“Most of the intelligence community doesn’t believe he exists. The ones that do call him the Winter Soldier. He’s credited with over two dozen assassinations in the last fifty years. The one thing witnesses all agree on is that he doesn’t have a dæmon.”
“So he’s a ghost story.”
The church is on fire. Steve had seen the flames from a distance and raced up the hill with Alva fleet at his side, shouting for Sam to take off, to go on ahead. But they were too late. Steve stands and watches the roar of the fire, the wooden beams crumbling and cracking like shattered bones. He’s not out of breath from his run but he still sucks in a heaving gulp of air. Alva noses against his clenched fist until it uncurls and Steve allows himself the brief comfort of stroking over her soft tawny head.
Sam drops down to the ground on his other side, Shani alighting almost simultaneously on Sam’s shoulder. “We can wait till it stops burning,” Sam says. “If it really was a cover for a Hydra facility, most of that’s gotta be underground. There might still be something left in the—holy shit!”
Steve’s head snaps up. A figure is moving toward them, a black silhouette against the flames. A man with a steady, purposeful walk. The figure is stark, solitary, utterly alone.
“Bucky,” Alva whispers, but Steve bites his lip, doesn’t cry out.
Dimly, he is aware of Shani launching herself from Sam’s shoulder, of Sam unholstering his sidearm, but Steve remains still. Even in the dark, Steve can make out the familiar lines of Bucky’s face, set in shadow by the flames. The slash of his mouth is a hard, grim thing, his eyes dull and dead. They flicker to Steve: seeing but unseeing. Alva lifts her haunches.
Bucky takes all this in—Sam’s gun, Shani’s poised claws and Alva’s bared teeth—with an uncaring glance. He looks at Steve.
“She wasn’t there,” he says. His face and his human hand are streaked in soot. “I need to find her.”
Steve feels Alva sink back against his thigh. “I know, Buck,” he says, and now he does feel breathless. “Let me help?”
Bucky stands across from him, somehow giving the impression of swaying on his feet, though his legs are by all indications steady. “I need to find her,” he repeats.
“I know,” Steve says. “We’ll help you. We’ll find her.”
“Shamirah.” Bucky spits it out, defiant. “That’s her name. I remember.”
“Jesus,” whispers Sam from beside him. Shani’s already gliding back into his arms.
Steve can only nod. But, “Mirah,” says Alva, and Bucky’s eyes widen as they dart down to her. “We all called her Mirah.”
“Mirah,” says Bucky, taking a halting step forward, no one and nothing following at his feet. “My Mirah.”
“Tell me about the shooter.”
“He’s fast, strong. He had a metal arm.” Steve lets out a short breath. “No visible dæmon.”
Beside him, Natasha is still. Her own dæmon is visible for once, the dark curl of his tail a furred ruff against her throat. Alva is tense beside him, and Steve tears his gaze away from the observation window long enough to confirm that she’s watching Natasha’s dæmon closely. He’s a sleek, sharp-eyed sable, his draped body deceptively alert, but he refuses to acknowledge Alva at all.
Steve doesn’t, he realizes, even know his name.
“Ballistics?” asks Natasha, coldly.
Steve’s a year younger, but his dæmon settles first. They go to show Bucky right away, even before Steve’s mom. Bucky seems sort of awestruck and awkward, Mirah shifting rapidly from a hawk to a sparrow as she flaps down from above Bucky’s head to the ground, where she turns into a rabbit and hops into the hollow between his feet.
“Her fur matches your hair,” Bucky says finally.
Steve flushes. Alva, he can see, is preening a little: her coat is indeed a rich tawny gold.
“She looks like the dogs from that newsreel we saw,” Bucky adds after a moment. Mirah’s become a mouse and is scrambling up his leg. “The ones that went on the Antarctic expedition.”
“A Chinook,” says Alva. “That’s what I am.”
Mirah-the-mouse settles herself in Bucky’s hair. “You’re pretty big for a dog dæmon.”
“I’ll grow into her,” say Steve, with a confidence he doesn’t feel.
It’s less than a week later when Steve realizes he hasn’t seen Mirah out of the same rat terrier form in days. He and Alva enter into a silent debate before Steve finally says, “Buck… Have you…?”
Mirah is small but straight-backed at Alva’s side. She has a white body with black spots and a short-snouted, alert little face. Steve can see her ears prick up.
“Yup,” says Bucky in a clipped tone. His eyes are focused on the ball as he smacks it off the wall and sends it bouncing back toward Steve. Only as Steve fumbles for it does he stop to shoot Steve a grin. “She almost went with being a bear, but we didn’t want to intimidate you guys.”
Steve answers his smile with one of his own. “She’s real pretty,” he says as finally manages to get control of the ball and launch it back.
Bucky misses the ball. It skitters against the wall and rolls toward the entrance of the alley. Mirah darts up and chases after it before Alva has even gotten up. She bounds back with the ball held gently in her teeth and deposits it in Bucky’s waiting hand.
He fixes Steve with a slow smile as he straightens up. “Not as pretty as you, punk.”
Steve stares down at his cuffed hands. He knows he and Sam and Natasha are being driven somewhere to be killed, that he ought to be spending his every conscious moment plotting their escape, but he can’t focus. He can’t think about anything else.
“Do you think they had him severed?” His throat seizes on the word. He can still remember certain Hydra facilities—some regular old Nazi ones too—that he and the Commandos had cleaned out. Those long, bright rooms with their sterile lab tables and shining silver blades. He can see the rows and rows of cages and hear the sound of Dum Dum stumbling into the corner to throw up.
Natasha, across from him, gives him a pitying look from above her bloodied shoulder. “Maybe. We can’t know for sure.”
Alva, Shani, and Natasha’s sable, Foma, are all in cages at the back of the van. Steve can hear Alva whining, and it’s horrible, but at least he knows that it’s probably only death that awaits them. “She was a terrier. Mirah, Bucky’s…” He swallows. “She was big enough that we would have seen her if she was there. If she was still—“
“There are other ways,” Natasha says faintly. Steve looks over and sees that Foma is limp in his cage. “But either way, none of this is your fault, Steve.”
For once, Natasha’s not a good enough liar.
It’s too late to walk back to the village, so they hike to higher ground and make camp. Sam starts building a fire. “Any tips?” he asks, shooting a wry look over his shoulder to Bucky, but Bucky just fixes him with an impassive stare for a moment before turning away. Steve sees Shani whisper something in Sam’s ear; Sam shakes his head. Steve hunkers down beside Alva and watches the black plain of Bucky’s back.
“We can take the first watch,” Sam says, rising with Shani as the embers catch.
Steve shakes his head. “I’m not tired.”
Sam looks skeptical, but he scopes out a space a few feet from the fire without comment. Steve can hear him rifling through his pack. “I’m more hungry than anything,” he says after a minute. “Here.” A power bar thrusts itself into his field of vision. “I brought extra.”
Steve decides he’d prefer the power bar to an argument, so he takes it. Nevertheless, Sam’s hand remains outstretched. “Hey, Barnes,” Sam says after a moment. “You hungry?”
Bucky turns but doesn’t answer. His eyes roam over Sam.
“Do you want something to eat?” Sam tries again.
When Bucky still doesn’t respond, Shani swoops off Sam’s shoulder, snags a power bar, and flies so she’s hovering over Bucky before dropping it in the general vicinity of his head. Bucky catches it. The wrapper crinkles in his metal fist.
“I’ll hook you up with something tastier once we’re back in civilization,” Sam says.
In silence, Bucky squats down on the other side of the fire, where he unpeels and eats his food in four efficient bites.
Steve doesn’t think he can bring himself to eat. The victims of Nazi and Hydra intercision, back during the war—he remembers how they looked, how they moved. It wasn’t far off from all the zombie movies that are so inexplicably popular now: hollow-eyed and shambling, dæmonless and worse than dead. It had seemed a mercy that most of the test subjects hadn’t lasted long, after. But Bucky had survived falling from that train. Bucky was different, like him, and Steve doesn’t like to think about what he—what they—could survive.
“We have a lead on another facility in Belarus.” Steve makes a point of looking Bucky in the eye, addressing him directly. “We can start for it in the morning. Unless you have another—?”
“I need to find her,” says Bucky in that empty, dull voice.
Steve turns to Sam. “First watch,” he confirms, hoping his gratitude comes through. Then he turns swiftly onto his side, lying back and burying his face in Alva’s fur.
When Steve pulls Bucky off the table in Zola’s lab, he hears Mirah start to bark. He turns, holding Bucky in his arms, and sees Alva clawing at a cage door all the way across the lab. It’s not far enough for Steve to feel a tug, but he can only imagine after hours or days, the growing strain of even that small distance of separation…
Bucky still hasn’t said anything beyond name, rank, and serial number. Steve’s chest feels asthma-tight, his heart thrumming as they make their way achingly slowly over to the cages. Steve rams the edge of his shield against the lock; the metal groans, but eventually the clasp gives way. Mirah rockets out of the cage and into Bucky’s arms. His fingers dig into her fur. She licks at his face, at his nose and his ears and his heavy-lidded eyes until life sparks again in their depths. After a moment his gaze moves back up and finds Steve.
Bucky breathes his name, full of awe and confusion. He steadies himself against Steve’s shoulder, and that only seems to add to it. Wordlessly, he shifts Mirah around so that she can see too, the evidence of his own eyes not enough.
“We thought you were smaller,” Mirah says.
“He finally grew into me,” says Alva.
