“You are just their type,” she says. She crosses her legs at the ankle and looks up at them. “You’re a hero. They love a good hero. Do you know Orpheus or Heracles? Just -” She taps her pen on the application form in front of her. “A word to the wise? Don’t mention Pirithous.”
Steve shifts from foot to foot. “Thank you, ma’am,” he says. He feels foolish, coming here dressed in full Captain America uniform, as though America means a thing to these people. She purses her berry-red lips and then she smiles.
“What did you say your name was?” asks Clint, completely bedazzled.
“I didn’t,” she says. “You wouldn’t remember it anyway.”
Clint just nods, smiling rapturously, and Natasha folds her arms across her chest. She does not look impressed and, if Steve didn’t know better, he would think that she’s nervous.
“You don’t need to sign anything yet,” says the receptionist. “You’ll meet with the C.E.O. and she’ll review your case and then negotiations can begin in earnest.”
“What do you think our - my chances are?” asks Steve.
“Oh, honey,” she says and her smile is sharp and blinding. “I think the C.E.O. is gonna eat you all up.”
The huge, mahogany, double doors swing open. She looks at them and, for the first time, her expression slips slightly. It’s not fear, Steve thinks. It’s something worse.
“You’re up, darlings!” she trills.
Steve leads the way, flanked by Clint and Natasha, who fall into step as naturally as if they were, all three, striding to commandeer a Quinjet or lead a charge. They’ve been told what to expect. The problem is that they’ve been told what to expect by a variety of people, whose experiences have varied from the bizarre to the fictional. Stark claims to have slept with the C.E.O. when she was on a break from her husband. The C.E.O. has also claimed to have slept with Stark, according to word on the street and according to Gods on the street (according to Hermes and Pheme who are, more or less, their word).
When he sees her, Steve can see that the C.E.O. is just Stark’s type. She’s tall and beautiful and her eyes are steely grey. She’s dressed in grey, too, in a knee-length dress that shimmers like night and half-light, and hangs just so on her hips. Steve Rogers is only a man and, with a start, he raises his eyes.
“Captain Rogers,” she says, extending her hand. He doesn’t know whether to kiss it or shake it or drop it like a poisonous snake. Her skin feels strange under his fingers. He shakes it firmly and makes definitive eye contact, the way his mother always taught him.
“Ma’am,” he says. “May I introduce-?”
“Ah!” she says, clasping her hands together. “Your two lovely sidekicks. Mr Barton, a great favourite of my sister Artemis, even if your female companions do rather confound and, dare I say, anger her.”
“Ma’am,” says Clint, his voice shaking slightly because he is only mortal, for all that he prays to Artemis before every battle.
“And Ms Romanova,” she says. She draws herself up to her full height, which seems a great deal taller than it was scant seconds ago. “A favourite of my sister, Athena. Like Mr Barton here, she loves spiders, or perhaps she loathes them. One can never tell. We might ask Arachne but-?”
Steve hopes he is imagining the near-inaudible squelch he hears from the darkened corners of the room. Natasha does not tremble, her chin raised and her posture as perfect as ever.
“Ma’am,” Steve says. “We’re here - I’m here because-”
“Oh, I know why you’re here, Captain Rogers. We are not omniscient but there is only one reason a living mortal petitions me. You have a friend -” Her eyes narrow. “Ah - a lover? That is it. Oh, Aphrodite would be so pleased to hear of it. She thinks that love is dead. As though she knows anything of death!” She gestures at the double-glazed windows. “It has been strangled by smog and semi-automatic weapons, she says.”
“By that reckoning, ma’am, love must have died out during the time of Brunel,” says Clint, his eyes narrowed as he watches her lips move.
There are peels of laughter, silver like bells, like molten metal sticking to the spine. “Mr Barton, we did so love the industrial revolution, down our way. You are a wicked man.”
Steve shifts his weight slightly so that he is leaning towards Clint. I am here is all he can think not to say.
She walks over to Natasha, Clint forgotten for a moment.
“Why have I not seen you before?” she asks, softly. “You have lost.” She stops and hums. “Itsy-bitsy spider-?”
“I have not lost,” says Natasha, staring straight ahead.
