Or I am mad, or else this is a dream:
Let fancy still my sense in Lethe steep;
If it be thus to dream, still let me sleep!
—Sebastian, Twelfth Night
The water rushed toward him as he grabbed at the controls. “Peg—Peggy!” Steve shouted as everything broke up around him and he—
Wake up, wake up, wake up.
His lungs burned, threatened to burst, everything went dark. He must be dead—
Wake up, goddammit.
Wasn’t his back broken? He’d hit that console hard enough to break it, snapped in half like a wafer. Icy water clutched at him, he couldn’t breathe. An air bubble toward the rear of the fuselage beckoned him, bluish-white light slanting to illuminate a path to—
Please wake up, Steve. Please.
His hands in front of his eyes, clawing at the inky space in front of him, freezing. He shouldn’t be able to move if he was—
Can you hear me? Wake the fuck up!
Awake. I’m awake.
If he kicked open an exit, the water would surge through the interior so fast he might not survive, but he gulped in air, steadied himself, pushed against the torrent. A ragged edge in the hole he’d made caught his thigh and sliced into it, sharp as a bayonet; he wondered briefly if there were sharks in these cold waters. As if that was the worst of his problems: Steve laughed inside, thinking of Bucky snottily mocking him, the boys ribbing him endlessly.
Great lurching strokes upward took him to the verge of faint blue light shimmering into view, an island of lambent sky framed inside the watery white vista of ice. Even in this body Steve grew numb from the cold, limbs sluggish and clumsy, until he crested the water and heaved himself into the air, fighting for every sludgy, wet breath, pulling himself inch by excruciating inch onto the floe. The tip of the Valkyrie’s right wing was still visible, its red flashing light slowly sinking beneath the surface about a quarter mile away.
Shouldn’t he be hypothermic? Yet he wasn’t cold at all—it wasn’t the serum, he’d been trapped in an avalanche in early ’44, learned the hard way he could get plenty damn cold. Maybe not as easily as a normal person, but he’d been a ball of chattering teeth and quaking limbs when the boys had dug him out. He touched his head, felt around at the middle of his back: everything was intact, he was moving and breathing and it wasn’t the healing factor, he was simply...uninjured by the crash.
I’m not dead.
There was a thready pulse at Steve’s throat and wrists; his heart hammered in his chest. Should he head back to the plane, maybe see if he could salvage something, or go the opposite direction and hope for help? His compass—and Peggy’s picture—was now steadily plunging into the depths of the ocean, the sky above him a muted, pale amber twilight: this time of year there would be only a few hours of light, so he wasn’t sure if the sun was setting or rising right now, and his watch had been shattered in the crash. Setting, Steve decided, simply because he had to decide. God, Bucky would have known instantly where he was and which way to go: he had an uncanny sense of direction, always had, even when they were kids.
Best bet was to head south and pray for a reconnaissance plane from the Greenland Allied air base. He’d be fine for a few days, there was certainly water as far as the eye could see—which wasn’t all that far, now that he thought about it, because the air was filled with a soft, icy mist, no discernable horizon. Crevasses could open with no warning, ice could break apart, or he could step off the edge of a floe and straight into the water: who knew what might happen this time.
We can work this out, there’s still time. The helplessness in Peggy’s voice had destroyed him; she was not a woman used to such things. Steve had felt her grief through the airwaves like a living thing, beating itself against the bars of a cage and he knew, he knew she wouldn’t give up on him, she would scour the earth for a signal that he wasn’t gone.
But how the hell did he send a Mayday with nothing but a shield and no idea where he was?
Well, you can walk and think, fool, so get going. Maybe Howard would search for him with his Stark Industries plane. He’d bring Peggy with him. They’d wrap him in blankets and feed him hot soup and it would be all right.
Except Bucky’s gone and nothing will ever be all right again. Steve tasted salt—not from the water, there was a metallic quality behind it, and he realized there were tears frozen upon his cheeks, had been for a while.
No one’s coming for you. You have to do this on your own. No use dwelling on Bucky and feeling sorry for yourself. His mother had taught him to always get up, to always keep fighting, even when it seemed as if there was no way out. He’d given up on the Valkyrie, but he’d survived, he couldn’t give up now. Move.
The snow was deep enough that each step was work, he moved way too slowly for his tastes. While he trekked through the snow it grew dark, like nothing he’d seen before—thick, cold, sinister; it made him shiver. What if he was walking in circles? Did it matter? “You must crack on,” Peggy would say, so he did. After a while—hours? he had no idea—he thought he spied a thin ribbon of purple-gray light a couple miles or so ahead: a base, or a ship out on the water? Maybe even a native village?
The band of light thickened, wider and wider, as he made his way toward it; he must be heading south, away from the perpetual night of the Arctic. It was beautiful, soft like a blanket, almost...warm. The snow grew patchy underneath his feet, bare spots of tundra peeking through, when something large slid into view, silhouetted against the purple sky. Steve stopped dead, staring: the thing was enormous, almost shapeless. His first wild thought was polar bear, but it—okay, it seemed to glide just above the horizon. That was not normal. Polar bears were fearless, they had no predators, nothing to learn to be afraid of; he might be able to fight a lot of powerful things, but he wasn’t confident he could hold his own against a fearless one-ton bear with claws as long as his hands. Steve stayed rooted, waiting, watching.
Whatever it was sloped off in a different direction, but it moved almost as though it were...swimming. Huh. A mirage, then, the way a desert offers up an oasis of palm trees and water when you’re dying of thirst. Possibly a reflected image, another trick of the eye: something that was swimming through the water below, mirrored in this strange sky. Thank god, it seemed to be swimming away from him.
By the time he reached the spot he’d seen the bear-thing, the snow had mostly disappeared, the sky shaded to an opalescent blue and pink and lavender. Turning, Steve looked back in the direction he’d come—the sky was now that same opal color, too, no snow or ice left as far as he could see, just high green grass that shimmered and rippled in the light breeze. It reminded him of his own paintings, the soft colors and hazy lines he’d been using before the war, the undefined focus and abstractions he’d been experimenting with. Or the Autochromes he collected for reference, with their muted colors and gauzy details. Maybe—a Dewing painting, that was it: tonalistic, impressionistic, peacefully beautiful.
And there were trees here. Willows, with long graceful branches that swayed in the breeze, glistening with—raindrops? No, diamonds, they were covered in glittering diamonds and he ran his hands through the branches, they made a tinkling sound as they brushed against each other. A shadow traveled over his arms; Steve glanced up to find another shapeless figure swimming through the air. Definitely not a bear, but something otherworldly: long yet rounded, with a—a giant horn, like a unicorn’s. Somehow featureless otherwise. It undulated across the sky as Steve stood fascinated, watching for a long time, trying to determine what it could be. A few more shadows just like it followed, twirling around and around until they swam off, fading into the light. He squinted into the distance, saw other shapes further past them: dark blobs with softly waving tendrils; wedges that appeared to placidly fly by on little wings; huge, oblong, blunt-headed things nearly twice the size of the first creatures but without horns. They darted and weaved, though they never came close enough to allow him a glimpse of what, exactly, they were.
Jimmy. This must be Jimmy Jupiter’s Nowhere.
Even when he’d seen proof that the Land of Nowhere existed, Steve had not believed it was real—not truly. When Dum Dum’s team and Codename: Bravo had returned through the portal and filed their reports, he still hadn’t completely, one hundred percent accepted that an alternate world could exist, one that a kid from a small town in Washington State exclusively could access using only his mind. Stupid to be so cynical, Steve supposed, when this version of himself had been created by sticking him in a box, pumping a formula into him, and dousing him with some kind of radiation, but the whole notion of alternate worlds had seemed so...far-fetched. Even the Tesseract made more sense.
But this had to be Nowhere; there was simply no other explanation. Somehow Jimmy had known that Steve was going down with the plane and he’d—he’d made the portal appear and sent Steve through it. The SSR scientists said after the first trial that Jimmy hadn’t truly begun to tap his abilities, and he’d been so eager to aid the war effort, to go where the brass sent him and learn exactly what he was capable of—how powerful his gift could be, how it might work for the Allies.
But Jesus, he was just a kid, what kind of a toll would that have taken on his body and his mind: to open a portal from hundreds of miles away and hurl Steve through it in time to save his life?
And how the hell would he have known you were going down in the Valkyrie? a little voice protested. How would he have known you were letting yourself die?
Steve dropped to the ground, pinched the bridge of his nose. Either you’re dead, or this is Nowhere and Jimmy saved your damn life, he scolded himself. Those are your only two options, because there aren’t a lot of other explanations for giant creatures swimming through the sky and trees dripping with diamonds. Not to mention that everything looked like Steve’s own art, like he was the one making this place come alive.
The sky above him rippled and sparkled, the mysterious natant figures traveled in their lazy arcs. Closing his eyes, Steve leaned back against the tree. How did you do this, Peggy? How did you get him to save me? She’d been on the radio with him when he’d hit the ice, but...Jim Morita had been there, too. Right: they could have radioed the base where Jimmy was staying (being studied like the monkey you were, too, that sharp little voice said).
She wouldn’t have had time to think of how to get Steve back out, though, only to do something to save him, do it fast, solve the extraction problem later. Except no one knew how Nowhere worked, not even Jimmy, really. It wasn’t a science problem Howard could tackle; it was the supernatural, something out of Weird Tales.
Wouldn’t Bucky have laughed at this: Steve was trapped in an alternate world better than their childhood fantasies, and he didn’t even have drawing materials. Steve watched the striking shapes weave and dodge through the air, as if they were performing their own private ballet; one of the blobby things cruised close enough to let him see that it was cup-shaped, trailing sparkling tendrils, and it pulsated—expanding and contracting, expanding and contracting.
All those times Steve and Bucky had spent on the fire escape, spinning tales of other worlds and making up fantastical creatures; all those days spent running through alleys chasing made-up monsters, and here Steve was without Bucky, the architect of so many of those fantasies. The one who’d loved science fiction so much that he’d eagerly volunteered to be first through Jimmy’s portal.
“Christ Almighty, Steve,” Bucky had snapped at him after the briefing on the plan to use Nowhere as a portal to Schmidt’s most deeply hidden base. “We finally got us a real-life version of the shit we made up when we were kids and you’re telling me I can’t lead this thing? I was made for this.” His eyes had flashed, hot with annoyance, and his chin jutted out.
Steve had glanced at Peggy for support, but she’d closed her mouth and turned away, keen to stay out of the middle of it; she knew what they were like when they got going. In the field Bucky would never question an order, but when they were in the CP or at base, all bets were off. “I know this could have been a dream come true for you, but they can’t risk us, not until we know if this’ll work. If you got trapped...”
Bucky’d given him a stiff look and huffed. “The kid’s been there dozens of times.”
Steve shook his head: but look what you have been through, Steve had thought, and squeezed Bucky’s arm. “You wouldn’t even think twice before volunteering for a suicide mission, especially one that’s straight out of Argosy. I understand that, I do. But they’re not gonna let either of us go just yet, not until they know how it all shakes out. There’ll be another chance,” he’d insisted, but Bucky had waved his hand to cut Steve off, walking away.
God, if only they’d gone through Nowhere to capture Zola. If only they’d... Well.
Steve tracked the sparkling thing as it pushed through the air. Would these things hurt him? He got up and walked toward one of the smaller shapes; it was somewhat oblong and as he got closer he saw what could be a snout, maybe even eye holes, but nothing was distinct enough to really tell. As it glided by he reached up, but his fingers hit some kind of solid surface, lines rippling outward as if he’d touched water instead of air. The creature didn’t even notice him as it rolled slowly past.
How the hell do I get out of here, Peggy? There must be a way to connect to Jimmy, to get home, and panic welled up inside him for the first time since the plane had gone down. The sky abruptly grew dark, swelled with thunderheads—and the moving shapes disappeared in a blink. Lightning flashed behind the clouds, the trees were crowned by flames. Fire crackled in the air all around him, thunder shaking the ground beneath his feet.
Steve threw his shield over his head as ice pellets cascaded down around him like shrapnel from mortar fire, and he trotted south again, even though he had no idea why.
He was cold, so cold; everything was dark, so dark. Sinking down, down to the bottom. He couldn’t see his hand in front of his face in the blackness, the cold shocked the breath out of his lungs and he was drowning, reaching—Bucky. Steve reached for Bucky but he was falling away from him, dissolving into the murk.
The dark had never frightened him before but it choked him now, it was so vast he couldn’t see where he was. A great weight pressed down. “Hello,” he called out, despondent, alarmed. “Can anyone hear me? Is there anyone here?”
Not even an echo. Steve had never felt so small and alone in his life, the frigid dark that surrounded him hiding something foreboding, sinister—he was completely exposed, anything could be out there, coming for him. “Hello,” he called again. “If you can hear me— Can you toss me a lifeline?” But he wasn’t in the water, he wasn’t—drowning.
Strange, faceless shapes plowed toward him, around him, threatening, and he tried to put his shield up but it didn’t budge. “Can anyone hear me?” Frantic now in this smothering darkness, his throat tight and hot with fear and—he was so afraid and down here it was as black as night. “Buck,” he whispered. “Can you hear me?” Could Bucky find him here? There was too much to search. “I’m afraid,” and he said it like a confession. It’s cold, it’s so, so cold. Please send down a line. Bucky, Peggy, anyone. Please.
Steve was snapped back to awareness with a violent shock and a loud wwhhuump sound ringing in his ears; he gasped and opened his eyes, staggered a few steps—he was in a wide canyon, snow-dusted crags and outcroppings. Peaks lost in the fluff of gray clouds. Something had torn his mind away, brutally, he’d been—out of his body. Somewhere dark and cold and terrifying. How long had he been standing here, simply...lost in darkness and drowning? This place looked exactly like where Bucky’d fallen: he’d tasted Bucky’s fear, fallen helplessly backwards into the darkness just as he had.
He’d been thinking of Bucky before—before he’d opened his eyes. Did that mean Steve could think of a place and put himself there? That was sort of what Jimmy did, after all, when he visited Nowhere. Steve closed his eyes and concentrated: the Greenland air base, he’d been there once. Someplace close to the crash site, someplace the SSR would know to look for and Jimmy could imagine quickly, just like they’d done with the Hydra base. He pictured its battered wooden hangars, the Quonset huts, a C-47 rumbling down the runway. When he opened his eyes to nothing, he laughed bitterly. Of course; that would have been too easy.
“That’s your problem in life,” Bucky had once said to him. “You’re a hopeful cynic. It’s the source of all your misery.”
“Horseshit,” Steve had said, and Bucky’d shaken his head like Steve was his terrible cross to bear. “My only problem is you.”
Steve passed his hand over his eyes, pressed fingertips to his temples. Bucky would hate him being maudlin, had always done anything he could to drag Steve out of his moods. With a sigh he started off again, moving just to move, to have something to do.
On the Captain America pictures, the actors had used rolling walkways to simulate marches on the sets, location backgrounds projected upon a screen behind them. If he wasn’t seeing the snow or grass or dirt beneath his feet with his own eyes, Steve would swear this was a soundstage, with its endless marching that never seemed to get him anywhere useful. He’d been walking for so long he’d lost all track of time; the sky changed from iridescent blue to black to blue again, yet no sun or a moon appeared so he could orient himself. How did that work? The sky was blue because molecules in the air scattered the sun’s blue light, yet here he was with a blue sky and no sun.
The only relief from monotony came when one of the natant creatures reappeared, lazily passing by above him like oddly shaped dirigibles—he’d begun to make up names for them, wished he could pull one out of the sky and keep it with him like a pet dog. At least then he’d have someone to talk to. So far he’d collected a Hank, a Gloria, a Grace, and an Yvonne; as soon as he became more familiar with each individual shape he’d have the whole USO troupe.
Steve waved at the biggest one—Hank—as it slowly rolled past on his left. “I’m friendly,” he called, if only to hear the sound of his own voice. “I won’t hurt you, I swear.” The troupe continued to move past him, indifferent to his overtures, and Steve sighed. “Well, you can follow me, if you like. I don’t mind. I don’t know if you’re coming along on purpose or accidentally going my way, but we might as well travel together.” Maybe he should name a couple of them Bing and Bob.
Nowhere was spectacularly lonely, Steve found. It’s so cold. I’m so alone.
It hadn’t been so for Jimmy. The SSR brass had discovered the kid because of the damn two-headed cat he’d brought to school with him for show and tell and he’d told them about plenty of other creatures, even humanoids, he’d met on his travels throughout Nowhere. But Jimmy controlled Nowhere to some extent, had learned to manipulate its spaces, and Steve was simply...a passenger who’d been flung here for safekeeping.
Thinking about this was making him tired, and angry, and sorry for himself. God, he’d forgotten what that had been like: powerless, no control over his circumstances. He missed Bucky with a ferocity that almost doubled him over, left him gasping for a breath.
Steve stayed there for a while until he thought he could breathe again, letting the thudding, sluggish beat of his heart drop back to normal. When he got out of this, he was going back to Austria and he would find Bucky’s remains, he would bring them home with him—and then he was out. There had to be something he could salvage from this, some kind of life with Peggy at least. Something Bucky would have been proud of.
Farther, farther. Peggy would find him, wouldn’t she? There had to have been some kind of plan in place, after all: they’d had backup plans of backup plans the first time Jimmy’d sent their squad through the portal. And Peggy was—she would—she would never leave him here without a way out.
The landscape had given way to a flat, dry desert covered in a blue, glassy surface. Small mountains nosed their way out of the ground here and there, reflected perfectly on the surface, like a looking glass—a thin layer of water making a perfect mirror. Nothing here made any sense, Steve thought, it was all very interesting, even picturesque on occasion, but there was nothing here except land. This was the first water he’d seen since leaving the snow and ice; he bent to see if it was potable—salt, dammit. Naturally.
He headed toward the mountains into a new view, surrounded by hills and rocks and trees. Not the diamond trees from before—little clusters of violet on these trees instead, like cartoon puffs of smoke, and purple leaves that shook in the breeze, as if beckoning him over with waving fingers. The sky was washed in that purpley-gray shade that reminded Steve of a bruise, a few bars of golden sunlight splashed upon the colorful rocks. No sign of his traveling companions, though, and he found he missed them—it was a hell of a lot spookier here without them.
Why would you have been in a plane crash, if Jimmy’d thrown you into a safe place? that diabolical little voice asked him. No. Steve shook his head. This had to be Nowhere.
“Well, Peg, what do you think I should do here?” Steve was ravenous now, so thirsty his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. He must have been walking for days. “If you guys are working on a plan, I could sure use a sign.”
Jimmy just wouldn’t do something like this: abandon Steve here with no way to navigate himself home. He was a great kid, sweet and funny and as full of piss and vinegar as any fourteen-year-old boy. Eager and excited as hell to be part of the war effort in a way most kids his age could never imagine: no collecting scrap metal with a little red wagon for him. Instead he flew in an airplane to Europe, met his hero, Captain America, helped him in his effort to defeat the Nazis.
Steve had even objected in that first briefing, not that he’d felt he really had the moral high ground: “You cannot be serious about this! Bringing a kid into a war zone and using him to infiltrate a Hydra base? He’s fourteen.”
Peggy’d raised an eyebrow and shrugged one perfect shoulder. “We are surrounded by lads who were probably younger than seventeen when they enlisted. I know for a fact that Private Andersen, one of the recruits you went to Camp Lehigh with, if you’ll recall, was a few months shy of his sixteenth birthday and paid the town drunk to sign his enlistment papers as his mother.”
Steve had heard plenty of stories like that, too. Didn’t make it right. “I just...what we’re asking him to do would be hard on an adult, even me, and it feels all kinds of wrong to be putting him in danger like this.” But Jimmy’s parents had authorized it, after all—and Steve had remembered how sickening it was to be told you couldn’t participate, to prove yourself capable of making a difference. After the first mission when Jimmy had sent their test squad through the portal and returned them, safe and whole, he’d collapsed, delirious and feverish, from the strain. His motivation had been patriotism, certainly—just as Steve’s had been—but he’d also seen it as a grand adventure, even grander than the ones he had at night when he transported himself to the Land of Nowhere.
So if this was Jimmy saving his life, Steve was grateful, he truly was, but what good was being alive if there was no fucking way out of here or he starved to death before they could find him?
Steve leaned back against the tree and closed his eyes. “Wake the fuck up!” someone had said to him when he was in the water, and Steve jolted. Jimmy never cussed. He was the embodiment of the wholesome, All-American Boy: strawberry-blond hair, blue eyes, freckles, tall and rangy for his age, and he always said things like “jeepers” and “applesauce” and “gee willickers.” One time when Jimmy’d heard Bucky cursing a blue streak, his eyes had gone round and his face scarlet—after that whenever Bucky was around him, he’d sanitized his language down to a few well-placed “H-E-double-toothpicks” or “son of a sea cooks,” much to the amusement of the rest of the boys.
Then who’d been trying to wake him up? Not Peggy—she certainly wouldn’t have spoken to him like that. Not Jim Morita, even though he’d been on the radio, too.
The voice in the plane had sounded an awful lot like Bucky’s.
He fell asleep again, waking when he thought he heard someone calling to him. Someone shouting for help. His surroundings had changed: the place was white, covered in snow, land blurring into sky, a pale shade leached of color. He recalled a pilot using that phrase “twilight zone” to describe the area ahead when they were on approach but they couldn’t quite see the horizon line and it looked like there was no difference between land and sky. Steve suddenly understood the concept all too well: he felt as if he was slipping, drifting down, he might fall forever if he—
There was someone behind him.
This figure was definitely not swimming through the air—it didn’t move at all. It stood, a thin slice of darkness framed within the white landscape, about three hundred yards away; far enough that even with his enhanced vision Steve couldn’t make out any details, yet close enough he could tell it was a person—and they were absolutely standing on the ground. Maybe Jimmy’d sent someone else into Nowhere to rescue Steve: here was his way out.
Picking up the shield, Steve took a few tentative steps forward, waiting to see if the person moved or offered any sort of greeting. His skin broke out into goosebumps and the hair rose on the back of his neck; instinct whispered to him something was wrong here. If Peggy had taught him one thing, it was to always trust his instinct—but another, much deeper and older urge warred with that, a curiosity to find out who this was.
But Steve had a fleeting, terrible thought: if this wasn’t Nowhere, if this was some sort of afterlife or limbo, the person standing before him could be Schmidt. He didn’t know what the rules were with that fucking cosmic cube.
“Hello?” Steve called, but there was no sign the person had heard him. Schmidt wouldn’t simply wait passively, especially not against a potential threat.
“I’m not hostile,” he said, louder, and their head subtly twitched, careful not to give anything away. If Jimmy had projected this person here to save him, they might not fully understand where they were; if it was someone native to Nowhere—or you’re dead—they might see any kind of stranger as a hostile; Steve was desperate enough to attempt making a connection. Perhaps it was arrogant to think so, but Steve was pretty sure that, as long as he had his shield, he could take on any comers.
With slow, tentative steps, he inched forward. His interloper was shadowed, even when he got within a hundred yards—like they were...maybe cloaking themselves from view. “I won’t hurt you,” Steve said, putting a hand out in what he hoped was a friendly gesture. The figure moved back a few steps, body language changing from a sort of parade rest stance to full attention.
“I’m trapped here, I think,” Steve said. “Maybe you’re trapped here, too?” He made himself as small as possible, hopefully less threatening, but the shadow stepped back again. “My name is Steve.”
Their head jerked sideways, which he decided to take as a sign they weren’t afraid, only cautious, and that he could move near enough to see past the shadows, catch at least a glimpse of their face. They could be...anything, really, he had to be prepared for that, maybe something not quite human. Steve sucked in a breath and closed the rest of the distance, slowly, purposefully.