Steve wakes with his face pressed into the dirt and the spectre of a shiver coursing down his spine. He can go from lying down to upright and alert in less than a second, but once he’s on his feet he sees that their campsite is secure. The fire’s still burning, though it’s gone low; Sam and Shani are asleep. Alva, Steve realizes, must have woken before him and relieved Sam; she’s stretched out on the ground on the other side of the fire, her ears pricked and her eyes watchful. Bucky is sitting beside her, his own head bent; Steve can’t tell whether he’s awake or asleep. The fingers of his right hand are resting gently atop the soft fur at the base of Alva’s neck.
Steve draws in a breath, feeling his own skin flush. He hesitates, rocking on the balls of his feet.
Alva looks up at him. “Go back to sleep.”
Steve wavers for another fraction of a second before settling back down on the ground, one arm tucked up under his head. He stares up at the stars for a minute before squeezing his eyes shut. The back of his neck feels warm.
They’ve always touched. That was just Bucky, Steve thought—tactile, affectionate—and it’s only later that he realizes that’s just Bucky with him. Steve is no different. He’d take a hit from most people before he’d accept a hug, but from Bucky he’ll allow them, allow anything. He leans in, reaches out, needy, greedy.
Their dæmons are the same. They’ve played together since Steve and Bucky were boys, rolling around in the dirt, chasing each other through the sky. Alva and Mirah were always the more evenly matched, shifting and changing and tumbling together. Even after their settling leaves Alva permanently the larger, they still tussle together with none of the care or self-consciousness that sometimes needs to be shown to Steve’s frail bones and fragile breath.
But although Bucky is careful with him, he’s never too careful. He never shies away from giving Steve’s wrist a tug or the back of his head a playful slap. He threw Steve over a fence once when they were running away—ahem, tactically retreating—from Donnie Luzzatto and his whole gang of thugs who had already bloodied Steve’s nose and ripped Bucky’s lip open on his own teeth. Seeing their way barred, Bucky hadn’t hesitated, just hefted Alva and Mirah and finally Steve up and over the tangle of wood and wire before launching himself after them with the angry shouts echoing behind him. They’d picked themselves up and run laughing all the way home.
In the winter, when it’s so cold they can see their breath standing in their own kitchen and the wind won’t stop whistling through the gap between their single window and the sill, they all pile together into the same bed, Steve and Bucky and Alva and Mirah. Steve falls asleep with his face buried in warm fur and Bucky’s chest close against his back. Or sometimes, when Alva and Mirah are feeling especially affectionate and insist on curling together in the center of the bed, Steve and Bucky sleep around and under them, all tangled together till it’s hard to tell where which dæmon and which boy begins or ends.
One night in the fall, they’re sitting on the couch, close just to be close. Steve is sketching while Bucky reads, his brow furrowing as he flips the pages of Lost Horizon. Alva and Mirah are lying at their feet, cleaning each other.
“Maybe we ought to try that,” Bucky says out of nowhere, and Steve looks up to see him peering mischievously over the top of his book.
“That.” His book dips down in their dæmons’ direction. “I got some tough to reach places.”
“Would explain why you smell,” Steve says easily, but his sketchbook wavers in his hand. He can feel himself approaching some intangible barrier, like the first time his fingertips brushed across Mirah’s head. He’s torn between waiting for permission to cross the line and simply asking for what he wants. Demanding it.
He shivers at the thought. Down on the floor, Alva raises her head.
Steve sets his sketchbook aside. “Show me.”
“Show me.” He slides forward on the couch until his knees are bracketing Bucky’s. “You want my help or are you suddenly too shy? Show me, Buck. I need to see.”
Lost Horizon hits the floor. Bucky’s staring at him with wide eyes. Steve can see the movement of his chest, the rapid rise and fall.
Then Bucky seems to steel himself. He twists over onto his side and lifts up the hem of his shirt, fingers scraping over the small of his back. “Here,” he says.
Steve slides forward again, settling a hand on Bucky’s hip. His skin feels hot even through the fabric of his pants. Steve leans in, presses close, until he’s breathing in Bucky’s familiar scent, subtle sweat and sun-warmed citrus. Their fingers tangle together as Steve shoves his shirt up higher. Steve looks at the expanse of exposed skin. Then he licks a stripe across it.
Bucky shudders beneath him. Panting, Steve reaffirms his intent, licking again, ending the final brush of his tongue with a soft kiss. He sits back on his heels and Bucky’s arms immediately come up around him. “Steve…”
“Here,” Steve says, lifting his fingers to the hollow of his throat.
“There,” Steve says, but Bucky’s already moving, hurling himself off the scaffolding in a plunging leap. The Hydra agent goes down with a grunt—not even time to scream. His dæmon, however, lets out a screech, launching herself at Bucky’s throat, curved squirrel’s teeth barred. Bucky swats her away with a careless gesture. They move on.
The facility is almost empty. Steve copies the hard drive off what seems to be the main computer; there are some paper files too, which Sam secures. Bucky paces around the room, gaze returning again and again to the row of disused cryochambers. The glass is cracked on the nearest one. Bucky breaks off a chunk of it with his metal fingers, as easy as snapping a cracker in two, and stares at the shards as he lets them fall and smash on the floor.
“We’ll find her,” Steve says, not liking the taste of uncertainty in his mouth.
“Yes,” is all Bucky says. His voice carries the conviction Steve lacks. He turns and strides out the door.
A few minutes later—too long, Steve should never have let himself become so distracted, so intent—Shani comes swooping into the room. “Sam. Steve. Come—now!”
She’s already wheeling around. Alva is fast on her feet, bounding out ahead of Steve. She reaches the room where they left the prisoners tied up and skids to a halt just inside the door. A whimper slides out of her throat. Steve hears it, but it’s what he sees that captures all of his attention. The Hydra agent Bucky leapt on from the catwalk is awake now, pressed back in a pathetic huddle against the side of the chair to which he’s bound. Bucky is standing over him. He’s not touching him.
He’s touching his dæmon.
She’s limp in his hand, the Hydra agent’s little squirrel dæmon. Bucky’s metal fingers are tight around her chest. Steve can see her twist weakly against his grip, a fitful squirm, before she goes slack again. The man in the chair is weeping and begging and Bucky’s face is impassive. Less than ten seconds have passed.
Too slow. Steve finds his voice. “Bucky! Bucky, stop!”
Bucky turns his head. He does not relax his fingers. “I need information,” he says.
“Not like this,” Steve says, moving forward haltingly: one forceful squeeze and the dæmon will die in Bucky’s hand. “Never like this, Buck.”
But, “I need to find her!” Bucky insists. “They took her from me!”
“So you’re gonna do the same to them?” Sam’s come in beside Steve, approaching cautiously; when he speaks it’s slow and steady. “Lift a page straight out of their book? Do you really want to do that?”
Bucky doesn’t look blank anymore. It’s not the improvement Steve was hoping for: his face is all twisted up, agony writ large across his features. “I want her back! I need her! Without her, I—“ His shoulders are shaking, his whole body a violent, trembling thing. “I’m a spectre.“
“You’re not,” Alva says, padding slowly and carefully to Bucky’s side. “You’re still Mirah’s.” Gently, she presses her head against Bucky’s thigh, and Steve fights down a ludicrous spike of envy. “And you’re mine. Please. Let her go.”
Bucky’s shoulders scrunch up. One last shudder moves through him, like a jolt of electricity racing up from his point of contact with Alva. Then his fingers uncurl. Gracelessly, he thrusts the squirrel dæmon in the Hydra agent’s direction.
Steve watches her scramble up the man’s collar; his hands are still bound so he can’t reach for her. He’s weeping piteously. Bucky turns away.
Alva casts an apologetic look back at Steve, then follows him. She falls in beside Bucky and stays there, constant, patient. When Bucky’s fists unclench and collapse to his sides, she’s there, nose soft against the back of his hand. Steve tastes citrus in his mouth.
“Can I touch her?” Bucky asks Steve. “Can I—?” he asks Alva.
He’s never asked before; never had to. Steve understands why he feels like he needs to now: everything between them feels fresh and fragile. But not in a bad way. Bucky’s familiar body, the way they’re all sprawled together, the weak sunlight drifting in their window: it all seems newly wondrous, precious. He drags a knuckle down the length of Bucky’s spine. “Of course.”
Alva sighs contentedly as Bucky scratches between her ears. Steve lies there for a moment, watching them both with a full feeling in his chest; his reverie is interrupted by a rude butting against the back of his hand. “Hey,” says Mirah, nipping at his little finger. “What am I, chopped liver?”
Steve skritches under her chin until Bucky lets out an abrupt giggle. His face flushes scarlet. “What?” he says. “It tickles.”
“Oh, like this?” Steve says, shifting his focus with a pounce.
“Alva!” Bucky shouts, thrashing. “Protect me from this lunatic!”
Steve’s mouth has already joined his fingernails in his exploration of Bucky’s belly. “I think you’re on your own,” he hears Alva say. She and Mirah slip off the bed. Steve lets out a happy huffing breath as he moves his attention lower, gripping Bucky’s hips like he never plans to let go.
Bucky winds his fingers into Steve’s hair. “I can’t get close enough to you,” he murmurs.
The last thing Steve says for a while is, “Let’s try.”
Fury has a safehouse in Riga. It’s not the type to house politicians or diplomats in need of protection; there’s a rickety old table and a pair of mattresses on the floor and a lot of guns and a trap door in the closet and not much else. Sam flops down almost as soon as they’re in the door with the exit secured; Shani fluffs her feathers, fussing briefly with some stray pinions before settling on Sam’s chest. Restraining himself from laying a hand on that rigid back, Steve looks pointedly between Bucky and the other bed. “Go ahead.”
