Bucky had said there was a bus that he could take from Manhattan, but when Steve mentioned it, Sam had tilted his head and said, "Really? Captain America on a bus?" And Natasha had warned him off the Port Authority. "Just take my word for it," she'd said. "You don't want to go there." The town of Tristia had no train station, though. In the end, Steve had to take the bike.
It was late summer, and all through the Hudson Valley, the apple orchards were heavy with fruit. There were evergreen trees on the slopes of the hills, and he could smell them: pine needles, resin, dirt. He rode past fields where pumpkins were growing. In some places, ancient barns had caved in, silvered wood walls simply collapsing, like time was a weight that could not be borne, a physical force that pressed against them. Steve was older than some of those barns, he thought. But then, still, see: farms were farms, the land persisted. Here and there, orchards boasted historic pedigrees; towns retained the brick streets of some earlier era.
He stopped by the roadside to buy early apples— not yet ripe, a little bit hard and green, but tasting the way he remembered apples. He stuck some in his rucksack, washed his face at a rest stop. He took the time to check his map. By now the Hudson had turned into the Mohawk. He was beginning to get that sense he had that, at some point outside New York City, the air became subtly, mysteriously colder, as though the city generated its own heat. He didn't know if this was a scientific fact, or just something he imagined. But all of those bodies, surely— in close quarters, though not so close as when he was young, when you'd sleep with seven children to a room, and hear the neighbors upstairs singing, making love, arguing. Out here the heat dissipated much faster. There was so much distance between bodies.
He got to Tristia around noon. It was smaller than he'd imagined: a few diners, a harness racing track, factories as ruined and as giant as castles, crawling with incomprehensible graffiti. He got a cup of coffee while texting Bucky to say, I'm in town, I'll be there soon.
Bucky texted back: k.
Steve could never work out which of them had adapted better to the brave new world of technology. Where Steve earnestly applied himself to almost every gadget— banking online, using Instagram, even editing Wikipedia where it seemed appropriate— Bucky flatly refused to own a TV, used a flip phone, and only emailed when impressed upon to do so. Steve thought he checked his email inbox maybe once a week. It wasn't that he didn't understand the tech; he just didn't want it.
"I don't not like it," he'd told Steve. "But I've got a lot going on in my life right now."
Steve, who felt a sense of panic when away from his computer— thinking of all the work that went into handling his PR, handling PR for the Avengers team, and all the schoolteachers contacting him to ask Could he... ? Would he...?, and the charitable organizations all over the world, struggling with the burden of suffering— Steve, who furthermore sometimes felt when he missed a TV show that he had, in some obscure way, betrayed it, and who followed back everyone who followed him on Twitter— Steve resented this attitude, just a little.
Bucky did have a website, or rather his business had a website, which Nick Fury's niece ran for him. (Nick had a niece, apparently. She was fourteen. She had braces. Steve had met her once. Bucky paid her fifty bucks a week.) "You know," Steve had said to him, "Stark Industries has really good programmers, they could set something up, I bet they wouldn't even charge you..."
But Bucky liked Nina. "She made the website play music," he'd pointed out. An autoplayer on the splash page of the website looped Pachelbel's Canon in D, performed by Nina herself on the keyboard. Animated bees bounced in time to the music, twirling in tubby, balletic excitement. (Nina had also designed the bees.)
"It's a big job for a teenager," Steve had tried.
Bucky had looked bemused. "Not really, it isn't."
Steve suspected that Nick, who was now supposed to be retired, mostly wanted to keep an eye on Bucky. But he knew when he had lost an argument. So Nina continued to act as the official web presence of The Happy Bumble Orchard and Apiary, diligently faxing Bucky internet orders, making spreadsheets of costs, and fielding questions about fall apple-picking.
"You have a fax machine?" Steve, flabbergasted, had asked when he found out.
He could hear Bucky frown on the other end of the line. "Course I have a fax machine. Got to get the orders. Addresses and so forth."
Steve had taken a deep breath, preparing to engage with this logic, but after a moment he blew it out thoughtfully. "Well," he'd said, "let me have your fax number."
A week and a half later, he'd bought a fax machine on eBay. The next time he found he couldn't sleep, he sat at the kitchen counter and drew a quick cartoon sketch of two fat, hoary bumblebees. One of them was saying to the other, "Not like the honey we had in the OLD days, I tell ya!"
He wasn't expecting a response when he faxed it to Bucky. It was after three am, and while from his window in Red Hook he could see lights moving as life continued, strangers carrying the nighttime torch of New York, he imagined that further upstate, in the farmlands, they would still be mainly asleep. So he was startled when the machine kachunked to life, whirred, and spit out a single sheet of paper, across which Bucky had scrawled in his usual three-inch capitals, HOW WOULD U KNOW U HAVEN'T TASTED MY HONEY.
It was true. Steve had been— supportive, or at least he had tried to be, even when it became clear that Bucky didn't want to live with him, didn't want to work with him, didn't want to work at all: the kind of work that Steve meant when he talked about work, at least. In retrospect, Steve had felt obscurely, deeply hurt. At the time, he'd thought: Bucky needs some space. So he'd given him space. He hadn't gone up to Tristia— not when Bucky bought the house and the land, and not after, when he started keeping the bees. He hadn't wanted to seem greedy. When Bucky visited Brooklyn, then that was different. That was the part of his life that was Steve's, the allotted portion. When it came to the rest of Bucky's life in this new era, Steve still felt like an intruder. Picking locks, trespassing, peering through windows. But he was outside the house, and the door was locked. He didn't know how to ask for the key.