As soon as he reached them the darkness that had shadowed them swallowed them up.
Steve dropped his head, squeezing his eyes shut. Well, shit.
He’d searched the area, but found no clues that his visitor had even been there. Figment of his imagination, probably: he’d wished them into being because he was lonely and bored. Except...except for the fact that he’d wished himself to the Greenland air station a little while ago and here he still was.
So that left: keep walking, or stay put and hope maybe the wraith came to visit once more? If Steve really could wish them into being, even if they were spooked and wouldn’t talk at least he’d have some damn company—once he was able to make friendly with them. This place made his skin crawl, though, it was poisoned by the memories of Bucky falling; he would never be able to look at Alpine scenery the same way again. He cupped a few handfuls of snow to his mouth and drank; when he’d had enough he walked, directionless, figuring what the hell difference did it make? Next time he closed his eyes, he’d just wake up in a different spot, some bizarre landscape not of his choosing, because...nothing made sense here.
Time seemed static and circular; he’d always had a pretty reliable internal clock but he had no idea how long he’d been gone anymore. Bucky’d once told him that was how he felt on Zola’s table: at times on the march back to camp Bucky had seemed messed up, uncertain what time of day it was, once had even asked Steve what month they were in. He’d catch Bucky looking at the calendar on the wall in the War Rooms or the CP, nodding his head as if he’d been reassuring himself of just where and when he was; he got frantic if he thought he’d misplaced his watch.
No matter how long Steve walked, the sky stubbornly remained white and misty, the ground still thinly dusted with snow, and he shivered with that eerie sensation tickling the back of his brain—and turned to find the shadow standing there once more, a silent sentinel.
Steve bided his time quietly, watching, waiting. Make the wraith come to you, he thought. But they doggedly held to one spot, so after some time—Jesus, he’d never had any patience, Bucky and Ma had always griped at him about that—Steve shook his head and gave in, slowly walking towards them, muttering a few choice cuss words.
They were still shadowed, wary and coiled—to strike or to run? Wouldn’t know till he got closer, they weren’t giving anything away. Fifty yards, then thirty, then—
At ten yards, it was unmistakable: Bucky’s uniform, Bucky’s chin and mouth, Bucky’s hair. His head was down, Steve couldn’t see past the shadows to his eyes, but he knew it was Bucky.
The world around Steve was spinning, spinning—nothing to reach out for, to hold on to, a vertiginous drop into nothingness. I’m not dead. He wasn’t dead, he couldn’t be, but if Bucky was here...
“Bucky.” The shadow raised his head, Steve could see his eyes: he would know those stormy-sky blues anywhere, that curl at the right eyelid’s outer corner. Steve knew it all by heart, knew the shape of his brows, how many lines fanned out toward his temples when he smiled, and—why was he staring at Steve like that, why wasn’t he speaking?
A couple more paces brought him closer, but Bucky stepped back again, his face suspicious, unrecognizing. He blinked rapidly, as if he was trying to recall something, when suddenly they were plunged into a woods full of dark, malignant trees, their branches like gnarled, burnt fingers grasping at sky. The ground was charred, sky a blue-black wound; tiny golden lights darted incongruously among the branches—fireflies, maybe?—and Steve choked back a startled gasp: Bucky’s left arm was simply gone, a ragged remnant of sleeve hanging midbicep.
Steve dragged his eyes back to Bucky’s face: his eyes were fixed intently on Steve’s, no sign of any pain, as if he didn’t even notice his arm was missing. Steve thought, rather hysterically: Bucky put us here in this dead place somehow. This is the inside of his head.
Somehow Jimmy had brought Bucky to Nowhere, too. Steve dropped his shield and rushed forward, unthinking, running full-tilt at him, but Bucky shrank back into the shadows of the trees, vanishing into the darkness.
Steve stood gawping at the spot where his Bucky-shaped ghost had disappeared. This was a nightmare—this was nothing like what Jimmy’d told them about—how was this possible? Bucky couldn’t be here with Steve. He was losing his goddamn mind; this place, the unreality of it was— Bucky’s left arm had been stretched toward Steve when he fell from the train. Yes, that made sense: some guilt-ravaged part of his mind created an image of Bucky if he’d survived.
Despair had simply made him imagine a friend for comfort. Then why not make up Peggy? Jimmy? One of the Commandos? Anyone, anyone but your dead best friend. Steve was really beginning to hate that fucking voice.
If he hoped to solve this and figure a way out, though, he had to find food; hunger was making him punchy and stupid, behaving rashly would get him killed. Survival was the first order of business out in the field; if he could imagine his dead best friend, why shouldn’t he try imagining a plateful of pork chops and baked potatoes and carrots. As far as Steve knew, Jimmy had only spent nights or maybe a twenty-four-hour period at most in Nowhere; Dum Dum’s team had been gone a little over thirty-six hours and they’d been fully kitted up with enough supplies to last through any possible stranding.
Since he had no idea which direction was which, Steve walked toward the sliver of pale sky to his left. He tried to relax, let his mind focus on his goal, but with a mixture of fascination and dread Steve was watching out of the corner of his eyes for the shadow of Bucky to reappear, and eventually Bucky did just that: so Bucky would keep appearing to him whether he wanted it or not, and Steve had no idea how it was working. Turning to face him, Steve said, “Bucky, I’m not going to hurt you. I swear to god.”
His left arm appeared to be whole again and Bucky stared at Steve with undisguised curiosity. There had been dreams in his eyes once, thick as stars, before they’d been stolen by the war, by Hydra.
“You know me. I’m Steve Rogers. Your best friend. We’ve been friends since we were kids. You used to call me Stevie to get a rise out of me.” As he stepped forward, Bucky jerked his head to the side like he’d been stung, but his lips moved, mouthing “Steve.” Jesus, he looked so young and so—so old, there was a dreadful tightness to his face and body language, as if he was afraid of violating the space around him. As if he was wounded—or being punished.
“I’ve been here for days. I don’t even know where this is, really. I mean, I think I do. But I’ve been alone, and I don’t know why you’re here. Maybe I wished you here. I wished for someone.” Bucky blinked as he spoke; he was trying to concentrate, testing things in his mind, teasing out insight, just as he’d done in school, in the field.
“S-Steve,” Bucky eventually said aloud, exactly as he had when Steve pulled him off that table in Austria, and Steve’s heart thundered in his chest, the noise nearly drowning out Bucky’s voice—he remembered, he remembered.
“Yes. Yes, and your name is Bucky Barnes. You’re my friend.” He was close enough now to reach out and touch him. “You remember, don’t you?”
“I remember...” His head snapped back, eyes cutting down and to the right. A violent spasm shook his body and he—the only word Steve could think of was cowered, he stumbled backward, eyes wide with fear. “Steve.” Who was he afraid of?
“I’m not gonna hurt you, Bucky. You’re my friend,” Steve insisted, but Bucky watched him suspiciously, like he would be—corrected—if he said anything more. How could he think Steve would do such a thing to him? Steve dropped his shield to reach for him but Bucky gasped before disappearing, leaving Steve alone again.
Jesus fuck. This was not what Jimmy had talked about, not at all, nor did it resemble anything in Dugan’s report or debriefing. This had nothing to do with Nowhere. This was the monkey’s paw. He couldn’t conjure up Peggy or Jimmy or anyone else who’d not only remember him but would get him the hell out of here; the only thing Steve could apparently do was to bring back someone who was dead, someone who didn’t even know who he was.
Steve laid the shield on the ground and pressed fingers to his temples, rubbing. Monty used to say “sod this for a game of soldiers” and Steve laughed. Yes, absolutely, sod this. All right, try again: Greenland. Air base. Radio. C-47. Hangar. Peggy. Radio.
When he opened his eyes he was in a vast, open space with a pale pink sky, patches of unmelted snow here and there, craggy hills surrounding it in a U shape. Not exactly the air station, but closer than the last time he’d tried this. Confirmation that he could change his environment if he thought about it hard enough. If he was—
Emotional. That’s why Bucky’d sent them to the burnt-out forest. It made sense—Jimmy was an adolescent boy, his emotions were all over the place all the time. Steve merely had to draw his emotions inward, focus on a point of light and imagine Bucky behind it. He stared at the light, striding forward, purposeful, resolute; Steve hadn’t gone more than twenty feet when Bucky was standing in front of him again, blank-faced, immobile.
“This is really getting old,” Steve muttered to himself and then louder, “hey, Buck.”
The silence, Bucky’s apprehension, stretched taut between them as he watched Steve for a while. As if Bucky was throwing a test pitch, he said, flat and distant, “Steve.”
“Yeah, it’s me, it’s Steve.” He tried not to allow the annoyance to seep into his voice, but Steve wasn’t certain he was successful.
“Where are we?” There was no curiosity behind the words.
Steve drew his head back. Wow, a whole sentence. “To be honest, I have no goddamn idea. I think I’m in the Land of Nowhere. But you—I don’t think you could really be here, too.”
“We’re nowhere.” Eyes unfocused, lost in the middle distance.
“No, in Nowh—you know what, never mind.”
“How did you get here?” Well, that was the sixty-four-dollar question. “I was...” Jesus, he looked—ravaged, was the only word that came to mind, a darkness around his eyes like he had a couple of shiners, his lips dry and cracked, and while his arm was intact, the left sleeve was patchworked with what Steve assumed was dried blood.
With a sigh, Steve said, “So you do remember me.”
He appeared to be genuinely puzzled. “But you’re dead.”
That made Steve laugh loudly, and Bucky shrank back at the sound. “I think you got that turned around, pal.” Steve yearned to race forward and fold Bucky into his arms, bury his nose in Bucky’s hair, but—he was a ghost, a figment. Vapor.
“They showed me pictures...” His hands came up and he stared at his open palms, as if somehow he’d find an answer key to a test written there.
How did you tell someone they’d died? Steve’s heart pounded a hole in his chest and he fought for breath. “Who’s they?”
“The—the men who.” Bucky stopped, frowning. “No, you—you remember them.”
“I don’t know who you’re talking about. Can you tell me? I want to help you.” Steve struggled to keep his voice and body language neutral so as not to spook Bucky just when he’d finally begun to talk.
Bucky shook his head and finally met Steve’s eyes. “But you’re dead.”
Touch me. Pinch me or slap me, something, anything, I’ll prove to you I’m real. “Really, I’m not.” Steve drew a breath. “You fell from a train. You died. I watched you, I watched you fall into a canyon hundreds of feet deep. I’m sorry, Bucky, but you’re the one who died.” Wetness on his cheeks, snot running out of his nose—he didn’t care.
“No...I...don’t think that’s right...” His face was somber, confused as he stared off to the left, he seemed to be in communication with someone Steve couldn’t see or hear.
There were more important things to discuss. “Listen, I have to—” and then Bucky’s eyes locked on Steve’s and he sucked in air sharply, obviously in pain.
“They want me to wake up now,” Bucky said, his voice cracking. “I have to wake up.”
“Who’s they?” Steve insisted and dashed to Bucky at full speed. Right as he threw his arms around Bucky’s shoulders, he vanished.
Yet Steve had felt it: the rough fabric of his jacket, the solid muscle of his arms. He was just as real as Steve was.
Steve waited impatiently, pacing in circles. So far, Bucky had appeared at random intervals, and he had nothing but time here. Hours passed while he carved a path in the soil, and just when he was ready to give up, Bucky showed himself; this time he remembered Steve without prompting. He insisted once more that Steve was the one who’d died, said the same thing when Steve told him it was he who’d perished: “No...I don’t think that’s right...”
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to hurt you. But I saw you die. You don’t know what that was like, Buck—I will never forget it, never. I tried to reach you but I couldn’t and you—you fell off the moving train.”
His face read more as quizzical than hurt. “They—they showed me a newspaper. The headline said ‘Rogers Disappears Over Arctic.’” There was a date on it. And a—a newsreel. Your plane crashed.”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you, you mule. It crashed, but I got out. I think Jimmy Jupiter threw me here somehow to save me.”
“How is that possible? You were—we were—” His shoulders slumped and mouth twisted, frustration radiating from him in waves as he searched for words. “How could they pull you from an airplane if it was in the water?” Wake up, wake up, wake up.
“When I first radioed in, when I was still in the air, Jim was there, and then Peggy took over. I think Jim got hold of them while she was on the line with me, and I think—”
A harsh, hollow laugh. Steve blinked. What the hell? “That’s stupid. They wouldn’t have had enough time.” He said it like he was repeating something he’d been instructed to say. None of his usual impatience with Steve’s flights of fancy. No emotion at all. Something was horribly wrong here.
“No, they wouldn’t.” Steve clung to this explanation because he had to. “Look. I’ve been here for days. I’m starving and thirsty and I want to find food and water more than I want to figure out how this is happening or argue with you about details.”
“It’s been more than days, I think...”
“Since you’ve been showing up, yes.”
“I mean...when you died. It’s been months.”
“For the last time, I’m not dead.” Ecstatic though he might be to have brought Bucky here, this was making him crazy.
“You came here when you crashed, correct?” When they were schoolboys and he was tackling a geometry assignment or working on a class paper, Bucky’s face would get just like this: brows drawn together, eyes narrowed with intense focus, mouth pursed. “You pulled yourself out and you were here. Just like I—I—” and his eyes went round again, terrified of something impossible to see. A dark hole appeared behind him, yanking Bucky backwards and away from Steve, left arm outstretched, exactly like the train. “Steve!” Bucky screamed, dropping through the dark sky behind him, and Steve leapt for him, seizing him about the waist with every ounce of his strength, falling with him.
“Bucky, hold on! Don’t let go!” he shouted as Bucky grabbed at his shoulders. He wouldn’t drop him, couldn’t allow him to disappear again, not this time.
They hit the ground together with a bone-crunching thud, landing on a riverbank, sapphire water rushing inches from their heads—Bucky’s river. Steve pulled them both upright and Bucky looked at him, confused, anxious, as Steve checked him for injuries. “I...fell. Didn’t I? You’re right, I fell. But they...”
“We were taking Zola off the train. I lost you.” With shaking hands he touched Bucky’s face; he didn’t recoil, even when Steve swiped his thumb underneath Bucky’s lower lashes.
“We’re not dead, Steve. We’re not. I fell but they...found me.” His gaze was more confident, firm with conviction that he remembered this right. “You didn’t make me up, we’re both here. This is where I fell.”
Steve shook his head. “If we’re not in Nowhere, and I’m not making you up, then where the hell are we and how did we get here? What the hell was that?” Steve gestured vaguely in the direction of their fall.
“I remembered falling, so we fell,” Bucky said with a nonchalant shrug, like it was the most logical of statements and only a moron wouldn’t see that. Oh, that was just insulting.
Steve made a noise of frustration. “Horseshit. I’ve tried wishing for things, I’ve tried concentrating hard, I’ve tried getting overwrought and upset, and nothing ever happens the way I want it to. I can’t control anything. I got no idea how Nowhere works. It has to be someone else’s—” Oh god. The cosmic cube. Could this be some horrible fever dream that started when Schmidt touched it? “I’ve wished every moment since you fell that I could undo it all. Bring you back.” Monkey’s paw. Shit, shit, shit.
“For the last fucking time you obstinate jackass, I’m not dead! You’re not imagining me because of someone else’s mystical hocus-pocus shit!” and Bucky glared at him as Steve burst into laughter.
Steve’s chest and belly shook with it, he could hardly stand upright he was laughing so hard. It felt so good he thought he might faint. “Oh, there he is,” Steve said, wiping his eyes. “God, I missed you so much. Every day you were gone fuckin’ hurt. I never thought I’d see you again and I couldn’t imagine how I was supposed to carry on like that. It’s really you.”
Bucky seemed almost as surprised as Steve was at his outburst, but maybe that was relief in his eyes, too. There came a brief hesitation before he offered, quietly, “Steve, I know I’m not dead. I’m sure of it. I’m not a figment of your imagination, because things...happen to me. They put me to sleep sometimes, injections, and they wake me up. A dead guy can’t imagine that, an—an apparition couldn’t dream up a story like that. I’m asleep right now. I think that’s why I’m here.” He cocked his head, as if he was listening for someone again, the tension of expectation made his body rigid.
Well, stranger things had happened, Steve was living proof of that. If they could see each other here, that meant— “How could we share a dream?”
“Wasn’t that what Zola was doing? Making a serum of his own?” Bucky acted as though that meant nothing at all to him, but it sickened Steve to hear it. Like having been experimented on, tortured, was SOP.
The recognition hit Steve as he thumped down upon the hard rocky ground. Ice cut through his veins, his lungs burned from the cold, he was sinking, drowning. “That means I didn’t make it out of the plane. Jimmy didn’t save me and Peggy isn’t looking for me and—”
“It’s so cold when they make me sleep. Are you cold inside?”
Steve nodded, dull, dismal: so he was dead, or at least half dead, frozen somehow in the watery tomb of the Valkyrie—“But I’m hungry and thirsty and...I feel things. If it’s only in my mind, then...”
Bucky crouched beside him and drew Steve to him, and it should have been sublime to have his Bucky here again, to touch him like this, but Steve was sick with despair. “Bet they’re searching for you right now. Bet it’ll be just like that avalanche, and that serum will let them bring you right back, like you only had a long nap.” Bucky petted Steve’s hair, hummed softly against the side of his neck, just like he used to do.
It had been a long time since Steve had looked at Bucky and wished for something that could never be. To think of Bucky that way when he didn’t know had felt like a violation; to need something more than just their friendship, their brotherhood, was dishonest. But Steve had Bucky now the way he’d always fantasized—all to himself, his dream come true, but he just...couldn’t. It wasn’t fair to wish Bucky here for something so wrong.
“Sooner or later they’ll get closer to those coordinates and they’ll find you. Howard’s smart, he’ll realize that you might not have crashed exactly where you last radioed in.”
Bucky rested his chin on the top of Steve’s head. “Hmm?”
“I never told Peggy the coordinates,” he confessed, meek and shamefaced.
Bucky’s whole body went stiff, he pulled his head away to stare at Steve with shock, then his face softened, his eyes spilling over with grief. “Oh...oh, Steve, no. No.”
With a sniffle, Steve ran his hand over his eyes and reluctantly moved out of Bucky’s embrace, meeting his sorrowful eyes. There wasn’t anything else to say about that. “You said you remembered falling, and we ended up here. When I saw you before that and you didn’t remember me, you made everything go black, as if it had been burnt up in a fire. I can’t seem to control—this, whatever it is, but you can.”
“I’m pretty sure it was just an accident,” he said distantly, his gaze fixed on something far past Steve. Then, more intently, “What exactly did you try to do?”
“Thought if I could get to a place like the Greenland air base, there might be some way to connect to—the other side, I suppose. It was close to where the plane went down.” He glanced away, embarrassed. “It sounds terribly stupid, but I kind of thought after you did that, made the landscape change—well, maybe it was emotions, because Jimmy’s just a kid, after all, he was kind of excitable. But if we’re not in Nowhere, then I don’t know what makes it happen. Like I said. Dumb, I know.”
“No, that’s—” at once Bucky had his tactical face on, and Steve wanted to kiss it, pour all his relief and need and devotion into Bucky somehow with his mouth, his breath. “That makes sense. If we’re both dreaming, we can be like—like a radio antenna or something, we can amplify what we want, right? Sort of like that machine Howard was working on, the one that boosted the Hydra signals, scattered ’em around frequencies so we could pinpoint their locations. Higher level technology, he called it.”
Steve put his hand over his mouth, his throat tight. “You’re remembering. All these details, you’re remembering on your own—the first few times I saw you didn’t even remember me, your name, anything.”
With a grunt, Bucky stood up, shaking his head, impatient and cranky; Steve expected him to call him a jerk. “They make me forget, I think.”
“Who’s they, Buck? Why won’t you tell me?”
“Because I don’t know, you goddamn jackass!” His words hit Steve like a slap, Bucky’s anger was a physical thing, a shockwave. But who was he angry with—Steve, or himself?
“Okay, all right. Forget it,” Steve said and if he pouted, he couldn’t help it. “And if you call me a jackass one more time, I’ll sock you.” Bucky’s eyebrows shot up as soon as Steve said it, his are you serious? look, rolling his eyes. “I mean, it’s okay. I’m sorry to keep asking, I just—I’d really like to help you.”
“I don’t see how that’s gonna happen, Sleeping Beauty.”
“Well, that’s comforting. At least your terrible personality has returned.” Steve jerked his chin up. “If this is a dream, then—in dreams you go places but you don’t know how you got there. One minute you’re in a field in France and there’s mortars exploding all around you and next thing you know, you’re on the Brooklyn Bridge with an ice cream in your hand. Movement isn’t logical, right? So, if we boost each other’s signals, we could go somewhere else, don’t you think? I’d kinda like to eat something. Aren’t you hungry?”
“Chicken and dumplings.”
“What?” Steve asked with an incredulous laugh.
“Chicken and dumplings, it was my favorite. Don’t you remember? Ma made it on Sundays, she’d leave the chicken in to stew all day while we were gone, and there was fresh-baked bread, when things weren’t so dear. A cobbler for dessert, too.”
Steve moaned and closed his eyes as he recalled Mrs. Barnes’s Sunday dinner, all the times he’d sat at the table like he was part of their family. He felt Bucky’s fingers clutch his, and when he heard Bucky gasp Steve opened his eyes.
“Holy cow. That worked way better than I thought it would,” and Bucky sounded joyful for the first time since he’d shown up here—in Steve’s dreams—in Steve’s death—wherever the hell they actually were. Steve tore his eyes from Bucky’s face: the Barneses’ last apartment, the one they’d moved to after Rebecca was born, its dining table holding a steaming serving bowl full of chicken and dumplings. Two smaller bowls appeared, then a mound of warm, aromatic soda bread, and there was a—Steve sniffed the air—rhubarb pie or cobbler somewhere, maybe in the kitchen.
Steve didn’t waste time admiring the tableau, he was famished and set to eating as fast as he could. Bucky stood watching for an amused minute or two before he joined Steve at the table, ladling out more to refill Steve’s bowl, over and over until Steve thought he might burst. The serving bowl kept topping itself up, more bread appeared, too—that meant there would be endless dessert, he thought gleefully. Bucky ate at a decidedly slower pace, his face soft, fond, and when he seemed satisfied that Steve was done, he brought the cobbler to the table and served it up just like Steve’s mother had done for him when he was little. When Steve was finished he watched Bucky watching him, his chin in his hand, that curl at the corners of his smile Steve had missed with such a piercing ache.
“You realize that could have been poisoned, or just bad somehow. Since we made it up.”
Steve scoffed. “Why would we make up something poisonous?”
“Right, ’cause we’ve had so much practice wishing stuff into being that we haven’t got the faintest idea how to cook.” His eyes went wide. “You know what this means, though. We can do whatever we want here. Go wherever we want to go.”
“Do you think we could imagine people?” Steve would be content to stay here, honestly, to have Bucky safe, and he was loath to pop this bubble of euphoria around them. Bucky was here, Bucky was with him, and he didn’t care if they were alive or dead or dreaming or anything, he wanted only this. “Maybe—maybe your family. My ma.” It was only then that he noticed the edges of the apartment were hazy and soft—the Autochrome pictures again—and there appeared to be nothing beyond the hallway entrance: outside the windows it was gray, featureless where there should have been buildings across the alley. It really was a dreamscape: his mind had formed places, shapes, all just like his paintings or the photographs he collected, scumbled edges and soft lines and muted shades. The only thing clear and sharp was Bucky and this area immediately surrounding them. Their imaginations could only extend so far.
