It’s damn convenient. Bucky strokes Steve’s face with his thumbs as they break apart. He’s smiling. “So,” Steve says. “That’s—okay with you, then.”

Bucky shrugs; shiny-eyed, falsely nonchalant. His pinked-up mouth is trembling.

“I’ll get used to it,” he says, and the son of a bitch actually squeaks when Steve pinches the meat under his arm.

 

 

 

 

They’re staying at Howard’s place across the river for now; it started out as a quiet, secure location for Steve to get his footing back, like it had been for Bucky last year, but now their stay is looking increasingly indefinite. Howard doesn’t seem to mind. He keeps pretending casual resignation to the whole set of circumstances—shrugging, saying it’s alright for now, what’s a man to expect when he has houses to spare—while in reality he’s been following Bucky around for a week admiring his upgrades to the security protocols and talking eagerly about a solar-driven irrigation system for the back garden. Solar cells are Howard’s new obsession: he wants to turn the building downtown into a giant solar battery, keeps talking about something called a sun farm. He seems to be starting his revolution right here. It also didn’t escape Steve’s attention that someone has bought a new barbecue grill without being asked. Peggy has been referring to the house as Howard’s End.

“I feel like you’re laughing at me when you say that,” Howard says, over the top of another gin rickey. They’re all sitting on the back porch, Howard and Bucky on the steps, Steve in a wicker settee and Peggy situated closest to the tray of mixers. She’s had a very grueling spring. The real Soviet diplomatic entourage, apparently, just loves New York. “I’m just not sure in what sense.”

“Read the book,” Peggy says.

“It takes place mainly in drawing-rooms, doesn’t it,” Howard says. Peggy raises an eyebrow. “Hard pass, Peg.”

Steve closes his eyes and listens to them talk, to the musical rise and fall of their voices. He’s tired sometimes, still. Less and less every day. It’s not a weariness of the body. It’s an exhaustion of the mind. He drifts. Far away; as far as he ever shifted, maybe further. Sees things in his dreams that he can’t put a name to. Strange places. Foreign moons. Asleep, he passes through the veil of the void and beyond, through the velvet dark, the thunderingly heavy hearts of stars. Sometimes it happens in daylight, too: he’ll be sitting in a kitchen chair or lying upright on the sofa, and he’ll begin to relax and let his mind drift, and time will pass, and he’ll find himself staring at a pitted rock beneath his feet, at a plateau of red sandstone shearing into cliffs, turning his face upward to bask in the brilliance of a green sun that turns his insides to golden, shivering fire—and then Bucky will touch his cheek and Steve will open his eyes and blink and realize he’s been gone for hours, wandering the surface of worlds he’s never walked. His body stays behind, now. The shift is gone. He is firmly tethered to the world in one way, and set loose in another. Sometimes he wonders if he isn't seeing through the tesseract's eyes, somehow, still. Wonders if they are connected by this last, dreamlike thread. Whatever causes it, it’s alright. It doesn’t come upon him suddenly, the way the spells of shifting used to: it only happens when he’s calm and lax and willing to set himself aside for a while. He’s not sure if he can aim it, direct it, the way he could when it was a physical movement through space—but maybe, with practice, he could.

Peggy hasn’t asked him about it. He knows she knows. But she hasn’t pushed him to develop it, the way she pushed him about shifting. She’s told him a lot about their negotiations with the Soviets—SHIELD has truly entered the peace business, to everyone's surprise—but she hasn’t said a word about reinstating him, or even hiring him on as a consultant, even under the new name. She does keep asking him to come over for dinner or meet them at the shore house. It took Steve a few weeks to realize it, but now it makes sense: she’s tired of him dying on her.

