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The Ghost Keeper

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Bucky died for exactly seven minutes and forty-seven seconds. The only reason he knew the exact time was because he’d been informed by his friends, who took great pride in reminding him of it on a daily basis. Apparently the look on his face when the car hit him had been an absolute scream, though Bucky was rather grateful he didn't remember enough to share in their obvious joy.

Aside from teasing him about his untimely death, his friends were pretty cool, he guessed. A little on the weird side, but that was to be expected. Bucky never ran with the normal crowd to begin with, but at least he knew he could lean on them for emotional support, considering they were the only ones that really knew about what he’d been through.

If anyone asked him what they were like, though, Bucky was quick to change the subject. He wasn’t much of a secretive person, but there were just things one kept to himself (things like briefly dying and suffering the consequences of facing your own mortality usually kept one mum). In Bucky’s case, he didn't like telling anyone about his friends, simply because anyone he did tell didn't believe him anyway.  

Honestly, how do you tell people your best friends in the world are ghosts?

It all started about 18 months prior; 18 months, 27 days and 16 hours prior, to be exact. After the car accident that had temporarily taken his mortal soul from him, Bucky Barnes remembered waking up in a hospital room, staring up at what he only assumed was the face of an angel. The angel in question had golden hair haloed in sickly fluorescent lighting and strong, chiseled features pulled down into the biggest frown Bucky had ever seen. The guy looked so darn upset, he briefly wondered if his angel had just witnessed someone die.

Then it occurred to his sluggish mind, that someone had been himself. Well, it didn't really “occur” to him, per se. Rather, it had been boldly announced to him from the sandy-haired freak sitting in the corner, wearing what had to be the ugliest purple Robin Hood costume he’d ever seen in his life. This was strange to Bucky, considering it wasn’t October at the time.

But that hadn’t mattered much to him. All that really mattered was that the golden haired Angel of Mercy was shouting some medical jargon out to other staff members in what he assumed was some lifesaving protocol or whatever. The words didn’t make much sense to Bucky. The concussion he was obviously sporting had turned what he could only assume was the English language into a mumbo-jumbo mess of long syllables that had his already aching head spinning with the intensity the Angel was spouting them out. Then Bucky had blacked out again, much to his sweet relief.

The next time Bucky woke up, he was in the ICU, hooked up to every machine he could possibly dream up. In the corner of the room, the Purple Menace was sitting on the floor staring at the bed like he was afraid Bucky would actually get up and come kick his ass for spying on him like that. To be perfectly honest, if Bucky hadn’t been strapped down to the bed and hooked up like a Christmas tree, he very well might have done so, just because the looks he was getting from his uninvited guest were giving him the willies.

The Purple Menace sat with Bucky for several hours, oddly silent, and fiddling with the tacky Gander Mountain bow he had stretched across his lap. He remained silent even when nurses came in every twenty minutes to check up on their patient, invisible in the corner and pulling the most lewd expressions every time one of the nurses bent over in front of his face. After a few hours of this nonsense, Bucky had demanded that the nurses handle his pest problem and kick out his unwanted visitor before he got out of the bed to do it himself.

Their response was to reassure him the hallucinations would pass once the concussion had subsided and shove a Tylenol down his throat.

Now Bucky was a smart man, so it only took him an hour after he’d woken up from his third nap of the day to realize something wasn’t quite right. Every single person that entered the room totally ignored the guy, and he never spoke when others were present. In fact, the only time Bucky even remembered hearing the guy speak was when he’d woken up from his brief passing.

By the time his scrambled brain had put together that square pegs didn’t fit in round holes, Bucky worked up the courage to ask the guy who he was and why he was peeping at him like that. There were two things he’d learned from that brief conversation:

  1. The guy’s name was Clint Barton and he was an enthusiastic fan of Pizza, coffee and everything archery.
  2. Clint had been dead since 1993.

Bucky had expected to find himself freaking out that he was talking to a walking corpse no one else could see, but he didn’t. In fact, he was so chill about it, his only response had been “Oh… so that’s why there’s a bunch of flies in my room.”

In actualiy, the flies comment had really been a joke, though apparently only he got the memo about that. Clearly offended by such a thought, Clint had vehemently set the record straight that he was not in fact an invisible Zombie, but a ghost, and he’d been haunting the hallways of this hospital for 21 years. He’d died on Halloween in 1993, after having consumed far too many Jaegerbombs on an empty stomach and then decided to pull a fucking William Tell on himself. Decidedly not impervious to carbon arrows like he thought, Clint’s buddy had shot him straight through the heart and he was dead within minutes. The hospital had done everything they could, but the bowfishing points he’d decided to affix to the end of his costume arrows had torn his ticker to shreds.

Feeling slightly sorry for Clint’s unfortunate demise, Bucky decided that maybe it was nice to have someone to talk to while he was bedridden. With that thought, Bucky allowed him to hang out in his room for the duration of his hospital stay on the condition that he didn’t try to scare him while he was hooked up to a catheter. Honestly, who the fuck knows what might happen if someone got a good startle with that thing in. Considering Clint hadn’t held a conversation with someone in over a decade, Bucky considered it his good deed for the day.

Besides, Bucky wasn’t keen on the idea of being totally alone for the duration of his stay. According to the bored night nurse’s explanation, Bucky would remain in the care of the hospital staff for about two months while his spine healed. Until then, he would be stuck eating nothing but cheap cafeteria food, enduring endless rounds of physical therapy with the creepy old orthopedic physician (really, she could have at least let him put pants on under his hospital gown), and passing the time with long, not-so-intellectual conversations about trending social media and sharing his personal collection of memes on his phone with Clint.

But then again, that was two solid months of getting to see Dr. Rogers on a daily basis so… bonus points for Bucky there.

Oh yes, he did look forward to those opportunities when they arose. After Bucky had woken up from his second surgery, he’d learned that Dr. Rogers had made it his personal mission to check up on Bucky every single day, monitor his health and spend his lunch hours talking with him in his room while they shared God-awful cafeteria meals. During these daily visits, Bucky and Steve had developed a tight friendship that may or may not have transcended the level of propriety between a doctor and a patient, but Bucky wasn’t about to admit that to anyone. From the look of it, neither was Steve, and that only further proved itself, every time Steve slipped Bucky an extra piece of dessert or offered up a not-so clean joke that had them both howling in laughter. Really, it was kind of romantic in a weird, twisted way.

Did Bucky develop a serious, and possibly unhealthy crush on his doctor during that time? Yes, he did, but only he and Clint knew that. Of course, he was absolutely certain that Dr. Rogers didn’t “like him like that” considering the guy only ever saw him bruised, banged up, and stinking horribly from the lack of a daily shower. Bucky figured it was probably par for the course in Steve’s life, though he did still wish he could look a little better for his doctor/crush/friend. At least he knew he was still sexy under the layers of sweat and hospital-grade dry shampoo.

Of course all good things must come to an end. Near the end of his stay, Bucky realized with much sadness that he was going to be leaving his dear, sweet Steve Rogers behind for a sad life of work, paying ridiculous cell phone bills and eating mediocre Chinese take-out every Tuesday night. Oh, and as far as he knew, he was going to be leaving his new best friend behind as well. Clint had admitted he’d never left the hospital since he’d woken up in his new “ghosty” state, and didn’t actually know if he could leave. Besides, there was always a lot of action in a hospital, and he rather liked going to the morgue and freaking out the medical students at random intervals.

One particularly slow night, Bucky found himself bored to tears as he waited for his next dose of painkillers to come walking through the door. To ease his boredom, he submitted himself to listening to yet another story of Clint scaring a few Freshman medical students half to death a year prior, nodding and humming in confirmation at all the right intervals. As he listened to Clint cackling to himself, a thought occurred to him: he still didn’t know why he could even see Clint at all. No one else at the hospital could see him, and his attempts to nonchalantly bring up the fact that there was some strange dude in a purple unitard hanging around his room only earned him side-eyed looks from the staff. It was a mystery best written for The Twilight Zone, and it really fucking bugged him that he had no idea what had brought on his newfound superpower.

So of course, Bucky learned the somewhat awful truth the hard way, because his life wasn’t difficult enough as it was.

A week before he was to be released from the hospital (walking like a champ he might add), Steve had prescribed him a course of Axert for his migraines, with the promise that once he was officially back on his feet, the migraines from his head injury would fade over time and he could wean off the medication. It turned out, Bucky was allergic to Axert and after his second dose, he had had enough time to mutter “What the freaking shit-” before he succumbed to a bout of seizures right before Clint’s eyes and slipped into a coma.

That’s where he met God. Or at least he was certain it was God. The guy kind of had a Morgan Freeman-esque feel to him, but way scarier. Bucky was actually pretty certain He could kick his ass six ways to Revelations. As he stood before the guy in the midst of his “vision”, he quite suddenly believed all the “fire and brimstone” hokey he’d read about in Sunday School.

Luckily for Bucky, he’d slipped into his coma about ten minutes before Steve had returned to the room to find him and start an emergency reversal on the drug. This gave him enough time to have a short but fascinating conversation with God about how the “other side” worked, and why Bucky was suddenly pulling a Jennifer Love Hewett. Ghosts actually walk among humans on a daily basis, and apparently being officially dead (“not that ‘mostly dead’ bullshit, this ain’t the Princess Bride, kid”) had opened up a part of Bucky’s mind that gave him the ability to alter his perception of reality, and communicate with them.

When Bucky had asked God why he had suddenly been gifted this “awe-inspiring ability reserved for only the best souls”, God simply shrugged at him and said “I have a really good sense of humor.” Bucky guessed that that was a personal jab at his life’s sin-to-piety ratio, and almost decided to back talk Yahweh for the diss. Then he remembered exactly who he was talking to and wisely kept his mouth shut on that front.

Unfortunately, this new ability would not go unused. Just as Bucky thought he’d gotten a free pass to chat up every single ghost he could get his hands on, just for shits and giggles, he got the final truth bomb dropped on his aching head: the Lord had decided to task Bucky with the infuriating job of using his gift to help all the ghosts he found to cross over to the other side.

It turned out there was no such thing as going into the light upon dying. Crossing over immediately upon death would mean that person had absolutely no unfinished business to attend to before their death. The only way that would be possible would be if the individual lived a totally pious life and left no loose ends to their dealings. Apparently that was so rare, God had only seen a few dozen cases of it happening in the entire history of the Earth. Even his own Son hadn’t gotten that treatment after his crucifixion.

In short, God had decided to put the responsibility of a few billion souls on Bucky to make sure they actually passed on to Heaven, instead of haunting the Earth for eternity. Naturally, Bucky decided at that point that it was just too much responsibility to drop on his head, and slowly began to work up the courage to tell God to suck it. He was no patsy, and he certainly didn’t do busy work for anyone.

But, of course, that never happened. Just then, Steve and his team interrupted the most terrifying moment of potential rebellion in Bucky’s life, and had managed to reverse the allergic reaction in the nick of time. He woke up, spouting profanities at everyone in his immediate vicinity, dazed and confused by the whole ordeal. It took him a second before he realized he’d told everyone in his general area exactly what he thought of God, and he shut right the fuck up, mumbling a meek apology to the people who’d saved his life a second time. Of course, every single nurse and doctor had been highly offended by such colorful word vomit, but Steve had simply laughed, far too used to Bucky’s candor to really take offense by it. At least some people had a decent sense of humor in this world.

In light of his second near-death experience, Bucky’s release date had been pushed back another week to allow Steve enough time to monitor his health. In truth, Bucky was pretty sure Steve just felt bad for accidentally poisoning his patient and was trying his best to make it up to him, but he wasn’t complaining. Another whole week of spending lunch hours chatting up the hot doctor and falling just slightly more in love with him wasn’t something to sneeze at. Plus it gave him another week to procrastinate on his newfound crusade for The Greater Good™.

Two weeks flew right on by, and on the morning of his release, Bucky found himself dressing in hospital grade sweats and a t-shirt, oddly sad that he wouldn’t see his nurses, his creepy physical therapist anymore or his new bestest friend in the whole world, Clint. He’d been surprised, however, when Steve came by quite unannounced, holding a bottle of extra-strength Excedrin, and offering him the biggest puppy-dog look he could muster in those true-blue eyes of his. It seemed that Bucky wasn’t the only one that was sad that he would be leaving at long last, and Steve had awkwardly shoved the pills into Bucky’s hand before blurting out randomly that he always took his lunch hour at 1pm in the courtyard, and he had Sundays off.

Bucky could take a hint when given to him. Steve wanted him to come and see him every day, and Bucky was damned if he wasn’t going to take that opportunity by the horns and accept. Smiling brighter than ever, he mentally cataloged that information before pulling his doctor into a bear-hug that may or may not have involved touching his ass (strictly by accident, shut your mouth, Barton). With the promise that he would see Steve the following day, and the doctor’s enthusiastic agreement to their first lunch date, Bucky finally grabbed his things and left the hospital to his freedom.

That’s where he got an unbelievably rude reminder of exactly how drastically his life had changed. The moment Bucky stepped out of the hospital and jogged down the steps to head home for the first time in weeks, he found himself running straight into a most decidedly dead KGB assassin that no one else could fucking see!

Oh right. Ghosts everywhere, and he- God’s Official Ghost Keeper- had finally been released into the wild to babysit a world chock-full of whiney spirits looking for the Rainbow Bridge to Paradise.

Well fuck.


 

18 months, 27 days, and 17 hours Post Car Accident

“You’re fucking kidding me. You’re Goddamn unfinished business is wiping a fucking harddrive?”

The spirit flinched, looking up at Bucky with huge, watery eyes. The guy was small, really small in fact, and wore the biggest coke-bottle spectacles Bucky had ever seen. He was wearing what looked to be an old bowling shirt, and his hands twisted in front of him as they stared at the computer before them. He looked so painfully ordinary, Bucky almost forgot the guy was dead. Really, the only sign of his passing at all, was the fact his head was swollen twice the size that it really should be. Allergic reactions… they were certainly a bitch.

~”Well, what can I say?”~ The ghost protested, his voice quivering just the slightest bit. ~”I uploaded horse porn to this computer just before I died to get the boss in trouble at his next corporate inspection. I was having second thoughts about doing it when I ate that sandwich from the deli down the street. Really, I only want the manager to get in trouble for this, and I know for a fact that Kelly is the one that’s gonna get shit if the boss finds it. I really don’t wanna cross over until I remove it and save her skin.”~

Bucky stared at the guy before glancing around himself at the shop. He was getting all kinds of looks from the owner, a big burly guy with way too much hair on his shoulders and not enough on the top of his head, and he groaned. Yeah, he knew he looked ridiculous talking to a blank computer. He needed to wrap this up quickly before he got arrested… again. “What exactly killed you, dude?”

~“A burger with garlic and remoulade. The sandwich was really good, but I didn’t know it had crab in the sauce. I was dead before I even hit the sidewalk.”~

Bucky uttered an incredulous laugh. “You’re allergic to shellfish and you ate fuckin’ crab?! Are you an idiot?!”

~”Excuse me, I didn’t know it had crab in, I was on a tight schedule and ordered it in a rush. Plus I didn’t have my glasses on me, I couldn’t read the menu!”~

Bucky groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Alright, alright fine. Darwin wins again.” He leaned over, staring at the computer in front of him. “Where’s this horse porn at? And I swear to God, if I have to open it and it’s that Mr. Hands bullshit, I will come over to the other side and kill you again.”

The spirit shuddered, pointing at the screen. ~”It’s in that folder right there. Just… delete the whole thing.”~

Bucky nodded, hovering the cursor over the file. He right-clicked, deleted the file from the computer, and stepped back to watch the screen spin as the computer erased the damning evidence from its memory. Then, all of a sudden, the whole thing uttered a loud screech from the speaker as the screen went bright blue. Like a domino effect, every single computer on that wall began flashing with that same bright blue screen before they took a colossal fucking shit and simultaneously shut down. “What the fuck just happened?” Bucky asked, looking at his ghostly companion accusingly.

“Hey!” A voice thundered over the room. Bucky whirled around in time to see the gorilla of a manager come rushing over to him to stare at the computers he’d bricked with a single click. “You fuckin’ shit-head, what the fuck did you do?!”

“Uh… uhm…” Bucky stammered, staring up at the guy with wide eyes. Oh he was going to kill this ghost. “Uhm… Console Master Race, for the win?”

He didn’t have a chance to protest. Instantly, the gorilla had grabbed him by the scruff, throwing him out of the shop onto the sidewalk, where he landed face down into the pavement with an undignified howl. Really, it wasn’t the worst outcome he’d faced in his line of work, so he sort of chalked it up as a success. Picking himself up, Bucky turned in time to see his ghostly customer come rushing out, cackling loudly, and he glared with all the might of his forefathers before him. “What the fuck did I just do?” Bucky asked, spitting out blood onto the sidewalk from where he’d eaten a cracked piece of pavement.

The spirit simply giggled, clapping jovially as he extended his hand to Bucky. By now, Bucky was used to looking like a weirdo miming his way through life, and simply ignored the odd looks he got as he extended his hand to “thin air” and was helped up to his feet. ~”Okay, so I lied about the horse porn. My unfinished business was putting that guy out of business. He really did have a corporate inspection in a couple hours, and since he was the one responsible for getting me fired from my job, I wanted to get him back.”~

“So revenge is now considered unfinished business,” Bucky said. He rolled his eyes skyward and glared up at the clouds. “You know I'm not actually surprised…”

As Bucky sent his complaints up to his Holy Employer, a shining tunnel of light suddenly extended down from the Heavens. He watched as the Light suddenly bathed his ghost companion thoroughly, a shining spotlight from Heaven that nearly blinded him. He remembered the first time he’d seen this, he’d been rather awe-struck by the brilliance of that Heavenly pathway. Now, it was just an eyesore, and he found himself envious of everyone else, blindly ignoring its presence around them.

By the time he lowered his arm from shielding his eyes, the spirit was gone, crossed over to the other side where he belonged, leaving him alone once again on that street. “Fucker didn’t even say thank you,” Bucky grumbled.

Oh well. Duty done for the time being, Bucky decided he wouldn’t let the shitty moment ruin the rest of his day. He had a date to get to in ten minutes, and that was top priority for the rest of his afternoon. Like hell would he be late because some weasley, pimple-faced spirit had decided to hire him for a fast-pass to the Pearly Gates an hour before his daily lunch meeting with Steve.

Crossing the street, Bucky climbed into his car, and jammed the key into the ignition. However, try as he might, he couldn’t get the engine to turn over. Normally this called for a trip to the mechanic, but he already knew the cause for the sudden delay. Slumping back in his seat, he stared at the roof in annoyance, and growled. “Not now, Tony. Get the fuck out of the engine, I’m gonna be late.”

From the dashboard, a head popped out right next to the ancient cassette player. Bucky looked down to see Tony staring at him, highly offended at being interrupted from his work under the hood of the car. ~”Well look who’s being a grouchy puss today. Your wiring job in here is shit, and I’m pretty sure the carburetor was put together with Kinex.”~

“Kinex… really?” Bucky said, deadpanned.

~”Don’t look at me, slick, I’m just trying to fix it for you, since you’re so Goddamn stingy you won’t go buy a new car. Never say I don’t try to do something nice for you, Barnes.”~

“Tony, you never fix anything anymore, please leave 2008 behind already.” Bucky grumbled. “Get back in there and put everything back, I need my car actually functioning. I just put gas in it.”

Tony scoffed, his head disappearing. A few seconds later the car started up again, and Bucky pointedly ignored the spirit settling into the passenger seat next to him as he pulled away from the curb at last. He could hear Tony grumbling to himself about the injustice of driving a ‘89 Eagle Premier, and reached over to crank up the old radio as loud as he could. He already had to deal with one annoying spirit that day. He really didn’t feel like dealing with Tony’s temper tantrum on top of it.

Normally, Bucky didn’t mind Tony’s presence. In fact, Tony wasn’t the worst spirit he normally had to deal with. Shortly after his release from the hospital, Bucky had somehow acquired the companionship of not one, but four spirits, all couch surfing in the living room of his apartment until Heaven only knew when. It had turned out, the first two spirits that decided rooming with a human was a fabulous idea was none other than Clint (yes he could leave the hospital and he was very excited about that, thank you very much), and the red-headed femme fatale he’d run into on his way out of the hospital.

That had been a card to explain. Momentarily forgetting that he was the only one that could see, or even vaguely touch ghosts, Bucky had tried to explain to confused passers-by why he’d tripped over his own feet, ignoring Clint as he rolled on the pavement in a fit of laughter. He’d pointed and cursed for a solid 2.6 seconds before remembering his new Mutant superpower, and simply brushed off the concerned looks of pedestrians by claiming his psych meds hadn’t fully kicked in yet. His claim made sense, coming out of a hospital after all, and no one else questioned him on it further.

But after he’d run into her, the red-headed spirit had suddenly gotten a stick up her ass about his rude departure and followed him home, demanding an apology from him the whole way. When he refused to give it to her, the deceased KGB assassin had materialized in his living room, planted herself firmly in the middle of his sofa, and didn’t move an inch. Bucky had decided, then and there, that it would just be easier to let her stay in that one spot until she got bored and left on her own, rather than attempt to exorcise her from his home like any sensible human being might have done.

Eighteen months later, Natasha Romanov still haunted his sofa day in and day out. Over the months they’d slowly developed an amicable relationship, until one day, Bucky realized she was actually pretty fucking awesome and invited her to stay with him and Clint until she was ready to move on to the other side.

Bucky thought the ghost harboring had ended there. That didn’t seem to be the case. Within a month of letting Natasha crash in his apartment with Clint, Bucky suddenly found himself bringing home two more confused spirits. Brock Rumlow and Tony Stark quickly made themselves at home, pointedly ignoring Bucky as he quickly rattling off the rules of the house: “No toilet haunting, don’t break the dishes, and for God’s sake, stay out from under my bed”. Once they casually accepted the Terms and Conditions of living with him, Bucky thought things were finally settling down once again. He shouldn’t have been so naive to think they’d actually listen to him, but he was young. What could he do?

Natasha turned out to be the most level headed of the bunch; dying in 1976, Bucky considered her his eldest ghost and constantly looked to her to maintain order while he was busy doing God’s work. While she usually kept her end of the bargain, Brock and Tony had made it their personal mission to be the biggest pimples on his ass he could possibly imagine. Brock, a Black Ops Jarhead that had died in 2001, was forever salty about his death and constantly took out his eternal irritation on Bucky’s patience by breaking things and shucking the blame onto others with a slew of colorful expletives. Bucky was pretty sure the guy was a jerk before he died, but he couldn’t deny that “having a fuckin’ building dropped on him” was a shitty way to die, so usually let his temper tantrums slide.

Tony was his “youngest” ghost. Once upon a time, he had been a genius technician climbing his way up the corporate ladder of his daddy’s engineering company. Bucky was almost jealous of Tony, knowing that he’d once had an entire world of possibilities and shortcuts to greatness served to him on a silver platter since birth. The only problem was the fact that Tony had harbored a severe drinking problem, and constantly squandered his immense fortune on booze and fine ladies for most of his adult life. Unfortunately, Tony’s hedonistic lifestyle finally caught up with him and the poor schmuck died in 2008 from alcohol poisoning, collapsing in his own bed with a passed out exotic dancer in his lap. Due to this piss poor calculation in judgement, Bucky felt the least sorry for Tony’s death out of all of his ghosts, though he kept that bit of information to himself.

Snapping himself out of his thoughts, Bucky looked over to see Tony glaring out the window of the car up at Brooklyn’s skyline, and he cleared his throat. “So why are you haunting my car again? Did you get bored at the apartment?”

~”Hell yeah, I was bored. You realize you don't even have a gaming console I can spook around with, right? What do you even do with your life, Barnes? Stare out the window and moodily ponder the will of The Almighty? ‘Cause lemme tell ya, I can’t believe the Big Kahuna decided to choose you to be his Earthly chauffer for the departed. At least he tended to choose people in scripture with interesting complexes to dump his dirty work on. I mean, for fuck’s sake, if you’re gonna leave me with nothing to tinker with, at least leave a Playboy casually lying around for me to flip through.”~

“Tony, I’m gay, why the fuck would I have a Playboy lying around my house?” Bucky asked.

~”Okay fine, a copy of QXMen then. I’m seriously not picky you know.”~ Tony turned and jabbed his finger into Bucky’s shoulder. ~”You try being dead for almost a decade with no ghost-y tail to chase. The only one I’ve even had the chance to romance in the past several months was Romanov, and she very nearly sent me down the chute to hell for touching her ass. Even in death, it still hurts when you get kicked in the two-bits, my friend.”~

Bucky snorted, looking away from Tony to hide his smirk. “Well serves you right, Stark. Not my fault you still don’t know how to keep it in your pants.”

~”Damn fuckin’ right, and when I finally cross the threshold into God’s perfect little domain, I’ll be flocked with the souls of some fine ladies. You just watch. I’ve got eight years of blue balls to make up for, Buckaroo. It ain’t gonna be pretty.”~

Bucky made a face, staring out the windshield of the car as he approached the hospital. “So why don’t you let me help you?” he asked. Looking over at Tony, he raised a questioning brow. “That’s my fuckin’ job you know. If you’re that miserable here, why don’t you just cross over?”

Silence filled the car at that question. The normally vocal Tony Stark suddenly lost his gift of gab, staring out the window and very much ignoring his human companion. Bucky knew when to not press the subject, but he did find it curious that Tony- the guy completely unable to shut his fucking mouth- had suddenly shut down at that thought. Bucky couldn’t possibly think why Tony wouldn’t just tell him what his unfinished business was, but he wasn’t about to pull teeth. Tony was a grown up spectre, he was more than capable of figuring out when the right time to cross over was. Ah well. It was no skin off his nose when Tony decided to move to the Great Beyond.

All he had to do was focus on getting to the hospital to spend the next hour swooning at Mr. Bright Eyes again, just the way he liked it. He didn’t need a skin mag to fantasize over that was for sure. Steve’s innocent blue eyes and juicy pecs were enough to drool about, and he did so happily on many occasions. “Okay, fine if you don’t wanna tell me. I think this conversation has officially hit “awkward”. Get the hell out of my car, I’ve got a lunch date.”

~”But Buckyyy!”~ Tony whined. ~”I’m bored! I can’t fix anything, and Natasha won’t let me play with her sidearm! I’m going crazy here!”~

“Fine, then go haunt the old guy’s apartment down the hallway. His cat shit in front of my door again, and I’m really trying not to turn that thing into roadkill.” Bucky shooed Tony out of the car with a dismissive gesture. “Go get Clint or Brock to help you with it. I’m busy.”

~”Spoilsport,” Tony grumbled. Even still, he blinked out of sight at that moment, leaving a burst of icy cold air behind him as he fluttered off to scare the nine lives out of a defenseless pussy cat.

Bucky grumbled under his breath, brushing the whole conversation out of his mind in favor of mentally preparing for his lunch date with Steve. “Date” was a pretty strong word, considering he still didn’t know if Steve actually liked him or not, but Bucky wasn’t going to admit it. He was human. He could dream a little if he wanted.

Once he’d pulled into a parking spot, Bucky instantly fixed his hair, checked his teeth for any specks of sesame seed from his morning bagel, and hopped out of the car to find his doctor friend. By the time he’d crossed the courtyard and spotted the blond beauty sitting on his usual bench, Bucky’s bad mood had dissipated like smoke in the wind. “Hey Stevie!”

Steve looked up from the file folder he was reading from, and a brilliant smile crossed his face. “Hey, Buck! You’re exactly two minutes late for my oh-so generous hour break. That slip-up’s gonna cost you an onion ring.”

“Aw shit. I’m in trouble,” Bucky chuckled. He sat down next to Steve, his eyes darting to the two Styrofoam containers sitting next to him. “What’s for lunch?”

“The only thing that’s tolerable on this whole menu,” Steve said. He handed one of the containers to Bucky, and Bucky smiled as he opened the box in his hands. “Your favorite: barbecue bacon grilled cheese with a slice of tomato.”

“With a side of heartburn and regret? Aw you shouldn’t have.” Bucky watched Steve smirk and pick up his own box, and he mentally congratulated himself on making the overworked doctor smile. “Seriously, if the food is this bad, why do we still eat it? I could run past an Au Bon Pain or something if you wanted.”

“Nah,” Steve said around a mouthful of chicken salad. “Don’t wanna put you through the trouble.”

“It’s no trouble, punk. I’m offering.” Bucky said, taking a bite of the sandwich in his hands.

Steve chuckled, bumping shoulders with Bucky. “It’s fine, I swear. Besides, I think I’m about thirty two sandwiches away from paying you back for accidentally putting you in a coma.”

Bucky had to admit Steve had a point; while the sandwiches weren’t exactly stellar, Bucky was more than thrilled with their daily lunch ritual. It was rather nice of Steve to buy him food every single day in lieu of “I’m sorry I put you in a coma”, regardless of the obvious dent it was putting in his pocket. Still, Bucky was a needy son of a bitch and he was going to take whatever sort of attention he could get from Steve even at the expense of his dignity and waistline. If that meant eating greasy bacon sandwiches for the rest of his life just to show Steve how grateful he was for having him in his life, then so be it.

With that, the two of them fell into comfortable silence, punctuated by the sounds of chewing and Steve’s papers fluttering in the breeze. After a brief moment of silence, Steve cleared his throat. “So, it’s been 18 months since you left the hospital. I’m actually really curious… I thought you might have gotten bored with coming to see me every day. I work constantly, and I only ever see you on my lunch. I mean, don’t you have any friends outside of the hospital?”

Bucky paused, sandwich halfway to his mouth. Oh if Steve only knew… “Yeah, I got friends. They’re just- really hard to see,” Bucky said, half-lying to his companion.

“Oh yeah? Are they your imaginary friends?” Steve asked, grinning at Bucky cheekily.

“Mmm yeah… something like that,” Bucky said, before shoving the last of his current sandwich triangle in his mouth to shut himself up. Okay, so this conversation took an awkward turn Bucky really didn’t want to explore. He had to think of something fast to change the subject.

As he chewed around an obnoxious amount of bread and pondered how to delay the talk of “personal life” for as long as possible, a thought occurred to him. It was risky, but it was a thought, and if Bucky was anything, he was no coward. Even if he’d kick himself later for it falling apart, he couldn’t help the urge to blurt it out to Steve and hope for the best. At the very least, it was a good diversion from Steve wanting to pry about his home life for a little while longer...

“Fine, if you want to make up the coma thing to me, you can forget about the bacon sandwiches,” Bucky said. “Let’s do dinner. Like a real meal, not something that came out of a microwave with a questionable cleaning schedule.”

Steve paused, his fork dangling precariously in his grip. “Like… wait, like actually out? Like a- a date? Just you and me?”