Are you offering to give me some honey, he sent back after a moment. He had scrawled a smiley face under the words, with a little tongue sticking out of it. He was used to emoticons, he supposed.
HELL NO, was the response. IM RUNNING A BUSINESS HERE. U WANT SOME U GOTTA WORK FOR IT.
Steve thought for a while, in that sort of half-awake stupor where thoughts drifted like bumbling clouds through his brain. Okay, he sent back. If you'll let me. Always been a hard worker.
Ten hours later, he was calling to get directions, to find out how he could get there, when he could visit.
The farm itself, the— well, maybe it wasn't a farm, maybe that wasn't the right term, but— at any rate, The Happy Bumble Orchard and Apiary, was about ten miles outside of Tristia proper. Steve almost missed the drive where he had to pull in, which was just a farm road, minimally marked. Down at the end of it was a rambling, three-story, hundred-year-old farmhouse. He could hear the dogs barking as he got closer. Bucky had four dogs: three pitbulls and a Havanese poodle, called, respectively, Sock, Ricky, Bootle, and Senator Cassius. They all ran out to meet Steve as he parked his bike. They seemed almost literally ecstatic with joy, trembling and turning in fast, nonsensical circles, struggling to hurl themselves straight at Steve's legs. He thought he would have to push them away to get to the door, but then Bucky's voice called out, "Delta Company! 'Ten-hut!"
The dogs reluctantly sat, looking betrayed by this order.
Bucky was leaning in the doorway, his expression neutral. He was wearing a baseball cap, a pair of oversized glasses, unlaced combat boots. His t-shirt read: JUST BEE NATURAL! @ THE 31ST ANNUAL CENTRAL NEW YORK HONEY PRODUCERS CONFERENCE! He looked, Steve thought, exactly the same as he'd looked in Brooklyn, a month ago, because of course he would, because of course he hadn't— grown, changed, anything, since then. It was just that Steve was always checking him for changes.
"Heya, Buck," he said. "Quite a place you got here."
Bucky nodded. He said, "Okay. You want food? I got food. When you said you were coming, I made some bread. Chicken salad. Got a couple of beers in the fridge."
"Sounds good," Steve said.
Bucky had bought the house furnished from its former owner, an ex-hippy who had picked up and moved to Morocco. When Steve had heard "furnished," he'd thought, well, furnished. But he saw now that the house had been more "as is." There were stacks of books and records, old newspapers, what looked like a full set of National Geographic magazines, two pianos, a tailor's dummy in a top hat, a set of Southeast Asian ceremonial masks. There was a wood-burning stove with firewood beside it, angled up into neat square stacks, and photos on the wall, maybe of someone else's family. Black and white photos, tintypes. Nowadays you could buy those in junk shops, he'd learned. Other people's photos, from attics or estate sales, some still carefully inscribed with the names of those who were probably dead now. So he didn't know if maybe these were just— art. He didn't know if that were better, or if he preferred to think of Bucky living in the shell of another man's life, like he'd one day just inherited someone else's past, on the grounds that he couldn't touch anything.
It didn't look like he'd touched anything, at least. Not the books, not the shelves of magazines. But the bench-style table beside the kitchen looked raw, recently cut and homemade.
Bucky and the dogs clattered into the kitchen. Bucky came out after a minute with two brown beer bottles, a tub of chicken salad, and then a whole loaf of bread: still rounded and warm and crusty on top. When he cut the bread open, the smell spilled out, hoppy and dark and densely fragrant. It was black bread, and it made Steve's mouth water.
He said, a little astonished, "You made this?"
Bucky made an affirmative noise and popped the caps off both the beers. "Chicken's from Mary Lynn," he said after a moment. "Keeps 'em." He still hadn't sat down; he was leaning against the table. "Beer's from a brewery down the way."
It was good. It was all good. The beer tasted like oranges, and like early autumn, exultant and bright and crisp. The bread was better than Steve had imagined. The dogs curled up under the table, drooling on his ankles, and from time to time Bucky threw them bits of chicken. Light streamed through the high-up, dusty windows. The whole room had a piney scent, partly like something old, like old papers, and partly like something new and fresh.
Bucky didn't talk while they were eating. Afterwards, he said, "If you were gonna plan to stay over—" just as Steve was saying, "Are you gonna give me a tour of this place, or—"
Both of them stopped. Bucky looked uncomfortable. He ducked his head. Steve forced a laugh. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I'll stay over. If that's all right."
"Okay, good," Bucky said. He wasn't looking at Steve. He tucked his hair behind his ears. "Good. Okay. Good."
Bucky showed him a guest room on the second floor. It was bare, clearly never used, a little musty. But the window had been opened to let in fresh air, and the sheets on the bed were neat and new. On the bedstand stood a mason jar full of wildflowers— black-eyed susans and columbines, a few others that Steve didn't know the name for. They were ragged-leafed, still wet, already slightly wilting. He touched one petal with a finger.
A dog whined. Steve turned. Bucky was standing in the doorway. His eyes were slightly downturned. "There's," he said. "Just so you know, one of the stairs can be kind of tricky. Been meaning to get it fixed."
"Okay," Steve said.
He let Bucky show him where the board was split and warped. "I figure a rainstorm a while back," Bucky said. "Before I got here. Anyway, I hardly notice, but I didn't want you going through the ceiling."
Steve had noticed other spots where walls and floors had been patched over. He hadn't wanted to say anything. He didn't really know very much about old houses. It was one of those lapses that people found strange. But everywhere he'd lived had always been new. Nothing aged. Or at least— not in real time. When he'd woken up, the world that he knew had been old. It had happened once and very abruptly. So he'd never learned how to live through deterioration. The patching-up and writing-off of things seemed to have a kind of accumulative logic, one you only learned by living a long time. He found himself saying, awkwardly, "I could give you a hand, you know, if you wanted to fix some things up... ?"
