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How Like a Winter

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Steve shrugs. “I’m not much for stories,” he says, banking the plane left to avoid the drones Doom’s sent after them, no doubt a failsafe for when he inevitably lost to the Avengers once more. Steve’s only been in the twenty-first century for a year now, but already there are dozens of villains determined to draw the Avengers out, to test their might against Earth’s best defense — and, so far, to lose badly and crawl back to their lairs to nurse their wounds. It makes Steve wish for the days when there was only one evil mastermind to fell.

Of course, Steve wishes for those days all the time, would go back in a heartbeat even if it meant every single twenty-first century villain tagging along for the ride.

“Get ready to roll,” he adds, and sends the plane into a corkscrew spiral towards the ocean, comes close enough to cover the wings in salt spray before leveling out. Doom’s drones aren’t designed for quick maneuvering — aren’t designed to follow suicidal assholes, Tony shouts — and the unmanned planes hit the waves head on, splinter and sink as Steve aims into a gust of wind he can see in the approaching white caps and lifts them back into the air.

“Who the hell taught you to fly a plane?” Stark cries, arms and legs locked around the copilot’s seat. “Evil Knievel?”

“Daredevil performer,” Bruce mouths, because while Bruce is terrible at explaining scientific concepts to soldiers — or to spies, assassins, and gods — he’s aces at translating Tony Stark. All Starks need interpreters, Steve knows. Lord knows he’d never understood Howie’s booshwash.

“The RAF,” Steve replies, doesn’t bother to look up and watch Bruce gesticulate “British Air Force” at Tony until he understands.

Monty had started as RAF, the perfect military position for a blue-blooded young man fresh out of Oxford. Monty’s father had served in the Great War, his grandfather in Afghanistan, and his great-grandfather in India. He was supposed to serve out the war in the air, then land and serve in the government like all the Falsworths that had come before. Instead, he’d been gunned out of the air, served as lieutenant to a group of nut-jobs, finished one war and gone right back in for more. He never went back to flying, though; not unless you counted a few pointless surveillance missions over the Arctic Circle, looking for a plane buried under miles of ice.

“I learned to fly with my br– with Mjolnir,” Thor volunteers, rubs his fingers over the leather on the hammer’s handle and doesn’t say anything more. Steve twists to see the god, but Thor is looking through all of them, staring into millennia past, into golden days that are impossible to relive. Steve knows how he feels.

“Let’s save that story for later,” Bruce suggests, because Barton hasn’t quite nocked an arrow at the almost-mention of Thor’s brother, but it’s a near thing.

“Of course,” Thor says politely, though Steve doubts he would have told them any more if they’d begged. “I wouldn’t want to interrupt Captain Rogers’s tale.”

“About the RAF?” Steve wonders, because there really isn’t much of a story there. Nothing they couldn’t get from Monty’s SHIELD files. Nothing Steve wants to share.

“About becoming Captain America,” Clint corrects, focused entirely on fletching new arrows for his quiver. Almost entirely. Steve recognizes the tilt of Barton’s head, though he knows it best when the hair is dark and curling out of its braids, Becky pretending she was too grown up for the fairytales her sisters clamored to hear, dark head intent on her sewing but her ears perked for Steve’s stories all the same. The girls had loved stories: fairytales, the Irish folk stories Steve’s ma could weave, the mythology Steve and Bucky learned in English class and brought home.

“It’s not much of a story,” Steve tells them, levels off at thirty-six thousand feet and lays in a course for New York. Tony’s not paying much attention, or he’d go bonkers over Steve knowing how to use any crate built after 1945. “Bucky died. I put on a suit.”

Not always in that order, of course.

All Steve’s stories begin and end with Bucky Barnes. (All but the first one: a woman with untamable red hair and thin, callused fingers brushing away her son’s tears, Steve’s first memory the safety of her embrace, the perfume lingering on her neck, the cloud of her fiery hair and the gentleness of her hands, the lullaby that drew him inexorably into sleep. And even that story ended with Bucky: a boy with brilliantined hair and callused fingers, an embrace that tucked Steve against skin smelling of cheap cologne, the lulling, gentling promise that he would never be alone.)

