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under the paving-stones, the beach

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neither gods nor masters

 

 1.

 

Steve had had to get out of DC. At first it had been about finding something that he’d lost. Sure, Bucky -- but also. There were other things, too. He found himself thinking about it as he ate some tacos he’d bought from a roadside truck in Arizona. Sam had already finished his burrito and was doing some stretches a few feet away.

The tacos were good. Or, well. They were what he’d needed. He’d had a double portion. They were hot. He’d started out picking them up wrong, but had got better as it as he’d gone on. The first one had fallen out into his hands, and Sam had laughed. He’d looked around for something to wipe his hands on, but had come up empty. There was nothing else for it. He licked them.

“I know that look in your eye,” Sam had said, when he started to stretch. “I’m just making sure I’m prepared.”

Steve had shrugged, but it was more just like... a ripple from one shoulder to the other. Did he really know Steve that well? He looked down at his last taco, and picked it up. His fingers were covered in food again, and he licked them all once he was done. He’d thought he’d been more careful this time, but still. There was nobody else around to see - except Sam, who’d surely seen worse - and there was nowhere to wash his hands. He palmed them off on his jeans, although he couldn’t entirely get rid of the stickiness, and then said, “what look is that?”

Sam ran a hand over his hair. “Like you got somewhere to run to,” he said.

Steve looked up at the sky. It was so dry out west; he’d always forgotten that. Well, not that he’d ever really been here before. Just on the odd trip with SHIELD before it went to hell, and those trips were usually when it was dark. But now. He was used to wet heat that crackled in the air like a thunderstorm. If thunder struck here, it’d all go up. Even a spark. Maybe that was what he needed.

“Too right,” Steve said. “Here.” He balled up his trash and lobbed it into the bin in front of the truck, and then broke into a sprint, trying not to cough from the dust.

 

***

 

The thing was that it had never been a home. It had been a hole that he could fit himself into. But he didn’t want that anymore. He’d gone back to his apartment after it had all happened - but none of the dust had cleared, because how could it ever clear - and looked around at his things. Biographies of politicians who’d fucked over generations who’d been born and grown old while he was asleep. Clothes that somebody else had bought for him, because they thought they were what he’d want, and it took less effort to just wear them than think it through for himself. A print on the wall that Nick had given him as a personal gift. It was probably bugged, come to think of it. He stared at it for a while. He could see his reflection in the glass. He hadn’t turned on the light.

Cait was still living there then -- Sharon. It had only been a few days. She was leaning against her door when he came out. She looked pretty beat up. She didn’t have her laundry basket this time, but she did have her gun. Holstered. He could see it. It was a nice gesture. “You could probably stay,” she’d said then, but they both knew that he couldn’t and she wouldn’t.

“Natasha told me to give you a call sometime,” Steve said. “But I think you know why --”

“Definitely,” she said. “But if you ever need me.” He doesn’t ask for her number. He can go to Natasha for that. He’s not sure he’ll ever need to.

 

***

 

They’d started out following various leads, none of them good, from the paperwork that Natasha had dug up. Sam had called a younger cousin up to housesit for him and groaned every time he checked his email. “Look at that,” he’d say, and pass his phone to Steve. His cousin seemed to like sending photos of things he’d stained or broken, which seemed like a bad strategy to Steve.

“Couldn’t you have asked someone else?” Steve had asked.

“I thought she was the most reliable one!” Sam said. “Man, you saw how nice my home was. I’m going to have to burn it down and start again when all this is over.”

“Ah, I’m sure it’s nothing a little paint can’t fix,” Steve said.

“I bet she’s not even watering my plants.”

 

***

 

They’d wound up back in NYC for a few weeks while they were waiting for various people who owed them favours to check up on what might have been a lead or might have just been a clean break in the trail. Sam had family in Harlem, but Tony had insisted on having Steve come and stay at the tower. “I’m hardly even there,” Tony had said. “I won’t annoy you.”

It was a big, ugly tower, and Steve didn’t like it, but he didn’t mind being inside it. It was a beacon that liked pointing out to him how much he’d missed, how much had changed. And he didn’t like seeing his old friend’s name lit up like that, even if it wasn’t even his friend who’d done it. What had happened to Howard, even. Why had he gone on to do this, instead of something better? Why had he passed it onto his son? How many people had they killed. How many people had he -- it was a reminder of how fucked they’d all been, and how they’d never had any hope of stopping it.

But inside the tower, he couldn’t really see any of that. He’d pad around in his socks, talk to Tony’s artificial intelligence about the news, and eat whatever was in the fridge. Which was... well. Sometimes it was good, and sometimes it was bad. Sometimes he saw Bruce, and they nodded to each other, and it was nice. Nothing else.

One night they watched a film together, because they’d both happened to drag themselves into the TV room at the same time. Steve had thought about putting on the news, but he thought, maybe that’s not good company. “Hey, the Princess Bride is on,” Bruce had said, and so they’d watched it. It was funny. It kind of made Steve think of pulp magazines. They’d eaten lots of these fancy vegetable chips that Tony had stocked the tower with, although Steve mostly wanted some gross pizza.

“You can order delivery,” Bruce had said to him, once. Steve had come in from the rain with a sad, too-big pizza. “The people at the door will take it.”

“Yeah,” Steve had said, but he’d never actually done it. Delivery. He has feet and hands and eyes and ears and a mouth and they all work, and, what, what was that again?

 

***

 

Sam had said, “you need some time off, I’ll call you when I hear anything.”

Steve had said, okay.

“You’ll be okay?” Sam had said. “You know you can come and see me. Or I can see you.”

Steve had smiled, and said, yeah, maybe. But Sam needed some time to see his family, and Steve needed time to... well... do whatever it was that he was doing. Not sleep. Be.

 

***

 

Tony wasn’t there at all, and mostly Bruce was doing something in his lab. Steve found himself telling the building -- JARVIS -- about it all. The whole... the whole thing.

“I used to live down there,” he said. He was on one of the top floors, at a big window. He couldn’t see it, but he knew where it was. The direction. “My whole life, until ‘43. You know, I never even asked what happened to all my stuff.”

“I could make some requests --” JARVIS said, and Steve waved a hand. He wasn’t sure how JARVIS could see him, but he could. He stopped talking. Steve could worry about that, but he chose not to. Tony had fought with him, hadn’t he? On his side. He’d fought for that. They all had. He’d almost died. He’d seen where he’d been going wrong, and he’d changed. He couldn’t help who he was, beyond that.

“No, it won’t be SHIELD,” he said. “This was before. I went away to war without even going home and picking up any of my things. I never got leave.”

What had he had? It was hard to remember, all this time later. And yet, only really a matter of years. All the other years were still frozen. Like they hadn’t really happened. How could he be sure that they had? Just the scars on the landscape. Just the buildings that looked like they’d stabbed their way up from under the earth. Just the way people talk. The way he doesn’t recognise streets anymore, but sometimes he comes up to a corner and it’s like he can smell something primal, something that was always there, something beneath the sidewalk or the scrub in Central Park, or. Like a very large body that’s taken this long to rot. Something that isn’t alive, but that is still dealing with the chemical aftermath of life. Or... it could be a bush, he thinks. He doesn’t recognise many plants, and not by smell. What did they pave over? It could be whatever was here before. Before everything else came.

If he closes his eyes and thinks, he can remember the smell of his apartment. Or, not the smell, but the feeling that came with it. The worst was when the sidewalks outside smelt bad enough after rain that he could smell it even inside. Like dust, and ash. The summer air was like steam.