Bucky shook his head, curt. "You're a guest. Guests don't have to fix things."
He sounded like he was reciting from a rulebook. Steve followed him downstairs. He felt hurt, like Bucky had pushed him physically away. It wasn't rational, but it was a familiar feeling.
A dog whuffed at his hand— Sock, Ricky, or Bootle. He scratched the gray short fur of its back. Dogs were simpler, he thought. Simpler in their affections. They couldn't talk, so they couldn't leave things unsaid, and they never expected you to say anything special— something you couldn't say, something you didn't know you were supposed to say, because you were dumb, because you didn't understand. All they wanted was for you to tell them they were good: with a tone in your voice that said that you meant it, with the safe weight of your hand on their head.
"You coming?" Bucky called from the next room over.
Steve hastened to catch up to him. Bucky was waiting by the back door, his gaze unreadable. "Sorry," Steve apologized.
A glimmer of a smile. "Slowpoke," Bucky said.
The thing was—
The thing was, Bucky had taken out the rest of Hydra, and come back to Steve not, well, not the same as he'd left— there was the robot arm, there were the scars on his shoulder, the nightmares, the grim and hollow-eyed stare— but he was Bucky. Everything about him was Bucky. He remembered Steve, and he remembered Brooklyn; he remembered everything. And Steve had thought— it made him ashamed to recall it— he'd thought they hadn't diverged so far yet that they couldn't get back to how they were. Like a stream that'd been split in two by a boulder, running two separate courses, then back to one path. Why not— why wouldn't they flow back together?
He hadn't thought that Bucky might not see it like that. But:
"This isn't my life anymore," Bucky had told him.
It had been out of the blue, like most of Bucky's pronouncements— Steve got the sense that he thought about them for a long time, laboring over them in secret, but never giving any sign, so that when delivered they always came as surprises. ("I want a dog," he'd once said to Steve, pausing the TV when the Titanic was half-done sinking. "I want... like, a really big dog.") Sometimes what Bucky said seemed to surprise even Bucky. He was very good at hiding things, even from himself.
"What do you mean?" Steve had asked. "You mean— going after Hydra? Missions? Bucky, you don't have to do any of that, you can stay in New York, work with me and Tony, or— there are other places, we can go where you want—"
No. He'd clearly misunderstood. Bucky had stared at the wall with a blank expression, like he couldn't even stand to look at him.
"What is it?" Steve had said, frustration cresting. "Just tell me what you mean, Buck, just say it."
"I don't," Bucky'd said— "want to do this anymore. This—" He gestured, and then he was taking his guns off, unstrapping his knives, the weapons he wore under his everyday clothing. He touched the hilt of a knife where he'd set it on the table, the edge of the doorframe: he moved his hand in a shaky gesture. It encompassed the room, New York, the visible future: everything, everything. And Steve had wanted to take his own question back, as he realized—
"All of this is you," Bucky said. "I remember. It's you. It's yours. But it's not what I want for my life."
Three days later, he'd moved out of Steve's apartment.
Outside, clouds were swelling up over the treetops. Bucky stood on the porch, squinting into the sun. Steve could see the painted stacks of beehives. Or— boxes, that was what Bucky called them, though they looked more like drawers. A few insects, little and oddly golden, were beetling around the towers. They nestled together in clouds and patterns.
Steve watched them. He asked, "You ever get stung?"
"Nope. I'm betting you wouldn't either." Bucky glanced over, saw his incomprehension. "Something about the smell of us. We're unnatural creatures. Don't know why, but the bees keep their distance."
"Yeah. Guess so."
But the tightness that Steve saw around Bucky's eyes suggested it wasn't convenient for him. Steve wondered if it was the pain he wanted, or if he just wanted to feel like the kind of animal that could be easily hurt. He didn't ask. Instead he said, deliberately light, "So, you going to give me the grand tour, Farmer Bob?"
Bucky led him out to the edge of the orchard. It was bigger than he'd imagined. It was vast. He'd thought, maybe, that young trees wouldn't take up much room. But they did, of course. They were spaced apart, with enough room that, in decades to come, they could grow. They leaned on stakes now, but they were still fruit-bearing. The branches were heavy with their load. So much fruit on such little trees, for— a hundred acres? Was that a lot? He didn't know much about land. He didn't want to ask Bucky, and seem ignorant. So he just stood and admired.
"They're kind of kid height, right now," Bucky said, scratching his head. "This is the first year they're bearing fruit. Last year was just trying to get 'em settled. I guess it's good that they're the right height for kids; a lot of families come through here, wanting to pick apples together. I don't really get it. You ever picked an apple?"
They shared a baffled look, as if to say: these modern people! Someone had said the past was a foreign country, but really it was the future, Steve thought; it was the future, and they were the only two who had visited it.
"Well," Bucky said with a shrug. "They'll give me their money, so."
Steve reached out and rested his hand on a branch. It felt tense and springy under his fingers. It felt alive. He said, "What will you do with all the apples? I mean, the ones that people don't pay to pick." It still amazed him, the idea that people paid to work, that they paid to do labor that they thought was picturesque.
"Oh, pick the rest. Maybe get help in town. Sell 'em, make apple butter, pies, bread. I was thinking about getting a truck, going to farmer's markets. People go nuts for that stuff. I'd sell honey, wax, apples... you gotta taste the honey, Steve. Right now it's all goldenrod, which is pretty good, but I got some apple blossom honey from this past spring that you're gonna go nuts for."