Bucky hesitates. He looks worn out; not simply dead-eyed and vacant, but actually tired. What an odd thing to flood Steve with relief. Still, “You and Alva didn’t get much sleep the other night,” he says. “Why don’t you rest now?”
Steve sees Sam’s eye crack open at that, but he doesn’t say anything.
Bucky turns and looks at him. “You can stay awake while she sleeps.” It’s not quite a question, but Steve can tell that this is the first time Bucky has realized that this behavior is unusual.
Steve feels himself flush a little, thinking about it. He rubs at the back of his neck. “Yeah, uh. Since the serum, we can…do some things.” It had terrified him at first, what he’d initially perceived as a new—unnatural—distance between him and his dæmon. But Alva was still Alva, and they were still themselves; if he felt his courage wane all he had to do was reach out and feel the warmth of her fur against the palm of his hand. Together, they accepted the differences they discovered, used them when they were useful, but Steve had never felt the desire to test the limits of what they could do separate from each other the way he had eagerly pushed his new body to its extremes.
“We’re not the only ones,” he hastens to add. “You can train yourself to do it.” He tries aiming a small smile in Bucky’s direction. “They used to say that witches—“
“I think Mirah is sleeping,” Bucky says suddenly.
Sam’s eyes open for sure now. He pushes himself up on his elbow.
“I think sometimes I can feel her dreaming…”
Bucky trails off. Steve’s arms twitch: he wants so badly to take Bucky by the shoulders, to cup the back of his neck, trace fingers down his spine, hold him, hold him. Alva nuzzles against his leg, licks gently at his metal palm, and Bucky lets her. He pets absently at her head, his eyes far away.
“We’re on a train,” he says.
“They did perform intercisions in the Red Room,” Natasha says, handing him the folder. “They perfected a technique that prevented the subjects from dying of the trauma. Most of them lasted a long, long time. It made them docile, compliant, suggestible. Dangerous weapons—of a certain type.”
Steve swallows heavily. The folder wavers in his grip.
“But it was far from their only technique. I want you to remember that.”
“When did you go and become an optimist?” Steve asks around the lump in his throat.
Natasha smiles, thin but warm. “It’s something I’m trying.” Her eyes narrow. “But I still don’t know everything, Rogers. And in my expert opinion, I don’t think whoever compiled this file did, either.”
“Compartmentalization,” Steve says with a twist of his lip.
Foma lifts his head from Natasha’s neck and briefly meets Steve’s gaze. “You’re learning.”
She leans in and brushes her lips across his cheek. “Natasha,” he can’t help calling as she turns to go. “You…you said there were other ways.”
She inclines her head, considering. Then Foma’s tail is uncurling from around her throat. He rears up and whispers in her ear. “Yes, go ahead,” she tells him. “I’ll catch up.”
Steve watches as he climbs down her back, fleet-footed and graceful. He starts off across the cemetery, a black streak in the green grass. Natasha stands across from Steve with her hand resting casually on her cocked hip; her face is utterly relaxed. Foma gets farther and farther away until he’s not even a speck on the horizon.
“You know there are ways,” Natasha says.
“Tell me about her,” Bucky says.
He’s scouting up ahead with Alva, speaking softly and too far away for a normal person to have heard. But Steve—well, he always does his best not to listen to people’s private conversations with their dæmons. This isn’t quite the same, though. This is different.
Alva is silent for a moment, padding along on soft paws. Then, “You used to put her down the front of your coat. When we were fighting in Europe, in the winter, when it was cold.” Steve sees Bucky’s hand move almost absently over the surface of his hard black body armor, one of the few unconscious gestures Steve’s seen from him in this century. “You had a padded blue coat,” Alva says, “and you’d undo the top couple of buttons. It looked warm.
“I was jealous,” she adds after a moment, and Steve feels a pang. He can tell from just the angle of Bucky’s profile that he’s shooting Alva a questioning look.
“I’m too big to do that with Steve,” Alva says. “Or with you.”
Steve’s moment of breathlessness is interrupted by Alva saying, “Yeah, so anyway, Mirah was a real cocky little shit about it.”
Steve feels the laughter startle out of him at the same moment he hears Bucky’s own snort take him by surprise.
“You’ll see,” Alva says. “She’s just the worst.”
Her voice is bright, but her tail’s not wagging. She and Steve both watch as Bucky’s jolt of a laugh trails off into silence. Then a breath, a small hitch of his shoulders: “I didn’t even know to miss her for so long.”
He shifts his grip on the gun in his hand, the gun that’s always in his hand. “I would go on missions,” he says after a moment, words coming out in halting bursts, “and I would see people with their dæmons and I would think, weak spot. Vulnerability. I couldn’t have those,” he explains, sounding oddly earnest, oddly young. Like he’s waiting for Alva to confirm.
“Do you still think that’s all we are?” she says instead. It’s the voice she uses with him when he least wants to hear it: tough, take-no-prisoners. Get up, Rogers. Pull it together.
For a long while, Bucky is silent. Steve can’t see his face, so he doesn’t know if Bucky’s not answering or if he’s just dropped his voice to a volume even super-soldiers can’t detect. If he’s caught on to Steve’s eavesdropping and has had enough.
Steve spots Sam and Shani swooping back up from the valley; Sam looks excited, gesticulating behind him. Distracted, Steve almost misses it when Bucky says, “Doesn’t matter, does it? I want her back. Weak spot or not, I want her.”
“She wants you back, too,” says Alva, turning with tail twitching back to Steve. “I know it. She’s waiting for you.”
The second Bucky’s out, Steve is grabbing the targeting blade and launching himself back up the scaffolding. He doesn’t have time to check on Alva; he doesn’t have time, period. So he hears Alva’s growl but doesn’t really register it until the bullet bites into his leg. It’s a warning shot, meant to make him turn around—which he does, long enough to confirm that Bucky is already back on his feet, gun raised. Steve can’t—he doesn’t have any choice but to ignore it. He leaps again, hears another snarl, another shot. It goes wide, pinging off the metal beam he’s clinging to. But the pain still blooms: he lets out a gasp and glances over his shoulder again. Alva’s on the ground, where it looks like she’s been shaken off or flung. Bucky’s pointing the gun at her.
One shot. One shot and it will all be over. Alva can’t heal like he can (they’re pretty sure). She’s fast and can dodge almost anything, but Bucky’s standing over her and she has nowhere to run. The Winter Soldier doesn’t miss.
They lock eyes for a moment—a mere second, a fraction thereof—Steve and his dæmon. Then Steve turns his back and hurls himself forward.
He never sees the aim shift, but Bucky’s bullet hits him square in the stomach.
The bunker appears deserted. There’s a file cabinet overturned in one doorway, bleeding yellowing papers onto the cement floor. Slick patches of slimy mold have blossomed here and there across the walls and ceilings. But Steve’s unnaturally strong ears are picking up a persistent electric hum; Bucky and Alva, he can tell, are hearing it too. Sam is the one who finds the secret passage, the metal staircase spiraling down down down beneath one of the otherwise innocuous-looking desks. “This is some serious James Bond shit,” he says, calling Shani over to him and adjusting his grip on his gun. He starts down first, slow and cautious.
Halfway down the stairs, Bucky breaks suddenly out of his middle position, crashing into Sam’s shoulder in his haste to get by. He tears off running down the dimly lit corridor, skidding as he rockets through a door off the passageway. Steve shares a brief startled look with Sam, but Alva’s already racing ahead of them, hurrying at Bucky’s heels, and Steve hardly thinks before he follows.
Bucky’s at the back of the room, pounding his fists—metal and flesh—against the glass panel of a cryotube. Hair tumbling in front of his face, eyes wide and wild—he looks like an untamed animal. He’s murmuring Mirah’s name like he thinks it might be enough to summon her.
Steve comes up behind him, cautiously, afraid not of Bucky and his flailing fists but of what he might see inside the tube—or not see. He peers through the glass, thick and nearly opaque with frost, and feels his heart stutter in his chest. She’s there: Mirah is actually there. Lying at the bottom of the tube, her body looks impossibly small, frail and vulnerable. And still: much, much too still. That’s how this works, Steve knows, but the unnaturalness of it nevertheless bites into him; he feels cold, as if the frost were catching. Bucky, too, was kept like this between missions. Mirah’s been kept like this, trapped in this man-made ice for even longer than Steve and Alva were at the bottom of the ocean.
Bucky’s knuckles—the metal ones—rebound off the glass with an echoing crack. “Get her out! I want her out!”
He’s going to damage the tube. Steve tries, as gently as he can, to still his pounding hands. “Bucky,” he says, “wait—“ But Bucky’s not waiting. Steve steps in and catches him by the wrists before he can score another hit, and suddenly they’re struggling, Steve only barely holding on as Bucky tries first to shake him free, then to slam Steve himself against the cryotube: his own super-soldier-shaped battering ram. Out of the corner of his eye, Steve catches that Sam is scrambling to decode the workings of the control panel, shouting “Barnes! Barnes! Hold up! Just give me another minute—!” as his fingers fly over the switches. The shield on Steve’s back hits the tube with a horrible grinding clang.
Then all at once Bucky yelps and lets him go.
Steve watches him stagger back a step. For a second, he can taste blood on his tongue, but the hand he wipes across his mouth comes away clean. He feels a familiar warmth against his legs and sees that Alva has inserted herself between him and Bucky.
“Stop it!” she hisses at Bucky, furiously. “You’re going to hurt her, you idiot.”
“You bit me,” says Bucky, sounding oddly offended.
“I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again,” Alva says. “Now calm down and let Sam do his job.”