“Come on,” Tony begs, dark hair and a whine in his voice, pushing and prodding and nothing at all like Lizzie Barnes shoving her way into Steve’s lap, no reason at all for Steve’s chest to ache like he’s been cleaved in two. “Tell us a story! Any story!”

“All right, all right,” Steve acquiesces, because he’d rather tell them a story than explain. The first day of school began with a fight, with a dark-haired boy offering him a handkerchief for his bloody nose and a hand up off the ground. The war began with an induction notice, a dark-haired boy’s pale face, Steve’s first and second 4F, and an empty bottle of gin. Captain America began with a troop ship docked in Brooklyn, waiting to carry Bucky into the fight. Captain America began in the Alps, a man lost and nothing left for Steve Rogers but the war. Captain America began –

The plane is quiet. Clint leans forward to listen, his hair gritty with soot and debris and still not as dark as Becky’s, her fingers slowing over the mending she pretended to do, her gasp when the princess pricked her finger on the spinning wheel and fell. Steve would fold his hands in front of the lamp, cast fantastical shadows along the floor, evil fairies and climbing vines. Nonie always climbed into Bucky’s lap, then, brown eyes wide in her round face, sucking worriedly on the edge of her ragged blanket.

Shadows spilled across the floor: bold huntsmen, evil sorceresses, sleeping princesses, a prince riding a white horse.

“Once upon a time…”

* * *

(The Twelve Dancing Princesses)

“Steve. Steve.

What?” Steve hissed, dropping into a crouch when Gabe looked their way and glaring at Bucky for being so loud. “They’re going to hear you!”

“What does it matter if they hear me?” Bucky whispered loudly, though he dropped down next to Steve and Jones turned back to his drink none the wiser. “This isn’t a secret mission, it’s a pub!”

“Which they lied about going to! They said they were going to bed.” Steve pulled out the camera he’d borrowed from Dugan — though Dugan didn’t know about it — and tried to aim it through the window. “Now we’ll have proof!” he declared, then ducked when the flash caught the attention of the whole bar.

“Did you see that?” Jones asked, obviously the youngest of the princesses, the only one to notice when the suitor snapped a branch off the gold and silver trees.

“I think it was lightning,” Morita replied. “Now come on, dollface, you’re buying this round. We might as well spend our dough now, Stark insists they’ll be shipping us back to Europe next week.”

“Into the jaws of Death, into the mouth of hell,” Monty intoned, raising his glass. “Oh, the wild charge we’ll make!”

“Are you happy now?” Bucky demanded, striking a match on the wall of the pub to light his cigarette. “We’ve discovered why they’re wearing out their dancing shoes. Maybe if we’re lucky, the king will let us marry one of them.”

“Oh, kiss off,” Steve said, sticking out his tongue. A raindrop landed on it, followed directly by several more. Steve squinted into the sky, and a few cold raindrops splattered on his upturned face. “Maybe we should go back to base,” he decided.

Bucky kicked him in the shin.

They walked back to the bunker together, side by side, close enough to hide under a cloak and creep back to bed before the twelve princesses returned. Bucky was there when Steve cursed at the tangled laces of his boots, when he replaced Dugan’s camera and stripped for bed.

Steve fell right to sleep, these days, hours of training and no coughing fits or aching joints to keep him awake. He’d learned to sleep on trains and in tents and anywhere that a travelling USO troupe might go, woke up in only a few hours refreshed and ready for a day that had yet to start.

The team’s beds were still empty when Steve woke up, the men no doubt dancing their money and the night away.

“Buck?” Steve whispered, because in the two weeks since Italy, Bucky seemed to sleep even less than Steve. “You awake?”

But there was no sound from the bunk next to Steve’s, nothing there when he reached out but an itchy wool blanket and sheets cool to the touch. Steve might have caught the princesses drinking and dancing, but this was the third night in a row that he’d reached for Bucky only to find that Bucky was long gone.