And it’s definitely why, after the private doctor she arranged declared him healthy, she tried to nix the idea of doing further physicals. But Steve had insisted, so instead Howard and Bucky ran tests on him at the warehouses, sometime after Bucky’d finally stopped brutally mothering him and started chafing at Steve’s cabin fever and stubborn complaining. Stress tests on the treadmill proved his heart and lungs were in peak condition, which hasn’t ceased being a relief. The first time after Moscow that he looked down at his own slimmer and oddly familiar arms and legs, he’d been coldly terrified that somehow the tesseract—or whatever rebuilt him this time—had reverted him to his original settings. But he's not only fit and healthy. He's abnormally so. They’d left him alone on the treadmill for a while, sure he’d stop when he got tired, but he didn’t. Get tired. He drifted mentally as he ran and watched a comet soar through the upper atmosphere of a wildly beautiful alien desert, and when they came and tapped him on the shoulder and startled him out of his reverie he’d run about seven miles. He did a hundred and fourteen pushups before Bucky got bored and told him to quit it. Howard wired up a foam block to test his relative punching strength, and Steve went right through it. He’d stared down at his slightly bonier hand in wonder. He doesn’t know what he still has this strength for, if it’s not to fight. If it’s not to do the work he was made, trained, to do. But he’s willing to find out what else it’s good for. He owes Bucky that much. And when he’s feeling especially positive, he thinks he might owe himself that much, too.

“Hey,” Bucky says, and Steve almost knocks his own drink off the edge of the settee. Bucky’s leaning over him, one hand resting on the arm of the seat; behind him, Howard and Peggy are arguing cheerfully about the energy summit coming up in September. Howard wants a sequined kick-line dressed as yellow suns. Peggy wants him to duck his head in ice water. “Earth to Rogers.”

“You sure?” Steve corrects, sotto voce, and Bucky’s face goes soft. He ducks his smile and pokes a metal finger into Steve’s thigh.

“Yeah, yeah,” he says. “You go anywhere special, just now?”

“Nah. Just thinking.”

“About?”

“We ought to have a picnic,” Steve says. “Right? Before all the kids go back to school. We could have it out here. Plenty of room.”

“Oh,” Bucky says, and chews at the inside of his cheek, thoughtfully. “Yeah. Could do.”

“Be nice to do it before we leave.”

“Sure,” Bucky says, absently, obviously already starting to scheme, deploying seasoning rubs and cold egg salads judiciously in his mind; it takes him a second, but then he gives Steve a double-take. “What?” Steve smiles at the face he makes, the little wrinkle in his brow. He can’t help it. Bucky is really the most interesting person to look at in the whole world. “Where exactly are we going?”

“Don’t know,” Steve says. “Thought you might have ideas.”

“You want to go away?”

“Be nice to travel without anybody shooting at us,” Steve says.

“Well,” Bucky says. “We’ll stay away from Texas.”

“I’ve heard it’s a beautiful state.”

“Jesus,” Bucky says. “Fine. Yee haw.” He picks up Steve’s wobbling drink and sets it on the side table, muttering to himself. “They won’t know what hit ‘em.”

When Peggy and Howard have gotten into the car and headed back to the city Bucky takes the glasses inside and comes back for Steve, who’s started to fall asleep on the settee in the late afternoon sun. His limbs feel heavy as lead, but not in an unpleasant way; he feels like he has become the tree that he once anchored himself in. That he has put down deep roots in this time and place. That his dreams of sleeping beneath gold leaves—fluttering overhead, turning steady sunshine into glittering mist—have all come true. The breeze on his skin gives him the sensation that he is touching cold groundwater, drinking from the streams that run through earth and rock. “Huh,” Bucky says, smoothing Steve’s hair over his scalp, like he’s petting a cat. “You a poet now, too?”

Oh. He didn’t mean to say it out loud.

“Peggy asked me the same thing. Years ago.” Steve turns his face up slightly and Bucky leans down without prompting. He lingers, mouthing dry little kisses over Steve’s cheeks, his eyebrows. Sometimes Steve can see how afraid he is, in the cracks, the margins: he believes that Steve is really here, that this isn’t a dream that will destroy him when he wakes from it. But he’s clearly not taking it for granted. That makes two of us, Steve thinks. He might be Bucky’s miracle, but Bucky is his. Bucky is, will always be, the thread that pulls him back to life. “I think she thought I was being dramatic.”