And now Clint. All of his faith and all of his waywardness and still there is no one Steve would rather have at his side at a time like this. (Sam speaks with eagles and Zeus has no part to play in the Underworld and if Peggy was of Eos, then Sharon is of Selene and there is no light in the deep, dark places).
“And you, Mr Barton. Your parents-?”
“No great loss.”
“Oh my. And your brother-?”
“I don’t mean to be rude, ma’am, but I’m here with the Captain, on account of his loss.”
They all hold their breath. Maybe, outside the window, Manhattan holds its breath too, for a moment. She laughs, again, the same spine-digging-dragging sound.
“Of course. The Captain. A hero for the ages.” She comes to a stop in front of him and now they are eye to eye. “Tell me about him, Captain. This lover of yours.”
Steve swallows. “His name is James Buchanan Barnes, ma’am. We weren’t - I mean, we never-?”
She laughs. Oh, she laughs a lot. Too much for a woman of such power, as though every mortal concern is a mild amusement and nothing more. “All the better,” she says. “The path to true love, et cetera, ad nauseum, just ask my husband-”
Steve doesn’t know if this is true love but it is devotion and it is a deep-seated need that has brought him to the Upper East Side. He can see Stark Tower from here because only Tony Stark has the hubris to build a city block to rival those of the gods. It is fortunate that he walks hand in hand with Ares and Hephaestus (more than Aphrodite has ever managed.)
“How do you know that he is dead?” she asks. “So many avoid our land for longer than expected.” Steve could swear that her gaze flickers briefly towards Natasha. “Your - your Jamesbuchananbarnes fell into a pit of vipers, didn’t he? Some of them are quite blessed with longevity.”
“Yes, ma’am. For the longest time. I was - indisposed or else I would have -”
“Yes, yes,” she says. “We all know the story. Brave Captain America, sleeping in ice while the world changes around him. We waited for you, you know. It is rude to keep us waiting.”
Steve swallows. “With all due respect, ma’am, yours was the path I intended to take.”
She smiles, then, and it is dazzling. Clouds part and the sun splinters through. She claps. “But come, I keep interrupting. How do you know that your lover is no longer in the above world?”
“We found his body, ma’am. A cryochamber malfunction, or that’s what Pym says.” Steve isn’t quite sure of the specifics. Not enough cold goo or too much of it, but Bucky was dead and Steve cannot remember the moment they pried the body out of his arms. He thinks that someone may have sedated him. He thinks he did not let go willingly.
“Do you know when this malfunction occurred?”
“No, ma’am,” says Natasha. “But we have reported sightings of the Winter Soldier as recently as two years ago.”
He cannot be gone long, thinks Steve. He cannot be lost in the Underworld yet, just because his body was cold.
She stiffens for a moment. “The Winter Soldier?”
“Yes - yes, ma’am. That’s his codename,” says Steve. He does not like the change in her tone.
“Oh,” she says. “Oh.” She puts her hand over her mouth, thoughtful, worried. “I have heard of him. He -” She lowers her hand. “He has been a great favourite of my mother. She despises all living things during the winter months but he has been as cold and cruel as she could have wished.” She hums thoughtfully. “They call me Winter but it is all my mother’s doing.” She walks over to her desk and leans back against it. “I suppose you have heard the rumours?”
“Rumours?” asks Steve. He has not been awake in this century long enough to pay much attention to rumours, much less those involving the gods and goddesses who shape the contours of the earth (and then pull it out like a carpet from beneath his feet).
She waves a hand, something neglectful in the gesture. “Never mind, then. Never mind. Ignore any reports of demigodlings.” She smiles. “To be fair to my mother, she does not actively engage in paternity suits. Usually, her brothers are less than subtle.”
Steve is stunned. “Will - will your mother present a problem?”
“Not in the retrieval, as such, but if you are successful, well. A little bit of healthy competition never hurt anyone, right?” She goes quiet for a moment. “Apart from Hyacinthus, poor dear.”
“Not wishing to hurry you, ma’am, but-”
“Well, time is of the essence, I suppose. The dear little shades can wander off and get ever so tangled. Tell me, Captain Rogers, why I should give you this chance.”
He stands up straighter, his heels clicking together, and he is a perfect soldier, though he is an incomplete man. “There’s that myth, ma’am-”
“Myth, Captain Rogers-?”
