In the future, Steve's suit is made of white elastic and feels like being wrapped in a bandage. The blue shell over his torso seals at the hips and his shield fits neatly on the back, over a sleek machine providing oxygen and gas compression.
In the future, Steve can put on a helmet and go into outer space.
"Every day is night here," Natalia Romanova says over breakfast, smoothing synthetic milkfat across her roll. "I find it peaceful."
Two people survived the twentieth-century experiments with super-soldier serum, and they're both here on the Moon. There's Steve, discovered beneath the melting Arctic ice cap inside the Valkyrie by a natural gas extraction crew, and there's Natalia, who does business with Howard Stark’s great-great-great-great-grandson.
Natalia's easy company. New York City has been underwater for decades, but she can name the streets of Manhattan from memory, describe to Steve the ways each neighborhood changed from what he knew. There's not a gray hair on her head, but maybe she dyes it. People live longer now, but not as long as she has. Not as long as Steve could have, or will.
Not as long as her companion, who looks like a person, who talks and walks like a person, but isn't one. "Not legally, Tony, no," says Stark's partner Rhodes. "Don't be an asshole." Stark calls him the Winter Soldier; Natalia and Rhodes call him James.
The staff of Stark Station call him the ghost.
There are still people on Earth, living in isolated clusters on the land above sea level. For the most part, those who'll leave already have. Mars is terraforming, and there's money in it for people willing to strip the old world of everything needed on the new, money for those who move between. Tony Stark mines; Natalia buys and sells. The Moon continues on its daily circuit, gray and implacable.
Steve reads all about it on the tablet Tony builds for him. "Super retro," Tony says, looking proud. He's wired into the digital world behind the screen with an implant in his temple, so small Steve can barely feel it when he's invited to probe. Everyone here has them. Everyone has another world in their heads. Maybe that's why everything around him feels so sterile and removed.
Of course, Steve wasn't the one who loved science fiction, who had dreams of a bigger, brighter world.
The ghost is very polite. He doesn't make eye contact much, spends a lot of his time scanning their surroundings, sits with his back to corners. James looks like anyone else here; he's not even the only one with bare-styled bionic parts. Cyborgs, cybernetics. Tony tried to explain it, but Steve was missing the basics, things fifth grade kids learn these days. His tablet is full of more books than he can imagine having time to read.
"We're safe here, right?" Steve says to Natalia as they walk through Tony's hydroponic garden with James dogging their footsteps. "Just, he seems—"
Natalia smiles—crooked, like it's real—and stops before a wall of delicate tomatoes on their vines. "Oh, he makes you uneasy."
Steve wants to lie, but he shrugs, instead.
"James was designed for action," she says. "He likes to have something to do."
The fans overhead turn on silently, ruffling the leaves on the plants, the loose wisps of James's long hair. He's conspicuously examining the observation hive in the corner, four thousand clones of the last bee on earth, buzzing around their artificial queen. Steve says, "You didn't answer my question."
Natalia gives him a shrug in return. "You're a soldier, Steve. Assess your surroundings. See what you find."
Steve has access to all of the grounds of Stark Station, some of the R&D, and none of the machinery areas where gas and oil are processed and refined. Unaccompanied, he can't venture outside. He makes an appointment with the station captain. "How do you decide this stuff?" he asks. "Where I go, what I do."
Miss Potts turns her eyes to the wall beside them, where a map of Steve's permissions has already appeared. A courtesy to him: she's got it all in her head. "Would you like to review your access?"
"Ah, no, not right now," he says. "Thank you, though."
Steve might not have an implant, but he has a good memory. He brings up the facility map on his tablet when he gets back to his room and duplicates the file into the drawing application, shading in the areas for yes, no, and a third category that's probably with supervision. There's no paper on Stark Station, nothing to draw with but his stylus and the perfectly responsive screen. Sometimes he selects oil pastel as a brush, but it’s nothing like the chalky smear of the real thing. Everything here is clean and perfect, every particle contained.
Steve was brought out of deep freeze with slow caution by specialists in a lab. "My great-great-great-great-grandpa was obsessed with this guy," Tony said during the process, unaware that Steve, inert, could already hear. "They were friends." They tried to break it to him gently after, but there was no gentle about it.
A few hours before, Steve was Captain America, flying a plane into the ice to save his country, save everyone. There's no United States of America on Earth anymore, but there's one on Mars. "Where there’s no America," Steve said mildly, raising an eyebrow.
