Steve spends his first birthday knowing Bucky is alive in a hotel room in Australia, the A/C turned off and the windows open.
He’s never liked being cold. Hates it especially now, especially post-ice: frigid air artificially freezing the top layer of his skin. Too much like seventy years of sleep.
Steve Rogers has spent the overwhelming majority of his life frozen to the marrow of his bones.
Now: now, he’s flat on his back on the paper-thin mattress, hands empty at his sides, his eyes closed. His skin is melting, fusing into the sheets and his t-shirt and his jeans. He pants a little, open-mouthed. He remembers.
(That’s all he’s been able to do.)
Brooklyn summers. Heat rising off the sidewalks in smoke-stained tendrils. Every breath thick enough to taste.
Bucky, shirt off, golden skin, soft hips and cheeks and shoulders. Cloud-white grin. Making Steve’s heart trip and stutter when their sweat-sticky bodies bumped together on the rickety fire escape.
Hands. That’s something Steve remembers. Hands, rough with work, bruised up knuckles. Loose and expressive. Touching Steve when they wanted to.
A knock on Steve’s door. He knows it’ll be Sam, back from his hunt for the ice machine. He knows he’ll have to turn the air back on when Sam comes inside, because he’s a regular guy who doesn’t have to melt into the bed to remember the love of his life, and that’s fine. Steve will.
Sam is doing enough, coming on this wild hunt with Steve. Chasing a ghost with him. He shouldn’t have to put up with the weight of Steve’s nostalgia, too.
Slowly Steve peels his eyes open and stands, and the last of those summer-gold memories slip away.
He’s talking before he gets the door open. “Sorry. Thought I gave you a key when we checked in—”
There isn’t anybody standing on the other side of the door. Steve looks—no. Not anywhere down the hallway, either.
The hair on the back of his neck stands up.
He has to get his shield. He has to put shoes on. He has to find Sam—
Steve’s eye catches on something at his feet.
It’s an envelope. Big and square, manilla. It isn’t very full.
Steve picks it up (heart right on the back of his tongue) and fumbles with the door as he hurries back inside.
Someone’s written his full name on the front in black sharpie. Big block letters, a little shaky, irregular in size. There are round places of pressure where the writer clearly held the pen for a moment, like they were thinking about what came next before they did it.
There’s something devastatingly familiar to the curve of that S, the slope of that R.
STEVEN GRANT ROGERS
He shouldn’t open it.
He opens it.
Steve returned his uniform to the Smtihsonian after he stole it. He isn’t a complete asshole.
Or, well—he is. But history is important, and all that. And anyway, he didn’t have any use for it anymore. It hadn’t worked in the first place.
That’s when they’d told them. As he’d been handing over his uniform (freshly dry cleaned), less repentant than he should have been about committing a felony. Certainly less repentant than Captain America should be.
A notebook, they said. A notebook that had been found among Bucky Barnes’ possessions after he fell, they said. Personal things, they said, notes written to a lover, notes written to someone who was not a woman, nothing they thought he would want to see: so they hadn’t shown him.
He’d been furious.
Only now, now, now—stolen. Right out from under their noses. Bucky Barnes’ war journal, the thing Steve hadn’t known about (just another thing that’d been kept from him). Gone.
Notes to a lover, they said.
That had been his and Sam’s first lead.
That had been months ago.
He hasn’t stopped looking since. Looking, looking—
Steve didn’t look for Bucky that first time. When he fell. And he can never make up for that, but he can sure as hell try.
It’s a page from a journal. The paper is weathered and yellow, and old. Clearly older than anything in this room except maybe Steve himself. It’s been ripped neatly out of a spiraled spine, and the edges of the paper stand frayed, like tattered flags.
Steve reads it. Can’t believe his eyes, and reads it again. Again.
You were born on a night so hot the birds were sat sweating in the tops of their trees, and the air filled up your lungs like liquid glass.
Your Ma cried when she held you. Your beetroot face squished up all mean, wailing like a fire engine. She loved you anyway.
Fighting even in the beginning. Fighting light and sound and heat.
Sometimes I wonder about you in those first few years. If you ever felt like something was missing. I’d’ve been scared to be born first, if I didn’t know you were gonna come along. But you’ve always been braver.