He flushes. “I’m sorry. There’s that lesson, about how we all were born with, well, a soulmate, I guess, and Zeus separated us and scattered us.”
She nods, as though hearing this for the first time, and clucks her tongue sympathetically. “Well, it sounds like the sort of thing he would do.”
“It’s not that I think it’s that way for everyone? I mean. Some people have no one, I guess, and some people have more than one but - it’s that way for me. Bucky’s my - he’s my guy.”
“So you think that you can waltz in here and take him back?”
“Well, ma’am, that’s kind of what I was hoping, yes.”
She looks amused. “You know that what - who you bring back may not be the same?”
“I read the fine print, ma’am.”
And now a mildly irritated expression crosses her face. “And that’s even if you bring him back.” She look at him, gaze sharpening. “Do you have payment?”
“Yes, ma’am,” says Steve, as firmly as he can. He lifts the shield off his back and holds it towards her. “This - this is my offer.”
Her eyes gleam, even as Clint and Natasha murmur in surprise. She takes the shield, running her hand around the rim. “Well, this is a treasure indeed. Captain America’s totem.” She holds it close, her arms wrapping around it as though it is a precious child. “Will the world know you without it?”
“I certainly hope so, ma’am. It’s going to have to.”
“Cap,” says Natasha. “You - ”
“Stand down, Agent Romanov,” says Steve, softly.
“And the ferryman,” she says. “What do you have for him?”
“It’s kind of hard to come by oboloi these days,” Steve says.
She tilts her head to the side. “It’s a hazard of having a closed currency. I think that you’ll find our exchange rate to be very competitive.”
“Do you take American Express?”
“All major credit cards are accepted, of course.”
It’s that easy. Can it really be that easy? The receptionist comes in with a card machine and swipes Steve’s SHIELD-issued card. He doesn’t baulk at the cost. He wonders if an alarm is going off in the depths of the accounts department. He finds he doesn’t greatly care.
“If you’ll come with me, Captain Rogers,” she says. “We have a long way to go.”
Steve looks at Clint and Natasha and they seem as startled as he feels. “Now, ma’am?”
“Well, yes. No time like the present. Lethe will show your friends out.” She smiles at Clint and Natasha. “This part, he has to do alone. You understand-?”
They do. Of course they do. They’re a team but they live in a world of individual heroism and individual madness. They live in a world where heroes are still adored by the gods.
“Cap,” says Clint, clasping Steve’s shoulder. “I dunno. Go git him, tiger?” He smiles at Steve and it is that faith and Steve is almost certain that Clint will pray to Artemis, just as he is almost certain that she has no use for Steve Rogers or Bucky Barnes, beyond the thrill of any hunt.
Natasha reaches up and hugs him. “You better come back soon, Cap, or Stark’ll do something dumb to bring you back and it’ll be - well. It’ll be messy.” She pulls back then and looks up at him, so solemnly. “You sure about this?”
Steve shrugs and gives her a smile. “It’ll be fun.”
He does not know how convincing he sounds but he walks towards the far end of the room where there is an elevator. He assumes that they are going down to a carpark or something but the bank of buttons on the elevator wall is overwhelming.
“There aren’t that many floors in this building,” Steve says. The digits and symbols on the buttons make very little sense to him. They aren’t numerical, or Roman or Cyrillic.
“I did say we have a long way to go, Captain Rogers,” she says, and she presses eight of the buttons in sequence and the elevator starts to descend.
It starts, and doesn’t stop. They’re at ground level. They’re below the level of any subway. The elevator keeps descending. Steve’s ears pop.
“A hero once got the bends in our elevator,” she says. “But you are made of stronger stuff, I think, sink or swim.”
Steve looks at her and he smiles. “I intend to swim, ma’am.”
“Then I must introduce you to my rivers, Captain. In their natural form, they are entirely becoming.”
Steve knows a little about her rivers; the one of pain and the one of lamentations and the one of burning. Only a fool swears by the Styx and then Lethe; oh, there is something about Lethe but it has slipped his mind.
She is looking at him.
The elevator keeps descending.
He shifts from foot to foot.
“You must love him very much,” she says. “To come all this way.”