Maybe Bucky comprehended that too, because he looked doubtful and melancholy. “I guess what I’m trying to figure out is why you’re hungry and thirsty. If we’re asleep, why would we need food or water?”
“I don’t know.” Steve shrugged. “But I thought I was in Nowhere, so.” You thought you were alive, you thought someone would save you.
“Any other...bodily functions? Have to piss? Shit? Throw up?”
“No, I—” Whatever else he was going to say was lost as he tried to recall what had happened after he’d hit the ice, but he couldn’t. Had there been blood? “I guess it is all in my head.”
With a quick wave of his hand, Bucky noted, droll and irked, “All in our heads.” He trained his piercing gaze on Steve, reached across the table to take his hand. “What happened to you, Steve? Tell me what really happened. I don’t think I—know what’s true anymore.”
What was Steve supposed to say: you died and I wanted to die, too? “It’s so empty here. Your family? Ma?” and Bucky made an exasperated noise but nodded his head. They closed their eyes and recalled the faces of their families; when they opened them, Bucky’s folks were standing by the parlor, dressed just as they’d been the day they sent Bucky off to McCoy, and Steve’s mother was wearing her favorite Sunday dress, her hair done up, a little bit of lip rouge on. None of them moved or spoke of their own accord.
“Ma,” Steve said and threw his arms around her; she responded mechanically, no enthusiasm in the embrace, and said “Steven,” as she let him hold her. When he let go, she simply stood back, waiting for him to do something. He turned to Bucky—his family was the same: mechanical, automatons who weren’t moving unless he did, speaking unless spoken to. His little sisters were too calm, too reserved; they should have been running around like maniacs and shrieking at the prospect of seeing him again.
“I look different, I know,” Steve said, and Ma smiled vaguely at him, touched his face.
“I’m so happy you’re here,” and the flat way she said it made his skin crawl.
A strangled sound came from Bucky’s side of the room, his voice had an edge of fear. “What is going on?”
“I don’t know. If we could remember all this stuff and put ourselves here, we should...” But people talked and walked and spoke in dreams all the time. Why couldn’t they?
Bucky wrapped his arms around himself. “They’re not really here.”
“I got news, buddy, neither are we. You said we’re asleep, remember?”
“We can remember people inside the dream, but we can’t—make them real people, I guess. We can remember things or imagine them, but that’s” —and he stopped himself, drew in a quivery breath— “that’s why everything fades out around the edges. We’re the only things real in here.”
What could he say to that? He’d spent days trying to invent some kind of logical scheme for Nowhere Land, to make all of this make sense. He’d latched on to the dream idea because he wanted so badly to believe Bucky was alive, that they were here together, but this wasn’t how dreams worked, either. Steve stared at his mother—her form—and closed his eyes, letting her go into the darkness. Bucky stared helplessly after him, then closed his eyes and shook his head, his family disappearing, too.
They had to try something else and get this bad taste out of their mouths; Steve put on his best brave smile. “Come on, let’s go somewhere fun! If we can make your place from memories, we could make something even better now that we know how. Where was the last place we were happy?” Bucky had never been happy after he went into the army. He smiled, laughed, joked around, but he was never happy, Steve knew his moods better than he knew his own. He was a scholar of Bucky Barnes, the world’s leading expert, even though he hadn’t had the faintest clue how to help Bucky after the factory.
Steve expected Coney Island or Ebbets Field; instead Bucky gave him “the Expo.” When he closed his eyes, Steve followed suit, pictured it in his mind—all the fuzzy details he hadn’t made note of because he’d been so fixated on the recruitment station. Bucky laughed, so Steve opened his eyes: sure enough, they stood in the middle of main exhibit area, the monorail zooming past the giant metal globe, brilliant but blurred colors as its backdrop.
With a snort, Steve commented, “Maybe you were happy here, pal, but I sure wasn’t. The girl you fixed me up with hated me, and I’d just been given another 4F and taken a beating in an alley. I was fuckin’ miserable.”
“Why on earth would she hate you?” Bucky said it like he was almost affronted, began walking in the direction of the stage where they’d first seen Howard Stark and his flying car.
“I never knew, but she wouldn’t stop scowling at me the whole fucking evening. Everything I did seemed to get under her skin. Honestly, I think she was just royally cheesed off that I wasn’t you. Both of those gals swooned over you. How did you not see that?”
Without warning, Bucky stopped and Steve crashed into his back; he turned sharply and stared hotly at Steve as his Adam’s apple bounced up and down in his throat. “I guess because I only had eyes for you most of the time, you dumb cluck.”
Steve’s mouth opened, but nothing came out. Bucky continued to glare defiantly at him, daring him to say something, but all Steve could think was this has to be because it’s my dream. “Uhh...”
Bucky puffed a breath out of his nose and shook his head, stalking off in a different direction. Fireworks burst furiously behind the giant Expo globe all of a sudden, apparently in response to Bucky’s mood. His face was exactly the same as when he’d said “you’re a punk” before hugging him and Steve had thought—feared—it might be the last time he’d ever see Bucky. At the time, Steve had thought that was as painful as it could get: losing Bucky to war on top of losing his mother, but now he knew what loss really was. Life hadn’t meant much without Bucky, Steve had been content to throw it away, yet he still couldn’t speak his piece and tell Bucky what he meant to him.
“It feels strange, being here without people, though, doesn’t it? Spooky.” Bucky shuddered, and Steve gave him a smile that must have looked more like a grimace. “We could try? They don’t have to interact with us, I suppose, it’s just background—the way we had extras on the Cap pictures. And also, if we can control this, why are we both still wearing our damn uniforms like we’re tromping around looking for Nazis?”
Bucky answered with an arch look and waved his hand down his front: his uniform was replaced by a handsome midnight blue three-button suit, a crisp white shirt and pocket square, and a blue and brown geometric pattern tie, his dark blue homburg tilted at a rakish angle and low on his forehead.
“Oh, you and your fancy duds.” Steve shut his eyes and imagined his favorite, at least presentable, clothes: dark brown trousers, the pale pink shirt that was the last thing his ma had given him, tan gabardine jacket, and an even louder tie than Bucky’s with palm leaves on a light orange background. He’d never had a decent pair of shoes, really, through the entirety of the Depression, so he gave himself a snazzy pair of two-toned oxfords. Bucky scoffed.
“How many people should we make?”
“I dunno,” Steve said, considering, “enough to make it feel less empty, I guess, but not so many we have to stand in line for things. Can we make them stand in line or buy tickets or ride the rides?”
“Why not. And it’s our dream world, we can cut to the front of any line we want.” Steve pictured the throngs milling around the exhibits and it slowly filled in with people, as if watching a photograph develop. The people were doing just what they should be doing: buying tickets and snacks, getting in lines, coming and going, making a low hum of noise but no distinct conversations. But when they approached a group of soldiers in uniform and their dates, the details were off—they were blurry, their features so diffuse their faces were almost blank, and it made Steve shudder. It was not an attractive, mysterious opaqueness like the Autochromes or the paintings, it was simply ghoulish and eerie. He glanced at Bucky, who seemed as uncomfortable as he was, and tried even harder to picture them in greater detail, but they stubbornly remained the same: everything and everyone looked slightly unfinished, vague, and it was—“Christ, that’s creepy,” Bucky said with revulsion. “It’s almost like when I—” His chest rose and fell with too-rapid breaths, his eyes widening in alarm, and Steve caught him as he stumbled backwards, quaking.
“We can get rid of them, we can get rid of them!” Steve insisted, alarmed that he might lose Bucky again to whatever fear had made him disappear before. He took Bucky’s face in his hands, forced him to focus on his eyes. “It doesn’t matter. It’s all right. I’ll make them go away. You’re all right.” His pupils were completely blown out.
Bucky rubbed his fingers across his mouth. “No, it’s...it’s fine. I’ll be fine. Let ’em stay.” He searched Steve’s eyes for something: not reassurance, maybe, only—a reminder that he was here, this was happening.
Steve pulled Bucky to him, felt his heart beat heavy under his ribs. “It’s weird that we can make all of this” —he waved his hand around— “but we can’t make it perfect, and we can’t make people look quite right. We couldn’t make our families act like themselves.”
“They look like your paintings,” Bucky said quietly, followed by a weak laugh. “In fact, all of this reminds me of your paintings, the soft colors and lines, and the indistinct features. The way pieces sort of fade out. You liked to paint lines kind of diffusing into the edges of the canvas, like rays of light. I always thought your work looked like dreams.”
He’d said as much, many times, especially when Steve hated his work, when he was ready to give up the art he made for himself instead of for his employers. When he figured he should just become a drudge who churned out graphics for posters and brochures or something. Those times he’d been most lost, it had been Bucky who’d set him back on the path and made him feel valuable and talented, maybe even more than Ma, more than his teachers.
“We could ditch this place and go somewhere else. Got the whole world at our disposal. Hell, we could even conjure up a rocket ship and fly to the moon. That’d be somethin’.”
Bucky gave a halfhearted laugh. “Sit on a beach somewhere. I used to dream about that all the time when it was winter over there. Coldest European winter on record, they said.”
“Nah. Someplace...grander. More exotic.”
With a desirous sigh, Steve said, “Cuba.”
They both looked at each other and said in unison, “Hawaii!” Even before the war, they’d fantasized about that—traveling to California, seeing the coastline, sailing to Hawaii on an ocean liner. Steve could sit under palm trees swaying in a tropical breeze and paint, just like Gauguin—
“Tahiti.” Steve didn’t even like Gauguin, but he loved that idea.
“Don’t even really know what it looks like, do you? What do we imagine? Just make it like the films we saw of Hawaii?”
“I don’t know. But we can make it anything we want, right—we’re dream engineers!”
“Eat that, Howard Stark,” Bucky said with a sly grin, and they clasped hands—even if they didn’t need to, Steve was more than happy to sneak in a chance to touch him—and together sent themselves to a tropical beach in the South Pacific. Their feet sank into hot white sand, in front of them lay azure water stretching as far as the eye could see, behind them a curving forest thick with palm trees fluttering in the salty-tangy breeze. Steve imagined the small huts with thatched roofs that sat along the water he’d seen once in National Geographic and a dozen of them appeared. Bucky was tracking it all, ecstatically slack-jawed and fish-eyed; Steve chortled and poked him in the ribs.
“I don’t know about you, pal, but I’m not gonna stand on a tropical beach in a fuckin’ suit and tie,” so Bucky was tearing off his tie, clapping his hands, and next thing Steve knew Bucky was in swimming trunks, running toward the water. Steve thought briefly why even bother with trunks but gave himself a pair and followed Bucky in, the water so crystal clear it was as if they were swimming not through water but in the sky above blue-tinted sand. The warm, clear, calm inlet afforded them a perfect view of brightly colored fish coasting along in schools beneath them as they paddled along, and—
He was so cold; there was ice everywhere, crystals of it clogging his veins, coating his lungs, filling his mouth so he couldn’t breathe. Too dark to see—blackness closed around him, squeezing, squeezing. He tried to reach out for Bucky but his arms were immobilized, holding the shield in front of him and he struggled to move, but his strength wasn’t enough, wasn’t enough to allow him...
Dark shapes shot toward him, threatening, coming from all directions. He was surrounded by the enemy—
“Can’t you find me?” he tried to shout, except no sound could pass through the ice that covered him and choked his throat. He’d never felt so hopeless, so helpless. Where was Bucky? Or Peggy? He was alone down here. Nowhere to go. No one to save him. Alone. But where was here?
“Wake up! For fuck’s sake, Steve, wake up!”
Steve heard it and felt it: the whooosh — whump! of being violently pulled and then hurled back into his body. With a gasp he opened his eyes to Bucky’s face looming above him, eyes wide and tears quivering on his lashes, mouth open as he took deep panting breaths. Bucky...Bucky was here. But he was—he flickered in and out, there were two different Buckys: one was Steve’s Bucky, the other had ghastly tubes and wires sticking out of him and something dark covered half his face. The images weren’t stable, they were—fighting with each other, as if a projector light was burning out as the film jittered on the reel. Steve stared up at him, struck numb with fear.
“Oh, thank god.” Bucky sucked in a ragged breath and the alter-image stilled, leaving him with his Bucky, perfectly intact and wearing only his swim trunks. They were on the sand: Steve lying on his back, Bucky clutching his shoulders so hard it hurt.
“What happened?” Steve asked, groggy, heart still pounding and giving him one hell of a headache.
“I don’t know. God, Steve, you scared me out of my mind.” Bucky sat back on his haunches. “We were floating along, looking at the fish, and then you suddenly—” he choked back a noise like a sob and closed his eyes. “You froze and your eyes went blank and you started sinking into the water. I thought you were drowning but you wouldn’t move, wouldn’t even try to save yourself.”
“I’m not really here, am I?” Steve said, hushed. Because you’re dead. “We’re not really here.”
Bucky shook his head. “Don’t start with that.”
“The water was so clear and calm that it seemed like we were swimming through the air. It reminded me of the—the companions I had earlier. I thought it was Nowhere because I kept seeing all these strange shapes, these things swimming in the sky above me, just like how Jimmy described meeting all those bizarre creatures when he went there, but I stopped seeing them when you showed up and...” He was babbling now, confused and shaking. Steve reached up and touched Bucky’s cheek. “It’s why I know that you’re only in my mind. I drowned. I’m—” half dead in the ice.
“I got no idea what you’re even blubbering about. And for the last fucking time, I’m not dead.”
“Then why did you keep vanishing? You talk about ‘they’ but you won’t explain who they are. Because I made you up and I don’t know. So how could you.”
“Oh, Christ, where do I even start. The damn-fool absurdity.” Bucky rubbed his head and got up. “Let’s get you out of the sun.” Once, Bucky had found him in a heap in an alley near the Gowanus of all places, clothes torn and face bloody, and pulled him up, muttering almost those exact words. “What was it this time?” he’d barked, “some fella made googly-eyes and pinched a gal’s rump? Kicked a dog? Called you kid?” He’d never had any patience for Steve’s penchant for trouble, yet he’d always been there to pick up the pieces, or take on a fight side by side, or to comfort him afterward.
“I want to go home.” His voice was petulant and childlike.
“Let’s just...sit in the shade for a while, have something to drink and figure it out, okay?” Poor Bucky, even in their little dream-death-world he had to take care of Steve. “Coupla ice cold beers, right?”
They moved from the sand to the shade and leaned back against the trunks of some palm trees, silently pulling on their beers. Steve was still shaky; he was certain Bucky should be able to hear the clacking of the bottle against his teeth but Bucky only stared straight ahead at the sparkling bay when he said, “I don’t want to tell you about what happens out there because I don’t want it to spoil what’s happening in here. You’ll be upset and there’s nothing either one of us can do. There’s a man who can...he can make you forget who you are, do things you don’t want to do, and they.” He chewed his lower lip. “They were making a machine to do the same thing. You won’t want to see what I am, Stevie. You wouldn’t know me.” Steve remembered being fascinated by a hypnotist act at Coney Island one time, a fellow who could make a man get down on all fours and bark, a woman walk and talk like Mae West; Bucky, on the other hand, had been repelled by it.
How could Bucky be anything but who he was—good and smart and kind, the best of people. He could be nothing but the one Steve loved most in the world. It’s been months. But Bucky had been appearing here for less than a few days... Time passed differently where Bucky was—or wherever the hell they were.
“I would know you no matter what,” Steve said with a vehemence that embarrassed him. Bucky stared at him, that familiar knowing gaze: he’d always been able to see right through Steve as if he were made of glass. They finished their beers and made some more; Steve was calmer now, more focused. “When we were swimming, it reminded me of these things I saw when I first crawled out of the plane” —when you died— “and that’s why I thought I was in Nowhere. Remember how nuts some of the stuff Jimmy described sounded? I saw these big shapes, some of them had tails or—tendrils, one had a—a horn, like a unicorn horn. And they floated through the air, as if they were swimming. Once, I tried to reach out to touch them, but my fingers hit something solid, like they were kept behind glass, but it rippled, the way water would. They kept me company, until you began showing up. One time I—I was walking along and I lost track of time, I was certain I was drowning, I was outside my body, begging for help and then... Well. I came back into myself but I realize now that I was just—wherever I am. Seeing through to wherever I am. I guess that’s what really happened to me.”
“I don’t want to go back,” Bucky said with such intensity Steve blinked. “Every time they wake me up I forget things. They try to take you away from me. What if I disappear again and come back and I don’t remember you?”
“I’ll help you remember, every time. I’ll be here. I won’t forget you.”
Bucky stared at his hands. There were a hundred different questions Steve wanted to ask him but right now he couldn’t, whatever Bucky had to tell him Steve would have to earn. For once in his damn life he had to be patient. “Hey. Here we are in paradise and we’re wasting it. Do you want to stay, or should we go someplace else? You said you wanted to go home.”
“No, listen,” Steve said and knelt to clutch Bucky’s shoulders. “Listen to me. When I was...when I crashed, I lost consciousness, I think. Someone was telling me to wake up. At first I thought maybe it was Jimmy or Peggy, but it was you. You were telling me to wake up, there was a pocket of air and I was able to get out before I di—” He sighed. “Drowned. But it was you. You saved my life. Well, sort of.” Bucky didn’t believe him, Steve could tell: eyes narrowed, head angled away, mouth a thin tight line.
Steve surged forward and pressed his mouth to Bucky’s, tentative, timid; Bucky froze, unresponsive, stiff. A shocked, disbelieving laugh escaped his lips against Steve’s—so Steve resolved to press harder, make his point. Bucky didn’t fight it, didn’t exactly give in, either, but he let his lips part just enough, tilted his head, and Steve crushed his mouth to Bucky’s with all the longing he’d denied for years. His hands scrambled for purchase on the warm skin of Bucky’s back, the sensation provoking a flutter in his lower belly, and Bucky moaned against his mouth as his fingers slipped into Steve’s hair, gripping his head tight.
Just as quickly as Steve had kissed him Bucky broke away, flustered, his hand held up, mouth red and juicy, eyes glittering. “What is— What are we doing here?”
“You mean you don’t know?” Steve teased; he thought if he could make Bucky laugh...
Bucky threw him a narrow look. “I’m not... What’s happening?”
Steve offered his best hopeful smile, but in truth he felt queasy at Bucky’s hostile reaction. “It’s a dream, right? I’m making my dream come true.”
“You fuckin’ ass.” Bucky spat the words at him, shoving Steve hard with the heels of his hands and he got up, stalking toward the water.
“Buck, wait!” Steve ran after him, spun Bucky around to face him. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I thought—what you said at the Expo, I thought maybe—”
“You’re in love with Peggy! You think I don’t know that? You think somehow that’s escaped my attention, the way you look at her, the way your face goes all moony and your heart practically jumps out of your chest?” The water grew choppy, dark clouds swooped in over the horizon—Steve wasn’t sure which one of them was making this happen.
“Yes, I like her. I like her a lot. It’s not exactly a state secret. But I’ve liked you longer.” Put it all on the line, this might be your only chance. “Do you remember that time you came home from a date and that fellow from my life studies class was there?” They’d been sharing an apartment for more than two years by that time; he’d been happy, most of the time, to have Bucky near him constantly, but there was an element of torture in it, too, forced to hide everything he felt for Bucky, keep it safely tucked away in dirty little corners.
“Yeah, Fred or Frank or something...” Bucky puffed out a frustrated breath. He didn’t want his anger soothed.
“Francis. He was—he liked boys, and I liked him back. We’d got to know each other, after classes we’d go to the Automat sometimes, nurse a cup of coffee and talk for hours. When he told me about himself, I felt like I’d recognized something I’d tried not to think about for a long time. That day you came home, we had been—well, we’d been sketching each other and that led to kissing and we brought each other off with our hands. Fortunately we were dressed when you got there, but I always wondered if you could...”
“Jesus, Steve, you’re not a queer. I would know” —his voice raw, as if Bucky had to tear every word out of his throat. That was it—Bucky laying himself open, allowing Steve to see every wound and every drop of blood. “Why?”
“Because I knew I could never have you. That you had all those gals...I couldn’t risk the most important thing in my life and when you can’t change something into what you want it to be, you gotta stand it. It wasn’t any different from all the other things in my life I had to stand.” Bucky couldn’t even know what Steve was talking about; he was perfect and beautiful and life had been like an oyster for him, pearls waiting to be plucked from whatever he opened up.
For a while Bucky continued to stare at him, pole-axed, as the water calmed and the clouds disappeared. The sun beat down on their skins as Steve said softly, “Loving Peggy doesn’t mean I couldn’t love anyone else. I loved you first.”
With a shake of his head, Bucky remarked, “We’re in paradise, why are we fighting?” and it was as if he’d flicked a wall switch and everything had shut off but his charm: Bucky could put that on and take it off like a shirt. “We should have tropical drinks, right?”
Steve sighed, hopeless, resigned. “Singapore slings,” he offered feebly.
“Daiquiris? I don’t even know what any of those taste like.”
“Make it up as we go along.” Steve flashed a pained smile; Bucky waded into the water with a pinkish drink in his hand.
“Hey, when you—when that thing happened before, you said the swimming reminded you of some animals you saw. That’s why you thought this was Nowhere.”
The abrupt change of topic made his head spin; he’d never seen Bucky as cowardly, but he was running away from the kiss and Steve’s revelation as quickly as he could. “I don’t know what they were. They varied in size and shape. It was like they swam in the sky, or something, like I said. Thought I was going crazy at first but they kept following me. Guess I got used to them, they seemed harmless.”
“Sketch ’em for me.”
“I don’t—” oh, wait; Steve conjured up a pad and pencil. “One of them looked like it had a horn or something. And some of them were kind of cute, like little cups with crepe-paper streamers. I think one sparkled. But they were dark and featureless, just...blobs.”
Bucky looked over Steve’s shoulder as he drew, his breath warm, smelling like gin and fruit, and he chuckled. “Didn’t you ever pay attention in science class, you dimwit?”
“Only if it related to something I could use for inspiration. Why, what?”
Bucky flicked him on the shoulder. “This is a, I think it’s called a narwhal. It’s like a small whale with an ivory horn. That’s gotta be a walrus. Jellyfish.” He tapped his finger hard on the pad. “I don’t know what that’s called. Stingray?”
Of course Bucky knew all those things, he’d been such a brilliant student, so keen to study science and history, the arts, all of it—learning was as much a passion as baseball, as dancing. Steve had missed so much school, especially in winter, that Bucky had often been his tutor, helping him catch up, giving him advice. “I started thinking of it as the flap-flap because of the way it moved its little wings.”
“You’re a stupid punk.” But that fond light had returned to Bucky’s eyes, his face mellow and open. “Sea creatures. That’s what you were seeing. Hey. Maybe some of them are polar bears, wouldn’t that be a wing-ding.”
Because I’m underwater. Because I’m half dead, still in the airplane. How the universe must be laughing at him right now. His hubris for becoming—what he was now, and he’d lost everything.
“Can you bring ’em back?”
Steve shrugged. “Don’t know how I got them there in the first place.” They stared at each other, neither sure what to say but knowing why Steve had been the one to see them, not Bucky. Bucky’d said that he was cold, asleep; so they were both frozen. How something like that worked, Steve couldn’t imagine, and he wasn’t sure, even yet, he believed it. But Bucky did. “They were comforting, when I was alone.” When he was still clinging to the belief he was somewhere he could be found. Peggy must have been grieving so much. He’d promised her he’d be there and just as he had with Bucky, he’d let her down.
Bucky threw his drink away and put his hands on Steve’s shoulders; his right hand was warm, his left ice-cold. “Listen to me. You’re alive. Peggy will find you. Howard won’t rest until you’re safe.”