He was so animated. Steve couldn't help but smile. It'd been a long time since he saw Bucky like this— full of life, enthusiastic. He was tanned from the sun, where he wasn't made of metal, and bright-eyed; he belonged to this late rustic scene: with the sun lolling down the top of the ridge line, insects in the fields hopping and chirping, and everything in the whole world so full of color. Full of sweetness.
"I don't know," Steve said seriously. "Someone told me I'd have to work for honey. Don't know how I feel about that."
Bucky smacked him on the shoulder with his baseball cap. "Punk. Come on, I'll make you pay for it later. You can feed the dogs."
So Steve followed him back up the hill to the house, though he felt a kind of sadness at going away. He turned once. The trees moved in and out of shadow as clouds scudded overhead. The light was lengthening. He could hear the dogs bark from back in the distance. He thought that in ten years this would all be the same: the sun, the trees, the hills, the dogs barking. The same insects like a spray of light over the fields. He felt a wave of unhappiness so acute that it was almost a physical pain.
"Steve!" Bucky shouted from far up ahead. "Come on!"
The apple blossom honey was light, almost a yellow topaz color. It tasted like— well, Steve didn't have a palate. It tasted good, really good: bright and crisp and sweet, not like the leaden honey from the supermarket shelf.
"I can't believe that bees make this," he marveled. "How do they know how to do that? They don't even think about it, it's just all there, in their bodies, and it turns out tasting like this!"
"Well, yeah, Steve," Bucky said, as though he were being stupid. "It's kind of what bees do."
"Don't you think it's amazing, though?"
"I guess." Bucky gave him a thoughtful, inscrutable look
They were sitting on the sun porch, with the screens pulled down. The ceiling fan spun in a very slow loop, barely stirring the air as the sun set. Bucky had brought out another loaf of that dark, tangy bread for Steve to taste the honey with, and Steve had eaten his way through half of it already. He said fervently, "I've got to bring some of this back. You really should sell it down in Union Square, you know, at the big market?"
Bucky shrugged. "Nina says when she turns fifteen, she's gonna get her license, and then she'll drive my— note: still-unpurchased— truck."
"She'll probably be a better driver than you are."
"She also says she's gonna drop out of school and start her own bee farm."
Steve pictured Nick Fury's face at this idea. He winced.
Bucky laughed. "Yeah, it's not happening. I told her not even you and me dropped out of school, and that was— you know— a million years ago."
Steve looked at him. "Not quite that long," he said. He was picturing Bucky the way he'd looked in those days: a cocky boy with a dimple in his chin who'd worked stacking crates for the local grocer, who'd come home smelling of plywood and cigarettes. They'd both been so exhausted all the time. It was hard even to imagine how they'd felt, what they'd thought. What had they wanted? What had they hoped for? Had they known how to hope? He remembered hope from the war, when it had been a kind of panic, but what he'd hoped for had been mainly to live, and that had been a physical instinct, so strong that he hadn't had to consciously sustain it. His body had made the decision for him.
"It feels long enough, though," Bucky said. "Doesn't it."
Steve felt his throat tighten. He swallowed. "It really does," he said.
Bucky cooked a duck for dinner in some kind of mustard sauce, roasting turnips in the fat. Steve leant against a countertop, watching him cut currant tomatoes for a salad, drinking some kind of local white wine. He had realized, sometime in the early evening, that he hadn't checked his email, or even thought about it. His phone was getting only wavering reception, and Bucky had no wifi— just a chunky old desktop plugged into a modem.
"You can use it, if you want," Bucky had offered.
Steve had thought about it, then shaken his head. "No. It's fine. Natasha and Sam know I'm here. Anything else can wait."
"Not going to have to run off and save the world?"
Steve had studied his face. Bucky was trying to look casual, he thought, but there was something underneath the joke: not quite bitterness, but all the same, something sad. "No," he said. "The world can save itself for a weekend."
It was the right answer, he thought. Bucky had relaxed.
For a while, Steve had occupied himself by flipping through records. Bucky had admitted that the turntable worked, though he used it mainly to listen to "Dylan and, I don't know, bluegrass, and you can shut your damn mouth, Steve Rogers; the whole world knows you still listen to big band." It was true. A magazine had mentioned it in a profile. Sam still hadn't finished giving him shit. It was hard, though; he felt at sea in modern music. He felt like he was back in Europe, listening to a foreign language. He could pick out a word here and there, but he knew he was missing something other people got, something that he'd have to work hard to learn.
He could hardly put on Harry James after that, though. So he picked a modern record he knew he liked.
"Seriously?" Bucky said, with a just a note of laughter in his voice. "Born in the U.S.A.? Try to be more predictable, Steve."
But he hadn't put up too much of a fight, so now they were listening to Bruce Springsteen as he sang about how he was on fire. The dogs dozed underneath the table. Bucky was humming along to the song. Steve felt his mind begin to drift. He reacted with suspicion, a little, when he realized. He wasn't used to being, he supposed... well, at rest.
He wondered if Bucky felt like this. He thought of himself as more relaxed than Bucky— Bucky, who'd suffered so much, who'd had his mind taken from him, who lived with the knowledge of what his body could do, what his body had done already in enemy hands. Who had learned how badly human beings could fail at every key, important aspect of being a human being, and who had to keep looking human beings in the face, knowing that about them: what they could become. It had seemed like a burden that exhausted him. For a long time, in Brooklyn, he'd barely spoken. Steve'd had to prompt, encourage, finagle, outright force him to speak. But now—
"If you wanna look out there," Bucky said, shrugging his shoulder towards the window, "sometimes we get some fireflies out by the treeline. Sorry I'm not more entertaining company," he added after a long pause, as though this were what Steve had been thinking.