“It is no more than you do every year, ma’am,” he says. He doesn’t know why he says it. It feels like a dangerous thing to say to this woman, of all women, who is no sooner love than she is life.
She smiles, though. Her lips curve up and she inclines her head. “A point well made, Captain. Tell me. What will you do with him if you get him back?”
Steve frowns. “I - well. It’s his choice, ma’am. I’d hope that we might be partners again-?”
“Every hero’s sidekick is his partner, did you know? I wonder what the sidekick thinks. If there is such equality of feeling.”
“I can’t speak for Bucky,” says Steve, at last. “But he’s always been the bigger man-”
“If not the better?”
Steve wonders if all goddesses can read minds or if he is just that transparent.
The elevator comes to a stop. The doors open to reveal a murky passageway, lined by craggy rocks, which look wet in the flickering torchlight. He does not think it is water. It is not cold down here and he half-expected it to be.
“To the right,” she says, from the elevator.
When Steve looks, a shelf opens to reveal four coins, misshapen and green with age.
“The Ferryman appreciates generosity,” she says. “But he abhors charity.”
Steve doesn’t understand but he takes the oboloi and puts them carefully in a pouch on his belt.
“Remember, Captain, when you find him and you lead him out, do not look back at him.” Her lips curve into a smile that is not kind. “A schoolboy error, I think you’ll agree, but it happens more often than you’d expect.”
Steve takes a deep breath and nods. He clicks his heels and snaps a salute and the elevator door closes. He’s briefly plunged into darkness and then rows of torches flare into flickering light, illuminating his path, damp and downward.
He reaches the pier, which is ramshackle and wooden, and there is a boat, waiting.
The Ferryman doesn’t speak much but he bites down on one of the oboloi and nods, satisfied. Steve gives him two coins; one for his safe passage across and one for his safe passage back. There is a third for Bucky and a fourth for good luck.
The Ferryman grunts and they push off. The Styx is slow-moving and wide. Steve knows there are two rivers to cross.
“You’ve caught a live one, Charon,” says a voice, laughing and rough and hanging in the misty air.
“They never learn,” says Charon.
“What’s he bringing?” asks the voice. “Hey, mister, what’re you bringing?”
“Just myself,” says Steve, cautiously. It’s always been enough, if it has ever been enough.
“He’s taking,” says Charon. “The Lady sent ‘im.”
“Taking? Well, I never-”
“He paid good money,” says Charon. The Ferryman is loyal to his Lady first and his coin second. He is not loyal to Captain America but Steve feels grateful all the same.
The River Acheron flows faster than the Styx, and a great deal louder, with blood-curdling screams, but a thick mist still hangs over everything. Steve cannot see beyond his nose.
“Some people say this ways leads to hell,” says the disembodied voice. It is mischievous and delighted. “You have friends there, maybe?”
“In hell?” asks Steve. “No,” he says. He does not think he has friends in hell; he thinks that is where Johann Schmidt is, and Amin Zola. He thinks it is where the Winter Soldier is, except that he is not Bucky Barnes.
The boat shudders to a stop and Steve steps out onto a rickety wooden platform.
“Welcome to Hades,” says the voice. “I’ll be here all week.”
“Leave him alone,” choruses another voice or three. “Leave him to us, Hermes Psychopompos. He is not dead.”
“Captain Rogers,” says the first voice - Hermes, it seems. “The Erinyes.” Steve has the sense of the voice leaning in closer, companionably. “Do you know what that means, Captain?”
Steve swallows. “The Furies-?”
“The Avengers. Just as well they don’t care about copyright, am I right?”
“Everyone’s a comedian,” say the Erinyes. Steve wonders why they are so interested in him. Perhaps they can read his mind or his expression through this devilishly thick fog.
“You have sworn an oath,” they say.”So has he,” they say. “Not without you,” they say.
Steve starts to walk. It is all he can do and he wonders what the Furies look like, and Hermes, too. He wonders why they are following him. They must seem a strange procession indeed, if they can even be seen through the mist.
“Do you know where you are going?” asks Hermes, after Steve has been walking with great determination for ten minutes and the only sounds have been those of his heart pounding in his ears and the near-silent beating of the Furies’ wings.
“To find Bucky,” he says. That’s his only truth.