“C’mon what could go wrong?” Bucky asked. He looked up at Steve, batting his eyes at him openly. “My imaginary friends won’t mind a bit. Let’s have a date, just the two of us on the town, and I’ll forget about you almost poisoning me to death.”

Steve stared at him, his jaw slack. A rush of color shot up his cheeks, tinting his whole face bright red at Bucky’s request. For a brief moment Bucky was drawn in by the sight of those flushed cheeks, and a lewd image of that blush crawling all the way down his neck to those perfectly molded pecs made his throat dry up at the thought.

An embarrassing amount of time passed before Steve burst into nervous laughter. The doctor dropped his fork to the container in front of him, cupping his hands over his face as he slowly processed Bucky’s offer. Just when Bucky thought he’d possibly crossed a line and made a total ass of himself (like capital A Ass, donkey ears and all), Steve looked up at Bucky and flashed him a dazzling grin. “Well, when a guy has an offer to wipe away a lifetime of debt like that, how can he refuse?”

Bucky blinked, his heart doing a jig of excitement. “So you’re saying you’ll go out with me?” Bucky asked, breath bated as he waited for Steve’s confirmation.

“Of course I will. Frankly, I’m surprised you didn’t ask me earlier,” Steve said with a grin. “So it’s settled: real food and real drinks. But I can’t guarantee I won’t show up wearing scrubs and someone else’s bodily fluid if I have to rush out of the hospital to meet up with you.”

“No scrubs, that’s gross, Rogers,” Bucky snorted. “However, I can’t guarantee that whatever you end up wearing won’t be covered in bodily fluid anyway. Though I don’t think either of us will complain about that.” When Steve laughed outright at that joke and leaned his shoulder into Bucky’s side for support, he couldn’t help but feel accomplished. Smooth like butter. Ten points to Bucky Barnes.

With their date successfully geared TBD, Bucky settled back onto the bench, picking up his sandwich to resume eating and fantasizing about spending an amazing night out with Steve Rogers, Doctor Hottie of the year. However, he’d only gotten halfway through mentally plotting the best date ever, before movement caught the corner of his eye. He looked up, eyes tracking the motion, before realizing what it was.

A spirit had fled the hospital. Said spirit looked totally confused, the visage of the elderly man looking up at the hospital building with growing realization and horror on his features. It only took Bucky a split second to realize a patient had literally just died, and he felt a twinge of discomfort in his chest at that thought. Normally, Bucky caught ghosts out in the wild after they’d been dead for a while and had come to terms with their own passing. It wasn’t often that he witnessed a fresh spirit realize they’d just fucking died and tumble through the emotional backlash of that shock to rock bottom.

It wasn’t often, but Bucky had run into a few of those cases before, and he knew that jumping the fresh spirit would only freak him out more. Besides, he didn’t want to alarm Steve by suddenly having to bolt in the middle of their conversation for no apparent reason. Steve didn’t need to worry about that right now.

Before Bucky could plot to leave the spirit alone for an appropriate amount of coping time, a second flurry of motion bustled out of the doors of the hospital. Bucky instantly recognized that bundle of energy as one of the nurses he’d had when he was hospitalized almost two years prior; Sharon Carter was Steve’s right-hand man, Head Nurse of the entire department, and the toughest cuss Bucky had ever known. Bucky loved her and enjoyed holding conversations with her when Steve wasn’t around, though he did have experience with her ‘serious face’ on many occasions. Knowing that, seeing her looking all business put an uncomfortable feeling in his chest at that moment, and he slouched on the bench in anticipation. There was only one reason why Steve’s go-to nurse would come out here right after a patient had died...

“For whom the bell tolls,” he mumbled under his breath. When Steve gave him a questioning look, Bucky simply shook his head. “Your lunch is over… I think you have a family you need to go talk to.”

“What?” Steve asked. He stared at Bucky, confusion clear on his features before the sound of footsteps echoed across the green. The sound caught both men’s attention, and Steve’s eyes landed on his head nurse, understanding and sorrow overtaking his features instantly. “Sharon…”

“It’s Mr. Lewis,” Sharon said by the way of greeting. Her face, although hardened by years of experience, betrayed her sorrow, and her blue eyes darted to the ground. “His granddaughter Darcy just called me. You need to come inside…”

Steve stared at her, his fingers trembling a little as he silently closed his lunch container and swallowed around the lump clearly forming in his throat. Bucky knew Steve. Whenever the prognosis of a patient was not good, Steve always took it harder than he should for his own mental state. But a patient dying while he was on his lunch break? Bucky could practically hear the feelings of failure screaming in Steve’s mind.

“Thank you, Sharon. I-I’ll be right in,” Steve muttered, his voice somber with the news. He got to his feet, handing his files to her. But at that second, a thought stopped him, and he turned to face Bucky. “How did-”

“Call it intuition,” Bucky interrupted, before offering Steve a sympathetic look. “I’m sorry. What was it?”

“Liver cancer,” Steve said quietly. A breeze picked up the leaves on the ground, twirling them around their feet in an intricate little dance to the silent swan song playing for Mr. Lewis. “I’m sorry I have to leave, Buck…”

“It’s fine. Go do your job, Stevie. That’s more important.” Bucky waved him off, watching with a burning empathy as Steve nodded and followed after Sharon to talk to the bereaved family. Appetite gone, Bucky shut the box in his hands and threw it into the nearest trash can. Knowing he wasn’t welcome in that place without Steve, Bucky left, being very careful careful to keep his distance from Mr. Lewis to give him a chance to come to terms with what had just happened. “Looks like we both got work to do…”


 

~”Barnes, for the last time get your ass up and shut that Goddamn alarm off!”~

Bucky groaned, burrowing his head back into his little safe haven of pillows and sleep. Fuck waking up. Fucking adult responsibilities. He’d be happy to lose his job, get evicted from his apartment and live in a box if it meant not having to go to the hell hole he called employment ever again. He was pretty sure he could make a cardboard box livable and cozy…

But then again a cardboard box didn’t have Netflix, and he wasn’t about to give up his Supernatural marathon just yet.

With that little burst of inspiration, Bucky reached out and slapped at the alarm on the side table, sticking his head out of the blankets with a grouchy look and a tousle of unkempt hair. As his vision cleared, he spotted Brock sitting at the foot of his bed, glaring at him through the harsh rays of early morning light. Bucky was pretty sure the guy had once had a permanent scowl etched into his face when he was alive, but now that he was dead, he looked absolutely terrifying.

Good thing Bucky was used to his shitty attitude and frightening glower by now.

“Get the fuck off my bed,” Bucky muttered, kicking the blankets aside.

~”Hey you said you didn’t want us under your bed, not on it.”~ Brock countered, crossing his arms. ~”You realize that fuckin’ thing was going off for twenty minutes right? I ain’t gonna live in a house where I gotta listen to that piece of shit screaming in my ear all the damn time.”~

“You know, I could just kick you out right?” Bucky complained, getting to his feet and straightening the tangle that was his t-shirt. “I know some priests, dude. I can make it painful for you.”

~”Good fuckin’ luck. I’ll just come back and haunt your ass. I ain’t scared you once yet, but don’t think I won’t give it the old college try, asshole.”~

“I didn’t know you loved me, Brock. I feel so warm and fuzzy inside. Not that you remember what that feels like,” Bucky snipped. Walking over to the dresser, he pulled out his uniform shirt and threw it over his shoulder. “CLINT! Get out of the pipes, I need to take a shower for work!”

From the bathroom, the piping groaned loudly as the spirit inside them rattled about. A spout of murky, rust water spewed out into the tub, splashing against the porcelain as Clint made himself known, and skirted out of the bathroom to make way. ~“Are we talking the work work or the ghost work? Because one of them involves dealing with mindless zombies and the other involves helping the dearly departed move to the afterlife. I’m not sure which one’s worse.”~ Clint asked, floating just above Bucky’s shoulder as he followed at an uncomfortably close distance.

Bucky sighed, swatting his hands behind him. He felt the frost of spirit-essence swirl around his hand as he shooed Clint away from him, and rubbed his icy fingers on his leg to warm them back up. “The later, unfortunately. Now go be useful and spook the coffee pot. I need caffeine, otherwise a few of the spirits I escort to the Pearly Gates will be my fault.”

At that moment, Natasha appeared in his room, looking as cross as ever as she stared at the three of them. ~”I already ‘spooked’ the pot, James, your coffee is waiting for you. For God’s sake, go drink some. You’re less appetizing to be around in the morning than we are, and we’re dead.”~

Bucky simply rolled his eyes, waving her off as he marched into the bathroom to take a shower. Sure, she was right; Bucky Barnes and Morning Person just didn’t fit into the same sentence, but they really couldn’t blame him this time. He’d spent the whole night trying to unsuccessfully escort an elderly gentleman in the oddest looking wire-rim spectacles cross over to the other side. The whole night had been a bust, and for the first time since his crusade started, Bucky failed to help the poor guy. Apparently, Mr. Erskine had no idea what to do about his unfinished business and simply wandered the streets of Brooklyn with Bucky until the two of them finally gave up for the night. Bucky didn’t usually let things get to him, but his mood had definitely been soured by his failure to figure out what the fuck he was supposed to do for this guy. Chalking the night up as a wash, Bucky eventually went home and collapsed into bed several hours later, the sun almost ready to peek its golden eye out for the day.

It took Bucky a whole half an hour to feel human again, and by the time he stepped out of the shower he was scrubbed bright pink, and a little more clear-eyed than he had been before. Dressing in his uniform, he marched out to the kitchen where the coffee pot still sat on the hotplate, steaming deliciously and filling the room with earthy notes of roasted goodness. Bucky quickly poured himself a cup of coffee, downing the whole thing in two swallows before hissing out loud and cupping his mouth. “Jesus, fuck! Ow!”

~”That’s what you get for being a glutton,”~ Tony’s voice cut in. Bucky looked up from where he was glaring at his cup to see Tony sprawled out on the floor, taking apart an old XM radio Bucky had found in the trash for his amusement. On the sofa, Clint and Natasha were sprawled out like cats, and Brock was seated on the arm of the sofa, muttering to himself as he was apt to do. It was a pretty typical scene Bucky had grown used to long ago. ~”It’s called hot coffee for a reason, smart stuff. Being dead for seven minutes doesn’t negate the fact that you're still a soft, squishy flesh bag.”~

“Hilarious,” Bucky grumbled. He poured himself a second cup of coffee and sat down on the counter (because some spirits were hogging the sofa again). “Don’t you guys have a mausoleum to haunt?”

~”Hey, that’s rude,”~ Clint complained. He lifted his head from where it was pillowed on Natasha’s lap, and pouted at Bucky. ~”I don’t like mausoleums, they’re creepy as fuck. Why you gotta assume we ghosts only haunt scary places? I’d rather haunt someplace cool like an amusement park… or Chuck E. Cheese.”~

~”Chuck E. Cheese is not cool, birdbrain,”~ Tony cut in, slapping Clint’s foot. ~”What’re you, five years old?”~

~”Hey at least I died in a cool costume. You just look like you were wearing Fall’s Least Appealing Line-up, Stark.”~

~”Your costume was made out of puff paint and craft foam!”~

“Shut up…” Bucky moaned in defeat. He really didn’t want to listen to this argument. If he had to hear it a moment longer, he wasn’t going to be able to resist blurting out that clearly Natasha and Brock had the superior outfits to die in, and he seriously didn’t want to start a war before he left for work.

Speaking of work, Bucky turned away from the bickering ghosts and plucked his phone up from the charger. He couldn’t quite remember when his shift was supposed to start, and pulled up his work calendar to make absolutely sure he wasn’t already late. It was a good thing he had that thing installed on his phone; the constantly ebb and flow of schedules was a unwanted perk of the job, rendering the very concept of a social life thoroughly trounced in the face of the corporate machine.

However, as he scrolled the work schedule carefully, he noticed something quite disturbing, and a groan left him. “Aw fuck, it’s Friday. I don’t have to work today!”

~”That sucks,”~ Brock said, his expression bordering on delighted. It was really the first time Bucky had seen Brock look remotely happy since he’d decided to crash in his apartment, which was probably more frightening than anything. ~”You coulda slept in for like… I dunno seven more hours. That’s a shame, honestly.”~

Bucky grumbled under his breath, staring down at the half drunk cup of coffee in his hands. He probably could have crawled back into bed to salvage some much desired shut eye, but he’d already showered for the day and chugged caffeine. All he’d get out of his efforts was tossing and turning until he was a sweaty ball of anger and frustration. “Goddammit,” he said, marching into his room to change shirts.

There was another reason why Bucky had woken up in such a sour mood that morning, though he wasn’t about to admit the reason to his friends. Aside from facing the reality of Mr. Erskine’s plight, Bucky hadn’t seen Steve in almost a week, and the lack of getting to visit his favorite human being in the whole world had really put a damper on his already edgy mood. The last time the two of them had spoken, Bucky and Steve had decided that Friday would be their first official date as a couple. They had chosen that Friday night, simply because Steve knew he could totally rely on getting out of the hospital on time and reassured Bucky that he would be at the restaurant at 6 o’clock, promptly. Strangely enough, right after the two of them had set their plans in motion, Bucky had returned to the hospital the very next day to find that his usual lunch buddy was not in the courtyard. After questioning a few of the medical staff, Bucky had learned that Steve had been called to cover a double shift that day, which overtook the usual break Bucky had grown to expect out of him.

Still, Bucky wasn’t the pushy type, so he’d simply thanked the nurse in question before heading on his way, trying not to let this one missed opportunity bring him down. It was expected to happen, he told himself. Steve was a busy, important guy. Surely, he’d have days where his schedule got thrown out of whack because of some major emergency. Bucky was adult enough to understand that.

But then it happened again.

For three solid days, Bucky had gone to the hospital, only to discover that Steve was “working a double shift” once again, and the repetition of this strange turn of events put Bucky in a state of unease. He tried not to start worrying that Steve had second thoughts about accepting Bucky’s request for a date and was trying to avoid him. It just didn’t seem like it was in Steve’s character to do something like that. Still, he prayed that all was well, and quietly kept his thoughts to himself, hoping that their date that night would go smoothly. He wasn’t the type to let his feelings get hurt easily, but… he was human after all.

Forgetting those negative thoughts for the time being. Bucky changed into a clean shirt before returning to the living room to grab his keys from the side table. If he wasn’t going to get a chance to snooze the rest of the day, he might as well spend it doing something worthwhile. “Hey I’m going out. If anyone wants to tag along on his crusade, get off their ectopl-asses and come on.”

~”Ah so it’s ghost work today after all,”~ Clint said, jumping to his feet. He spirited over to Bucky’s side, jabbing the human in the ribs with a grin. ~”C’mon, turn that frown upside down. You’re doing the Lord’s work after all.”~

“There is absolutely nothing even remotely fun about this job,” Bucky said, giving him a pointed look. “I’m only doing it because when it comes time for me to actually, really die the next time, I don’t feel like having to answer to God for why I decided to play hooky for sixty some years. My timecard hasn’t been punched yet, and I don’t feel like contending with the Almighty just to get a sliver of the afterlife to myself.” Bucky then exited the apartment, sticking his head in the door to glance at his friends again. “If you’re going on this trip with me, we’re going right now.”

Bucky hadn’t actually anticipated anyone taking him up on that offer. But much to his surprise, he found himself flanked by Brock and Clint, the two spirits darting down the hallway ahead of Bucky in anticipation of getting to go out. Bucky didn’t dwell on the irony that the two dead guys were livelier than he was. His second cup of coffee hadn’t quite kicked in yet, so brain function was still running at the bare minimum for survival. Maybe it was a good thing he had two ghostly bodyguards on his side; he didn’t need to walk out in the middle of traffic again.

There really wasn’t a method to Bucky’s work. God hadn’t exactly handed him an orientation packet as “Official Ghost Herder for the Divine”, so it had taken Bucky a few weeks to initially get used to what the fuck he was supposed to be doing. When he’d stumbled upon his first spirit to be sent to The Great Beyond, he’d fumbled his way through the whole affair and nearly gotten himself arrested twice for climbing into the window of the nearest public school to fish out a whopping gram of weed and dispose of it. Really the only reason Bucky hadn’t been arrested was because the cop apparently had a really good sense of humor and laughed himself stupid when Bucky dumbly explained his whole situation.  

With one spirit successfully carted over to the other side, Bucky suddenly found himself being flooded with requests from others for help. Somehow, word of what he was tasked to do had gotten out to the spiritual public and he found himself slammed with ghosts of every kind, begging him for assistance over the rainbow bridge. It should have been a fulfilling and rewarding type of job, but Bucky only found himself exhausted by the end of each day.

When he wasn’t being flocked by eager spirits, Bucky found himself reading the paper every day. More specifically the obituaries, looking (and feeling) quite like the freak he was. When he didn’t have enough change on him to actually buy the paper, he’d ask the newspaper vendor if he could simply read the obits for five minutes, and usually got an incredibly odd look from the guy when he returned it. Apparently it wasn’t normal to want to read about people dying every day, but he wasn’t about to let some guy make him feel like a freak for his choice in literature. Bucky did a bang-up job doing that himself.

That day, it seemed like it would be a newspaper job hunt for Bucky. Normally, he’d find a spirit or two within the first ten minutes of leaving his apartment, but that day, the roads were bereft of possible clientele. Still spurned by his failed attempt the night before and distracted by his tentative failed date that night, Bucky suggested they go to the coffee shop to do some research, gesturing for his friends to follow him.

However, Bucky made it exactly two steps before a force slammed into his side, making him stumble. He caught himself on a lamppost, looking up with a curse and a few colorful words on his lips for the asshole that had run into him, but those words died the second he recognized Steve standing next to him, looking just as frazzled as he felt.

“Jesus! Buck, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to run into you,” Steve said, breathlessly. He pushed a hand through his messy blond hair as he gave him an apologetic look.

“It’s fine, sorry I almost cold-cocked you,” Bucky replied, hoping to ease the discomfort in the air between them. Jesus, Steve looked like he’d been through the wringer one too many times. His normally bright and cheerful face was flooded with exhaustion, and the bags under his eyes didn’t escape Bucky. Quite suddenly, Bucky knew that the nurses at the hospital had been telling the truth about Steve’s odd disappearance. The look on his face was confirmation enough for Bucky. “Are you alright? You look like hell.”

Steve shook his head. “It’s been a nightmare. I’ve been at the hospital since Wednesday afternoon. The emergency room is packed with people, no visible signs of injury, but all of them unconscious, and completely unresponsive. Three people died last night.”

“Jesus Fuck. Did you even sleep at all?” Bucky asked, his earlier irritation gone entirely.

“No. I tried to, but they paged me to come in,” Steve said. He offered Bucky a sorrowful look. “God, I’m glad I got a chance to see you. I’m so sorry about the last few days, I know I abandoned you this week. I feel like shit, not getting a chance to even explain what was going on. Fuck, I don’t even know if I’m going to be able to get out of work in time for tonight. I feel like a total jerk, Buck, but I don’t want to promise to meet you tonight and then just no-show-”

“Hey woah. Take it easy,” Bucky said. He reached out, touching Steve’s shoulder and giving him a small smile. “It's fine. I’m not pissed at you because you gotta work. But holy shit, man, take a break as soon as you can and just sleep. A date can wait you know.”

“You’re not mad at me?” Steve asked, sounding stunned by that thought. When Bucky shook his head and offered him a reassuring smile, his shoulders slumped in relief. “Thank you. I swear, I’ll make it up to you, Buck.”

“No, you promise me you’re gonna get some sleep first and then we’ll talk dates, alright?” Bucky said. “It’s more important to me that you get your work done and relax, before we go out. You got me? I want you healthy, not stressed.”

Steve watched him, and his lips cracked into a tired smile. Without a word, he pulled Bucky into a tight hug, lingering for a second. To Bucky’s surprise, he felt the doctor’s head turn to brush a kiss against his cheek, and his heart leapt into his throat at that innocent touch. “You’re the best, Buck. Thank you so much. I swear, we’ll get that date in. I promise.” With that, Steve broke away, waving to Bucky before darting down the sidewalk. His departure left Bucky speechless, his cheeks flushed dark red as he watched Steve leave. It took him several long moments to finally shake himself back to awareness and come to terms with the fact that Steve had actually kissed him before his face broke into the biggest, goofiest smile he’d ever worn in his life.

To his left, Bucky felt the air shift as Clint appeared once more, watching over his shoulder as Steve jogged straight back to the hospital he’d come from. ~”Hot tamale, is that who you’re going on a date with?”~ Clint asked. ~”Rockin’ body. Gorgeous face. Guy who saved your ass twice already? I didn’t know you had a type, Barnes.”~

And with that, the spell was broken. Annoyed that his perfect moment had been ruined, Bucky pointedly ignored him and turned the opposite direction Steve headed to resume his walk. “Guess I don’t have to check the obits after all. Gonna be like fuckin’ Black Friday on the ghost market if Steve’s got an ER full of dead bodies to deal with.” he said by way of answering Clint.

~”Man, you could say it like you actually enjoy your job, you know,”~ Brock cut in, snorting derisively. ~”Gotta say, as much as you’re a pain in the ass, it’s kind of a noble job, I really gotta admit. I wouldn’t do it myself, but then again, I ain’t half the sap you are.”~

“Again, I’m only doing this because I really don’t want to have an angry deity on my ass for all of eternity. You should have seen the guy’s face. He’s terrifying,” Bucky replied. “Speaking of jobs, any clue why the hell Tony gets so uptight when you mention the other side to him? I asked him about it the other day, and he started brooding. Like Hamlet-level brooding. It was nauseating.”

~”Maybe he just doesn’t wanna cross over,”~ Clint offered. ~”I mean, I know what my unfinished business is, but I’m not ready to go over to the other side yet. Call it selfishness, but I’m not quite ready to leave this shithole behind, ya know?”~

Bucky considered it. It sort of made sense to him. A few of the spirits he’d helped already had been reluctant to leave the mortal plane for greener pastures, but had ultimately decided to go simply because there was no point in them staying any longer. Tony was his own being; dead or not, he had every right to choose when he was ready to cross over, and if Clint was right, then Bucky had to respect his decision on that.

“I guess I gotta give you that one,” Bucky sighed. Looking up at Brock, he leveled him with a questioning look. “What about you, Casper? Why don’t you ever ask me for help moving on?”

Brock didn’t answer him right away. Instead, he gave Bucky a harsh glare, his already angry features pulling into a deep frown. ~“Kid… you don’t wanna know what my unfinished business is.”~

“Why?” Bucky asked, intrigued by Brock’s evasive answer.

Brock snorted, striding away before calling over his shoulder. ~”Not everyone’s unfinished business is simple or wholesome you know. I ain’t gonna put you in the position to help me with it. ‘Cause if I did, you’d be goin’ to jail for murder...”~

Chapter Text

There were times when Bucky seriously questioned what might have happened if he would have told God to find another guy to do this insane job of his. Those occasions usually involved skirting the law or doing something so totally embarrassing he never wanted to show his face in public again. Those times were pretty frequent and Bucky’s increasingly sour attitude was the direct correlation of that.

Sure, some of the spirits he’d had to assist in the past had died by some ridiculous means (in most of those cases, the deceased had usually attempted something stupid and met the wrong end of a rifle/train car/etc.), but many times the cause of death was purely heart wrenching. Bucky didn’t cry; he wasn’t the terribly emotional type, but there were often times he’d have to seriously unwind from a particularly hard case, especially if that case involved the ending of a parent/child relationship. As much as the stupid ones annoyed him, Bucky woke every day hoping the spiritual clients waiting for him only involved the spirits that got their own asses killed. At least those were easy to deal with. It was a fair toss-up; usually by the time Bucky started to feel a little good about the work he was doing, there were two or three spirits that totally pissed him off and sent his temper right back to square one.

For the most part, his deeds were pretty forgettable, even if they might have been touching. But there was one job Bucky completed that he knew would never leave him for the rest of his mortal life. This particular case fell into the unbelievably heartbreaking category, but unlike his past tearjerkers, there was one small difference: Bucky had never had to handle a child on his own. Usually, at least one parent was involved when he had to pass on the news that mommy or daddy still loved them very much. Not this time.

This time, Bucky had had to face the heartbreak of a child all by herself, and it in itself has proven to be the case that would forever change him.

It happened a week after his failed date with Steve. At a quarter past midnight, Scott Lang came knocking on Bucky’s door, looking absolutely terrified as he waited for Bucky to welcome him inside to talk. Luckily for the spirit, Bucky hadn’t gone to sleep just yet, and simply let the fretful apparition into his bedroom to tell him what it was he needed. After a five minute ranting session about “how he was a good guy” and “never usually did shit like this”, Bucky managed to get the guy to calm down long enough to tell him what happened. Normally, Bucky might have half a mind to throw out a panicking spirit if the sucker couldn’t calm himself down enough to use his big boy words but… frankly, Bucky was getting a little desperate.

Mr. Erskine hadn’t been the only spirit Bucky couldn’t help cross over. It had been a few days since Bucky had had any Ghost Keeping work to do, and he had been surprised to find he was actually a little bored. Nary had a viable spirit crossed his path in over a week, and those he did run into had the same story to tell: they couldn’t remember how they died, nor could they tell Bucky what their unfinished business was.

Essentially, Bucky had four duds in a row. With the number slowly growing, Bucky began to worry that his lack of results might start pissing God off, and he did not fancy a plague of locusts in his area anytime soon. So when Scott came to Bucky, ranting in detail about his death and begging him for help crossing over, Bucky sort of, maybe, jumped at the opportunity finally get some work done.

At first, the job seemed just like all the others: Scott had gotten himself killed doing something stupid like choosing to rob a very rich guy’s house and accidentally setting off the guy’s expensive silent alarm. He’d left the house without checking what damage he’d done to his safety and walked right into a lineup of cops, where he’d been shot dead by one trigger-happy officer on the force.

With the details of the death laid out before him, Bucky begrudgingly accepted the job of helping the guy return the money-box he’d stolen. From his description, Scott had chucked the box out of sight before the officer had opened fire on him, and the last thing he’d remembered was watching it tumble into a ditch before he went lights out. With an approximate time and location at his disposal, Bucky promised Scott he’d help him return the money he’d stolen, and the two of them set off to the scene of Scott’s untimely death.

It hadn’t taken Bucky long to find the piece in question. Dusting off the mud and grass from its corners, he slapped on a bright smile to play the Good Samaritan, and returned the stolen money box to the owner across the street, claiming he’d “found it on the side of the road”. The owner had been grateful and offered to pay Bucky a hefty reward for its return, but Bucky turned it down. He wasn’t sure if there was some clause in his contract that negated him from taking payment for his work, and walked away before temptation got the better of him (although it pained him to have to walk away from such a large sum of pocket change. Oh, did it pain him…).

That’s when the emotional rollercoaster started. The moment Bucky returned to Scott’s side and told him the deed was done, Scott timidly mentioned there was one more piece to his business that needed to be finished. It turned out, Scott had a really good fucking reason for stealing the money in the first place, other than “I’m a greedy bastard” and just failed to mention it to Bucky. Scott had stolen the money because he couldn’t afford to pay his months’ worth of child support, and his ex-wife had denied him the chance to see his daughter for her birthday until he paid up.

Of course, with that added detail, Bucky had been way more agreeable with assisting Scott further, promising him he’d do right by his little girl if he just told him what to do. Scott had been so relieved he’d thrown himself at Bucky in an attempt to hug him, though in his enthusiasm he’d actually flown right through him. The event was so damn awkward, it left them both staring at each other for a few seconds too long before deciding it was best to just let it slide and never speak of it again.

That was how Bucky found himself sitting in his car outside a well-decorated, white house with a nervous Scott Lang sitting in his passenger seat the next morning. Shifting nervously, the spirit cast one last look at the house before them before reaching out to tug on Bucky’s sleeve in an attempt to garner his attention. ~”D-do you think this is gonna work?”~ Scott asked Bucky, looking to him for reassurance.

Bucky shook his head. “I dunno man… You really don’t think it’s gonna be creepy that some guy your ex doesn’t know just shows up in her yard to talk to your daughter?”

Scott snorted. ~”Yeah good point. Go through the back gate. There’s no house back there, and Maggie and Paxton are pretty good at letting Cassie handle herself. Just… make it quick okay? I don’t want you getting in trouble for me.”~

“That’s very generous of you, Scott,” Bucky said, though his voice was lacking the usual sting of sarcasm he always had. Without meeting his gaze, he reached down to the floor of the car, where he picked up a small birthday gift bag. The bag was brightly colored and stuffed with pink tissue paper, the cheap stuff that cost a nickel to make a tore right through if you so much as looked at it. But it was the best Bucky could get with the time given to him. He inhaled slowly, and got out of the car to sneak his way around the backside of the house.

It didn’t take him long to find the gate. He checked behind himself to make sure Scott was following him, and carefully let himself inside. In the expansive yard, he found a little girl, as cute as a button, wearing a blue princess dress. She was seated at a plastic Fisher-Price table, coloring in a giant activity book with all the signs of depression clear on her features as she worked.

At his side, he felt the aura of Scott tense up at the sight of her, and Bucky reached out, trying to touch the spirit’s arm. His fingers went through instantly, but he was pretty sure Scott understood the sentiment. “Hey,” Bucky called quietly. He got the little girl’s attention on him, and he offered her a small smile when she jumped up to her feet in surprise. “Hey, sorry I scared ya. Are you Cassie?”

“Yeah?” Cassie said. She fiddled with the front of her dress, staring at her patent leather shoes before shrugging a tiny shoulder. “Who are you?”

Bucky approached her slowly, the gift bag hiding behind his back. He held a hand out to her, as if he were calming a frightened puppy, and he dropped down to his knee in front of her. “My name’s Bucky. Sorry to interrupt you… what are you coloring?”

“A picture,” Cassie mumbled. She looked up at Bucky, her gaze inquisitive. Clearly, she knew not to talk to strangers, but Bucky was grateful she was willing to listen to him. It made his job easier, knowing she wouldn’t go running to her mom at any second. “What are you doing here?”

Bucky offered her a small, sad smile. “I heard about your daddy. He was… let’s just say I know him from work. I’m really sorry he’s gone, Cassie, and I just wanted to check up on you and make sure you’re okay. Do you know what happened?”

“Mommy said he got killed by the police. Paxton fired the officer that shot him,” Cassie said. Her voice sounded thick, as if her nose was still stuffy from crying, and she rubbed her hand under her eyes. “How did you hear about it?”

Bucky bit his lip. He looked at Scott, watching him hover next to his daughter sadly. “I heard about it, because your daddy told me.” When Cassie gave him a confused glance, he offered a smile in return. “Can you keep a secret?”

Cassie nodded, her eyes widening in anticipation. Bucky grinned at her before leaning in to speak in an over exaggerated whisper. “I have a superpower. I can talk to ghosts, and I help them find their way to Heaven.”