Natalia and Tony, on either side of the hospital bed Steve didn’t need by then, in the infirmary that wasn’t called one, exchanged glances. Natalia said, "You died for your country. You think losing the territory would stop anyone else from living for it?"
"I don't know," Steve said. "I’m not sure I know anything."
"There's a new USSR, too," Natalia said with a expression Steve couldn't decode.
Everything in the future is a simulacrum, a spectre. Styluses and tablets, minced protein they call "ground beef," spaceships built with materials that didn't exist last week. A suit that'll let Steve go outside, into the vacuum of space where there's no atmosphere. A man, with Bucky's face, who isn’t either of those things.
Back home, you never looked up at the towering buildings in Manhattan, just the street in front of you. You were going where you were going, that's all. The people who stopped to gawk were tourists. On the Moon, there’s only the dark bowl of space above, the perfect, untwinkling stars. No one here seems to look out the window, and after the first few days, neither does Steve.
Natalia owns property near Kepler Crater, and Steve is invited for the weekend. They motor out in pressurized suits on a battered moon jalopy that looks like something off a Universal Pictures set, Natalia at the wheel, with Steve in the seat behind her and James silently riding shotgun. "Do people still drive for pleasure?" Steve asks over the comm. "Not here, I guess, but maybe on Mars?"
"There's nowhere like the Earth you remember,” Natalia says.
It turns out that what Steve's been thinking of as "the Moon" is just Stark Station, vast and self-contained, the biggest holding by far, but there's an entire city on the dark side of the rock: bars, casinos, quarries. Scattered between the two hubs of lunar activity are broadcast stations, rest stops, and a few isolated dwellings, like this one. The house is sealed under a geodesic dome that rises up from the horizon like Earth as they slowly press forward. It's one-story, a low ranch, nothing to look at. Probably cost a couple billion dollars, or a favor Steve doesn't want to know about.
James relaxes as soon as they've verified pressure and atmosphere, unseals his helmet with his metal hand and strips it off in a single fluid, practiced movement that releases his loose hair. For a moment, Steve forgets, sees: Bucky. Then his face settles into James’s expression, and the impression is broken.
In Natalia’s house, lights have switches, doors have knobs instead of sensors, and there's a cactus plant sitting in a windowsill beneath a grow lamp with a timer. The big flat screen in the living room turns out to be a TV. "We could make some popcorn, watch a movie," Natalia says. "Wait, that's after you, isn't it."
"No, they have popcorn at the movies," Steve says, and then remembers that the Brooklyn Paramount where he and Bucky used to go is under the waves now. “Had.”
Natalia says, "They still do."
The couch is plush and a little musty-smelling, big enough to let them all sit together for Gone with the Wind with Steve and James bookending Natalia. They pause at intermission and James pours two glasses of clear liquor from a decanter, sets them on the low table in front of the other two.
"So this is what you do for entertainment on the moon," Steve says. "Watch the television. Drive around in your moon-mobile."
"Well," Natalia says. "We work a lot."
Steve's drink tastes savory, like the spices you put on chicken, and burns on the way down. "Tony says you're in sales."
James raises his eyebrows. "How diplomatic." It's the first time he's spoken directly to Steve.
"I do sell things." Natalia wets a finger in her drink and runs it lazily around the rim of her glass until it sings like a bell. "Most of our time is spent in acquisitions."
"Are you pirates?"
Natalia grins. "You know, Tony said you'd be a—what did they call it—a fuddy-duddy. You're not boring at all."
"We used to kill people for a living," James says. "We didn't even get paid for it."
There's a long silence that follows, but it's not an uncomfortable one. Steve can feel the liquor—whatever it is—swimming in his veins like alcohol used to before the serum. "Guess capitalism won out, huh?"
"Not always," Natalia says. "But out here, everything's currency."
Steve says, "You gonna sell me?"
Natalia shakes her head. "Hoping to buy you. It'll be expensive, but Tony and I are negotiating."
On the TV, Scarlett's putting on her red dress, the one that made Steve flush when he saw this in the theater. Bucky, who got to see plenty of girls putting on their dresses, was breathing evenly beside him, apparently unaffected. James doesn't breathe, but his mouth moves when he speaks. "There's no war for you to fight out here."
"Do you know about him?" Steve doesn't mean to say it—it's cruel—but it comes out anyway, his tongue loose, mind emptying with each sip like his glass. "Did you know him?"
"I was him," James says. "They built me from him, so I'd keep working when the human parts failed."
"When he died," Steve says.
James says, "You could call it that."