Riding the subway with Bucky to art class, and walking back if it was still hot and they were low on money, which they always were.

Inside his apartment. What? He forces himself to think about it. Lays it out in his head like a diagram. Some pin-ups of Rita Hayworth or whoever else Bucky hadn’t got room for on his own walls anymore, a handful of beaten-up books, two good shirts, a suit that was too big...

It had just been stuff.

 

***

 

After a couple of weeks, Sam called. He’d been calling him every couple of days.

“Steve,” Sam had said. His breathing was fast. Steve could hear it across the line. “I’ve got news.”

 

***

 

It had turned out that Steve had wanted to get the fuck out of DC, but Bucky hadn’t. Or -- whatever he should be called, now. Or -- he hadn’t known how to leave. He deserved -- a name. Steve ran through all the possibilities. None of them worked. None of the others. Two people can still share the same name. Like Big Steve, who’d lived two blocks over and who’d never beaten Steve up, even though most of his pals had. Other people just called him Steve.

Bucky, then.

“He kept going to the Smithsonian exhibit,” Sam said. Steve nodded, and got in the passenger seat, because Sam’s a better driver. More used to the roads. He’s done this drive a lot.

“Yeah,” Sam said, once they were out of the city and he didn’t have to think about the driving so much. “So he kept going to the exhibit - you know the one, you stole your old costume there.”

Steve grimaced. “Technically, Natasha stole the costume,” he said. Sam smiled.

“Yeah,” he said. “Anyway, he kept going by most days, and people who worked there started to notice. Didn’t seem to be taking very good care of himself. Figured him for homeless, but he was quiet and didn’t touch anything... but they became worried when the exhibition was coming to its end.”

“Yeah?” Steve said.

“Yeah,” Sam said. “They thought he might be a vet - he’s got that look, I guess, and the exhibition’s military - so they called the VA to see if anyone knew him, and after they heard the description, they called me...”

“Wait,” Steve said. “They called you?”

Sam looked at him briefly, then back out at the road. He drummed his hand on the wheel. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I gave them a description. He’s a vet, and DC was the last place anyone had seen him.”

“So you thought this might happen,” Steve said.

Sam nodded, slowly. “Didn’t you?”

 

***

 

Later, Steve thinks, maybe Sam thought it was more likely that they’d turn up a body from the river, and they’d examine the dental records and the arm and be at a total loss. Maybe Sam had thought he was dead all along, and had just been going wherever with Steve because he thought it was what Steve needed.

Well, whatever. They’d found him alive.

 

***

 

Even later, Steve will air this thought to Sam, and Sam will say, “I mean, he could have been dead, sure, but he’s like you. Have you met you? I’m not sure either of you can die.”

It’s not as comforting as he means it to be, but Steve will appreciate the sentiment.

 

***

 

Natasha had sent postcards, which didn’t mean much to Steve since he didn’t have a permanent address. She’d addressed them to him but also to Stark Tower, so they’d been stuck to the kitchen fridge (in chronological order) by the time he’d arrived.

“We all end up there eventually,” the second postcard said. It was the only explanation she gave.

They weren’t long messages, and Steve didn’t recognise many of the postmarks or pictures on them. They were never signed, “Natasha,” but he knew they were from her. They’d say things like, I hope you’re not staying in tonight. Have you seen what it’s like outside? What the hell’s wrong with you.

 

***

 

Steve is worried that Bucky won’t remember him. That he won’t recognise him. That it’ll be the same as it was before.

The exhibit’s only here for two more days. Steve feels kind of hollow, and wonders if he should maybe ask the curator -- he’s sure he could get hold of the curator -- if he has other things. Did anyone -- did anyone say, I have some of Steve Rogers’s old possessions? What if Mrs Gierich’s grandchildren -- her great-grandchildren, maybe? --

But then Bucky’s there.

Steve rubs at his face, very aware that he’s got about a week and a half of beard growth. He’s not sure the Steve Bucky -- the old Bucky -- knew could have grown a beard.

But, he’s there. Bucky looks at him. Steve looks back.

He recognises him.

 

***

 

That’s only the beginning.

 

***

 

 

 

run, comrade, the old world is behind you

 

 2.

 

“I heard you were doing the rounds,” Clint says. He opens the shutters and rubs his hands together. It’s not a very warm day. There’s a tarp over the bed, but the room looks and smells pretty clean. “Can’t believe you drove up, though.”

“Well, I had company,” Steve says.

“Yeah,” Sam says.

“Oh, I was talking about all those audiobooks we stocked up on,” Steve says. “But sure, you were there too.”

When they go back into the kitchen, Bucky is still on the sofa. Clint’s dog, Lucky - a some kind of mix that Steve can’t identify - is whuffling his head against his knees. Bucky doesn’t seem to know what to do with his hands.

“He bothering you?” Clint asks.

“No,” Bucky says, with a swallow.

 

***

 

Clint shows Steve how to milk the goats.

“Easier to keep than a cow,” he’d said when giving him the tour. Steve had nodded, as if that was something that he knew anything about. What did he know about cows.

“I’m happy for you to stay,” he’d said, “but you’ll have to help out.”

Sam’s going to go back soon. He’s making his cousin pay someone to come in and repaint the parts of his condo that she’d damaged doing whatever it is that she likes to do. “I bet she brought one of her mom’s cats,” Sam says, maybe three times a day. “I hate cats.”

 

***

 

Sometimes, Bucky likes to go and stand in the field next to the farmhouse. The ground is very flat, and he can see in every direction. He turns slowly, a hand on his hip. It’s Sam’s last morning, and he’s out there when Steve gets up. It’s dry, but still not very warm, and Steve says, “I should take him out a jacket.”

Sam puts a hand on his arm. “Look,” he says. “Wait.”

Bucky’s not moving. There are a handful of black birds in the field. “Clint needs to find a new scarecrow,” Steve says. Sam slaps him lightly on the arm, and he stops talking. Bucky’s metal arm is half-raised, and one of the birds pecks at it. Another lands on it. He’s not moving. He’s still not moving. He’s very, very good at standing completely still.

 

***

 

Sam’s gone home -- Clint drove him to the airport, because there was no way he was going to take the car all that way alone -- and it’s evening now. Clint’s not back. Steve and Bucky are sitting next to each other on the couch, watching the news.

Steve came in halfway through. He’d made them both coffee, although Bucky’s not touched his and Steve’s pretty sure it’s started to go cold by now. “Your coffee,” he says, and Bucky finally picks it up and takes a sip. He’s not sure what the news is about - it’s a long report on one of the 24-hour channels about some protests, somewhere. He knows they’re protests because they keep using the word “protest” on the televison screen. It says “global day of protests” - but where is this? What are they showing right now?

The camera pans out. It’s -- it’s New York City. He knows that tower. He should know -- he should have known it before now. He should have felt it. Not just because of Stark’s stupid tower. He’d assumed it was somewhere -- else. He hadn’t even listened for the chants. He hadn’t made out the words. He can’t stop making them out, now. But they don’t make any sense. The words. Not in that formation.

“Having fun?” Clint says, a couple of minutes later. Steve hadn’t heard him pull up, but the farm’s pretty big, who knows where he’s parked.

“Do you know what all this is about?” Steve asks. He twists around to see Clint’s face. Bucky doesn’t move.