“Really?!” Cassie giggled. She clapped her hands in front of her and leaned in. “Did you talk to my daddy?”

“I sure did,” Bucky replied. He looked to his right, where Scott was staring at his daughter in growing hope. “In fact, here’s here right now. He didn’t get to tell you something super important before he died, so I brought him with me to tell you.”

“He’s here?!” Cassie said. She looked in Scott’s direction, but her gaze simply passed right through him. “But I can’t see him…” she mumbled, her excitement dissipating.

“It’s okay. You’re looking right at him,” Bucky said. At Cassie’s excited gasp, he pulled his hand out from behind his back and held up the gift bag. “He brought you a present. Go on, open it. He really wants to see your face when you see what it is.”

Cassie nodded. She reluctantly tore her eyes from the empty space she was looking at and took the gift bag from Bucky. Without waiting, she tugged the tissue paper out, letting it flutter to the ground like pink petals before pulling out the most hideous bunny doll Bucky had ever seen in his life. He’d been initially against buying it for Cassie, thinking it might be too scary for a little girl, but eventually took Scott’s word when he said she’d love it. True to the spirit’s claim, Cassie’s face lit up at the sight of the bunny doll and she giggled.

“He’s so ugly!” Cassie squealed, hugging it close to her chest. “Did my daddy really give this to me?”

Bucky smiled, and a wave of emotion hit him. He could feel Scott shivering with sadness at his side and he offered him a look. “Yeah he did. He wanted to give you something since he missed your birthday.”

“Can he come out so I can see him?” Cassie asked, giving Bucky a hopeful look. “I want him to have a tea party with me. He always has one with me for my birthday.”

Bucky frowned, and his heart cracked in two inside his chest. This was it; the part where he had to tell a little girl her daddy was going away forever. God, he fucking hated this part of the job, knowing the emotional tidal wave that was coming with his next words. “Cassie… I’m sorry, but… your Daddy can’t stay here. He has to go to Heaven now.”

Cassie paused, her eyes widening before her lower lip began to tremble. “But… I wanna see him. Will I see him again? Can you stay and keep him here?”

“I can’t, kiddo,” Bucky murmured staring at the ground. “I’ve got other daddies to send to Heaven. And mommies and grandpas and grandmas. I’ve got a lot of work to do, and Heaven needs their angels sent to them.”

“Then I want to go too,” Cassie said, her eyes red-rimmed once again. “I wanna go with him, so I can spend time with him.”

Bucky felt Scott shifting, and he saw the stricken look that crossed his features. Bucky held a hand out to Scott to stop him. “You can’t go with him right now. But I can tell you this. You’ll see your daddy again, when it’s time for you to go. But that’s not gonna be for a long time. You’ve got a lot of living to do still, Cassie, and your daddy would be really upset if you didn’t get to experience that.”

“So why does he have to go then? I-I don’t want him to go away. I didn’t get to see him a lot when he wasn’t dead!” Cassie said, breaking into a soft sob.

Bucky reached out. He put his hand on her tiny shoulder, hoping to calm her down before she had a total breakdown and alerted her mother to his presence. Luckily, the gesture worked, and Cassie’s sobs turned into quiet hiccups. Bucky rubbed her shoulder soothingly. “Your daddy was just done with his living. He had lots of adult things to do, and he’s all done with them, so he gets to go home now. You… you just haven’t had a chance to do the same thing. But don’t worry; you have mommy and Paxton to be with and they’re gonna take such good care of you until then. You can’t go away just yet because they need you; you’re important to them and you’ve got lots of important things to do in your life.”

Cassie listened to Bucky’s words, visibly heartbroken. But she didn’t outright cry anymore. Bucky took that as a good sign that she truly understood what he meant. “Okay… can you tell daddy I love him?”

Bucky nodded. He looked at Scott, seeing the grief on his features as he watched his daughter cry for the last time. “He knows, Cassie. He can hear you.”

Scott dropped down to his knees next to Cassie. What should have been a happy moment between father and daughter, now just looked like torture, and Bucky felt like the lowest scum of the earth for breaking the hearts of two innocent people like this. ~”Can you tell her I love her too? And I miss her already?”~ Scott asked. His voice was thick as he held back his own sadness in the face of offering up what little comfort he could, to his daughter.

Bucky nodded before meeting Cassie’s gaze once more. “Your daddy says he loves you very much and he doesn’t want to leave you behind.” Cassie listened to Bucky, nodding once. Unbeknownst to her, Scott reached out his hand, one last time towards her. Bucky watched as Scott brushed his fingers along the girl’s cheek, his knuckles bumping just along her cheekbone in an affectionate touch. To everyone’s surprise but Bucky’s, that tiny gesture caused a shiver to run through Cassie, as she reached up to touch her cheek with a gasp and the twinges of recognition in her eyes. She knew. Even from that faint, ghostly gesture, she knew her father was there, and loved her. It was all the closure both of them needed to finally say goodbye, and Bucky couldn’t help but feel honored he got to be there to witness it.

Just then, a shimmer of bright light filled the yard, and Bucky looked up. With Scott’s final goodbye, the bridge had opened to Heaven, bathing him in a celestial glow. For a split second, Bucky saw the frantic look cross his features as he realized he was finally leaving his daughter behind, and offered a comforting nod. “It’s okay Scott… it’s gonna be okay. I promise.”

Scott nodded, taking a moment to visibly calm himself before his eyes went back to Cassie one last time. ~”I love you peanut. I’ll see you again, really soon.”~ As he spoke, the light grew brighter and brighter, blinding Bucky. He tore his gaze away, looking to the confused girl as she watched this strange man making faces at the empty yard around them. The poor thing had no idea what was really transpiring, but for the first time in his life, Bucky didn’t wish this on her poor soul. It was bad enough talking to adults who understood the true meaning of loss. It was another thing entirely, having to explain it to a little girl who hadn’t even lived long enough to know how to cope with such devastation.

But there was nothing more he could do. In seconds, it was over. Scott was gone, taken to Heaven and his business fulfilled. For the first time since his duty had been given to him, Bucky couldn’t stand the ache of loss he felt for the little girl in front of him. He cleared his throat, willing his own sadness away as the little girl clutched the doll to her chest and cried, torn away from the last trace of her father on this earthly terrain.

There was nothing more to be done. All that was left was a heartbroken little girl, and a man who hated his job more than anything. But it was job he had to complete, and he knew it. He didn’t want to think how many other spirits out there in the world needed someone to help them just like Scott had. He didn’t want to think how many other little girls needed the sort of closure Cassie had been lucky to get. As Cassie cried, he offered her a comforting hug before finally getting to his feet and giving her one last sad look before leaving her behind for good. His job was done; as much as he truly wanted to stay and make sure the girl was okay, he knew his place was no longer needed there. She was strong. As much as this pained her, Bucky knew she’d persevere, growing up with the knowledge that even in death, her father still loved her unconditionally, just as he should.

Some people hated their jobs for one reason or another. Early morning traffic, controlling bosses, or demanding customers that paid little care to the feelings of others. Those were all reasons to hate one’s job. Bucky despised his lot in life. He knew, logically, he was nothing more than a ticket for good souls to return to the arms of God where they belonged, but he didn’t understand why it had to be so fucking painful for everyone involved, including himself.

For the first time since his work began, Bucky allowed himself to break down. He barely made it into his car before the first tears welled in his eyes, and spilled down his cheeks in silent tracks. He allowed himself to cry for Scott, a man who’d lost out on the best years of his only child’s life. He allowed himself to cry for Cassie, who would have to grow up without her father’s comforting arms to run to when she needed it. It didn’t seem fair that two souls had to be separated so prematurely in their lives. In the long run, Bucky just hoped that all that pain would finally be worth it when he finally, officially took his very last breath...


 

Bucky sat at a cafe table, staring at the tabletop in front of him as he ate his lunch in silence. It had been exactly two hours since he’d sent Scott off to Heaven, and still the guilt of leaving behind a broken little girl gnawed at his gut as he stared at the cracked Formica of the cafe table, blind to everything else around him.

He didn’t move when he felt the air rustling around. When a voice cleared, punctuating the awkward silence, Bucky looked up to greet his companion at last. At his side, Tony sat at the cafe table, looking genuinely empathetic for his friend’s inner turmoil. Bucky wasn’t really surprised. His friends frequently followed him to his jobs on occasion, and every single one of them knew to keep their mouths shut if they felt Bucky needed a moment to get his emotional bearings about him. It was enough to know they had his back if he needed someone to vent to if it all became too much.

This time, however, Tony chose to break the silence, his eyes averted as he spoke. ~”I can’t cross over,”~ he said simply, his voice void of his usual cynicism. Bucky didn’t answer him, too intent on watching true emotion fill Tony’s eyes for the first time since he’d known him. ~”I saw what you did with that one guy. That little girl looked so broken. But… at the same time, I’m glad she got the closure she needed. God knows, I won’t get that myself.”~

Bucky hesitated. “Your unfinished business is telling someone goodbye?” he asked, clarifying for himself.

Tony shook his head. ~”No, my unfinished business is telling my parents I’m sorry. I’m sorry for being a real jerk to them and never getting the chance to make amends with them after all the fights we’ve had. Especially my dad and I. We didn’t get along for the longest time, but he was still my dad, you know? I still loved him. Still… I’m never going to get the chance to say how sorry I am for fighting with them most of my life.”~

“Why not?” Bucky asked. “Can’t you just tell me where they are? I can find them… you know, pretend to be your long lost friend and tell them how much they meant to you.”

Tony shook his head. ~”They died in a car accident last year. And they’ve… they’ve already moved on. Trust me, I tried looking for them after I found out.”~ Tony sat up, an emotionless laugh escaping him. ~”So when I say I can’t move on… I really can’t. They’re not here for me to talk to. I’m not going to get the closure I need, and my unfinished business is going to stay that way until the world ends.”~ He offered Bucky a sad smile before turning away from him. ~”That’s why I never told you, Barnes. Make sense now?”~

“Jesus,” Bucky said under his breath. He stared at Tony, understanding in his eyes. “I’m… I’m sorry, Tony. I really am.”

~”Yeah, well… that’s my lot in life I guess. And In death. Always too late to say the right thing,”~ Tony muttered.  

Silence fell between the two of them. It stretched for an awkward amount of time before Tony coughed into his fist and shook his head to break the spell. ~”Alright, that concludes our episode of “Days of Our Lives”. Enough of this talk. What I am gonna say is something seriously important thought, so you better listen: You are an asshole.”~

Bucky laughed. “Well, there went that bonding experience,” Bucky said, rolling his eyes at Tony’s sudden attitude. “Why am I an asshole now?”

~”I’m dead and you’re eating shawarma in front of me,”~ Tony said, huffing loudly. ~”Shawarma. You know that’s my favorite thing like… ever, right? What kind of callous, cruel monster eats shawarma in front of a starving ghost? I hope you rot in Hell.”~

Bucky looked down at his plate. The half-eaten wrap sat there, beckoning Tony with its savory goodness, and he smirked. “The same callous monster that’s gonna tell you how delicious it is, in great detail,” he said, before picking it up and taking a bite. “Mmm… tahini. Delicious shit, Stark. Wish you could have some.”

~”You’re an animal,”~ Tony muttered. With that, he reached out, shoving the folded-up paper on the table a little. It fluttered as if a soft breeze had brushed over it, lifting the pages slightly. ~”Stop stuffing your face like a pig and get back to work. There’s a juicy fish waiting for you to send to Heaven. Get to work, slacker.”~

Bucky laughed, taking another bite of his food before picking up the paper. However, as he opened it in his free hand and skimmed the obituaries of the day, he practically choked on his food as shock caught him off guard.

SARAH ROGERS, 55 YEARS OLD, SURVIVED BY HER SON, DOCTOR STEVEN GRANT ROGERS

“Holy fuck,” Bucky gasped, dropping the food to the plate. His eyes skimmed over the short piece before nausea hit him like a punch to the face. With all the work Steve had been putting in at the hospital, Bucky hadn’t seen him in almost a week. During that long absence, Sarah had died and Bucky had had no idea, nor had he been there for Steve when he needed it the most. Cold dread filled him at the thought, and for the first time, Bucky didn’t feel resentment or anger towards his Spiritual Duty. He just felt sick. “Jesus Christ, Sarah Rogers died…”

~“Doctor Hottie’s mom died? Are you serious?”~ Tony said. His eyes widened as he looked at the paper. ~”Holy shit, I was joking, I didn’t even know what was in there!”~

Bucky didn’t answer him. In fact, Bucky barely heard Tony speaking. All of a sudden, he had to get the fuck out of that cafe and get to Steve. He had to see him, make sure he was okay… fuck, he had to help Steve’s mom pass over to the other side. Bucky cursed under his breath, hating God even more as he abandoned Tony at the cafe, jumped into his car and took off for Holy Cross Cemetery.

Bucky was so caught up in his thoughts, he barely noticed the traffic around him as he drove like a madman. Within minutes, he pulled frantically into the parking lot of the burial grounds, and he leaped out of his car, barely throwing it into park before he was searching the cemetery with keen eyes.

It only took him a few minutes to spot the freshly mounded patch of earth from a recent funeral. With the reality of what he was about to do looming in his mind like a bad omen, Bucky ran straight for the burial plot, immediately spotting the hunched up form of Sarah kneeling before her own grave.

“Excuse me!” Bucky said, coming up short behind her. He watched as Sarah jumped to her feet, her eyes wide and her figure shaking like a leaf. “Sarah… Sarah Rogers, right?”

~”How do you know my name?”~ Sarah asked. Her voice balanced on the verge of hysterics, and Bucky swallowed back the pain in his own chest at her fear. ~”Who are you? What’s going on and why does this have my name on it? Is this a hoax? Please tell me this is a joke!”~

Bucky stared at her, taken aback by her frantic exclamation. This was a bad sign already. Denying she was even dead, when her grave stood right before her? It was the same nightmare as all his other clients and Bucky thought he was going to lose his Goddamn mind if he had to face this once again.  “Sarah… I’m… I’m Bucky. I was a patient of your son’s. Now I need you to listen very carefully for me, okay? I know this is confusing but you have to believe me. That... that is your grave. You died three days ago.”

Sarah let out a wail, shaking her head. ~”What?! But I can’t be dead! I can’t! I just had a physical a week ago, how can I be dead?!” She looked away from Bucky, staring at her grave in terror. ~”I can’t be dead… Stevie and I were going to go on a trip next month. Oh my God, he was looking so forward to it…”~

Bucky swallowed. God really must have been punishing him for failing to deliver souls like he was supposed to. He accepted that. But to make him have to deal with Steve’s mother’s death? That was a whole new level of cruelty Bucky couldn’t even begin to understand. “Sarah I know you’re scared, but I need you to listen to me. Alright? Just… tell me what you know. How did this happen?”

~”I-I don’t know…”~ Sara said. ~”I don’t know what happened. I just remember laying down for a nap. Then all of a sudden, there was this… pressure in my throat, almost like someone was choking me. It hurt so badly. Next thing I know, I woke up like this, in front of my own grave.”~

Bucky cursed under his breath. This was just like the other ghosts. What the actual fuck was going on with these spirits lately and why was his job getting so fucking difficult?! “Shit... Okay. Sarah, trust me on this. Where is Steve? I need to go talk to him.”

~”Why?”~ Sarah asked. She leveled Bucky with a suspicious look, one that Bucky was sure she reserved specifically for the concern of her son. It was astounding; even in death, Sarah was still hesitant to reveal any sort of personal information about Steve to a stranger. “Sarah, I’m not looking to go stalk your son if that’s what you’re thinking. I’m looking for him because I need to know if he has any details on how you died so I can help you cross over.”

Sarah didn’t answer him at first. For a second, she remained resolutely quiet, though Bucky’s explanation seemed to do the trick. Gradually, her suspicions faded away, and a small smile graced the curve of her full lips. ~”Did you say your name was Bucky?”~ she asked. When Bucky nodded, an incredulous little chuckled lilted the air. ~”Steve was telling me about you… he said how much he was looking forward to going on a date with you, and he was very, very vocal about how attractive you are. It’s strange… the first time I’d seen him really smile in a long time was the first time he told me about you...”~ Her voice trailed off, seemingly lost in thought before she snapped back to herself and looked up at him. ~”Why do you really want to talk to him? I know there has to be another reason, other than to just help me.”~

Bucky hesitated. He wasn’t sure exactly how much was appropriate to mention to her, considering she had no idea who he truly was. But… the situation couldn’t really get much worse than this. He might as well just be honest with her, especially when it came to the wellbeing of her son. “Because that’s my job, Sarah. I died before your son saved my life, and ever since then, I’ve been helping spirits like you find their way to the other side. It’s not glamorous so please don’t wax poetic about it…” he added, when he saw her open her mouth to answer him. “Besides… I want to see Steve so that I can comfort him, as much as I can. I-I don’t want him to be alone right now. Not after losing you.”

Sarah didn’t answer him right away. Instead, a small smile lifted her lips and she chuckled. ~“It’s a shame I had to die to finally meet the man that my son was talking about so happily. I-it’s a noble work you do, Bucky… even if it’s not easy.”~ She took a few tentative steps away from her gravesite, before waving to Bucky. ~”I’ll tell you where he lives. Just go and help my son… he needs someone to be with him right now.”~

With that, the two of them returned to Bucky’s car, making the drive across town to Steve’s home. As they pulled into the driveway, he felt Sarah tensing up at his side. He could only imagine how terrifying this must have felt for her. Bucky was terrified of what might happen; he had no choice but to finally tell him what was going on, and admit to him ‘by the way, I can talk to ghosts, I hope that’s not weird or anything’. Logically, Bucky knew that Steve would most likely not believe a word he said, and simply dismiss him as some lunatic, Jesus-in-toast wielding whack-job. It was probably too much to ask that Steve blindly believe what he had to say… but he really, really hoped that was the case.

With that, the two of them exited the car and climbed the front steps. Bucky knocked twice on the door and stepped back, holding his breath as he waited for an answer. It took several minutes before Bucky finally heard movement inside. He reached out for Sarah, gently brushing his fingers along her shoulder in a comforting touch. “It’s gonna be okay,” he said. He was fairly certain he was just trying to reassure her… but a small part of him couldn’t help but think maybe that statement was directed at himself.

Finally, the door opened. Steve stood before him, looking as miserable as could be. His eyes were red, his hair messy and his shoulders drooped with a slouch that was never present before in his strong posture. That sadness melted away instantly at the sight of Bucky standing on his doorstep, and Steve gripped the door in his fingers defensively.

“Bucky? What are you doing here?” Steve asked.

Bucky shifted. He glanced at Sarah out of the corner of his eye before forcing himself to speak. “Hey Stevie… I’m really sorry to bother you right now but I just… I just found out about your mom. It was in the paper today.” Bucky offered up Steve a sorrowful glance. “Jesus, Steve I’m so sorry. I wish I would have known...”

Steve shuddered, and a broken sound left him. For a second, Bucky couldn’t understand the emotion on his features, but as Steve reached up, pushing his hair from his forehead and using the door as support, he knew: Steve wasn’t just sad for his mother’s loss. He looked guilty, and that guilt was clearly eating him from the inside out.” Yeah… S-sorry I never got to… you know tell you about the wake and all that… it just happened so fast.” His gaze dropped to the ground as he stifled back his grief to muscle on. “Buck, I’m sorry, but now’s not really a good time-”

“We need to talk,” Bucky said, cutting in sharply. He winced, seeing the stricken look that crossed Steve’s face at his insistence. He hated the fact that he had to push Steve like this, especially when he was so clearly in a state of mourning. But there was no other option; Steve had to know what was really going on in this fucked up scenario, and he had to know now. “It’s… it’s really important, Stevie. It’s about your mom and… and I think it has to do with what’s been going on with your patients.”

Steve stared at him, a look of mistrust crossing his features. It made sense; even to Bucky, his statement sounded suspicious. However, Bucky was surprised (and a little relieved) to see Steve finally give in, and step aside. He held the door open for Bucky, gesturing into his house with an aborted wave. “Fine… Come in then.”

Bucky took the invitation, letting Sarah skirt inside the house before him. He passed Steve, feeling the air stifled with tension. Bucky didn’t look back; instead he took the moment to follow Sarah into the living room, where Steve had clearly been lounging, too upset to do anything else. The pillow he’d been using had fallen to the floor next to the sofa, and a blanket was tossed haphazardly over the back of the sofa. Bucky didn’t want to think how long Steve had been in that same position. Grief, he knew, was a heavy burden that laid waste to even the hardiest soul.

Behind him, Steve entered the room, though he barred the doorway to the rest of the house with his body. Bucky could feel the growing agitation in Steve's figure without even looking at him, and he steeled himself for the hardest conversation he was ever going to have in his life. “Bucky, how did you find my house?” he asked. “We’ve never even spent time together outside the hospital. I’ve never told you were I live, and I sure as hell know they didn’t put my address in the obituary. Did you go to the hospital and talk to someone?”

Bucky flinched, looking back at Steve with a saddened expression. “I know what you’re thinking. I didn’t… you know, follow you or anything, so don’t think it has anything to do with that.” Bucky paused, watching as Steve’s eyes hardened further in discomfort. “Look, I know you’re having a hard time right now… but I really need you to listen to what I have to say with an open mind and please, please don’t call the cops on me. It’s really important.”

Steve stared at him. He barked a derisive laugh, his earlier sadness turning into mistrust. Bucky couldn’t blame him. The guy had just lost his mother, and now he had some weirdo in his living room, begging him not to call the cops over some big secret? Bucky would have thrown the fucker out by now if he was in Steve’s shoes. “Already, you’re not exactly winning this conversation over. Now tell me. How the fuck did you find my house?”

Bucky sighed. This wasn’t going the way he wanted at all. Well… he was already in way over his head and probably irrevocably fucked up his relationship with him. He might as well just say it and get it over with. Maybe something good would come out of this in the long run. “... because you’re mom told me where you live.”

“What the fuck? Are you kidding me?” Steve said, visibly stunned by that. “You’ve never even met my mother!”

“You’re right… I didn’t meet her before she died,” Bucky said calmly. “She told me this afternoon.”

Silence fell between them. Steve stared at Bucky, his eyes widening as he listened to Bucky’s explanation. When the silence became too great, Bucky shifted, pacing the room a little. “I can… Shit, you’re gonna think I’m fucking nuts,” he muttered, fisting his hair before he continued. “I can communicate with the dead. I can see spirits... Jesus, they’re fucking everywhere Steve. Ever since my accident, I’ve been able to talk to ghosts and I’ve been helping them cross over to the other side. Something about… about dying opening up some part of my Goddamn brain that can see what others can’t.” Bucky lowered his gaze, feeling like a total jerk for this secret he’d been keeping for so long.

“Wait… let me get this straight,” Steve said in disbelief. “So you’re saying you talked to my dead mother, and she told you to come talk to me to tell me this bogus story-”

“It’s not bogus!” Bucky said desperately. “It’s true. I found her obituary in the paper and I went to her grave, but I can’t help her cross over because she doesn’t know how she died. I came to you because I need to know what killed her so I can help her move on. I know it’s the shittiest thing I can do to you right now, but I have to know if you found out anything about her death. I mean, anything at all you can tell me will help me figure out how to finish her life out here so she can go to Heaven. I swear, Stevie, I’m not making any of this up!”

Steve didn’t speak. He trembled visibly, his fingers digging into his biceps where his arms were crossed. Finally, after an agonizing amount of time, Bucky got his answer. Steve didn’t believe a word he said. Instead, he shook his head, disappointment and anger clearly burning in his blue eyes. “Unbelievable. That is… that is the lowest, most despicable crock of shit I’ve ever heard in my life.” Glaring at Bucky, Steve pointed at the door. “Get out. Get the fuck out of here Bucky. You think you can follow me home and then feed me some bullshit story about my dead mother so you can be the hero and make me feel better? What kind of sick bastard makes something like that up?!”

Bucky froze. He knew Steve would be upset with him for this. He knew, logically, no sane person would believe a story like that. But hearing Steve denounce him so coldly… it hurt more deeply than any emotional wound he’d ever experienced in his life. “Steve… listen to me, I know it’s crazy-”

“You're right, this is fucking nuts!’ Steve shouted. He marched over to Bucky, grabbing his arm to drag him towards the door. “No one can talk to ghosts! No one! If this is some prank, you have a seriously messed up sense of humor. Get the hell out of here before I really do call the cops on you!”

Bucky didn’t fight it. He should have known that this situation would have ended like this. He just couldn’t believe how deeply the pain of Steve’s rejection hurt him. The one guy he’d had feelings for in a very long time now thought he was either totally insane, or a complete asshole. He didn’t know which was worse.

But just when Bucky began to give up hope, he heard a noise behind him. Looking back, he saw Sarah giving him a horrified look at her son’s anger, and she waved her hands frantically towards the fireplace in the living room. ~”The picture on the mantle! There’s an inscription on the back that I wrote!”~ Sarah blurted out. Clearly, she was just as desperate for Steve to believe Bucky as Bucky was. She turned to the mantle, trying to touch the picture frame on the ledge as if she could possibly pick it up and show it to Bucky before he was thrown out for good. To her great surprise, the picture frame actually shifted against her touch, half-hanging off the ledge.

Suddenly, a ray of hope filled Bucky. Maybe Sarah was onto something. If Steve didn’t believe the truth, then maybe what he needed was proof to cast aside his doubts. “What does it say?” Bucky said to her. He heard Steve make a disgusted sound next to him and he caught sight of the doctor staring at him with growing rage. He looked back at her, fighting against Steve’s grip long enough to hear what she had to say. “Sarah what does it say?!”

~”To the end of the line! July 4th, 2005. On his birthday that year, he and I went to Washington for the fireworks. It was shortly after his father had died,”~ Sarah said, waving her hand frantically. This time, her fingers bumped the frame once more and the whole thing shifted again before it went tumbling to the floor.

The whole room went silent. The sound of shattering glass put the kibosh on the whole fight, and Steve froze, his eyes darting from Bucky to the broken frame that miraculously flew off the shelf. After a moment, the picture inside fluttered in the frame before blowing out to flop onto the floor in the middle of the room, and Steve stared at it, stunned by that phantom motion. “What the…”

“To the end of the line,” Bucky said quietly. He watched as Steve’s head snapped towards him so fast he was sure the doctor got whiplash. “July 4th, 2005. After your dad died, your mom took that picture of the two of you and wrote the inscription on the back to remind you she’d always be there for you.”

Steve stared at Bucky, his eyes wide in horror. Bucky cringed, sick with himself that he had to put this poor man through this whole ordeal. But it had to be done. He had to tell someone what it was that haunted his every day and made him so miserable. But most importantly, he had to help Sarah cross over. “Your mom… she’s right there, by the fireplace. She accidentally broke the picture frame. I swear Stevie. I’m not trying to be funny or lie... I-I’m not crazy.”

Steve shivered. Unable to tear his eyes from the brunet, Steve backed away from him, until his back collided with the far wall, halting his escape and leaving him scrambling to grasp what the fuck was actually going on. “How the fuck did… how-”

Bucky heaved a tired sigh. Tired was the right word… he was exhausted with the weight of what he could do; of what he had to do. Now more than ever, he wished he hadn’t been placed in this position. At least, then, he might have had a shot at a normal relationship - hell, even a normal friendship if it came to that- with this man before him.

He couldn’t look at Steve anymore. Defeated, Bucky turned away from Steve, his back exposed to him. Well… there was no going back now. He’d started this madhouse explanation, and he was going to finish it, dammit. Glancing at Sarah, he gave her a tiny nod, urging her to tell him what she could about her son, anything that Bucky couldn’t possibly know about him. If Steve didn’t believe him, Bucky had no choice but to make him believe, and what better way than by revealing only what a mother could know?

“You were born on the 4th of July, 1979 at 9:23pm,” Bucky began. He listened carefully as Sarah began to recite her son’s life to him. As he spoke, he could feel Steve’s apprehension as his life’s history was recounted to him in frightening detail, though he pressed on, determined to finish this once and for all. “You were a premature baby, diagnosed with patent ductus arteriosus. You were in the hospital for 6 months after you were born. And after that you developed a short term diagnosis of scoliosis and were severely underweight as a kid. That’s why you decided to become a doctor. You wanted to help other people who were sick because you didn’t want anyone to suffer like you had.” Bucky paused, and turned to face Steve. He could see the fear etched in his features, but he could also see a sort of morbid fascination that Bucky knew so much about him.

For a second Steve’s eyes darted to the mantle, and Bucky followed his gaze. There, he could see Sarah watching her son, her fingers fiddling with the wedding ring on her finger as her own tears flooded her ghostly cheeks. He couldn’t stand seeing her look so broken for her son, and he lowered his gaze. “S-she’s uhm… she’s sorry that you have to suffer like this...” Bucky said, mournfully. “Neither of us wanted to see you like this…”

“What’s she doing?” Steve asked, suddenly. He looked to Bucky, staring at him long and hard before he spoke again. “What’s she doing? If she’s really there… prove it. Tell me what she’s doing right now.”

Bucky hesitated. He didn’t quite grasp what Steve meant by that, though a second later, he understood. Clearly, whenever Sarah Rogers was upset, she played with her wedding ring as a comfort. Of course the only person that could know about this would have to be Steve, and if Bucky could correctly tell him that exact detail, Steve would have no choice but to believe that Bucky could literally see her in that room.

It was Bucky’s last chance. If Steve still didn’t believe him after he proved himself, Bucky didn’t know what he was going to do. Logically, he knew he’d walk away from Steve and never bother him again (he wouldn’t dare force the blond to suffer anymore around him needlessly), but damn it would hurt to have to say goodbye to him. Biting his lip, Bucky forced himself to stare at the floor, as he lifted his hands. With a tentative gesture, he pantomimed Sarah’s action, rubbing at his left ring finger for a second before his hands dropped to his sides again.

“Fuck,” Steve said, breathlessly. Bucky winced at his words, hesitantly looking up at Steve to see what his reaction would be. To his utter shock and relief, he saw the mistrust and anger quickly evaporate as Steve stared at Bucky. But he could see it in his eyes: Steve believed him. “You… Bucky,” Steve swallowed audibly, his eyes darting to the fireplace once more. “Jesus, Buck-”

“I know,” Bucky said quietly. He took a step towards Steve, gauging his reaction. When Steve didn’t shy away from him, Bucky relaxed, comfortable that Steve wouldn’t lash out anymore. “It’s a hell of a thing, ain’t it…?”

Steve nodded, though he looked dazed as he slowly accepted Bucky’s confession. “And you both need to know how she died so she can-” Steve stopped, choking on the words. Fresh tears filled his eyes and he looked down at the ground to hide them from Bucky. “So she can move on.”