Steve moved to the window. He took the minute to find an answer. "There's nothing wrong with you," he said. "You've got nothing to apologize for, Bucky." He could see them, the fireflies, out in the dark: little flares, like rescue beacons inside their bodies; stutters of light in the growing dusk. He knew there was a scientific explanation, even if he wasn't sure what it was; it was like the bees, the chemical miracle of honey. There was no magic to it; it was just— bodies. But all the same there was magic to it.
Behind him, Bucky huffed. "The number of times you've said that to me," he said. Steve couldn't tell if he sounded fond or not.
"Sorry. It's true. I'm not good at saying things."
"Suppose that make two of us."
"No, you're—" Steve stopped. He wanted to say it right, and he didn't know how to say it. "You're good," he said at last, ineffectually. "You're good."
He sensed Bucky cross the room, still habitually quiet in his movements. He stood at Steve's shoulder by the window for a while. "It'll rain tonight," he said. "Bet you anything. Firefly weather."
For some reason, this piece of arcane knowledge made a deep part of Steve's chest hurt. Or maybe it was being near to Bucky, or some combination: being near to a Bucky who knew things Steve didn't know. He found himself clenching and unclenching his fists, like he was looking for a fight, or anticipating danger. High alert. His body tensed to move in some direction.
"—Anyway," Bucky said. "Food's almost ready. If it's gonna thunderstorm, you better bring your bike in."
Steve went out after dinner to move the bike. By then, he could smell the rain in the air. There was a name for that smell, now, the smell of new rain. They'd invented it while he'd been under the ice. He couldn't remember what it was. You went to sleep, and woke up, and there were new words to learn, words for things you hadn't known you might need to say.
Back in the kitchen, Bucky was washing dishes. "I wasn't kidding about making you feed the dogs," he said. "Kibble's in the pantry. You gotta keep Senator Cassius' separate. She's a monster, she'll eat all the other guys' food."
Senator Cassius was the poodle. She eyed Steve innocently. "I'm onto you," he told her. She huffed at him, scandalized.
When he was done, he found Bucky taking pans down from cabinets. "In case we get leaks," Bucky explained. "Old house, haven't sealed up every crack yet, plus— things shift sometimes with a weather change."
"You know, you could live someplace without leaks," Steve pointed out. "In the city."
He regretted it at once. Bucky's face closed off.
"Not that—" he said, hating himself. "I didn't mean it like that."
"It's okay," Bucky said tightly. "I know you don't—"
"You're happy," Steve cut him off. "That's all that matters." He wanted to change the subject, fast, before he had to say something honest, before he did something that would cause Bucky more pain. He cast about. "Does the, uh, shoulder still bother you? I know it used to sometimes, before big storms..."
It was something they'd learned in Brooklyn. In Brooklyn they'd learned whole new weather systems of his body, places that hurt and didn't hurt, seasons like a church calendar that brought new hauntings. His body remembered more than he did, or in more detail; the pain always seemed to take him by surprise, even when he could say where it came from. He never remembered having known the pain itself before. The phantom bones of his arm ached a lot: when the air pressure shifted, at altitude, or when it got cold. He got migraines, which the doctors said were psychological in nature, and which made him nauseated by bright lights and smells. Steve had known there was more, but he didn't know what. Bucky had tried very hard to keep him out of it. He'd resented that, a little, he guessed he could see now. He had wanted so, so much to help.
Bucky touched the left part of his collarbone, frowning. "Bugs me a little. Kind of don't mind the warning, though." He'd gone back to speaking in clipped, short words.
"I could... ? If you want?" Steve made an abstract gesture. He knew that Bucky hated to be touched. Sometimes it was allowed, for impersonal reasons— if the pain was bad, Steve could press against trigger points, but he always knew he wasn't wanted. His hands were only pain relievers. Every time, he couldn't help but imagine he could feel Bucky flinching from him.
"No. It's fine." Steve's face must have changed, because he added, very haltingly. "Thank you. You can. Uh. Carry some of these, if you want to help." He hefted the stack of mismatched pans.
So Steve took half the stack, and followed him upstairs. He hadn't realized how much of the house he hadn't seen. There were two more bedrooms on the second floor, both of them all but empty: just bookshelves and the corpses of moths, and an odd article here and there— an Edwardian washing-stand, a tarnished euphonium, a wardrobe containing a silk smoking jacket.
The books on these shelves looked better-thumbed than those downstairs, like maybe Bucky had been reading them. One was splayed open, spine broken: something in French. Emmanuel Levinas. A few more had been set sideways, dogeared: encyclopedias of birds, a coffee table book about Oxford, poems by Hart Crane. Old almanacs.
Bucky positioned saucepans at the corners of the windows. "They never really totally shut," he said. "Keep meaning to fix it." He sounded faintly apologetic— embarrassed?— but at the same time almost fond.
The third floor had two rooms, or at least two closed doors. Bucky hesitated on the landing. He said, "I sleep up here."
He hadn't said, My bedroom's up here, which Steve found strange. He hadn't said, Don't come up. Steve felt like some message was being transmitted, and it was complicated in nature, but he didn't know how to decode it. He said uncertainly, "If you don't want me to..."
Bucky was staring at the wall. He said, "I guess I'd rather you didn't."
So Steve knew he'd been wrong. He hadn't said the right thing; he didn't know the magic password. For a second he wanted to put his fist through the wall. It was the same old feeling of longing to fight, the weight of frustration tightening his chest. But he couldn't fight Bucky. He had never really learned to. It was like a Chinese finger puzzle, a trap: the harder you fought, the more it ensnared you.