There was no king coming to cut off Steve’s head, but that didn’t lessen the ache of failure under his ribs, the fear that gripped him every time he woke up and wondered if Bucky had been there at all.

 

(The Princess and the Fairy Circle)

“This is not a fairy circle. This is a bomb crater. You were not kidnapped by fairies.”

“It’s the only explanation,” Dum Dum insisted with a wet belch, grimacing at the taste.

“It’s really not,” Steve promised, not even trying to hide his grin.

“We were out for an evening stroll when Fresno here saw the lights,” Dugan carried on. “And then we were dragged into the dance. How else do you explain Jackie’s missing shoes?”

“I have a theory about those,” Bucky said, nudging his boot against a worn shoe half-hidden in concrete dust and debris.

“Ma chaussure!”

“I don’t think you want it, pal,” Bucky told Jackie, still staring down at the shoe. “It’s full of vomit.”

“Fairy vomit,” Monty corrected, leaning against the remains of a bombed out wall and looking rather seasick for someone sitting on dry land. “Clearly someone grew too dizzy from all the dancing yesterday.”

“By yesterday, do you mean Monday? Because it’s Thursday, Lieutenant. You’ve been ‘away with the fairies’ for two days.”

“Oh come now, Captain, you must know that men who start dancing with the fairies can vanish for a hundred years. It’s really quite lucky that we escaped with our lives.”

“Let me guess, the handsome fairy prince offered you a drink and you were helpless to resist his charms?” Bucky sniped, rolling his eyes and pulling Morita to his feet. “It figures you would be the princess, Monty.”

“What princess?” Monty asked. “What’s a princess doing in a fairy circle?”

“There’s always a princess,” Bucky told him seriously, cigarette hanging off his lip. Bucky had never smoked back in Brooklyn, claimed to hate the smell and not the way cigarettes made Steve’s weak lungs seize and his throat close. Steve wondered when he’d picked up the habit. Steve watched Bucky finish the gin bottle hidden under his bunk, and wondered that Bucky still didn’t sleep.

“Barnes family rule,” Steve agreed, with a solemn nod. “Every story needs a princess. And they have to fall in love.”

Lizzie had demanded the princess, one night after Steve foolishly told them a story about a clever man and some robbers instead. Lizzie wanted her impossibly curly hair braided around her head in a crown, was nineteen now and wanted to be Ingrid Bergman and Amelia Earhart both, typed her letters at work and signed them with the movie star signature she’d perfected at age twelve. It was Becky, who insisted she didn’t need any stories; Becky who helped put her younger sisters to bed and claimed she was old enough to stay awake with Bucky and Steve, like her eyes weren’t drooping and her chin wasn’t dropping to her chest. Becky, who always blinked up at Steve, half dreaming already, and said quietly, “But do you think they fell in love?”

“It’s a good rule,” Bucky said, startling Steve from his reverie, startling Steve with his smile. The look on Bucky’s face was softer than Steve had seen since the war began, the half-smile on his face gentle where in the past year Bucky had been angry or firm or grim. “Even a hard-headed billy goat princess needs somebody to love,” he added, and Steve stuck out his tongue and wished he could catch hold of Bucky’s grin before it slipped away.

Princesses or soldiers, robbers or fairies or trolls, it never mattered to Becky. Do they fall in love? she wondered.

They always did.

 

(Princess Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs)

“I’m sleepy,” Dum Dum declared through a yawn he didn’t bother to cover up, both hands full with extra explosives Jackie was no doubt hoping they’d need, Jackie’s hands full of handkerchiefs for his leaking nose.

“Really?” Fresno grunted, all of them short of breath from carrying their gear over four mountains and the past week, on their third map and fifth circle and still no sign of the Hydra facility Peggy swore Army intelligence had said was there. “I see you as more of a Dopey.”

“Can you see anything at all, squinting like that?” Dum Dum riposted, and Morita socked him in the arm. “No need to be Grumpy!” Dugan informed him, grinning, and held up the explosives in defense when Fresno tried to sock him again.