“Yeah,” Clint says, and rubs at his neck. “You’re not going to like it. Let’s make dinner.”

 

***

 

Bucky doesn’t use knives, and isn’t that keen on scissors either, so they have him boiling the water, stirring things. He’s good at being precise. He’s good at taking orders, which means that Steve -- Steve tries to always say, if you want to. If you want to help. It might be nice if you crumble some rosemary there.

He hadn’t realised quite what it would mean. He’d known that he hadn’t. But he’d still thought that he’d have -- that he’d have been left with more.

The VA doctor they’d spoken to had told Steve about his best theories, based on what he knew of electroshock therapy and... torture. He’d touched Bucky’s head, very gently. “They draw together again with time,” he’d said. “But it’s not... And we don’t...”

Steve had said, thank you. I guess we’ll see.

Bucky’s looking out of the window, and he lets the potatoes boil over. Steve is absurdly grateful. The water hisses once it touches the hotplate. Bucky still doesn’t move. The air is full of steam. The crows are outside. They make shapes in the sky.

“They can learn to talk,” Clint says, as he walks past, ducking slightly to make sure he’s guessed right about what it is that Bucky’s looking at. “Or was it ravens?”

“What’s the difference,” Bucky says.

“Ravens are bigger,” Clint says. “Like... about the size of a small hawk.”

Steve laughs. “You should talk more with Sam sometime.”

“Hey,” Clint says, “you try running a farm with all these birds about.” He doesn’t point out that Sam was here for ten days and there wasn’t that much for him to do but catch Clint up, because Steve already knows that.

“I thought that was what I was helping with,” Steve says. He’d spent the day doing things for Clint - milking the goats (he didn’t get as much out of them as Clint usually does but more than he usually does), mucking out the stables, checking on the pregnant sow. It wasn’t really the same as running a farm, though. And he’s already run away from the sow more than once since he got here. Pigs are scary. Scarier than Clint’s dopey dog, who keeps trying to eat their food, despite having his own bowl in the corner.

“You know I’ve already got help,” Clint says, and waves his hands. Another song. Yeah, but they don’t come up to the house. What do they do? Fields? Grain? A different kind of ache.

 

***

 

“So,” Steve says. The potatoes are very hot, and soft, and they’re dusted with dark green rosemary that only makes them look paler. “What’s going on?”

Clint sighs like he’s getting rid of excess air from every part of his body, and not just his lungs.

Steve thinks, is that where Sam’s going? New York? Is going back to help out?

And if so, whose side is he on?

 

***

 

“I think it’s hard for us to see,” Clint says.

“Did they not see what we did?” Steve says.

“I think that’s the problem,” Clint says. “I mean, not you so much. You were frozen. People still think you’re a museum-piece. But -- the rest of us...” He pauses, thoughtfully, and then says, “Well, not Thor.”

“Say what you mean,” Steve says.

“Well,” Clint says. “We were part of the machine, you know. Tony more than the rest of us... well, not more, we were all... all-in. But he was... It was different. I was basically a weapon, you know? And Natasha... He didn’t owe them anything, but he did stuff for them. He built lots of their...” He waves his hands around, and settles for, “stuff.”

Steve doesn’t say, what did you owe them? He doesn’t even think about Natasha, because that one he knows. He doesn’t think what did I owe them, because that one he knows too. Like the first time he broke a bone. He knew the second his foot touched the ground that something was very wrong. He closes his eyes. Does the bone in his leg even bear the scar from that, the mend? Or did that go too? But he can remember it. It wasn’t that long ago, despite what everybody else says. Despite what this body says.

“But we tore their systems down,” Steve says. The last of the potato has gone cold on his plate. Bucky is under a blanket on the sofa, staring up at the ceiling like he thinks it’s full of stars. He’s listening, Steve thinks, with a jolt. That’s what -- that’s what he’s been doing. He wonders what sounds the crows have learned to make, all the way out here. Surely not words.

Clint nods, but not like he’s really agreeing. “What do you think’s whirring in Tony’s head?” He raps his head with his knuckles.

Steve doesn’t answer, and Clint sighs. “It’s not a rhetorical question,” he says. He nods at the TV. Al Jazeera is on mute, still, but it’s covering something else now. Or are they -- more protests. Somewhere else this time. It keeps jumping around. Jordan. Lagos. Are they all asking for the same things? If they were watching a different channel, would they still be called protests? Is this what protest looks like, now? The police are wearing as much armour as Iron Patriot does. What was it he was called before that?

War Machine. It’s more honest.

“He meant to announce it once you were back,” Clint says. “Wanted to brief you on it. But in the end I think you not coming back is why he decided to announce it.”

“What are you talking about,” Steve asks.

Clint doesn’t say anything for a while. The windows must be thickly glazed, because Steve can’t hear anything from outside. But nothing inside either. Not really. Just -- breathing. And a silent picture. You never got this with the radio - you were either listening, or it was off. Or you were talking over it, but it was still there, underneath. You’d hear the words, just not the sentence.

“Tony’s got a new project,” Clint says. He scrubs at his face with his hand. “I wish Natasha was here.”

 

***

 

Clint explains it as best he can, although an awful lot of the time he stops himself and says “-- wait, fuck, I don’t know if that’s what he calls it --” or “I’m not sure,” or “fuck me if I know.” When he’s finished, Bucky looks up. The blanket he’s under is brown, and frayed. Steve wonders where Clint got it from. He hadn’t even really paid attention to Clint when he told him how he ended up with the farm. It was his first day there and he hadn’t slept for as long as it had taken him to drive all the way from DC (and one layover that Sam had made him take, even though he didn’t sleep, couldn’t sleep, and had spent it running up and down a bare patch of earth next to the highway), and he could feel heat and blood pounding in his ears, because Bucky was there, and he was barely moving, and he was barely moving.

“No,” Bucky says. He’s breathing fast. Like Sam on the phone. Like when Steve thinks too hard about something he’s going to do before he does it. “No,” he says.

“It’s not a person,” Clint says, but with no real conviction. Steve thinks, suddenly, about the first time he’d seen Clint. Not met. About the colour of his eyes then. The different way he moves now. He wonders what Clint really thinks. “That’s what Tony says.”

“How come he gets to decide that,” Steve says.

“Well,” Clint says. “Not like there are that many people going to stop him. His dreams are the biggest dreams.”

“They don’t like it,” Bucky says, and waves his metal hand at the TV. He seems more comfortable using it than the other one. Steve wonders if he’ll ever feel able to ask why. The tone of Bucky’s voice makes something inside him flap like it’s come loose. His lungs. His throat.

“Well, no,” Clint says. He looks at Steve. “It’s basically those drones you knocked out of the sky just with an uglier face.” At Steve’s look back at him he says, with a one-shoulder shrug, “he emailed round design sheets. Don’t ask me. Now, I’ve brought back some cake.”

And he brings out the tin, and they eat the cake.

 

***

 

“Don’t worry about it,” Clint says, later. Steve pulls a face that Bucky used to always groan at and follow with “I don’t have time to pull you out of another fight tonight, Steve.”

“Yeah,” Clint says, “I know. But it’s being fought on the streets. And, you know. Natasha. He’s not --” he struggles for the words. “It’s what he knows.”

 

***

 

It’s not that Steve isn’t used to protest. To people walking the streets. But it’s a different -- conception. Three days later, a parcel turns up addressed to him at the farm. It’s wrapped in thick brown cardboard, with no address beyond his name, and no postmark or courier stamp.