“It doesn’t matter.” He wanted to go home, wanted to curl up on their ratty old couch and listen to Fibber McGee and Molly or laugh at the Dodgers’ usual incompetence. “I’ve had enough of tropical locales. Can we come back later? Maybe go home to the apartment in Red Hook?”
“Yeah, all right.” Bucky took Steve’s hands in his, held him tight—in a blink they were in the sitting room of their apartment: the tub with the board over it for a table, the windowed door to the bedroom off to their left still grimy as hell, the braided rug in brown and red and gold that Steve had always hated looking at. The rest of the room faded out into those blurred lines and gauzy colors he was beginning to get tired of. Bucky pulled the bottle of bourbon down from the high shelf and held two glasses out. “Let’s get snockered.”
Swirling the amber liquid in the glass, Steve said, “I can’t get drunk. Did you know that?” Bucky shook his head. “I tried, after you di—after you fell. It took us almost a week to get back to London with Zola. Some of the guys in the company said they’d get out there to search for you, but it was...difficult to get down there with the equipment we had. The boys did their best to keep Zola away from me so I wouldn’t have to look at his piggy face; you know, we had a job to do. They were afraid I was gonna kill him. But when it was over and we were back I went out to the Whip & Fiddle in the middle of an air raid. Place was bombed all to hell when I got there so I pulled up a chair that wasn’t kindling and drank bottle after bottle but nothing happened.”
“Jesus, Stevie.” The set of Bucky’s eyes was hard, clouded, his body tensed and waiting.
“Peggy came in when the all-clear was sounded. Reminded me that my metabolism burns four times higher than the average person’s. I remembered that Dr. Erskine had said the serum built a protective healing factor into my cells. The science didn’t matter, I just knew I couldn’t get drunk and it made me even angrier. Crying and drinking. Not very dignified for Captain fucking America.”
“Perfectly okay for Steve fucking Rogers.” The floor seemed very interesting to Bucky all of a sudden. He drew a shaky breath and said, “Didn’t you wonder why I was drinking so much when we were standing down?”
“I...” Never thought about it because I was too busy thinking about Peggy’s lips and her eyes and the way she moved like she was always ready to dance. And how many men drank like fiends over there, anyway? They’d seen combat; Steve never had at that point. They had every right to drink, Bucky most of all.
“I got a little buzz if I drank enough, but nothing like it was back before the factory. I wanted to drink to forget, but I couldn’t even manage that. I was a wreck.”
Steve reached across the couch and tilted Bucky’s chin up, willing him to raise his eyes to Steve’s. “About before.”
“Don’t start—” but the rest of Bucky’s words never had a chance to make it out because Steve swept him into his arms and stopped them with a kiss. Bucky couldn’t even allow himself to relax, to kiss Steve back, to want this. And Bucky did want this: that’s what he meant when he said he’d know if Steve was queer. When Steve pulled his mouth away, Bucky’s searing glare almost made him laugh, but his words sobered him fast. “You think this is some kind of game? That just because we’re stuck here in some kind of—I don’t know, fantasy dream world—that you can play around with this? Screw me over?”
“You’re not fucking listening to me. This is what I am. I don’t know if anything would have happened with Peggy. I’ll probably never have the chance to find out. But I do know that this is happening here with us, and if this is really—if we’re really here alive and we can be together here, maybe we’re being given a chance to find out what we really want from each other. What we can have. God! You can love more than one person at a time, you know.”
Bucky wanted to argue—that familiar way his jaw was set, squinted eyes—but he couldn’t. Every few seconds he’d open his mouth, close it when he lost whatever thread of an objection he had. Eventually he asked, “How many times did you—how long were you and Francis making time?”
“You’re jealous! Hah! I knew it.” Bucky rolled his eyes and Steve preened. “Not long. I might not be the smartest guy around, but I realized after a while I’d rather just be friends with you than get off with someone else. I never would have said anything, even here, except for what you said at the Expo. Did you really pay more attention to me that night than your date—what was her name? I don’t even remember.”
“Neither do I!” God, there it was, the Bucky laugh: ducking his head shyly, his grin as bright as Times Square at night. “Look, let’s get out of here. Get out of our heads for a while. This is—a lot to take in.”
“Where you wanna go?”
“Someplace that means something to us. Coney Island? A Dodgers game?”
“Coney. I could eat a ton of Nathan’s,” and before he knew it, they were on the boardwalk, screams from the Cyclone piercing the air and the scent of popcorn and hot dogs making his stomach rumble. Bucky was wearing his short-sleeved blue shirt and trousers and the sneakers he’d bought just before going to basic, and Steve put himself into the last clothes he’d worn, though without the tie. He still had those kisses rolling around in his head, knocking the dust off the feelings he’d kept hidden away for so long.
Though the crowds of people buzzed around them, Bucky wouldn’t look directly at their featureless faces, but they didn’t have to, not really, since they were making everything up as they walked along. Once they’d eaten and gone on some rides Bucky steered them toward the beach and waved all the people away from the sand: not as fine as Tahiti, but still all theirs, sun-warmed sand more pristine than it had ever been in real life. They watched the sunset, all sweet hazy pinks and purples and oranges, that indistinct horizon Steve had noticed before—he was growing to like it, this sense that nothing else existed out there, that the world consisted solely of this tiny bubble around them.
“I didn’t have the same experience you had with a fella,” Bucky said as he sat behind Steve, legs on either side of his hips and arms locking around his waist. They used to do this when Steve was small; it was awkward now, Steve didn’t fit within the V of his legs so easily anymore and Bucky had to lean forward to get his chin on Steve’s shoulder. It felt like home—his scent, his skin, his muscles and bones: that was what Steve thought of when he thought of home. Whatever was happening to them both out there didn’t matter—in here they belonged. “It was anonymous, just something to scratch an itch.”
“What about your girls?”
“Kissing. Petting. My hand.”
Steve laughed, pressing his mouth to Bucky’s arm. “I know you went to at least a few brothels.”
“You still got that itch?”
“Steve...come on. We can’t just jump into this here. Maybe it’s a dream, but...”
“Why not? This is our world. God, Bucky, I thought you were dead, every fucking minute was like torture without you. I couldn’t sleep, I wouldn’t eat. If this is an afterlife, or eternity, or we’re dreaming or it’s some weird experiment, then I’m over the damn moon that it’s you I get to spend it with.”
Bucky pressed his forehead to the back of Steve’s skull, his breath tickled Steve’s neck and he wished Bucky’d pull the collar of his shirt down, trail kisses behind his fingers: Steve was hot, feverish, that coil of pure want curling up through his belly like a lick of flame. What was stopping Bucky—did he believe that loving each other was some sort of betrayal of a relationship Steve had never even begun? Or maybe Bucky was simply afraid—he’d held on to this for so long, quashed whatever hopes he’d had and resigned himself to meaningless encounters. Well, goddammit, Steve wasn’t going to let him get away with that.
“You think I don’t know what I want. That I’m still the little fella you took care of all the time and you’re protecting me from some awful truth about myself. I know exactly what I want, Buck: I want you.”
He pushed Bucky down on the sand, heart playing a martial beat in his chest and his cock already swelling as he pressed down on top of him, pressed his lips to Bucky’s soft, pliant mouth, and there was a grunt of surprised annoyance before Bucky gave in and kissed him back. Steve teased forward with his tongue to open Bucky’s mouth all the way, taste him, Bucky’s fingers pulled on his hair and oh god, it went straight to his cock and he was completely hard now, a tingling spiral of arousal twisting through his groin. Beneath him he could feel Bucky’s own erection; he thrust helplessly like an animal against Steve, so Steve bit softly and sucked on Bucky’s lower lip to encourage them—faster, harder, more.
“Not here dammit,” Bucky growled, and they were in a posh room—somewhere in London, he thought, he could see the misty lights of Piccadilly beyond, which, well, he’d never seen it lit up, not during the war, but somehow he recognized it even in this muted dreamscape. “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Bucky laughed against Steve’s throat; it was an aphrodisiac, that laugh, especially now as it raced through his blood straight to his balls. Neither of them had the first clue what a suite at the Ritz looked like, so Bucky had imagined it like the places rich people inhabited in his favorite movies: Sullivan’s Travels and The Palm Beach Story and The Lady Eve, or The Thin—
“Wait. Are we Nick and Nora Charles? Please say we’re Nick and Nora.”
His guffaw shook the bed, he waved a hand at the table in the corner. “We need lots of martinis.” A bark also from the corner: “And Asta, too.” That was fantastic, sublime: he’d always said how much he wanted a dog exactly like Asta, sighing sadly because he was allergic and then when he wasn’t there was a goddamn war. This was a very well-behaved version—none of that adorable monkey business—curled up in a swanky bed, almost, Steve would swear, smiling at them.
He lavished Bucky with long minutes of hot, steamy thank-you kisses. They could simply wish their clothes off, but instead Steve scrambled to the edge of the softest bed he’d ever been on and unbuttoned his shirt with trembling fingers, unzipped the fly of his pants and stepped out of his undershorts while Bucky watched him, mouth parted, red, wet, eager. He was gilded by the soft gold light splashing across his skin, gleaming in his pomaded hair; his chest rose and fell so rapidly Steve was afraid he’d give himself an attack. God, he’d wanted this for—how long? he hadn’t said—never wanted to hope and Steve felt so tender toward him, so angry with himself for failing to believe that Bucky could want the same way Steve did.
Bucky lay back against the piles of pillows, allowing Steve to strip his clothes off; he’d seen Bucky naked a hundred times—swimming at the indoor pool, bathing at home, the company showers at the CP—but not like this, not with his cock erect, brushing the trail of hair on his belly. His left hand was still bewilderingly cold as he reached up to brush his fingers across Steve’s nipples, down his chest, teasing around the edge of his hardness, all with his Cheshire cat smile, and Steve thought he might lose himself once more: the sun of a different world, the mysteries of another universe altogether couldn’t compare to what he found in Bucky’s eyes here in this one. And god, his lips and the span of his shoulders and his hands, oh, his hands.
Steve kissed the inside of his thighs, dragged his lips over the soft skin of his cock. This was not at all like the times he’d done it before, nothing furtive and tinged with shame about what he wanted; here was only hunger and happiness and...completion, maybe, for a part of himself that had felt unfinished all these years. Everything he needed was here in Bucky: in Bucky’s pleasure, in releasing the emotions Steve had crushed and smothered in the belief he could never know this. He’d hoped, sometimes, with Peggy—or rather, he’d dared to hope—that he’d discover that completion, but this was a revelation. When Bucky came he quivered and gasped, hands fisting in Steve’s hair, the sheets, flailing for something to hold on to. Steve knelt between his legs, staring down at him triumphantly, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand; when Bucky noticed he said, shaky and drawn, “Steve, I...” but Steve silenced him with a kiss.
Bucky threw his arm across his eyes, as if he didn’t want Steve to see how much this had broken him or glimpse the unmistakable joy, the raw vulnerability. But Steve pulled his arm away and smoothed his sweat-damp hair back, kissed his temple. He was ashamed to find himself helplessly, needily rutting against Bucky’s hip, so Bucky turned on his side, giving Steve that lopsided grin at last and said, “I’m gonna take care of you.” Before he knew it, Bucky had climbed over him, was kissing his way down Steve’s chest, his stomach. His mouth was there on his cock, perfect and hot and wet, teasing at the head: Bucky knew he had Steve in the palm of his hand, that his mouth was magic and sparks were shooting from the top of Steve’s head. Steve was blind from the pleasure, the elation, and when he had spent himself he lay panting, so busted up inside that his dream had come true, he and Bucky were loving each other, finally, always, forever. He’d fallen into a new realm, and no one would ever find him—find them—again, and he was so very glad of that.
In the morning of their second—third?—day at the Ritz, Bucky woke Steve with kisses across his shoulders, feathery and light. “I know what we should do today,” he said and when Steve snorted Bucky whacked him on the backside.
“Dancing, jerk.” Of course: the Ritz Bar and Grill had the hottest ballroom in town, though as far as Steve knew Bucky had never been, and the basement bar was widely known as the spot for queers in wartime London.
“I shoulda known,” Steve moaned. “You’ve always got plans within plans, don’t you?” and Bucky waggled his eyebrows at Steve, slapped him on the rear again, and told him to get dressed. Asta was nowhere to be found; Steve wondered if Bucky had forgotten about keeping him around. Steve couldn’t think what to wear so he put on his service uniform; he caught a second’s hesitation where Bucky’s eyes clouded over with melancholy, but then he smiled and put his on, too.
“Coupla Yanks taking over the Ritz ballroom. We don’t gotta even make up any gals to dance with, just you and me and the orchestra. Glenn Miller?” He saw the stricken look Steve’s face must have—Miller’s plane had gone down over the English Channel not long before they’d both died. “No, that’s okay, Harry James.” His brain held an encyclopedic knowledge of popular tunes, Bucky absolutely loved music, and he’d be able to have the band play anything they wanted to hear. But—
“I still can’t dance, Buck. I just—don’t have the knack for it.”
His gaze dropped down to the right, eyes tight, and then he said, “‘The right partner.’ You were waitin’ for Pegs.”
“No, I—no, that’s not why I’m telling you. I just know you’ll be disappointed in me, is all, you were always so disappointed.”
“Only that you wouldn’t let me teach you.” Realization dawned on his face: “Oh. You were afraid if we danced, you would—” He grabbed Steve’s hand and tugged him out to the blurry corridor, and they ran down the stairs and through the shadowy lobby and down more stairs till they were in the gleaming, elegant ballroom and Bucky said, “Now you don’t gotta be afraid. I’ve watched you fight all this time, I’ve seen how you move. You’re beautiful. You can do this.”
“Says Arthur Murray.”
They started out with the basic steps: East Coast Swing, Bucky reminded Steve, and then he showed him Lindy Hop, Balboa, a Charleston, West Coast Swing, the Big Apple just because. When Steve would falter, Bucky’d laugh and swing him around, kiss him; he was a smart teacher, but Steve had always known that—in the early days of his captaincy, Bucky and Peggy had so much to teach him, Steve was a happy student when it was them. Slowly he began to get the hang of it; after a while they were both soaked in sweat so they shucked their ties and jackets, and Steve was hit with a shocking, sharp twinge at the memory of Peggy promising to meet him at the Stork Club. If she could only be here with them, twirling and jumping and sliding and laughing. She would have thrilled to see him dance at last, and though they tried to hide it, Bucky and Peggy got on like a house afire—they shared a mutual fond exasperation for him, after all.
“Hey, we can stop,” Bucky said kindly, as if he knew what Steve was thinking about, slowing the music down to something sweet and wistful, held him around the waist as they slow danced across the floor.
They traveled the world that way: dancing in all the places Bucky could think of, lazing on beaches or swimming, staying in grand hotels, or at least what they imagined all those places to be like. Bucky had always wanted to see the Grand Canyon but it defied their imaginations in many ways, frustrated them with that soft-edged Autochrome view they had of everything; Steve dreamed himself into the museums he’d most wanted to visit—the Louvre and the Prado and the Uffizi and the Rijksmuseum—but most of the works were things he’d never seen before, so they remained hopelessly opaque, as diffuse as the people they’d tried to imagine at the Expo. But they also made love and talked in an unguarded way they had never been able to before and slept curled around each other—all of which made up for anything they could have lacked in their dreamland.
One day they were lying on a beach—their ideal of Majorca, that time—making shapes with the clouds in the perfect blue sky for the other to guess, and Bucky drew his hands wide, then pinched his fingers, dragging the clouds into a long, tapered wedge. “Oh! That’s your Johnson” —Steve drew out the pause— “rifle.”
“Been looking at my Johnson enough to know it that well, have you?”
He stared at Steve, his eyes so sharp they might as well have been boring holes, his cheeks flushed with high color. “All that time I thought you were in love with Peggy.”
“I was—I am. But we’re” dead “here, together, and I can. Well. I can love you, too.” He didn’t know why he was so afraid to come out and say the words, like somehow he would be forcing Bucky to reciprocate, which was just stupid because he knew Bucky loved him, he’d always known. Even when there’d been nothing else, there’d been Bucky.
Bucky leaned up on his elbows, looming over Steve. “Out there, we wasted so much time. You looking at me, and me looking at you, and both of us too yellow to do anything about it.”
“I know,” Steve began, because he wanted to say that it wasn’t really like that, he hadn’t been lusting or violating what Bucky believed their friendship to be, but Bucky’s eyes went round and his fingers gripped Steve’s arms hard enough to bruise. His mouth opened in an O as his entire body shook.
“I have to wake up now,” Bucky said, strangled, the quiet of someone who didn’t want to be noticed, who was hiding, and then he—Bucky
Bucky was gone.
Although it had been quite some time since Bucky had done his disappearing act (it’s been months), Steve knew this time was different: he waited for what had to be at least a day, far longer than the intervals Bucky had been gone when he’d first shown up. With no sign and no reason to hope Bucky was coming back, he tried to formulate a strategy: if Bucky had thrown them into places representing his fragmented memories before, what if Steve returned to the places they’d gone in the dream world, in case Bucky was waiting for him, confused or lost?
Steve didn’t think he was any more grounded than Bucky, though. Believing he was in Nowhere had at least given him the illusion of hope; he’d been able to keep going through what seemed like enemy territory, awaiting rescue. Now that he knew he had some control over his environment, he had no idea what to do with it, without Bucky, without his friend—without the one person in this place who was real.
Bucky would hate this: Steve’s self-pity, allowing himself the indulgence of being overwrought. Without Bucky to put him in his place Steve had always tended toward the dramatic, “theatrical,” Sister Patrick had often called it, before she’d whack him on the backside after he’d misbehaved. When Bucky didn’t show at any of the places they’d shared, Steve had gone back to the crash site, but there was nothing there either, not even a sign of himself, his own body in its icy tomb.
They had never seen California together, driven up the coast as far as they could go—Steve had really only seen Hollywood on his way to and from the studio, the orange groves on their way in by train—the Pacific Ocean and the beaches and the redwood trees, through Oregon and up to the rainforest in Washington State. Maybe even keep going into Canada and the Alaskan Territory.
He thought he might drive, simply to stave off the boredom and loneliness that chipped away at his strength, so he dreamed up a bottle-green Hudson Commodore convertible, then thought: no, wait—if this is a dream, I can simply fly, just like Peter Pan. The world he could envision from the photos and paintings he’d seen years before didn’t provide him the detail necessary for a good simulation, so in the end he decided he would simply let the dream take him where it would, as it had before Bucky joined him, before Steve knew what it would be like to miss those things he needed most: the beat of a heart, the breath inside lungs.
Frustrated, stymied, Steve dreamed himself back home to the Red Hook apartment, like the wife of a sailor on her widow’s walk, pacing, waiting, waiting. There was a radio in the corner that Bucky had made a point to put there, but Steve could remember only a few dozen songs in their entirety and only fragments of his favorite shows or baseball games; he’d drive himself mad if he listened to the same things over and over. Entertainment was Bucky’s specialty.
He decided to make up the places they used to frequent: their favorite bar, the Horn & Hardart near City College where Steve took classes, Ebbets Field. He imagined Peggy for a while, simply to have someone to talk to, even if all she did was smile and repeat his words back to him.
In dreams, though, people talked and acted of their own accord. When he’d first come out of the water, when he didn’t know he could engineer what happened around him, Steve had simply let things unfold as they would: he let go of his will, felt himself slip into that zone between asleep and awake, and then it happened. His eyes opened to a landscape he hadn’t dreamed up; in fact, Steve had no idea where he was.
Peggy was there with Howard, and Dum Dum and Gabe—they ran through a snowy field, boots crunching through the ice-crusted snow, bullets singing all around them. Steve trailed behind, calling out to get their attention. They seemed to know he was there—Peggy motioned at him to hurry up as they raced into the forest. Trees exploded as mortars pounded the woods, shells landing smoking at their feet. Howard wore his pilot’s jacket—were they running toward an airplane or from one?—and then he said, as if his voice was coming from the end of a long, long tunnel, “I’m gonna find you, Cap.” Abruptly they were in a clearing, nothing but snow for miles and miles other than what looked like a mountain with its top cut off. Steve had never felt such cold, not even in the water that flooded the Valkyrie, and for some reason he thought Russia, but then Peggy turned to him and said, “Well, we’ll never find him here. We’re not welcome.” She shrugged at Howard as Dum Dum and Gabe slung their rifles over their shoulders, but a bullet exploded through Dum Dum’s head and he dropped like a sack of potatoes as Steve searched for the sniper and tried to cover the rest of them, though he had no shield. When Steve frantically met Howard’s eyes he caught only a cocky grin; Howard raised a megaphone in his hand, shouting “that’s a wrap” through it.
Steve shuddered with loathing—this was not a dream he wanted, not at all—and quickly imagined himself back to the bar. He’d rather choose a Peggy who couldn’t interact with him to whatever this nightmare was his brain had concocted.
One day—had Bucky been gone a week? Steve could not tell—he was trying to figure out how to cook things with actual ingredients rather than merely dream them up when the radio abruptly whined to life, its amber dial warming up to a full glow. Steve was paralyzed, his heart skipping beats, something wintry clutching at his gut. Once the radio had fully warmed up it crackled and hissed and popped, the way a record would when the needle hit the end of the side—ssss-pop, ssss-pop—and a song played, faintly at first, one he’d never heard before: “See the pyramids along the Nile / Watch the sunrise on a tropic isle / Just remember, darling, all the while / You belong to me.” He knew that voice—it had to be Jo Stafford, she was Steve’s favorite, but he had all her records and he knew absolutely this wasn’t one of them. “See the marketplace in old Algiers / Send me photographs and souvenirs / Just remember when a dream appears” and there came the static and crackling again, louder and louder till he thought he might scream. Overlaying that was the noise of Gabe tuning the radio out in the field, screeEEEee, weird and warped and eerie, and then a male voice: “Zhelaniye,” Steve thought it said, though he believed he could also hear someone screaming in the background, that relentless hum, followed by another word in—Russian, maybe? “Dobroserdechnyy.” The crackling grew louder, the stuck-needle pops coming in staccato bursts, something that sounded like “-aldat, -aldat” and it made Steve’s gorge rise, he thought he would vomit until the static stopped, the music and the voices and the screaming faded out, and there Bucky stood in the far corner of the room.
He—flickered, in and out, that film stuck in a projector thing Steve had seen on the beach in Tahiti. This secondary image was Bucky dressed in black, something on his head like a halo and covering his eyes, Steve thought he saw what looked like silver glint upon his wrist. Handcuffs, maybe. “Bucky,” Steve said, keeping his voice calm, forcing himself still. “It’s okay. You’re home. Steve, remember? It’s Steve, and our apartment.” The images—his Bucky, the alternate one—jittered and stuttered and then stilled, leaving only his Bucky, wearing just a dirty white undershirt and pants that looked like pajama bottoms, barefoot, his hair a wild bird’s nest.
Would he remember this time? He’d been gone so much longer than he had the first few times. Whatever they (who were they?) did to him out there, could being in the dream with Steve help him recover himself?
“S-Steve.” His eyes darted around the room, his left hand clenched and unclenched.
“You’re all right, it’s safe in here, it’s just you and me. We’re both asleep. I’m not dead and you’re not dead. We’re here together.”
Bucky’s head twitched, he appeared lost in thought. “No, I...I don’t think that’s right...”
Steve pressed forward, persevering through Bucky’s denials just like he had before until he shook it off, his focus fixed on Steve and he said, “We’re dreaming.”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s right.” Steve surged forward and scooped Bucky into his arms. There were bruises around his shoulder, his eyes were sunk inside dark circles, and his left hand was still so cold. Bucky didn’t want to talk about it before so Steve wouldn’t ask, he wouldn’t; instead Steve brought him to the bed and soothed the shakes away until they eventually fell asleep. They’d laughed about that before: they were asleep and dreaming and sleeping within the dream. There was a word for that, Bucky said, he couldn’t remember what it was but he thought maybe something to do with math or physics.