“Who’s Happy?” Steve interrupted, falling back to stand between Dum Dum and Fresno, because they’d lost an hour yesterday to the two goading each other into a fight, and Dugan holding Morita’s head and laughing uproariously when this kept him out of swinging reach. Of course, then Fresno had solved that problem by kicking Dum Dum in the balls, which had slowed down Dugan’s marching considerably the rest of the day.

“Nobody’s Happy,” Bucky called back from the front of their uneven line. “We’ve been marching around in circles for a goddamned week looking for this guy’s lair.”

Dernier responded to this with another string of sneezes, then honked into his handkerchief so loudly that he could have summoned geese from two mountains away.

“I nominate Jackie for Sneezy,” Morita said.

“I am not Sneezy! It is all ze, comment dit-on? Fucking trees!” Dernier followed this pronouncement with another sneeze that sounded like he’d swallowed some of his dynamite.

“Excuse your French,” Gabe told Jackie, handing over his own fresh handkerchief.

“Why? Mon français est magnifique!”

“Yeah, Jones,” Bucky agreed, slowing down to fall in with the rest of them, his rifle still aimed at the forest shadows that lay ahead. “Don’t be Bashful.”

“Gabe is quite evidently Doc,” Monty corrected, combing out the mustache he’d somehow kept trimmed through a week of trekking in the woods.

“And Monty is quite evidently the eighth dwarf, Uppity,” Dugan replied, putting on Falsworth’s accent and pretending to comb his own mustache, which had grown over both his upper and lower lip and appeared to be home to a family of dandelions in bloom. That might explain why Dernier kept sneezing all the time. “Who nobody ever saw because he never did any damn work.”

“Does that make him the dwarf princess?” Jackie asked, and Gabe translated, because the Commandos had quickly caught on to the fairytale rules.

“Don’t be a twit,” Fresno replied. “Didn’t you see the film? Snow White is the princess, and Snow White is obviously Cap.”

“Because he wears tights?” Dugan guessed, and it was only because Steve’s ears were tuned to Bucky’s every move that he caught the snicker Bucky thought he’d hid.

“Because he’s the fairest in all the land, you circus elephant! The Red Skull is jealous because Cap’s the prettiest princess, and so he keeps trying to kill Steve.”

“Are you saying I’m not pretty, soldier?” asked someone off to Steve's right. Someone an unflattering shade of puce, with a pistol aimed at Steve's head.

The Red Skull didn’t exactly appear out of nowhere, now that Steve was looking. It turned out Peggy might have been right about that secret lair. The well-guarded secret lair, apparently, if the number of Hydra soldiers moving to surround them were any indication.

Jackie sneezed.

“Yes,” Morita answered, lifting his gun.

“Emphatically,” Monty added, waving his own firearm in an attempt to distract from where Dernier and Dugan were doing something with hankies and dynamite.

“Isn’t there supposed to be a poisoned apple for this part?” Jones asked, shrugging off the radio and trying to figure out which Hydra soldier to aim at first.

“I’m afraid I’m all out of apples,” the Red Skull replied, lifting a hand that looked to be nothing but muscle and sinew, Erskine’s serum flaying the Skull raw, and lazily waving his men forward. “I suppose guns will have to do.”

“Zey will no—achoo!” Jackie shouted, his declaration cut short by a sneeze.

“Was that the signal?” Dugan whispered, hunched over something indistinguishable in the fast-approaching dark.

Oui,” Jackie sniffled, and waved Hydra adieu with his damp handkerchief. “Boom!”

 

They didn’t catch the evil queen, but it turned out a few grumpy, sleepy dwarves and a princess could destroy a secret lair in record time.

“This is much better than the fairytale,” Steve told Bucky, standing watch over the dwindling conflagration of the old Hydra plant while the Commandos slept.

Bucky raised his eyebrows at Steve, his face painted in flickering yellows and oranges, blood on his forehead where a bullet had grazed his scalp and soot smudged over his nose. “Does that mean you don’t want to be woken with a kiss?” he asked evenly, staring into the flames.