“Oh, cool,” Clint says, pleased, and passes him a knife to cut it open. He does. It’s a handful of DVDs, a history book, and... another book. They don’t look anything like the biographies in his old apartment. Well, it’s probably still technically his apartment. It probably still has the things that belong to him in it. He’s not sure whose jurisdiction under now. He won’t be going back. Maybe one day it will be in a museum exhibit, too.

The DVDs are a mix of a of things. One of them seems to have a lot of French films on, and there are a couple of documentaries. Steve has watched a few documentaries already, since -- he used to go to some of the senior showings near his apartment. This was before -- New York. This was before he’d met the others. How can he already feel like this about something that happened now? But he does. He feels like he can see himself, sitting in those too-small seats, staring up at the flickering screen - and it’s -- it’s flickering. Was the screen even flickering, or does he just want to remember it like that? Is he remembering all the other films he saw, before that, and collapsing the memories together? Is somebody saying that he has to learn more things, understand more of what he missed?

“What am I meant to do with all this?” Steve says. He piles them on top of each other. Five DVDs. Books.

“Don’t look at me, I didn’t go to college,” Clint says. Steve looks at him. “Natasha,” Clint says, finally. He does that a lot. Like she’s a part of him that he has no control over.

“Huh,” Steve says, and he picks up the DVD from the top of the pile. It’s got a clear case, and various titles have been written on the disk in red pen. It’s breakfast time, and it’s not like he has much else to do today.

“Hey, Bucky,” he says. “Let’s watch --” rather than mangle the French title, he translates it into English. The war had been worth it for something -- “Out of Breath.”

“I’m going to go and clear out the horse shit,” Clint says, cheerily, and claps him on the shoulder.

 

***

 

“I didn’t invite you to my farm to talk about philosophy,” Clint says, and that’s that. The sky is as blue as his t-shirt. That’s pretty blue. Soft, too. “Either you go back, or you don’t. But think about this, and think hard: what about this whole situation makes you think you get more of a say than anyone else? More than the people who’re willing to take a beating by the police for it?”

 

***

 

“Steve,” Sam had said, back in the little doctor’s office back in DC. “I think he should see some specialists first. Neurologist, psychiatrist... Probably some kind of expert on nerve damage...”

Steve had bristled. “What are they gonna know,” he’d said. He thought about the gurney he’d found Bucky on, all those years ago. He thought about the way hospitals smell. He said, “I don’t want him to run.”

“You really think he would?” Sam asked. They looked at Bucky. It was like something else had been lost, in the weeks and months they’d missed since they’d last -- since the helicarriers. They’d missed so much. Almost everything. So many holes poked into the ground that there’s almost no ground left. Or, that there’s only the ground underneath that. It used to be buried, and now it’s not.

I’d run, Steve thought.

Some things it’s okay to lose, but they’re still lost.

Steve rubbed at his cheeks with his hands, his knuckles, and said, “let me have some time with him first. Then we can see a neurologist.” He didn’t mention the psychiatrist. They’d tried to get him to see one of those, too. Sam had. But he’d. He knew enough.

 

***

 

After they’ve been there maybe three weeks, Steve wakes up to find Bucky making pancakes in the kitchen. Not pancakes pancakes, but the kind of pancakes they’d made in London and France during the war. They looked less gritty now. Who was it who’d shown them how? Right, right. Falsworth. “It’s all I ever learned how to cook,” he’d said, a cigarette tucked like a smile into the corner of his mouth. “Perfect for a midnight feast.” He did it when someone was hurt, or when they’d had some bad news, or when there just happened to be enough milk and eggs and nobody else had any ideas what to do. Steve would probably have preferred to just eat the eggs.

Bucky had lemons, this time. Falsworth had always sworn they were better with lemons, but of course there were no lemons in England during the war, or occupied France, so they’d eaten them with what they could get - some sugar, maybe, or some of the kinds of knotty English apples that you don’t find so much anymore. Steve looked for them the first time he went to one of the big Walmarts they have now. They can import mangos, but not apples the colour of dirt. But it was exciting just to have the right ingredients to make the pancakes, then. Who cared if they were gritty, or like no pancakes Steve had ever tasted before. Midnight snacks were what children ate when they were on adventures together in big old houses in the books they’d read at school, pages stuck together. The night always ended. They ate something else for breakfast.

“Lemons,” Steve says. He picks one up. It’s pockmarked and waxy, and small in his hand.

Bucky cuts one of the lemons and squeezes it onto the pancake. They use too much sugar.

“I thought,” Bucky says, with a mouth full of pancake, then pauses while he chews and swallows. He always had done that. He was a very gross child. He hasn’t eaten much since they found him and brought him here - the first week, it was like he wasn’t used to it. He’d throw up, and he’d have trouble cleaning up after it because -- he was so weak, and Steve thought, shit, I should have got him to a proper doctor, but then he remembered the look on his face when the VA doctor had touched his head -- and Steve would end up having to take over. “Drink some water, Bucky,” he’d say, and he’d want to touch him, and once he put a hand on his shoulder, and Bucky had looked at him, and he’d smelt like vomit, and Steve had wanted to say, I’m sorry I brought you here, I didn’t know what else to do.

What would they be doing in a hospital? Would he have been on a drip? Steve thinks about the smell of the hospital in DC and swallows and looks down.

“I thought,” Bucky says, looking down at the pancake that’s left in his plate, “that they’d taste more like. Monty’s.” He sounds strained as he says the name. That’s right. Monty.

Steve looks down at his pancake, and says, “well, they were never really pancakes, Buck. He just made them in a pan.”

“I think,” Bucky says. “The lemons.” He rolls the other lemon across the table, but Steve catches it in his hand. It’s yellower than corn, tougher than an apple.

 

***

 

The non-history book Natasha sent him is small and green, with symbols in black on the front that Steve doesn’t understand. It’s scuffed at the edges. He presses his fingers to the symbols before he opens it. They’re smoother than the rest of the cover. It’s called Mythologies. On the inside front cover, in Natasha’s best handwriting, which is the one that he knows is hers, it says:

            FOR WHAT YOU MISSED.

He flicks through the book. It’s essays, so he fights the impulse to start at the beginning and dutifully read on. Bucky is on the sofa, tinkering badly with a banjo he’d found somewhere on the farm on one of his walks. “You can’t play the banjo,” Steve had said, before he’d been able to stop himself. Bucky had smiled, slowly, with his whole mouth. He’d never used to smile like that before. But he was learning it again. His mouth. The muscles in his face.

“I can play the guitar,” Bucky said. “Just guitar for hicks.”

It is not just a guitar for hicks, and it sounds terrible, and Steve’s fairly sure that Bucky wouldn’t know what to do with a guitar if they had one.

He’s very gentle with the new hand. He hasn’t broken any of the strings.

“Hey, Buck,” he says. Bucky stops fiddling with the banjo, and the last chord vibrates through the air. “Listen to this: blah blah blah, ‘Martian history has ripened at the same rhythm as that of our world and produced geographers in exactly the same period that we ourselves have discovered aerial geography and photography. The only advance is that of the vehicle itself, Mars thus being only an Earth of dreams, endowed with perfect wings as in any dream of idealization.’” He stops reading there, and blinks at the book.

Bucky looks up at him, a hand on the banjo strings. The tiniest noise rings out from them. “Sounds like that shit you used to read,” he says. “Pulp... men with big guns saving pink-skinned girls on the moon. Don’t think I didn’t know.”