“Yeah,” Bucky said quietly. He nodded at Steve, slowly crossing the room as if he were approaching a spooked animal. As he did, however, he spotted the blond swaying slightly on his feet, looking ready to faint at the whole emotional rollercoaster he was on. Bucky reached out instantly, grabbing his arms to support him. “C’mon, I got you,” he muttered.

Guiding Steve to the living room sofa, the two of them sat down. Bucky reached up, rubbing his companion’s back to soothe him as much as he could. He wrapped his arm around his back to hold him up and allowed Steve to slump into him, exhausted and totally confused by the whole ordeal. “I'm so sorry I did this to you, Stevie… Honest to God, I never wanted this to hurt you in any way.”

Steve shook his head. Exhausted, he leaned his head into Bucky’s, his shoulders trembling as sadness filled him back up again. “I don’t know how she died. It… it’s-” he stopped, inhaling sharply as he stared at the mantle across from them, His eyes welled up and spilled down his cheeks and his voice hitched. “I wasn’t even there for her. I was at the fucking hospital when she died. The paramedics brought her in, but by the time I found out she was there, she was already dead. I did everything I could to bring her back, but…”

“Shh… don’t start going and blaming yourself. None of this is your fault,” Bucky said insistently. He felt Steve shudder in his arms at those words, and he tightened his grip, pressing his cheek to the crown of his head. “Do you understand me? None of this is your fault.”

Steve nodded, bereft of words as he allowed himself to seek out the comfort Bucky offered him. He didn’t move, and Bucky hummed a soft note of comfort, rubbing his back as the two of them sat in silence, processing what the fuck had just happened. Bucky knew it had to be weird for Steve: he was in his living room, a few days after burying his only remaining family member, being held in the arms of a lunatic that could talk to ghosts. Bucky thought his afternoon had been strange… Christ, he couldn’t imagine what Steve must have been feeling.

But it was over with. Bucky had told the truth, and Steve believed him, albeit a bit hesitantly. A few minutes later, Steve sat up again. He gave Bucky a small, awkward smile, rubbing the tracks of tears from his cheeks before speaking again. “The only thing I can tell you is when they autopsied her, they found this… this pressure had been applied to her throat, like she had been suffocated. But there was no outward signs of it. It’s like she’d been choked from the inside out. All the patients that died have that same injury. I dunno if that helps but...”

Bucky listened to him, taking it into consideration. It still didn’t explain why she or any other ghosts he’s spoken to couldn't remember it, but it was at least something to go off of. “It does help, yeah. Is there anything else you can tell me about it? Were the patients doing anything they shouldn’t have been doing? What about their families?”

“No, nothing,” Steve sighed. “It’s getting to the point that the police are starting to look at us for answers. It’s like a fucking epidemic. People are getting scared.” Steve shifted, looking a little uncomfortable. His mouth opened for a second as if he were going to speak, but he hesitated. He looked as if he wanted to ask Bucky something but didn’t for fear that it might offend him. “Buck, I mean… if you can talk to spirits, can’t you ask the others if they have any information?”

“It doesn’t really work like that. It’s not like a social network of haunters or anything. They’re all individual cases. No one person experiences the same thing when they die, and no one spirit’s unfinished business is similar,” Bucky muttered, sounding bitter. “It just sucks because… well there’s all these people I can’t help now because I can’t figure out whatever the fuck is killing them, and they’re all getting seriously agitated. Talk about disturbed spirits...”

“I can’t imagine how stressful that must be,” Steve said quietly. He leaned his head against Bucky’s shoulder, taking a moment to collect himself. A shiver ran up his spine at the thought and he shook his head. “I’m so sorry this is happening to you…”

Bucky shook his head. “Don’t be sorry. It’s just the way it is. I mean, you’re a doctor. You’re trying to save lives. I just chauffeur them to Heaven,” he said. He cracked an awkward smile, feeling his cheeks flushing with embarrassment. “Besides, it’s given me plenty of opportunity to see you at the hospital every day, and you can bet your ass I took advantage of that. So it’s not all bad.”

Steve laughed a broken little sound. After a moment, he looked up at Bucky, their eyes meeting for a brief second. Then, to Bucky’s surprise, Steve leaned in and pressed a gentle kiss to his lips. “Gotta say, I’m grateful for that. I always looked forward to seeing you every day… getting to know you a little more,” he said, his breath ghosting across Bucky’s lips as he spoke.

“Yeah. Me too,” Bucky mumbled. He was surprised he could talk as clearly as he did. If the situation wasn’t so dire, he might have felt utterly elated that Steve had actually kissed him. Like, actually kissed him, not just a peck on the head (big difference). They hadn’t even gone on that first date yet, and already he’d gotten to first base? Maybe this afternoon didn’t suck so bad after all. “My imaginary friends are going to get a kick out of this when they hear you actually believe me.”

Steve chuckled, bumping noses with Bucky. “They’re spirits aren’t they?”

“Oh yeah. And they’re about as annoying as you can imagine a ghost to be.”

Steve smirked, shaking his head. He pressed his forehead to Bucky’s, the two of them lingering for a second before he spoke again. “I’ll do my best to help you with this. I really will. If I find out anything about what's going on with these victims, I’ll make sure you’re there in the hospital to help them as much as I can.”

“I really appreciate that,” Bucky said, closing his eyes to revel in Steve’s close proximity. “But for now, I’ll stay here with you. You look like you really need someone to be with.”

“I’m sorry,” Steve said quietly. “I’m keeping you from doing your job. You don’t… you don’t have to stay with me today. I can get by on my own.”

“The thing is, you don’t have to,” Bucky replied. “I want to stay here with you. You need me more than some ghosts who I can’t help right now. You’re more important to me than that…”

Steve listened, visibly touched by Bucky’s concern. He flashed him a dazzling grin, the weight of his earlier sorrow fading away with the knowledge that Bucky had his back in this. He leaned in, pressing a second kiss to Bucky’s lips. This time, though, he moved to deepen it. His lips parted a little, allowing him to tug just slightly on Bucky’s lower lip, his tongue darting out to brush along full flesh. Bucky stifled a gasp, reacting instantly. With a hum of delight, he returned the gesture, lapping at the tip of Steve’s tongue before tilting his head to deepen the angle.

It seemed it was just the thing both men needed. With the growing need behind their actions, they both relaxed from the ordeal, taking the time to breathe in each other’s presence and just be. Time passed as Bucky and Steve embraced, kissing like their very souls needed the soothing balm such a gentle touch could offer them.

But finally, the need to breathe trounced their moment, and Bucky broke the kiss reluctantly. He leaned into Steve’s front, his eyes still closed as he felt the tingle where Steve’s nippy teeth had made marks into his skin. With great effort, he opened his eyes and took in the sight of Steve’s relaxed expression. He looked peaceful, serene even, and when his eyes opened, their gazes locked once more. “Fuck... I’m so sorry I called you crazy,” Steve muttered, looking ashamed of himself.

“Don’t be. I would have been more worried if you hadn’t thought so right away,” Bucky said with a grin.

Steve nodded, though a moment of doubt flashed in his mind. Bucky could tell what he was thinking: Steve was still uncertain if Bucky had told him the truth. He understood the conflict. Steve was going to need time to come to terms with what Bucky did, and convince himself to believe every strange thing Bucky did from that moment on. He couldn’t fault him for that hesitance. “Christ… and you’re not fucking with me. This is… this is real. I’m crushing on a guy that can talk to ghosts…”

Bucky laughed, pained by the ridiculousness of the whole situation. He pulled Steve back into one last kiss, their noses brushing before he thumbed over his lower lip in a comforting touch and locked eyes, his own glimmering with regret. “Stevie… You have no idea how much I really wish I was lying right now…”


 

It had been two weeks since Bucky’s encounter with Steve and Sarah. Officially, the couple considered themselves dating full time, though their work kept them too busy to really do normal “couple things”, like go on dates, eat terrible fast food, and watch Netflix in their boxers. Bucky couldn’t believe how much he missed such menial pleasures, but as he stared down at the gurney with the latest corpse on it, he really wished he could throw in the towel and just walk away to vegetate like any normal, red-blooded American.

Exhausted wasn’t the right word to describe the couple. While Steve worked tirelessly to try and save the lives of numerous patients that came in daily, Bucky spent hours upon hours, tracking down spirits that ran amok in their confusion, and explaining to them that ‘yes, you’re dead, no I can’t fix it’ until he thought he was going to puke. Really, Bucky missed the run of the mill ghosts he used to work with. At least those he could help cross over in relatively little time, even if the tasks necessary were often times ridiculous.

His latest client was no easier to handle than the rest had been. Pietro Maximoff was young and spry, the captain of his college’s track team and an incredibly healthy individual that had no business laying on a morgue slab at that time. As Bucky stared down at his body, he felt the young man’s spirit shifting nervously next to him, rattling off the same thing Bucky expected to hear out of the spirits: he had no idea how he died and had no idea what his unfinished business was, but he too had felt the same phantom pressure on his throat that had ultimately killed him. It was starting to sound like a broken record to Bucky, and he couldn't wait to rip the needle off of this whole thing and make the litany stop for God’s sake.

With nothing more that he could do, Bucky simply sent the spirit on his way to wander the Earth until a solution could be found, and went to find his new boyfriend to see if he’d finally discovered a breakthrough to these mystery deaths. Shortly after he’d departed the morgue, Bucky found Steve deep in the belly of the hospital, finishing off explaining to Pietro’s sister, Wanda, that there was nothing he could do to save him. Hanging back, Bucky watched as Steve offered the girl a comforting hug as she cried, glancing back at Bucky with a hopeful look on his face. When Bucky shook his head imperceptibly, Steve slumped, looking just as defeated as he himself felt.

~”Shit, This is getting bad,”~ Natasha said, startling Bucky out of his inner monologue. He looked over to see Natasha standing with Tony, the two spirits watching Steve comfort the girl with sickened looks on their faces. ~”There’s too many spirits. And they’re too scared. We’re even trying to help them out, and you know Tony has no bedside manners.”~

“Yeah that’s a bad sign,” Bucky said, his tone lacking the usual sarcasm he carried. Frustrated with all of this, he collapsed into a chair in the hallway, staring at the floor in front of him in defeat. He felt a shudder of cold air, and glanced out of the corner of his eye to see Clint sitting next to Bucky. He felt that same iciness land on his shoulder, and he fought the urge to push Clint’s hand away. He knew the sentiment well, but he just couldn’t stand the feeling of that chilly hand of death on his arm right now.

~”And Steve doesn’t have a clue what’s going on?”~ Clint asked.

“Nothing,” Bucky said miserably. “We’re both exhausted. I can’t imagine how he feels. He’s a doctor, he’s supposed to be saving people, and yet here I am picking up the back end of these patient’s deaths. I know he’s blaming himself, but none of this is his fault…”

“Hey, Buck,” Steve’s voice cut in. Bucky looked up to see Steve standing in front of him, looking totally wiped from his conversation with Wanda. Bucky sat up, reaching out and taking Steve’s hand to press kisses to his knuckles. He knew it wasn’t much but he still wanted to offer him some sort of comfort. “Talking to your ghost friends again? Did they say anything worth hearing, because I really could use some advice on what to do about these patients right now…”

“No, nothing…” Bucky said. He turned, watching Steve sit down next to him. Bucky tried his best to remain stoic but just as Steve sat down he heard a grunt of surprise, and his eyes landed on the seat Steve had taken, a smirk suddenly shooting to his lips.

Steve could have chosen any other seat in the row, but he hadn’t. Instead, he’d sat down right on Clint’s lap, and the ghost in question was flailing from underneath the man’s weight, swatting his hands over Steve’s broad shoulders before giving Bucky a dark look. ~”Holy crap! Tell Doctor Hottie to lay off the protein shakes! I hope you don’t ever end up being on bottom, Buck, because, Christ he’s a fuckin’ moose!”~

Bucky barked a little laugh, cupping his hand over his face. When he heard Steve give him a quizzical sound, he looked up and met the doctor’s gaze. “Uhm… I really hate to do this because this is fucking funny as hell, but you’re kind of sitting on Clint…”

“Oh!” Steve said, embarrassed. He shot to his feet, turning to face the empty chair in front of him before nodding. “S-sorry… didn’t… didn’t see you there.”

~”Understatement of the Goddamn century,”~ Clint said, looking violated as he got to his feet and glared at Steve. ~”If he wasn’t your boyfriend, Buck, I’d haunt the shit out of his house and break everything he loves dearly.”~

“Clint says it’s okay,” Bucky said, ignoring Clint’s outrage. He watched Steve move to the chair on the other side of him, and he gave Steve an affirmative nod that that one was unoccupied. “If anything, he’s kind of offended for me. I mean, if you really want to sit on anyone’s lap, you can just ask me you know. It’s really okay.”

“Fuck, this is weird,” Steve grumbled. He leaned forward in his seat, pressing his elbows into his knees as he stared at the wall. “Am I going to have to make sure I don’t step on any ghost toes for the rest of my life? Because I’m gonna look like a damn idiot, apologizing to no one at every chance I get.”

“Now you know how I feel,” Bucky said, wrapping his arm around Steve’s waist. “Just don’t drive yourself crazy apologizing to every inch of open air you can. Most of the time, ghosts can move out of the way pretty quickly, or move through obstacles. If you do end up stepping on them, that’s their own damn fault.”

“Good to know,” Steve said. He leaned into Bucky’s side, the two of them wrapping their arms around each other as they mulled over this whole, horrible situation. “Did you talk to Pietro Maximoff?”

“Yeah. Same story, different day. He doesn’t know how he died, but he said he remembers pressure on his throat. No idea what his unfinished business is.”

“We’ll have to see what the autopsy says, but that sounds about right. No outward signs of damage, but he has been suffocated.” Steve said glumly.

Silence filled the hallway then. The distant sounds of talking, machinery beeping, and rushing feet could be heard echoing down the hallway, though the two men were deaf to those irritating noises around them. Seeking to comfort Steve, Bucky turned and pulled Steve into a small kiss. His nose bumped the doctor’s cheek, and he smirked as he felt Steve instantly lean into the kiss, looking for the satisfaction of some small, miniscule piece of pleasure to make this whole shitty situation a little better. He leaned in, mouthing at the doctor’s lower lip before tugging on it. When Steve shuddered at the touch, Bucky took the opportunity, his tongue darting forward to lap at the inside of his mouth.

Steve uttered a faint little whimper at that, returning the gesture with a bit more heat. He nipped and suckled in kind, his fingers tightening on the back of Bucky’s neck. Bucky huffed through his nose, feeling a spike of faint arousal coloring his cheeks. Damn, Steve had always been a good kisser. Just seconds, and that tongue could turn Bucky into a puddle right where he sat. But they were in a hospital hallway, not back at Steve’s house and Steve was the one with the reputation to uphold. So with great reluctance, Bucky broke the kiss and bumped his forehead into Steve’s. “I know it ain’t an answer, but I hope that helps a little…”

“More than you think,” Steve said, his eyes still closed.

~”Yeurgh… oh my God this is like walking in on your parents,”~ Brock’s voice broke the silence. Irritated that their little moment of peace had been broken, Bucky rolled his eyes and looked up to see Brock and Tony giving them a disgusted look. Natasha and Clint, on the other hand, were watching with rapt interest, grinning at Bucky proudly as he made out with his boyfriend out in the open. ~”This is disgusting. Get a room you two, there’s dozens of them here.”~

“What do you want Brock?” Bucky asked, gritting his teeth. He glanced over to see Steve giving him a curious look, and he shook his head, pointing at the hallway where Brock’s spirit hovered. “Sorry, we’re being watched by four very immature ghosts.”

“Oh,” Steve said, smirking a little as he stared at empty hallway. “This time, I’m not sorry.”

“Good boy,” Bucky said, proudly. “Now what did you interrupt my make-out session for, Brock? It better be good.”

Brock rolled his eyes, staring up at the Heavens that denied him entry. ~”Ugh… I dunno, something important, punkass? I think I have a lead as to what’s going the fuck on with all these spirits.”~

Well… that hadn’t been what Bucky expected to hear. Straightening up, his eyes widened impossibly so as he stared at Brock with hope. “You have a lead? What’s going on, what did you find?”

Brock gestured over his shoulder. ~”I’m assuming someone just died within the hour right? Well maybe like 40 minutes ago, I was outside, and I saw something leave the hospital. Some big, black cloaked motherfucker... I thought it was the Grim Reaper at first. I followed him for a little bit, but I lost him a couple miles from the hospital.”~

~”Oh goodie, you saw an entity of death from the 12th century,” ~ Tony said, rolling his eyes. ~”That’s comforting and totally rational. Maybe it wasn’t Grim. Maybe it was a banshee for all we know.”~

~”The only banshee around here is your salty ass,”~ Brock said, narrowing his eyes at him. ~”I didn’t say it was Grim, I said it looked like Grim.”~

“What is it, what are they saying?” Steve asked. He’d clearly seen the look of shock that had crossed Bucky’s face at his friends’ banter, and was leaning into his line of sight to get his attention.

“Brock found a lead,” Bucky said, getting to his feet. He didn’t tell Steve the details of this “big black cloaked motherfucker” for fear that it might scare him, but he did give him a determined look. “I’m gonna go check it out just in case it’s something useful we could work with.”

Steve frowned, shifting a little as if warring with himself on whether or not he should keep Bucky in the hospital or let him go. Bucky knew that look well; deep down, Steve had a funny feeling that Bucky was keeping some pertinent detail from him. It was almost creepy how well Steve could read Bucky, and Bucky was the one that made a living talking to ghosts. Even still, Steve didn’t argue with him, and his shoulders relaxed. “Okay. Just be careful alright? Should I be coming with you?”

“Nah. I’ll be fine,” Bucky said, waving his hand at him. “It’s probably nothing, but worth looking into anyway. Who knows? Maybe whatever this lead is will finally give us some answers.”

Steve nodded. He got to his feet and yanked Bucky into a kiss, his fingers tight on his arm as he bid him Godspeed on his mission. “Alright. Go try and save the ghostly world. I have to make another round of the patients that are still alive at this point,” He said, gently butting foreheads with Bucky. “Just hurry back, alright? Call my cell phone if something goes down.”

“You got it, babe,” Bucky said, saluting him. With that, Bucky turned away to leave the hospital, and made a break for the entrance. However, just as he walked outside, he spotted his friends behind him and he stopped. “No guys, stay here. I need you to stay with Steve, just in case any other patients die. If I’m lucky, they’ll be the normal, run of the mill corpses and I can move some spirits over to the other side before God decides to smite my ass for failing to do my job. If anyone does die, keep them wrangled in the hospital until I get back.”

~”Are you sure?”~ Natasha asked, looking a little bothered. ~I mean, I’m sure you can take care of yourself, but what if this thing is dangerous? You’re not exactly 100% equipped to handle an angry ghost on your own you know. Chatting them up is one thing, but actually physically fighting them?”~

“Hey, I said I’ll be fine,” Bucky said, smiling at her. He nodded to the other three, urging them to stay back at the hospital. “I’ll be back before you know it. I promise.”

With that, Bucky left the hospital and his four ghostly friends behind. The temperature had dropped that afternoon, hearkening to a chilly October evening. With the temperature plummeting, and the damp mist of a fine autumn rain coming down around him, Bucky knew he was going to have a long, miserable walk ahead of him. He didn’t want to take his car for fear that he’d be driving too fast to stop the new character in this little fucked-up scene in his life, which meant he’d be traipsing around Brooklyn on foot. While he knew logically this was for the good of everyone involved, he couldn’t deny feeling a little bitter that he had to give up the comfort of his car’s heater while he searched the streets for his would-be pursuant.

Bucky sighed, resigning himself to a future of cold medicine and heaping mountains of tissues from walking in the freezing rain like this. Pulling the collar of his jacket up around his ears, Bucky set off into the quiet streets of Brooklyn. He kept his eyes peeled for any unusual activity, taking the time to search side alleys and streets as he prowled the cold night alone and quietly bitching to himself about the injustice of it all.

It might have been too much to ask, but Bucky couldn’t keep himself from fantasizing about this whole thing being over with finally. Maybe then, he could go back to having a semi-normal life with his very normal boyfriend and forget this whole thing had ever happened.

Now that would be a slice of Heaven Bucky wouldn’t mind keeping all to himself...

 

Chapter Text

It hadn’t taken Bucky long to discover the whereabouts of his would-be lead. After a brief walk in the abandoned streets of Brooklyn, Bucky had spotted movement in a back alley and decided to head down the darkened path like some moron, to what would be the worst experience of his entire life.

Reaching the back of the alley, Bucky spotted a young woman leaned against a wall smoking what was most decidedly not a cigarette. She seemed blissfully unaware of Bucky’s presence as he approached her, puffing away like a little chimney and tapping out the ashes onto the ground in front of her. For a second, Bucky chalked up the motion he’d seen as a false positive, and turned away to head back out and keep searching.

In all his years, Bucky had never been one to believe in the possible reality of ghost films. He’d always chalked up the movie possessions of hapless victims to be totally fake. Even when he’d started actually communing with the other side, Bucky had never once believed it possible for a spirit to actually possess a human being. After all, none of the spirits he’d encountered had ever been malevolent or vile.

That was when Grim 2.0 showed up, and everything went to hell in a handbasket.

Just as Bucky had reached the mouth of the alley, the air around him filled with the unearthly, guttural snarl of a creature not of this world. Freezing in his steps, Bucky’s head whipped up in time to see a black shape swirl in the air above him, vaguely sheet-shaped and sporting a set of claws so deadly Bucky swore they cut through the air and made the skies bleed above him. His eyes blew wide at the sight of the monster, unlike anything he’d ever seen, and turned in time to see the specter launch itself at the unwitting victim at the back of the alley.

Bucky had just enough time to scream “Look out!” before he watched in horror as the spirit descended on the woman, throwing her back violently against the wall of the alley with a scream. Blood pounded in his ears as he watched the scene in grotesque, vivid detail as the ghost snarled at the confused, frightened woman beneath him, before shoving its vile claws into her throat. Bucky couldn’t imagine how terrified the woman was, choking on an unseen force. He knew, then and there, exactly what this spirit’s previous victims had encountered, and rage filled him as he watched the spirit ripping this woman’s life away from her.

Bucky threw himself back into the alley, charging for the specter. He threw himself onto the being, ripping the black creature from the woman’s twitching body. It was extremely challenging, focusing on the being enough to be able to actually grip it, but to his amazement, he managed to sink his fingers into the blackened cloak that encompassed the spirit’s body. The cloak felt like grabbing at folds of muck and slime, and he grimaced as he tore at it, trying his best to get the creature off of her. “NO you son of a bitch!” He snarled, yanking the ghost back with all his might. “Let. Her. GO!”

For a brief, blissful second, Bucky thought he would be successful. As he ripped the being away from the choking woman, he watched with triumph as the creature whirled on him. That triumph lasted only a few short seconds. Now, instead of just saving the woman’s life, he found himself staring into the dark, shadowed hood looming in front of him. He couldn’t see a face underneath the hood, but he’d never felt such malice and evil pouring out from a faceless gaze like that.

The specter hissed, the sound rattling the air around Bucky like a rattlesnake's scales and dread filled him, turning his skin icy to the touch. Before Bucky even had a chance to truly regret what he’d just done, the specter suddenly screeched, the sound filling the air like a thunderous din, before leaping forward.

Bucky had enough time to open his mouth and scream, which was his second downfall. Before he could even breathe, the specter leaped onto Bucky, a black, tarry essence coalescing in the air like fog.  The spirit’s being swirled in the air before darting straight for Bucky, enveloping him in an inky shroud of evil. He felt himself panic as he clawed at the spirit’s cloaks, trying desperately to evade his influence.

The pain… oh, God, the pain was nothing like anything Bucky had ever experienced. Every nerve ending in his body fired off in response to the ghost’s touch, burning like the embers of a firework in his skull until he was shrieking in agony. He felt himself drop to the ground, the tender caps of his knees cracking with the wet pavement, his fingernails raking over his throat and face in ragged, clawing desperation. As the spirit slowly nested its way into his very body, Bucky heard the imperceptible sound of a voice, rattling off in furious vengeance in his ear. He couldn’t understand the words, but he knew, just knew, that that voice was not coming from any force outside his body.

Suddenly, the pain stopped. Bucky collapsed forward, catching himself on his hands as they splashed in a puddle left behind from the earlier rainfall. His body, against his own will, twitched and spasmed as he hunched up on the ground, unable to control his own motor skills any longer.

It struck Bucky as odd. As he stared at his reflection in the puddle, he realized two very important things. One, he had made a terrible, terrible mistake not listening to Natasha’s advice and coming out alone this night.

Two, this was nothing like the films, where the possessed victim was unaware of his or her actions. Bucky was possessed by this wicked being; he was going to be totally aware of what the spirit was going to do with his body, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.

As he stared at his reflection, his vision distorted, as if he were looking through a kaleidoscope. It took him a split second to realize what was happening as his eyes, previously blue and soft, hardened to pinpricks of inky blackness. He wasn’t just seeing the world through his own eyes. He was seeing it through the spirit’s as well. And that spirit had one thought in its mind: kill.

Suddenly, the marionette strings jerked, lurching Bucky to his feet. Within himself, he fought against the force puppeting his body, his mind screaming to stop this, stop right now! But as much as he tried to will himself to control his own actions, he watched from inside the steel bars of his mind’s cage as he stalked towards the woman. She was slowly coming around from the earlier attack, staring up at the looming figure of Bucky standing over her. She had one moment of clarity as she watched Bucky descend on her, his fingers curled around her throat to finish the job. She choked and gasped, a squeak of terror escaping her before Bucky’s hands cut off her air, and her painted fingernails dug into his wrists, clawing at his hands to try and free herself from death.

Inside himself, Bucky banged and rattled the bars of his mind, screeching for the spirit to let them both go. But it was to no avail. He was trapped inside his own body, watching through the eyes of the demon as the woman’s life ebbed away from between his own fingers, her face darkening to purple as her cheeks swelled, and the blood vessels in her eyes ruptured. Bucky was crushing her throat with such force, he feared that her eyes would burst and bathe his entire front in blood. He screamed and begged, fighting against his own body to stop this. He was supposed to save people, not kill them!

But it was no use. The moments ticked by, an eternity in each second that marched on in this hellacious moment, until finally, the woman stopped struggling altogether. She went limp in Bucky’s hands, the whites of her eyes now red and her cheeks turning a sickly blue as she finally succumbed to death. Inside his own mind, Bucky screamed as he watched himself kill the woman in his grasp, watched as her spirit tore itself away from her corpse with such violence, he heard the fabric of reality rip as soul and body were torn asunder.

The moment her spirit separated from her body, only to scurry away into the cold night, Bucky’s hands loosened on her throat. He collapsed to the ground, his head lolled to the side as he stared at the body he’d just brutally murdered, still unable to fucking move on his own! Just when he thought he would be doomed to lay on that cold, wet ground next to a corpse for God only knew how long, Bucky’s mind rattled with the thunderous clap of laughter, diabolical and so full of venom, he wanted nothing more than to hide away, slip into unconsciousness and flee just like the woman’s spirit had.

Then the pain started all over again. His body convulsed violently on the ground, his nerves and cells of every inch of his body rattling to life with white hot torment. This time, Bucky was certain he would spontaneously combust and die right there. He deserved no less. He hadn’t been able to stop the spirit, and that fucking bastard had used him as a flesh puppet to kill an innocent woman.

Soul crushing pain started in the pit of his stomach, and for sure he thought he would vomit. As he gagged and screamed around the pain searing his innards, that same, horrendous cloud of black smoke slowly ebbed from his body, little by little into the damp air surrounding him. The spirit vacated Bucky’s body with such force, he thought he was turning inside out, his back arched off the ground until at long last, the specter finally escaped him.

Bucky slumped back to the ground, coughing violently. His eyes fluttered open in time to see the ghost glaring down at him, his slimy cloak looming over Bucky like a blanket, blocking out the light above him and leaving him encompassed in shadow. For a second, Bucky thought the spirit would kill him too. In fact, he welcomed it, staring up at the being above him, gutted raw and horrified of what he had just been forced to do. Bucky had never been a seriously cheerful person, but he’d always respected and honored others. Now he just felt violated and disgusting, the copper in his throat as nauseating as the reality of what had just happened.

But that never happened. In the blink of an eye, the spirit was gone just like that, leaving the alley empty and cold. Bucky stirred, taking a breath. That proved to be a mistake. Bucky hacked around the rawness of his throat, choking up a mess of saliva and blood as he spat the mess onto the ground next to him. He heaved and rasped for breath, rolling to his side as he forced himself to sit up on shaky limbs. In doing so, he gave himself a perfect view of the woman’s corpse, her wide, bloody eyes staring up into the nothing above them, her windpipe completely crushed and blackened by bruising that would never heal.

Bucky gasped and scrambled backwards, his hand going to his face. Briefly, he caught sight of the deep, gouged wounds on his wrists, still flecked with pits of nail polish amongst the blood, and he clamped his hand over his mouth in horror of what had happened. There too, he felt the sticky residue of blood and he scrambled over to the puddle to see his reflection again. From the low lighting, Bucky could see blood on his upper lip, his nose still running freely. Two long, ugly bruises had formed, one on each cheek from where he’d clawed at his own face, and several bright drops of blood had formed, ebbing from the corners of his eyes and down from the bell of his ears. He looked, and felt, like he’d just witnessed firsthand, the terror of a bomb’s shockwaves, leaving him trembling viciously, and his ears and nerves ringing with the reverberations that left him shelled out and hollow.

Bucky didn’t have the chance to grieve over what had happened. As he stared at his reflection, his mind shoved through a blender and poured out in a visceral mess from his nose and eyes, he heard the indistinct sound of shouting and sobbing, the voice punctuated by a police siren growing closer. It took him a second to realize what that meant; someone had witnessed him murder a woman, and had called the cops on him.

Panic set in. Scrambling to his feet, Bucky stumbled, holding onto the wall as he limped out of the alley, as far away from the scene of the crime as he could. He knew they would catch him. He was in no position to walk, let alone run. Besides, he couldn’t run away from what had happened. Even if he didn’t want it, he had killed someone. He hadn’t been strong enough to fight off the specter; that woman’s life was on his hands, no matter how he spun it.

No, he simply wanted to get away long enough to call Steve and tell him what happened. Bucky didn’t believe he’d ever get away with it. No one would take him to court, thinking he could possibly walk away from his crime. He just wanted the chance to tell Steve what had happened and pray to God, that his boyfriend wouldn’t think him a villain. He didn’t want to go to prison without telling the truth to someone.