“Who, you?” Bucky says.

 

 

 

 

At the barbecue Steve talks for a long time to Gabe’s cousin Charlie, who is in his second year in the engineering program at Howard University. “He said I had to stay away from Mr. Stark,” Charlie says, while he’s shaking Steve’s hand. “Or he’d corner me about my catalytic converter project for the whole afternoon.” There’s a noise from across the yard; somebody knocking over a punchbowl.

“Excuse me,” Howard says, scrambling to pick up tableware scattered on the grass. “Excuse me. No, my fault. I thought I heard somebody say—”

“Have you seen the orchard?” Steve says, steering Charlie away by the elbow. “Let’s take a walk.”

They circle around the pear trees and Charlie talks and Steve listens, and when they come back Charlie excuses himself to get a hot dog and corral his sisters, and Steve finds Gabe by the grill, locked into a debate with Bucky over the merits of dry rubs versus marinades for pork.

“Steve,” Bucky says, pointing a pair of tongs over the lid, “tell this man—”

“Not a chance,” Steve says.

“I told you,” Gabe says. “I told you, the best—”

“I'm not taking a side here,” says Steve. They both frown at him and then shake their heads, muttering to each other about some people’s low standards. Steve could be irritated with that but he isn’t. More than anything he’s happy to see them bickering again for fun, the way they used to sometimes on long dull watches. Bucky went on living while he was gone; nothing could make him gladder. “Are there more burgers coming?”

“Yeah, in a minute.”

“Did Howard catch up with Charlie?” Gabe says. “I swear to God, if he makes another offer about him leaving school early to work on flying cars—”

“No, I took him the long way around,” Steve says. “But.”

“I know.” Gabe sighs and bites into a piece of steak. “Charlie wants to build a cleaner engine—”

“—and Howard wants to write him blank checks,” Steve says. “There are worse things.”

“Jesus, don’t I know it,” Gabe says. “He tell you about the business at their sit-ins?” Steve nods. “I figured he would.”

“He said the student organizing committee is working on something new,” Steve says. “And I told him we were pretty fair hands at sitting down or standing up or marching on orders, whatever he needed. I know I said I wanted to travel, Buck. Is Virginia alright, to start?”

"You know me," Bucky says. He slides the spatula under the burgers and flips them expertly, one by one. “Hate Nazis. Like sitting.”

“It’s not going to be like Bonn,” Gabe says. “Don’t forget that. Those kids don’t hit back.”

“Neither will we,” Steve says. "We'll play it exactly how they want it." Gabe gives him a thoughtful, assessing look. “I promise you. We’ll follow their lead in everything.”

“Huh,” Gabe says.

“What?”

“Just don’t know how I’m supposed to feel,” Gabe says. “I love that kid. So I guess I’m glad Captain America is going with him. But then again, so is Steve Rogers. Maybe I got a right to be nervous.”

“Shit,” Bucky says. “That's true.”

“There’s no Captain America anymore,” Steve says.

“No,” Gabe says. “No Santa Claus, either. Just an idea." He takes a drink. "But an idea is worth something.”

“You're right,” Steve says, suddenly. It’s so clear to him. It’s shining through him like a searchlight. He feels shocked awake with the plainness of it: how simple it is. How obvious. “Somebody has to take it.”

“Take it?” Gabe says, bewildered. Gabe and Bucky stare at him, and then each other. “You mean—”

“A new Captain America,” Steve says. “Another Captain America. Somebody who deserves it. They found me at a fairgrounds, for Christ’s sake. We could find the right person. Think about it," he says, urgently, leaning across their little card table stacked with rolls. "Maybe it’ll be a Polish kid, this time,” he says. “Or— one of Charlie’s classmates. Somebody who can love this country without being blind to its faults. Without pretending.” He looks at Bucky. “A tenement kid. A Jewish fella. A queer.”