When they woke he was himself again; he kissed Steve, languorous and sweet, urging Steve with his mouth, his hands, not to hold back because he was afraid of Bucky’s state of mind. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for Bucky, whatever he desired Steve wanted to give so he sucked him, tantalizingly, slowly, and after Bucky came he lay shattered and euphoric next to Steve in their bed. Though Steve was still hard he didn’t care about his physical needs: Bucky was here, Bucky was back with him and happy, fuck everything else—this was bliss.
Rather than dwell on his disappearance, Steve asked if there was anything special he wanted to eat, anyplace special they should go, and Bucky requested “the moon?” At first Steve chuckled, but then he thought, well, why not? They had no more idea of what the Ritz looked like inside than they did the damn moon, so sure, they could make themselves a rocket ship and voyage among the stars. They could try all the other planets while they were at it.
Steve began sketching out a ship based on Bucky’s designs—it turned out he had very definite opinions on exactly what a rocket ship should look like, how it should work; he’d always been fractiously opinionated when it came to details. Steve couldn’t even count the number of times Bucky had ruined the pictures for him by muttering darkly about how something clearly couldn’t work like whatever that thing was, not in the real world, how many times they’d left strategy meetings with Bucky pointing out all the ways a mission was bound to fail because the brass clearly hadn’t thought things out, not properly, not the way he would.
He put the pad down and drew Bucky into his lap, kissing him and sliding his hands down the back of Bucky’s trousers. “Would it help to—would it be easier when you come back for you to remember me if I was little again?” Bucky snapped his head back, scowling. “If you go away again, maybe that would make it easier for you.” After the factory Steve had wanted to take Bucky off the line for combat fatigue, tried to get him to at least take a leave somewhere outside London, if not go home entirely, but Bucky had fought him tooth and nail (“I’m not a mental case, for Chrissakes”). His emotional wounds were most obvious when it came to Steve’s transformation: occasionally when Steve did something dangerous or pushed the limits of his strength or put himself first in order to keep the Commandos from harm, he would catch Bucky watching him, the corners of his mouth turned down and his eyes glimmering. Steve knew there was nothing for it: he couldn’t return his body to its former state, he relied on Bucky now for other things, not taking care of a sickly, weak pal. But maybe in here that was what he needed to give Bucky.
Time stretched out between them—maybe Steve had offended Bucky, or reminded him of things he didn’t want to remember. Maybe Bucky was ashamed of having wanted Steve when he was like that. “You don’t have to do that, Steve. It won’t make a difference. Keep—keep reminding me, I need you to remind me or—” He wouldn’t say what the “or” was, only stared at the far wall, drained, empty. They made love on the sofa and went out for an ice cream and to walk the boardwalk at Coney; when they came back they did it some more until they were both exhausted, and Bucky was drowsy and replete.
Something was horribly, terribly wrong out there: Bucky was a prisoner of war again, obviously (it’s been months), but this time Steve could do nothing to rescue him, stuck as he was at the bottom of the ocean.
They went to sleep in one place and woke somewhere entirely different simply because they could; they traveled in rocket ships and airplanes and ocean liners and fancy train cars. Beaches, mountains, cities, plains, deserts, jungles, entire planets. They had sex in all of them, exploring each other as much as they did their engineered dreams; they danced, too, with Bucky his traveling jukebox and orchestra. They watched sunrises and sunsets, moonrises and moonsets, auroras and meteor showers. Bucky told him stories as Steve sketched them; he went through reams of paper and sketch pads and pencils manifesting Bucky’s imagination.
“Dragons,” Bucky said one day when they were making their way through a tropical forest.
“Dragons. We’ve never made dragons yet. Or robots. We could ride the dragons.”
“They should breathe fire!” Steve said enthusiastically. While it was an amazing idea, that sort of fantasy or futuristic stuff had always been Bucky’s interest, not Steve’s, and he said as much.
Bucky rolled his eyes. “You were always interested in cowboys and Indians. I swear nothing would have made you happier than being the sheriff of some Old West town or something. A little tin star on your chest, like Randolph Scott.”
“I just don’t...think of stuff like that, is all.”
“Tell me that when we were getting pounded by those big eighty-eights or the Panzers—or those fuckin’ Hydra energy beam tanks—you never once thought to yourself, man, I bet some fire-breathing dragons would shut this down fast. Or wished you had a robot with sizzling laser beams comin’ out of its head.”
“Can’t say I did.” Steve gave him a skeptical look out of one eye.
With a shake of his head, Bucky said, “That’s your problem. You lack vision.”
“Me? I’m the one who lacks vision? Who’s the artist here?”
“You always got your nose in a history book, you’re never looking to the future.”
“I’ll show you lack of vision” and he grabbed Bucky’s hand and they were on Mars, right in the middle of a horde of Thraks with their six arms and green skin. Bucky howled with laughter; suddenly a beautiful woman appeared on the horizon and he said, “Let me guess: the part of the Princess of Mars is played by Peggy Carter. No relation to John.” Steve held his hands out helplessly; what was there to say?
When they’d tired of that Steve whisked them off to a hot air balloon over the formless, bleary French countryside. “If you don’t want Around the World in Eighty Days, we could always hunt dinosaurs in the Center of the Earth.” Bucky gave him a gentle smile; he could have offered Captain Nemo’s submarine, but refrained for Steve’s sake. “You know who would make a great Phileas Fogg?” They said at the same time, “Monty!”
Bucky put his arms around Steve from behind, tucked his chin into the crook of Steve’s neck as their approximation of Falsworth piloted them through a cloudless sky. “Your imagination is just fine,” Bucky declared. “Though, you know...consider this: space cowboys.”
Steve mock gasped. “It’s perfect! You know me so well!”
It wasn’t possible, Steve thought from time to time, that people could be this much in love, could be this content: he never tired of Bucky’s company, of his love, even when there was friction and they found themselves quibbling or tartly needling each other over past mistakes. In fact sometimes, Steve was pretty damn sure, they fought just so they could make up with a frenzied bout of sex. In here, it was a dream come true, it was perfect.
Until Bucky vanished again.
All Steve could do was wait. He stuck to New York for a while, afraid that if he went too far afield Bucky couldn’t find him when (if, that horrible voice that had been silent for so long prodded) he came back. He’d made himself a swish apartment in the crown at the top of the Chrysler Building, played pieces of the movies he could remember in his own private screening room and made up the rest he’d forgotten, and paced, and waited.
This time, Bucky wasn’t gone so long. Steve had been hanging around outside the building, as if he was King Kong or something, when the air had turned a charcoal gray, thunderheads scudding along through the sky. The screeing sound built slowly—a radio being tuned—but there was nothing out here that could make it; he imagined himself back inside as fast as he could but Bucky was already there, severely disoriented, turbulent and jittery. Although there was no alter-image flickering in and out this time, he was nearly naked other than for some kind of black undershorts, like nothing Steve had ever seen, tight and down to midthigh. And there were scars—oh Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, the scars that crisscrossed his body like some nightmarish tic-tac-toe and made Steve dizzy, feeble; he struggled to stay upright as he became aware of the cacophony leaking in from somewhere: music and what were maybe Russian words all jumbled up inside crackling and screeching. “You are the angel glow that lights a star / The dearest things I know are what you are / Someday, my happy arms will hold you, and someday, I’ll know that moment divine / When all the things you are are mine.” He knew that song, but not who was singing it; the arrangement was faster, swingier—the kind of song Bucky would have loved, would have...
So Bucky was making it happen, or the act of his dreaming was—distorting their minds, maybe? Steve wished he’d paid more attention to the tests they’d done on Jimmy, kept up with the field reports; maybe there’d been something written about these sorts of psychic phenomena. Something he could use to help Bucky when they made him wake up, soothe him when he came back to Steve in sleep.
“Bucky, it’s me, it’s Steve.” Despite what Bucky’d said before, he considered making himself small again. “Wait,” Steve said, and dreamed them both back to Red Hook, filled the apartment with the smells of chicken and dumplings and fresh bread and apple pie. Bucky blinked, looking around wildly—a spooked horse—and Steve repeated his name over and over until Bucky calmed.
“S-Steve,” he said, the way he always did when coming around to where he was, what he was.
“Would you like something to eat?” Or maybe—“A bath?” The tub filled with steaming water and Bucky nodded, acquiescing like a little boy as Steve guided him into it, washed Bucky’s back, his hair, dipping warm water over his skin as the scars faded away and he relaxed into the tub.
After the water had cooled he pulled Bucky out and dried him off; they snugged up in bed, touching and staring into each other’s eyes as the radio softly played some of Bucky’s favorites. “I don’t know who I am anymore, Stevie.”
“You do now, though, right? In here, you remember.”
Waiting till Bucky’d slept some and was refreshed, Steve whispered kisses like psalms over his skin where the scars had been, down to his dusky cock, licked and sucked him till Bucky cried his name and came in his mouth. He wanted Steve inside him; they hadn’t done this before but Steve wanted it just as much, so he slicked himself up, pushed inside as slowly and gently as possible. Bucky thrust his hips back, growling that he didn’t want it slow and easy, “Give it to me good, all your power, I can handle it.” There was something furious about it, punishing, but Steve was as lust-addled as he’d ever been—Bucky was hot and tight and he’d never felt anything like this, never wanted with such a primitive hunger before, and he came in giant rolling waves, plastered against Bucky’s back, realizing to his surprise that Bucky had climaxed once more, just from being fucked, the serum, that little voice said. Bucky smiled as he cleaned them up, dropped tender kisses on Steve’s face, and they rested till they could do it all over again. This Bucky was an eclipse, Steve thought: a dark moon attempting to blot out his light, but Steve would follow him into the dark without ever looking back, he wouldn't hesitate.
They made the best of it, after, without knowing if or when Bucky would disappear again, for how long when he did; all that mattered to Steve was how they loved each other. Each time Bucky simply warned “I have to wake up now,” his eyes wide with horror, dread, and then he vanished. Steve learned it didn’t matter where he was when Bucky returned: he didn’t have to be home for Bucky to find him, but he began to keep a radio with him wherever he went, it was like an air-raid warning in a way. Before Bucky reappeared the radio would power on, full of static and crackles, the vacuum-tube hum, always a song that Steve had never heard. He began to pick out patterns in the voices: the screaming almost certainly belonged to Bucky, Steve could recall with visceral horror the high-pitched sound of that scream as Bucky fell away from him in the Alps. The spoken words were always in what Steve was pretty sure was Russian. Sometimes Bucky appeared whole and just as he’d left; other times he flickered in and out, the dying projector, and Steve couldn’t make sense of the alternate images: black uniforms, what he assumed was body armor, unusual weapons on his person or equipment attached to him, masks, muzzles. Eventually he saw long hair, like a woman’s, Bucky wore eye-black or camouflage paint; once, strange goggles. In those earliest moments of his return he couldn’t control the dream images, Steve surmised, the real world was tearing itself away as he merged with the dream world. He would always say something like “that can’t be right,” when Steve told him where he was, then slowly come around and stammer Steve’s name. At times he didn’t want to be touched intimately after returning, his skin too fragile and his sense of self too precarious, but he loved watching Steve pleasure himself—so Steve would make a show of it, jerk himself off as Bucky watched with avid eyes, finding his own pleasure in Steve’s satisfaction. And always, always, he was suffering.
And then it stopped. Bucky stayed, a longer interval than ever before, days bleeding into weeks bleeding into months. Their happiness was tempered with a hefty dose of suspicion—they were edgy, sometimes quarreling with each other because of it—until they eventually relaxed enough to enjoy it for what it was. “We got no say in the matter, pal,” Bucky reminded him. If they were in the dream together, Bucky couldn’t be dead (you can’t die in your own dream, can you?), and Steve wasn’t dead, so...”enjoy it while it lasts. I think they forgot about me.” Over time, an opaque sadness had descended on Bucky, but when he wasn’t pulled away from Steve it began to melt away, and he was happy again.
They were on their beach in Tahiti, shaded by a straw canopy, ice cold beers nearby, and Steve above Bucky, bodies slick with sweat as they moved against each other. The scent of tropical flowers mixed headily with the briny ocean tang and Bucky’s skin musk; Steve was engulfed in it, dizzy. Both their cocks were circled by Bucky’s slick hand, the friction pulling Steve higher and higher till he hovered at the edge of climax—Bucky held him there, cruelly, lovingly. “Yeah, Buck, yeah, please, please,” he begged against the hot skin of Bucky’s neck, licking the salty sweat from the notch in his collarbone. There was a throaty laugh as he twisted his hand, bit and sucked on Steve’s lower lip—he was there, the silvery explosions rippling through him, over and over.
He couldn’t bear it, sometimes, the intensity: physical and emotional, overwhelming in equal measures. Perhaps that—that was why the universe took Bucky away from him, why Bucky was being tortured and made to forget himself, so they would not forget it was only a dream, the real world still had its claws in them. This would have been paradise, otherwise, where they could do anything they wanted and love each other this way, this much, this perfectly.
After he brought Bucky off, Steve collapsed beside him on the blanket, pressing his lips to Bucky’s sun-kissed shoulder. Bucky drank his beer and said, rearranging the puffy white clouds in the sky to suit him, “You know, I suppose there is a drawback to this whole thing.” Steve was certain he would say that he missed people, because Bucky had been the friendliest of souls, the kind of person who was excited by being around other people—even the factory hadn’t taken that away from him, not completely. But Bucky continued, “We can’t look stuff up. Like, the scent of those flowers, for instance. We knew what they looked like from pictures, we could guess what they might smell like from perfumes and stuff, but we got no idea what they’re called. Or those fish, or the trees, or even some of those sea creatures you were hanging around with before I got here. Every time we try to cook something with our own hands, it’s a disaster because we don’t know the recipes.”
Steve thought about the songs he’d heard when Bucky came back—he didn’t want to borrow trouble by mentioning them, however; the rare times he hadn’t respected Bucky’s wish to not discuss where he went, it had got very ugly very fast. “I keep wondering about new songs, or what ever happened with the television we saw at the Fair. There must be new movies, too.”
“Cars. Cars have changed, and clothes...” Before Bucky could become blue, Steve flung himself up and kissed him, took his face between his hands and made Bucky look into his eyes.
“I love it here. Just us, as we should be, none of that stuff to influence us. It really—”
All at once Steve was hit by a freezing blast of water, the light going dim all around him. Clutched by icy hands, being pulled down, down, and he reached out to grab hold of—
Wake up, my darling, can you hear me?
Noises crashed everywhere: clanking and droning and a babble of voices, they spoke English but he didn’t understand— Bucky seized hold of Steve but he was slipping through his grasp as if he were merely vapor. Bucky’s voice was drowned out by the high frequency buzzing; though he screamed Steve’s name, frenzied, it sounded like a whisper—buzz buzz, just like the radio. There was ice in his veins, frost crusting his eyes, water in his lungs. He was lost, he was numb, he was freezing, he was afraid, so damn afraid—
Oh my god. This guy’s still alive! Can we wake him up without killing him? Captain Rogers, can you hear us?
A violent quaking under his knees—he was on his knees, why was he kneeling?—and the ground gave way as it spun away from him, and god he was so cold, so cold—
Steve, are you there? Please wake up. If you can hear me, you must wake up.
“Bucky, I—please don’t leave, please don’t go” — “You owe me a dance” — “Eight o’clock on the dot. Don’t you dare be late” — “I’ll find you in the morning sun and when the night is new” — “Bucky, no! I don’t want to go—”
Wake up, wake up, wake up.
“Your hands are bleeding,” Natasha said, her dispassionate gaze tracking from his hands to the fourth heavy bag he’d destroyed to the sand all over the floor of the gym, the plump little drops of blood scattered around his feet.
Steve held them up and examined them. “Huh.” He’d lost track of how long he’d been working the bag. “They’ll be fine. Hunky-dory. Do people still say that?”
Natasha shrugged. “Fury said you’d been murdering punching bags when he approached you about this assignment.” She exhaled a small laugh; her laughs were always small, careful.
“Guess I can afford my murderous rampages—apparently with back pay I’m rolling in bread, so... Do people still say that? They probably don’t.” He wiped some of the blood off on his sweatpants.
Her eyebrows climbed up her forehead. She regarded him coolly for a bit before informing him, “We’re ready. Thor says the portal—the Bifrost?—isn’t fully repaired yet, so he wants to do this in Central Park for, I don’t know—the magic beans need a wide berth to work in. Honestly, I don’t know why he thinks having us as backup is necessary, but I suppose it gives us closure to see him cart Loki away. He’s got some kind of...muzzle on Loki, to ‘prevent him speaking enchantments,’ and something to put the Tesseract in for safekeeping.”
Steve’s stomach clenched at muzzle: those flickering images of another Bucky overlaid on top of his Bucky, the ones where his face had been obscured by masks and tubes and wires and a muzzle. He tried to catch a breath but it was like having asthma again: constricting, red-hot, sludgy. But Bucky in the dream world hadn’t been real—that was Steve’s febrile imagination.
They’d given him a laptop computer so he could catch up at his own speed, and for a while he’d tortured himself by researching psychic phenomena, dream connections, something called lucid dreaming—and time traveling. He’d hoped to make sense of the things he’d seen and heard that he couldn’t have known about without Bucky’s presence in the real world; one of the concepts he’d clung to held that time wasn’t linear, that it was possible for some highly tuned individuals (and what else was the serum but a way to highly tune him?) to experience events from the future or the past; déjà vu, but on a much larger scale. If not that explanation, Steve had considered maybe the serum might have allowed things to slip through to his consciousness in his altered state, perhaps from passing ships, even airplanes—after all, he’d experienced other unexplainable things like seeing the sea creatures when he was, for all intents and purposes, a half dead block of ice. Because if there wasn’t some mystical explanation for what slipped into Steve’s hibernating brain, that meant Bucky
Bucky was alive.
It meant Bucky was alive and had been a prisoner of war for seventy years, had been tortured and made to forget himself and do unspeakable things and frozen in a half-dead, half-alive state just like Steve, but on fucking purpose. It meant Bucky really had been wearing a muzzle and had been treated like a dog—no, worse, like a slave. Steve felt the sharp prickling behind his eyes and he closed them; he hadn’t wept yet, he wouldn’t start now in front of Natasha.
“You okay?” She had that calm, assessing way of watching him that reminded him so much of Peggy sometimes. A spy’s scrutiny.
“Do you want to ride over with me and Clint?”
“No, I’ll take the bike.” He had the panniers all packed and ready to go; as soon as they saw Thor off, he would leave. He’d thought to see the places he’d visited in his dreams, give himself a chance to connect to life as it was now. His first visit, though, was to Peggy now that she had moved back to Washington, D.C., and Arlington National Cemetery. After that, who knew. In the dreamland he and Bucky had gone tearing around the French countryside on Steve’s old bike, Bucky beside him in the sidecar; they’d raced fast bikes through the Outback in Australia; they’d made a motorcycle into a rocket ship. Now he was just...on a motorcycle, taking a ride.
At the door she turned to him, a soft smile on her face. “Steve, I know this must be...excruciating for you. But you were incredible, in the fight. Everything they said about you is true. I hope you won’t forget about us—we’d like to help if there’s any way we can. You can call us any time.”
Something about that struck him as hilarious: Bucky probably would have howled with laughter, gleefully informed Natasha that almost nothing anyone had ever said about Steve was true, because no one ever mentioned what a pain in the ass he was. Of course, if anyone else had actually had the stones to disparage Steve in any way, Bucky would have walloped them.
“Thanks.” He watched her go and unwrapped his hands; they were already healing, would probably be fine by the time he got to Central Park. After that—well, after that, he’d have other things besides punishing punching bags to occupy his thoughts.
When they’d pulled him from the ice, Peggy’d been there. She hadn’t stayed, though: it was gruesome, she’d told him over the telephone when he’d finally dredged up the courage to call, more painful to watch than when he’d been screaming inside Howard’s Vita-Ray machine; when he didn’t wake from his coma, she figured she’d served her usefulness, and when there was news, Fury—whom she called Nicholas, like he was a child dandled on her knee—would notify her.
But Steve hadn’t awakened quite like anyone planned, and he wondered how much easier it would have been if she’d stayed rather than coming to in that absurd fake recovery room alone. He’d heard that loud whooshing sound, felt the familiar whuuump as he’d been hurled back into his body, and opened his eyes. He’d risen slowly from the bed to the unfamiliar surroundings of what looked like a hospital ward, except private, huge, maybe something a high roller would have had—nothing a kid like Steve could have set foot in. A radio was playing a Dodgers game; he’d been there, he recognized it immediately, but he’d glanced over his shoulder, waiting for the buzzing and screeching and disembodied voices to come down the wire and...they didn’t. No song he was unfamiliar with, only Red Barber calling the plays.
Most especially, no Bucky, watery images shifting in and out. A woman had come into the room and he knew for certain then that he was no longer in the dreamscape: she spoke and acted of her own accord, her features were clear and distinct. Nothing diffuse and wooden about her.
It wasn’t simply the shock to the system, he attempted to explain to Peggy, but that he was isolated, alone, literally no one on earth had ever gone through what he had and he couldn’t articulate, even to her, how unmoored he was. Certainly there’d been wonders: the helicarriers were like something Bucky would have designed for them if he’d been able to imagine something so grand; there were smartphones and DVRs and computers and even things like toasters that you could dial in information about how dark you wanted your toast and the thickness of the bread. Cars that alerted you if you got too close to another one.
Through it all a thread of grief was woven: he’d left Bucky behind, Peggy had gone on without him, almost everyone else was dead. Her mind wasn’t the razor-sharp, terrifyingly clever one he remembered—there was a disease now, Alzheimer’s, but there was also good old senility, and he wasn’t rude enough to ask her which she suffered from. Either was bad enough: he remembered as a small child Bucky’s granddad ranting and raving, unsure who he was half the time, and Steve had found that terrifying, that you wouldn’t know the people you loved or remember from day to day where you were, but his granddad passed when they were still in short pants, so.
Steve had seen her face in photos, and they’d talked over Skype—a picture phone! just like Dick Tracy!—but it hadn’t prepared him for how frail she was now, this woman who’d shot at him for his fecklessness, this woman who’d beaten up men half a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier than her, this woman who’d tromped around in the field with an elite squad of soldiers and never once complained.
They whiled away the afternoon with Steve telling the tale of what had come to be called the Battle of New York; she asked him how he was adjusting—he lied, to spare her feelings.
“Did you dream, when you were in stasis? Or was it simply...dark.”
If he could tell anyone, it would be Peggy, but he knew how insane it sounded: to say he’d lived his dream life with Bucky, one full of fantastical adventures. That they’d been lovers in the dream, they’d seen the moon and the rings of Saturn, and somewhere Bucky had been alive, impossibly, implausibly. “I dreamed of a lot of people, including you. I thought at first...well, don’t laugh, but I thought I was in the Land of Nowhere. That somehow you and Jimmy’d found a way to throw me there at the last minute.”
She did laugh, but it wasn’t mocking. “That would have been a grand adventure, eh? He was such a dear boy, he’d have done it.”
“For a while I thought somehow they’d saved Bucky, and he was there, too.”
She pulled his hand into her lap and held it between both of hers. “Listen to me. I know you’re thinking that must sound mad, but it doesn’t. Your mind was still...active, even when your body had slowed to a stop. It made sense to find comfort in a dream, with Barnes as company. To bring back something you’d lost.”