Steve hadn’t woken up to kisses since 1942, since before Bucky’s induction notice had fueled Steve’s determination to join the war, his 4F reports fueling Bucky’s anger at Steve’s refusal to stay behind. When they came together now, it was in the shadowy spaces where Steve didn’t need sleep — where Steve woke up dreaming of different fires, Bucky’s gaunt figure on a table, dreams where Steve was too late and Bucky’s skin was already cold, dreams where neither of them made it through the fire — and Bucky refused to sleep, pressed against trees outside camp, pressed against bunker walls, gunpowder and bruises, rough enough to leave Steve aching, the only way he could be sure that Bucky was really there.

“I’d rather not sleep at all,” Steve lied, and it was true only because every time he went to sleep Bucky slipped from his hands and disappeared. Steve could sacrifice a few morning kisses if it meant that he could pull Bucky to him now, could feel hands in his hair and teeth at his throat and be certain that, in this moment, at least, Bucky was still here.

 

(The Snow Princess)

“He couldn’t have caught a train in Egypt? Algeria? Tunisia? They have trains there!”

“Deserts aren’t particularly warm at night, you know,” Gabe said, his gravitas undermined by the fact that he was very nearly sitting on top of their campfire. “What?” he snapped, when Steve smirked and pointed out that his boot soles were melting. “I’m from Georgia! The last time it was this cold in Georgia, dinosaurs roamed the earth!”

“We visited the Alps when I was a child,” Jackie reminisced in French, rubbing his hands and holding them out over the fire. “Of course, we did not sleep in the snow.”

“You’ll be fine,” Steve repeated, the same way he’d been responding to complaints about the wind and the frost and the ice and the hike up the mountain to reach the train since Howie had dropped them in the Alps.

“I know why Cap’s not cold,” Fresno grumbled, huddled in his bedroll and the blanket he’d stolen from Dum Dum. “His heart is made of ice.”

“The doctor built me out of snow,” Steve said drily, the only one of them who caught Bucky’s faint flinch. Bucky had never liked the snow princess — Mrs. Petroff had taught it to them, one winter when Steve had pneumonia and his mother was working and Mrs. Barnes had just had nursed Nonie through the croup and couldn’t take him in. Mrs. Petroff had called the maiden Snegurochka. Steve called her Princess Snegurochka, when he stopped coughing and told the story to the Barnes girls that spring. “If I get too close to that fire, there’ll be nothing left of me but a cloud of mist.”

“Is that what you Americans call it?” Monty inquired, and Dugan snorted the sip of whiskey he was stealing from Falsworth’s flask.

“What is this, a story about Princess Parson Brown the Snowman?” Morita bit out, shivering, and didn’t slug Dum Dum when he reached over and dragged Fresno practically on top of him and let him shove his blue lips and red nose in Dugan’s armpit.

Monty shook out a blanket and corralled Jackie and Gabe underneath it, dragging Gabe a few inches further away from the campfire before he set them all alight.

Bucky and Steve sat on the far edge of the fire, their backs to the wind, neither of them shivering despite the cold. The tips of Bucky’s ears were pink, though Steve couldn’t tell if it was from the fire or the chill.

Or irritation, at having to sit through the story of the snow maiden one more time.

“It’s Snegurochka,” Bucky said, snapping each syllable of her name. “The daughter of Father Frost and Mother Spring. She’s made of snow, and given to a poor childless couple who loves her like their own.”

That’s a shitty story, Bucky had said, as soon as Mrs. Petroff had lumbered out of the room, lowering his voice to a whisper so she wouldn’t hear him curse. Becky hadn’t liked it, either, and Steve probably would have told it once to pass the evening and never thought of it again, if Nonie hadn’t tugged on his sleeve a few days later and asked for “the thnow printheth,” chewing on the corner of her baby blanket. It was Nonie’s favorite story, Princess Snegurochka of the frost, and the boy who loved her, and the spring heart that led to her thaw. Look, she’d call out, every spring, when the sun melted the icicles from the eaves and washed the snow from the streets. Princess Snegurochka’s in love.