Natalia shows him where things are and helps him make up a bed in one of the back rooms. One of the sheets has elastic around the bottom and pockets for Steve to stretch over the corners of the mattress. The fabric is rougher than the ones at Stark Station, the drape of the material different. Steve shakes out the second sheet over the top, flat like he’s used to, and tucks it the way they did at Lehigh. "Are these cotton?"
"Tony and I have different ideas of luxury." Natalia sits down on the chair at the side of his bed while Steve puts the foam pillows in their cases. There's nothing motherly about her, but her gaze is tender. "He's a child. More than you are."
"Tell me about it," Steve says. "Living forever."
Natalia's eyes get a fixed look like wartime stare, but in the future, that usually means implant focus. Steve tosses the thick comforter over the bed, straightens the edges. "You'll forget things," she says abruptly. "Your mother's voice. The places you've lived. What your favorite food used to be. Anything you don't use. There's no room for it."
Somewhere in the house, the air circulation mechanism cycles off, soft whir subsiding into silence. Things here make sound. Maybe they're designed to. Steve sits down on the bed and looks down at his bare feet on the worn carpet. "Okay. Thanks."
James makes breakfast: thick porridge with a grain Steve doesn't recognize, sausage with almost the right texture. There's a hot drink, bitter and nutty. Natalia doctors hers with sweetener. Steve doesn't bother.
"We've got a few free weights on the back porch," Natalia says. "If you want to run, there's a track around the perimeter."
Steve looks out the window, and he can see it now, the faint dusting of gravel over the sandy surface. "What am I training for?"
"Same as usual," James says. "Zero G, you'll have to wait on."
Natalia touches Steve's forearm. Her small hand is strong, warm, and he tries not to react. Nobody touches him anymore. "James trained me. The first one. He's very good at what he does."
The atmosphere containment dome surrounding Natasha’s property has its own overhead sun formed of full-spectrum lamps, and the walls are honeycombed with translucent panels that form rows of outward-facing pyramids. Unlike the sealed compound of Stark Station, there's been no effort to terraform the interior. The only alterations to the terrain are functional: the even-textured gravel paths and driveway, the house and a second, smaller outbuilding. Steve’s as accustomed to lunar gravity as he thinks he’ll get, but it takes a few minutes for his stride to adjust to the leg-weights that let him run. Once he settles into it, his brain runs with him in steady circles around nothing.
He’s rounding his twelfth lap when he sees James sitting on the front steps of the house, playing with a sinuous, clinking stream of metal that flows from hand to hand, metal to flesh and back again. "Dexterity," he explains as Steve approaches, letting the object settle into a coiled ring. "It's good practice."
Steve veers off of the track and stops in front of him, sending up a puff of fine gray sand. "Don't you get—programmed?"
"Didn't always," James says. "Still need to test, see if I need calibration."
"You don't seem like a robot," Steve says.
James tilts his head. His hair is tied back today, swaying with his movements. "HYDRA wanted me intact. The first couple of tries didn't go so well. They ended up doing a full copy. Experimental AI."
"Tony says you're not legally a person," Steve says.
James flashes a smile, a twist of the mouth.
It takes a day or so for Steve to really notice James changing. More than just the relaxation of being at home can account for; it’s like he’s shedding a role, or sliding into a new one. His gait loosens, his movements gain fluidity. When Natalia joins him at the sink to put away the clean dishes as he loads the washer, he turns and plants a kiss on her lips, quick, familiar.
Natalia smiles up at him, then glances past to Steve, still seated at the table. He’s not sure what’s on his face, but she lifts an eyebrow. "Did that shock you?"
Bucky was a big flirt, always had a few in the wings, never dated anyone seriously. Steve saw him kiss plenty of girls. "Yes."
"He wasn't built for it, if you're worried about that," Natalia says.
James grins, turning back to the sink as he puts in, "The parts were aftermarket."
A minute ago, Steve was reading on his tablet, all about robots. They're postal workers, machinists, chefs, any service you need, but they don't have faces. The humans on Stark Station call James a ghost because they don't have a word for what he is. Something in between. "Do you feel?"
"You asking if the Tin Man has a heart?" James asks the plate in his hands. "Or a dick?"
"I want to know if you -- want it.”
James shrugs. "You can't know."
Natalia's back to stacking the sturdy real-glass cups in the cabinet above the oven, the plates in the rack over the workspace. Her arm brushes against James's silver-toned one.
James says, "I remember what they gave me. What they took away."
"Do you remember me?" Steve’s sitting very still.
"Some." James straightens up from closing the washer, and then he’s coming, one lazy stride after another. "I remember what he felt about you."