Maybe it was where the fighting urge came from, he thought. He didn't want to be free. He wanted the opposite of that.
The rain started coming down just before midnight. Steve was lying in bed by then, though he wasn't asleep. Thunder made him uneasy, and he'd heard it off in the distance. It disguised other noises, was what made him nervous. He liked to know what was coming at him. It occurred to him, too, how defenseless he was. His shield was here— he always carried it with him— but all of his team were in New York City. And Bucky—
They'd argued about this. Steve had insisted, "You've got to have weapons. Perimeter alarms. At least a panic button. There's too much that could go wrong."
Bucky had given him that steady, blank, obstinate look, the one that made Steve want to clench his fists. "I don't want that."
"It's not about what you want. It's about who you are, and keeping you safe."
"I'm nobody now. I'm just a civilian," Bucky had said, impassive.
"You're not a civilian. You must know that, Buck. You're never going to be just a civilian." Steve knew, even as the words escaped his mouth, the magnitude of the error he'd made. He saw Bucky's face change: go raw and empty. He had never wanted to put that expression on his face. It reminded him too much of— but he couldn't take the words back.
"Okay," Bucky had said, without emotion. "I think I understand."
And Steve had still thought— he'd said, slightly hopeful— "Does that mean you'll... ?"
No. That wasn't what Bucky had meant, as became abundantly clear.
By the time he'd left Steve's house, he'd said almost nothing, but the air had an ugly savage aura, as though both of them had been suppressing violence. Thinking about it made Steve's stomach turn. He had fucked up, he thought; he had fucked up so much; he hadn't known how to fix it then, and he still didn't now.
A crash of thunder made him shift. What if, he thought, what if they'd followed him there— that nameless, omnipresent they— the threat he'd learned to see as waiting in the darkness. Waiting for him in every century. What if they'd followed him to Bucky, and—
He shouldn't think about it. He sat up, propping his elbows on his knees, letting his face rest in his hands. The rain drummed hard on the roof, dripping off the eaves. Every time the trees lashed in the wind, they sent fistfuls of rain like bullets at the window. A sound like the sound of skin smacking skin.
Floorboards creaked— but it was just one of Bucky's dogs, restless. It nosed its way through the cracked-open door, panting, its eyes reflective in the shadows. Its tail knocked against the floor when it sat by the bed.
"Hey, buddy," Steve said softly. "Don't like storms, huh?"
The dog whined and put its head on Steve's knee. Steve scratched it behind the ears, and wrinkled his nose when it drooled on him.
"Gross," he told it, but didn't move his hand.
He'd forgotten the oppressive sense of danger. But as he was absently petting the dog, he heard something crack! elsewhere in the house. Not a gunshot, he thought, but— a window breaking? Someone smashing through a lock? God, did Bucky even lock his doors, out here in the country? (He had to push down his rage at the idea of Bucky being so helpless. It made him furious, panicked, and it felt like Bucky's fault.)
Without really thinking about it, he was on his feet, with the shield. He was sure he looked ridiculous, in a t-shirt and boxers, barefoot, but if there was even a chance...
He crept down the hallway. The dog trailed behind him. He tried to motion at it to make it stay, but it just tilted its head and whined a question, tail wagging.
That— or the crash— was enough to wake Bucky. He appeared, squinting-eyed, at the top of the stairs. His hair was a mess, and his oversized t-shirt was lopsided, rucked up on the left shoulder, just enough that Steve could see the faded red star still imprinting his bicep.
"Steve?" Bucky said. His voice was thick with sleep. "Jesus Christ, I'll take care of it. Go back to bed."
"No way. Bucky— you don't have any weapons!"
Bucky pressed the heel of his hand to his eye, as though he had a headache. "Steve, I promise: it's just the storm. It happens. Things— tree branches— hit the windows."
"You don't know that for sure. Just let me check it out."
"You're being an idiot."
Steve bit back his first response. "I'm really not."
Bucky rolled his eyes. "Fine. We can check it out together. You won't need the shield."
"Well— I'm bringing it."
"Somehow I figured."
He pushed past Steve in a way that forced Steve to move so that they wouldn't come into contact. Steve fought the temptation to elbow him sharply. It was petty, but he felt more frustrated, somehow, knowing that he couldn't do it— that he couldn't touch Bucky, even in passing, even in violence, couldn't hit him— couldn't even say what he wanted to say to him, which was: Don't you understand, you're my weakest point, the only undefended part of me, so what happens when... ?
He stalked after him instead, shield still slung on his bare arm. Behind him, the dog sighed heavily and lay down on the landing.
"Thanks," Steve told it. "You're such a help."
Bucky hadn't bothered to turn any lights on. Steve knew he was comfortable in the dark, or had been ever since... it was something, maybe, that they'd done to his body, or some sort of training he couldn't quite shed. Steve himself didn't like it, which Bucky also knew. Steve liked to see what was coming at him. He couldn't help feeling that Bucky'd done it on purpose.
He put his hand against the wall and tried to listen for the sound of Bucky moving ahead of him. It was faint, but enough to navigate by. The house, in the dark, had a surreal appearance: like a museum of nothing in particular at all, a baffling, impenetrably cryptic array. He stubbed his toe against an old amplifier, then— hopping— snagged his shirt on a telescope limb before he finally caught sight of Bucky: standing motionless in the doorway of the little office. Light was glinting off the plates of his metal shoulder.
"Bucky?" Steve said warily. He was glad he'd brought the shield. His irritation had faded; in its place was the certainty he'd felt that something was wrong, the lurching fear that Bucky wasn't safe, that Steve couldn't protect him. He stepped forwards quickly, bringing the shield up.