“Only because you used to steal them from me,” Steve says. Bucky’s face passes through a few different emotions, like he’s looking at someone else and can’t work out if they’re laughing or crying.

 

***

 

There are bad days. Bucky won’t get out of bed. Or Bucky never went to bed. The sky streaks with pink and yellow, and bad clouds, and there are dead birds, because birds die too.

“I can’t,” Bucky says, and he presses his metal hand to his eye, and Steve prises it away, and his face is pink, and his eye is red, and Steve can’t even say, don’t do that, don’t ever do that, because he can’t talk like that anymore. He won’t let himself.

Some days where all he does is sit on the sofa and let Lucky jump all over him. Not because he likes Lucky, but because he doesn’t notice. But then -- the odd touch. Lucky is very warm. Bucky’ll curl his hand -- the one he’s always had -- around the side of the dog’s neck like the edge of a collar, not for very long, but Steve sees. Lucky will lick at his ears, the ends of his hair, and later on, Steve will say, “Bucky, you’ve got to take a shower, you smell like dog.”

 

***

 

Clint is doing something to do with a big machine on wheels and some corn and a lot of the men he pays. “I don’t have time to teach you, old man,” Clint says, and Steve’s grateful.

It’s a hot day, and Bucky’s thrown open the windows in the bedroom. Steve remembers Clint opening the shutters. It’s got a spare bed, and a cot, and there’s the sofa, and they’ve slept in all possible configurations. He’s getting pretty used to smelling like dog, too.

Bucky’s half leaning out of the window. Some of the crows are outside, but none are coming close to the house, even though Bucky’s got his arm stretched right out.

“I think,” Bucky says. He speaks slowly. “I have to.” He can’t work out how to put it in words. Sometimes he talks about something -- now. And he sounds -- he sounds like would have, had he been born to this time.

That is not always how it goes.

“I remember,” he says, and that’s something he doesn’t talk about much. Just the odd -- thing. “I’m not sure -- no order,” he says. “It’s all there -- well, something is -- but...”

Steve’s never had a great memory, although it improved some after the serum. So much of his childhood has faded, like ink does. Like the covers of books left in the sun.

“It’s okay,” Steve says. He doesn’t make any movement towards him. Sometimes he thinks about that time they were on the helicarrier -- about Bucky punching him in the face. We never did that before, he thinks. We did a lot of things, but we didn’t do that.

 

***

 

It’s the last page of the essay on the Martians that Natasha has written on. Well, she’s underlined part of it. She’s underlined other things in the book, too. Stars in the margins. She’s rarely written any actual words of her own. Steve doesn’t read it out to Bucky. It says:

 

 

 

Thus the whole psychosis is based on the myth of the Identical, i.e., of the Double. But here, as always, the Double is a Judge. The confrontation of East and West is already no longer the pure combat of Good and Evil, it is a sort of Manichaean melee, cast under the eyes of a third Onlooker...

He reads the whole essay a few times, and is sure he doesn’t understand any of it. But he feels something here catch in him like a burr. Or, it’s like a lump in his throat.

 

***

 

Sam calls. Sam always calls. He is in New York.

“Made sure I went to my condo first,” Sam says. He loves his condo. “She’s supervising the painter there right now.”

“That’s great,” Steve says. He’s got a bowl of cereal popping in the bowl. He puts a spoonful in his mouth and keeps the spoon there, sucking at it absently. Even milk still makes him think of England, and the ash-brown sky.

“Are you eating,” Sam says.

“It’s breakfast time,” Steve says.

“Maybe there it is,” Sam says. Steve can hardly say, we don’t all keep military hours now. He does his best not to, although it’s hard because farm hours basically are military hours. And because he doesn’t really want to pick on Sam for it. You throw away what you can bear to, but you keep the rest.

“What is it about Clint’s?” Sam asks.

“I don’t know,” Steve says, although he does know. “It’s so different. You can’t feel the break in time so much out here.”

“Yeah, except for with that monstrosity of a television he’s got, you mean.”

“Hey, man,” Clint calls from the other side of the room, and that’s how Steve realises it’s on speaker, “you try watching the NFL on anything less.”

“You know how many players suffer from head injuries each year?” Sam asks.

Clint taps on his own head with the fingers of his left hand, which Sam can’t see, but Steve can.

 

***

 

“So,” Steve says, once he’s turned the phone off speaker. “How’s New York?”

“Ah, you’ve been watching the news, right?” Sam says, and sighs.

“Yeah,” Steve says. “Haven’t seen you on it, though. Not like...”

“Yeah, yeah,” Sam says. “I’m not here like that. Like them.”

“Do you think I should be?” Steve asks, bluntly.

“No,” Sam says. “I think you should be where you want to be.”

There’s a pause. Steve doesn’t say, I don’t know where I want to be. Not really. Or, I want to be somewhere that I can’t go. The gap in time. No matter what he does, he can’t unfreeze the years in the middle. He stares at the back of Bucky’s head and he thinks about the VA doctor, with bags under his eyes, who agreed to take a look at Bucky even though he didn’t have insurance or any kind of paperwork, and who felt Bucky’s head and heard what Steve said and thought, immediately, about something like electroshock therapy.

Something like it. Steve is too scared to ask. What does that make him? Every time he wants to he feels something horrible rise in his chest. And he also thinks, maybe it’s better not to. It’s probably better not to. He doesn’t talk a lot, in case talking too much will scare Bucky away from talking. So now neither of them talks. What if this -- all of this -- isn’t helping.

He doesn’t even know how long he’s been here for, now. He doesn’t know what Clint’s doing here. Isn’t he a sniper?

“The thing is,” Sam says. “I think saving the world can really fuck you up, make you feel like... the world is always going to need saving.”

“It does,” Steve says.

“The thing is, down here,” Sam says, “people are glad you all stopped that nuke from hitting New York, but man, they’re mad about a lot else.”

“Clint mentioned,” Steve says. “He showed me Tony’s diagrams.”

Sam laughs, but the laughter’s all in his teeth, Steve can tell that from here.

 

***

 

“What are you there for?” Steve asks, at the end of a very long conversation. Sam pauses.

“The police in New York,” he says, “they’re not always -- they hurt people. You find a lot of protestors who do this kind of thing a lot -- it can really hurt them. I try and help.”

Steve nods, although Sam can’t see him. “They’re drawing up lists of demands,” Sam says. “Look out for it, if you want.”

 

***

 

“They can’t even agree on what they want,” Clint says, when Steve puts the news on that night. It’s only on the news because Tony’s given some kind of press conference addressing the demands, but it’s mostly him looking at multiple lists and saying “excuse me, can anyone read this handwriting, this is why you need to elect a spokesperson.”

“You know what he’s doing,” Clint says, after a minute, bobbing his head towards the screen. Steve nods.

“I,” Bucky says, and then stops.

“Yeah?” Steve says.

“If they can’t agree --” Bucky says. “But they -- lists. They know something.”

“Yeah,” Steve says, not entirely sure what he means. Bucky’s eyebrows knit together, like he’s still joining the words. It’s like reading Natasha’s book. Bucky tries again.

“It’s good,” he says, “that they have... fuck, what do I know.” He looks angry. “Ideas. Visions. Who cares if they agree. I can’t even agree.”

 

***

 

“Why did Tony announce what he was going to do?” Steve asks. He’s washing up. Clint had made something that involved steak for dinner, and there’s blood on the chopping board.