“And there’s this idiot village boy,” Bucky continued quickly, no regard at all for the peasants who had raised Snegurochka, kept her in cool corners away from the hearth, embraced her despite the chill. “And he loves her, too. But Snegurochka can’t love anyone, because her heart is made of ice. So she asks Mother Spring to give her a new heart, a warm heart -” which is a dumb fucking idea, Bucky refrained from saying, but he’d muttered it under his breath for so many years into Steve’s good ear that Steve knew the complaint by heart. “- so she can fall in love. And she does.”

Bucky stopped. Steve had tried to stop there, the first few times Nonie asked for the story. If he stopped there, it had everything the perfect story needed: a princess, a love story, and a little hope. But Nonie always demanded that he finish with the thaw. Happy endings had never been a Barnes family rule.

(Happy endings were harder to come by, Steve knew, his mother’s face waxy and cold in the casket, Bucky’s eyes lit with fear he couldn’t hide when the induction notice came. Bucky’s face limned with gold in the firelight a dozen times this past year, his smile bitter and his eyes filled with frost. Steve waking up alone every morning, reaching out to Bucky over a chasm of flames, his fingers closing on air.)

“Princess Parson Brown falls in love and that’s it?” Fresno prompted, his voice muffled by Dum Dum’s chest.

Bucky shrugged, and lit a cigarette. He’d stopped chain smoking only a few weeks after he’d started, thankfully, the same way he’d stopped making his way through a bottle of gin a night. Neither drinking or cigarettes, or the lack of them, seemed to have any effect on the shadows under Bucky’s eyes.

“No, that’s not it.” Jones picked up the story, gaze flicking carefully over his sergeant, taking in the slouch and the cigarette and the rifle held ready in Bucky’s free hand. Sometimes Gabe looked at Bucky and shook his head, and in those moments Steve would have bartered away a year’s rations to know what it was that Gabe saw. But he’d never betray Bucky by asking; and, even if he had, he didn’t expect Gabe would ever betray Bucky and say. “A heart that can love is a warm heart. Snegurochka can finally return the boy’s love, but when she tells him that she loves him her heart melts her, and all that’s left of her is a cloud of mist.”

“… Huh.” Fresno lifted his head out of Dum Dum’s armpit and wrinkled his nose. He didn’t look too pleased with the story. Lizzie had never liked any story where the princess died, unless it was glorious, with fanfare and mourning parades, and Becky had only contented herself with the idea that eventually the village boy would also die and join his princess in the mist. Nonie had listened, enraptured, from her place on Bucky’s lap. “Does this mean that if Cap falls in love he’ll disappear?”

“More likely it’ll just mean a lot of mist,” Monty said, winking lasciviously.

Jackie shoved a handful of snow in his face. Gabe quirked an eyebrow at him, and Jackie shrugged. “I help him to cool off,” he declared, while snow dripped off Monty’s nose.

“That’s probably not the first face full of mist Monty’s gotten,” Dum Dum said, making a lewd gesture with his hand and tongue.

“Well, I’m still here for the moment,” Steve announced, cutting off any further comments and the snowball fight in the dark that would certainly follow. “And we have a train to catch tomorrow, so I’m going to stand watch and all of you are going to sleep.”

Amid some grumbling at being put to bed like infants, they all dropped off to sleep, after rearranging themselves until each Commando was half on top of the man next to him — it was an art they’d perfected before meeting Steve, a way to protect themselves and each other from the chill of a cell’s concrete floor, to hide their heads against someone else’s chest and hope the heartbeat would drown out the sounds of the guards dragging their guns across the bars, the flashlights they would shine at night into the prisoners’ eyes.

There wasn’t much to watch out for near the top of the tree line in a windy, abandoned corner of the Alps, but Steve obeyed his own orders and took a quick lap of the camp, looking for anything out of place. He found Bucky, sitting on a boulder about twenty yards from camp, the blue of his jacket the only color left in the landscape besides the pink shells of his ears.