Bucky turned to look at him. His eyes were large and strange. "It wasn't a tree. It was a bird," he said.
At first Steve didn't understand. He was still primed for danger. He stared at Bucky, then swung his gaze mechanically to the inside of the office. A window had broken. Rain was spattering in, in inconstant bursts, shaken by great gusts of wind through the trees. On the coiled-rag rug was a small knot of feathers. Maybe a lark or a sparrow, Steve thought blankly— but whatever it was, it wasn't moving. Dead. There was blood on the rug, in very small stains.
They stood looking at it for a long time.
"I guess— it got swept through the window," Steve said. "It shouldn't've been out flying." He didn't know where birds went, actually, during storms. How did they stay safe in such paper-thin nests, nests that had no heft, no weight to them?
Bucky didn't say anything.
Steve wanted to touch his shoulder. It was a different kind of frustration, now, that came from knowing he couldn't touch. "I'm sorry," he said helplessly. "Let me— we should get something to clean up—"
On the rug, the little bird moved.
Bucky flinched. His breath made a painful noise.
Steve said, "Bucky—"
Of the two of them, though, Bucky was the one who knelt down— "Wait, Bucky, don't, don't, you'll cut yourself—" and lifted the bird up. He was so gentle with it, so careful. It was so small. It fit in the palm of his hand. Its breast heaved. Steve could see the shard of glass in its belly, where the ribs would have been, had it been a man. Had it been a man, he would have said: gutshot.
Bucky said expressionlessly, "Its wings are broken."
"We can call a vet," Steve said. He felt faintly panicked. His sense of peril had returned. "Or— a bird rescue place, that's— they have those, for owls and hawks and stuff, and... that's what you're supposed to do, when you find a baby bird, right?"
Bucky was stroking the bird's tiny head with one finger. "Shh," he whispered to it. "Shh. It's okay."
Steve said desperately, "We could drive it somewhere; I can get my bike—"
Bucky cradled the bird very close to his body. His face, for a moment, was so full of tenderness. Steve found he couldn't breathe. No, please, he thought. Please. I can't stand this.
He was still watching when Bucky broke the bird's neck.
Afterwards, the two of them sat at the table in the kitchen. It was still dark, but the rain was letting up at last. Bucky had offered tea; Steve had refused it. The cup that Bucky had made for himself smelled like roots, like some kind of licorice.
"I could have done it," Steve said finally. "You didn't have to—"
Bucky slammed his hand against the table. The noise was loud and sudden. "Steve," he said. His voice was very, very controlled. "Sometimes things happen in this world, bad things happen, and you have nothing to do with them. You didn't cause them, you can't stop them; they don't belong to you; you just have to stay out of it."
He was breathing hard. Steve felt slapped. He said, "I don't accept that."
"No. No. That's what I'm telling you. It doesn't matter. You don't get to accept or reject it. The whole entire world is not Steve Rogers' domain. There are parts of it that you have to stay the fuck out of."
"That's not fair," Steve said. He felt his chest seize up, like he was going to cry, which didn't make any sense.
"Why would it be fair? A lot of things aren't fair. What happened to me isn't fair; this—" he gestured down to his left arm— "this, all of this, isn't fair, and nothing I do or you do is going to fix that. It's always just going to be a fucked-up thing. Do you get that, Steve? So I can make my entire life revolve around it, make my entire life about fixing that one thing, or I can just let it be over."
"It's not over," Steve said hoarsely. "I don't know how you can say that. It's not over; it's not over for me— you moved halfway across the state to get away from me!"
"It had nothing to do with you!" Bucky shouted. He raked his hands through his hair in agitation. Steve had never seen him so distraught before. "You're so fucking self-obsessed; you can't imagine that anything might not be about you, ever— it's always about you, it's like I'm just an extension of your body!"
"That's not what I think," Steve said shakily. "Bucky, I promise, that's not—"
It was like Bucky hadn't even heard him. "I don't belong to you, Steve. Just because you're not Hydra, just because you're Steve Rogers, that doesn't make me yours."
"I know!" Steve shouted, much louder than he'd intended. His breath was hiccuping now. He couldn't control it. He was visibly, humiliatingly, on the brink of tears. "I know you're not! I'm not an idiot; it's obvious; you keep making it really obvious, and I'm sorry that I— " He stood up abruptly, reaching towards the shield. "I'll go," he said. "It's all right; I'll go."
"No— you're right— I'm sorry. I'm sorry." That was the worst part. Bucky was right, he knew; he'd thought of Bucky as something that was his, something of his that he had lost, something he had the right to grieve for, without ever considering if that was what Bucky had wanted. This new version of Bucky, who had different knowledge, who had lived such a long time away from Steve, and whose hopes and dreams he couldn't imagine... He'd asked himself what that Bucky might need, but in the end, he'd thought that he knew the answer. When all along he'd been biased, unforgivably biased, because he couldn't ever stand not to believe— He pushed the heels of his hands against his eyes, trying to keep from crying.
Quietly, Bucky shifted around to his side of the table.
Steve reached out like a child, groping blindly for him: gripping Bucky's shirt, pushing his face to Bucky's shoulder. It was an animal instinct, just to nose against him, breathing wetly at his collarbone-ridge. He should have been hot with shame, but it was the most peaceful he'd felt in years. God, he thought, God, this is it, this is it, and he didn't know what it was— it was what he'd missed, that was all. It was an immense and unbearably tender object that fit inside his unhappiness, and transformed it into an sensible want. It was just what he had wanted. He had wanted this.
He waited for Bucky to push him away. Instead, Bucky touched his head after a minute, ruffling his hair very lightly.