“A woman,” Peggy says, over his shoulder. They all turn to look at her. “Not that I'm volunteering.”

“But not to go to war,” Steve says. “Not just a mascot for another war. Somebody whose job will be peace.”

“And justice,” says Gabe.

“And justice,” Steve agrees. “What do you think?”

“I’m for it,” Bucky says, quietly.

“I think it’s a wonderful idea,” says Peggy.

“It’s not like we can advertise,” Gabe says. “Kind of disqualifies you to want it.” Peggy hums her agreement and takes a bite of potato salad. “How do we find them?” Bucky says something about starting fights on DeKalb and seeing who shows up, and Gabe suggests Lenox Avenue instead, and Peggy is starting to hover somewhere between laughing and looking like she’s itching for something to take notes on. When Steve turns to look up at the house he sees that Howard has found Charlie after all, and they’re deep in the middle of something that involves stacking rolls in a scaffolding formation on the buffet table and arguing about the placement of a lettuce leaf on top. Winnie’s been comfortably installed on the settee on the porch, talking with Gabe’s sister; Gabe’s littlest niece is sitting on the edge of the porch giggling at Dugan, who is eating deviled eggs delicately off a paper plate perched on his knee. Rebecca’s carrying more ice out in a bucket; she smiles at Steve when she catches him watching, and empties it into one of the big Coleman coolers that she brought over for them yesterday. The sun’s high and the air is hot and breezy; the whole yard smells like sunshine and smoke and cut grass, and Steve shuts his eyes for a second and feels the flat warmth of light on his face. Caroline and Michael are playing tag with Peter and Julia, all of them looking sweaty and rumpled by now, their pressed shirts wrinkling in the heat. Julia shrieks when Caroline swipes at her and barrels down the path towards the orchard with her arms up in the air and Peter doubles over laughing and Caroline swipes for him too, and then Peter is It and they’re all going in a circle again, skidding between the trees and out of sight.

“I think they find us,” Steve says. He looks back at Bucky and Gabe and Peggy. “I think if we’re paying attention, we’ll see them a mile off.”

“A nail sticking up,” Gabe says. Peggy smiles at him and nudges into his hip.

“A squeaky wheel,” she says.

“A blockhead,” Bucky says, teasing, under his breath. And then, steadily: “Somebody who tries.” He looks at Steve and something passes between them, like Bucky’s seeing him and something further-off at once: the smaller shadow behind him, maybe, and the taller one, too. His handsome eyes are made beautiful with it, with whatever’s lighting through his mind: Steve can see the truth in them, legible as printing, the letters tall and clear. It takes his breath away. When God looks down on the swaying branches the sparrows must feel like this: adored, in their insignificance. Safely catalogued to the pinion feather, the smallest brilliant claw; awake and alive and stirred to love, like summer wind. He came back for this, Steve knows now. He came back for this: to be worthy of it. To live every day, reaching for it.

To live.

“To them,” Steve says, raising his beer. “Wherever they are. To their fight. Hope it's cleaner than ours.” Gabe and Bucky clink their bottles against his, and everyone drinks.

“Hear, hear,” says Peggy, and leans in to kiss his cheek.

 

 

 

 

 

DECEMBER, 1967

 

 

“No, it’s the right one, I’m afraid—Caroline, for the third and final time, turn that down. Did you hear me, Steve? I’m afraid that’s the proper address. Is there a problem?”

“No,” Steve says. “Not exactly.”

“Do you need a hotel?” Peggy says. “I’ll find you a number.” In the background he can hear a guitar solo soaring through the house, something high and tremulous over a droning beat. “Do you need me to ring— hang on, Caroline!” Peggy shouts, sounding barely muted, like her hand’s over the receiver. The wail of the guitar dips down, and Steve hears Peggy exhale hard into the phone. “I can ring Jacques. Now that he’s rejoined civilization.”