They built you for me. Made you out of fire and strong-slender bones and a heart so big your body can barely hold it. Built you up all special for me, sweetheart, like sculpting clay. And if there’s one thing in my life I’m thankful for, it’s that I’m surely gonna die first.
It’s part of the story his mother always used to tell him on his birthday. He can hear the adjectives now, lilting in her heavy accent, sounding rough and magical instead of commonplace and miserable, as he’s sure the circumstances of his birth actually were.
Tears sting at his eyes.
It’s the last two paragraphs that grip him, that push those tears all the way out and send them spilling down over his cheeks. He knows that handwriting, knows it even more surely than he knows his own.
And god— god. The words that are written here.
They might not be for him. About him. Journals to a lover, the people at the Smithsonian said.
Steve was not—is not—Bucky Barnes’ lover.
He knows this is for him all the same.
Bucky has given him a truth. Given him a memory, even though he has so few. Jotted down jagged on paper like old maps.
And it’s too late.
There’s another note, slotted in behind this one. It’s a scrap torn out of a newspaper, much less carefully: wrinkled and asymmetrical.
Another sharpie note scribbled over the words already there like he had to relearn the weight of a pen in his hand, the shapes of the letters of his first language are made out of:
HAPPY BIRTHDAY STEVE.
Sam finds Steve sitting on the floor with his back against the bed, the letters (papers, notes, secrets that have lodged themselves under his ribs and won’t ever leave) resting over his thighs.
“Hey,” says Sam. He stops in the middle of the room, still. The ice bucket is in his right hand. There’s apprehension in the line of his lips. “Are we having a mental breakdown?”
Steve has stopped crying on the outside. Inside, he feels like he might just crumble into dust.
“No,” he says, and scrubs a hand over his face to wipe the last of the wetness away. He knows he’ll still be a brash, angry red: that hasn’t changed since the day he was born. “Sorry.”
Sam sets the ice down. He lowers himself to the floor next to Steve. “Can I look?”
“Yes,” Steve says, and then can’t make himself pass the papers over. Sam seems to understand. He takes them carefully in his hands, careful not to rip or tear or crumble.
Steve can’t watch him read.
Bucky touched those. Maybe just minutes ago. His hands, strong and sure and familiar.
“Oh,” says Sam when he’s done. “Did you…?”
Steve shakes his head. No. Can’t stop shaking his head. Has to press his palms to his eyes for a moment so he can stop shaking his head.
“It’s definitely from him,” Sam says gently. “Right? We’re sure of that?”
“Yeah,” Steve whispers. His voice is a rasp. “He was here. Somebody knocked on the door and dropped this off, and they were gone by the time I went out there.”
He leaves it unspoken, but they both hear it: it has to be from him. Steve doesn’t think he can keep going if it’s not from him.
Sam smiles at him encouragingly. Once again, Steve is immeasurably grateful for him. The universe really knew what it was doing when it created Sam Wilson.
“So he’s here,” Sam says. “We’re on the right track, Steve.”
Steve wants to run out into the streets below and hunt every sun-blazed corner until he finds him. Steve wants to take his hand and take him in his arms like he was never brave enough to do before. Steve wants to—wants to—
The next letter comes three weeks later, resting on Steve’s pillow when he opens his eyes in the morning.
He sits straight up. Kicks the blankets off of his legs, trips over the duffel bag he and Sam have been living out of on his way to the window.
It’s cracked open, and there’s mud on the sil. Mud from a boot, or a pair of gripping hands. The curtains flutter a little in the breeze.
Steve stares down into the street below. They’re in Romania, and the early-morning sky is stained blush pink. The street is just chipped concrete and emptiness.
He’s gone. Like a waft of fall-scented breeze, like the version of him that Steve had been dreaming of: Bucky Barnes, war-torn and hunger-thin, big eyes that never seemed to leave Steve’s. Mud wiped across his chin. Fingers stained with ink. Secrets pressed against a fast-fluttering chest.
Sam is sitting up in his bed when Steve turns around, woken by the way Steve had thundered across the room. Steve can tell that he wants to frown, but isn’t: Steve is grateful.
This letter is in the same kind of envelope, Steve’s name standing out bold on the front. He sits down as he opens it. The bed creaks loudly beneath him.
This is a book of things I won’t tell you.