"I'm sorry," Steve said almost inaudibly. "I'm sorry. I know you hate this."
He could feel Bucky sigh. It was a whole-body motion. Even the plates on his metal arm clicked. "Stop," he said. "Stop telling me."
Steve wasn't sure he understood, but he would stay there, he thought, for as long as Bucky let him stay. He felt slightly unhinged, like all of him had come loose and was rattling around, trying to find its place. He shut his eyes. "I'm happy for you," he whispered. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you. I really am. Because I love you. You know that, right?"
Bucky shifted. After a pause, he said, "Yeah. I know, I guess."
His hand was still stroking Steve's hair. "No. I know. It's not... easy."
"I know it's not." He didn't know if he meant for him or for Bucky, that it was hard to be loved or hard to love, that nothing was ever easy for either of them. In any case, he thought, what he'd said was true. He looked up. "I want to—" he said tentatively "Can I...?" He lifted his hand towards Bucky's face, telegraphing the movement.
Bucky was watching him with curious, almost startled eyes. He nodded. Steve touched a palm against his cheek. He ran his thumb along Bucky's cheekbone, just taking account of the shape of him, tracing the lines. He had never done this before, and he found that astounding, that he could touch Bucky in ways he had never touched him, that there could be so much unknown territory to a person. He brushed a finger over Bucky's lips.
Bucky said, "I missed you." He looked taken aback that he'd said it. "But I just couldn't— I had to live my life. But I missed you." The confession felt astonishingly intimate; most of the time, Bucky guarded the interior of himself like a prison. Steve had fought him so long and hard for access; now he thought: that hadn't actually been what he'd wanted. He'd wanted not to have to fight for it.
"I missed you a lot," Steve said. He admitted: "It made me kind of angry. I don't think I really realized."
Bucky said, "You're sort of an idiot sometimes."
"I know," Steve said. "I know. I'm sorry. Is that... Can you live with that?"
Bucky seemed to think for a long moment, looking down. Then he sighed at last, and, stepping closer, laid his head in the cradle of Steve's shoulder. It wasn't a restful pose; Steve thought it cost him to do it. He cupped his hand around the back of Bucky's neck, and brought his other arm up carefully to hold him. It was strange to feel Bucky's unfragile body like something breakable under his hands. It brought that same wash of peace, that sense of recognition. Steve said quietly, "Okay. Good."
They buried the bird out by the road before dawn. The air was just turning an eggshell blue. Of course Bucky had a shovel, and knew how to use it. Steve watched him. The world felt empty for miles, except for the living birdsong in the trees and the dimming hum of cicadas and crickets. He and Bucky, Steve thought, were the only human creatures. He wondered what Bucky made of that feeling. He'd spent so long just struggling to be human again.
He was still thinking about it when they tramped back up the path to the house. He stopped Bucky at the porch steps. "Let me take you to bed," he said, as if the whole thing were that simple.
The circles under Bucky's eyes looked like smudges of dirt, the same color as the dirt on his hands. He said tiredly, "And then what?"
Steve shook his head: he had no answer. "I just want to sleep next to you," he said.
So they went into the house and up the stairs, past the various spots on steps and landings where the sleeping forms of dogs were spread. Steve didn't know what he expected when they got to the third floor. It wasn't that he'd imagined something dark and horrific, all the years of pain on display at last; it was more that he'd thought— here is a closed room. The real embodiment of all those shut doors, a room that he could enter, surely full of secrets. Not only the pain, but the lesser answers. Why bees? Why apples? Why fax machines? Why Hart Crane?
But Bucky opened the door, and it was just a room with a bed. The bedspread was new, and printed with little red owls. There was a postcard from Brighton Beach stuck to the wall, with the cartoon that Steve had drawn next to it, and stacks of books on the floor, and a few cardboard boxes.
"—It's just really hard to unpack," Bucky said.
He had toed off his boots. He stood diffidently, barefoot. He was still in his t-shirt and boxers. Steve loved him. It seemed astonishing that the less he understood about Bucky, the more he managed to love him, but that seemed to be the equation involved.
"Come on," he said. He could hear laughter in his voice. But it wasn't laughter, really. Maybe relief. "We can still get a few hours of sleep before your dogs wake us up."
Bucky curled up next to him on the bed, so they barely touched at knee and shoulder. After a while, he put his hand on Steve's hand, and Steve interlaced their fingers together. Bucky said, "You're sticking around." It was almost a question.
"World not in peril this week?"
"If it is," Steve said gravely, "they can send me a fax."
Bucky wrinkled his nose. "Rude." He sounded more than half-asleep.
Steve felt wrung-out himself, scrubbed-clean and skinless. But he wanted to stay awake just a little longer, just— watching.
He'd said that he wanted to sleep next to Bucky, and he'd had a vague idea that he'd meant wake up. In the moment of waking, there was always a half-instant where his body resisted knowing where it was. Just a brief spine of fear bristling out of the past. And maybe he'd thought of Bucky like an anchor, someone he could cling to, someone who could keep him wherever he was, so that he always knew he'd wake up the same. But that all wrong; that wasn't Bucky. Bucky was running out ahead of him, dragging him on. When they woke up in the morning, he would still be ahead. He would always have been to different places. But he wanted Steve with him, in spite of everything. There was always a moment at the top of the ridge when he paused, waiting for Steve to catch up. Steve needed that. He had a lot of inertia. The past was so huge; it weighed him down, and the future demanded so much of him. He didn't know how Bucky could be so quick-footed. Maybe, he thought, he would learn in time.
His eyes closed. He could hear Bucky breathing. Sleep rose like a current, and he let himself go.