“Civilization might be stretching it,” Steve says. “But no. We’ll manage. Thank you, Peg.”

“Steve,” she says. “Steve! Don’t hang up.” Now there’s laughter behind her; Gabe and Michael’s, raucous and happy. “It’s Steve,” she calls, and the voices get closer, questioning. “No, no. They’re descending into the wilderness, I think. Yes, of course in France! Oh—I’ll explain, just come and say Happy Christmas. Caroline, come down and say Happy Christmas to Steve and Bucky!”

There’s a little flood of joyous shouting; Steve has to put a hand over his mouth to cover the hugeness of his grin. He glances out of the payphone nook and out into the otherwise-empty bar; Bucky’s leaning over his drink and nodding at something the lone bartender’s just said.

“Buck,” he says, and Bucky looks up smiling. “They’re saying Merry Christmas.” Bucky smiles wider and cups his hands around his mouth.

“Merry Christmas,” he calls, and the bartender makes a little shout and tips another tall shot of something dark and licorice-smelling into his glass.

“Joyeux Noël,” the bartender says, vehemently, and takes a pull right from the bottle.

“We’ll see you at Howard’s, won’t we?” Peggy asks, on the other end of the phone. “For the new year?”

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Steve says. “I know he wants to show off the moon rock.”

“NASA’s at their wit’s end with him,” Peggy says. “And Charlie. Command already knows they’re going to insist on a cosmonaut again as the third man.”

“Isn’t that the point of a joint space program?”

“Sure,” Peggy says. “Officially.”

“Plus ça change,” Steve says, dryly.

“No more shop talk,” Peggy says. “Are you having a wonderful time? How was Paris?”

“Better than we remembered,” Steve says, but then he thinks about the Champs-Élysées at night in the snow and says, “Beautiful, Peg. It was beautiful. Bucky’s been humming cabaret music for forty-eight hours straight, I think.”

“Oh, I envy you,” Peggy says. “Tell me, have you heard of Pink Floyd?”

“Uh,” Steve says. “I think so. They’re in Buck’s magazines.”

“Excellent,” Peggy says. “Tell him I’m sending Caroline to you next summer. They’ll have a lot to talk about.”

“Sounds good,” Steve says. “Love you, Peg. Love to everybody.”

“Happy Christmas, darling,” Peggy says, and hangs up.

Steve slides back onto his stool next to Bucky and finishes his liquor for him; the burn is caramel-dark and herbal, warm and bitter in his throat but sweet on his tongue. If they were alone he’d let Bucky chase the taste of it against his lips; he settles for sliding a hand onto Bucky’s thigh, out of sight under the edge of the bar, and feeling Bucky’s legs slide open just a fraction wider, watching Bucky’s smile heat.

“So,” Bucky says. “That’s the place?”

“That’s the place.”

“Huh,” Bucky says. “Fixer-upper.”

“Yeah,” Steve says. He ducks his chin and smiles. “You know all about those.” Bucky watches his face and watches the bartender too, out of the corner of his eye, careful like he always is, and then he angles closer to Steve’s ear and says,

“Nothing I ever wanted to fix,” he says, low and easy. “Just to keep.” The bartender turns to shelve glasses and Bucky presses a quick kiss on the shell of Steve’s ear, light as a snowflake.

They have another drink and walk back to the farmhouse in the dark, their breath ghosting up into pale clouds. The sky is starless and soft; the only light is from the half-moon, wreathed in ethereal fog. A light snow is falling, half-flakes and half-mist, and the countryside is beautifully shapeless under a foot and a half of white. They come off the deep tire-track path in the main road and turn onto the unplowed gravel path that leads up to the house. The house itself appears slowly, from behind a screen of frosted cypress trees. It’s a shambolic, ancient, rubble-stone house with too many gables, irregular and charming and ringed in overgrown gardens. Their electric lantern is hanging from a hook under the eaves, glowing faintly as a beacon; they left it there before they turned back for town to call Dernier and Peggy and make sure they hadn’t copied the directions wrong. “Home sweet home,” Bucky says, and unlocks the heavy wooden door.