“Natasha,” Clint says. “After she put everything out there -- she said, Tony, you’re not keeping this one secret, either.”

Steve misses reading the newspaper every morning, but not... not in a way that has much to do with the news. Just the way you lose a habit. Like, he never needs to cough anymore. And he never feels tired. He just wants more sensation, sometimes. Not pain. But the things that touch on it. He used to bite his nails. Sometimes he feels tension building where his teeth touch.

 

***

 

There are twins on the news. They’re not figureheads -- there are no figureheads, “that’s the point, we don’t want figureheads,” they said, when asked about Tony’s press conference -- but they’re... notable because they don’t move. They’re always there. They don’t seem to have washed for a while. They’ve been camping out. The boy has white hair with dark roots showing through, and the girl has lank brown hair. She’s wearing a leather jacket with patches sewn all down the lapels.

“We didn’t elect them,” the girl says, and she spreads her hands. She has an accent -- Steve can’t quite place it. Eastern-Europe. He feels a pang for something. “What happens if we let them take all the power they want, and they decide they don’t like us next?”

“You’re still here,” the reporter says. The boom mic is in the shot. Steve thinks about how tall the tower is, how far above the sidewalk. He thinks about how when he stood at the windows and stared towards his long-gone corner of Brooklyn, he couldn’t have even seen where they’re standing now, because the rest of the building would have been in the way, rushing up to meet him.

“Yeah,” the guy says. His voice is quiet. He looks up at the sky.

 

***

 

“With all due respect,” the news anchor says. “All they want to do is save the world. How can anyone be against that?”

The twins are there, but their arms are looped through other arms. It’s another girl who speaks. She has a different accent. Southern. “That’s not a neutral statement,” she says. Steve’s getting good at knowing when to turn the television on to see this stuff. In the middle of the day. Dead time. When other people are working.

“They said they were saving the world when they went into Iraq,” an older woman says.

The thing is, that you can’t catch up, no matter what you do. Steve feels like the sky’s been torn from the sky, and now there’s only space there.

 

***

 

 

 

under the paving-stones, the beach!

 

 3.

 

They watch another one of Natasha’s DVDs. Vertigo. From 1958. The 50s are the hardest for Steve to wrap his head around, because... he’d honestly felt that history was going to splinter in a different way. Like he’d broken a wishbone and thought he had the big half, but it turned out it was small all along.

“I saw this one already,” Steve says, but he puts his big feet up on the crate Clint has for a table. He’s wearing thick socks. It’s a warm, dry day. Bucky’s feet are bare.

“Yeah?” Bucky says. He gestures to the other DVDs.

“No, it’s okay,” Steve says. “I watched it in the hospital with Peggy...” He thinks and realises he hasn’t really told Bucky about Peggy, but he doesn’t know where to start. Bucky stares at the screen, which is blank, except for the words HDMI in green in the upper-right corner. “I’d like to watch it again,” he says.

Steve hadn’t thought about why he’d chosen it -- or why he’d asked Bucky to watch it with him -- until the scene where Jimmy Stewart (god, he got old) dreams and fans out his old memories, breathes a new kind of terror into them. Bucky croaks, bodily, but doesn’t make any actual words. An invented woman turns her neck in a space that she wasn’t in, doesn’t belong in, and Steve thinks -- oh. He presses his hand to Bucky’s shoulder, where it turns into the collarbone, and this time, Bucky barrels into him. His head into his chest. Like Lucky into Bucky when Bucky’s alone. Just not as warm. Steve pauses the film. Jimmy Stewart is in bed, again. The world is the same colour it was before.

“Is this,” Bucky says.

“Yes,” Steve says. He wraps his arms around him, carefully.

 

***

 

“Sometimes I forget,” Steve says. He’s made them both some coffee. This is the kind of situation that Monty or Peggy would have said called for tea, but he’s in fuck-nowhere Iowa and Clint doesn’t keep tea in the house.

“It would only encourage Natasha to visit,” Clint said, when Steve asked him why not.

“I woke up,” Steve says, with both of his hands held together, “and I remember everything. Well. As much as I did before.” Jimmy Stewart is still on the screen.

Bucky nods, and says, “it’s. Do you remember that Christmas your ma bought you that big jigsaw puzzle, and we sat down and did it together?”

“Yeah,” Steve says. “Hey, remember that movie we laughed at where he makes his wife sit in his big old mansion, with only puzzles for company?”

Bucky puts a hand to his forehead. “Maybe. Before I shipped?”

“Yeah,” Steve says. “We went to see it together. Everybody loves that movie now.”

“No shit?” Bucky says.

 

***

 

“I’ll think I have a memory,” Bucky says, slowly. “But there’s a hole. I see a -- smell, word.” He holds his fist up in a loose spiral, then clamps it together, hard. The spiral’s still there but the gap has gone.

He looks at Steve. They’re very close. Their knees are still touching.

“I don’t --” Bucky says. There are holes everywhere. “I never know.”

“And then you do,” Steve says. He presses his hand to Bucky’s fist, which he’s still clenching with force. Steve nudges at the place where Bucky’s fingers are pressed into his palm with his own fingers.

“I keep thinking,” Bucky says. “You must know me so much better than this.”

Steve doesn’t really know what he means, but he doesn’t ask. Bucky looks at him, hard. His eyelashes are in clumps. “I’m sorry,” Bucky says. Steve’s hooked onto Bucky’s fingers with his own fingers now.

“What are you sorry for,” Steve says. “You don’t owe me anything.”

Bucky puts his metal hand to Steve’s face, and Steve doesn’t flinch away. It’s cool, rather than cold. He rubs his thumb across the top of Steve’s cheek. “Did we used to do this,” he says.

“This?” Steve says. He holds onto Bucky’s hand, tighter. “No.”

Bucky’s hand falls from his cheek, but Steve doesn’t let go of his other one. “Sometimes,” Steve says, “we almost --”

“But not this,” Bucky says. They’re still very close. “I’ve been having strange dreams.”

Steve thinks about winters in New York, before. His breath, white in front of him. Like smoke, or snow. If it was that cold in here, his breath would be all over Bucky. Wait. It must be. When it goes white. It just means that you see something that’s always there.

 

***

 

Steve had thought, when they were looking for Bucky, that he’d be violent again. He’d kept up his combat training. He still wouldn’t carry a gun.

“I don’t think you get to define the terms of this fight,” Sam had said, and Steve had nodded, because it was true. But he still wouldn’t match the stakes.

“He can kill me, but I can’t kill him,” he’d said. “But he won’t.”

He couldn’t say, you didn’t see his eyes. He couldn’t say, when we fought, it was like he was fighting through something. He couldn’t say, who do you think pulled me from that fucking river, because he didn’t know, he just thought. He spent a lot of time thinking about it. And they never pulled a body from the river. Not his. He’d already been pulled out. And not another one. Because there should have been two, and there was only one reason for there to be none.

And then Bucky had been standing there, in a hoodie that smelt like car-exhaust and sweat and damp cardboard, and Steve had tried his hardest not to tense, and he hadn’t done anything. Like going back to that exhibit and reading his own, sad, short biography -- they hadn’t even bothered to get his year of birth consistently right -- over and over, every day, had helped him realised something that he’d always known before. That of course Steve would turn up, eventually.

And the violence -- that was what he was missing. It was something he had had to lose. It had been the easiest part of him for other people to use. Like he’d forgotten what it meant for himself. Like it had become something outside his body. And now his body was all that was left, and he had to start there, just there.