Sometimes I write in this journal the same time as I write home to you, so that way I can tell you everything without you having to hear the parts you wouldn’t like. Right now I’m telling you about Italy. About how beautiful it is here. About the hot sun and the green grass and the clean river.
None of it’s true. The grass is brown and dead, and there’s blood in it sometimes. Thick and dry. We don’t drink from the river unless we have to. You can’t see the sun for the smoke.
You think I don’t ever lie to you. That just eats me up inside. All the lies I tell you, all the lies I’ve told you every day since we were kids.
Let me put this way: how I feel about you sure ain’t the way you’re supposed to feel about your best pal.
I’m writing to you about about girls now, in your letter. About a pretty girl Dum Dum and me saw in a tavern yesterday, with golden hair spilling down her back like sunlight, with bones as fine as a bird’s, with clear blue eyes a guy could get lost in, easy.
I pulled her out of my head. Made her up out of pictures of you. I felt a little like dying when I did it, but you never know who’s gonna read what I send home.
There was another piece of paper slid in behind that one. Newer; not on newsprint, this time. A page torn out of a legal pad.
YOU SHOULD GO HOME. I’LL FIND YOU WHEN I’M READY.
So he does.
He never listened to Bucky when they were kids. Never listened to anybody—always thought he knew what was best. Always thought taking anybody’s advice was a show of weakness, or just another way he was letting his little stature and his weak bones rule what he did.
That’s why all this happened. Bucky told Steve to stay home, not to let the war go to his head.
If Steve had listened, he’d’ve been there waiting for Bucky in Brooklyn when he got home.
If Steve had listened, Bucky never would’ve gotten on that train. Bucky never would have fallen.
Steve’s listening now.
He can tell Sam doesn’t feel completely ok dropping Steve off at his apartment. Letting him get out of the car and go inside on his own. Leaving him alone for the first time in months.
But Sam knows him. He won’t argue.
“Call me, ok?” Sam says, getting out of the car, too, and handing Steve his bag. They’d been traveling light: only a few changes of clothes and Steve’s shield between them. No weapons. Steve had been adamant about that. “Let me know how you’re doing.”
The bag cuts into Steve’s shoulder a little. He adjusts the straps. “Sam,” he says. “You can visit, you know. If you want.”
Sam breaks into a grin. He steps forward and pulls Steve into a hug, and Steve tries not to let his eyes drop closed, tries to act like this means less than it does. Sam’s the only person who ever hugs Steve. Ever.
“Duh,” says Sam when he steps away. Steve is left with a swinging-loose frozen feeling in his chest; Steve is left with empty hands. “I was gonna do that anyway.”
He misses Buck fiercely.
Bucky and the easy way he’d always hung all over Steve: wandering hands, an arm slung ‘round his narrow shoulders. Two boys slotted together rib-by-rib.
It’d always been so much more than just friendship for Steve. He’s starting to realize that it had been more than that for Bucky, too.
Steve goes inside.
His apartment is empty and still. Rebuilt by SHIELD in the aftermath of everything that had happened, walls painted a tasteful and boring shade of cream, brand new couch that he wouldn’t have picked out himself.
He sits down on that couch now. Sits down, bag falling to the floor, and takes out Bucky’s letters.
Those fours slips of paper. Those words that mean more to Steve than any prayer ever could.
It’s freezing in D.C. now, all the way on the other side of the world from where this all began.
Steve shivers even though logically the cold shouldn’t be able to affect him, and he turns up the thermostat, and he digs around in the closet until he finds a blanket that feels weighty enough across his shivering palms to satisfy.
Bucky always used to do this for Steve when the chill crept into his lungs and pinned him down, limbs heavy, blood turned into an ice floe. Go get the quilt Sarah made for Steve when he was a kid (the one that still spread across all of him because he’d barely grown an inch since he was thirteen) and tuck it in around him, make sure nothing could slip in between the cracks.
And then, sometimes, if he didn’t have work—or if it was ok to skip work, just this once—Bucky’d sit himself down too. Squirm in under the quilt even though half of him was under it and half of him was out, and wind his long arms around Steve, and take all of Steve’s shivering and whining in stride.
Tuck his nose in the warm place behind Steve’s ear sometimes. Close his eyes.
Steve loved him so intensely that it hurt worse than pneumonia in his lungs.