“C’mere, punk,” Bucky said softly, reached out for Steve like he never did anymore, his fingers gentle where they wrapped around Steve’s palm.

“You starting something, jerk?” Steve asked, rubbed his cheek along Bucky’s and felt their stubble catch, surprised when Bucky allowed it instead of dragging him into a kiss that would leave Steve with teeth marks on his lip and an aching jaw.

All Steve’s stories began with Bucky. Since the war, the opening moves were a little harsher, a little bloodier than they had been before. That was all right. Steve didn’t mind the chill of loving Bucky in the war — better a little ice than an early thaw.

“Maybe,” Bucky murmured, sliding his cold hands under Steve’s outfit and along his chest. “You planning on helping me out, or you just gonna stand there and freeze?”

They’d relearned how to be quick about it, the way they had been as teenage boys, fumbling around in Steve’s apartment and never sure when one of his kindly neighbors would decide to come by. Sex had always put Bucky to sleep, then, sated and grinning in one breath, snoring in the next. Nothing put Buck to sleep during the war, not really, but sex at least set him dozing for a little while, softened the severe lines of his face and painted his cheeks with rose.

“I love you, you know,” Bucky mumbled through a yawn when Steve leaned in for one last kiss. He frowned into the darkness, and Steve expected to be pushed away, but Bucky only held tighter to Steve’s forearms, fingers pressed hard enough to bruise. “It’s not that – I just can’t –”

“Yeah, I know,” Steve interrupted, kissing the rest of Bucky’s words out of his mouth. He pressed his forehead to Bucky’s, watching their breaths mingle as clouds of fog in the frozen night air. The last time Bucky had said “I love you” — had said it without reservations, not the Christ, Steve, I love you, but you can’t keep doing this shit, that Steve had heard so often in the year before either of them joined the war — had been Christmas, 1941, after Steve’s first 4F but long before his second, months before Bucky’s induction notice had started that fight.

“And how would you know?” Bucky demanded, his smile cocked like a weapon, the boy’s grin that had stolen Steve’s heart decades ago. “I’ve been meaner’n old Miss Markowitz’s cat.” Steve opened his mouth to protest, but Bucky kissed it off him. “Your nose will grow six inches if you tell me I ain’t, pal.”

“Fine,” Steve growled, kissing Bucky again, soft and pliant and everything Steve wouldn’t admit to missing desperately for years, Bucky’s war-sharpened edges not gone, but finally not aimed at every soft place Steve couldn't hide. “I just know, then. Call it a leap of faith.”

“You’d make a terrible frost princess, you sap,” Bucky replied, but he let Steve kiss him, and he didn’t let go of Steve’s hand even when it was time to pass on the watch and go to sleep. Bucky shook him awake the next morning, and let Steve wrap his fingers around Bucky’s wrist to make sure he was really there.

Steve would have ended the story there, if he could have. But Nonie had never let them pretend that the frost’s daughter could have a spring heart without a thaw — Nonie Barnes, who had tried to follow her big brother everywhere until she was seven, who had stolen her mother’s good scissors and chopped off her beautiful hair so she could slick it back like Bucky did; Nonie who had climbed into Bucky’s lap in the evenings, sucking on the corner of her blanket and asking for the snow princess, please. Nonie and Lizzie and Becky, all three of them waiting for a story, and Steve would have to tell them that their brother was never coming home.

Bucky loved Steve. Bucky loved him enough to follow Steve back into a war that hollowed Bucky’s cheeks, that waged ceaselessly behind Bucky’s eyes and never let him sleep. Bucky loved Steve enough to kiss him gently despite the war, to offer up his hand and let Steve hang on.

Steve reached for him — the way he did every morning, and it was only a few hours before that he’d curled his fingers and felt the pulse rushing through Bucky’s wrist — and Bucky fell, vanished into the crevasse like Steve’s last breath, nothing but a cloud of mist in the bitter air.

Steve felt the cold hollow out his chest, his heart lost and frozen, brittle enough to shatter with a single, sharp crack.