“Uh, for the record, this is not my job,” says Sam. “But I think I’ve—“
A light flickers on inside the chamber. Steve hears something within whir to life. Bucky’s face is eager as he presses close again; Alva permits him. Steve steps to the side, out of the way, but he permits himself a single squeeze of Bucky’s right shoulder as he goes.
Bucky’s head swivels toward him at the touch. Their eyes meet and Steve realizes with an aching lurch that it’s the first time they’ve really looked at each other in days, nearly their first interaction—outside of their recent tussle—that’s been just the two of them, without Alva as an intermediary. Something flickers across Bucky’s face, some expression Steve feels like he once would have been able to read, but before he can linger on it, Bucky’s attention is—rightly—returning to the cryochamber. The frost is melting from the glass, droplets evaporating almost instantly into mist.
The indicator light at the top of the chamber switches over from red to green. Bucky drops down to his knees as the door slowly hisses open.
“Mirah. Mirah!” he whispers, hands reaching out like a penitent. They’re shaking.
Mirah’s trembling, too: her legs kicking as if in sleep, her slender shoulders shuddering. But after a moment, her eyes flutter open. “Bucky?” she says, blinking, lifting her head.
“Mirah!” He scrambles toward her on his knees, something like a smile breaking open across his face.
Steve is so focused on Bucky’s expression—joy tempered with disbelief—that he almost misses the shift in Mirah’s. The sleepy, hopeful look is sharply shuttered; all at once, she’s backing toward the rear of the cryochamber, head down and teeth bared in a snarl. “Where’s Bucky?” she grits out. “What have you done with Bucky?”
Bucky teeters forward, his metal hand hitting the floor with a clang. He looks shattered, stupefied. “Mirah!” snaps Steve, in horror.
Her head swings up in his direction. “Steve!” she shouts, looking at him like some sort of savior. Skirting along the edge of the chamber, she leaps past Bucky’s prone form and throws herself at him. Startled, Steve catches her up in his arms. From the floor he can hear Bucky moan.
But Mirah’s panting in his arms, frantic with relief. “You came for us! I knew you would come. Steve, we have to hurry: they took Bucky away somewhere and he was hurt. I tried to fight, but I couldn’t, we were in too much pain...” She spends a moment collecting herself, her head pressed to Steve’s shoulder; then her legs start scrambling at his chest. “Put me down, I need to find Bucky!”
“Mirah…” Steve says, hollowly. He feels like the floor’s fallen out from under him, and if his heart is stinging with betrayal, then Bucky…
“Alva!” Mirah’s spotted Steve’s dæmon, whose expression, Steve suspects, is an accurate representation of Steve’s own, if it were translated onto canine features. “Alva, make him listen! Bucky has to be close…”
“Mirah, he’s right here,” says Alva gently.
Rather than lower Mirah to the ground, Steve kneels down with her. He frees a hand and lays it gently on Bucky’s bent back. “Buck, it’s okay. Look, Mirah,” he says, shifting her slowly toward Bucky’s side. “Here he is. Here’s Bucky.”
Bucky lifts his head haltingly, like it’s too heavy a burden. There are tears in his eyes as he looks at Mirah. Yet his hands can’t seem to help reaching out. “Shamirah. Please—“
“No!” It’s more a growl than a word. Mirah snaps at Bucky’s reaching fingers until, trembling, they retreat. “That is not Bucky,” she declares, looking frantically between Steve and Alva like she’s still hoping she can somehow make them see sense. “That’s not my Bucky!”
She retreats into Steve’s arms, burying her face against his neck.
“Oh, God—“ whispers Alva.
“Guys… Shit! Guys!” Sam’s shout breaks through everything: Mirah’s rasping tears and the tremors of Bucky’s back beneath his hand; Alva’s half-whispered prayers and the ocean-like roar inside Steve’s own head. “I think I triggered something here! I think opening the chamber…yup, that is definitely a countdown. Steve! We gotta move!”
“Go!” Steve shouts without turning around. He shifts his grip on Mirah and tugs at Bucky’s arm. “Buck, get up. We need to run, Bucky, come on!”
With a brutal tug, Bucky jerks out of Steve’s grasp and folds back down to the floor. “Buck—!” Steve says desperately.
Alva leaps forward and sinks her teeth into Bucky’s collar. She manages to drag him a few feet toward the door before he reaches back with his right hand and slaps her away.
“Fine!” she declares, sitting back on her haunches. “But we’re not leaving without you. Your choice, Buck.”
Bucky lets out a snort. It’s a bitter, twisted sound, nothing like his burst of laughter from a few hours before. “My choice,” he says, heaving himself to his feet. “My choice,” he repeats, gesturing Alva toward the door. She hesitates. “Oh, don’t worry, I’ll be right behind you,” he says, sharply. “Because it’s my choice.”
They run for the stairs. Steve can hear Bucky behind him: his footsteps nearly silent but his laughter echoing forward, chasing them all the way out of the bunker, up into the open air. The stars are out, the grass wet beneath their boots. Sam’s waiting recklessly by the entrance; he helps them out of the hold and urges them toward cover. Steve has his shield out to protect Bucky as he emerges, last and still laughing from a twisted mouth, but he darts to the side and drops to his knees. The ground quakes and cracks as the charges blow, but Bucky steadies himself with his metal fingertips driven into the dirt. He sits and watches the orange ball of flame explode against the sky like fireworks. Tears are streaming down his face and still he laughs until the sound is indistinguishable from sobs.
Mirah lifts her head and fixes Steve with a steady, solemn gaze. “Don’t leave me with him. Promise me. Don’t you dare.”
They have to be careful in public. One wrong touch could give them away. They don’t discuss it, but for a while, they stop touching altogether outside the apartment. It doesn’t feel normal, walking down the sidewalk like soldiers marching to report, hands at their sides, careful space between them. Even Mirah and Alva keep themselves apart.
It feels so unnatural. It doesn’t take long before Bucky cracks. They’re out for a stroll, halfway through a pointless, spiraling conversation about the Dodgers, when Bucky reaches out to accent a point with a rap of his knuckles to Steve’s shoulder. He freezes for a second with them brushing against the fabric of Steve’s canvas coat. Then all at once his face breaks open into a laugh; he turns his tap into a grab, into a friendly shake. It in turns shakes a chuckle loose from Steve, and when Bucky moves on to ruffling Steve’s hair, he retaliates, cuffing Bucky on the chin, swiping his hat.
Steve sees Mirah leap onto Alva’s back before Bucky bears him down into a headlock. He grinds his heel down into Bucky’s instep—not too hard. “Jerk!” Bucky says through a laugh. His hand smacks down against the seat of Steve’s pants.
It’s then that—perhaps fortunately—the proprietor comes out of the grocery they’re tussling in front of. “Hey! No fighting! Move it along!”
“Sorry!” shouts Steve, straightening up and giving Bucky a push in the direction they’d been going.
“Sorry, sir!” says Bucky, smirking. Steve sees Alva nip at the wagging stub of Mirah’s tail.
Still, they keep giving each other little pushes and shoves as they hurry home, until Bucky hustles Steve through the door with one last thrust and the tenor of their touches changes.
After that they’re not so careful. Steve rationalizes it: they were handsy when there was nothing to suspect, so it would only be more suspicious if they stopped being handsy now. He keeps his hands off Mirah, is the important thing. But Bucky is his to touch.
“You know, most strangers assume she’s yours,” Bucky leans over and whispers one day on the train to Coney Island. He dips his head toward Mirah, stretched out at his feet. Her eyes meet his with an answering glint.
“Thanks, I know,” says Steve, annoyed. He’s small, so he should have a small dæmon, ha ha. He can’t imagine why Bucky would bring this up—why Bucky would say this to him.
“Nothing but strangers where we’re headed,” says Mirah, speculatively.
Steve feels his heart begin to race. Slowly, casually, Mirah and Alva both get to their feet. As the train lurches and rocks, they stride past each other until Alva is standing in front of Bucky and Mirah is standing in front of Steve. Then they both sit down.
Steve is dizzy by the time they disembark the train—gloriously so. He lifts Mirah into his arms to avoid the crush; he is very, very aware of Bucky walking beside him, his hand buried in the ruff of fur at the back of Alva’s neck. The rides at Luna Park seem superfluous. They walk along the boardwalk, the cries of the barkers a distant buzz. Steve knows his face is flushed. Bucky’s mouth is open in a permanent pant. Eventually they find an unsettled patch of sand and collapse there. Mirah lays her head on Steve’s chest, panting, glassy-eyed. Bucky and Alva, he can tell, are similarly arrayed. Steve strokes his thumb over Mirah’s sleek soft head and stares up at the sky until it darkens, then explodes again in crackling, rainbow-colored light.
Somehow, at some point, they make it home. “You’re crazy,” Steve tells Bucky in between kissing him and kissing him and kissing him. “We can’t do that again.
“For at least a month,” he adds, stripping Bucky’s shirt over his head.
Bucky laughs and tugs him close by the waist. Steve lifts his legs and lets Bucky heft him up, and in that moment, he doesn’t mind being small at all.
Somehow they find an abandoned barn. Correction: Sam and Shani find an abandoned barn, and somehow Steve and Mirah and Alva and Bucky drag themselves, in slumped and fractured clusters, inside. Steve feels torn in too many directions; he aches in ways he can’t remember aching since before the serum—worse even than on the helicarrier as it drifted down. He watches Bucky slink off into the corner and wants so badly to go to him, but Mirah is still clinging to him, sharp little nails digging into his jacket.
“Alva,” he says a little desperately, and with a last wistful look in Bucky’s direction, she pads over.