Steve wants to say, that's not the same. He doesn't. James cups the side of Steve's head with his softer hand, fingers in Steve’s hair as he strokes a steady thumb along Steve's jaw. So close to life that a body can't tell the difference. You'll forget. James bends down, tilting back Steve's head as he goes; Steve is the one who kisses him.
In his art classes, they made everyone start with the basics. Cheap charcoal on pads of cheaper paper propped up on an easel, dirty string dangling from his hand as he sketched fruit on a dark drape. The drawings looked hopelessly amateur in the classroom, even worse in Steve's memory when he strolled through the Met the next day, sketchbook and pencil box tucked under his arm. He walked through a room of European still-lifes, meals and birds and flowers that looked real enough to pluck from their bouquet. There's a name for that: trompe l'oeil, "fool the eye."
Even as Steve touches James, his hand skirting down the plane of James’s shoulder, Steve is waiting for the moment the illusion will collapse, like that half-opened rose into oil on wood. James's skin is as warm as anyone’s, his muscles strong and defined beneath his shirt, and he kisses back cautiously, giving Steve space to breathe, the way Steve thinks it would’ve gone with them before, even once he could hold his breath underwater for ten minutes. He can't keep them straight: Bucky's lip caught between his, warm and pliant; James's hand at his waist, cool bio-metal. His mouth is wet inside, his matching strength as artificial as Steve's. Each of them with manufactured sinews.
Natalia says softly, "Get a room, unless you want me to watch."
James lingers at Steve’s mouth for another long moment before he pulls away with that slanted grin. "Not this time." He holds out a hand; when Steve takes it, rising, James gathers him in again, uses their grip to turn Steve toward the living room and then around again. Waltzes him across the room, dodging furniture with precise, neat steps as Steve stumbles along, face going hot.
"I'm no good at this, Buck, you know I'm not," Steve protests, and—
James sucks his lower lip into his mouth, lets it go again. "He practiced with you, didn't he?"
Steve says, "You were good at it. You were good at everything you wanted to be."
"Good at more than that now," James says.
The curtains are open in Steve's bedroom, fluttering in the gusts of the ventilation cycle, and the lamps of the dome outside are moving through the late evening cycle, rosy light filtering in like a half-remembered dream. James spins them again, turns Steve toward the bed; Steve’s foot catches on the post, and he tumbles harmlessly down onto the comforter.
Steve and Bucky slept in the same bed for years—it got cold in the winter; the radiators never turned on early enough—and it never seemed anything but natural. After all, Bucky's sisters climbed in with their mother sometimes. Steve’s mama only had him, but he thought this must be what brothers were like, to have somebody so close you brushed your teeth together, straightened each other's collars on the way out the door. He'd do anything for Bucky. He did everything for Bucky, except save him.
James strips down efficiently, like a weapon putting itself away after use. In a daze, trying not to miss seeing, Steve manages to pull off his high-collared shirt. The clothing they brought for the weekend is designed to go under suits—skin-tight stretch material that compresses, no seams. Pants, shirt, underwear, socks. Steve peels down his leggings and James takes them from him, folds them. Their clothes stack up into neat piles, side by side. Before the Army, Bucky never folded a damn thing.
Everything's going so fast. Socks in hand, Steve blurts, "What are we doing?"
"I can do whatever you want," James says.
Steve looks down. "That's not what I meant."
James takes his hands off of the waistband of his briefs and leaves them where they are as he sits down next to Steve on the bed. Eyes serious, he tells Steve, "People look at me and they don't see anyone. You do."
Steve says, "Someone you used to be."
"I don't care," James says. His mouth sets into Bucky’s mulishness, and Steve lets out a sharp breath, surges forward to kiss it. James immediately pushes Steve onto his back, and their open mouths catch and slide and catch as their bodies move together, synchronous, slow. Steve's hard as all hell, throbbing against the compression of his shorts, desperate to push his dick up against James’s body however he can, and he can feel James's pressing against his own thigh. Steve’s devoured thousands of pages of Stark’s suggested reading by now and he still doesn’t understand how you build someone like this.
Steve gets their mouths separate and says unsteadily, "Can I jerk you off? Does it—do that?"
"Yeah," James says. "But no muss, no fuss. You know."
"That's all right, I get the impression Natalia's real attached to these sheets." Steve tugs at the waist of James's briefs, shoves it down so he can get a hand between them. James’s dick doesn't feel quite homegrown—the weight and heat are enough alike to pass, though the skin doesn’t slide at all over the underlying hardness—but when Steve squeezes it, the slight give feels real, and James sighs, eyes falling closed. He looks tired, Bucky’s bruised-looking circles beneath the thick fringe of his lashes, even though James doesn't sleep. Steve strokes him in long, slow pulls, palm slippery with sweat, and when he pauses to twist his fingers around the head, James arches and quakes against him.