 

They never spoke of what happened to the peasant boy, in the story. He met a princess. He fell in love.

“It's the rule,” Gabe and Peggy’s oldest explained to her youngest sister, braiding the girl’s impossibly curly hair in a crown around her head. “There always has to be a princess. And they always fall in love.”

“This is a dumb story,” their middle daughter complained, crossing her arms and lifting her chin and looking just like her mother in a meeting filled with presidents and generals, smarter than them all. “Princess Snegurochka dies. Daddy, tell the one with the fairy circle and the bombs instead.”

“But what happens to the boy?” their youngest wondered, wriggling out of her sister’s grasp, her hair half-braided and bobbing around her head like Medusa’s snakes as she leapt into her father’s lap. “The one that the princess loves. Does he die, too?”

Peggy looked up from the never-ending pile of paperwork scattered in snowdrifts over their dining room table, tightened her grip on the pen and swallowed hard before she met her husband’s eyes.

Gabe cleared his throat, bought himself a little time by kissing the crown of his baby girl’s head, her soft hair tickling his nose, the warm, welcome weight of her on his lap, the sticky kiss she stretched up to press to his chin.

He thought of Steve, those last few weeks, his blue eyes frozen to shards of ice, the frost on the few words he spoke, and the pale lines of his fingers constantly reaching into the space beside him and finding no one there.

He thought of the night before the last day of the war, all the Commandos asleep — but Cap never slept, after Sarge fell, and Gabe found him in the familiar bomb crater of a fairy circle, leaning against the shattered wall of a building and staring at the night sky.

I’ve never told a story without Bucky, Cap whispered, maybe to Gabe, maybe to the clouds passing in front of the moon, to the fog rolling in around their feet, the fairy lights in the distance calling them to the dance. What do I do, if I wake up tomorrow and he’s gone?

Sarge had been gone for weeks, by then. His bunk was empty, his things shipped back to his family in Brooklyn, along with a letter that had taken Steve days to write, his hand stained with ink and his eyes red.

What did the boy do, when he woke up and reached out and his snow princess was nothing but a chill in the air?

“Nobody knows, sweetheart,” Peggy snapped, sharper than she’d meant to be. She wrapped her fingers around her wine glass, pressed her fingertips to the rim so they didn’t shake. His daughters frowned. They didn’t like that answer. They were still so young, yet, still believed there wasn’t anything their parents didn’t know, no problem they couldn’t solve.

What do I do, if I wake up tomorrow and he’s gone?

“He goes searching for the winter, where he lost her,” Gabe said quietly, reached across the table and the stacks of papers for his wife and felt her strong, slender hand fold into his. Gabe had never reached for Peggy and found her gone, couldn’t imagine what he would do if that day came. “He goes back to the ice.”

“The end,” Peggy declared, squeezing her husband’s hand and coming to her feet. “Now come on, you little hellions, it’s time for bed.”

“One more story!” their daughters pleaded, tugged at their mother’s robe, wheedled and begged, blinking their irresistible wide, brown eyes.

Peggy inevitably gave in, as she did every night, and Gabe laughed, hugging his wife and tickling his daughters when they wound themselves around his legs.

“One more story,” she agreed, and only Gabe saw her gaze flit to the mantel and the faded picture of Cap grinning brilliantly at his sergeant, laughter in both their eyes, warmth enough to bring the coldest winter to thaw. “But I’m making a new family rule. The ‘happily ever after’ rule. How does that sound?”

* * *

“Don’t you know any stories with a happy ending?” Tony demands, once Steve has told them the fairy circle and the snow princess and princess among thieves, Bucky in all of them, because Steve’s never told a story without Bucky there. “Isn’t that a rule?”

Because all Steve’s stories begin with Bucky; all Steve’s mornings begin with the fall.

“I told you I’m not much for stories,” Steve says, takes the plane over the Arctic and doesn’t look down at the ice, doesn’t go searching for the shards of his heart or reach out for the mist. “Besides, there’s no rule about happy endings. They just have to fall in love.”