It’s cold inside, and dusty; there’s nothing in the galley kitchen but a long crooked table and the crate of tinned food they brought in this afternoon. When they tested the water pump it ran rust-red and then clear, freezingly cold and metallic-tasting. Bucky had shrugged, unworried, and said, “Thanks, HYDRA,” and taken a long drink from it anyway, cupped in his hands like he was dipping from a stream. Now they walk through the kitchen and into the main room in the dark, with their coats still on. There’s a pot-bellied cast-iron stove against the central wall, left with the door hanging open. There’s only ashes inside.

“Did you see firewood anywhere?” Steve says.

“There's a lean-to out back,” Bucky says. He nudges the stove with his foot. “You think you can manage this beast, city boy?”

“Laugh if you want,” Steve says. “But if I burn the house down, we’ll be warm.”

There’s dry wood in the shed, and matches in one of the kitchen drawers; the first one doesn’t strike, nor the second, but the third blazes just fine, and with a little newspaper Steve manages to get one of the logs to catch. There's some funny business with the chimney, but somehow he gets it sorted and waves the smoke out through the kitchen door. In half an hour the stove’s getting hot enough to throw warmth into the room; when Bucky comes back in with a third load of firewood he kneels down and shucks his gloves, grinning. He holds both his hands palm-up towards the stove, flesh and metal, even though only one of them ever really feels the chill. He stopped acting like they were very different a long time ago. If he still worries about their asymmetry much, he doesn’t say. He touches Steve with both of them like they belong to him; like Steve belongs to him, too.

“You're a regular Mark Trail,” Bucky says, admiringly, and rubs his hands together. “I stand corrected.”

They find old-fashioned candle lanterns in the downstairs cupboards and put them around the room; Steve tacks a moth-eaten blanket over the doorway that leads into the hall, to keep the heat in, and drags the least offensive mattress downstairs to set into the corner. There’s clean but stale-smelling blankets in the linen closet. By the time Steve’s finished, their makeshift bed’s looking almost appealing. He drags a chair in front of the fire and waits for Bucky to come back inside from whatever he’s doing out there; clearing a better path to the shed, probably. Steve sighs and leans back and folds his hands over his middle. Shuts his eyes. The house isn’t what they expected; when Dernier called up out of the blue, just before they left for Paris, he’d offered the old family homestead up to them for the holiday weekend as a quaint pastoral retreat. It’s clear now that they should have been listening more carefully. Jacques doesn’t actually believe in retreating.

Steve drifts for a second, finally comfortable and starting to feel sleepy; alcohol hasn’t worked on him since nineteen forty-two, but the fire’s crackling merrily and the warmth of the liquor is still in his throat, and there’s something about the smell of musty sheets and old wood that’s drawing him backwards in time, with sensations too familiar to name. It’s been so many years since they were scrabbling to live. So many years since the last time they truly went hungry, since the last time they bled; but the taste of it will never leave Steve’s mouth, not completely. Like salt. It gives savor to everything: to cracker crumbs and laundry day and balancing the checkbook. There is nothing he isn’t grateful for. He’s meditating on that and circling the cosmos, starting to slide into the deeper black that marks one of his traveling spells, when Bucky pulls the blanket back from the doorway and yells, “Take a look at this!”

Steve startles upright and watches Bucky bring in a hulking wind-up Victrola and set it on the floorboards. The crank is loose, almost falling off, but when they lift the wooden lid the insides look fine, even nicely preserved.

“You think it works?”

“I think we ought to find out,” Bucky says, and goes back through the blanket into the kitchen; he returns with a crate full of records, half of them much older than they are. “What would you rather,” Bucky says, holding two up. “Enrico Caruso, or—”

“Oh, Buck, look,” Steve says. He pulls a sleeve out of the crate. “What about this?”