“Mirah,” she says, nosing against the other dæmon’s flank, “I can’t get comfortable.”
Mirah’s head pulls away from Steve’s shoulder long enough to shoot Alva a deeply dubious look.
“And I need to talk to Sam,” Steve adds, awkwardly. He crouches, hoping Mirah will take the hint. “I’ll come join you later, I promise.”
Mirah’s ears are drooping and miserable, but she disentangles herself. Alva pulls her immediately against her side, spooning her with her muzzle. She meets Steve’s eyes over Mirah’s bent head. Talk some sense into her! Steve mouths.
No kidding, dunderhead is the gist of Alva’s response.
Steve looks to Bucky again as he straightens up: Buck’s seated himself carelessly in the corner, his legs splayed out in front of him and his arms resting limply alongside his thighs. He looks like a puppet with cut strings. Steve takes half a step in his direction—but Mirah’s watching him, he can feel the glittering weight of her sharp eyes. And he really does need to talk to Sam. He turns toward the back of the barn.
Sam is leaning against a hay bale, hand slung over his bent knee and Shani perched on his forearm. He meets Steve’s gaze as he approaches and raises an eyebrow.
“So…” Steve says.
“Yeah,” says Sam.
“Um,” says Steve.
“Mm-hm. Yup,” says Sam.
“We,” Steve starts.
“No, I got it,” Sam says.
“I just,” says Steve.
“I feel you,” says Sam with a nod. He gestures at Shani. “We feel you.”
“I don’t know what to do,” says Steve with a heavy sigh.
“That,” agrees Sam, “is the $64,000 question. That’s a—“
“Game show,” says Steve. “Yeah. Already looked that one up.”
Then he drops down to the ground and puts his head in his hands.
Sam’s palm is warm against his back. He keeps his voice soft. “I’ve seen things like this before. I mean, not exactly like this, but—“ He sucks in a breath. “Some soldiers, coming back, they’re so full of guilt, for a while their dæmons act like they don’t want anything to do with them. Again, it’s never this extreme, but given time—“
Steve nods, forces himself to swallow. “I just,” he says again, and then makes himself say it: “I thought this would fix it. I thought getting her back would fix him.”
Steve can tell without lifting his head that Sam’s staring across the barn, into the dark and shadowed corner. “So did he.”
Another weighty minute passes before Sam’s slaps him firmly on the knee. “You should get some sleep. You almost got blown up today; even for a super soldier, that’s gotta take it out of you.”
“Sam—“ Steve starts.
Sam waves him away. “Yeah, I know, I’m awesome.” He flicks his fingers toward Alva and Mirah. “Get back to your weird ménage à dæmon.”
Alva rises to her feet as Steve approaches, making room for Steve to settle himself at Mirah’s back. Alva leans over and noses gently beneath his ear. “I’m going to—“
“Thank you,” Steve says. Briefly, he lets his eyes flutter closed, listening as Alva pads across the barn, waiting to feel the ghost of Bucky’s warmth against her side.
But less than a minute later, it’s Alva herself who he feels stretching out along his back. “He wouldn’t let me,” she says sadly. “He told me no.”
Mirah is sniffling in her sleep, her paws scratching at the floor. Steve cuddles her close and aches with her, aches for Bucky: who is right there, right across the room.
He remembers their fleeting moment of connection earlier, Steve’s hand on Bucky’s back and for a brief moment their gazes even, equally met. Slowly, as gently as he can, Steve shifts onto his other side, keeping Mirah tight to his chest. She’s shaking in her sleep and she hasn’t really stopped, since they found her: trembling and looking around for something seemingly just out of her sight, even as she looks right through Bucky.
Alva is still awake. She and Steve look at each other; then Steve lowers his head so it’s pressed against her head, his forehead brushing against the slope of her snout. Still as gentle, as careful as he can be, he transfers Mirah from the warmth of his chest to hers. Alva curls a paw around her fellow dæmon and squeezes her eyes shut tight.
Steve pulls himself silently to his feet. He can see Bucky squatting in the dark corner of the barn, already watching him. His gaze is unwavering as Steve approaches. He doesn’t stand, so Steve sits, his long, strong limbs feeling unusually awkward as he contorts them into position.
“Why’d you get up?”
The matter-of-fact question startles him. “I wanted to talk to you,” he says honestly—then realizes it’s not honest enough. “I miss you. Bucky…” He wants to reach out again. He wants to touch. But Bucky sent Alva away and so… Steve swallows. “I’ve missed you so much.”
Bucky’s chin jerks. “You should go back there. Be with them.”
“Will you come with me?” Steve asks, hoping against hope.
Bucky gives him a derisive look.
“Please,” Steve says anyway. “Mirah just needs some time, Buck.”
Bucky snorts: the bitter, hollow one again, the one that twists Steve’s gut. “She already has what she needs.” His eyes flick up to Steve’s face and they’re not so much bitter as resigned. “You should go back,” he repeats.
Not without you, Steve thinks, Steve remembers, but he feels helpless to prove it: there’s no physical feat that can solve this, no display of heroism or even moral conviction that can make this right.
“Go,” Bucky repeats, a hint of force creeping into his voice. His gaze drops to where his arms are laid out upon his knees, metal glinting in the slivers of moonlight creeping in through the slatted walls. “I’m better off alone.”
“You don’t have to be,” Steve says, and the past is in his throat, constricting his lungs, almost a muscle memory. “I’m here. I’ll help you any way I can…”
Steve turns, though he keeps enough of his attention on Bucky to notice that he doesn’t. Mirah’s woken up and sprung to her feet beside Alva, where she is apparently ignoring the other dæmon’s attempts at comfort. Her eyes glitter in the dark and the panic in them does not abate when they settle on Steve’s location.
“Steve,” she says again, urgently, and Steve realizes with a sinking sensation that she’s afraid for him.
Bucky would never hurt me, Steve opens his mouth to say, but Bucky reads the lie on his lips—or worse, his moment of hesitance. “Help her,” Bucky steals that moment to say, voice like a self-cauterizing knife. “I’ll be fine on my own. I’ll be…” He lets out a breath. “I’ll be fine.”
Tactical retreat, Steve thinks with self-loathing as he returns to the center of the barn. Alva lets out a long sigh, but she clears a space for him—and for Mirah, who’s already snuggling up to him with a naked sort of need.
“In the morning we’ll find Bucky?” she asks in a whisper.
Steve dips his head in something not quite a nod. “In the morning we’ll figure everything out,” he says. Alva does not call him out on the lie.
“Find my Bucky,” repeats Mirah through a long-tongued yawn. “He’ll protect us…keep you safe, Steve, from the spectres…”
She’s turned her nose back into his neck, carefully pointing her face away from the apparition in the corner. Steve strokes the back of her head and hopes that despite everything, Bucky can still feel it—even just the slightest ghost of his touch.
Steve doesn’t think he sleeps, but he must have; for a few precious minutes, he must have drifted off into uneasy dreams, because near dawn when Mirah comes awake in his arms and he sits himself up for her sake, they both look immediately toward the corner, only to discover that Bucky is gone.
Steve wakes before Bucky. It happens that way sometimes and it’s usually an indication that Steve’s going to spend all day with his chest feeling tight. He takes a few careful breaths now, though, and he feels okay; he pats Alva’s head where she’s laid her head over his sternum, listening to his lungs. He smiles at her and takes another, deeper breath just to prove he can. Then he rolls over to look at Bucky.
It’s not a sight he gets to see enough: Bucky unburdened in sleep. His pink lips are parted and his normally carefully arranged hair is mussed and wild. Steve feels smugly responsible for both. He watches the rise and fall of Bucky’s bare torso: the blankets have somehow conspired to pool perfectly around his waist so that he resembles a classical statue. But instead of cold marble he’s all tanned golden skin, soft and warm and inviting. Steve imagines several excellent ways he could wake Bucky up, but he also doesn’t want to waste this singular opportunity. He stretches out his arm and wiggles his fingers, scrambling to catch the edge of his sketchbook where it’s been abandoned on the back of the couch. He can’t quite reach. Thankfully, Alva is made of stretchier stuff: flopping over Steve’s chest, she snags the book between her teeth, dropping it with a smirk on Steve’s chest. There’s a pencil still tucked between the pages. Moving as gently as he can, Steve props himself up on one elbow and sets to work.
He’s blackening the pattern of spots on Mirah’s back when her ears start to twitch. She comes awake with a yawn and Bucky, snuffling, is not far behind. His grip tightens around her back for a moment before it eases again, the momentary tenseness of his features relaxing. Blue eyes blink open and meet Steve’s.
“Enjoying the view?” Bucky asks in his best seductive dance hall voice.
“Eh,” says Steve, and he enjoys the grumpy look on Bucky’s face almost as much as he enjoyed it peaceful in slumber. “You know what I’d really enjoy?” Steve says, stretching his arms. “The view of somebody making me breakfast.”
Bucky pokes him in the side. “You’re a bum,” he says with affection, disentangling himself. Mirah scrambles out of bed after him, but despite the nip she gives to Alva’s ear, Alva stays put. She and Steve sprawl out across the bed, briefly luxuriating in all the space, the sheets still warm from Bucky and Mirah’s bodies, still smelling of them. Steve takes a deep breath—it feels tight but not too tight—then shifts so he’s facing the room. Bucky’s put their skillet on the stove, grabbed a couple of eggs, but when he catches Steve’s eyes on him, his eyebrow quirks. He flips an egg up into the air, catches it, arcs the other one up, juggling casually. It’s not all that impressive with only two eggs, and Bucky seems to know that, because with an exaggerated wink in Steve’s direction, he tosses one of the eggs to Mirah, who’s sitting on the counter. After a heart-stopping moment, she manages somehow to catch on the edge of her nose, tilting her head to balance it on her snout.