Bucky made it exactly two blocks before exhaustion finally overtook him. He collapsed against the wall of an abandoned building, panting heavily. With seconds to spare before the cops would find him, he reached into his pocket with a shaking hand and pulled his phone out. The screen was badly cracked from where he’d hit the ground, but it still worked enough for him to be able to find Steve’s number. Hitting dial, Bucky tucked himself behind a garbage can, hearing the voices of the cops as they began to search the area, angrily shouting to each other. His breathing picked up as he listened to the ring every few seconds before, regrettably, the call went to voicemail.

Whining in his throat, Bucky’s head fell back against the wall and he stared up at the sky, waiting for his chance to leave a message. As the cops voices grew near, he heard the ‘beep’ of the voicemail, and he swallowed. “Stevie… Shit... something real bad happened. I’m about to be picked up by the cops. I’m… I’m not gonna make it back to the hospital. This thing… this ghost… it’s violent. It’s fuckin’ evil!”

Bucky jumped when he heard an officer shout, obviously having heard his voice echoing in the alley. Clutching the phone tighter, Bucky squeezed his eyes shut as he spoke frantically. “This thing’s bad Stevie… it… it made me do something terrible. It got inside me Stevie!” Bucky ducked his head, hiding from the flickering beams of flashlights. He had seconds left. They were onto him. Why did he choose to go alone? Why did he try to play the hero? Why… why… why... “Oh fuck, this is bad… They’re onto me. The cops… they’re here! I-I had a front row seat watching this ghost use me. I-It used me… I m-murdered her, Stevie. Oh God. I killed a woman…”


 

The bustle of the police station echoed in his ears, making his frayed nerves spark with every little clack and clatter of the office around him. Bucky had never been inside a jail, but it was strangely reminiscent of those he’d seen in plenty of cop shows. Funny, how his mind latched onto something so mundane and normal, even as he sat there with literal blood on his hands.

Shortly after Bucky had hung up the phone with Steve’s voicemail, the cops had found him. Leveling him with the business ends of their guns, the cops had pushed Bucky to his knees and cuffed him, dragging him to the car and drove him to the station to be processed for the crime he’d been forced to commit. The shock of the whole situation had settled in just minutes after Bucky had been picked up, leaving him lifeless and cold as he was dragged from the back seat, and into the jail.

What Bucky hadn’t accounted for was the sheer, long process of the whole fucking thing. He’d expected to be slapped with a murder charge right then and there, and thrown into the stony lonesome to live out the rest of his days but apparently there were “protocols” that needed to be taken care of first. As Bucky sat in the holding cell, waiting to hear from the cops what they would do with him, he discovered one, sickening factoid: apparently the cops had a long rep list about his activities in Brooklyn, starting with the day he’d helped his very first ghost cross the bridge to paradise.

Somehow in the whole mess, Bucky had been assigned his very own investigation, and shortly after he’d been brought to the jail, he found himself inside an interrogation room. He felt like an animal as the officers cuffed him to the reinforced table, and left alone to mull over his thoughts while they fetched said investigator. From what Bucky had been told, the guy had come directly from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and had been doing plenty of homework on how to handle Bucky’s case from the get-go.

As the minutes ticked by, Bucky felt himself growing more and more agitated, caged in and claustrophobic as anxiety and panic overtook him. Christ, couldn’t they just get this over with already?! Were they trying to make him sweat it out and just confess to every possible crime imaginable? If it got him out of this Goddamn room, he very well might do that!

But just before Bucky could properly lose his mind and start screaming at the walls around him, the door opened and a tall man enter the room. The man in question wasn’t much older than Bucky and had a short cropped head of black hair. Despite his handsome, chiseled features, the guy looked downright frightening, his eyes cold and hollow as they leveled on Bucky with laser precision. Those eyes shimmered in the harsh lighting of the room, looking like they’d been sewn into place by Other Mother, and the smile that lit his features was chilling to look at.

“Mr. Barnes. Good to meet you at last,” The man said. He crossed the room on silent feet, taking a seat in the opposite chair from Bucky. He didn’t extend his hand to him, though he did lean his elbows into the table to get a good look at the prisoner. “It’s nice to finally put a face to the name I’ve been following for almost two years. You know, I’m surprised. I was actually expecting to find a sad little hobo with his cardboard sign sitting in front of me. But then again, I guess, it is the normal looking ones you always have to look out for.”

Bucky didn’t answer him. He lowered his gaze to the table, unable to meet this man’s gaze a moment longer. A deep shudder filled him and his head fell forward, his bangs brushing over his forehead in a soft whisper of a touch. He twisted his fingers together, his hands clasped where they were shackled to the table, and he closed his eyes. He didn’t want pleasantries. He just wanted this to be fucking over with!

“Oh, I’m sorry, that was rude of me,” the man said. “My name is Agent Grant Ward. Forgive me for forgetting to introduce myself. My mind… just not there when it’s this late at night sometimes.” Agent Ward chuckled, leaning back in his seat as he crossed his arms. “You know, when they handed me your file last September, I thought it was a joke, right? Like, ‘What on earth did I do to earn myself this crock of shit’, sort of joke. Some poor schmuck running around New York scaring little old ladies and such. I nearly turned down the case and handed it off to one of the other, lesser agents I’ve been working with, but the boss-man, Agent Garrett, urged to me to stick it out, you know?”

Ward smirked. He leaned in again, this time coming within inches of the hunched figure sitting across from him. “And I’m glad I did. Your file started getting more interesting, Barnes. A pattern started to form… you were haunting the lives of bereaved family members, and quite frequently. Haunting… it's such a fitting word for this time of year, isn’t it?”

Bucky flinched. He looked up at Ward, his eyes wide and watery. He fought the urge to wipe at his face, knowing the action would simply hurt his already wounded cheeks. “Do you have a point you’re making with this?” Bucky asked. He couldn’t help the stab of sarcasm that laced his voice then, but seeing the confidence flicker out of Ward’s eyes for a split second made his risk worth it.

Ward stared at Bucky or a second, his eyes narrowing. “My point being, you got sloppy. You didn’t think we’d start to realize that your scare tactics started lining up with the dead bodies you left behind like fuckin’ breadcrumbs? What, were people not dying fast enough for you to get your kicks, James?”

Bucky stared at Ward for a moment, the wheels in his mind turning in confusion. It only took a split second before he realized what he was saying, and he slouched back in the chair, stunned. “You think I killed those people?” he exclaimed. “I didn’t kill them. I swear, I didn’t!”

Ward watched him, a smirk touching his lips. “That’s what you’d like to make yourself believe, James. But from the mounting evidence, and now this… it’s looking like you can’t keep that lie up much longer.” Ward stood up from the chair, and moved to press his hands to the back of it. He leveled Bucky with a vicious look. The silence spread between them for a second as Ward scoured Bucky’s very soul with that piercing gaze.

After a long, intimidating moment, Ward relaxed again. Turning away from Bucky, he took a moment to pace the far wall, his hands folded behind his back as he mulled over his thoughts. After a time, he came to stop next to Bucky, and leaned down, pressing his hands to the table to lean in, eye level with him. “The worst part about all of this is the trail you left behind. You chose your victims carefully, didn’t you James? Every single one of them, left like a daisy chain in your sick game. I’m almost disappointed we didn’t catch on sooner. But every single one of them, tied to the Rogers family? That’s a shame.”

Bucky jerked. His eyes snapped up to Ward’s face, taken aback by his words. “What?” he said, trembling visibly. “What are you talking about?”

Ward beamed, having struck gold with his statement. “Don’t play dumb, man. It’s not gonna get you out of this now.” Turning away from Bucky, Ward picked up the file on the table and thumbed through it. “Michael Bech, college friend of Steve Rogers. Abraham Erskine, a close family friend.  Chester Phillips, used to work with Sarah Rogers. Pietro Maximoff, one of your latest ones…. He was a student at the university Sarah worked at. Apparently she did a lot of work, helping Pietro with his many sports related injuries. He grew to look up to her son like the older brother figure he wanted to emulate for his own sister.  And now the girl in the alley. No connection as far as we can tell but I guess that was just a sad, sad attempt to try and throw us off your trail I guess.”

Ward looked up at Bucky, his eyes glimmering manically. “As for Steve... Word on the street is you’ve been obsessed with him ever since he saved your life from that accident 18 months ago. After doing a little digging, we found out you’ve been spending all your free time with him at the hospital, following him around like a puppy dog. I’m sure that after a while, the fact that he had anyone else in his life to focus on other than you, well… that got to be too much, didn’t it?” Ward threw the file down onto the table, slamming his hands into the metal as he glared at Bucky. “But did you have to kill his mother too? What was she going to do, get in the way of your fantasy relationship?”

Bucky stared at him. Trembles wracked his figure as the weight of the situation took hold of him. This was bad. Every single victim, tied to Steve, and Bucky had been the one caught in the wrong limelight of those suspicious deaths. He was fucked, plain and simple. “No…” he said staring at the wall in abject shock. “No! I’m telling you, it wasn’t me!” he shouted, begging Ward to stop this madness at once.

Ward ignored his outburst, chuckling outright as he leaned back. He plucked up the file from the table, waving it in front of Bucky’s face, taunting him. “Oh, but you did. You did, and you know it, James. This isn’t some romantic love story, where you can walk out of here scot-free and the love of your life will sweep you into his arms, forgetting all the harm you’ve done to him. This… Dahmer bullshit… it ends tonight, and you’re going to get locked up for a very, very long time. I hope you said goodbye to Steve, James. You’ve seen him for the last time, you mark my words.”

Bucky panicked. For the first time since this whole conversation started, Bucky knew he just had to admit what was really going on. He knew, logically, that his explanation would fall on deaf ears. He knew it would sound like a desperate attempt to worm his way out of this. How else would it look to someone? But he had to try. If anything, to simply clear his own conscious and know he’d finally admitted the truth to this whole ugly scenario.

“I can talk to ghosts,” he blurted out. When Ward stopped, his back turned to him, Bucky continued, his voice cracking in desperation. “I can communicate with the dead. The reason I’ve been talking to those family members is because I’ve been helping their loved ones cross over to the other side. I dunno why… I don’t know why this is happening to me…” Bucky shuddered, collapsing forward. He held his head in his hands, shivering openly. “It started when I was in that accident. Ever since then it’s been a nightmare… I can’t get out of it. But I swear… I swear, I didn’t kill those people! You have to believe me!”

Ward didn’t move. He uttered a short laugh, turning finally to face Bucky head on. “You know… I’m not surprised you believe that” he said quietly. “This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of a case of someone who believed they could talk to ghosts. It was about… ten years ago. Some fucknut with a crazy agenda, decided that he could miraculously talk to spirits. He started going around, saying he could communicate with lost family members and friends and began to pass off false messages from the other side to lure in victims before killing them. His lies caused a lot of grief and pain in the community. It took the cops for-fucking-ever to finally catch onto this guy, but he vanished without a trace. No one ever found him.” Ward looked up at Bucky, raising a brow. “Took a little inspiration from this whack-job for your own sick goals, James? Seems like it to me.”

“No,” Bucky said, shaking his head where it was still cradled in his hands. “No… I’m not faking it. I swear…”

“You truly believe that. You truly believe it, as a way to try and absolve yourself of these horrible crimes. It’s a coping mechanism. I understand,” Ward said with false comfort in his voice. “Unfortunately, it won't do you any good. The act is over, James. Time to face the consequences of what you’ve done like a man, and finally give up the ghost. No pun intended.” Turning, Ward picked up the files again, heading for the door. As he exited the room, he turned back to Bucky, his smile as lifeless and cruel as ever. “Too bad, really. If you actually could talk to spirits, imagine what kind of miracles you could have worked on the world. Too bad that so-called gift was wasted on a murderous psychopath…”

Bucky shuddered, cupping his hands over his face. Shit. None of this made any sense. Steve hadn’t mentioned the connections to any of these victims to him. Why hadn’t Steve mentioned any of this? Trembling viciously, Bucky lowered his head to the table, wrapping his arms around it in an attempt to shield out the world. He was going crazy. This whole fucking situation was one Goddamn nightmare he couldn’t escape. Multiple murders, a violent spirit, connected deaths… what the fuck did it all mean?!

Bucky was lost to his thoughts when Johnson and Mackenzie came in to retrieve him. He hadn’t even noticed Ward leave the room, struck dumb by the whole situation until he felt like he too was a walking corpse. First, ripped from his own free will by a violent being, now accused of murdering multiple people Steve had kept secret about his connections to… It was hell. Bucky was in hell.

For the first time since he’d died, Bucky blamed God for all of this. God should have picked someone else to do his dirty work. God should have let him die when he had the chance. None of this would have happened. Innocent people wouldn’t have died. He wouldn’t be to blame for all of these deaths.

But he supposed that was his lot in life. Given the rotten hand, when the only person he ever wanted was going to be taken away from him, so cruelly. It seemed people like him- special little snowflakes as he’d so rudely described others- just weren’t meant to have happy endings.


 

Hours passed after Bucky had been locked away in his little corner of the criminal world for the second time in his life. Time continued to march throughout the night, leaving the brunet cold and alone, wondering what the next step in this twist of fate would be.

His cell phone had been taken away from him when he’d been picked up, so he had no idea if Steve had even gotten his message. For all he knew, Steve thought Bucky had simply skipped out on him for the evening and abandoned him to the previously mind-numbing mystery of the deaths that came into his hospital. It would just be par for the course, if Steve truly believed that Bucky had decided this was all too much and simply left. He knew Steve’s wrath; he’d seen it firsthand himself. He wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Steve decided that Bucky was a rotten son of a bitch for abandoning him during the peak of a medical crisis with no answers.

So it came as a total shock to Bucky when Officer Johnson came back to his cell, her lips pulled into a dark frown as she informed him he had a visitor. He had just enough time to sit up from where he was stretched across the cot, before he saw Steve come into the room, the two of them sealed inside by an irritated looking police officer.

“What the fuck… you’re hurt,” Steve said. His eyes landed on Bucky’s wrists, and Bucky shied back, pulling his sleeves down to cover his cut up wrists. “What the fuck kind of jail are they running here? Did they offer you medical assistance?”

“No…” Bucky said meekly. “They sort of just threw me in here and then interrogated me. I haven’t seen them since then…”

“Jesus fuckin’ Christ, I’m gonna put this precinct under the ground for negligence…” Steve growled, obviously agitated.

Neither man moved for a second. Seconds melted into one another, and Bucky lowered his gaze to the floor. “I take it you got my message?” he said quietly.

“I did. Came here as soon as I could,” Steve mumbled. He turned away from Bucky, staring at the wall. His shoulders were stiff, almost as if he was uncomfortable with being in that room at that moment. “Spoke with Agent Ward for a solid ten minutes.” Pushing his hands through his messy hair, Steve huffed a quiet sigh. “He said the police have been keeping tabs on you for a while now. They’re trying to pin all the deaths on you.”

Bucky flinched. He lowered his gaze to the stone floor, twisting his hands nervously in front of him. “Yeah, they said that all the deaths were tied together. Steve… why didn’t you tell me all those people were related to you somehow? Why didn’t you tell me that you knew all of them?” Bucky offered Steve a beseeching look. “Why did I have to find out from the guy trying to put me in prison?”

Steve didn’t move. “Because I didn’t think it was important to tell you. At first, I didn’t think I should share it with anyone. And then when I found out about your… your gift or whatever it’s called, I didn’t want to add more stress to you. But when they said they had all this information on you... that they’d been tracking you…”

“I know,” Bucky said quietly. “I didn’t know either. No one ever told me they’ve been keeping an eye on me. I didn’t think I was being that conspicuous.”

The two of them fell silent, kept on opposite sides of the room. After a brief pause, Bucky offered a watery laugh, half hiding the sob that wanted to escape him. “So lemme guess… you think I did all this? That I killed those people? You believe them, don’t you?”

“God,” Steve said. He turned to Bucky, his eyes wide. But finally, looking directly at him, Bucky could see the emotion in Steve’s face. He wasn’t angry at Bucky, like he’d thought. He was scared for Bucky. “God no. I know you didn’t kill those people. I know you, Buck. You’re a good man. And whatever happened tonight, that wasn’t you. You didn’t kill that woman. It was that ghost. I know it.”

Bucky stared at his boyfriend, his eyes wide. Fresh tears of relief welled up and spilled down his cheeks. Without thinking, he got up from the cot and pulled Steve into a hug, pressing his face into the crook of his neck. A weak laugh escaped him and he sank into Steve’s chest, relieved to feel his arms wrap around him in a comforting embrace. “I’m sorry,” Bucky said. “I’m so sorry… I wish none of this had ever happened. I never wanted you to get involved in this shit. I didn’t want to hurt you…”

“You didn’t hurt me,” Steve said. He sounded choked up, like he was holding back a wall of emotion himself, and he pressed kisses to Bucky’s temple. “Fuck, I'm just so sorry this happened to you. But we’ll figure out a way to get you out of here. I’ll get you the best damn lawyer I can find. You don’t deserve to go to prison. You didn’t do this. And I swear, I’ll do whatever I can to take you home with me.”

Bucky laughed again. It was a small, amused sound, but nevertheless, a laugh he couldn’t help but utter. Even now, Steve was still trying to play the rock, someone to lean on for comfort. It was a long shot, getting out of this without a conviction, especially with all the shit that had happened. But with Steve on his side, he knew that he had at least a fighting chance.

They lingered like this for a long moment. Bucky relaxed, feeling his upset ebbing away little by little, until he was lax in his partner’s arms. He very well would have stayed just like that, had he not been distracted. A noise from the other side of the cell caught his attention, and he looked up to see Brock and Tony staring at him.

What a way to ruin a touching moment. As he held Steve in his arms like his life depended on it, Brock and Tony offered him a sickened look. Bucky lifted his head from Steve’s shoulder to give them a pointed look that promised harm if they didn’t stop their mockery, but that didn’t seem to deter the two spirits. Instead, Tony faked gagging at the sight of this touching moment, and Brock simply cackled, pointing at Bucky and offering him a doe-eyed look of serenity. ~”Sorry, kid. We were trying to see if we could come and help you out of here somehow, but I guess we walked into the wrong storybook. I didn’t think this was a teen romance novel,”~ Brock offered. At his side, Tony simply broke into snickers, hunched over as he supported himself on his knees.

Bucky rolled his eyes, turning from Steve’s embrace to round on his friends with poorly constructed malice. “Oh get the hell out of here. If you’re not gonna be useful, I don’t think I need your help right now.”

~”Oh we’re trying to be useful. It’s just hard to do when we’re too busy trying not to get sick at the sight of your budding romance. It smells in here. Does it smell in here, Brock? Because I distinctly smell a large amount of cheese to go with this sap.”~

“Out!” Bucky barked, glaring at them. He watched them disappear in a fit of laughter, and he sighed, slumping back onto his heels. However, before he could really succumb to the ruined moment, he felt Steve wrap him back up in his arms and he offered him an annoyed look. “My friends are fucking dicks…”

“Ah,” Steve said, unable to help the grin on his face. “I really wish I could actually meet them. They seem like a solid crowd. At least they cared enough to come and see you.”

Bucky rolled his eyes. “They’re just pains in my ass. I think they’re bored because I’m not there to entertain them at the apartment.”

“We’ll fix that soon,” Steve said. He cupped Bucky’s face in his palms, giving him a determined look. “I made you a promise and I’m not gonna back out until I see it through.”

Bucky relaxed. He loved the feeling of Steve’s hands on him, and the close proximity only made him shiver. If he wasn’t in such a fucked up situation, he’d actually chalk this up as the most romantic thing anyone had ever done for him. “I believe you, punk. I really do,” he said, leaning in and pressing his forehead to Steve’s.

It was supposed to be a tender gesture. It wasn’t really supposed to mean anything. But like most things Bucky had found the hidden easter egg of this fucked up horror story that was his life. The minute he’d touched foreheads with Steve, a crushing weight suddenly descended on his head, knocking the wind right out of him. He huffed out a weak grunt of pain, his vision swimming dangerously before a hallucinatory trip to end all trips collapsed the thinly constructed walls of his sanity like a house of cards.

Panting heavily, Bucky found himself spinning out of control, his vision warped and twisted into a confusing array of colors and fragments, leaving him screaming in terror at the horrifying image. In an instant, Steve was gone, and he was spiraling down the rabbit hole before he collapsed to the ground.

Boots. He was staring at boots. Several pairs to be precise, and these boots were connected to the long, strong legs of several men standing above him. Men who clearly had no idea they were practically standing on Bucky where he lay. But as much as he wanted to, he couldn’t move. All he could do was lay there, watching as his vision cleared to show him the broken, rundown brick walls of what he could only assume was a crack house.

No… no, it wasn’t a crack house. And these men standing above him were clearly not keen on modern fashion. As Bucky watched their angry banter above him, he realized that these men were decked out in antique military uniforms and holding wicked looking rifles affixed with deadly bayonets.

He clearly wasn’t standing in the middle of a war reenactment. Somehow his little forehead bump with Steve had triggered a serious psychedelic bender, and he was watching several American soldiers as they prepared to raid what Bucky realized was a bombed out shelter in the middle of a war theater in Germany.

“What the fuck…” Bucky gasped. Try as he might, he just couldn’t move, and he watched as one soldier with a head of shockingly familiar blond hair stepped forward and began barking out orders to his men. Then, they stormed the house in question, bullets whizzing and screams of rage echoing in the dusty air.

He didn’t move an inch, but somehow, Bucky managed to catch a perfect view of the whole ordeal, watching with a sickening fascination as soldiers, American and German, were gunned down left and right until only a small handful of each side remained standing.

The Americans had won the upper hand. After a brutal fight, they managed to defeat the Germans, leaving the small band of men on their knees in surrender. The blond man stepped forward, and Bucky recognized the man’s face. It was almost an exact copy of Steve’s; the jaw was a little broader, and his eyes were brown, but to look at him, Bucky thought he was staring at his boyfriend. Only instead of wearing scrubs, he was decked out in bloody, dirty military fatigues, and leveling his weapon at one of the German soldiers. “Herr Schmidt... Order your men to throw us their weapons. The fight is over, and you have lost the war.”

The German officer, Schmidt, met the Steve doppelganger’s gaze in return, before barking a laugh. He spoke, his accent thick enough to almost obscure his speech, though Bucky could understand enough to realize this man was still not going down easy. “Congratulations, Captain Rogers. How does it make you feel to know you’ve bested what remained of my men with your twenty strong? Always the way with Americans, isn’t it? Overabundance of force for such a little thing. You must be so proud.”

Captain Rogers sneered, his gaze hard. Almost instantly, Bucky nearly didn’t recognize him anymore; Steve would never look at anyone with so much hate and anger. This man might have been related to Steve… hell, he might have been just an illusion in Bucky’s screwed up mind, but he knew then and there, that this couldn’t possibly be his Stevie. “We don’t care what speeches you have to spout. The Germans have lost. The nightmare ends now. Now come with use quietly, or we’ll have to use force, and I’m sorry to say, the Geneva Convention is preventing me from putting a bullet in your brain. Don’t test my patience.”

“And what? You’ll take us prisoner? Lock us away like your dancing monkeys, and use us as fodder to keep your iron fist on the world?” Schmidt laughed. “Please, a bullet would be mercy.”

“For the last time, Schmidt! Your weapons!” Captain Rogers barked, cocking the hammer on his rifle as he aimed for Schmidt’s heart.

Schmidt only smiled. Glancing side-eyed to his men, he gave an almost imperceptible nod, before facing the Captain with a defiant look. “Know this. You may have captured us. You may torture us, do with what you will, or let us go. You may think you have won this war, Rogers, but it is only the beginning. Hitler’s Reich can never be extinguished. We will take control of what we are rightfully owed!”

Bucky watched, horrified by the whole exchange. He watched Schmidt’s jaw shift ever so slightly, though he was still too baffled by the whole situation to know what he was doing. “Your country will fall, Rogers. And as for you. I will see to it that your life, and the lives of those that come after you, will suffer. Suffer for all eternity until the very last shred of life you impact, shall be snuffed out for good. I curse you, and all that come after you, to an eternity of pain until every last one of you is dead and burning in hell!”

Bucky watched, his eyes flickering to Captain Rogers. He saw the look of recognition on his face and his eyes snapped back to Schmidt in time to see his jaw snap, crunching down on something. Like a domino effect, the remaining German soldiers did the same, before they dropped to the ground, one by one.

‘Cyanide pill,’ Bucky realized. He watched in horror as Captain Rogers bellowed in rage, leaping forward to try and stop Schmidt from ingesting the poison. But it was too late. As Schmidt’s mouth began to foam from the poison, he crumpled to the ground with a choked decree of “Heil Hitler!” before dying then and there.

Bucky screamed. At least, he was sure he screamed. It was far too confusing to keep track of, when that kaleidoscope of colors and nauseating swirls overtook his vision again. From his prone position, he felt like he was both flying and falling at the same time, drowning him in sensory overload.

Just as suddenly as they began, the color and light show stopped, and he jerked back to awareness. He was staring up at the ceiling of the cell, and once again, he found himself looking up into the face of a worried Steve.

Worried, was a weak word. Steve looked outright terrified, his hands cupping Bucky’s face as he called to him desperately to wake up. “Bucky!” Steve gasped, when he recognized he was conscious again. Steve scooped Bucky into his arms, clinging to him in a body crushing hug. “Holy shit, are you okay?!”

“Wh-what… what the fuck happened?” Bucky asked. As he wormed out of Steve’s arms, he realized his feet were propped up on the cell cot, and his shirt and belt had been undone, leaving his clothes looser around his middle.

“You fainted… or at least I think you fainted,” Steve said. “I dunno you just went as white as a sheet and hit the ground. Jesus Christ, you scared me so bad…”

Bucky shook his head, his thoughts going back to what he had seen with growing apprehension. No… No he hadn’t fainted. He’d had a fucking vision. His ghost-radar had gone way the fuck off the charts and gave him an impromptu history lesson he didn’t ask for.

A history lesson on a fucking curse that had been placed on the Rogers’s name over 70 years ago!

“Steve!” Bucky gasped suddenly. He jumped to his feet, ignoring the swell of vertigo as he got up. He felt Steve press his hand to his back, and he leaned into his touch for support as he fastened his shirt and belt again. “Steve… did you have a grandfather in the military during World War 2?”

Steve blinked. Staring at Bucky like he’d finally lost his marbles, he shook his head before making a faint sound of confirmation. “Yeah… yeah, he was a Captain. Bucky why-”

“Did your grandfather ever tell stories about his term? Did he have any confrontations with anyone while he was at war?” Bucky pressed, deadly serious now.

“Yeah. He squared off with a German Commander right at the end of the war. He didn’t talk much about it though, so I dunno what this has to do with anything.”

Bucky cursed, turning away from him. “Okay, listen to me. Do you have any other family members alive? Any other friends of the family, or anyone your parents were really close to?” Bucky met Steve’s gaze. “You have to be honest with me right now.”

Steve balked, totally freaked out by Bucky’s ranting. After a moment, he shook his head. “No my parents were both only children, and my grandparents died years ago. Anyone that was remotely close to us has either abandoned us, or died. Some really fucking recently.” Steve hesitated, before his eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Bucky what are you going on about? Why are you asking me all this?”

Bucky’s heart clenched up and fell like a stone into his stomach. An icy dread filled him to the brim, muting him to everything going on. Shit. This was bad. If all the other ties to the Rogers household had been severed at this point, then that meant there was only one more thread Schmidt’s curse was out to get. “Shit,” Bucky gasped. He looked up at Steve, his heart suddenly thundering to frantic life in his chest. “Shit, Steve. I know who’s killing these people.”

“Who?” Steve demanded. “Who’s killing them?”

“Herr Schmidt,” Bucky said, fear emanating off of him in waves. “And you’re the end of the line. Fuck, Steve. You’re next.”

Like any good horror movie plot, the moment those fateful words were uttered, the villain was supposed to make a shocking entrance into the scene to further the gory plot. Sure enough, the moment Bucky said his piece, the room around them buzzed to life with the angry energy of a spirit hell-bent on destruction. Bucky had just enough time to look up, when the black-hooded creature appeared into the cell behind Steve, snarling viciously as it laid its eyes on its prey. With a gut-wrenching screech, nasty claws shot forward, slicing through the air like knives as they wrapped around Steve’s throat from behind.

Steve could only utter a squeak as his air supply was cut off by a seemingly invisible force of nature. He clawed at his throat desperately, his eyes blowing wide as he stared at Bucky, desperately wheezing for breath as he fought against whatever was choking him. He stumbled as the specter dragged him backwards from Bucky, choking the life out of him right then and there.

Bucky shouted, rage bubbling up as he threw himself at the conflict. No. he wouldn’t let another victim fall in front of him, especially not his Stevie. Rage coursing through his veins, he grabbed at Schmidt’s hands, his fingernails sinking into dead flesh as he tore at his hands, shouting above the din. To his amazement, he managed to dislodge those ugly claws form Steve’s throat, and he yanked him into his arms, clinging to him desperately as Steve gagged and wheezed, clinging to Bucky. His limbs trembled as he held tightly to his partner, eyes tracking the empty room around him. “W-what the hell was that?!” Steve gasped, looking at Bucky.

“Schmidt!” Bucky said, looking around the room. In the scuffle, Schmidt had vanished again, leaving the room deathly still around them. He listened carefully, holding Steve close to try and protect him as much as he could. He’d gotten lucky, getting that bastard off of Steve before he could have the life choked out of him, but he could feel how tenuous his grip was. Another few seconds’ struggle, and Schmidt would have easily broken free from his grip and finished off the doctor.

Bucky’s ears perked up. He’d caught the sound of snarls coming from the walls, though the echo in the stone room was so strong, he couldn’t tell which direction it was coming from. “Stay right by me,” Bucky said to Steve. When Steve nodded and tucked himself into Bucky’s side, Bucky turned his attention back to the walls, keeping his eyes peeled. They were fish in a barrel now. He could literally come from any direction.

From their right, Bucky caught sight of the specter materializing through the walls, fully intent on leaping on Steve. He saw Steve’s eyes dart to the wall as well, but they were blind, unable to see what Bucky could see. But just as Bucky put himself between the two of them to try and shield him, he heard a shout coming from the opposite wall. He looked up to see Brock suddenly appear, anger palpable as he threw himself at the ghost, tackling him. He was followed closely by Tony, the two spirits launching themselves at Schmidt to fight him off as best as they could. At least, on the same plane of existence, they had a better chance of taking him down and allowing Steve a chance to escape.

“Yes…” he gasped, looking at Steve. “Quick. Call for the officers to let you out. Try to stay calm.” A shout from behind had him ducking, and he dragged Steve down just as Tony and Schmidt vaulted over them, locked in a ghostly wrestling match as Brock followed after them. “Hurry!”

With that, Steve nodded and rushed to the door of the cell, calling for Johnson or Mackenzie to let him out. Bucky nodded, crowding up behind him to act as a sort of barrier between him and the fight in the cell. He turned away from Steve, watching as the cell suddenly went very quiet. There wasn’t a peep from any of the three ghosts, and he held his breath, wondering what the fuck had just happened and where the hell Natasha and Clint were.