The ground beneath his feet is a little slippery and then the mist is gone, suddenly rolling back, miles and hours to where Acheron screams, and Steve is in a cavernous space. He cannot see a roof and he cannot see walls. There is something growing beneath his feet but it is not grass or any moss that he recognises (as though a Brooklyn boy would recognise green and growing things in the Underworld).
A heavy arm is thrown around his shoulders.
“Hiya, buddy boy. Listen, if you’re looking for a dearly departed, you might be able to head him off before he sees the Judges. Depends how, uh, accepting he is and if he paid the Ferryman. We got a lot of variables here.” Hermes is beautiful, like any god, with a wide smile and no sense of personal space, like any god. “It’s like the procrastination Olympics round these parts. Unless you’re a goddamned saint, if you’re dead, you’re gonna be dragging your feet.
“Don’t worry, pal,” says Hermes. “They’ll be back if you fuck up, you know? Swell dames but they’ve got a temper.”
Steve turns and the Furies are nowhere to be seen. They must have departed with the mist.
“Why are you staying? Are you - helping me?”
Hermes takes a step back and looks shocked. “Me? Helpful? Wash your mouth out, soldier!” He shoves his hands into his pockets and scowls. “Come on, there’s a lot of ground to cover and the Lady likes to protect her interests.”
They walk together, though Steve’s not sure if Hermes’ feet ever touch the ground, and he wonders if he has offended Hermes.
“What’re you gonna do if you get hungry?” asks Hermes after an hour or two of stony silence.
“Not eat anything here, that’s for sure,” says Steve. He has some protein bars with him but he can go a long time without food or water or rest.
“Good answer, guy,” says Hermes.
The shadows grow longer and darker. The silence grows less and it is not that Steve can hear breathing but there are whispers, from those who have forgotten what it is to breathe, and shadowy fingers reach out and there is a thick grey fog circling around Steve’s lower legs. Hermes is definitely floating now, his toes barely dipping in the fog.
“Save us,” says a croaky voice, near Steve’s ankle and the refrain is carried. “Save us,” echoes and reverberates and it is all Steve can do to keep walking. The ground feels different and he resolutely does not think about what it might mean when there are squelches beneath his feet. The groans and calls become louder and louder and Steve glances at Hermes, whose unconcerned expression isn’t remotely comforting.
The shadows rise higher; they’re now up to Steve’s thighs. “Save us,” rises the cacophony and he doesn’t know if this is insanity. He can’t save them. He can’t save any of them.
“I’m sorry,” he mutters. “I can’t - I can’t save you.”
The moans grow louder and more desperate and he wonders, suddenly, if he knows any of these shades, if they were brothers-in-arms or HYDRA foot-soldiers.
“I’m looking for Bucky Barnes,” he says. “Is Bucky here?”
“Bucky,” says the nearest shade, enunciating the name carefully. “Bucky.” Again, it is a refrain that is picked up and carried, a choir sighing Steve’s own hymn.
Steve keeps walking. He thinks there is a light ahead but that might be wishful thinking.
“You’re not the talkative type, are you?” asks Hermes, over the clamour. “Strong and silent? I totally dig. You’re the Lady’s type, too. Guess that’s why she likes you.”
“Hey, Steve! Steve Rogers!”
Steve heart trips over itself as a shape emerges from all the other shapes. He thinks it might he a woman but he’s not sure.
“Hello - hi?”
“Captain America. Wow, I never thought - James talks about you all the time. I’m - I’m his sister.”
Steve swallows. Rebecca had been adopted from the girls’ orphanage less than two months after she and Bucky had arrived in Brooklyn. She had been little more than a baby, while Bucky had been the most recalcitrant six-year old to come out of Indiana. Steve’s lips twitch into a smile at the memory.
“I’d say it’s good to meet you, at last, but -”
“I’m dead, I know.” She shrugs, or the shape of her shrugs. “I lived a long life. We can’t all be heroes-”
“Here. Complaining a lot-”
Steve’s smile is real now and big and Bucky is near. He looks at Hermes, whose arms are folded and he’s looking away.
“I know you’re listening, sir,” says Steve.
“Absolutely not,” says Hermes. He gestures. “Onwards, Christian soldier. The clock’s a-ticking.”