“You trying to impress us?” Steve asks, widening his mouth into a deliberate yawn.
“Naw,” says Bucky. After a small balk, Mirah manages to dip her head in such a way that she lobs the egg back to Bucky, who snags it with only an easy-to-cover half-step forward. “We’re practicing our act. Thinking of running away to join the circus.” He shoots Steve a playful look, but there’s something odd in his tone. Steve pushes up onto his elbows. “Wanna come with?”
“Why, is the freak show hiring?” Steve’s tone comes out sounding significantly less jocular outside his own head. “Sorry,” Steve says quickly, so Bucky will stop making that face, sympathy and guilt all twisted up together. “Keep strutting your stuff.”
“We only know the one trick,” Bucky says, turning back to the skillet. He’s graceful, purposeful, as he cracks each egg against the edge in turn.
Steve exchanges a look with Alva. Then he slips out of bed. Steve’s only wearing his shorts, and though there’s only the slightest chill, he’d really be more comfortable with another layer. He spots Bucky’s jacket, hanging on the peg by the door, and thinks, perfect.
He slips it over his shoulders. It’s too big for him, of course, but he makes himself not be bothered. The jacket smells like Bucky, in a different way from the bed, and it’s a sort of an apology, he thinks, to let Bucky see him in it. He pushes the sleeves up and saunters over to the counter where Bucky’s standing with his back to Steve. Mirah’s already sighted him and is watching his approach, but she stays silent and rests her chin on her paws when Steve shoots her a conspiratorial look.
“Hey, Buck.” Steve winds his arms around Bucky’s waist, presses his nose into a bump of spine between his shoulder blades. Bucky startles, then sinks back. Steve keeps his grip loose so Bucky can turn around with the spatula held in his hand, get a good look.
“Steve,” he says, voice thick, and Steve smiles dopily for a moment before he realizes Bucky’s nose is scrunched up the way it gets when he’s trying to hold back tears.
“Bucky?” Steve’s arms fall to his sides. He can hear Alva hurrying over.
“I’m fine. It’s nothing.” Bucky twists away again, giving the eggs a diffident poke before picking the pan up off the heat and banging it down onto the other burner with too much force.
“Buck—“ says Steve.
“Left pocket,” whispers Mirah.
Her head is still down, her ears flat, but Steve follows her gaze to the fabric hanging against his own left thigh. Reaching inside, he pulls out a crumpled piece of paper.
The letterhead is stamped with an official seal: a grim spread-winged eagle. ORDER TO REPORT FOR INDUCTION is printed in all caps across the top. And below that,
The President of the United States,
To JAMES BUCHANAN BARNES
Having submitted yourself to a local board composed of your neighbors for the purpose of determining your availability for training and service in the land or naval forces of the United States, you are hereby notified that you have now been selected for training and service therein.
You will, therefore, report to the local board named above…
Steve stands there holding the letter. Alva is silent at his feet, Mirah silent on the countertop, her chin still tucked against her paws. He can hear Bucky’s ragged breathing.
“I just…” Bucky says after a minute. His voice only cracks a little. “I didn’t want to tell you because I knew you’d be sore. About not coming with me.”
The paper crumples again in Steve’s hand. “Bucky,” he starts, but he can’t decide if he’s furious or terrified or jealous or some unspeakable combination of all three. Certainly the words stopper in his throat.
“We leave Monday,” Bucky says, and Steve can’t do anything but stand there, balled-up paper in his split-knuckle hand and Bucky’s jacket hanging off his shoulders like a joke.
Monday morning, Bucky and Mirah head off to basic training, while Steve and Alva ride the subway without speaking to a recruitment center in Manhattan, where Steve falsifies his enlistment papers for the first time.
They waste hours searching: Bucky’s left no trace and it’s very, very obvious that he doesn’t want to be found. Eventually they return to the barn, Steve hoping against hope that Bucky’s changed his mind and come back, but the place is as empty as when they first found it, all drifting dust motes and moldering hay. Mirah scrambles up onto one of the bales and stretches out her legs, looking obnoxiously self-satisfied. “You’re sure you have no sense at all of where he is?” Sam asks, graciously taking the burden of cross-examination off of Steve.
“No,” says Mirah, sounding as bored as she has the last twelve times. “I told you: I don’t feel any kind of connection with him.”
She begins, ostentatiously, to groom herself.
That seems to finally cross the line for Alva. She plants herself across from Mirah and growls in a manner that would send most dæmons whimpering into a position of submission. Mirah, however, ignores her. Steve, who can feel Alva’s bristling all down his back, decides to do his best to ignore them both: he turns his back and focuses his attention on Sam.
“I hope you’re not looking to me for a brilliant idea,” Sam says. He looks pretty composed, but the last few days have taken it out of all of them: Shani’s feathers are literally ruffled.
“That would be nice,” says Steve, but in a tone he hopes conveys the fact that he’s in no way expecting Sam to shoulder this load. Steve knows this is no one’s responsibility but his own.
Sam lets out a sigh. “I don’t know, man. I think you may have to be patient.” Steve can feel his eyebrows go up: they both know patience is not among Captain America’s vaunted virtues.
Fortunately it’s prime among Sam’s. “Listen,” he says, “you’re not going to question Barnes’ skills, are you? We can track him all across Eastern Europe, but if we’re doing that we’re essentially going to be chasing his tail and waiting for him to fuck up. And we’re going to be carrying out this covert mission as two dudes with three dæmons. This isn’t exactly the most forward-thinking part of the world. And even if it were, you have to admit that that’s a combination that’s going to draw some attention. Here, a few hours outside of St. Petersburg…I don’t think it’s going to be very positive.”
“So what are you saying? You think we should give up?” Steve knows he sounds harsher than he intends.
“I’m saying,“ and Sam does so very carefully, “that you have with you the most precious thing in the world to your friend. Maybe the best thing you can do for him is protect it.”
Steve glances over at Mirah, still locked in an unacknowledged standoff with Alva, whose annoyance continues to be palpable. Steve’s heart squeezes abruptly in jealousy, because at least Alva has Mirah here to annoy her. In spite of everything, Alva and Mirah have been able to cuddle together, have slept breathing the same breath. Hell, Steve has spent much of the last day with Mirah clutched to his chest, and he’s grateful…but he never did the same with Bucky. They barely touched. Steve feels his stomach sink, suddenly paralyzed by the fear that Bucky left not just because he felt rejected by Mirah, but because he somehow felt rejected by Steve, too.
“Do you really think he’ll come back?” Steve asks. “That he’ll decide to try again, to come find her?”
Sam’s nodding his head, but before he can articulate his answer, the chorus of M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls” blasts from the vicinity of Steve’s pocket. “Uh, Natasha programmed…”
“Sure,” says Sam.
Steve lets it go in favor of answering. “Hello?”
“Steve.” For a fraction of a second, Steve thinks she sounds almost relieved. “Getting some interesting intel from your part of the world, Rogers…”
“I think technically it’s your part of the world.”
Steve can picture the smirk on her face. “Well, in a heartwarming unification of East and West, I’ve got backchannel sources from both saying that the twitching remains of Hydra are claiming to have recaptured the Winter Soldier. How likely does that sound, from where you’re standing?”
Steve’s shocked, dead silence is obviously not the response she’s expecting. “Steve,” she says, in a very different tone, “I thought you said you found him.”
“He found us,” Steve says, because he might as well admit what a failure he’s been at this from the very beginning. “And then I lost him again.”
“He’s not your house keys, Steve. What happened?”
“He left in the middle of the night. Last night.”
“At which point he was immediately recaptured by Hydra? This stinks, Steve. I can smell it from here.”
Steve doesn’t know how to fight back against her harsh assessment when she’s right, she’s totally—
“It stinks of fish, Steve,” Natasha clarifies when Steve’s silent again a little too long. “The reports I heard made his recapture sound ridiculously easy. Does that sound plausible to you?”
Steve pulls himself together. “Sounds like bullshit,” he says deliberately, so he can picture another one of Natasha’s smirks. “But I have to make sure.”
Natasha expels a short sigh. “Put Sam on the phone.”
Steve passes it over. “Walk right into a trap to see how it’s sprung,” he says after a moment, eyebrow arching in Steve’s direction. “Yup. Sounds like a Cap plan to me.”
Steve bends down to adjust his boots, then strides over to Alva. She and Mirah appear to have reached a détente for the purposes of listening in on Steve and Sam’s phone call. Steve digs his fingers into Alva’s warm ruff of fur, taking the moment while he can. From atop her hay bale, he can feel Mirah watching them.
“Steve,” she says with a thoughtful flick of her dark eyes. “What trap? What do you have to be sure of?”
“Bucky might be in trouble,” Steve says, more bluntly than he normally would. He wants to see her reaction.
It’s vehement denial: “He’s not.”
“So you know where he is?” demands Alva.
“Well, no, but—“
“So I’m going after him,” Steve says. It’s his Captain America voice: the one that nobody argues with.
Well, almost no one: “You can’t walk into a trap for no reason!” Mirah says, getting to her feet.
“I have a pretty good reason,” says Steve.
“You don’t! He’s fine. If he were hurt…” There’s a small crack in Mirah’s voice. She shakes herself, then hops down off the hay bale, head still held high. “If he were hurt, I would feel it.”
Steve’s look cuts across her. “He was hurting pretty badly last night and you didn’t seem to feel it then.”