Suddenly, Tony appeared in the room. He looked frazzled, his hair sticking up as he huffed for breath. ~“Jesus. Get that guy outta here!”~ he said, waving frantically at Bucky. ~”We got him down but I dunno how long for. Christ sake, Bucky, what the hell is that?!”~

“It’s Schmidt,” Bucky said, looking back at Steve. They still hadn’t see the officer come to let him out yet, which meant they had maybe seconds before Schmidt came back, and no way to get out. “He’s after Steve for some fucking curse he put on the Rogers family back in Germany.”

~”Jesus Christ,”~ Tony cursed, shaking his head. ~Whoever the fuck he is, he’s mad as hell. Get the fuck outta here and run! He’s coming ba-HRGK!” Tony jerked forward as he spoke, his eyes wide in shock. It only took Bucky a moment to realize why, and he watched in horror as Tony slumped forward, the wicked, twisted blade of a scythe protruding from his back.

Bucky cried out, watching as Tony collapsed to the ground before his form evaporated in a splash of ectoplasm across the floor. Above where Tony’s spirit had vanished out of existence, Schmidt stood tall and ruthless, the scythe still held in his wicked claws. He ripped the blade from the ground where it had been embedded and he brandished it towards Steve as he uttered a nerve-rattling laugh that echoed throughout the cell. Bucky screamed, throwing himself at Schmidt in an attempt to subdue him. “SON OF A BITCH!” Bucky screamed. This time, however, he flew right through the spirit’s figure and smashed into the brick wall behind him. Dazed by the impact, Bucky hit the ground, rolling to his back where he watched as Schmidt descended on Steve, his claws sinking into his throat a second time.

Steve choked, collapsing back against the cell door as the spirit began to whittle his life away, bit by bit. Unable to defend himself, Steve could only claw at the door behind himself, his breath cut off entirely as his face went pink with the struggle. His eyes glazed over as they landed on Bucky once more, begging him for help against the unseen being ripping his life away.

Before Bucky could get to his feet to try and save him, however, Brock suddenly appeared in the room, latching onto Schmidt as he tore him away from Steve and gave him the chance to catch his breath. ~”FUCK YOU, YOU PIECE OF SHIT!”~ Brock bellowed, throwing punch after punch into the side of the specter’s head.

Given this opportunity, Bucky struggled to his feet and rushed over to Steve, helping him stand up from where he’d collapsed against the door. He could feel Steve weakening in his grasp and he held him close, cradling his figure as the blond struggled to get his breath back. “Shit. This isn’t good, that thing just killed Tony!” Bucky gasped. He didn’t know what to do. Locked in this room with literally no help, he had no way to protect Steve from this monster, aside from Brock’s struggles. If Steve died while he was in this room with him, Bucky would never forgive himself for being so helpless, and he’d gladly let the cops take him down and lock him up for life.

But just as he began to give up hope, he heard movement on the other side of the door. He perked up, whirling on his heel as Steve got to his feet, looking a little more energetic as he gained his strength back. “We gotta run,” Bucky said, determination forming on his features. He looked at Steve, nodding once at him, and relaxed when he saw the understanding on Steve’s features. “Stay close to me. Whatever you do, don’t fall behind.”

“I won’t,” Steve said, looking back into the empty room where the invisible battle played out.

Bucky nodded, inhaling sharply. He heard the sound of keys turning in the door’s lock, but before the cop could even move to open the door properly, Bucky grabbed hold of the frame. He lurched back and swung his body, kicking the door open with all his might. He heard the solid “thud!” of the metal door slamming into Mackenzie’s face, throwing the officer back into the far wall, where he saw the man collapse, unconscious on the floor.

Taking the opportunity given to him, Bucky grabbed Steve’s hand and dragged him out of the room, the two of them bolting down the corridors towards the back of the police station. As they ran, Bucky heard the screech of the specter following them. He whirled around, panting heavily as he saw the black-cloaked figure come barreling down the corridor, Brock hot on his tail. Bucky gasped, throwing himself between Schmidt and Steve just as Brock threw himself onto the ghost.

However, that would be his friend’s undoing. As Bucky watched, hearing Steve shouting for Bucky to fucking run already, he watched as the specter swirled, turning on Brock and sinking his claws into his chest. Horror filled him as he watched Brock crying out in pain, thrust to his knees as the spirit slowly ripped apart his apparition from the inside out. ~”GO, FUCKIN’ RUN YOU DIPSHIT!”~ Brock shouted, agonized by the specter tearing him to pieces. Within seconds, Brock collapsed to the floor, his chest blown out from the inside as the spirit held up the last speck of his soul, and crushed it in his grip. The sound was inhuman, crunching like bones underfoot, and with his spirit snuffed out, Brock’s ghostly body disintegrated, disappearing before Bucky’s eyes.

“Fuck!” Bucky gasped, his eyes welling up. Two of his friends had died trying to help him protect a man they didn’t even know. None of this could possibly get any worse! He shook himself a moment later, looking up in time to see the monster withdraw his scythe again, the blade wicked long and vicious as he advanced on his victim. Bucky cursed, turning back to Steve, only to find the two of them blocked from advancing further down the hallway by the sight of Agent Ward, his gun leveled on Bucky, and a manic grin on his features.

“Now this is a sight, isn’t it? A daring escape from your cell, Barnes, good form. And with Steve taken hostage on your side?” Ward said, grinning maniacally. He raised the gun, the sight aimed for Bucky’s heart. “I’d like to say I’ll feel bad for putting you down… but truth be told, I’m gonna enjoy the fuck out of myself.”

Bucky balked, staring at him wide eyed as his hands went up. Behind them, he could feel the spirit advancing. They were trapped between two monsters, and in either case, they were both going to die, no matter what. It was a cruel irony that they would both go down like this: Steve, a victim of revenge from a lifetime-long grudge, and Bucky, claimed guilty for crimes he didn’t commit.

So it came as a total shock to him, when Steve suddenly lurched forward, throwing himself behind Ward as he stared at Bucky with a convincing level of fear in his eyes. “Fuck thank God you’re here! He’s gone crazy. He tried to kill me!” Steve said, hovering behind Ward’s back. This only seemed to spur the agent on, and he nodded to Steve before turning on Bucky once more.

“No worries, Doctor. I’ll make sure he’s put in the ground, exactly where scum like him belong,” Ward said, lifting the gun and aiming between the eyes. Bucky flinched, feeling just the slightest stab of betrayal from Steve before he closed his eyes, awaiting the bullet that would end his life.

However, before Ward could pull the trigger, Steve suddenly attacked. He twisted, kneeing Ward in the chest as hard as he could. The action knocked the wind right out of the agent, and Steve took the opportunity, snatching the gun out of his loosened grip, and slamming the butt of the pistol down on the back of Ward’s neck, knocking him out. Ward crumpled to the ground in an instant, and Steve stood over him, holding the pistol on him with a vice-like grip and a glare on his features. “Didn't see that coming, did you asshole?”

Bucky stared at him for a split second, stunned by his quick thinking. He almost smiled, until the sound of the spirit’s screech behind him had him kicking into gear. “Run!” he shouted, charging after Steve and shoving him down the corridor. The two men took off, running as fast as they could to escape the spirit behind them. Bucky turned, looking behind himself as he watched the Schmidt’s trek. To his surprise, the further they ran, the more the ghost slowed down, uttering a seemingly frustrated screech as they fled his wrath as quickly as they could.

Not one to take an opportunity for granted, Bucky turned and followed after Steve. They navigated the interior of the station before bursting out an emergency exit into what looked to be the garage of the building. They wove and ducked behind idle cop cars, escaping out into the back alley of the precinct, before running off into the cold, bleak night.

They made it exactly five blocks from the police station, darting off into a darkened alleyway at last. There, Bucky felt his legs giving out in exhaustion, weakened by the stress of this whole evening. He collapsed back against the wall, the two of them having successfully escaped the ghost for the time being. “Fuck!” He shouted, banging his head against the wall to try and clear his thoughts. All it did was rattle his brains around further and he rubbed at his head, frustrated beyond belief.

“Bucky what the fuck was that?!” Steve demanded. He rounded on Bucky, his eyes wide as he begged for answers. “What the hell was that in there? I felt something crushing my fucking throat! I thought I was gonna die!”

Bucky exhaled. He shook his head, feeling drained from the whole experience. “It was Schmidt. Your grandfather really pissed him the fuck off back in the war. Now he’s got an agenda to wipe out the rest of the Rogers line, friends and family included. You’re the last man in line, and he’s not gonna stop until he kills you,” Bucky said. He looked up at Steve, helpless as he saw the look of recognition on Steve’s face.

“Jesus Christ… this thing’s after me?” Steve said. He turned away from Bucky, dazed by the revelation. Pacing the alley in front of Bucky for a moment, Steve visibly contemplated the situation. After a moment, he stopped in front of Bucky, his eyes saddened. “And people are just gonna keep dying until he gets me…” When Bucky nodded, silently affirming his words, Steve looked up at him, his face set in hard determination. “Then… then let it kill me. I can’t let people keep dying because of me, Buck. I have to let this thing get me so this stops.”

“No!” Bucky protested. He got to his feet, his hands going to Steve’s elbows as he shook him. “That’s not an option. People out there need you Stevie. You’re way more important than that. I’m just a guy that talks to ghosts. You actually save people. I can’t let him take you. Besides, there’s no guarantee that once he gets what he wants, he’ll actually stop killing. He could keep right on going, and then what? You would have died for nothing.”

“Then, what the fuck do we do?” Steve said. “How do we stop it?”

“I don’t know… but I can’t protect you. Not like this.” Bucky said, mournfully. “That thing… it killed Tony and Brock. I have no idea where Natasha and Clint are. For all I know, Schmidt’s already killed them too. I have no way to protect you now…”

As he spoke, a thought occurred to him. He was right… on the physical plane, Bucky had no chance of stopping Schmidt. The spirit could simply will himself out of Bucky’s grip at any moment and attack whenever he pleased. But if Bucky were to meet Schmidt head on on the same plane of existence…

“I have an idea,” Bucky said. “I can’t protect you against Schmidt. Not like this…” Bucky inhaled before blurting out his response in a rush. “I need to face Schmidt on the same playing field.”

“What do you mean?” Steve asked. He looked confused for exactly two seconds before his eyes widened. “Are you saying you have to die?!”

“I have to have an out-of-body experience,” Bucky corrected, though he looked pained at the thought. Okay, the bare bones of it, yes, he had to die. In no physical sense could Bucky hold his own against Schmidt, and with Steve unable to even see him let alone defend himself against the demon, they were both sitting ducks. But Steve was a fucking doctor with a whole slew of medical tricks he could pull. Bucky didn’t need to stay dead. He just needed to be dead long enough to stop him.

“Okay, but I’m still not following you, Buck,” Steve said, frowning. “You have to have an out-of-body experience to stop this guy. How the hell do you expect to do that? I sure as hell am not letting you do something stupid to get yourself killed!”

“No, not stupid… I need your help,” Bucky said. Giving him a nervous smile, he paced in front of him. “You’re a fucking emergency room doctor. You’ve had years of experience. You know what the human body is capable of surviving. There has to be some way to… I dunno, temporarily stop someone’s heart and still bring them back to life. It’s the only way we can stop this asshole once and for all.”

Steve listened to him, his lips pulled into a deep frown. After a second, his shoulders slumped and he heaved a sigh. “There aren’t a lot of options here. We sure as hell aren’t going the route of lethal injection. A bleed out won’t work because without a blood transfusion, I’d lose you. Medically inducing a coma won’t work because without proper monitoring, I won’t be able to revive you. And with proper monitoring, your heart would still be beating…” Steve growled, pushing his hands into his hair in frustration. “God, I can’t believe we’re even fucking talking about this! It’s crazy!”

“It’s not any crazier than when I admitted to you what I can do,” Bucky said quietly. “Think, babe… there has to be some way. We’re running out of time.”

Steve sighed, looking visibly torn by the whole thing. After a moment, he turned away from Bucky, a look of uncertainty crossing his features. But as Bucky watched him, he could see the cogs turning in his boyfriend’s head. He trusted Steve to make the right decision. He just really needed him to make that decision faster.

After a moment, Steve straightened out. An epiphany had occurred to him. Turning back to Bucky, he offered him a hesitant little smile that bordered on the fringes of terrified. “There’s one option that might work. The window of time to bring you back is small… but it’s the best option we have.”

Bucky listened. He relaxed a little, and accepted that answer. Steve didn’t look totally confident with his decision, but in the long run, he knew it would be the best for both of them. He trusted Steve explicitly with his safety. He just hoped, in the long run, he was successful in saving Steve’s life, or he would never forgive himself, in this life or the next. “Okay, Stevie… I trust you.”

Chapter Text

Bucky sat on one of the lab tables, trying his best not to feel like a little kid getting his first shot all over again. To busy himself for the time being, he allowed his mind to wander as he stared at the various walls of cupboards, racks of test tubes, and everything else he could possibly think of that went on behind the scenes in a hospital. He sat perfectly still, not even wanting to swing his legs, for fear that the motion would jar the table and knock over something highly expensive. The thought alone made him cringe and he did not want to think what sort of lashing his bank account would take if he broke something.

As he contemplated exactly what small fortune went into saving human lives on a daily basis, he looked up to see Steve bustle into the room, pushing a cart in front of him. On the car sat a defibrillator machine, a tray of various vials and bottles, a few hypodermic needles, and an oxygen pump. ‘Well,’ he thought to himself with no little nervousness. ‘That looks seriously, medically complicated...’

Shortly after their escape from Schmidt, the two of them had made good time, sneaking back to the hospital to pull off this hairbrained stunt of theirs. From Steve’s description, Bucky would be experiencing “temporary loss of brain and cardiovascular activity for a limit of twenty minutes”, before Steve would be forced to revive him. Any longer, and Bucky ran the very high risk of irreparable tissue damage. While that didn’t give him a whole hell of a lot of time to take down this vengeful asshole, Bucky couldn’t be more grateful to have Steve on his side. He knew Steve would do his damn best to make sure Bucky pulled through this. (Hopefully.)

Biting the inside of his lip, Bucky turned his attention back on Steve, watching as the doctor fetched one last item from a closet on the other side of the room. As he turned back to him, Bucky spotted a mountain of blankets in his arms, thick, fluffy white things that looked far too cozy to belong in a hospital. It made sense, considering the nature by with Bucky would be crossing over to the spirit side.

“So,” Bucky said, staring at the wall across from him. The wall in question had a large, heavily weighted metal door that sealed off the hospital’s lab-grade cryogenic freezer. Above the door was a little display with a digital read-out that currently read a brisk -12 degrees, and he stifled a shudder. “Freezing. I’m going to freeze to death. There was literally no other way you could go about doing this?”

Steve hesitated, his hands hovering above one of the little bottles on the tray. “It’s the best option we have for legally killing you, and still having a chance to bring you back. Extreme cold can help preserve soft tissue under certain circumstances. So… as long as we don’t exceed the twenty minute maximum, and as long as I can successfully revive you, you should be alright.”

Well, great… there went all of his confidence. “Gotcha…” Bucky mumbled. He shifted nervously, his leg swinging out a little. “So what’s the vial for?”

“Lopressor,” Steve said. He didn’t look at Bucky as he inserted the needle into the vial. With a visible cringe, he filled the syringe up to the top, before capping the needle and turning back to him. “I’m purposefully overdosing you. An overdose will cause bradycardia, hypotension, lowered body temperature… basically, it’s going to slow your heart rate and lower your body temperature, so the cold can do the rest of the work.”

Bucky listened, his stomach clenching up in paranoia. With every second he spoke, Steve sounded less and less sure of his method. But it had to be done. Unless Bucky wanted Steve to die, he had to do this, and damn his own outcome. “Oh,” he mumbled. Without another word, he rolled his sleeve up, and bared the crook of his elbow to Steve. “Well… juice me up, doc.”

Steve nodded. Approaching Bucky, he picked up a rubber tie and carefully tied off Bucky’s upper arm to produce a vein. After finding a suitable one, he swapped the vein with alcohol and uncapped the needle before his hand froze, just above his skin. “Bucky are you sure about this?” Steve asked, sounding desperate.

Bucky offered up a smile. It was a nervous smile and he reached out, taking Steve’s hand and squeezing his fingers. He couldn’t tell if Steve could feel the tremble in his fingers, but at that moment he didn’t care. “Just do it, Stevie…”

Steve hesitated. After a moment, he returned the gesture, squeezing Bucky’s hand before finally taking hold of his arm. A pin-prick later, and Bucky tore his gaze away from Steve’s to watch the needle injecting its contents into his bloodstream.

Above him, Steve stifled a shudder, before speaking with a certain level of false cheer. “There. Should start feeling the effects in a few minutes,” Steve said. He withdrew the needle before tossing it into a biohazard bin and swiping at the drop of blood on Bucky’s arm. Then, without warning, his false bravado collapsed and he leaned in, yanking Bucky into a desperate kiss. Their teeth clacked together as he cupped his jaw, pressing into him as the two of the bid each other one last blessing. “Jesus, Buck…you don’t have to do this!” he said, butting noses with Bucky.

Bucky shivered. He couldn’t stand hearing the broken tone in Steve’s voice, though at that point he had no choice. The medicine was already in his system, and both Ward and Schmidt were still out there. After knocking him the hell out, he was sure that agent was out for blood now and Bucky only had twenty minutes to stop both those bastards from killing Steve. Talk about no pressure... “Just… lock me in the freezer, babe. We don’t have a lot of time.”

Steve nodded. He looked away from Bucky -though Bucky still caught the sight of a tear forming in the corner of his eye- and lead him to the freezer in question. With a hydraulic hiss, he opened the door, and Bucky watched in fascination as frosty air came billowing out into the warm room. He shivered before shrugging out of his overshirt, leaving him in nothing but a t-shirt and jeans as he stepped in.

He didn’t know if it was his anxiety getting to him, but already Bucky could tell he was feeling a little odd. As he stared at the room around him, his chest started feeling heavy and his mind began to warp with a fuzzy sort of halo of muddy thoughts. He turned, brushing his hand along the cool wall to get his bearings about him, and turned back to Steve. He could barely see him on the other side of the wall of frost ghosting out of the room, but he could still see his figure shadowed in an outline. He offered him a weak smile and a wave. “I guess, see you in twenty minutes…”

Steve nodded. His hand hovered on the door for a moment, as if he were warring with himself about entering that freezer and dragging Bucky back out. At the last second, his hand dropped to his side. “See you in twenty minutes…”

With that, Steve shut the door, and Bucky heard the “clang” of the bolts sliding into place as he locked him inside. Bucky listened carefully, though with the tight-seal on the door, and his own senses jazzed up from the medicine coursing through his blood, he couldn’t hear anything else outside. Within seconds, the already frigid temperatures of the freezer began to drop dramatically, and Bucky’s skin prickled to life with goosebumps unlike any he’d ever experienced. His earlier feelings of dread, were quickly replaced with a sluggish sense of unawareness, and he felt himself physically swaying.

Shit. Steve had been right. With the compound of overdosing on heart medication and the plummeting temperatures, Bucky could already feel himself teetering on the brink of consciousness. A last minute sense of self-preservation overtook him, and he turned to the handle of the door to try and let himself out. For a second, his fingers lingered on the handle, ready to try and twist the fucking thing right off the door. But at the last second, he stopped, and ripped his fingers away, hissing in pain as the icy metal stuck to the skin of his fingers and tore at the sensitive flesh.

Then, like that, that sense of flight was gone as the reality of his situation took hold of him. He was going to die to save Steve, and Steve was going to be there to revive him when his work was complete. It was the only thought he would let himself have at that moment.

With renewed confidence (and the dizzying effects of a heartbeat that wouldn’t sync back up again) he looked up from the door handle to catch the sight of Steve watching him from the other side of the door’s porthole window. He could see the terror and the dread in his blue eyes as he watched his boyfriend begin the quick-freeze process that would officially stop his heart for this daring battle, and Bucky offered him a small smile. Without a word, he lifted his hand to his lips, pressing a kiss to his fingers before splaying his palm across the glass.

To his morbid delight, he saw Steve return the gesture, their hands pressed to a solid inch of glass, but nevertheless connected in these final moments. As their hands dropped, Bucky watched as Steve mouthed “I love you” to Bucky, and finally, a wayward tear tracking down his cheek. Bucky wanted to kiss that tear away, jump right the fuck out of this freezer and tell him everything would be okay. But he had a duty to uphold, and he would be damned if he chickened out at the last second and cursed his boyfriend’s first (and possibly only) declaration of love like that.

However, Bucky didn’t get a chance to think much past that. As he smiled at Steve, opening his mouth to respond with his own declaration of love, he caught sight of movement behind him. With his swimming, distorted vision, he couldn’t quite tell what it was at first, though he could definitely see it was a black shadow. Almost too late, his vision snapped back into focus just in time for Bucky to recognize that it wasn’t just a shadow, but a figure standing behind a clueless Steve.

“Steve look out!!” Bucky cried out, his speech slurring dangerously. It did little good, as the moment he opened his mouth to try and warn his oblivious boyfriend, Steve suddenly jarred forward, his forehead smashing into the glass, and he slumped to the floor out of sight. Bucky screamed, his hands going to the icy handle, wrenching at it with his failing strength. He looked up with his last ounce of clarity, screaming to be let out and help the doctor, but his voice died in an instant.

On the other side of the glass, stood Agent Ward. The FBI investigator looked absolutely tickled pink by the turn of events, his eyes meeting Bucky’s for a brief second before flashing him a wink. Bucky stared at the agent, his panic further throwing his already fucked-up heartbeat out of whack, until he was wheezing for air with lungs that burned from the freezing cold around him. He stumbled backwards, his back colliding with the racks hard enough to knock several bottles free from where they had been stuck to the shelves, though he could no longer feel anything to tell what it was he’d run into.

All he cared about, with the last shreds of his waning consciousness, was watching the agent flash him a goodbye salute and disappear from sight one last time. With that, Bucky was left entirely alone, locked in this Goddamn freezer to die. He had no idea what Agent Ward had done with Steve, or why he’d knocked him out, but one thing was for absolute certain: Bucky was never going to see Steve on the mortal plane ever again.


 

Pulsing, blinding headache. That’s what Steve woke up to. A headache so profound, he thought for a second someone had drilled a rebar through his skull and decided to use his head as batting practice. He groaned openly, moving to sit up, though the gesture was met with much bodily protestation, and the sound of a gun hammer clicking in the room.

That caught his attention. His eyes snapped opened and he looked up to the source of the sound. In front of him sat Agent Ward, the brunet smiling at him with the barrel of his pistol aimed right at his heart. Steve froze, half-sitting up from where he was laying on the floor and staring at the agent that had kidnapped him. He certainly wasn’t in the hospital anymore, but for the life of him, he couldn’t recognizing where the fuck he was. “Where the hell am I?” he said, his voice leveling with anxiety.

Agent Ward shrugged and made a non-committal noise in the back of his throat. “Somewhere,” he said simply. Gesturing with his pistol, Ward flashed him a dashing smile. “How do you like the headache? Nice little match to the one I’m sporting, thanks to you. I always say, an eye for an eye, ya know? It’s fitting for so many things in one's life.”

“Tell me where I am!” Steve demanded. This time, he did get up, though he kept his hands up when Ward raised the pistol, keeping it trained on him. He couldn’t make any sudden movements and risk getting his ass shot. He had to get back to the hospital, check up on Bucky… oh God. Bucky! “What time is it?” Steve demanded. He kept his hands raised, though he shook them with urgency. “Agent, what time is it?!”

Ward stared at Steve for a second, before recognition lit his features. He offered a laugh, before pulling out his phone and staring at it for an overt amount of time. “Oh right. Your little science experiment was on a timer, wasn’t it? I mean, is that even a thing now? Freezing boyfriends? Or is this for a special occasion, where you can crack him out like a yule log in time for the holidays?”

“WARD WHAT TIME IS IT?!” Steve shouted. His earlier fears were quickly replaced with repulsive anger towards the agent, and he advanced. He didn’t even flinch when Ward got to his feet, the gun kept trained on him like a heat-seeking missile. His only concern, now, was knowing if he still had time to get back to Bucky.

“Jesus, you’re a demanding little fuck aren’t you?” Ward snipped. Glaring right back at Steve, he shoved the phone in his direction, showing the clock off to him. “There, happy?”

Steve tore his gaze away from Ward, and looked to the clock. Instantly, his anger was replaced with horror as he realized almost 40 minutes had passed since he’d put Bucky in the freezer. He’d way overshot his time slot to get Bucky out and start the revival process. “Fuck! Agent, please… please, you have to take me back there!” Steve begged. Gone, was his bravado and outward hate. He needed Ward to take him back to the hospital in one piece. “Please. I’m begging you. I have to revive him! Please!”

Ward didn’t move for a second. He stared at Steve, seemingly bored with listening to his pleas, before he shook his head. “I’m sorry, I’m getting mixed feelings from you. I thought the point of you putting him in that freezer was to kill him. Now you want him alive? What for, exactly?”

“That’s none of your business,” Steve snapped. Holy fuck, this asshole was clearly fucking with him now. “Don’t you get it, I have to get back there and save him! Please, let me go!”

Ward simply laughed at Steve’s desperation. “Oh this is rich. I don’t give two flying shits about your little romance. James Barnes is dead. I wanted him dead, I got what I wanted. And if you think I’m gonna let you walk out of here to try and save your little ‘true love’, you’ve seriously hit a new level of crazy. I mean, how can I pass up an opportunity like this? James dies, you take the fall for murdering the poor sap, and I don’t have to do any sort of paperwork for a fallen suspect. It’s a winning situation all around, in my opinion.”

Steve stared at Ward, his anger all-consuming. This fucker was just going to let Bucky stay dead, and pin his death on him? What kind of sick-minded individual let someone die in his line of duty like this?! Glaring at him, his fists curled at his sides, ready to beat his fucking skull in like he deserved. He had no qualms about kicking the shit out of him before; he certainly had none now. “You fucking asshole…”

Ward stared at him, his eye twitching just slightly. For the first time, his sickly sweet smile fell away, leaving behind a ghost of a man so full of evil, the demons themselves coward in his presence. “You’re right. I am an asshole. And you’re a dead son of a bitch.”

Without warning, Ward pulled the trigger. The gun went off with a thunderous bang, and Steve cried out as the bullet pierced his shoulder, throwing him back against the wall. He hit the bricks hard before crumpling to the floor, where he clutched his wounded shoulder in agony. The logical part of his brain knew that in his experience, shoulder wounds were generally not life threatening, but still, it didn’t take away the shock of actually being shot by someone meant to uphold the law. “What the FUCK!?” he shouted, writhing in pain as he stared up at the agent above him. “Are you fucking insane?!”

Ward smiled at him, dropping down to his knee. He pushed the muzzle of the gun into his shoulder, agitating the wound with a bloom of pain before leaning in to talk directly in his ear. “You really thought I was gonna let that prick walk free, when it was so easy to just pin all this on him? I can see the headlines now. ‘Mass murderer commits suicide in wake of his crimes. Doctor involved in the killings dies of mystery disease that plagued community.’ Oh it’s gonna be a trip when the news gets a hold of this. My competition is out the window, and Herr Schmidt… he’s gonna be so happy with me when I hand deliver you to him for his revenge spree.”

Steve listened, his heart leaping into his throat. What the fuck… how the hell did Ward know about Schmidt?! “What… what are you talking about?”

Ward just shrugged. “Oh, you weren't here for that conversation, were you? It’s a shame. Bucky really did have a special little something, being able to talk to spirits, but I can’t let someone else out there have that capability. I’m a jealous son of a bitch, I’ll admit, and knowing that he shared the same gift I do? That didn’t sit well with me at all.”

Ward leaned back on his heels, scratching his neck with the muzzle of the gun as he recounted this information to Steve. “You know, it’s funny… I never thought that tricking an entire country into believing you’re some hero would be so easy. But they fell for every last crumb I gave them. After I had my fill of luring fucking idiots into my snare and taunting their spirits to the end of time, I decided to try and use my gifts to make a name for myself. Do you have any idea how easy it is to solve crimes and become an FBI agent, when you can just literally talk to the spirits and find out how they died? It’s a cheat, I know… but I never play fair.”

“You…. you can see ghosts too?” Steve asked, stunned by this revelation. But… if Ward could talk to ghosts too, that meant… “You never were on Bucky’s case with the FBI…”

“Right you are, doctor. Another agent had his files. I just happened to pull a few file switcharoos and snag James’ case for myself. It’s so easy to do, when you know the right people,” Ward said. Getting to his feet, he paced the room in front of the wounded doctor. “It all just fell into place you know? Your family history, and mine tied together way more intimately than you ever thought. My grandfather was one of the soldiers your grandfather brutally killed, Doctor. And when I was approached by Herr Schmidt, and told that he wished to wipe out the Rogers’ bloodline in retribution, well I couldn’t pass that up. He was the one that informed me about your Bucky’s little magic trick.” Turning to face Steve once more, Ward held his arms out in a grand gesture and laughed. “It’s like a perfect little fairytale! You die to finalize a debt brought on by your ancestry, and I get rid of literally the only guy that could contend with what I could do… it was a match made in Heaven.”

“Jesus Christ, you’re sick,” Steve gasped, staring at the man in front of him. He writhed, clutching his bloody shoulder as he listened to his litany of sins, though he couldn’t tear his mind away from Bucky even in the midst of this psychotic monologue. God… he’d failed him. He’d promised he’d revive Bucky, and he failed him. He didn’t even want to face the world, knowing he’d broken his promise to the most important man he’d ever known. “Why… why are you doing this? If you want us dead so badly, then get on with it and kill me!”

“Oh, I’m not going to be the one to kill you,” Ward said. He turned the gun back on Steve, before laughing. “That honor belongs to Herr Schmidt. This is his retribution to complete, not mine. But watching you die? Now that’s something I’m down for.” Ward cocked the hammer of the pistol again, the metallic ‘click’ echoing in the room around them. “Now lay back, and do your duty to appease what your ancestors did to noble people. You’ll be dead alongside your boyfriend soon enough.”

Steve listened, watching the gun lower, the muzzle aimed for his left knee. The fucker was about to shoot his Goddamn kneecap out, just to keep him from trying to escape. It was sick… it was a scene out of the worst horror movie Steve could ever imagine. ‘End of the line’ he thought to himself as he ducked his head. He offered up a silent prayer to Bucky, begging his forgiveness, and held his breath, waiting for the bullet that would incapacitate him and leave him like a lamb to slaughter.