“Can you take me to Bucky?” Steve asks Rebecca and she shimmers.
“Follow me, Captain Rogers,” she says.
“Steve,” he says, rather weakly as she shoots off. “Just - Steve.”
He has to break into a run to keep up with her and the shades keep pace but now they are all chorusing “Captain Rogers” and “Steve” and he thinks about Bucky and how it can’t be far now.
“Faster, Captain Rogers, faster!” calls Rebecca and she is a shot of silver in the distance. “We don’t have much time!”
Steve doesn’t know what she means. He doesn’t know what time means here, whether minutes or hours or years have passed overhead. He doesn’t know whether he’ll emerge, once more, into a world that is seventy years changed.
He knows what she means when he hears growling, thunderous and loud. It feels his head and it is all that he can hear, aside from Hermes’ muttered fuck next to him. There is a new shadow now, even if there is no real light to cast it.
“I hope you’re a dog man, Captain Rogers,” says Hermes.
Steve looks up and up at the beast - the dog - with three heads and three identical slavering mouths, filled with the sharpest teeth.
“What are my chances?” he asks Hermes, softly. He can’t remember if it’s better or worse to make eye contact with dogs.
“Well, Cerberus here really loves live meat and you’re all heart-pumpingly good. He also loves playing fetch and going for swims.”
Steve nods slowly. He looks around and takes a step back. The shades have all scattered and he can hear Rebecca’s low moan in the distance. Another step and his heel connects with something solid. He frowns and stoops down to pick it up. Steve is, after all, pretty good with blunt objects. He blinks when he realises what it is and looks at Hermes questioningly.
“Don’t look at me, pal. I’m just the official biographer.”
Steve wipes it off; it’s his shield but it looks as though it’s been here for years and years. It’s dusty and the paint is badly faded and chipped.. He raps his knuckles on the surface and it sounds the same. Cerberus’ growls intensify.
“Here, boy,” Steve says and he runs at Cerberus and Cerberus runs at him. If Hercules can, Steve Rogers can. He may not be empty-handed but perhaps they don’t make them like that anymore.
There are rumours that Steve Rogers is Zeus’ son. It’s not true and it was never true; Sarah and Joseph Rogers were always so far below the notice of the gods. As for the serum, though? There are rumours about that, too. Rumours that Erskine sold his soul for distilled drops of Zeus’ blood. Steve has never felt like a demigod or a science experiment. He’s just a man and this is just a dog and he has fought worse and uglier. He slides under the beast’s body and Cerberus plants all four paws on the ground to slow down. Steve flings the shield upwards and it glances off Cerberus’ belly, making one of the heads whine.
Cerberus turns and Steve is crouched down, behind his shield. He doesn’t know where Hermes is. Cerberus runs at Steve again and Steve feels the reverberations all the way through his body as Cerberus’ teeth collide with the shield. There is another whimper, swiftly drowned out by growls and snarls.
“Don’t like canned dog food, huh?” Steve takes the opportunity to jump forward and wallop Cerberus on one of the noses. The ears on that head go back and Steve can see the whites of its eyes.
The surrounding land is too featureless to provide him with any cover, which means this is going to be tough work. He quickly hangs his shield on his back and runs towards Cerberus again and jumps, and twists and Cerberus’ fur is coarse and a little slimy. Steve hauls himself up, onto the beast’s back and then he clambers along the middle neck. Immediately, Cerberus ducks his middle head and Steve has to hang on tightly to keep from falling.
“No!” he cries. “Bad dog-”
He looks up to the left and to the right. The two other heads are snarling at him, necks weaving back and forth like snakes. Steve inches forward and now his arms are wrapped around the neck and the heels of his hands are digging into pulse points and, hopefully, cutting off blood flow. He can feel, more than hear, the thready whimper as the middle head starts to lose consciousness.
There is a sudden loss of tension in the muscles beneath him and the head drops. Steve lets himself drop, too, and he twists so that he lands on his back. The middle head is lolling in place, entirely unresponsive. The other two heads are whining now, and nudging at it.
Steve stands up.
“Which one of you is next?” he asks, as though his arms aren’t aching from the strength it took to strangle one-third of this monster.
Unbelievably, Cerberus backs away, his tail tucked between his legs.