Steve falls asleep on the couch. All curled up under a thick-scratchy blanket that he didn’t remember buying. Alone.
When he wakes up, the sun is just barely peeking in through the blind, and he knows that someone has been here.
He sees the envelope as soon as he opens his eyes—resting there on the edge of the coffee table—but that isn’t what he focuses on at first.
There’s another blanket on top of him. Smaller and thinner, but softer, too. It’s tucked all close around him, secure around his limbs. He’s warm.
There’s a sense-memory drifting in the back of his mind, dredged up from some twilit half-asleep place: two hands taking care not to touch him as they adjusted fabric, gentle footsteps across the floorboards.
He takes just a minute to cover his eyes with his fingers. To cry.
He hasn’t cried in months. It lasts longer than he wants it to: pulled up out of his chest hand over first. Tears that burn as they fall.
Then he reaches for the envelope with a hand that shakes a bit, and he picks it up, and flicks it open.
He reads it aloud. Lets Bucky’s words mingle in the air of a room that just saw him.
I lay awake and worry about you at night, which I know you’d hate. So I’m not gonna tell you.
I don’t think I believe in God—least not the God they taught us about in Sunday School. If there was a God like that, then I’d be married to a nice lady and have a couple of kids by now and you and I’d see each other just on Sundays and be happy about it. If there was a God like that, I’d be able to touch a girl and not think about you at the same time.
I can’t help but pray to that God that you’re safe at home, though, because I don’t know who else to send my prayers to. That you’re safe at home, and that you’ll never see what I’ve seen. That you’ll never come here and shoot some kid clean through the stomach and not even keep his face in your memories long enough to dream about it the next night.
Honey I know it burns you alive that you aren’t here. But here’s something terrible: I’d rather see you all carved out to ashes inside come here and do the things I’ve done. You wouldn’t be able to bear it.
You’re the kinda guy that God loves. You’re golden and perfect and strong. Some people aren’t made for war, and you’re one of them.
They can waste me on something like this. No matter how many kids I kill dead, it’s not sending me to Hell. No. I saved myself a spot down there when I fell in love with you.
Steve’s crying again by the time he’s done. He hates the tears, but he can’t stop them.
Bucky’s note is on a thick piece of cardstock, and the words are a little more steady, this time.
IT HELPS ME TO READ THESE THINGS. I THOUGHT IT MIGHT HELP YOU TOO.
I MISS YOU. I WANTED TO CRAWL UNDER THAT BLANKET WITH YOU, BUT I DIDN’T KNOW IF I SHOULD. I DON’T THINK I’M GENTLE ANYMORE, AND I WANT TO BE GENTLE WITH YOU.
He doesn’t dream often, but when he does, it’s this:
Bucky, falling, a scream ringing up out of powder-white chasms. Bucky, and a highway that sizzled with standing heat, and a look in his eyes that was flat and cold and the absence of anything Steve remembered. Bucky, and blood on both their faces, and an animal fear that hurt worse than the bullet wounds.
He doesn’t dream often, but when he does, it’s of him.
He finds the next letter taped to his bathroom mirror, and, bizarrely, he laughs.
He hasn’t laughed in a long time.
He sits down on the edge of the bathtub to read it. It’s best to be sitting for this sort of thing.
God almighty. Here you are.
I ain’t never seen an angel, but even if I had, I know it’d look just how you looked. Standing above me, your eyes so pretty and blue. That mouth and that nose. Even the sweat on your skin.
When you touched me I knew I’d died. I was sure I had. There wasn’t any way you could be there with me, in that part of hell. It’d be better to know I’d moved on, and that was gonna be my eternity: this strange version of you, so tall and so broad, the frown between your eyebrows that made some kind of sorrow sing a song in me.
But it was real. Life is still holding onto me with both hands.
And here you are.
I know you saw the way I fell to my knees when were finally outta there. I know you saw the way I threw up, hands buried in the dust-dry dirt, even though there hasn’t been anything in my stomach in so long. I know you saw that because you fell back with me, you got down on your knees there, too, and you put your arm around me, and you held on ‘til I was done. You think I’m sick, and maybe I am; not the way you’re worried about, though.