But the gunshot never came. Instead, Steve heard a sharp intake of air above him, a gasp for breath that was quickly replaced with the sickening gurgle of a man choking to death. Looking up, he caught sight of Ward stumbling backwards, his free hand clawing at his throat and panic overtaking the cock-sure confidence he’d previously wore. Stunned, Steve watched as Ward struggled against an invisible force of nature choking him out, quickly succumbing to whatever was killing him before his eyes.

Little by little, Ward crumbled under that invisible force in a cruel twist of irony, until at last, the light left his eyes. His hands went limp at his sides, the pistol falling to the floor before he hit the ground, dead to the world. With that, the room fell silent. For a second, Steve couldn’t fathom it; Ward had just died, choked out like all of Steve’s previous patients before him. Fighting back the morbid little pleasure of seeing this asshole die as he deserved, Steve’s thoughts raced with uncertainty.

It didn’t make sense why Schmidt would kill his only human partner in this murder spree, but Steve couldn’t deny this looked bad. He was a sitting duck in this room, and the only logical explanation for Ward’s sudden death was that Schmidt was with him now. Steve panted, his anxiety overtaking him as he closed his eyes, waiting for the killing blow.

Seconds clicked right on by, yet death never came. Tentatively, Steve opened his eyes, looking to the room for any sign that Schmidt was with him... a fluttering leaf... Christ even a shadow that didn’t belong in that room. The only thing he could see was the corpse of Agent Ward lying across from him, the body sprawled into the dirty floor. Death by choking was this psycho spirit’s M.O. but he hadn’t laid an invisible finger on Steve at all. So... If it wasn’t Schmidt that had killed Ward, then…

“B… B-Bucky?” Steve called into the room. His eyes scanned the area, and he sat up a bit to get a better look. Nothing happened. “Buck… is that you?”

Still, nothing happened, and Steve began to wonder if he was losing his Goddamn mind. However, before he really gave it up to a case of paranoia-induced hallucinations, Steve saw movement to his left. He turned, watching in awe as the dirt on the floor shifted, almost as if someone were dragging their finger through it. He watched as the dirt continued to move, slowly spelling out a word. It was just three letters, nothing spectacular, but he recognized it right away.

“NAT”

“Nat… N-... Natasha?” Steve said. What the hell… Bucky’s friend had killed Ward for him?

That seemed to do the trick. Instead of a response, however, Steve was hit with a swell of vertigo so powerful, he felt like he’d been pushed onto the nearest tilt-a-whirl for a marathon spin-cycle. With a strangled cry of surprise, he collapsed backwards to the floor, his vision blacking out for a moment. But just when he felt like he would be sick from the dizzying sensation, his vision cleared.

Well… ‘cleared’ wasn’t quite the right word. It felt like he was looking through a piece of broken glass, his vision split in two. “What in the fucking hell-”

~”Oh, Steve, I thought you knew that kind of language was improper,”~

Steve yelped, sitting bolt upright at the sound of a woman’s voice. The moment he did, he caught sight of a figure kneeling over Ward’s body. The guy was dressed in a horrendously ugly Halloween costume, and a manic little grin was plastered on his face. “What the fuck-!”

~”Hey! Holy shit, Nat, I didn’t think we could do this!”~ The figure said. He turned to face Steve, staring straight at him. ~”Y’know that’s fuckin’ weird, seeing both of you in the same body, right Nat?”~

“What the… who-” Steve said. He patted his torso, stunned to find that his shoulder no longer hurt. He looked down to his shoulder, and caught sight of a flash of silvery-blue in the bullet wound, and he squeaked, jumping to his feet. “Get out! Get out of me before I call a fuckin’ priest!”

~”Oh my God,”~ the woman, Natasha’s voice cut into his mind again, sounding bemused. ~”I’m not gonna possess you, seriously. I mean I could, but I’d have to stay inside your seriously smokin’ hot body for a really long time, and lemme tell ya, this is Bucky’s property now. I mean, shit, I can see why he likes you so much. You’re a tank, my friend.”~

Steve finally relaxed. Holy shit, was this was Bucky experienced on a daily basis? Being able to see these ghosts, talk to them… Slumping back against the wall, he touched the side of his head, trying to see if he could feel Natasha inside him, and he offered up a weak laugh. “Holy shit, this is fuckin’ weird…”

~”Yeah, yeah, this is weird, we get it.”~ Clint said. Standing up, he offered a wave at Steve. ~”And you know, you’re welcome for killing the fucker before he could do anything to you. Your gratitude is overwhelming.”~

Steve huffed in exhaustion. “Sorry, Clint… thank you for saving me. And thank you,” He said, gesturing at himself, before rolling his eyes. “Nat… for… I dunno what the hell you’re doing to me.”

~”Giving you at least some sort of defense against Schmidt.”~ Natasha said. ~”Wherever the hell Bucky is, he’s not here to help you, and Tony and Brock are out for the count. I can’t give you much protection against this fucker, but I can at least give you a chance to fight him off if he comes after you. Just until we can find Bucky again…”~

“Wait… you don’t know where Bucky is?” Steve said. He looked up at Clint, only to see the man shake his head at him. “Shit... but… you haven’t seen his ghost…?”

Clint balked, looking at Steve. ~”What the hell do you mean?”~

Steve calculated his words, before realization struck him. Bucky’s body hadn’t been discovered in the freezer yet. HIs friends hadn’t seen his spirit. Either Bucky was still, miraculously alive in that freezer, or he’d crossed over to the other side. Neither of which was a desirable thought. “Shit. We gotta get back to the hospital! Now!”

~”Steve, what are you saying?”~ Natasha asked. Even Still, Steve ignored her inquiry, pushing past the spirit of Clint as he made for the room’s only door.

“Bucky… he’s dead. Or he’s supposed to be dead. He died to try and fight Schmidt,” Steve said. Pushing out the door, he found himself in what appeared to be a cemetery chapel, the wooden walls rotting on either side of him. This could only mean he was in the abandoned cemetery across town. It was nearly a ten minute drive to get back to the hospital from there, and he didn’t have a car. “Let’s fucking go!”

~”Wait, what about Schmidt?”~ Natasha asked, her voice ringing in his head.

“Fuck Schmidt. The only person I’m concerned about is Bucky,” Steve said, his determination set. Pushing past Clint, he made for the doors of the chapel. Outside, he spotted a car, obviously the one that Ward had driven to get him here. And he didn’t have his fucking keys…

~”Okay, I get it man. But you aren’t getting anywhere on foot,”~ Clint said. His voice caught Steve’s attention and he looked up to see the spirit smirking at him, holding up a set of car keys. ~”Ward ain’t using these anymore. He took the express train straight to Hell, my friend. Let’s ride.”~

Steve stared at Clint, before taking the keys from him. He offered him a small nod of appreciation before jogging for the car. “Let’s go. It might be too late already, but we have to try. Fuck... we have to try!”


 

Cold… fuck, Bucky had never been so cold in his life. He’d long since stopped shivering, his body holding onto the last fragments of consciousness it could salvage as they slipped away like grains of sand through his fingers. He didn’t know how long he’d been in this freezer for, but miraculously, his body had held onto life for as long as it could possibly manage.

Shortly after Ward had locked him into the freezer and taken Steve away to God only knew where, Bucky had collapsed to the floor of the freezer, his body too weak to stand up any longer. The moment he’d hit the ground, the drugs in his body had taken over his consciousness, putting him through a whirlwind of lights, colors and finally, the hazy, black abyss of darkness inching over him like a blanket. The cold had become so overwhelming, he’d lost all his earthly senses, left to the cataclysmic whirlwind of a drugged-out trip without the pleasurable high.

He was dying, he knew it. He sort of accepted it at this point. He just wished that the pain in his oversensitive nerves would finally stop, so he could slip into death and just go find this bastard already. Oddly enough, he was still coherent enough to be able to make that thought out: Die, confront Schmidt, save Steve.

Finally, after what felt like a lifetime of floating in a pain-filled haze, it happened. Bucky didn’t know how he knew it, but the moment his heart finally stopped, and his brain ceased to function any longer, Bucky just knew it the moment he died. One second, he was staring at the far wall, braindead to any sort of bodily function of coherent thought, the next he felt nothing at all. Not like the numbness of a limb falling asleep because fuck that kind of pain.

Just… nothing.

It was a nothingness that conflicted with the sudden, vivid clarity with which he was seeing the world around him. Whereas previously he’d been sluggish and confused, his brain working overtime to process what the hell he was seeing or experiencing, now he was staring at the far wall, his thoughts ringing as clear as a bell. But that nothingness was strange… it felt like seeing his surroundings from the other side of a television screen, watching the world tick right on by, but not really experiencing it.

Bucky sat up. He was surprised with how easily he could do so, and aside from that eerie emptiness he felt inside, he actually mentally felt better than he had in a very long time. Of course, that oddly euphoric sensation he felt went away the minute he turned his head and looked down. There he saw his body lying on the floor of the freezer, frozen stiff and collecting an odd little assortment of ice crystals on his bluish-tinted skin. ~”Holy… whoa. That’s fucking weird…”~ he said to himself. Reaching out, he tried to touch his body, only to find his hand pass right through his own corpse to the cool ground below him. ~”That’s really fuckin’ weird…”~

Shaking himself from the strange moment, Bucky got to his feet, only to find himself wobbling dangerously. He reached out, unused to the feeling of ghostly legs to support his spirit, and he grabbed for the shelving unit. That, of course, failed miserably and he tumbled straight through them, falling through the wall straight into the room Steve had been knocked out in. He hit the floor, and went deathly still to allow his ghost to get used to being outside the freezer again. Christ, it felt like a baby walking for the first time. Was this how all ghosts felt after separating from their bodies?

Growling in frustration, Bucky slowly pushed himself back up to his feet. He took his time, wobbling on weak knees before he finally got himself to stand. He didn’t teeter this time, and he took a few tentative steps before feeling confident enough to actually walk like a normal spirit in this world.

The room was absolutely lifeless, and that was strange coming from Bucky’s internal monologue. The defibrillator cart had been abandoned, along with all of Steve’s supplies and there was no sign of Steve anywhere. The only motion Bucky saw at all, was his own ghostly reflection in the little mirror in the room. As he crossed the room to examine himself, he had to remind himself that that whole “no reflection” nonsense applied to vampires, not ghosts. The rules of the supernatural world were already hard enough to keep straight, he couldn’t start mixing up lore while he was dead.

Stopping in front of the mirror, Bucky stared at himself. He was disturbed at how pale he looked, translucent in color and sporting an array of ice crystals all along the left side of his face, his neck and all the way down his left arm. Clearly, that was where his body had been pressed into the frozen floor of the freezer when he’d died. Despite knowing this, it didn’t take away how disturbing it was to see the evidence of his passing on his ghostly figure like a brand… even if it did kind of look badass.

Shaking himself, Bucky tore his gaze from the mirror and set off from the room. First thing’s first: find Schmidt, and kill him. Second thing, find Steve and pray to God he can communicate with him enough to try and bring him back.

Well… nothing like haunting the halls of a hospital, looking for a one in a million specter to come skulking out of the walls like a black behemoth. It was just the way he wanted to spend his Halloween season (not). Fuck it… he was never going to buy haunted house tickets again, for as long as he lived…

After scouring the halls of the hospital for a few minutes, Bucky heard it. The sound of that menacing snarl of Schmidt, the anti-Grim. As far as Bucky could tell, that sound didn’t come from within the hospital around him. No, that sound came from outside, and boy did he sound pissed.

Anger flushed the ghostly visage of Bucky Clutching his fists at his sides, he pushed his way through the walls of the hospital, passing families and friends as they visited sick loved ones. He passed the nurse’s station and the tired women and men standing around drinking gallons of coffee to try and keep up with the influx of patients. He didn’t have time to admire or grieve for any souls that evening. He had one thought in mind, and he would be damned if he let himself get distracted.

Pushing his way out of the hospital, Bucky not-so-gracefully floated to the ground, where he landed on his face. Straightening himself out, he looked up to see if any other spirits had seen him. When he was sure the coast was clear, he marched around the backside of the hospital, towards the source of the snarls.

He didn’t get very far. The moment he rounded the side of the hospital in pursuit of Schmidt, he was instantly hit square in the face, thrown backwards into the brick wall and crumpling to the ground. Grunting out in pain, Bucky rolled to his feet again, only to find himself face to face with a furious specter out for blood. ~”JESUS! Were you waiting for me or something?! I just died, gimme a minute to get used to it!”~ Bucky snarled, rounding on the spirit.

Schmidt simply laughed, hulking in figure before Bucky. Without a word, he reached into the folds of his cloak, withdrawing the scythe from the folds and brandishing it at him. ~”I thought you learned your lesson before. Coming to my realm though… you are certainly an idiot, aren’t you?”~ Schmidt demanded, taunting Bucky with the blade.

Bucky stared at the weapon, fighting back a shiver of fear. After a moment, he squared his shoulders before glaring at his adversary with defiance. ~”You threatened to hurt Steve. I don’t care what the fuck you do to me, dude. That shit doesn’t fly with me, and I’ll make sure you go exactly where you were meant to go when you died.”~

~”Oh really…”~ Schmidt growled. He tightened his grip on the blade, backing Bucky into the wall behind him. As much as Bucky wanted to keep the tough act up, he couldn’t help but shy away from the lethal weapon held up in his face. He’d seen what it could do to Tony; nervous, wasn’t the right word to describe him at that moment.

However, before either of them could react, a voice cut through the air, catching both of their attention. It was an indiscernible shout, but one that Bucky recognized instantly. Both sets of eyes snapped to see Steve standing in the field behind the hospital, his eyes locked on the two of them with vivid clarity. It took Bucky a split second to realize what the fuck was happening, and he balked. Those weren’t Steve’s eyes; those were Natasha’s. She’d overtaken his body and given him a temporary pass into the spiritual world, just for this special fucking occasion.

“Steve?” Bucky gasped. His voice caught Steve’s attention, and the two of them met gazes for a split second. It was a second too long, however, and the momentary distraction cost Bucky the upper hand. With a resounding blow, Schmidt reached out, slamming his clawed fist into his chest. He threw Bucky backwards, away from the sitting duck that was his boyfriend, and Bucky hit the ground, stunned by the action. It didn’t last, however, and Bucky instantly rolled to his knees, only to see Schmidt launch himself at Steve.

This time, Steve could see the attack coming, thanks to Natasha’s help. Steve cried out, dodging the incoming missile that was Schmidt’s deadly intent, before circling around to try and evade him. This did little good, as Schmidt simply followed his trek, undeterred by the human/ghost teamwork that kept him safe for a brief moment.

~”Give up, boy. The Rogers’ line ends here,” Schmidt cackled. He held the scythe in his grip, advancing on Steve and cornering him back against the wall of the hospital. ~”Why do you run? Accept your fate. It is after all, what you are meant to die for.”~

“I didn’t have anything to do with your death!” Steve barked. His eyes darted to Bucky for a second, and Bucky could see the anger and fear in his gaze. “But you killed family and friends. You killed innocent people. My life doesn’t mean shit. The only thing that matters is you facing what you did to them!”

~”I’d like to see what you think you’re going to do about it.”~ Schmidt snarled, before flying at Steve, full force.

Bucky cried out, struggling to his feet. He wasn’t going to make it. He was too far away. But just before he could curse himself for failing to protect the only guy he ever cared for, a second figure darted past him. It took him a moment to recognize him, but the moment he saw Clint throw himself at Steve and knock him out of the way, just in time for Schmidt to barrel through the wall of the building, he knew he’d been bought time.

Rushing over to where the two lay, Bucky helped Clint to his feet and thanked him for helping Steve, before he reached out for the stunned human. His ghostly hand approached Steve, and he saw the apprehension and worry in his gaze before they locked hands. With Natasha’s help, Bucky gripped Steve’s hand and helped him to his feet, the human and spirit gazing at each other for a long moment ~”So, you had him on the ropes, huh?”~ Bucky said, offering Steve a crooked smile.

Steve broke into an awkward laugh, before his nervous laughter died in the face of reality. Bucky knew what was going through Steve’s mind. He wasn't talking to his boyfriend; he was talking to his ghost. “Yeah... totally did,” Steve said, his voice tinged with sadness.

Bucky offered him a reassuring smile, reaching out to touch his cheek and comfort him as much as he could. That touching moment faded, however, the moment he heard movement coming from the wall. In a split second decision, Bucky turned, shoving Steve out of the way and turned for the wall that Schmidt came charging out of in a furious furl of black cloth.

It happened so fast, Bucky couldn’t even comprehend it. The moment he saw Schmidt, he reached out, his hand going for the specter’s fists. His fingers wrapped around the handle of the scythe, grabbing hold of it and yanking it from his grip to throw it as far away as he could.

Before Bucky could even think about what this action had cost him, Schmidt struck. Without his weapon, the spirit’s claws extended like a cat, slicing through the air. In a screech of ghostly rage, Schmidt’s claws caught Bucky by the chest, tearing him open and throwing him to the side, the first ounce of pain Bucky had felt since he died coursing through his chest. He heard Steve and Clint scream for him, horrified at what they saw, but he couldn’t do anything about it. He could only crumple to the ground, his soul wounded by the deadly blow. With a strangled wheeze, Bucky sprawled on his back, his hand going to his chest, where he could feel the ectoplasm of his ghostly figure ebbing away, disappearing like dust motes in the wind.

It was over. He’d died to save Steve, and all it had gotten him was a mortal wound to the last shred of his soul. Grunting out in pain, Bucky looked up in time to see Clint leap onto Schmidt’s back, tearing at the cloak. He watched as Clint slammed his fists into the spirit’s head, tearing at his cloak before the demon threw him off with ease. In the scuffle, Bucky watched as the cloak was finally torn away from him, revealing the face beneath that had been hidden from sight this entire time.

It was more horrifying than anything Bucky had ever seen. What should have been a face he remembered from his dream, there was nothing but a gaping skull void of flesh or eyes. The ghostly bones were blood red, as if they had been doused in buckets of red ink, and dripping with malevolence as Schmidt’s skull stared down at him, victorious in this fruitless battle.

~”You fool,”~ Schmidt laughed. Advancing on Bucky, the spirit loomed over him, his claws extended as he bore down on him. ~”You really thought that you would be the one to end me? You’re as stupid as you look. It’s a shame you had to get involved with this heathen of a descendant. You might have lived to see a ripe old age. But you died for love, and a pointless cause. It’s a pity; you could have been a wonderful ally to me, James. But you chose this whelp over greatness. I suppose, you’re of no use to anyone in this plane of existence or the next. How does it make you feel to know that you died for nothing, bested by the very demon you swore to destroy?”~

Bucky stared up at Schmidt, listening to him proclaim his premature victory over him. As he listened, his eyes darted behind him, where he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. As he realized what it was he was seeing, a smile lit his lips before he met Schmidt’s gaze one last time. This wasn’t over yet; the idiot had no idea what was coming for him. ~”Why don’t you shut the fuck up?”~ Bucky taunted. Sitting up as best as he could, he stared the specter down, his face pulled in a defiant sneer. ~”You really think that I was supposed to be the one that killed you? It was never supposed to be me, idiot, and I’m so glad you didn’t catch onto it at all.”~

~”And what, precisely, do you mean by that?”~

Bucky smirked. ~”Like I said… I’m just the guy that talks to ghosts. Steve on the other hand… he’s the one you should have always looked out for.”~

Schmidt stared at him, taking in his words. Too late, he realized what Bucky meant, but the damage was done. The moment recognition filled his ghastly features, the sound of a blade slicing through the still air around them whistled loudly as the scythe blade flew, embedding itself into the spirit’s back with a sickening ‘crunch!’

The shriek that escaped Schmidt was inhuman. A banshee-like howl filled the air around them as the ghost’s own blade cut deeply into him, slicing through what remained of his soul. Behind him, Steve panted heavily, his fingers wrapped around the scythe’s handle with the help of Natasha’s influence. With a grunt of effort, Steve twisted the blade, cutting through Schmidt’s being like tissue paper and tearing him apart. With a howl, Schmidt collapsed to the ground, his spirit disintegrating in a black, inky mire and disappearing from the earth, sent back to Hell where he had crawled from so many years ago.

Just like that, the fight was over. Bucky grunted in pain, his fingers digging into his chest as he tried to hold onto himself for as long as possible. He, too, could feel himself ebbing away into nothingness, his spirit finally dying just as his body had done not so long ago. Above him, Steve panted in exhaustion from the whole affair, dropping the scythe to the ground. The moment the blade clattered to the terrain below, it too vanished into nothingness, returning with its owner back to the inferno. Steve huffed, kicking at a clod of dirt on the ground in his exhaustion. “Hope you have a safe trip,” he growled at the earth where Schmidt had disappeared.

Bucky huffed a laugh, though the effort was nearly too much for him. His spirit was ebbing away too quickly. He couldn’t hold on any longer. Slumping back to the ground, Bucky’s eyes darted back to Steve, watching the moment cold recognition overtook him.

Time. It had always been something Bucky had taken for granted. He’d always have time to fix that broken sink faucet. He’d always have time to think about his retirement funds. He’d always have time to settle down with a nice man and adopt six cat-babies to show off to the rest of the world. He’d always had time before, and never did a damn thing with any of it. Now that he was out of time, he wanted nothing more than to take back all those wasted moments.

But there was no time left. The last shreds of his existence played out in rapid succession, frittered away with the specks of his soul that escaped him. As he felt himself sinking into oblivion, fading out of existence before his Stevie’s terrified eyes, Bucky could only offer him a small wave goodbye and a brief blessing of “be happy” before he vanished at last.

It was done. Bucky had done what he’d set out to do. He might not have been the one to offer the killing blow, but he’d done what he needed to, to protect Steve. That’s all that Bucky could ask of himself. Steve was safe, and that’s all that mattered in his world.


 

Ever since he was a child, Bucky had always heard that dying was like going into a tunnel of light. That saying had been confirmed to him after he’d started his ghost shuttling service, and watched dozens upon dozens of spirits passing over to Heaven.

That was not what happened to him.

The last thing Bucky remembered was watching the look of horror cross Steve’s face the minute the blond recognized that Bucky was passing over. He’d wanted to reach out to him, and tell him everything would be okay, but the passage of time was so rapid, Bucky barely had a chance to even blink, let alone speak to Steve. He did remember uttering two words to Steve before he vanished from the earth, taking away the pain of Schmidt’s wound with it. Everything went black, so totally pitch black, Bucky couldn’t help but wonder if the concept of an afterlife had always been a joke. There was no way spirits for thousands of years simply faded away into nothingness, as if their lives had no meaning in the end.

But just before he could have a mental breakdown over this existential crisis, Bucky opened his eyes. He expected to see the cloudy night sky above him, or the look of fear on his friends’ and boyfriend’s face. Instead, he was met with a crystal blue sky dotted with the puffiest white clouds he’d ever seen. The air was warm and comfortable, and Bucky sat up slowly, taking in his surroundings.

He was in a field, and to his left was a giant oak tree with a shoddy looking rope swing tied to one of the lowest branches. He instantly recognized that tree, and whirled around, his eyes wide. There, just a few dozen feet away, was the front porch of his childhood house in Indiana, sided with pale green siding and the red shingled roof he remembered in vivid detail. Oh God, how he’d loved that house. He’d hated it when his parents had forced him to move to Brooklyn for his father’s work, though he’d grown to love that city almost as much as his little green house he’d sworn to go back to when he was an adult. Obviously, that had never happened but… seeing it again put a bubble of warmth in his chest, and he slumped back, staring at his house in awe. “What the…”

“Hey, looks like he’s awake!”

Hearing a familiar voice, Bucky turned. He was met with the sight of Brock and Tony, the two men looking healthier than Bucky could ever imagine. To his great shock, they were both smiling broadly at him, looking totally at peace with where they were. “Brock? Tony? What are you doing at my house?” Bucky asked, getting to his feet.

Brock smirked, crossing his arms over his chest as he watched the confusion on Bucky’s face grow. “House? What house? I don’t see a house here at all.” That sentence only confused Bucky further, and he waved his hand. “Oh, I guess you didn’t get the welcome committee. Lemme explain: Welcome to Heaven, and whatever it is you’re seeing, no one else here, can see.”

“Uh,” Bucky said, intelligibly. “Can you run that by me again? What do you mean you can’t see it? It’s right there!”

Tony laughed, doubling up as he supported himself on his knees. “No, dope, we totally believe you. It’s just that we physically cannot see whatever it is you’re looking at. That’s the whole point of Heaven: it’s the place that makes you the happiest, and it’s a pretty nice gesture, considering spirits that come here have to stay there for the rest of eternity.”

Bucky listened, slowly understanding what Tony was saying. So… Heaven was your ultimate paradise. The place that made you feel the most at peace when you were alive. That was… that was actually pretty nice. “So my Heaven is my childhood house. What’s yours?”

Brock sniffed, looking around at his surroundings. He crossed his arms over his chest, the sleeves of a white button up pulled across his shoulders. “For me? It’s always nighttime. The happiest place I ever experienced in my life was a beachside nightclub in Costa Rica. Got sent there by family when I was home from the war in between deployments. It’s the only place that ever really made me smile.”

Tony smirked. “I thought mine would have been a club too, but I guess my happiest place was a summer home in Southern California when I was a teenager. That’s the place where I had the fewest amount of fights with my parents, and we got along well. Gotta say, though. The wine up here is way better than any vintage bottle I’ve had in my life.”

Bucky listened, touched by these explanations. It made sense, the more he listened. He had never seen Tony or Brock’s spirits smile at all, and could only imagine what their lives had been like when they were alive. To see them looking so thrilled with their placement and finally happy… “Wow… that’s really cool,” he said smiling at them. “So… wait, how did you guys get up here?! You didn’t cross over through the tunnel!”

“I can answer that,” A voice cut in. Turning, the three of them spotted what could only be God. He was just as scary looking as Bucky remembered him, though his eyes danced with hidden amusement in his dark-skinned complexion. “It’s not an exact science. It’s gentler, having spirits cross over through the tunnel, but when they both died helping to protect someone, they essentially got a free pass to the afterlife. Much like you did, Bucky.”

“Oh,” Bucky said, feeling kind of like a broken record now. “Oh that’s…. That was nice of you.”

“Actually, I really am nice. I dunno why people keep thinking I'm some frightening bastard that levels cities to the ground…”

“Uh, because you kind of did?” Tony cut in. He snorted in laughter at the harsh look God gave him, and ducked his head.

“That was my younger years,” God said, looking indignant at Tony’s interjection. “And you watch yourself. I can change my mind at any time and send you back to Earth if you mouth off at me, Anthony.”

Bucky listened to their banter, feeling a little dazed by the whole thing. So… he really was dead now. He died, and actually went to Heaven. Considering all the bad things he’d done in his life, Bucky was definitely surprised with that outcome. “So I gotta say… I’m really shocked I even made it here. I wasn’t exactly, you know, a God-fearing man or any shi-.. Stuff like that,” he said, correcting himself.

God offered him a pointed look. “Are you questioning my decision, James?”

“No!” Bucky said, holding his hands up. “No, just, thank you. I don’t deserve it, but thank you for giving me this. You… you really have no idea how much this means to me.”

“Bucky,” God sighed. Turning away from Tony and Brock, he approached the man and placed his hands on his shoulders. “You really have no idea how much good you’ve done have you? Those little sins you’ve committed, meant nothing in the face of all the good you’ve accomplished. Just look around you, and you’ll understand what I mean.”

Bucky listened, taken aback by God’s emphatic words. He almost didn’t want to look away, for fear that this was all a prank, but at the last second, he tore his gaze from him. To his shock, he found himself surrounded by a drove of people. He recognized most of them, and he was stunned to see that they were each and every single spirit he’d encountered, including the spirits of those that had been trapped on the earth in Schmidt’s rein. Every single one of them stood in a circle around the small group, smiling proudly at Bucky. At the forefront of the group, stood a young Sarah held in the arms of a man he recognized looked just like Steve, Pietro in his prime athletic glory, and Scott bereft of the heartbroken gaze that dulled the beautiful, cheerful smile that lit him up like the sun. Of all the spirits he’d helped in his lifetime, those were the ones that looked the most proud of Bucky for his accomplishments. “Holy…”

“Do you understand, Bucky?” God said. “Without you, there are so many people that wouldn’t have found their way Home. Even those that couldn’t cross over… with your help and solving the mystery of what killed them, it gave them a second chance to find their happiness. You’ve done what so few other people have done in this world. And you should be proud of it.”

“So few… huh?” Bucky asked, looking up at God. “What do you mean, so few? There are other people who did what I did, talking to spirits?”

“And there still are. You think ghosts are only confined to New York?” God chuckled. “I have hundreds of messengers across the globe doing what it is you are tasked with. There are billions of souls of all kinds that need help coming back into my arms. You, my messengers, are some of the most important people I could ever rely on. Make no mistake.”

Bucky listened, feeling himself choked with emotion. He’d had no idea… and he’d complained so much during his time on Earth. Feeling terrible for his shitty attitude, Bucky ducked his head, hiding the look of regret in his eyes. “That’s… I had no idea that-”

“Shh,” God said, squeezing his shoulder. “Don’t dwell on the past, it gets you nowhere. For now, come with me. There is one last thing I need to show you.”

Bucky looked up at God, surprised at his change in attitude. He sounded all business now, his earlier cheer (what little of it) gone in a flash. He opened his mouth to reply, but found himself being tugged along by the Deity, away from the crowd that watched him so proudly for saving them. He saw Tony and Brock wave to him, silently thanking him for his friendship, before his attention was drawn back to God at his side.

The two of them left the crowd behind in the field and took the steps up the front porch of his house. They slipped into the quiet home, and Bucky took a moment to revel in such familiar surroundings. As he remembered the old memories, warm and comforting like a blanket wrapped around him, he heard God call him from the adjacent room, and followed his voice. There he spotted the Deity standing in front of a wall of pictures, staring at one smack in the middle.

This was the only picture that looked different. Aside from the old family photos, Bucky spotted the image of himself, an adult man, held in the arms of Steve. They were cuddled up together, pressing kisses to each other and looking unbelievably in love as they shared such an intimate moment. “Steve…” Bucky said. His heart broke at the sight of the image he would never get to experience, and he reached up, touching the glass of the frame.

“Do you remember the last time we spoke?” God asked. When Bucky nodded, He turned his attention back to the picture in front of them. “I lied when I said I chose you at random. Omnipotent and all, I had a plan for you from the day you were born. I knew you were going to get hit by that car and end up in the hospital. I also knew that Steve would be working an extra shift the day you were brought in, close to death.”

“So you planned all this,” Bucky asked, never taking his eyes off the picture.

“I did,” God admitted. “I knew that Steve had been in danger of Schmidt’s wrath from the day he was born. I also knew that there would come a man that would love and care for him so deeply, he would do anything to protect him. That’s why I brought you two together. That is also why I gave you the gift to talk to departed souls, James. It was the only way to ensure that Steve’s life continued on. You were born to protect Steve Rogers, just as Steve was born to save you and so many countless lives.”