“Ten out of ten for technical merit,” says Hermes. “Though sadly lacking in artistic impression.”
“You’re back, then,” says Steve.
“Never went away, buddy-boy.”
“Thanks for the help.”
“That would be cheating,” says Hermes.
Steve knows he’s staring and it’s all he can do just to shake his head. He adjusts the shield on his back and tries to ignore the trembling in his arms.
“Not bad for an old-timer.”
Steve spins around and he can’t see him but, oh, he can see him: faces flickering on top of each other like old photographs and a skipping newsreel; young and cocky and smiling, overlaid with older features, and harsher.
“Like you can talk, punk.”
“I’d say something about you being late but -” Bucky shrugs. “He who casts the first stone and all-”
It is impossible to embrace a shade but, oh, Steve tries. “Buck,” he whispers. “You couldn’t’ve hung on?”
“What, and miss out on the amazing atmosphere?” Bucky’s smiling now. His eyes are shimmering but all of him is shimmering. Steve blinks.
“Yeah,” says Bucky. “She - she brought me back.” It is strange that he stands as he always has, slightly slouched as though he has never stepped foot on a parade ground. “I’m a bit of a mess, Rogers.”
Steve would punch Bucky in the shoulder but he knows that his hand would pass right through. “You - you’re dead, Barnes.” He hates that his voice cracks.
“It happens,” says Bucky. He frowns, Steve thinks. “But you’re not. What gives?”
“I - I came to get you,” says Steve.
There is silence. For the first time since Steve stepped onto Charon’s boat, there is silence.
“You.” Bucky runs both hands through his hair. His form is a little more solid, less variable. “You’re a goddamned idiot, Rogers.”
“You’re my best friend, Bucky.”
“You don’t know what I’ve done! I’m not - I’m not Bucky.”
Steve laughs humourlessly. “Five bucks says you’re wrong. I’ve read the goddamned file, Bucky. I know what the Winter Soldier did.”
“What I did.”
“Buck, I didn’t come all this way to split hairs.”
“Just heads,” says Hermes, less than helpfully.
“I’m not leaving without you.”
“If you try, the Erinyes will probably eviscerate you, it’s true,” says Hermes, a little more helpfully.
“Oh, Jesus, Steve, what have you done?” Bucky looks at Steve and disbelief is written all over his face.
“He’s being a hero,” says Rebecca, from behind Bucky’s elbow. “He - has the gods’ favour.”
“Let’s not go too far,” says Hermes. “But on the other hand, we gotta go further. Fido is going to come back and it’d be just our luck if the Big Man came too.”
Steve reaches for Bucky, useless though it is. “C’mon, Buck, we can quibble about this later but I need you to come with me. I - I need you.”
Bucky is staring at him and then, unbelievably, he turns away. His sister catches him by the arm.
“I swear to the gods, James, if you don’t go with him, I’ll never forgive you.”
“Becca, I don’t want to leave you. Not again-”
Steve heart sinks. Of all the possible failures he had envisaged, he never thought that Bucky would refuse. He turns away and looks at Hermes, who has taken this moment to appear entirely uninterested. Steve’s pretty sure that he’s still eavesdropping though.
Steve’s head drops. He doesn’t try to listen to the hushed conversation between Bucky and his sister. Instead, he hears another sound, approaching fast
“The wings of the Kindly Ones,” says Hermes, softly.
“If that’s meant to make me feel better,” says Steve, “It’s not working.”
“It’s not meant to make you feel better, Captain Rogers.”
Steve glances towards Bucky and Rebecca and now their arms are around each other and he remembers, with gut-clenching clarity, what Persephone said, about shades becoming entangled, and he knows that he’s too late.
He adjusts his shield and raises his chin. He turns on his heel.
“Uh, pal, where are you going?” asks Hermes.
“I don’t know if you know much about me, sir, but I don’t run away from a fight.”
“The Furies aren’t a fight,” says Hermes. “They’re annihilation.”
Steve snaps a salute. It seems only right. “I’d say it’s been a pleasure, sir-”
He doesn’t look back at Bucky. It takes every fibre of his being not to; that he has come so far and endured so much seems immaterial if he is not Bucky’s choice. This isn’t a HYDRA base. These are not the bad guys. Bucky is not a captive. This is a path that all people must walk and if Steve has been selfish in trying to deny Bucky that which is natural, then it’s only right that he admits his mistake.