The last thing he wanted was for her to see him cry so he cast his eyes to the floor and studied the pattern on the carpet. “Peg—did you ever go to Russia? You and Dum Dum? With Gabe and Howard?” Her breath caught, just a little hitch, but he glanced up to see her biting her lip.
“Not Gabe, but yes, the three of us... How could you know that? That wasn’t declassified until the early aughts.”
“I don’t know,” Steve said, overcome with such a profound sense of relief he thought he really might weep. “That’s just it—I saw things in my dreams that I couldn’t have any knowledge of. And I don’t know how I know these things, but I do.”
He couldn’t tell her about the music, or the Russian words, or the strange equipment he’d seen on Bucky’s head. When they’d first briefed him out of the ice and given him the computer, he’d done searches of the lyrics that he’d heard: the Jo Stafford song was from 1952; “All the Things You Are” was Ella Fitzgerald, 1961. The others were completely unknown to him, music throughout decades he had no touchstone in, even when the voice was as familiar as Sinatra’s. One time when Bucky’d come back the radio had changed shape—to a small black box, thin and gleaming with chrome trim, a greenish dial: transistor radios straight out of photos from the ’60s. Whatever language he’d heard under the static and the screaming was one he hadn’t known when he went into the ice.
“This must be terrible for you,” she said, squeezing his hands. “I wish I knew what to say—this is so far beyond my purview. I’ve never paid much mind to psychic phenomena, though there was a man when I was in the SSR in New York...” Something in her seemed to shut off, she became guarded in a way that she had never been around him before. A lifetime of espionage would do that to a person. It made Steve wonder what might have happened if they’d been together after the war—if he could have stood having her shut that part of her life away from him, if it would have lasted when she was by necessity keeping secrets and covering things up, and he hated nothing more than a lie. But of course they would never know: time and circumstance had cruelly prevented the answering of those questions for them. She patted his hand. “We weren’t sanctioned for the USSR, it was a covert operation involving a technology of Howard’s and a program they’d begun, possibly to create more super-soldiers. But we didn’t succeed, and the agent who’d smuggled us in was shot by a sniper, a very good one. It’s really a wonder that we made it back over the border into Finland.”
“How could I have dreamt that?” A very good sniper. A technology of Howard’s. Jesus.
“Dearest, I’ve no idea. The only thing I can think of would be related to the Tesseract—your exposure to it in the Valkyrie, and Erskine’s formula. Perhaps your new friends will be able to shine some light on that.”
He decided not to push it, as it obviously upset her, and they spent the rest of the time on more pleasant subjects like her family, his discoveries of the future. Ms. Potts had made hotel arrangements for him before he left, putting him up in a frighteningly swanky hotel—“I can’t bear the thought of your entire trip being spent in fleabag motels out in the middle of nowhere. Let me put you someplace nice before you head out on the road”—so he went back, indulged in a fine meal at the highly regarded restaurant, although he ate in the bar, more than a few curious stares keeping him company.
While he was in D.C. Steve visited the World War II memorial, shuddering at a design which recalled Nazi symbolism; to get that taste out of his mouth he headed straight over to the memorials he did want to see: the Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington trio and then the Roosevelt memorial with its lovely park setting. He crossed the bridge to Arlington to see the statue of him and Bucky, the graves of the two Commandos buried there: Dugan and Jones. The poses of the statue came from a photo shoot Steve and Bucky had done to promote bond sales, Bucky in his dapper blue uniform jacket behind Steve, rifle pointed forward, Steve in front of him, as if protecting him with the shield. They’d recently returned from their first mission as a team and Bucky had yet to get used to the limelight, but Steve recalled that they’d been happy that day, laughing and teasing; for a little while there’d been light in his haunted eyes. Bucky always found a smile when the cameras were rolling, making it easy for Steve to pretend that everything was all right. But it burned him, seeing this, how they’d chosen to put Bucky behind him instead of alongside, where he belonged.
Steve paid his respects at Bucky’s tombstone, though, and to Gabe and Dum Dum’s graves, leaving with his stomach knotted in disgrace and self-loathing: he had survived when so many hadn’t, he’d been the architect of Bucky’s death. He didn’t know why he was the one spared, out of all of them, why his sacrifice had been unrewarded. In the parking lot as he put the key in the bike he caught, out of the corner of his eye, a large figure coming toward him. Almost always a well-wisher or a fan, when that happened, but he was still jumpy after the Chitauri and he wheeled, ready for a threat—and came face to face with Thor.
His brain couldn’t quite reconcile it: Thor was dressed in a dark gray T-shirt and jeans, a leather jacket not unlike Steve’s own, and a pair of regular-people boots. If he wasn’t huge and shimmering and oozing Asgardian Prince from every pore, you’d have thought he was just a regular—huge—guy. “My friend,” he said and embraced Steve.
“What are you doing here? I thought the Bifrost thing was still busted. I thought you were mopping up Loki’s mess.”
With no trace of the condescension Steve thought he probably deserved, Thor explained, “Heimdall has nearly completed repairs with the help of my father’s power. Loki is now...held accountable for his crimes. Time passes differently there.”
Steve trembled, a spike of nausea in his belly. It’s been months. Cars and clothes have changed. It wasn’t like Bucky was being taken off to some space realm; he was dead, and that was that. “But why are you here? Not that I’m not happy to see you.”
“I asked Heimdall to keep me apprised of how my new companions fared, and he told me of your journey. I noticed that sadness in you before, but there wasn’t time to ask after your health.”
“So...checking up on me.” Steve grinned and made a face.
“Yes! Checking up. Is that not what friends do?”
“It is indeed. How long have you been here?”
“Not long. It was...challenging to find someplace I could arrive without notice. It’s quiet here.”
“I was just...I wanted to pay my respects to my...fellow warriors, I suppose you could call them. Two of my squad are buried here, and there’s a memorial to myself and my closest friend. Both of us were...missing in action. Nothing to bury, but there’s a marker.” Steve had looked up the Norse legends to find out about the funerals for their kind. Thor probably wouldn’t understand such a passive sendoff. “Are you hungry? I was just going to a diner—a restaurant—that Natasha told me about. Breakfast all day.”
“I quite enjoy diners—in my banishment, Jane, Eric, and Darcy took me to one. Breakfast is indeed the best meal of the day.” Steve grinned at his boyish enthusiasm, though the casual way he’d said “banishment” was sort of sad—there were stories here that Steve really wanted to learn about; it took him out of his own head to hear about someone else’s life.
The two of them on the bike dragged it so low there was no way they’d make it out of the parking lot much less to Bob and Edith’s, so Steve called a cab; Thor could probably fly, he assumed Mjolnir was around somewhere, but it seemed unfair to make him call attention to himself when he was trying so hard to be anonymous. The diner wasn’t quite as packed as Natasha had warned him it would be, but it was crowded enough that the place erupted in a frenzy of cell-phone cameras pointed at them, till the manager stuck them in a corner by themselves and shooed everyone away. Thor, though, smiled magnanimously at the other patrons, the attention suited him better than it ever had Steve. He inquired about Jane and if she knew Thor was here; Thor reassured him that he’d checked in with her assistant—that must be the Darcy he’d mentioned—and she was happily busy with the research Coulson had set up for her when the whole Tesseract thing had begun.
There was a moment of quiet between them for Coulson, it was still a fresh wound and Thor had known him better than Steve did, before Steve asked, “And you?” It had to have been agonizing for Thor to watch his brother turn against him, turn against everything he’d held dear.
“I am well,” Thor said, digging into a huge stack of pancakes. He’d already downed three cups of coffee while they’d been waiting for plates to arrive. “But I thought of all that I had learned of you when we fought together, and I thought...perhaps you and I were the same. We both lost our brothers, we’re both wandering this strange new world, learning the customs, and it seemed we might both use a friend.”
It was an incredibly kind thing to do, but Thor demurred when Steve said as much. Maybe...maybe Thor was lonely too, even though he had a lady love here on Earth. The hole that Loki had left in his life wasn’t so easily repaired, even by a brilliant, strong, beautiful woman—Steve knew that all too well.
They stuffed themselves and talked for hours and laughed quite a bit, and Steve had thought that might be the end of it, Thor had paid his check-up visit, but outside the diner he fixed Steve with a strange look. “What are your plans now? You said you wished to journey on.”
“Yeah, tomorrow I’ll head out, see the country, or at least a little of it. I figure it’s as good a way as any to learn about the new world.” See all those places he and Bucky had tried to imagine in the dreamland, fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle. “Ride until I run out of road, as the saying goes.”
“Would you wish a companion?” Okay, Steve was definitely not expecting that.
“You—you’d like to go on a road trip with me? Hard to imagine a future king would enjoy that.”
Thor laughed and slapped him on the back, sending Steve stumbling forward. He would not get used to that anytime soon; the last person who’d been able to do something like that was Schmidt. “It would be my great pleasure.”
They’d have to get a good-sized SUV, probably, and it would definitely change his plans for the trip, but...for the first time since he’d woken up Steve didn’t feel so hopelessly alone. Bucky would have told him to jump at this chance. There’d be no way to get Thor a drivers license, but as long as Steve did the bulk of the driving, they should be okay. “Then let’s go.”
Thor had no goals of his own, so once they’d secured a vehicle through Stark Industries, they traveled south—Steve had always wanted to see Harper’s Ferry—then swung back for a few Civil War battlefields. Bucky had always loved New Orleans jazz so they turned south again; Thor was in ecstasy over the music, the food, the booze, tipping Steve closer to getting completely sozzled than he ever had after the serum. The phrase “flyover states” made a lot more sense once they got past the St. Louis arch, but he loved seeing the Mississippi, the site of all those Mark Twain books he’d enjoyed as a kid.
They quickly discovered that it was the really strange things Thor enjoyed most: hokey tourist traps, the rundown motels that hadn’t been updated since the ’60s or ’70s, peculiar museums like the surgical science one in Chicago that left Thor both appalled and intrigued or the pharmacy museum in New Orleans that called up so many memories for Steve he could bat them away like cobwebs. Steve’s eventual goal was to reach the West Coast that he’d been so unsuccessful at imagining and to visit Jim Morita in San Francisco, but if they stopped at every weird, creepy, tacky spot along the way, well, that was one more thing to keep his mind off Peggy and Bucky and the world he’d left behind.
Each night since he’d come out of the ice, Steve had fruitlessly searched for Bucky in sleep. He wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted: to confirm that their world had been only a fever dream of a half dead, grieving man and Bucky was dead, truly dead, or that he was alive, broken, suffering, tortured, no memory of who Steve was. The information he’d scoured and applied about lucid dreaming had never given him anything, not even a memory-dream of something sweet and fond from their youth. The connection had been severed: if Bucky really was alive out there somewhere, he no longer found that respite in sleep with Steve, the anchor connecting him to the Bucky Barnes he’d been before was lost.
For days they’d been on the road—to the Continental Divide, the Rockies and the Tetons, driving through the Painted Desert at night, Milky Way above them like a sparkling net, sunsets and sunrises in Moab and Bryce Canyon, following the fragments of Route 66, to the Grand Canyon, which Thor loved but which left Steve with a dull ache under his breastbone. Apparently it reminded Thor of the deep canyons and fjords on Asgard, but Steve had told him that he wasn’t feeling well and walked back to the car. A little concerned, Thor had begun to follow him; he was stopped by an excited group of young Japanese tourists who wanted to take selfies with him: Thor wouldn’t let himself be interviewed or take a public role, but he loved one on one interactions with humans and he almost always had a smile for them. It gave Steve time to grieve until Thor came back to the car, and they’d wordlessly continued on their trip.
And then they were in California at last, and Steve should have been happy but he was increasingly edgy and irritated. At the edge of the desert, before they reached the coast cities, they stopped at a park full of giant concrete dinosaurs Steve had read about when he was looking for appropriately tacky places Thor would enjoy.
Someone had bought the little park sometime between their visit and when the reviews Steve read had been posted; the owners had erected a wall around most of them requiring a paid entrance fee, leaving only the T. rex and the brontosaurus out. They’d climbed the stairs up through the brontosaurus’s tail into the gift shop built into its belly, only to find all the merchandise he wanted—postcards he’d been sending to the other Avengers, mementos like icebox magnets and keychains—had been replaced with Christian-themed stuff claiming dinosaurs were created by design. Steve couldn’t believe it: he’d missed a time when “progressive” hadn’t been a dirty word, only to wake up in a world that had willfully chosen to regress. He ranted all the way to the car, to Thor’s tolerant attention: “There was a trial, even, a famous trial when I was a boy about a teacher who’d taught evolution, and they’re still...acting like it’s fantasy!”
In the parking lot, a blistering desert wind bearing down on them, Steve asked Thor if evolution was true, or if there were other universal forces they’d known nothing about until he’d first appeared to them in New Mexico and proven aliens were really out there.
“Indeed, it is true. Every realm has seen their own...unique development, if you will. Magic and science and faith are all a part of our history.” It went unsaid that he thought it sad humans had severed each from the other, as though to believe one thing precluded believing another. It launched an excursus that carried them through the rest of the drive toward Los Angeles; Steve was delighted to switch off his mind and simply listen to a history he knew he was privileged to hear. Thor had mentioned on the trip that he received constant requests through Jane or Miss Potts to be interviewed about Asgardian history and science. In the back of his mind, as Thor talked in that rich, plummy voice he had, Steve considered: they were nothing alike in most respects, but in all the important ways Thor reminded him of Bucky—smart and wry and open, generous and funny, loyal to a fault, fascinated by the world around them. That night at dinner, after Thor had finished telling him a particularly gory tale about fighting the Frost Giants, Steve smiled and said, “I’m so glad you came with me on this trip. I’m really happy to call you friend.” Thor responded warmly, “And I you,” as they clinked their beer bottles together, and Steve had thought it might be happiness he felt then, or at least something close to it.
By the time they rolled up to San Francisco, the thought of seeing Jim was causing less anxiety; he recalled seeing Peggy that first time, the utter shock at how small and fragile she’d become, her face familiar and yet not, a sadness in her eyes that bordered on betrayal—he’d left her there to carry on without him, to get old, and he hadn’t aged a bit—what would Jim think of him, leaving them there to fight without him, waking up like Lazarus and nothing had changed? But Jim welcomed them warmly, a childlike awe of Thor and overflowing joy at seeing Steve.
His hair was thin and almost completely white, his face creased and wise yet still youthful, somehow—the light in his eyes, maybe, or that bright smile. “When I heard the news...I couldn’t believe it, you were alive, you were really alive. We thought we’d lost you forever, we—” Jim wiped tears from his cheeks. “It had been so long, Cap, so long.”
It’s been months. It never felt like time was passing when Bucky was there; he knew it had, but it was invisible, ephemeral. “I was so happy to find out you were still here, to not see the word ‘deceased’ in your file,” Steve revealed. “You and Peggy, it was—it meant the world to me, to hear your voice when I called. Those first weeks back were tough, and I felt so...”
Jim chuckled, saving him from having to explain. “‘Tough,’ he says,” and he shrugged at Thor like they were old war buddies; Steve had always admired that about Jim, nothing seemed to faze him at all, even the bigotry that had been leveled at him during the war. “Anyone else would have broken down screaming and crying, but Cap here just says it’s tough.” Jim’s wife had passed away a few years back, Steve knew, and his kids lived about a half hour’s drive from him, but he seemed to be doing well for himself despite his age. “We Japanese age well,” he’d said, laughing, on the phone. “And then there you were on the TV, fighting an alien army from outer space. Wouldn’t Barnes have loved that.”
Nodding, Steve agreed; aliens and robots and spaceships were already here, maybe dragons wouldn’t be far behind. “He would have.” Jim began to rise, abashed that he was being a “bad host” and offering them something to drink, but Steve motioned for him to sit. “No, please, let me. What can I get you?”
“Whatever you’re drinking, I’ll drink, too,” Jim said with a wink. “There’s beer in the refrigerator or whiskey in the cupboard—my daughter has a cow about me still drinking, but I tell her that it’s how I got to this age in the first place.” Thor squinted; he was probably puzzling out how Jim’s daughter could have a cow.
He let Thor and Jim talk for a bit—about him, of course—and took a moment to collect himself, leaning on the counter and breathing in and out. This was all that was left of his life before—Steve had a profound, relieved gratitude that Jim and Peggy were both still here but he was bruised around the edges, plummeting into that icy dark ocean, waving his arms frantically and calling for help. This was—he was a man out of time, out of place: they’d lived their lives, had families and made their ways in the world, left their marks upon it, and Steve was simply...pulled under the tide, adrift, his mouth filled with dust, his eyes rimed with frost.
He steeled himself, pulled his shirt down and smoothed his hair back, and brought the beers out to the living room. The day stretched into evening as Jim told Steve about what happened to the rest of the squad after the war, about working with Peggy; they took him out for dinner at a lovely restaurant where his youngest grandson was sous chef—San Francisco was almost as famous for its cuisine as New York—and when they were dropping him home, Thor gracefully maneuvered it so Steve could have a moment alone with Jim to say goodbye.
“Peggy told me—she told me that you fellas looked for Bucky’s remains, after I...crashed.” Jim and Peggy had lost touch for a while when she’d moved back to England temporarily, but he assumed they’d talked once Steve woke up. “That it had been almost impossible to get down there.”
“Yeah. We did our best, Cap, we really did. Please don’t think we’d have left him there, or left you. Stark tried to find you for decades. If he could have, he’d have searched for the Sarge, too.”
“I know, I know you fellas wouldn’t have left us behind. It’s just—did you ever have a reason to believe that his body had been recovered, maybe by the Red Army?”
Jim frowned and shook his head. “No. No, that never even entered our minds. That fall was hundreds and hundreds of feet, and as far as I know, the Reds weren’t anywhere near there.” His gaze was trained on Steve’s face, knife-sharp, as always. “What would lead you to ask that? You’ve found something?”
“It was just...part of a report I saw in our files, when I was trying to catch up. I didn’t understand it—it’s nothing, I’m sure.” He patted Jim’s shoulder and they embraced and said goodbye, promising to keep in touch, and if both their eyes were a little blurry with tears, well, Steve wasn’t saying anything about that.
Once they’d been on the road, Steve had bought a tent and some supplies—it turned out that Thor actually enjoyed sleeping out under the stars whenever possible. “You think me only a pampered prince,” he joked, “spoiled and expecting to be surrounded by luxury? I have fought in many campaigns and made a bed on the ground.”
Their trip took them to Yosemite, on to the redwoods and sequoias of Northern California, where Steve and Thor checked into a hotel—most places to camp had long before filled up. The parks and the trees were nothing like he’d imagined them from black and white pictures and paintings and the books he’d read; the trees were massive giants in either girth or height that impressed even Thor, and some were nearly as old as him, too. His plan was to reach the rainforest on Washington’s coast and then drive back east, following the roads across the northern half of the continent. By then he imagined he’d be over his wanderlust, but he didn’t want to think about that right then—what he would do to get on with his life, to live in this world without Bucky.
Somehow, though Thor had never frankly addressed Steve’s unhappiness or even his own, the two of them had changed in the days they’d been gone. Steve felt a little less as though flecks of ice still clung to his hair, his eyes, his skin, as though he was moving through a partially developed photograph where he was there and not there. And the set of Thor’s huge shoulders seemed to hold a little higher, his eyes even twinkled from time to time, as if he’d never taken Loki away.
They usually shared a room, since Thor enjoyed the company and insisted on it with great good cheer—though he was an amazing snorer, not to mention that the two of them were often forced to sleep diagonally on their beds because they were much too big for the average hotel. No wonder Miss Potts had put him up at the Park Hyatt, he’d thought when they’d checked in to their first roadside motel. None of it bothered Steve, though, he was glad of the company, and he’d been in the Army, after all: if a little snoring got to him, he’d have gone mad with Bucky in his tent. Sometimes after Thor had fallen asleep, Steve would stay up for a while, read on his phone or follow the steps that were supposed to encourage lucid dreaming.
His dreams were always standard, though: nightmares about the crash, about losing Bucky, about waking up and running through the chaos of modern-day Times Square. But that night a dream found him in an alley: 1930s Brooklyn, all the lights off, not even a streetlamp...other than one dimly glowing, pulsating yellow light spilling down beneath it, dozens of yards away. Water flowed through the alley’s center, pooling around his feet; the hair on the back of his neck rose—someone was watching him, Steve thought, but it was much too dark even for him to confirm.
Heart striking against his ribs, Steve walked forward to the light, his breath frigid in his chest. A telephone booth, like the one you’d see in a lobby or hotel, stood beneath the minuscule sulfur light. The phone was ringing.
When he picked it up, he was met with a burst of static and squealing—a field radio trying to lock in a signal. “Bucky?” he asked, tentative, wary. In the way of dreams Steve knew, he knew absolutely that it was Bucky who was causing this, that he’d hear him on the other end. The horrible, shrill screeching amplified and amplified, joined by discordant bits of music and talking, as if multiple channels were trying to squeeze their way through the wire. Under it all hummed that creepy, high-frequency buzz and what sounded like...a drill.
“It’s me, it’s Steve,” he shouted into the receiver, “Bucky, it’s Steve.” No response, only the static and the unsettling noise. Steve put the handset back in the cradle and turned, straight into Bucky’s chest. His arm shot forward, grabbing Steve by the throat, squeezing hard enough that Steve almost couldn’t pry Bucky's hand away. It was...metal, his hand was covered in metal and it was as strong as both of Steve’s arms; they grappled until Steve managed to twist Bucky’s wrist back far enough to slip out from under him. He wheeled and kicked, knocking Bucky backwards; Bucky stared down at his midsection, stunned that someone had taken him on and succeeded. They stood immobile, facing off, the dim sound of that hiss and pop coming from the phone. Steve didn’t even know what he was looking at: there was blacking around his eyes, his hair was long and wild, and he was dressed in some kind of tactical gear, all black—heavily armored, padded leather. No, he did know: the alter-image of Bucky that had flickered in and out when he’d come back into their shared dream.
“Please, Bucky, it’s me, it’s Steve. You always remembered me when you came back,” and Bucky dropped his head like an animal stalking its prey. “You know me. I’m your friend. Steve Rogers.”
They used to fit to one another, nestled together like spoons in a drawer, and now Bucky was a knife pointed straight at his throat. “I don’t know you. What do you want.”
“They woke me up, Buck,” Steve said around the anguish clogging his throat. “They found me in the ice and they woke me up, brought me back to life. I didn’t want to go, I wanted to stay there with you and I’m so sorry I left you behind. God, I’m so sorry. I didn’t want to go.”
“S-Steve?” The telephone’s buzzing cut off, as if the line had been yanked from the wall. Bucky’s face broke under his confusion, mouth turned down at the corners—fogbound, lost, he had no idea where—or who—he was.
“Yeah, yeah, it’s me, it’s Steve. I’ve tried so hard to find you in my dreams again, I haven’t been able to find you for weeks and weeks, not since I woke up.”
A small seed of recognition: “Why am I here? What do you want.” He thought Steve was controlling this. The chill of regret settled in his gut, his bones.
“They woke me up, Buck. They pulled me from the dream and I thought I’d gone mad, I thought it wasn’t real. I searched and searched for you. I didn’t want to leave.” Steve hovered near the edge of mania, he thought he might sob—with relief, with fear, with frustration. “I never would have left you if I’d had a choice.”
Bucky’s eyes darted around the alley, looking for something, or someone. He rubbed his forehead; he wore a shooting glove on his left hand, the one covered in metal. “You left.” There was a terrible finality in his words.