 

***

 

At night, Bucky sleeps in the bed. Steve doesn’t want to sleep, so he doesn’t.

He tries his hardest not to think about what it must have been like, falling all that way and not dying. He thought he’d died. He’d talked to Sam about this, another time, and Sam had looked thoughtful.

“You know, there are cases of people falling from planes and surviving,” he said. “No parachute. You’d be crazy to try - but...”

“You mean, it’s not even necessarily a super thing?” Steve asked. “I should have --”

“Steve,” Sam said. “It was war.” He’d been washing up mugs at the sink, but he turned his body to face Steve, until Steve nodded back at him.

 

***

 

Just because he’s not violent anymore doesn’t mean he can’t hurt. Anything can hurt. A spec of dust in your eye.

A week after they got here, Bucky’d fallen asleep on the sofa, and started to thrash around. “Hey,” Steve had said, after shaking him gently hadn’t stopped it. “Hey!” And then he’d put his hand on his arm.

Bucky had wrenched out of his grip, and hit him in the face. Hard. Steve clutched at it and felt sick in the way that you feel sick when you break something, but he didn’t think anything was broken. Bucky woke up like that, to Steve with blood all over his face. Blood on his hand. He didn’t say anything. He moved his hand. Drops of blood were on the wooden floor. His eyes were very wide and black. “It’s fine,” Steve said. “It’s fine, it happens.”

Clint had lots of bandages and said to Steve, “come here, let me look at it.” He taped him up and said, “well you’ll probably be fine tomorrow.”

And he was. But Bucky skirted around him, wouldn’t sleep until he was in the other room.

On the couch, together, watching Vertigo, then pausing it -- it was the closest they’d been.

Bucky was gentle with both of his hands against Steve’s face. “I can’t see anything,” he said, and it stung, but Steve knew what he meant. “You used to have a little scar here,” he said. The skin under Steve’s left eye.

“How would you know that,” Steve had said. Steve thinks about that now, awake at 5am, watching the birds outside making their early-morning shapes.

“I don’t know,” Bucky said. The television screen had turned itself off, but the DVD player was still whirring, on and off.

“You’re right,” Steve said. “I heal pretty quickly, now.”

Bucky kept his hands there. “We didn’t do this,” he said.

“No,” Steve said. “But I don’t think either of us would’ve minded.”

 

***

 

He can remember, but he doesn’t often let himself think about it. Helping Bucky on with his tie, mornings after he’d crashed on Steve’s couch because Steve lived closer to the pharmacy and he liked coming over for dinner. Bucky’s hands’d be cold and stiff, especially in winter. Steve was more used to it. Better at it. Working through that.

Bucky had always used to hate sleeping in the same room as him. “You cough all the time,” he’d said, as a grumpy ten year-old. He stopped complaining as he got older, but he frowned. He was a light sleeper, although he became less so with age. Like how he’d had blond hair until he was six, and then it had turned dark. So as an adult, he didn’t mind so much, but he still always took the couch.

Steve had stayed blond, and they hadn’t looked much alike anymore.

“You can sleep in the bed if you want,” Steve had said. “Not like I take up all of it.” It was very cold, was the thing.

Bucky had looked at him. Steve didn’t flush. He was very grateful for that. His mouth was clammy.

“I like your couch,” Bucky had said, finally. “Lot of good memories of this thing.” He’d slammed his hand onto it, slightly too hard, and he slept under his coat, Steve’s coat, and Steve’s one spare blanket.

 

 

***

 

In the morning, Steve makes pancakes. The proper kind. Like his ma used to make. He doesn’t sleep at all, just waits until it’s an appropriate time for breakfast.

“Jesus, Steve,” Clint says. “Even I’m not up this early.” Steve very kindly doesn’t say, I didn’t really mean them for you, and then he makes some more for Bucky.  But Bucky’s still asleep, so he takes a plate in. The pancakes are good. The ones he ate himself were good. They have chocolate chips in. That’s a thing they do now. He sits on the end of the bed, and he waves them under Bucky’s nose.

“Uh?” Bucky says. He opens and closes his eyes a few times.

“I thought you might want some,” Steve says. “You can always sleep again after.”

Bucky takes the plate and fork, and when Steve shifts to get up and go, Bucky grabs his wrist. “Stay,” he says, and so he does.

 

***

 

“So,” Bucky says. The news is on again. Tony just... conceded. Is that even the right term?

“It’s not like the Avengers were ever really a thing, anyway,” Clint says, his feet on the crate this time. His boots are filthy. Steve knows he’ll be really angry at himself later, when he sees the muddy scuffs across it, but he doesn’t say anything. “We were avenging like, one guy we worked with.” He looks at Steve. “He’s not even dead, you know.”

“Yeah,” Steve says. Steve doesn’t say:

  •      What if there are aliens again?
  •      What did we do wrong?
  •      Why hasn’t Tony called any of us about this?
  •      What does this mean?
  •      How long can we stay here?

 

 

***

 

A few days later, Steve and Bucky are cleaning out an empty stable, because Clint’s planning on getting a new horse. It’s not hard work, and he mostly asked them to do it so they’d stop sitting in front of the TV, watching bad films all day (they’ve watched all of Natasha’s DVDs now so they’re exploring Clint’s shitty cable package), and so he didn’t have to deal with the aftermath of either of them trying to deal with any actual, living animals. Lucky’s around, though - he darts in and out, happily woofing at the clouds and the shit and the hay.

Bucky presses two fingers to his temple, like he’s miming a gun, but then turns them. “You know,” he says. “Some other memories have started filling in.”

“Yeah?” Steve says, kind of distracted. He’s accidentally put his hand in something disgusting, and he’s not sure what it is, and he needs something to wipe it on.

“Yeah,” Bucky says, and suddenly he’s there, and he’s kissing him, hard, against the stable wall. It’s cool wood, and he’s got a hand on Steve’s waist, and Steve yelps into his mouth, and accidentally wipes the disgusting stuff all over Bucky’s back as he kisses back.

“What did you do that for?” Bucky asks, like he’s gasping the words. He pulls away and tugs on the neck of his shirt, looking over his shoulder to see the damage down his back.

“You surprised me!” Steve says. He chews on the inside of his lower lip.

“Did we do that,” Bucky says. He’s still pulling at his shirt.

“Don’t,” Steve says.

Bucky pulls off his shirt. “It’s your fault,” he says.

He turns around and throws it out of the stables in a ball of shit and blue cotton. Steve looks at his back. It’s a mess. The scarring that was always there is still there - although smaller, it healed some - but they must have done a lot to it when they gave him that arm. His spine is the wrong -- shape. Just under the skin. It’s not curved, just -- big.

Bucky puts his fingers to his temple again when he turns back round, and makes a noiseless “bang” with his mouth. “I know,” Steve says. “What are we doing.” He reaches out to grab Bucky’s waist, and Bucky shies away, but only a little bit.

“You are not fucking in my stables,” Clint says from the yard. Steve isn’t sure when he turned up. “I did not invite you here so that you could have sex in my stables.” He’s looking at them like he wants to kill them. Clint usually says that he doesn’t really have a murder stare, that’s just his resting face, but now Steve isn’t so sure.

“Um,” Steve says.

“These stables are too filthy for sex,” Bucky says, then looks around, and says, “well.”

“Please tell me you’re not remembering something,” Steve says, and Bucky looks over at him, slowly, and Steve thinks, did I go too far.