God sighed, bumping shoulders with Bucky as he stared at the image. “I’m sorry you suffered such pain. I can only hope to offer you an eternity of bliss to make up for what has happened to you, James. I truly wish that it hadn’t needed to happen the way it did.”

“No, it’s okay,” Bucky said. He stared at Steve, feeling his eyes well up as he took in that gorgeous face. “It’s your Will, like they always said. I did my part to protect Steve, and I’m glad I died, to make sure he didn’t. He didn’t deserve it. Just... thank you for giving me his picture to have. It means more to me than you can imagine.”

“You’re welcome. But that’s not why I’m showing you this image,” God said. That caught Bucky’s attention and he looked up at him, quizzically. “What I mean is, you are to continue to protect him. Steve is meant for great things in his life. He needs someone that loves him the way you do, to look out for him and make sure he completes his work.”

“So I’m his guardian angel now,” Bucky said, snorting an obnoxious sound. “I thought they said human souls couldn’t be angels.”

“Cap your sass. You may have been a hero this night, but I can still cause you grief.” God said, though the threat was empty at best. “Yes, in a way you are a guardian. You will continue to make sure that spirits cross over, though with the added caveat that Steve’s safety and wellbeing are first and foremost priority. Do you understand me?”

“Yeah, I do,” Bucky said. He looked back at Steve’s image, capturing his visage in his memory for eternity. “I just don’t know how I’m supposed to do that from what up here.”

“You’ll find a way,” God said. He reached up, cupping his hand on the back of Bucky’s head gently. “Just close your eyes. Imagine seeing him now. Do that for me.”

Bucky nodded. Feeling God’s comforting touch on his head, he closed his eyes, picturing Steve before him in vivid clarity. “I can see him.”

“Good…” God said softly. “Now focus on him. Clear your mind of anything else but him.”

Bucky settled into his touch, comforted. He almost felt like he was sinking, listening to God’s comforting voice, and he relaxed, smiling as he focused only on his Stevie. “That’s good. Clear, Bucky. Just keep your mind clear for him. Clearer, my son. Clearer… Clear…. Clear….”


 

That didn’t just happen. No, it couldn’t have. Bucky wasn’t supposed to die. He was supposed to save him… bring him back once Schmidt was gone. They were supposed to have a fucking make-up date after the chaos was over.

Bucky wasn’t supposed to die!

Steve gaped at the ground where Bucky’s spirit had vanished before his eyes. It took him a solid minute to come to terms with what he was seeing, only jarring back to awareness when he felt Clint’s hand on his shoulder. “B-Bucky…”

~”Steve… Steve, it’s over,”~ Clint said sadly. ~Bucky’s gone. He… he went the same way Brock and Tony did. I’m so sorry man…”~

“No,” Steve responded. His protest was so matter-of-fact, Steve could almost convince himself that he believed it. Looking at Clint, he shrugged his hand off of his arm, backing away from him. “No… That’s not right. I’m supposed to save him. I’m supposed to fucking bring him back!” Turning away, Steve crossed the open stretch of grass and field behind the hospital, before he feet came to a jarring halt. He realized, then and there, that Natasha had stopped him from moving a step further. How bizarre, that he’d lost control of his body so easily in her influence. “Let me the fuck go.”

~”Steve, stop.”~ Nat said, his head ringing with her voice. ~”Bucky’s gone… don’t torture yourself over his passing. He died, protecting you, and that’s what he said he was going to do, isn’t it? Why are you going to fight his choice when you knew this was going to happen?”~

Steve didn’t listen to her. His jaw locked in a defiant glare as he stared straight ahead. No, he wasn’t going to listen to her. He wasn’t going to accept that Bucky was gone. He’d made a fucking promise to bring him back, and he would be damned if he failed him now. His fists tightened at his sides, a growl of frustration escaping him. “Let. me. go.”

Clint stared at Steve, his expression pulled into a broken frown. He didn’t move for a second, hovering by Steve before his shoulders dropped, and he looked into Steve’s eyes directly at Nat. ~”Maybe we should just let him try, Nat… if it gives him peace to move on.”

Inside his head, Steve heard Natasha sigh, and he gained control of his limbs again.  He didn’t move for a second, wondering what the hell she had to say to him. Already, he could read her mannerisms, even if he couldn’t see her at that moment, and he waited impatiently for her to speak. ~”Alright… I’m gonna leave you now, so you won’t be able to see or hear us anymore. But… this is for Bucky, do you understand me? Try your best, and if you can’t bring him back, please allow him the dignity of his choice, Steve.”~

“I will,” Steve said. He nodded to Clint, watching the spirit wave at him before that swelling, swirling sensation overtook his body. Little by little, the visage of Clint faded before his eyes, before he felt a sort of ‘pop’ as Natasha separated herself from him again. For the briefest of seconds, Steve saw the image of a pretty red-headed woman before his eyes, her smile just as broken as he felt, before she vanished from sight, leaving him alone in that field.

The moment he was free from Natasha’s influence, Steve bolted for the doors of the hospital. He knew he must have looked like a madman, bursting into one of the backdoors of the hospital. Thank God, there was no one else around. Sprinting down the hallway, Steve pushed his limit, panting heavily as he made a beeline for the laboratory he’d left Bucky behind in.

He didn’t run into a single soul as he made his mad dash, and shoved himself into the lab with the door banging against the wall. The room was icy cold, which meant the freezer had hit the absolute lowest temperature possible. The defibrillator cart and all of his supplies had been left completely untouched, which meant no one had been into the lab within the past 90 minutes (Oh God, 90 minutes…), and Steve slammed into the freezer, his hands scrambling for the lock.

Ripping the door open with all his might, Steve was hit with a bloom of icy air washing over him. He shuddered viciously at that, and he felt sick to his stomach at that realization. He’d felt that level of cold for a brief second, and it hurt his skin. He couldn’t imagine how horribly Bucky had suffered inside here.

Once the frosty cloud had finally cleared a bit, his eyes went to the floor of the freezer. Lying on his side, was Bucky’s frozen body, his skin tinged grey-blue through his natural olive tone, and his eyes were half-cracked opened as he stared at nothingness. He was a literal statue, frozen on the floor where he’d collapsed, with no signs of life left in him at all.

“Shit!” Steve, gasped, his thoughts switching immediately into Doctor-mode. He couldn’t let himself become emotional. Bucky’s life was on the line here. Shoving the sob that wanted to escape him back down, he dropped to his knees, touching Bucky’s torso and lifting the still malleable fabric of his t-shirt to feel his torso. Despite looking totally frozen, Bucky’s skin still had a sort of supple softness to it, though it felt as cold as the metal walls around him.

Luckily, Bucky’s clothes had taken the brunt of impact, and with a little effort, Steve managed to gently pry Bucky up from the floor so as not to damage his exposed skin, and drag his stiff body from the freezer. Out in better lighting, Steve looked down at his boyfriend’s corpse, and he nearly gagged at the sight of him. He’d seen a lot of fucked up shit in his line of work, but this took the cake. Strands of hair frozen into spikes, his skin speckled with ice flecks... he’d seen severe cases of hypothermia and frostbite, but he’d never seen someone look this bad.

He couldn’t do this alone. He needed someone to help warm Bucky up while he worked to revive him. Knowing he had no other choice, Steve scrambled to his feet, grabbing at the lab phone and punching in the intercom code before barking a desperate order into the receiver. “Doctor Wilson and Nurse Carter, get to the east wing lab right now! Doctor Wilson and Nurse Carter! East wing Lab. STAT!”

The moment he’d given his order, Steve threw the phone back down onto the receiver, before rushing to the lab’s personal thermostat and kicking that up to 80 degrees. With that, Steve threw his jacket off and dropped down to Bucky’s side again. He grabbed two blankets, wrapping them around his boyfriend’s figure, and began to vigorously rub his palms up and down his body, trying to force even the littlest bit of warmth into his body. He worked diligently, ignoring the heat of the room around him as sweat began to form on his temple. He was all focus on Bucky at that moment, slowly thawing out his body under the thick blankets in his hands.

By the time Steve had managed to warm his core up and thaw his body out, he heard the lab door burst open, and a curse come from behind him. “What the fucking shit, why is it so hot in here?!” Sam exclaimed, rushing over to the freezer door and slamming it shut. Behind Steve, he heard the sound of Sharon’s gasp as she spotted the doctor hunched up on the floor over a body, and she rushed over to him.

“Holy shit, is that Barnes?!” she exclaimed, grabbing at Steve’s arm.

“Christ fuckin’ almighty, Steve what the hell is going on?” Sam demanded, rushing over to the frantic doctor as he scrambled to his feet and grabbed for the defibrillator machine.

“No time to explain, just keep warming him up!” Steve barked. He turned on the machine, letting it get a charge before grabbing the wired pads and yanking the adhesive covering off of them. He looked down at Bucky , watching as Sharon and Sam both worked vigorously, rubbing fast circles into his skin to get him warmed up as best as they could.

Fuck, Steve couldn’t believe this was happening. Twenty minutes maximum in the freezer and already his chances were low in restarting Bucky’s heart. 90 minutes? His chance of reviving Bucky were slim to none. But Jesus, he had to try!

Looking up at the machine, Steve watched the monitor flash before optimal charge was reached.  Elbowing Sharon out of the way, Steve worked Bucky’s t-shirt up, before sticking the pads onto his chest, framing his heart. His breath froze in his lungs as he reached up, pressing the button to discharge the machine and send a shock straight through Bucky’s heart. “Clear!” he barked, watching as Sharon and Sam’s hands yanked away from Bucky’s torso in the nick of time. Below them, Bucky’s body twitched as the gentle “thump!” of the machine discharged. Steve froze, staring down at Bucky as he held his breath, waiting for any sign that this might have miraculously worked.

Sam made a noise in the back of his throat, leaning down. He pressed his fingers to Bucky’s throat, though the look on his face told Steve everything he needed. “Steve… Steve this is fucking crazy. It’s not gonna work, man.”

“Shut up, and keep working!” Steve barked. Shaking his head, he leaned up, grabbing at the machine and recharging it in a fit of desperation. It didn’t matter what anyone said. He knew the drill. He knew, step by step, how to care for even the most severe cases of hypothermia. He’d saved lives. He was a Goddamn doctor! He was going to revive Bucky, even if it fucking killed him!

With his thoughts a jumble of protocols, steps, and growing panic, Steve worked, methodical as he kept his hand pressed to Bucky’s chest, feeling for any signs of life in him. He stared at the monitor, waiting impatiently for it to charge up once more before he shouted “Clear!” and discharged again. He heard Sharon yelp as she fell backwards, and he knew he’d very nearly shocked her in his desperate attempts. He didn’t fucking care. She should have moved her hands when he told her to. “Fuck! Bucky wake up, don’t you fucking do this to me!”

“Steve!” Sam shouted. Reaching out, he grabbed at Steve’s shoulders, shaking him. “Steve, his heart is completely stopped! It’s not going to work, man! Stop it!”

Steve ignored him. Feeling his heart breaking in his chest, he reached up, blindly grabbing for the machine and charging it up a third time. His vision blurred as he watched the monitor count up. The second it hit optimal charge, he slammed his finger onto the discharge, turning to watch Bucky’s body twitch again, before going completely still.

“Fuck…” Steve gasped. Shoving the cart away from himself, he scooted up Bucky’s body, his hands ripping the pads off of his chest. He leaned down, pressing his ear to Bucky’s chest, desperately listening for a heartbeat. When he found none, Steve barely stifled a scream of frustration and he pressed his hands into his chest, starting a frantic array of chest compressions. “Fuck! Bucky! Wake up! Wake up!” he cried. He leaned down, tilting Bucky’s head up and pressed his lips to his, breathing a lungful of air into his body. From the corner of his eye, he saw Bucky’s chest rise from the action, though three breaths of air later did nothing to get the man to start breathing on his own.

With every fiber of his being, Steve willed Bucky to wake up. Praying to God in a silent litany, Steve worked, alternating chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth until he felt his wrists tiring from the action. But still no matter what he did, Steve could not bring Bucky around. He lay before him, as still as a statue as Steve worked mindlessly, balancing on the knife edge of hope until at long last he felt Sam’s hands on his shoulders, pushing him back a final time.

“Steve...” Sam murmured. His voice was soothing, the same tone he took when he had to break terrible news to patients. Steve instantly realized how trite and horrible it really did sound, and he kept his eyes averted from Sam. “Steve… he’s gone. Please… please don’t do this to yourself. He’s gone, man… just let him go.”

Steve didn’t answer him. He kept his eyes locked on Bucky’s serene expression. He looked so peaceful. Just lying there looking like he’d wake up from a long nap at any moment. It was too much. God, it was too much. He might have only been dating him for a few weeks… he might have only truly known him for just shy of two years, but to Steve it felt like losing a life-long partner. He’d lost the best guy he’d ever known, watched him fucking sacrifice himself for Steve when he could have so easily walked away and left him to his fate. It was a true act of heroism, and Steve felt sick that he had to be the one to cost Bucky his life.

“It’s my fault,” he murmured, his voice hitching. He squeezed his eyes shut, pressing his hands to his eyes as a piercing headache took him over. He felt Sam rubbing his hands up and down his arms to try and soothe him, but it did little good. “Fuck… I-I wasn’t… I wasn’t there…”

“Steve,” Sharon’s voice cut in. He looked up at her, his gaze blurry as he saw the heartbroken look on her face. “Steve, I’m so sorry this happened…”

“It doesn’t matter,” he cut in, his voice harsh. He didn’t care about how he sounded then and there. He’d already lost his mother but to lose Bucky on top of that? It was too much. Keeping his eyes diverted from his colleagues, Steve leaned down. He carefully wrapped his arm around Bucky’s shoulders, pulling him into his lap. His attention was set solely on Bucky at that moment, ignoring the others as he pressed his forehead to Bucky’s. With this intimate position, Steve allowed himself to finally break, his earlier determination shriveling up as he allowed himself to finally, silently cry for his loss.

The moment came to a standstill. The weight of death was heavy in the room, crushing Steve until he felt himself withering under the pressure. With nothing more he could do, Steve pressed a final kiss to Bucky’s cold lips as he willed him to open his eyes just once more. He lingered, until the cool touch of his skin chilled his own, finally breaking the kiss to look at him one last time. He’d have to transport him to the morgue, but he just wasn’t ready to move yet. The only thing he could do was take the moment to soak up his appearance, memorizing his face as he reached up, brushing away a tear that had fallen from his own cheek, and landed like a perfect little pearl of water on his skin.

Steve had never really believed in miracles. He believed in Science and medicine, and the value of good hard work. Miracles were reserved for stories and biblical verses from thousands of years ago. They didn’t really apply to real life, according to him. But as he brushed that tear from Bucky’s cheek, his fingers lingering on his skin a moment too long, Steve’s opinion on such “stupid” things, changed forever.

Bucky took a breath.

It wasn’t an easy breath. In fact, it sounded hoarse and ragged, like trying to breathe around a throatful of rocks. But he took a breath on his own! Shocked, Steve watched as Bucky took a second, and then a third gulping breath of air, his eyes flying open in an instant. “Bucky?!” Steve gasped, clinging to him as he tore himself from the clutches of death and collapsed in Steve’s lap, exhausted but miraculously alive.

“You have gotta be shitting me!” Sam’s voice cut in. Steve heard a scuffle as his colleagues jumped to their feet, but he paid them no mind. All that mattered was holding onto Bucky as tightly as he could just in case death decided to come back and yank him back into darkness again.

Steve could heard Sam’s voice, barking into one of the mobile phones the carried with them in the hospital to page other workers. He vaguely caught wind of Sam ordering a bed be made available in the Emergency room, but he didn’t pay attention. All he focused on at that moment, was wrapping Bucky up in those blankets, cradling him to his chest as he tried his best to warm him back up where he lay. “Bucky, holy shit! I thought I lost you!” he gasped, pressing desperate kisses to Bucky’s face as the man began to tremble viciously, still hypothermic from his ordeal.

Bucky shuddered, his whole body shaking like a leaf in Steve’s arms. However, he couldn’t help but offer Steve up a half-assed smile, his cold lips cracking just a bit as he listened to Steve speak. “Y-you… thought you c-c-could get rid of m-me? Y-you’re s-stuck with m-m-me, punk. Sorry t-to say,” Bucky stammered. His voice was just as hoarse as his breathing, his vocal cords still stiff from the horrendous strain his entire body had been put through, but Steve didn’t mind. It was the most beautiful sound he’d ever heard in his life.

Barking a watery laugh, Steve leaned in, pressing kisses to Bucky’s lips as he held him defensively. Never again, would he allow Bucky to come to harm as long as he lived. Bucky had done the unthinkable for Steve, and died in the process. Steve would always work to protect and care for the guy that had done so much for him.

He knew, then and there, that Bucky had always been meant to be with him. It hadn’t been a coincidence that Steve had decided to work an extra shift the day Bucky had been brought in from the car accident. Everything that had happened had lead up to this, and Steve would be damned if he let Bucky go ever again. “I love you, you fuckin’ jerk…”


 

21 months, 4 days, and 12 Hours post Car accident

Bucky curled up on the sofa, his entire body tucked into a tiny ball at the corner. He had draped a thick blanket over himself, and was half-considering going to get a second one. He looked away from the television, to the window on the other side of the room, and he stared ruefully at the sight of snow coming down in big, cheerful flakes.

God, he hated the cold. Ever since his ordeal in the hospital freezer, Bucky just couldn’t handle feeling chilled. With the onset of winter, the slightest burst of cool breeze sent him running for a sweatshirt, and he’d developed a habit of overstocking the bed with quilts at night. It was kind of ridiculous, he had to admit.

He was just grateful Steve didn’t mind letting Bucky use him as his personal space heater when they slept.

To be totally honest, Bucky’s recovery had been nothing short of astounding. After he’d finally woken up from being frozen to death, Bucky had found himself rushed with extreme urgency to the emergency room. At his side, Steve had hovered over him, working double time as he and his staff transported Bucky to a hospital bed and hooked him up to a multitude of I.V.’s, heart monitors, and an oxygen mask. He’d never felt so claustrophobic in his life, and he’d shamelessly held onto Steve as much as he could while they worked. It had only been Sam to stepping in and pushing Steve to his own room to get his shoulder looked at before the two had finally been separated to be tended to for their specific ills.

Then, came the issue of what the fuck Bucky was going to do about breaking out of jail. As he lay in the hospital recovering, that very real threat of retribution for jailbreaking and essentially kidnapping Steve from the cell, loomed on the horizon, his anxiety for the situation swallowing him whole. But of course, fate intervened yet again. It seemed it wasn’t enough for God to simply make sure that Bucky woke up again on the terrestrial plane. He also made absolutely sure that Bucky wouldn’t face any sort of repercussions for what had transpired.

According to records, Agent Ward had falsified all the information on paper. According to legal documents, he had been trying to indict Bucky for the crimes, before hanging himself at an abandoned chapel across town when the guilt became too much. As for the girl that Schmidt had used Bucky to kill, the only witness that could have tied Bucky to the crime, stepped forward, and admitted openly that she had been highly intoxicated at the time, and swore up and down that Bucky was not, in fact, the guy to kill that woman. Sure, Bucky got in trouble for breaking out of jail (he’d been given a hefty amount of community service to make up for it), but after being falsely accused for the crime and imprisoned without due cause, Bucky was let go.

It all played out beautifully… if you didn’t take into consideration the long, quite painful healing process from being turned into a Popsicle. Once Bucky had been stabilized and deemed back on the mend, it had been determined that he may or may not suffer from long term nerve damage, especially in his left arm where he’d collapsed on the floor of the freezer. Despite the seemingly ugly prognosis, he made almost a full recovery within a month of his confrontation with Schmidt, even if he still suffered from severe cold sensitivity and healing nerve pain.

After he’d finally moved into Steve’s house and the two of them had made a permanent life together, Bucky discovered that Steve was a terrible worry-wart. After almost losing him, Bucky discovered that Steve would do absolutely anything to make sure Bucky was comfortable and safe. He totally, and shamelessly used that to his advantage whenever he got the chance.

Like now. As he lay on the sofa, contemplating the validity of getting up to get a second blanket to snuggle up in, he heard movement by the front door, and looked up to see Steve come in, bundled up in a thick coat and wearing a stocking cap to keep his ears covered from the snowfall outside. “Stevie, you’re home!” Bucky said flashing him a smirk. “Just in time, I was about to make the long, painful journey across the living room to get another blanket. Wanna be a doll and get me one?”

“You already have one,” Steve said giving him a pointed look. “And it’s like ten feet across the room to get to the other one.”

Bucky grinned, tucking himself further into the blanket wrapped around himself. He could read Steve’s reaction; even though he seemed annoyed with having to coddle to Bucky’s request, he could tell the doctor was just eating up the chance to get to baby him. “Please, doll? I’m so cold, and you said so yourself, my nerves are all fucked up.”

Steve sighed, though Bucky could see him struggling not to smile. As he watched Steve cross the room and fetch him the blanket in question, Bucky heard a scoff come from the other side of the room and looked up to see Clint and Natasha giving him a scorned look.

~”That is just pitiful,”~ Natasha said, shaking her head. ~”You are so taking advantage of him. How does that make you feel, Bucky?”~

“Like a million bucks,” he said folding his hands behind his head. When Steve approached him and draped the blanket over his already swaddled figure, Bucky reached up and yanked Steve into a kiss. “Now that’s much better,” He said, nipping at Steve’s lower lip.

Steve hummed in response, bracing himself on the back of the sofa. He broke the kiss, smiling down at Bucky before he reached up and chucked the hat he was wearing across the room. “Are Nat and Clint spying on us again?”

“Yep. They’re complaining about how we’re a sickeningly adorable couple, and that you coddle me way too fuckin’ much,” Bucky said. He made a noise of contentment in his chest when Steve chose to stretch out on the sofa with him, slotting himself between his thighs to lay on Bucky’s chest. He wrapped himself around Steve’s figure, brushing his fingers through his hair, and glanced up to see Clint and Nat both looking sickened by the display of affection. “And now they’re gagging because we just look so adorable together. I told you, Stevie, when I moved in I was bringing two very annoying pets along with me.”

“Yeah, you did warn me,” Steve said, his eyes closed as he relished the feeling of Bucky petting his hair. “But they also got a warning that this is my house. And if they don’t want to have nightmares about seeing you and I fucking on random pieces of furniture, they better watch where they ghost.”

~”Hey! Tell Doctor Hottie that’s totally uncool, man.”~ Clint said, looking green around the gills at that thought. ~”We might be dead, but we still have feelings too, ya know. I liked you guys better before you two went and decided to fall in love.”~

“Yeah, Clint, our romance is such a burden to you,” Bucky said, glancing at his friends. He saw Steve look up out of the corner of his eye, and he smirked, tugging on the back of Steve’s shirt to lift it up and expose his smooth skin to the air. “Now if you don’t wanna see anything that might give you ‘nightmares’ as you put it, I suggest you leave before things get dirty.”

~”Yeugh, Barnes. That’s not right,”~ Natasha said, just as Clint squeaked and vanished from sight. ~”You know it doesn’t matter where we go, you two are still loud as fuck when you have sex. We can hear everything.”~

“Not my problem,” Bucky said, daintily pressing a kiss to Steve’s jugular. “Beat it. We’re busy.”

Steve snickered as he listened to the very one-sided conversation. “I take it they left?”

“Yep,” Bucky said, still tugging on Steve’s shirt. “I bet they can’t wait to decide to cross over now, just so they don’t have to deal with us anymore.”

“But won’t you miss them when they’re gone?” Steve asked. That put a pause on their conversation, and Bucky looked up at him, surprised at the question. “I mean, since they are your friends. You’ve seen them every single day for two years now… won’t you miss them? Don’t you miss Brock and Tony?”

Bucky paused, taking his words into consideration. Yeah, he did miss Brock and Tony. As much as they were a pain in the ass, they were good friends, and not having them around anymore was a bit of a damper. Having Clint and Natasha leave would be just as sad for Bucky, but… at the same time, he knew what it was that awaited them. And missing Brock and Tony didn’t negate the fact that Bucky was thrilled to death with how their afterlives were going.

“Yeah, I miss them. But I’m happy where they’re at. They’re both at peace, and if Clint and Nat decided they wanted to cross over too, I wouldn’t stop them. I know exactly what’s waiting for them both on the other side, now.”

Steve listened, pillowing his chin on Bucky’s chest as he listened to him. “What is waiting for them, anyway?” Steve asked. He swallowed, and Bucky felt the bob of his Adam’s apple on his chest. “What was it like on the other side?”

Bucky smiled. “It’s whatever you make of it. For me, my Heaven was an old family home that I loved back in Indiana. Brock and Tony, their heaven was what made them most happy in their lives. It’s the same for everyone who crosses over. They can all interact, but only you can see the place that truly makes you the happiest.”

“That’s beautiful,” Steve said, smiling at him. “Did you…” Steve paused, clearing his throat. “Did you see my dad there?”

“Yeah, and your mom. Apparently when we killed Schmidt, it got everyone a free pass over to the other side without having to fulfill their unfinished business. She crossed over the same time I did.”

“My parents are together?” Steve asked, awed by that.

Bucky nodded. “Yeah, they are. They both looked way younger, too. I’ll assume they’re as old as they were when they first met and fell in love. Whatever their Heavens look like, I’m sure they’re really happy together.”

Steve listened, his eyes shining a little. Without a word, he leaned up, pushing Bucky into a deeper kiss. His hand went to the brunet’s jaw, cupping it gently as he nipped and tugged at his lower lip.

Bucky sighed through his nose. He returned the gesture, tongue flicking out just a bit to brush against the seam of Steve’s lips. When Steve opened up for him, he delved further, relishing the feeling of Steve around him as he kissed and licked, stifling back a moan of delight. When he broke the kiss for some much needed air, he bumped foreheads with Steve, and smiled up at him. “What was that kiss for?”

“Just… I’m relieved,” Steve said, his voice breaking. “You came back, when you already found your happy place. But you came back down to Earth. I almost lost you, Buck… but somehow you managed to come back. Why?”

Bucky sighed. It was a simple question, but he didn’t really know how much he was supposed to say. God hadn’t specified if what he’d revealed to him was a secret or not, but… it was still a lot to take in. Even still, Bucky decided he would just tell him. Best to not keep secrets, after all. “Because apparently my unfinished business is protecting you until this world doesn't need you anymore. And since the world still needs you, I had to get my ass out if paradise and come back down here to watch out for your dumb self.”

Steve snorted, looking him in the eye with false annoyance. “Dumb self? I’m not dumb!”

“Yes, you are. So dumb,” Bucky said, flicking Steve’s nose before brushing his blond hair from his forehead. “Besides, this way I can keep going with the good work and God doesn’t have to find another lackey to do his ghost jockeying around here. You and I keep working together, I make sure nothing happens to you until it’s time for you to go Home, and then I follow you. Sounds like a pretty sweet deal to me.”

“Yeah, actually that’s a great arrangement.” Steve sighed, delighted. “Just… if you ever have any pow-wows with God, can you let him know how grateful I am that he sent you back to me?”

“I’m sure he knows,” Bucky said softly. “He knows fuckin’ everything, punk…”

Steve grinned. Leaning up on his elbow, he pulled his phone out of his pocket and turned the camera on. “Well, one way I can make my appreciation known is this. C’mon put your best selfie face on, babe.”

“Aw, I fuckin’ hate selfies,” Bucky complained. Even still, he tucked himself into Steve’s arms and smiled at the camera. Just before Steve snapped the photo, he felt the blond press a kiss to his cheek just by his lips, and Bucky turned, grinning broadly as he kissed Steve back. The camera flashed, capturing that goofy little moment forever. “Aw, we ruined the shot,” Bucky chuckled. “Let’s see how terrible it looks.”

Steve nodded, turning the camera around. He opened up the gallery and pulled up the picture he’d just taken. “Oh, I love it. It’s perfect,” he said, turning the phone on Bucky and smiling at him.

Bucky’s earlier smile melted away the moment he saw the picture. Stunned, he took the phone from Steve, and really examined the image before him. To his great shock, Bucky realized he recognized this image. No… not recognized. He’d literally seen this picture before. It took him a second to remember where exactly that had been, and he huffed in surprise, slumping against the arm of the sofa.

This was the photo he’d seen in Heaven. God really did work in mysterious ways, the cheeky bastard.

“You’re right,” Bucky said. He looked up at Steve, and offered him a reassuring smile when he saw the look of concern on his face. “You’re right. It’s a perfect picture… can we frame it? Maybe hang it up on the wall?”

“You wanna frame it?” Steve said, surprised. Even still, he agreed instantly, taking the phone back from Bucky. “Yeah, we can frame it. I’ll have it printed off and framed as soon as I get a chance to go to the pharmacy.”

Bucky smiled, relaxing back into the sofa. He didn’t let Steve get up from where he was still sprawled on his stomach, keeping his arms wrapped around him as they cuddled up. Instead, he held him close, the two of them talking about odd-end things until Steve finally dozed off in his arms, his head pillowed on his chest where he slept.

Bucky didn’t dare move him. Instead, he relished the feeling of holding Steve close in his arms, brushing his hair back with his fingers and relaxing under his warmth. He barely paid attention to his surroundings, until a voice cleared on the other side of the room. Bucky looked up to see Natasha watching him from the other side, and her smile was touching as she beheld the two men.

~”You did well, James,”~ she said, smiling at him as she pushed her curls from her face. ~”I’m really proud to call you my friend.”~

“Thanks,” Bucky said smiling at her. He nuzzled into Steve’s hair a bit before winking at her. “You still think you wanna ghost outta here eventually? I mean, we don’t gross you guys out that much, do we?”

~”Nah,”~ Natasha said, brushing off the question. ~”I was just teasing you. Besides, I don’t think I’m ready to leave you as a friend, either.”~

“Even if it’s for greener pastures?” Bucky asked.

~”James… if my Heaven is any better than getting to spend a lifetime as your friend, then I have no idea what kind of paradise God has planned for me,”~ Natasha said fondly. She turned on her heel, waving over her shoulder towards him before disappearing from the room with a quiet ~”I’ll see you later”~.

With that, the room fell silent again. Bucky stared at the spot Natasha had disappeared from, feeling lighter than he had in a very long time. Frankly, he sort of wondered if God got his personal Heaven wrong in the first place. He couldn’t honestly think of what could possibly be better than this.

Sure, Ghost Keeping was an annoying job. He would never deny that. But as he lay there, held in the arms of the guy he loved unconditionally, and surrounded by friends that cared for him more than anyone else had ever cared for him, well…

Bucky couldn’t deny his life was pretty sweet.

 

END