I’m sick that you’re here. I can’t eat for it. I can’t drink, and I can’t sleep. I think I’m going crazy, Stevie. I wanna tear any guy to pieces that even comes near you. I wanna push you down to the ground and stand over you with a gun in each hand. Fire a round at any son of a bitch that looks you in the eye.
This isn’t a place for you. You golden man, you beautiful boy. I’m not your Bucky anymore. I’m not who I used to be.
I’m soaked through with blood, head to toe. I’d kill somebody with my bare hands for you.
I want to crawl into your tent. Move painful-slow on my hands and knees until I reach you. I want to kiss you on all the places they changed, and tell you that you’re more than the weapon they built you up to be. I don’t think you’d hear me though. All you’ve ever thought you were good for was fighting.
I want to send you home.
If I died, would you go?
Steve’s glad he sat down.
No, he thinks. Bucky had died, and Steve had wanted to go right along with him. He’d thrown himself with so much force into what he was doing because he knew he wouldn’t get anything but a crash landing.
Bucky had died, and Steve had died with him. There wasn’t anything left to go home to.
He reads Bucky’s next note fast, because he’s breathing too sharply, and he needs something that’s a little less mind-numbing tragic to focus on.
COME FIND ME.
There’s an address written below. Steve is on a plane within the hour.
It isn’t anywhere that Steve would have looked. Maybe that’s why he never found him.
It’s a very small house. Two windows on either side of the front door, set back into rust-shaded clapboard siding. The rush of the ocean is muffled and comforting, somewhere at the back of the grassy cliff Bucky’s house sits on.
Steve’s breath trembles in his lungs as he walks up the sidewalk leading to that door. Butter-tan fronds of sea grass brush his legs as he passes, gently bolstering. He is unsteady on his feet, but he keeps going anyway.
The door opens before he can knock. Quiet on its hinges.
There he is.
He looks… god. God. Bucky.
Beautiful. But Steve has never thought Bucky Barnes was anything but beautiful.
He’s clean, and his hair is soft and a little damp, curling up under his chin. He’s wearing yoga pants and a soft-looking sweatshirt. Barefoot. Clean-shaven cheeks, rounder than the last time Steve saw him nearly a year and a half ago.
And his eyes are so steady. So round, so clear, so familiar that for a second Steve thinks he might not be able to draw his next breath.
Bucky’s lips move, form around the shape of Steve’s name: soft, and soundless.
Steve has things that he wants to say. Words lined up on his tongue like offerings: I’m here, I’m sorry, I’m sorry I took so long.
But Bucky is standing before him. Bucky: his soft-tilted mouth, the asymmetry of him, his perfection. He doesn’t quite smile at Steve, but it’s close enough to break something in half.
“I love you,” Steve says. His words have too much air in them and they are singularly stunning, and he doesn’t try to take them back. He might be different than he was—they both are—but not even science could take this boldness out of his core, not even a miracle. He means it. He took too long to say those words, in their first life.
Bucky blinks. A trembling second like he’s poised to reach out—the rise of his fingers, gentle and stillborn between them.
“You’ve been telling me all along, haven’t you?” Steve says, quiet enough that he’s worried his voice will be carried away by the gentle sea breeze. He thinks of brittle journal pages, seventy years old. Words he’ll never stop hearing. “I just didn’t listen.”
“You never listen to anybody, sweetheart,” Bucky murmurs.
Steve doesn’t mean to let that noise out—half a laugh, half a sob—but he’s shaking all over, and he can’t help it. He just—
“Come here,” Bucky says, and lifts those hands: one soft flesh, one shining metal. “Stevie.”
Steve does. Bucky steps forward, perched on the top step, and Steve doesn’t make the move to touch him first, even though he yearns to, because he knows that Bucky might not be ready for that, might not be comfortable with human contact yet—
Bucky slips his arms around Steve’s waist. Pulls him close.
Steve sags into him.
With Bucky standing above him like this, Steve feels like he’s seventeen again, and just realizing that the easy way he fit into his best friend’s hold like a puzzle piece made his heart swell.
The noise is undeniably a sob this time.
The crook of Bucky’s neck smells like sea-spray and laundry detergent and that basic, intoxicating thing that Steve remembers from so long ago. His skin is warm, and his touch is gentle.
There’s a gull flying overhead. Swooping in a gentle arc. Steve feels the pressure of Bucky’s hand on the back of his skull, and closes his eyes.