Mirah’s jaw trembles. Only for a moment: then she’s trotting after him again, practically spurring him along. “Well, then I’m coming with you! I want to be there to see your face when you realize how ridiculous you’re being.”
“Well, that’s never going to happen,” says Alva. Still, her voice is not forgiving when she turns to speak to Mirah. “Come if you want. Just try to keep up.”
She keeps up. By the time they reach the compound where, according to Natasha’s intel, Bucky’s been taken, she’s clearly having to restrain herself from charging ahead, teeth bared and strong jaw ready to snap, her earlier reluctance overcome by the feeling that Bucky’s close. Steve sympathizes. Alva circles around him and Mirah both, reminding them to hold their peace. You’re not a bad strategist, Steve, she’s often said, when you can keep still long enough to strategize. Steve clenches his gloved fists and scans the skies for Shani’s return.
She comes back fairly quickly, but she’s shaking her head. “Looks like most of it’s underground.”
“Of course it is,” says Sam. But he’s already giving their gear a last efficient check. “Let’s do this.”
There’s only one guard at the entrance. That should be their first clue—but Steve’s too focused, too intent; he knocks the guy out and moves on without a thought. Even Alva’s charging full speed ahead.
Inside the entrance is an elevator. Its doors are open, wide as a mouth, spilling sickly yellow light into the darkened entryway. There’s no one else around, not a sound outside the machinery’s soft electric hum.
Mirah races inside without hesitation. “Come on!” she snaps.
Much to her obvious annoyance, the rest of them are not quite so quick to follow. The elevator might as well have a giant glowing neon sign that says TRAP!!!! hanging above it.
“Well,” says Sam, eying it with a skeptical lift of his eyebrow. “That’s inviting…”
Steve and Alva exchange a look. Then Steve straightens his shoulders and turns to Sam.
“I think you should wait up here.”
“What? I’m not going to let you go into the bad video game level alone—“
“If it is a trap, it makes more sense to keep you in reserve: a second wave of attack,” Steve says. Alva’s turned her attention on Shani, locking onto her with a calm, steady gaze. “This is the smart way to play it.”
Sam looks like he wants to argue, but Steve’s got his Captain America face on. Very few people can argue with that face.
“Ten minutes,” Sam says. “And then I’m—“
Steve and Alva are already getting into the elevator.
Bucky and Mirah are sitting by the fire. Bucky’s got one of the enamel cups full of the fiery hooch that Dernier dug up balanced on his thigh. All of the Commandos are leaning pretty heavily on it tonight; Steve knocked back a mug himself, although it didn’t seem to do much besides burn on the way down. Bucky, however, appears to have barely touched his. He’s staring off into the dark, his eyes distant. Mirah’s front legs are stretched out across the thigh not encumbered by the undrunk cup, her snout resting on her paws. The only movement between them comes from Bucky’s fingers as they brush absently over the top of her head.
“Hey,” says Steve, hesitantly.
Alva, feeling bolder, lies down on the ground at Bucky’s feet, close enough to brush against his calves, but not so close propriety won’t be satisfied if Steve sits down next to him. Steve sits.
Bucky’s throat moves for a long moment before he speaks. “How’re they all handling it?”
Steve looks down at his hands, then back up at his men. They’re all drinking heavier than usual, huddling close together, clutching their dæmons tight. “As well as—“ Steve starts, and then stops. He doesn’t need to pretend to Bucky.
“I thought I knew about evil in the world,” he says. Alva strains upward into his touch and Steve holds on. “I didn’t. I didn’t know.”
Bucky looks away, eyelashes like black smudges against his cheeks.
“I want you to promise me something,” he says after a moment, and Steve feels his chest seize, because he knows what Bucky’s going to suggest, and he can’t—he can’t even contemplate—
“If,” Bucky says steadily, “if anyone ever does something like that to me and Mirah, you put an end to it. Her and me, and then them.” His eyes skirt up to Steve. “If you can.”
“Buck,” Steve breathes, “I will never let that—“
“Promise us,” says Mirah, lifting her head.
And Alva says, “We promise.”
The elevator doors slide open with an eerily friendly ding. Mirah bolts out into the corridor. “Wait!” says Alva, but she doesn’t listen. She’s running full-tilt past labs and offices that look like they’ve been ransacked, or at least cleaned out in a very great hurry. So far, this place looks more like the abandoned facilities where they searched for Mirah than any active base—except now she’s the one tearing off after Bucky, calling his name as if she can’t fully help herself: “Bucky! Bucky, you numbskull!”
She dashes through a door at the end of the hall and disappears from view. Steve and Alva are right behind her, but somehow not quite close enough. They spill into a glass-walled observation room looking out onto another ransacked lab. Steve can see Bucky’s sitting in a chair in the center of it, and Mirah coming to a skidding halt in front of him, but the wide metal door between them and Steve crashes closed before Steve even has a chance to fling his shield toward the gap.
Bucky does not react to the noise. He is unrestrained. There are two Hydra agents at the back of the room, guarding what looks like a couple of empty cages, and they move toward Mirah as she turns to growl at them, but all Bucky has to do is lift his metal hand and they stop. Steve watches, shocked, as they slink back against the wall.
Steve tries the sliding steel door. It is resolutely closed and no application of strength or shield is going to pry it open. He slams his hand against the window instead—the glass is thick, and he can only hope it isn’t soundproof. “Bucky! Let us in!”
Bucky’s eyes slide over Mirah and up to the general vicinity of Steve’s right shoulder. “Thanks for bringing her,” he says. His voice sounds muffled through the thick glass.
Steve thinks Mirah had been intending to leap up onto Bucky’s lap and has now changed her mind. She wavers a little on her feet. “What are you doing? What is this place?”
Bucky doesn’t look at her. “It’ll be better this way,” he tells Steve’s right shoulder. “You’ll take good care of her, won’t you, Steve?”
“What are you talking about, Buck?” Steve pounds on the glass again, ineffectually—everything about this setup screams wrong wrong wrong. Worse than a trap. Something else.
“She deserves better,” Bucky says. His tone is flat, but determined. “She deserves to be free of me.”
The horror growing in Steve’s chest is so vast, it’s swallowed his lungs, eaten his heart. There is a second in which he can barely breathe or see. Because he has seen, he has recognized, all at once, what the equipment in this lab is for. It’s been altered, updated from what he remembers from during the war, but at its core it can’t disguise itself. This is pure evil, done up neat and sterile and shining.
Bucky gestures again—a casual, almost diffident wave of his gleaming fingers—and one of the Hydra agents comes forward and snags Mirah around the middle. Steve feels like he’s going to throw up: someone is touching Bucky’s dæmon. Bucky is letting some stranger touch his dæmon. Mirah is scratching and biting, her eyes wide and frantic, but the Hydra agent is wearing thick gloves and a heavy flak jacket. He hurries with her over to one of the cages at the back of the room and shoves her inside.
Alva lets out a howl. She’s scrambling uselessly at the steel door. But her outcry is a wake-up call, snapping Steve out of his daze of horror. He shifts his grip, then brings the edge of his shield down on the glass with all his might. The rebound wrenches painfully at his arm. He’s barely left a scratch.
Bucky moves as if the way this ends is already an inevitability. Slowly, purposefully, he crosses to the back of the room and climbs into the cage adjacent to Mirah’s. The cages are made of a delicately woven mesh and set apart by a small gap. In that gap stands a fine metal frame, and hanging from that frame is a blade so thin as to be almost invisible. Steve’s gaze cannot stop returning to it; it sucks at his vision like a black hole.
Steve slams his shield against the glass again, then switches tactics: both his mind and his body are scrambling. “Bucky, she’ll die! Don’t you remember? The Hydra facility in France—”
Steve remembers. They’d used scalpels, then, not this guillotine: the Commandos had found one or two in abandoned facilities before finally catching a Hydra scientist mid-procedure. He’d been using his slim, shining blade to hack and saw at some invisible tether between a bound and screaming member of la résistance and her whimpering rabbit dæmon. It looked like it had already been going on for quite some time.
But Bucky either doesn’t remember, or simply doesn’t care. He shakes his head as one of the guards nervously closes the door to his cage. “They’ve fixed it. She’ll be fine. She’ll be free.”
“No!” says Steve. He pounds his shield against the glass, again and again and again. At some point in the last few minutes he’s started weeping—he can feel the tears streaming down his cheeks. “Bucky, no, no, no—“
He and Alva are making so much noise, it takes him a moment to hear that Mirah is echoing him—or he, her. “No, no, please—Bucky, please—“ She’s scratching at the thin mesh barrier separating them, mere inches away from Bucky, but he won’t look at her. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I was scared. I was selfish—I wanted us to be just like we were. But I don’t care if we’re not. I just want you, any way I can have you—my Bucky—“
Still his head shakes, his hair a dark curtain over his eyes. “I’m just going to hurt you.” He’s barely audible. “Every minute of every day: every moment that I remember, that I exist—I’m only going to be hurting you. But Steve will never hurt you. You should be with Steve.”
He glances fleetingly in Steve’s direction, and Steve strikes the glass again to indicate how deeply he despises this plan. There’s a faint spiderweb of cracks across it now. Steve pounds and kicks. “That’s not how it works, Bucky! Goddammit—”
“I don’t want stupid Steve!” Mirah is saying. “Steve means nothing to me without you. Nothing will! I’ll wither away, Bucky, for want of you—so give me the pain.”
Mirah isn’t shouting anymore. Her voice is soft but fierce as she stands with battered paws against the mesh wall of the cage. Finally, finally, Bucky raises his head.