"Did we do this before?" Bucky's voice is hushed, lips brushing against Steve's ear.
Steve rubs their cheeks together, rough on smooth. Goes back to stroking, faster now. "No."
He knows James is coming because of the way he goes still, the soft, urgent noise deep down in his throat; Steve used to hear it across the room sometimes, after the light was out. After, James slides down the bed, pushes Steve's thighs apart and sucks him off, taking him all the way down his throat. His jaw doesn't get tired, and he doesn't have to break for air, and Steve loses it fast, coming apart, disintegrating, a climax as shocking and irrevocable as a plunge into the icy sea. He's afraid, too deep, unable to get back up, but Bucky's there, stroking his thigh. Bucky turns his head to spit into his own discarded underwear, then climbs up next to Steve and holds him until he stops shaking, forehead tucked into the curve of Steve’s throat.
Eyes closed, face turned away, Steve laughs. It hurts as much as it feels good.
"I'm here," James says.
When they come out of the bedroom in their leggings, Natalia's already most of the way into her suit. The outside one. "Finally," she says, sealing the hard shell over her chest. "You'd better wash up."
"We going somewhere?" Steve crosses his arms over his bare chest.
James sighs, pushing a hand through his hair and grimacing when it catches on a snarl. "He's early, isn't he?"
Natalia shrugs. "I told him to cool his heels, but you know what he's like." Then she looks at Steve. "You know we’re going to outlive anyone else you meet."
"This the enlistment pitch for your immortal space pirate crew?" Steve says.
"We're not immortal, and our enterprise is flexible," Natalia says. "But if you want to return to Stark Station, we’ll take you there. And if you change your mind, we'll come back for you."
"Tell me more about this 'we'," Steve says.
The spaceship looks like a coffee can had a night in Paris with a pontoon boat, but Steve watches it execute a startlingly graceful touch down on the landing pad behind the dome. A door in the side slides open and extends an angular fan of metal that neatly unfolds itself into a staircase. Natalia immediately bounds forward over the rocks, focused on the prize, but James remains by Steve's side as he gets himself a good eyeful, and then they cross the sand together.
"Good morning, lady and gentlemen, I'm Admiral Sam Wilson at the helm of the Willennium Falcon, and you folks are the assholes who kept me parked in orbit for three hours," the guy in the cockpit says, and then, "Wait, is this Captain America?"
"Oh, does Captain America get an asshole exemption?" Steve says as James pulls the hatch shut behind them. Natalia's already braced over Wilson's shoulder, eyes narrowed at one of the half-dozen screens scattered on the console.
From the other side of the front cabin, one of the two other passengers already aboard catches Steve's eye, smiling broadly. "Welcome, fellow traveler. I am Thor of Asgard, and this is my companion, Doctor Jane Foster of Mars."
“Very pleased to meet you both,” Steve says, face heating; he’s heard plenty of cursing out of women, but it still feels like a little much to drop a bomb in front of a lady he’s never met. “I’ll be seeing a lot of you, I imagine, considering the quarters.”
"There'll be more on board, too," Dr. Foster says. "We've got stops to make on the way."
Steve frowns. “What stops are there on the way to Mars?”
Natalia snorts. "Mars. Please. Humanity's the least interesting thing in this universe."
"Put your money where your mouth is and your ass in a seat, Nat," Wilson says. "Let's get the bird up."
The first time Steve floats out into space is through the back hatch of the Falcon. The Sun is white and searing in his peripheral vision, but the Earth is already out of view. Earth, America, New York, Brooklyn, the apartment he shared with Bucky just off Water St, the IND train out to Coney Island, Nathan's Famous dogs slathered with mustard and relish: you'll forget. Zero gravity feels like swimming out into the waves when he was a kid, with only his mother's gaze anchoring him to shore. Here, the ship makes its way without wind or tides, and Steve is tethered strongly to it as he moves through the emptiness of space.
Wilson's voice fills his helmet, warm and crackling with static. "You good out there, Rogers?"
"Yeah," Steve says. "Taking a look around." There's a lot to see. He orients himself with the Milky Way beneath his feet, spilling out like a road. Covers the near sun with his hand and waits for his vision to adjust to the quieter galaxies, kicking his boots gently. Lets himself drift, cradled in the darkness between the stars.