“Goody,” Bucky says. “Germans.” But he puts the record on and dutifully winds the crank, and after a second O Tannenbaum starts warbling out of the old Victrola, tinny and faint at first and then swelling to fill the room. The sound crackles and skips but the voices are pure and steady, dipping to sway into heavy bass notes that rumble the speakers. They sit curled in the blankets and Bucky plays it again, winding it carefully and sitting back to pull Steve against his side, resting his cheek on Steve’s head. Outside the snow is starting to coat the windows, but for now it patters against them gently, the only other sound in the room besides the old carol and the fresh, hissing fire.

“Merry Christmas,” Steve says.

“It’s tomorrow,” Bucky says. “Don’t wear it out.”

“Merry Christmas,” Steve says, poking Bucky’s chest. “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas.”

“Jesus Christ.”

“Coming right up,” Steve says. Bucky laughs and Steve closes his eyes and squeezes his arms tighter around Bucky’s middle, feels the laugh resonate through the flesh of his body, the thrum of his heart. They promised not to be stingy with their happiness, years ago. They promised not to spend every moment hedging their bets, softening their own landing: being scared that it could end. It ends, of course. Someday. But until then they have to be glad of it, safe with it, trusting. They have to make it count. “You want me to whip something up?” Steve asks, nuzzling into Bucky’s shoulder. “We’ve got tinned ham and pineapple, which if you think about it—”

“I love you,” Bucky says.

For a second Steve just—just doesn’t make himself do anything. Doesn’t make himself say anything back right away, just lets that feeling pass over him: a flash of pins and needles for a second, before the spread of giddy, radiating joy. He always used to feel embarrassed about those pins and needles, but he doesn’t anymore. He used to think it was wrong of him, that Bucky’s love could make him shiver, but now he understands. He spent so many years dreaming about it that he was afraid to meet it awake. It awes him, still. And every time. Bucky doesn’t say it often. The way he still doesn't ask for certain things, unless he really needs them. But he says it enough. He says it in everything he does: every touch, every look, every time he rolls over in the night and wraps his arm around Steve and tucks his face into the back of Steve’s neck and mouths a kiss while he’s still mostly sleeping. He says it in the way he stirs a half-teaspoon of sugar into Steve’s coffee, in the way he fucks Steve breathless and kisses him searchingly and pours his heart into their life. In the way he slips out of bed in the morning still, sometimes, to sit on the floor against the edge of the bathtub and look at nothing for a while: the way he leaves the door open, now, always, so that Steve can come and sit with him.

In the morning when pink dawn sits on the horizon they’ll make love in this ratty little bed, sweaty and grinning and slow, and afterwards Bucky will put on an ancient jazz record and get Steve to dance—he can dance now, if Bucky leads, swinging him around the room with a strong hand on his waist. They'll make ham and eggs for breakfast and he’ll give Bucky the present he smuggled along in his folded-up underpants in the bottom of his rucksack, and then knowing Bucky they’ll make love again, and sleep until the sun is high. At some point they'll trudge into town to call ma and Rebecca and walk back marveling at the silent beauty of the fields, rendered softly into chalk sketches under the weight of untouched, crystalline white. There are a million worlds past theirs, Steve knows that now. There are shores and skies and mountains beyond measure. Broad tidal seas that pull at his memory. He can’t remember passing out of the world and back into it; he doesn’t know if there was a choice, a moment when he could have set himself loose into the endless brightness of the universe, to see the impossible, forbidden places that he only glimpsed before, shedding all of this forever. He doesn’t know. He doesn’t think so. It wouldn’t have mattered. He will only ever want this world: this place, this life. It’s had its share of horrors for them. And there’s no promise that they’re over: only a shield of fierce hope.

“I know,” Steve says. “I love you, too.”

On the Victrola the singers split apart in harmony and the horns sigh, and the snow falls, and the world is still.

 

 

THE END

 

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