“Let me have it,” Mirah says, “let us share it, because I’d rather have a lifetime of agony with you than another second of icy nothingness. Don’t do that to me, Bucky, please, please—“
“I just want you to be happy,” says Bucky in a small voice. His metal fingers curl into the mesh across from Mirah. Steve holds his breath.
“Then let me be with you!” Mirah says. “That’s all I need—you’re it for me, you colossal fathead! No matter how much it hurts, I’ll always choose you.”
Bucky stares at her, hunched over in his cage. Mirah’s voice is cracked, her body shaking, but she’s never seemed stronger.
“I’m your Shamirah. And you’re mine.”
Bucky swallows. Then he swivels to look at the pair of Hydra agents. “Open the cage.”
The agents exchange a look. Neither of them moves.
“I changed my mind!” Bucky shouts—more impassioned than Steve’s seen him in this century. “Open the cage!”
“I’m sorry, sir.” The guard nearest the cage lifts his hand from the head of his German Shepherd dæmon. “Our orders come from higher up…”
Steve reacts before he can think, before the horror of what’s about to happen can overtake him. Shield first, he slams his whole body against the barrier. The glass splinters and shatters, but as Steve rolls back up into a crouch, he sees he’s too late. The agent’s hand is already pulling the chain that will drop the blade.
Steve screams. There is a sound like brakes grinding, metal shearing against metal: like the entire universe is tearing itself apart. For a moment, Steve fully believes it’s come from his mouth. But then he sees that Bucky’s sprung forward, his metal arm stretched out and straining. He’s punched a gaping hole in the mesh wall of his cage, beneath the jut of the guillotine’s frame, and thrust his arm up against the fall of the blade. For a terrifying moment, it isn’t clear which one will hold out, but then Bucky lets out a pained grunt and wrenches the entire apparatus to the side. His cage topples over; the guillotine flies apart, the blade arching off across the room, over the head of the flinching second guard.
For a moment, there is silence.
Then all at once, Bucky is on his feet again, shedding pieces of mesh like drops of silvered rain. His arm whirs as he grabs the nearest Hydra agent by the throat. The agent lifts his gun but Bucky shakes off the shot like a fleabite. The German Shepherd dæmon vanishes mid-spring. Bucky drops the man’s body to the floor.
Alva trots back to Steve’s side, her mouth bloodied; the other Hydra agent is slumped against the back wall. Steve touches her head and lets out a breath. Still shaking, he turns back to the remaining cage to find Bucky already there. He’s something of a nightmarish figure, standing over his daemon: dressed all in black, covered in blood, his hair hanging lank over the dark staring pits of his eyes. He rips the door off Mirah’s cage but stops himself from reaching inside.
He’s almost bowled over when Mirah barrels out and leaps into his arms. His hands leave red streaks on her white fur, but Mirah doesn’t seem to mind. She settles her snout in the crook of his shoulder. After a moment, Bucky unbuckles his body armor and lets it drop to the floor. Beneath it he has on a tight black jacket with the left sleeve cut away; he pulls the jacket apart, loosening it at the collar so that he can ease Mirah inside. Her sleek white head curls against Bucky’s throat and Bucky’s metal fingers tremble as he smoothes the tufted fur between her ears.
Bucky’s dæmon lets out a sound halfway between a gasp and a sob. “Never,” she whispers. “Never, never, never.”
As Dr. Erskine drinks more of his double helping of schnapps, his butterfly dæmon stops fluttering on her brightly colored wings above his shoulder and instead settles atop it, the movement of her wings growing slower and slower. Steve wants to ask him about her—Dr. Erskine’s the only person Steve’s ever met with a butterfly for a dæmon—but his mother taught him early that asking about another person’s dæmon is the height of rudeness. That’s always been one rule, at least, that Steve’s been willing to follow.
Still, Dr. Erskine is sharp-eyed behind his glasses—and in spite of his schnapps. “She is a moth, actually,” he says, gesturing to her with his tumbler. “Easy to mistake. I’m sure she is flattered. Aren’t you, Ashna?”
Her wings flutter and Steve hears her let out a sleepy sort of snort. Dr. Erskine shrugs and takes another sip of his schnapps.
“This is Alva,” Steve says. It seems polite, despite the fact that Alva’s name and description are already on the seemingly hundreds of forms that Steve has had to fill out. Alva, who’s been stretched out on the bunk beside Steve—taking up more room on it that he is, frankly—raises her head: Sarah Rogers’ manners at work again.
“We are honored,” says Dr. Erskine, lifting his glass again. He doesn’t drink from it this time, though, but resettles it in his lap. His attention remains on Alva’s face instead of returning, as it should, to Steve—it should be unnerving. It would be, from anyone else.
Dr. Erskine, though…after a moment Alva returns his gaze. “The serum,” she says. “Is it going to change me, too?”
Dr. Erskine swirls the liquor around his glass. It is a moment before he speaks. “Historically, you know, dogs are the dæmons of soldiers.”
“And servants,” says Alva, in a way that makes it perfectly clear what she thinks of that piece of common wisdom.
Dr. Erskine doesn’t argue. “Probably I should consider it a relief, not to be acting as the hand of destiny.” He does drink, then, as if steeling himself. “But to answer your question honestly: I do not fully know. That is certainly not its design.”
“Schmidt.” Steve doesn’t want to make Dr. Erskine linger on an obviously painful subject, but he has to ask, needs to know. “What happened to his dæmon?”
“I never saw her,” Dr. Erskine admits. “He did not allow her to be seen. But I would consider him a very poor example.”
“Of a test subject?”
“Of a human being.” Dr. Erskine’s smile is a small one. He finishes off his drink. “Schmidt hid his dæmon away and thus he hid from himself,” he says. He gestures between them with his empty glass. “So long as you are in accord with each other…and I believe you are. Nothing that happens tomorrow should interfere with that.”
He lifts the glass in what at first seems to be a parody of a toast, but Steve quickly realizes he’s not trying to be comical at all. He fixes Steve and Alva with a look that’s weary but still soft, gentle.
“Some things,” he says, “they run deeper than science.”
Steve knows he should report in, but they’re all exhausted, worn ragged in ways that go far beyond the physical. Steve’s not sure any of them are ready for what getting taken under the wing of the dregs of SHIELD-cum-Stark Industries would entail. So besides a quick call to Natasha to let her know that they’re all okay, Steve decides to stick with radio silence. He and Alva lead the way back through the wilderness, along the road as it widens and grows busy, then all the way to the nearest city and to a hotel.
They’re an odd group: three men, suspiciously dressed, unlikely to pass for Russian. However, to Steve’s surprise, Bucky steps forward and smoothes things over with the desk clerk, grinning and laughing through a stream of boisterous Russian. He slides a credit card across the table and then they’re being escorted to a mirrored elevator that takes them all the way up to the Penthouse suite.
“I convinced him we’d brought you here for the world’s saddest bachelor party,” Bucky reveals once they’re alone.
Sam barks out a laugh at that, even as he stumbles toward one of the bedrooms; Shani’s been alternating bobbing her head with shaking out her wings for the last hour, trying to keep herself awake. “If they send up free champagne…actually don’t wake me.” They hear him let out a satisfied oof—presumably as he hits the bed—before the door clicks shut.
Steve, Alva, Bucky, and Mirah are alone. Steve can feel the urge to stare, to look and look and never stop, so he forces himself to glance around the room instead: it’s lavish and pretty horribly tacky, with a sunken living area around a gaudy fireplace. Big glass (strategically unsafe) windows look out over the city where lights are sparkling and the moon is shining. He…couldn’t be less interested in any of it, really.
He looks back at Bucky. That familiar face—memorized in turn by Steve’s pencil nubs, his fingertips, his lips—it’s smoothed out again. Only Bucky doesn’t look blank so much as close to peace. Mirah’s still down the front of his jacket, but as Steve watches, she cranes her neck to whisper something in his ear, and then Bucky’s bending over to let her down to the floor. Wordlessly, she trots past Steve and Alva and through the doorway of the other bedroom.
“Well?” she calls out once she’s inside. “Don’t keep me waiting.”
She means all of them. Steve can see the relief on Bucky’s face.
The bed is huge: more than twice the size of the last one they shared together. Mirah’s circling around the center of it, mapping out the territory. Steve and Alva hesitate, but Bucky clambers right up, shedding his boots and the rest of his heavy gear as he goes. His pants nearly hit Steve in the face.
“Hey!” Steve says, faux-indignant.
“Well, get out of the line of fire, then,” says Mirah, pawing at the downy white comforter.
Alva barely gives Steve a look before she’s leaping up to join her. Steve comes more slowly, undressing piece by piece. Finally he moves forward to kneel on the edge of the bed; it sinks slightly beneath him, and it’s in that split second of unbalance that Bucky reaches forward, grabs and tugs and tips him face-first onto the mattress.
Steve lets out his own heartfelt oof, eyes closed and nose pressed into the soft fabric. He can hear Alva and Mirah softly laughing at him. Bucky tugs at his shoulder some more, and for once he lets himself be led: lifted and straightened and rearranged. He can feel Alva’s fur warm against his belly and a brief nuzzle of Mirah’s nose along the bottom of his chin. Then Bucky’s hand is smoothing down his side, and they’re forehead to forehead, faces inches apart across the big fluffy pillows.
“Missed you,” Bucky says again, barely a whisper.
“I’m here,” says Steve, breathing in as Bucky draws breath.
“We’re all here,” echoes Alva.
Mirah’s voice sounds bigger than her body, firm and strong: “My Bucky. My Steve. My Alva.”
“Our Mirah,” vows Bucky.
Steve lets his eyes flutter closed, listening to the married beating of their hearts.
Then, as one, they rest.