The walk back is harder. He is sure that the path was flat, before, but now it feels as though he’s toiling uphill, and the ground is sliding beneath his feet. He’s sweating, where he wasn’t before.
The beating of the wings is louder.
He reaches the crest of a hill that wasn’t there before and there they are. Alecto, Megaera and Tisiphone are, at once, the most beautiful and the most hideous creatures he has ever seen. Their smiles are wide, with too many teeth, and so many bad things come in three.
“Our congratulations, Captain Rogers,” they say. “But your journey isn’t over yet.”
Steve frowns but then he feels - he feels - something brush against his left arm.
“I know you didn’t think you were picking fights without me, Rogers.”
Steve looks back at the Furies and their strange smiles. “I think if you’re with me, there’s not gonna be a fight.”
Steve turns his head to murmur. “Your sister-?”
“Would make my afterlife hell if I didn’t come with you.” Bucky nudges Steve’s arm and he feels it. “You really thought I wouldn’t?”
“I thought,” says Steve, looking down. “I thought you might want peace.”
“I won’t get a moment’s peace knowing you’re still up there without me to watch your back.”
They reach the rickety dock. The Furies keep their distance and Hermes is nowhere to be seen. Charon is waiting.
“You know the laws?” the Ferryman asks eventually.
“Yes,” says Steve. He turns to Bucky, who’s sitting next to him, who’s becoming more and more real, although his left arm is nowhere to be seen. Perhaps it will grow in time. “Buck, I’m gonna have to lead the way and you - I can’t look back at you, you got that? You gotta keep up.”
Bucky leans against him and it is companionable and it is enough. They smile at each other and Steve’s heart beats faster and his gaze drops to Bucky’s mouth and his full lips and the way they stretch over his teeth.
“You good?” asks Steve.
“You ain’t seen good till you’ve seen me, Rogers.”
“I’m not gonna see you again till we get up top, okay?”
Bucky huffs a laugh. “Then better take a good long look.”
Steve smiles and as the boat bumps against the moorings, he leans in and presses his lips to Bucky’s forehead and Bucky’s solid now and Steve can taste his skin.
He salutes the Ferryman, who grunts, and then he turns and starts walking. There’s no elevator for the way back up. The path is well-lit but it’s steep and it winds and there is loose gravel underfoot. The first time Steve passes a pair of entwined skeletons, he’s shocked into stopping and Bucky almost rams into him.
“Keep going, Cap,” comes Bucky’s voice, soft and firm.
The road winds up.
Every step becomes harder.
He slips, once or twice
There’s no sound behind him.
His heart starts to hammer.
Did he lose Bucky?
The road winds up. Every step becomes harder.
He wonders if he should turn to see.
Then he hears it.
Not that far behind him.
“It’s a long way to Tipperary - it’s a long way to go - it’s a long way to Tipperary - to the sweetest girl I know-”
Steve smiles. He wipes the sweat from his forehead and he nods. His voice is too dry to sing and his lips crack at the edges when he smiles but he remembers. He remembers how Mrs O’Mahony used to sing this song as she mopped floors in the church hall.
He’s not sure how many times Bucky sings the song. It’s a wonder that Bucky’s voice is still strong enough but he always was the best man Steve Rogers knew.
Steve has to stop for a moment, to breathe, to take deep breaths. It is like asthma; it is like walking through treacle. The Underworld does not let go easily.
Bucky starts humming. All the single ladies, all the single ladies-
Steve laughs, though it’s virtually soundless. “‘m going, ‘m going.”
Up ahead, the light changes. It becomes less real. It is harsh and it flickers.
Steve’s legs are aching.
Suddenly, there is a fresh cacophony of noise. Yellow cabs and the long, loud honk of a truck passing through Times Square. This is the place he told Nick Fury he had a date.
He freezes. He can’t look behind him. What if- what if-
He closes his eyes.
He can feel the press of lips to his forehead and a hand against his cheek. He can feel the press of lips on his eyelids and on the bridge of his nose. Finally, he can feel the press of lips at the corner of his mouth.
“Reporting for duty, Captain.”