“I didn’t want to. Our dream—I wanted to stay there. But they woke me up.” I could have dug myself a grave, he wanted to say. Built a funeral pyre, or sailed this body off in a flaming ship the way the Vikings did. I thought it was a better ending.
“But it’s been so long.” His brow creased as he turned this over and over in his mind, and Steve ached for him to slip back into his Bucky, the one who’d shared that world, the universe, with him. This Bucky wasn’t superimposed upon the old one—there was no old one left to return.
“I’ve tried for weeks and weeks to find you, every night when I slept. I don’t know how this is the first time I’ve been able to see you again, I don’t know what’s different. Where are you now?”
Bucky’s head jerked backwards and the air filled with cacophony: disembodied voices, that crackling sound, zapping. The alley melted away, the water now as wide and deep as a stream. All around Bucky danced white, sparking lights, blue current that curved around his head like a halo. Was he being electrocuted, tortured?
“Is that what’s happening to you? Are you awake?” Are they hurting you?
He shook his head. “It’s not...”
“You’re still asleep, then. Freezing.”
As if that set something free in the splinters of his memory, Bucky shivered. “It’s cold.”
Steve felt an icy clamp around his heart, whispering, “Oh, Buck.” Frost began climbing the walls, branching like lichen on trees, turning everything white. This wasn’t a regular dream, this was their dream world—distorted, dark, sinister—and Bucky had to be alive somewhere, didn’t he? “Do you remember me now?”
“I thought you were—gone. I just wanted to see you, but they—”
Why wouldn’t his old Bucky come back, if he remembered him? Not this—this terrible version of him. Steve had to bring him back, somehow, he had to find him and save— But you’re only dreaming. It doesn’t count.
“I love you,” Steve said. “I miss you every day, it’s a kind of torture here without you. I just want to—to see you again. To find a way to help you.”
The blacking around his eyes didn’t hide how defeated they were, how bitter. “You can’t.”
“How do I help you? There has to be a way.”
Rage darkened his features and he slammed his fist against Steve’s chest, right above his heart. “Leave me the fuck alone,” and he fled into the gloom, Steve unable to keep pace with him, blindly stumbling through the dark streets and calling his name like a spell, slipping on water that had frozen over in his wake. Bucky didn’t answer; Steve chased him to exhaustion. Rounding a corner, Steve caught up to Bucky, lungs seizing with the effort and he slammed into Bucky, tackling him to the ground. Steve yearned toward his mouth, caught his lips in a kiss as Bucky tried to peel his hands away. His struggle only lasted a moment; he became quiescent, all the fight gone out of him, and opened his mouth to Steve’s. “I love you, I wouldn’t leave you,” Steve insisted. They kissed until Bucky jerked backwards in his arms, eyes wide.
Steve was abruptly blinded by white light, covered his eyes with his arm. When he opened them he was in the middle of an ice cave—alone. “What’s the most beautiful thing you ever saw?” Bucky’d asked him once when they were at their happiest, lying sweaty and flushed on their tropical beach and Steve’s belly sticky with come, his mouth swollen from kisses. “Points deducted if you say your ma or me or Pegs.” Steve had thought for a bit, then answered, “The ice caves, in Norway, remember?” He’d tried to draw them afterward but didn’t have the oil pastels that might have captured their soft, sculpted beauty: the curving, almost scalloped roof and walls, the iridescent ice blues and lavenders. The rocky floor of the glacier, a little river of melt-off running through it.
Bucky’d put him here—Steve wouldn’t have remembered it on his own. But Bucky was nowhere to be found, and the cave was melting at a furious rate, pieces of it collapsing all around. The river expanded, wider and wider, there was nowhere to stand without being carried away by the current. A huge chunk of ice fell from the roof, hitting Steve hard enough to knock him down. He had to get out of here or be buried alive in ice once more.
“Bucky! Bucky, please come back,” Steve yelled.
The old Bucky couldn’t return, no matter how much Steve loved him. The alter-image had never wavered, only held steady with...whoever this new Bucky was; there would be no more idyll, no more joy and sweetness. Steve was in the future now, and that place—that imagined and longed-for heaven—was lost in the past.
Ice crashed down around Steve, buried him. Wake up!
“Captain! Wake up! Steven, you must wake up, you are having a nightmare. Please.”
Thor’s voice dimly filtered through the fwooosh of blood in Steve’s ears, the clatter of his heart against his ribs. His hand clutched his chest—it felt bruised and cracked, precisely where Bucky had driven his fist into it. Sweat soaked his T-shirt and the top of his sweatpants. He shivered so hard he thought his teeth might crack and he bit into the side of his hand to calm the chattering.
Thor threw his enormous arms around Steve from behind, pulled him into a hug that made Steve feel like a small child. He rested his chin on Steve’s shoulder, rubbing a hand up and down Steve’s arm. “You are so cold,” Thor said, “and you were screaming for your friend.”
“I—it was just a bad dream.” Was Bucky trying to kill him, if he’d even really been there?
“Yet you wouldn’t awaken, no matter how I called or shook you. You were deeply frightened. I think it must be more than a dream.”
“It’s okay now,” Steve said, but Thor only held him tighter. It was startling how casually intimate he was, yet Steve didn’t feel at all strange being held this way, where he might have with anyone else. Thor had none of the same sorts of physical boundaries and beliefs that people had here, especially in this day and age. He just...didn’t think that way; it was familiar to Steve more than to most people, that ease with touching, and it reminded him a lot of Bucky. Not to mention that Thor smelled magnificent: if gold had a scent, this would be it, as warm and soothing as his voice, his presence—Steve felt small and safe for the first time since Bucky’d gone away to Camp McCoy.
“Will you tell me of your dream? I have always found that helpful in order to put it behind me.”
“I—” can’t, would be the easiest thing to say. What he wanted to say. But Thor was a caring friend, had put himself out there for Steve. He pushed his fingers through his sweat-damp hair, rubbed his mouth. Breathed in and out, as if he was still asthmatic.
Thor pulled away, facing Steve. Of course he didn’t have bed-head or look in the least bit rumpled; in the mornings no matter how badly they’d slept he’d look fresh as a morning glory, and no matter how much you wanted to, you couldn’t resent the fella. He smiled, charitable and kind. “Do you not comprehend that this is why I returned to Midgard? I can do nothing for my own sorrow, but if I might ease yours, it would be a boon to me. You seem so free with other things—your early life and the pain you suffered, your war. Your lost companions. But what ailed you in New York still, I think, remains. I have witnessed your fraught and anxious dreamings. Whenever your unease shows itself to me—to anyone—you swallow it whole.”
Steve put his hand over his eyes. God, just having someone say it like that—to have someone notice when not a single person seemed aware of how low he was... Even Peggy hadn’t seen through him like that.
“For a long time, while I was—asleep, frozen, I lived in a dream world. With my shieldbrother, with Bucky. He and I were—we were more than—well, we were in love.” Steve looked at Thor, maybe to see if he’d be repulsed, but Thor simply encouraged him to go on with a small nod. “We could dream anything, we flew and we traveled places we’d never been, simply by imagining them, even outer space. We ate and slept and loved each other. And every once in a while, Bucky’d disappear. He’d say ‘I have to wake up now’ and he’d vanish, and each time he came back was more horrible than the last. He was—I thought—living in the real world, being tortured or held prisoner, but he wouldn’t—or he couldn’t, I don’t know—talk about it. That’s how we shared the dream, I thought—they forced him to sleep, frozen, just like me. When he returned he’d bring bits and pieces, I think, of that real world with him, things I shouldn’t have known: songs and words and objects I could see when he first reappeared. But they would fade, in time.”
Thor filled a glass of water for him and motioned at Steve to drink. “And then one day it seemed as if they weren’t taking him away anymore. He stayed with me for the longest time we’d had together. Once, he’d said that it had been months in the real world, where it had only been hours in my dream. But—oh, the last time, it was me they woke up, not him. They pulled me out of the dream and I have never been able to get it back, get him back. I’ve tried and tried to find Bucky in my sleep, till I could only come to the conclusion that I’d gone crazy. Frozen, half dead, underwater—I’d lost my mind, I mean, who wouldn’t after seventy years in ice. I feel like I can still hear him sometimes, feel him. But I never saw him till tonight. He barely knew me, and the—the old Bucky, the one I loved, wouldn’t return, only someone who looks like him, who’s been hurt and made to forget who he is. Who’s a—a killer, I think.”
He put his head in his hands. It was always kindness that did Steve in. “I think I really am crazy, Thor. I was desperate down there, alone and afraid and I could see things when I was in...stasis, like all the sea creatures that would swim around me. They showed up in my dreams, so I made up Bucky, too. My mind was going and I didn’t even know.”
“That is not madness, Steven.”
Steve stared at him.
“To inhabit another’s dream is...not unheard of on Asgard. To love someone so much your consciousness, your dream state fuses with another’s...no, you must believe me in this. Magic and faith and science, remember? There is nothing wrong with you. It’s not madness.”
“But he’s dead. Thor, I watched him die. I watched him fall from that train, hundreds and hundreds of feet below us. You might survive that fall, even I might, but not a regular human. Our—their—bodies wouldn’t be able to handle it. He died.”
“Perhaps something happened to him you know not of.” He smiled and pressed his hand to the side of Steve’s face, cupping it, another startlingly intimate gesture, but comforting, hopeful. Thor radiated a kind of peace—incongruous for a warrior, maybe, but Steve could see the king he might become. “I know someone who can tell us what that might be.”
Nothing could have prepared Steve for Asgard: it was as golden as Thor, ethereal and bright and blinding in its glory. And they were only in—this was the Bifrost, Thor had explained, the portal between all the worlds, the source of the Rainbow Bridge, and it looked out over the city and a beautiful calm sea, the gleaming palace towering above it all. More lay beyond, Thor said: mountains and valleys and forests that were unparalleled in their magnificence. In the distance the galaxies spread out in a breathtaking vista, a wine-dark sky laced with cosmic trails of purple, red, blue, shrouded in a veil of stars. It reminded him of the journeys he and Bucky had taken in their dreams, but their wildest imaginings could not have conceived anything of comparable splendor.
They would visit the rest of Thor’s world later, he’d promised when they arrived—right then, Thor was telling his friend Heimdall about Steve’s dreams, his history with Bucky. Heimdall was even bigger than Thor, stunningly handsome and with a burnished armor and sword that made Steve’s jaw drop in awe. His eyes were—orange? amber? Steve wasn’t sure, but he’d never seen anything like them—still they were unexpectedly kind, even to a stranger such as himself. He’d offered a droll “Welcome to Asgard” when they came through like they were just dropping in for tea; he knew Steve’s name before Thor introduced him.
“Hrm.” Heimdall made a gruff noise in this throat when Thor finished his story, but there was a ghost of a smile on his lips, and under his intimidating helmet he sported an arched eyebrow. He didn’t seem at all thrown by any of this. “Dead more than seventy of your years? Yet he lived in your dreams.” At Steve’s affirmation he nodded and strode to the edge of the vast window’s balcony; his eyes momentarily clouded, white and shimmering, as if seeing something far away, and then he motioned for them to join him.
“Your friend was found after his fall.” Steve drew a sharp breath; he had thought—what? That he wanted the fall to be the end of Bucky’s story, wanted Bucky to have died because the alternative was so much worse? That’s what he’d told himself, but the relief flooding through him put paid to that sorry bit of self-deception.
“Soldiers of a red star. He was gravely wounded.”
Steve could hardly get the words out: “His left arm was gone.”
Heimdall considered him for a beat. “Yes. I see snow, a vast mountain range.” His voice was neutral, matter-of-fact, but his face was solemn; he was truly sorry for Steve and for the news he had to impart. “He traveled quite far, but where his journey ended is not familiar to me—they appear to be healers, but they are not.” A quality in the way he said it—as if he was almost angry on their behalf—sent an icy shudder through Steve.
It had to be— “Zola. Bucky’s whole unit was captured in ’43, Zola experimented on him. Whatever he did helped Bucky survive the fall.” But the red star was the Soviet army; if the Soviets rescued him they—Hydra was inside the Soviet military, too. Of course they were. “Oh my god.” Thor and Heimdall exchanged a look. “Hydra must have found him and...”
As gently as if he was talking to a child, Heimdall said, “I cannot see him now or hear him. His mind is not his own, I fear, or I could tell you what you seek to know.” He was concerned, maybe even worried.
“I have to find him. Thor, I have to go back, I have to find him. I don’t know how, but I will.”
Thor took hold of Steve’s elbow, made him face him; it was good, snapped Steve out of that crashing feeling, brought him back into his body and cleared his mind. “When Loki was lost to me, Heimdall could not see him, either, and I thought him dead. When he returned to Midgard, I rejoiced, but you saw what he had become—he was much altered, no longer the brother I had loved, though I thought—hoped—that Loki was still somewhere inside him. If you find your friend...he may not know you. You must be prepared to see someone who is not the Bucky of your memories or your dreams. There may be nothing left of him who remembers.”
Steve studied his face, saw the grief that colored his eyes. It must have killed Thor to take his brother home as a prisoner, to see him locked away, their love in shards. “He always knew me. It took a while, but he always remembered me in the dreams. Can I—is there a way—” He didn’t know what he was asking for: a magic spell, or just friendly advice? How puny and foolish humans must seem to Asgardians, how pathetic. Petty and tiny, Thor had said when they were under the influence of the scepter, but standing here in Asgard, Steve was hit in the face with how true it was.
Maybe that was pity in their eyes, Steve wasn’t sure, but Thor said, “You called him by his name, and told him yours, in dreams. It was your name he remembered first.” Steve nodded. “If you can find him again in the dream, perhaps you can bridge that world and the real one. Your voice, your name—and something you shared, something which had meaning? A memory, an object...”
We looked for you, after. My folks wanted to give you a ride to the cemetery.
I know, I’m sorry...I just kind of wanted to be alone.
How was it?
It was okay. She’s next to Dad.
I was gonna ask...
I know what you’re gonna say—it’s just—
We can put the couch cushions on the floor like when we were kids. It’ll be fun—all you gotta do is shine my shoes, maybe take out the trash. Come on.
Thank you, Buck. But I can get by on my own.
The thing is...you don’t have to. I’m with you to the end of the line, pal.
Steve swallowed. He didn’t know why that was the thing he instantly latched on to— “Yes, there is something.” Bucky’d said it to Steve a hundred times if he’d said it once; no matter how low Steve got, when he thought he had nothing left, Bucky reminded him he was with him to the end.
Just then Heimdall turned and said, “Ah. Frigga.” After a moment—Thor seemed to practically bounce on his feet in anticipation—one of the most elegant, handsome women Steve had ever seen glided into the room. She had an elaborate hairstyle with long dark-blond curls cascading down her back, a strong jaw like Thor’s, and a dress that shimmered and changed colors as she moved—raiment, Steve thought absurdly, because dress really didn’t do it justice.
“It’s a good thing your father is elsewhere,” she said, giving Thor a secret smile, then turned her attention to Steve. “I’m afraid my husband is a curmudgeonly bear who believes Thor’s new friends unworthy of being our guests. But I bid you welcome. My son has told me of your courage; I am glad he has made such a friend.” She offered Steve a benevolent smile. “I must apologize, however, for my other son and the suffering he caused you.”
Thor may have gotten his prowess as a warrior from his father, but his other qualities clearly must have come from his mother. He couldn’t think what to say, so he simply nodded and said, “Ma’am.” How was he able to understand them? They spoke perfect English, though of course that couldn’t be their language. He’d have to ask about that later.
Frigga took his hands in hers, and Steve felt a flush of warmth flow through him, slowly and yet somehow quickly at the same time. Everything seemed to melt away—his concern for Bucky, the constant ache that sat in the pit of his chest since he’d awakened—as she held his hands, and he thought he might break down, might sob right here in front of her: he was suddenly free of something he hadn’t even known had been wrapped around him like chains. Her gaze held him, cradled him in her warmth. Magic and faith. “I have every confidence you will find your friend,” she said, “and all will be well.” Calm and peace welled inside him as she took her hands away and motioned to Thor. “Now I must speak to my son.”
The two of them walked some paces away, Thor bowing his head as he listened to his mother. Heimdall stood next to Steve and said, rather dryly, “She sees almost as well as I do.” Steve couldn’t help himself, he laughed out loud—though not too loudly, he was trying to be respectful here.
“I’ve never seen anyone like her.” What a stupid comment, of course he hadn’t; his face turned scarlet with embarrassment, he knew, he was a terrible blusher.
But Heimdall was kind enough to ignore his ineptitude. “Even on Asgard, few have seen her like.”
“Is Thor—is he in trouble for bringing me here?”
“The prince has always been headstrong; they are used to his fancies. If Odin were here, he’d call you one of his son’s new pets and tell Thor to take you away.”
Thor nodded to his mother as she gave Steve another benevolent smile and turned to go. “The realms are in chaos since the Bifrost was destroyed,” Thor explained after Frigga left. “I’m afraid I must find my friends the Warriors Three, and Lady Sif. My father has use of me.”
“I thought the bridge had been largely repaired?” Steve was the first to admit he didn’t fully understand any of it, despite Thor’s lengthy explanations: of Yggdrasil, or the realms, or how they traveled through all of it.
With a gentle smile, Thor reminded him, “Time passes differently here—this began before you and I took our road trip.” There was something about him speaking in modern American lingo that never failed to make Steve grin. “I will return you to your home, and then I must leave. It has been most enjoyable. When things are settled, we shall find another adventure.”
“I’d like that.”
Steve couldn’t feel sorry for himself—not when he’d met Heimdall and Frigga, not when Thor had trusted him enough to take him somewhere perhaps no other human had been—but there was a twinge of disappointment that he hadn’t had the full tour.
They said their goodbyes with a warm embrace and Thor reminded him of Heimdall’s promise that if Bucky became visible to him, he would find a way to let Steve know immediately. There really hadn’t been much time to process what he’d learned about Bucky before he returned to New York: Steve may not have been crazy and the life he’d lived inside his dreams may have been real, but he was still here, alone, with no more idea of how to save Bucky than when he’d started.
It wasn’t particularly surprising that Steve’s first visitor upon his return was Nick Fury: he’d been anticipating an attempt at recruitment, he’d certainly heard enough speeches in the days after the battle. Fury was pragmatic, he understood the value of Captain America as well as anyone, and he was smart enough to glean how much of Steve’s identity depended on fighting a good fight, on being valuable. What did surprise Steve was that he said yes—he’d hoped to be done with this life; it had taken everything from him, after all, but if there was one place that might lead him to Bucky, it was SHIELD headquarters. Operating out of D.C. would put him in the beating heart of the beast, and he may not have been a spy, but he was pretty damn skilled at getting information, and he had an ace in the hole with Peggy.
They put him up in a beautiful building in the center of Dupont Circle, gave him a level six clearance—he had access to all but the top-level operational information, which was fine with him: it was enough to lead teams and get him inside file rooms and databases. Peggy, on one of her better days, briefed him on lost information from the end of the war: the Soviet intelligence structure, possible Hydra sleepers, what happened with Zola and the man she’d mentioned one time, Fennhoff. He’d thought long and hard about whether to tell her about Bucky; in the end it seemed prudent to keep the information to himself until he had something worth the distress it would cause her. She thought it quite the lark, in a way, steering him to this old file hidden away in a dusty room or that old microfilm no one even knew about anymore; he got to know the SHIELD researchers and information technology managers pretty well, and found that good old-fashioned politeness got you far, even inside an intelligence organization. Everyone was happy to believe the story that Steve was merely filling in the gaps about what had happened after he’d gone into the ice, they even took pity on him at times: give the sad old guy access to stuff he probably didn’t have clearance for, what harm could it do, he was Captain America, after all.
There were message boards with conspiracy theories, but nothing sounded quite right to his admittedly untutored ear. He’d thought he might find the beginnings of an answer in those spooky things he’d heard when Bucky returned to the dreams from waking—and Natasha was a likely resource he hadn’t tapped. One time when they were coming back from a mission, the rest of the Strike team and Barton snoozing toward the front of the quinjet, Steve had leaned forward in the jumpseat and asked quietly, “There was a word, I’m not sure I remember it right because I heard it on the Eastern Front, but I always wanted to know what it meant: zhelaniye.”
“It means...longing, I suppose.” There was the tiniest twitch, a tightness at the corners of her eyes, but she was too practiced to give away any suspicions completely.
“What about—I don’t know that I’m pronouncing this at all correctly—dobrosedechny?”
This time her posture changed, just enough for him to see the shift. She studied him. “Dobroserdechnyy. Something harmless...benign. Where did you hear that?”
“Huh.” They were strange words for Bucky to have remembered or thought of. Her gaze took on a flinty quality; she was probably mentally logging these questions for Fury to read later, reporting on how suspicious and unstable he was. So he didn’t answer and instead asked, “What about Ty dolzhen podchiniat’sia and Ty-nichto. Ty prosto soldat.” He knew soldat was soldier, but he wanted to see what she’d say.
Natasha’s green eyes sparked as her fingers dug into her thighs, her jaw clenched. “The first is: you must obey orders. The second is...You are nothing. Only a soldier.” She jerked her chin up. “Now you tell me, where did you hear that? None of that’s common.”
“Like I said, Eastern Front. They stuck in my mind and something reminded me recently.” She didn’t believe him, didn’t trust him any more than he trusted her, but Natasha was much too smart to push him—there were always other ways to get what she wanted.
Everywhere Steve turned, he was stymied. Paths that seemed promising inevitably led nowhere, there were huge gaps in the history and endlessly redacted files, particularly in the years when Russia and the U.S. were fighting over real estate. The Red Scare that began shortly after the war, the Cold War, made things harder to decipher because he hadn’t lived through it, he didn’t always know exactly what he was looking at when it was filtered through a history he could only understand through books and Peggy’s sometimes compromised memories. Not that Peggy wasn’t as helpful as she could be on her good days, but there was a limit to what Steve could ask of her before she became rattled or tired. He did stumble on an answer to one of his questions, though: Howard’s technology, the one they’d been trying to retrieve in Russia, had been an early theoretical blueprint for a cryofreezing chamber.
At night he tried to find Bucky in his dreams. When he’d been in Asgard, he’d wanted to ask Thor or Heimdall why Bucky had suddenly appeared to him after weeks and weeks out of the ice, but the opportunity hadn’t presented itself. If they’d seen each other in dreams because of the serum and because they were both frozen, surely, he thought, he and Bucky could rebuild their dream world now that they were both out of stasis, could communicate the way they once had, instead of whatever that nightmare had been about. Surely Bucky couldn’t have been frozen all the time. Some nights Bucky appeared, hovering at the edge of his dreams, blurry and silent, always watching him, as he’d done the first few times when Steve thought he was in Nowhere. If Steve turned quickly he would catch sight of him, lost in a crowd or shrouded in shadows, merely a flicker at the corner of Steve’s eye. Sometimes Steve called to him; Bucky would run, then, like the devil was after him—and maybe it was.
In between, Steve led missions, tried to live a life, rather unsuccessfully, judging by Barton’s and Natasha’s attempts to get him out, find him a girl to date. Most of all, Steve missed Thor terribly—he hadn’t really realized how lost he felt in this modern world until Thor had offered his friendship, hadn’t understood how much he valued not necessarily Thor’s otherworldly experience and wisdom but his teasing and stories and laughter, his enjoyment of food and drink and the simple pleasures life had to offer. There was no one in this modern world with whom he shared life experience—the only ones who did were old and frail—and Thor had, for a while at least, made him forget that. Until such time as Thor returned, though, this was what Steve’s lonely life would be.
And then Steve met Sam Wilson.