Bucky taps Steve’s head, this time. “Not yet, I’m not,” he says, quietly. Clint makes a disgusted noise, and says, “You’re making dinner, boys,” before he walks away.

 

 

***

 

“I can’t believe you said no to Tony,” Steve says. Sam’s talking to them all on Skype, on Clint’s computer that he’s fairly sure is about to stop working any moment. It’s covered in thick silver tape and the fan keeps making noises that sound suspiciously like Steve used to when he had a bad cough.

“Well,” Sam says, and he runs a hand over his head. “The thing that I realise more and more all the time is -- you choose who you owe things to, you know?”

“Not always,” Steve says, and he looks at Bucky.

“Yeah, like, always,” Sam says. “You choose when you repay, and you choose when you write it off, right? And I thought -- hell, it isn’t my problem. And I’m not sure there’s anything there that’s worth rebuilding. And then I thought -- you know, I like my life now.”

“That’s good,” Steve says.

“So,” Sam says. “You made any decisions about where you’ll be going next?”

Steve scratches his forehead. He’s lost track of how long they’ve been here -- months. Clint’s probably sick of them by now. Except he hasn’t said anything about it, and he’s not exactly shy.

“No,” Bucky says.

 

***

 

“You never did tell me about how you got the farm,” Steve says.

“Yeah I did,” Clint says. “But it was your first day here and you were running around chickenshit.” He’s frying some hashed potatoes. They’re leaving tomorrow. Steve’s packed their bags, and Bucky’s out with the crows. “This was my brother’s place,” he says. “I always used to think he was a fucking deadbeat, and then when he died... turned out he’d been a fed for a decade, and had poured all his money into this place.”

“A fed, huh?” Steve asks.

“Yeah,” Clint says. “FBI, man. In the family.” He pulls a disgusted face, and then softens. “Taught me to shoot,” he says.

“That why you always clip a little to the right with guns,” Bucky says.

“Hey,” Clint says, wounded. Bucky’s leaning over and ruffling Lucky’s head with both hands, and Lucky is licking his ankle.

“How do you know how he shoots?” Steve asks.

Bucky looks at him. “We’re on a farm,” he says. “He’s taken me shooting.”

Clint puts his hands up. “Hey,” he says. “I did the shooting. And I mostly just shot bottles.”

 

***

 

The car is dirty from just sitting in an old barn for months, but it’s got enough gas for now and it still runs fine. It’s got a big back seat, so they stack their things on it so that if they want anything they don’t have to stop and open the trunk.

“Anytime,” Clint says. “Really.”

“Let me know if you’re ever back east,” Steve says, even though he’s not sure that’s where they’ll end up.

“I’m sure I will be,” Clint says. “I’m not much of a farmer. It’s just...” and then they hug, and then as Steve gets into the car, he grins and salutes.

He hasn’t called Steve “Cap” once this whole time, Steve realises.

Bucky gives him a one-armed hug, and then he hugs Lucky, who doesn’t really know what’s happening but is pretty enthusiastic about it anyway. The crows don’t say goodbye, because they don’t like people, and they don’t like movement. They made a horseshoe in the sky at dawn.

They drive south, because they’ve never been south. Even with SHIELD, Steve had never been as far as Florida, or Louisiana.

“Well,” Bucky says, when Steve lists all the states he’s never been to (he’s always been able to remember all of them, although he trips up on Alaska and Hawai’i now). Bucky doesn’t say that he doesn’t know which states he’s been to, because he doesn’t have to, but they both know to avoid Texas. They haven’t had to deal with those memories yet. Steve thinks, maybe they won’t have to.

Steve thinks, when we get to wherever we’re going, we’re going to find a neurologist.

Bucky tinkers with the radio until he finds some AM station that’s playing oldies, which means songs that neither of them remember. But there’s the odd one that he recognises, even now -- from other car journeys, from the mix CDs that people used to give him, even people he barely knew. How could you do without something so precious, the CDs said to him. The way they glinted in the light. A junior SHIELD agent had to show him how to use them. “You don’t touch that side,” he’d said. “You hold them like this,” and Steve had to practice, and he shattered one of them. They’re very delicate. He prefers the radio.

Tony had just emailed him a link to a dropbox account full of songs that he must have known he wouldn’t like. Steve had listened to half of it anyway before his patience and kindness had run dry.

“Did you know,” Bucky says, after they’ve been driving for a while. “There were millions of wild buffalo in the west before they put the fences up.”

They’re not out west, but there are fences.

“Millions and millions,” Bucky says. Steve realises that he’s reading the history book that Natasha had sent him. He never picked it up. Bucky’s dog-eared pages.

“How do you not feel sick,” Steve says. “I can never read when I’m on the move.”

“Yeah,” Bucky says. “You tried it recently, then?”

“No,” Steve says.

“Thought not,” Bucky says. The sun is very high in the sky.

“Do you think it’s right --” Steve had said, and Sam had cut him off. “Look,” Sam had said. “I’m talking to some people here. When you get back -- if you get back -- I’m sure there’ll be something for you to do. But... not yet. Get to know the world you want to fight for, first.”

“Fight?” Steve had said.

“It’s a thing people say,” Sam had said. “I’ve got a t-shirt in your size -- no, your actual size, not two sizes smaller like you insist on wearing -- that says ¡No Pasarán!. If you ever make it here. If not, it’ll make a good nightshirt for me.”

 

***

 

They eat lunch at a roadside diner, and they pay a bored teenager to fill the car up with gas.

 

***

 

“Hey,” Steve says. They’ve stopped the car at a rest area. It’s getting dark, and Bucky was feeling sick. That still happens quite a lot. “What do you want to do?”

Bucky says, “let’s get out of the car, it smells like those stupid planes Howard used to fly.”

They get out of the car. The sky is much darker than Steve thought it would be by now. He guesses the nights must be drawing in again. They spent a whole summer trying to see where the changes were. Where they’d broken, and where the bones had started to fill in again. It’s strange to think that bones aren’t all that tough. That there’s sponge in there. His heart feels like a sponge, squeezing and letting go. Too much air in his head.

“What are you thinking about,” Bucky says. Steve looks at him. “Memories?” he says. His hair is so long now. Steve hadn’t had the heart to ask if he wanted it cut. Steve loops two of his fingers in a lock at the front of his head, and wraps it around them until his fingers are touching Bucky's scalp.

“No,” he says. “I was just thinking -- it’s so dark out here.”

“No moon,” Bucky says, and that’s it. “It’ll be back.”

“There’s probably nothing we can do about it either way,” Steve says, and puts his other hand in Bucky’s hair, too, and tugs lightly. Bucky shudders, and presses his mouth to the corner of Steve’s mouth, and his hands on his back, where Steve’s shirt is stuck to his skin.

 

 

***

 

They get a thunderstorm a day later. Bucky won’t go out in the rain, but Steve won’t come in. Bucky has the radio on. Steve can’t bring himself to say -- I’m so relieved that I don’t have to decide how the world’s going to end. Or live. He can’t bring himself to say, I’ll do what they want me to do, but I want to do this first. But it’s like when he thinks about Sam, and how Sam can’t help it, he has to get up at 5 every morning: you lose what you can, and you’re left with the rest. Bucky’s rolling a cigarette, lolling out of the window, the tip of his nose wet from the rain, and they can feel a crackle in the air, in the ground, under their skin when they close their eyes.