“Yeah, I do know a little bit about it,” Sam said, swirling the ice in his tea around with his straw, “but mostly just about using lucid dreaming to cope with PTSD. I’ve never, I don’t know, made a study of it.” His level gaze assessed Steve once more, almost exactly like he’d done back at the VA. Steve had a feeling that not very much got past Sam, especially when it came to veterans with combat neurosis. “Do you want to learn how to use it?”
“I’ve read a bit about it. I understand the basics. But I thought I’d ask your professional opinion, I guess?” He hadn’t necessarily intended to go this route in their conversation, but talking to Sam had been...as easy as talking to Bucky had been, as comfortable as talking to Thor. Steve had only planned to stop by the VA that day, say hello, maybe offer to buy him a drink, but they’d ended up going out for coffee, which led to supper and Steve was somehow still here and still talking, though the hour was pretty late.
“You’ve never really dealt with it, have you?”
“Barnes. Losing your friend. I read up about that—I mean, we all grew up learning about you guys in school, but I was always more about Gabe Jones, you know, breaking the color barrier and all that, and I only remembered a little of that part of the story. So the other day I looked it up. You disappeared not that long after he did. You framed your reports like it was your responsibility.”
“It was.” Steve had never thought his field reports would have been put out there for public consumption, but of course they had. He’d been so busy looking for anything that could lead him to Bucky he had never bothered to research that sort of thing.
Sam’s brows crept up his forehead. “Did you want the crash to happen?” It wasn’t an accusation; Sam’s voice was sympathetic if probing—but he knew. He knew the answer already. It was the same tone Bucky’d had when he found out Steve hadn’t given Peggy his coordinates. “Is that why the interest in lucid dreaming—you want to try to get control of something that’s controlling you, giving you nightmares?”
As much as he liked Sam—as much as they’d hit it off—he wasn’t quite ready to try to explain any of that to him. To anyone really, outside of Thor and Heimdall; it would make him too vulnerable and Steve felt as though his mental state was already pretty questionable to a lot of people.
“Not every soldier comes home a basket case, you know,” Steve said. “People get on with their lives.”
“Yeah, but literally no one else in the entire history of ever has gone through what you went through. Jesus, Steve, at the very least you’d have trauma from losing Barnes, but being frozen for seventy years and then waking up with nothing of the life you once had? Everyone getting old without you? There’d be something wrong with you if you didn’t have PTSD.”
“Oh man.” Sam sighed, probably a working habit. “You got that shit locked up tight, don’t you. Well, look, I’m not gonna force this on you, it’s been a nice evening and a hell of a lot of fun getting to know you. I don’t want to end on a down note, I just want you to realize people are here who can help. I’ll look into what I can find about dreaming and get back to you later.”
“He was more than just my sergeant, my friend,” Steve blurted. Sam blinked. “I was in love with him, I just couldn’t do anything about it, or at least, at the time, I thought I couldn’t. That he would be disgusted and I would lose him. It’s not that I didn’t care for Peggy too, I did, but Bucky had been...the first one I’d fallen for. I dreamt about him when I was in the ice.”
“Okay. Thank you.” The judgment he expected didn’t arrive; he kept forgetting people didn’t go to jail for talking about that these days, that men could even marry men, and Sam didn’t exactly seem like the sort of guy who’d judge that, anyway.
“You told me I could stop by the VA to make you look good because you wanted me to check it out for myself, didn’t you? See what you did there, so I’d know.”
He had a great, lopsided grin. “I’m that transparent, huh?”
“I only just now figured that out.” Steve couldn’t help but smile back.
“You really need a friend, man. One who’s, you know, not a god from another dimension who has to go save the universe or the realms or whatever that was.”
“I know. God, I know.”
“Maybe a date.”
“Have you been talking to Natasha?”
“No, but do you think I could? Would you give me her phone number? I really thought we had a moment there when she came to pick you up.”
Steve had no idea what Natasha’s love life was like because she spent all her time focusing on Steve’s, but he actually kind of wanted to see if that might happen. Steve liked her, enjoyed her company, she just wasn’t exactly what he thought of as a friend. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Sam got very serious again. “Steve, I’m sorry—for all the things you’ve lost, especially for Bucky. Not a day goes by I don’t think about Riley, and we were just friends, partners. Let yourself grieve for what was taken from you.”
Steve nodded, his throat tight, his eyes hot and stinging. It was a good place to end the evening, anyway, so they finished up—Sam made him promise to meet for a run, or at least a close approximation of one where Steve wouldn’t be an “asshole troll”—and Steve dropped Sam off at his place on the bike, because he felt guilty for having kept him out so late. Of course all hell would break loose when Steve got home.
It unfolded like a movie: unsuccessful flirting with Kate next door, Fury waiting in his apartment, finding out his place was bugged, an assassination attempt, finding out Kate was a spy and spying on him. A Hitchcock thriller, and Steve was the goddamn patsy. The music from his record player was a warped and distorted soundtrack in the back of his mind, and it reminded him—no, it was exactly like the first time Bucky’d returned from his wakeful state: “It’s Been a Long, Long Time” had been released after both of them went in the ice. Other sounds filtered through to his consciousness: SHIELD control asking the twenty of the shooter, sirens, dogs barking. That all-too-familiar sensation of being whisked back into his body from a fugue state hit him hard and snapped him back to reality.
“Tell ’em I’m in pursuit,” Steve said, launching himself through the window to the building across Hillyer. He could see the shooter racing along the roofline, pretty sure he was heading toward R or 20th Street. In the glare of streetlights Steve thought he saw a flash of metal on the shooter’s left arm and something inside him seized.
When Steve reached the end of the building he dropped to the roof below and rolled; the shooter—Jesus, he was fast, as fast as him—was already nearly at the edge, so Steve threw the shield with all his strength and his opponent caught it. Just caught it in his metal hand, turning toward Steve, staring at him with Bucky’s eyes. Eye-black, the lower half of his face masked like a dog in a muzzle, long hair, tactical gear—and the metal arm, of course, a red star, the Soviet star; it was all there, every little fragment of Steve’s nightmares.
Bucky looked right at Steve like he didn’t even know him. He threw the shield back, shoving Steve across the roof when he caught it. No one could have thrown the shield that hard unless—unless they’d been given a serum of their own. Unless they’d been altered.
Steve thought he would catch him at the roof edge but when Steve got there Bucky was gone. Bucky
Bucky was gone. What they’d replaced him with wasn’t even human—the kind of killing machine that could shoot someone through a brick wall. Whatever’d happened to Fury before he got to Steve’s apartment had most likely been caused by Bucky, that was obvious, and a qualm of nausea flipped his stomach over, made his chest heave. While Steve had been having a pleasant evening out with Sam, Bucky had been in the city, had been on the building across the street. He’d come face to face with Steve. Yet none of that was actually Bucky Barnes.
Steve stepped away from the edge, numb, almost dizzy, the vertiginous sensation of crashing to the ground leaving him stumbling back like a drunk. There would be—he had to find—where would—no, Steve had to get back to Fury and Kate, they needed his assistance. He sleepwalked back to the apartment, mind and gut churning; the place was swarming with police and EMTs, the SHIELD Strike teams arriving en masse, and the ambulance roared away as he got there. Toward the south the heavy whap-whap-whap of helo rotors filled the air, streets were being blocked off by police and fire. They wouldn’t find Bucky; they could bring in the K9 units and SWAT and any elite teams they wanted, but he’d vanished and they would never find him. “Get in,” Maria Hill said, swinging an SUV’s door open for him—where the hell had she come from so fast? Where the hell had any of them come from so fast? He didn’t have the ability to argue with her; they drove in silence behind the medics until she asked, “Did you see the shooter?”
Steve stared straight ahead. “No, not well.” There’d be time for descriptions and briefings later. He could work up a story. “What the hell happened? Is he still alive?”
“Barely. George Washington is level one trauma, so we’ll see.” Her voice was clipped, neutral. They rarely spoke to each other outside of work, there was no way to gauge her status. “Someone wants him dead, and this time they might have succeeded. It would have helped tremendously if you’d seen the shooter.”
This was Hill’s territory now, so he followed her lead when they arrived at GW; eventually they ended up in an observation room where Fury was being operated on, joined by Rumlow and Sitwell. Bucky’d done this, Steve thought numbly as he watched them cut open Fury’s chest. But no—whoever had taken Bucky and turned him into that had shot Fury; Bucky was simply the hammer on the gun. All these weeks of searching, his fevered imaginings and horrible scenarios, and none of them were this: a waking nightmare, a killing machine.
Natasha came flying into the room, full of barely concealed rage and fear. “Is he gonna live?” she asked, gulping, and he answered honestly, “I don’t know.” When she said, “Tell me about the shooter,” she didn’t look at Steve but he could tell she was watching for any chink in his armor in that eerie way of hers.
“He’s fast. Strong. Had a metal arm.” Out of the corner of his eye he caught her flinch. So she fucking knew, had known for...how long? Fury, probably, too, and Steve wasn’t going to let Sitwell or Rumlow or Hill catch him glancing at them. He held on to the jump drive as he watched Fury die, almost as tightly as he held on to the secret of who the shooter had been.
Her eyes scanned his face; she’d never seen him angry like this, not even when Batroc had gotten the drop on them with that grenade. Steve had her off-balance, he had the damn Black Widow on the defensive.
“I know who killed Fury.”
Steve stared at her. What was the play? He didn’t trust her, not really—he relied on her when they were on a mission, he enjoyed working with her, and right now she was the one person who seemed to comprehend that there were larger forces at play here even without knowing what had happened to him back at the Triskelion, but trust? That was a lot more complicated. Except right now, he was in way over his head and he really needed a lifeline. Peggy would have told him to get over himself and take the damn risk.
“So do I.” Natasha’s mouth opened and closed; he’d never thought he could leave her speechless, but she was utterly stunned. He exhaled, deep and loud. “You first.”
A moment’s hesitation, and then she said, “Most of the intelligence community doesn’t believe he exists, but the ones that do call him the Winter Soldier. He’s credited with over two dozen assassinations in the past fifty years.”
It made sense: Bucky had disappeared almost as many times. “So he’s a ghost story.” They make me do things I don’t want to do. In the few files that hadn’t been redacted to within an inch of their lives, he’d seen a notation: “...there was a theory in the Cold War that one man, in the right place at the right time, could be better than an army.” That’s what they’d built him for, that’s why they’d taken away his memories and identity, crafting a perfect assassin. A soldier in summer, in winter.
He watched her while she told him about being shot by the Soldier; there was clearly fear behind her words that she didn’t even bother to disguise. The only time Steve had ever seen her truly afraid was with the Hulk and when Fury was dying; this was a different type of fear, something long buried, deeply scarring. But Steve needed her help; fear was a luxury they didn’t have time for right now.
“We have to get out of here,” Steve said, “they’re after me,” and he filled her in on the assault in the elevator, about Pierce and their bizarre meeting. “This is your territory, not mine. Tell me what to do.”
Her mouth twisted in a little moue, but there was no artifice left in her. Natasha didn’t like not having anything to bargain with, but she could read the situation. “And then you’ll tell me why you know who the Winter Soldier is.”
It reminded him of Peggy, watching Natasha work, following along with everything she told him to do—it may have involved computers and all kinds of technology and spycraft, but she was a spy par excellence, at the peak of her game, just like Peggy had been in the war. She'd kissed him to hide them both from Rumlow and it would have been funny, but he knew why she’d done it—Peggy would have, too. Something about that made it easier to let down his guard, let her in. On the highway up to Camp Lehigh he told her about Bucky, about the dream world and the pieces of the real world that had seeped in. About what Thor and Heimdall had told him.
Despite his expectation, she didn’t balk, or laugh, simply considered the whole thing, ran it through a plan, decided he was worth divulging something. “I think the words you asked me about were code words designed to activate him. Those phrases you knew were his handlers’. I never saw him, he was a...legend, a mystery, maybe even a cautionary tale in some ways, of the power they had over us. We were warned of him, as if he’d come punish us himself if we failed to perform. I didn’t believe he really existed until he shot me. No one on earth could have made that shot, not even Clint.” Her eyes as she stared out the window were haunted by events he couldn’t even imagine.
“I’ve been trying to find him, find out about him, since Heimdall. But every avenue was closed. I have to know: did SHIELD know? Fury?” And would that mean Peggy had known too, or guessed?
Natasha shook her head. “No. I’m certain he doesn’t. Like you said, the Wi—he was a ghost story.” Or an actual nightmare. As they hit New Jersey she must have decided to change the subject to lighten the mood, and pestered him about his love life, insinuating that he needed more practice kissing. Steve found himself wanting to be her friend, to dig deeper under that carefully crafted ultra-smooth surface, but she rebuffed him all the way—what could he say to “there’s a chance you might be in the wrong business, Rogers” when he’d baldly declared he wanted her to be a friend? He’d thought she was helping him precisely because he did need a friend and it was her choice to be one; he wasn’t certain anymore why she was here with him in this truck if that wasn’t her plan.
Steve thought that he was done with the shocks, but at Lehigh they found Zola, or rather some part of him preserved in the computer database, and discovered the whole terrible history of SHIELD’s compromise. And Bucky’s ordeal, laid bare on the screen in front of him, the triumphant smirk in Zola’s voice like a hot knife in his chest. The program couldn’t know what Steve had seen in his dreams or how much he knew about the images that spattered across the screen, but it didn’t matter. They’d tipped their hands, and saving Bucky...Hydra would do their damnedest to kill Steve before he’d have the chance. When Natasha said there were missiles heading for them, “thirty seconds, tops,” he’d completely run out of shock and outrage.
Steve dug them out of the rubble and headed for the woods; Nat was only semiconscious, coughing and choking on the dust and oily chemical smoke. They couldn’t stay long, SHIELD—Hydra would find them on infrared eventually.
“Natasha, Nat. Wake up.” Steve patted her face, shook her lightly. “Come on, you have to wake up.”
With a groan, she shifted, but let her head loll back and Steve patted her face a little harder this time. “Come on, you have to wake up. You can’t leave me alone here, I’m too much of an idiot. I’ll never survive.”
“Steve,” she moaned, but there was a trace of a smirk as well. Her eyes snapped open. “We have to go.”
“Yeah, I know.” He grinned. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Can you walk?”
She considered it, moved her legs and arms. “Yes. We have to find a car. Is there—can you think of anyplace safe to go? I’m afraid what I have could be compromised...I don’t know. I don’t know what to trust.” The grief made her voice thick; he had no idea SHIELD meant that much to her.
“I think I know someone we can trust.” They found a car they could steal—he was really racking up the sins on this little misadventure—and drove as fast as they could back to D.C. He had to find some way to connect to Bucky, had to hope that Bucky would need sleep as much as anyone else. But had they altered him too much? Was he really a machine?
Steve wasn’t at all certain Sam would be home, or would even let them in—but of course he did; it was the only other piece of luck he’d had since this whole clusterfuck began besides teaming up with Nat. Sam had been moments away from his alarm getting him up for a predawn run, but he skipped it and showed them, bleary-eyed and still in his pajama pants, where to clean up, fixed them breakfast. Better than any safe house. “What’s the plan?” Sam asked and put a plateful of eggs and sausages in front of him, set another and some toast in front of Natasha.
It might have worked to tell Natasha the truth about Bucky, but what did he tell Sam? He asked her with his eyes; she gave a curt nod.
“This is gonna sound crazy, but I need to sleep.”
Sam laughed, warm and bright, and took a bite of toast. “That...doesn’t sound crazy, you know. Lots of people do that. Especially when they’ve been on the run for forty-eight hours from government assassins.”
There was a familiar look on Natasha’s face, it reminded him of the way Peggy’d looked when Steve had taken the flag off that pole at Lehigh. A lifetime away, and just yesterday. If they weren’t in dire circumstances, he’d tease her about her obvious interest in Sam. “He’s not even the least bit impressed by you, is he?” she asked Steve.
“No, and it’s so disappointing.” Steve downed his glass of orange juice.
“They’ll probably send someone after us. Someone I know.” Steve hesitated. “They’ll send Bucky.”
His mouth opened and closed, his eyes narrowed. “How’s that even possible, he died, like, seventy years ago.”
Natasha made one of her cryptic smiles; maybe she didn’t even really believe the story.
“They experimented on him back in ’43, and whatever they did helped him survive the fall. A serum, not like mine, but...enough. Hydra must have been inside the Soviet military, they found him and turned him into a killer. The whole time I was underwater, I was in a dream world with him.” Sam blinked.
He told Sam the entire unbelievable story as they finished their breakfast; Sam’s attention was riveted on Steve but his face was unreadable. When Steve finished, Sam drew in a sharp breath. “That is some crazy Inception-level shit right there.”
“I don’t know what—”
“He hasn’t seen that yet,” Nat said with a touch of sarcasm, and Steve huffed at her.
“The lucid dreaming. That’s why you were looking into it,” Sam said.
Steve nodded. At least Sam didn’t flat-out laugh them out of his apartment. “Thor warned me...he said Bucky might be altered when I saw him again. The other night when I chased him across the roof and he caught the shield, he looked right at me, like he didn’t even know me. I couldn’t figure it out—why I’d had that dream with him all those months ago, why I could suddenly see him when he’d been lost to me ever since I woke up. At first I thought it had something to do with Thor, but I think now it was simple proximity. I think when I dreamed of him, they’d brought him to the States. And I think they woke him up too, somewhere along the way—I can see him now in dreams, but he’s always at the edge of whatever’s happening. Like he’s there but afraid to get too close. He doesn’t know me, but he will.”
“If you can connect to him...”
“Yeah. Thor told me that I should try to reach him in the dream before I see him. That maybe I can control his reactions in the real world through a code, or a—a trigger—wake him up, so to speak. I don’t know if that’s true, but I have to try. I’ve been able to make myself aware since I was unfrozen, I’ve learned how to move around in my dreams and...participate, I guess, but I can’t control everything, and I can’t control interactions with him.”
“What if he’s not asleep, though—we got no idea what they’d be doing with him after they were out all night looking for you. It’s almost light.” Steve couldn’t help but smile at Sam’s “we” there.
“I have no other option but to try.”
“All right. I got one of those nice cushy marshmallow beds right there, just waiting for you to meet your dream date. You need something else, like, I don’t know, a sleeping pill or something?”
“No, I’m okay.” He caught the look exchanged between Sam and Natasha and suppressed a smile. At least they wouldn’t be bored while they waited for him.
Natasha walked to the bedroom with him; her eyes had that haunted, faraway cast again.
“What is it?” he asked, taking her hand.
She sighed. “When I joined SHIELD, I thought I was going straight. I thought I knew whose lies I was telling, but I guess I can’t tell the difference anymore.”
Steve squeezed her hand. “There’s a chance you might be in the wrong business,” he said and she laughed, shaking her head. He’d really had no idea at all about her—there wasn’t much good in this situation, but forging this friendship was one small thing he could cherish.
“I owe you,” she said. How could she even think that when she’d gotten him through this?
“It’s all right.”
Her mouth twisted, her eyes were fixed intently on his. “If it was down to me to save your life, would you trust me to do it?”
Steve smiled. “I would now,” and the answer made her stare even more intently at him before Sam interrupted them by loudly clearing his throat.
“Daylight’s coming,” Sam said and motioned at Steve to get to bed.
Steve was wrong—it was hard to find sleep: he wanted this too much, his desperation made him fitful and restless and the first dream he had was fruitless, painted with smeared images and random appearances by faceless people he couldn’t quite track. Rumlow, he thought, maybe, the Strike team, Pierce and Fury, and it left him with a chill sensation of dread sitting in the pit of his stomach. Steve awakened just long enough to hear Sam and Nat talking quietly in the living room as dawn began to shade the sky in oranges and pinks, and he willed himself to relax.
Let the dream take you where you have to go. Steve closed his eyes, stopped pulling against the current, recalled the peace he’d experienced when Frigga had held his hands. Soon he was slowly floating, drifting along through a shimmery, dark sky.
He used the advice about lucid dreaming and dream controlling he’d read: imagined an environment that Bucky might recognize, too, their Tahiti beach or the Expo, but instead the dream whisked Steve to a room filled with thousands of small, shiny brass rectangles, its walls pulsing in and out with winking light, rippling and undulating. What lay beyond—commercial buildings, street lights and signs, cars—appeared through the walls when they became transparent, like looking through a moving window: it was D.C., Steve glimpsed the Capitol far up the street, the familiar buildings.
When Steve turned around Bucky stood there, head down, stance forward, a bull preparing to charge the matador’s cape. “Buck, it’s me. It’s Steve.”
His gaze flicked across Steve’s face, down his body, assessing, possibly searching for weapons. Steve imagined his shield, himself in the wartime uniform—he could do this, he had to do this if he wanted to save Bucky. “You know me.”
“No I don’t.” It was emphatic, almost petulant.
Steve held the shield up. “You know what this is, who I am. Your name is James Buchanan Barnes. You’re my friend.”
His pupils contracted, eyes narrowed, so quickly Steve almost didn’t catch it, but it meant Bucky recognized something, at least. “Is this—are you trying to show me where you are? I don’t know what this place—” and all of a sudden Steve realized what it was: a bank safe deposit vault. The Capitol just down the street. They could find him from this. Even if Bucky hadn’t intended it, he was showing Steve where he was. “I want to help you. You’re my friend.”
His face took on a puzzled cast, like he was trying to recall someone’s name, and he blinked repeatedly. “I know you.”
“Yeah, you do. Steve. We were the best of friends—I loved you and you loved me. We used to meet just like this. In a dream. You knew me. You always used to say you were with me to the end of the line.”
“S-Steve,” Bucky whispered, and oh god, it was just like every heartbreaking time he’d come back to Steve—relief and joy and shattering sorrow, Steve was choking back tears at what he’d lost, what they’d done to him.
Maybe it was the wrong thing to do but Steve lurched forward, dropped the shield, and threw his arms around Bucky, who froze, heart beating so hard and fast it sounded like a timpani. He remained rigid in Steve’s arms until Steve cupped the back of his head, tucking it to his neck and shoulder, and slowly, slowly Bucky relaxed. The room glimmered and glowed—gold and green and silver, they were drowning in it, so beautiful and warm and calm, their ocean, their love, their dream. Steve’s mind filled with dozens of voices—not the harsh, cruel ones on the radio but tender, warm voices, leaving him at peace: Sam’s and Natasha’s, Thor and Heimdall and Frigga, Peggy and Jim, and Steve knew that he could do this, he could save Bucky, he could bring him back, all their voices uniting as one to assure him that he and Bucky would be all right.
Bucky’s hands slipped around Steve’s waist to clutch the fabric of his uniform. “Steve,” he whispered again, “I don’t want to hurt you,” and Steve kissed his temple, damp with sweat, the corner of his jaw, his mouth, oh, his mouth.
When he pulled away, Bucky was staring at him, so desolate. Steve put his hand to Bucky’s cheek and said, “Listen to me, Buck. This is important, you have to remember all of this—everything that happened here, everything I tell you. Out there, you don’t remember me, but I think we’ll see each other soon. Okay? We’re gonna see each other out there, but it’ll be all right, even if you don’t remember me.”
Bucky nodded, eyes locked on Steve’s, intent and alert.
“You won’t remember me, but when I see you, there’s something I will say to you. The words will remind you of who you are and who I am. You used to say it to me all the time.”
“All right.” Steve smiled and Bucky returned it; he could feel it flowing through himself like the life in his veins: love and longing and hope, raw and bruised and bloody but it was hope, and the love underneath it all that was coming from Bucky because he remembered Steve. Bucky remembered him here—he would remember him again out there, Steve knew it. Steve would save him this time.
“Bucky. Don’t forget: when you see me again and you hear these words, then it’s time to wake up. Okay? You have to wake up.”