Seasons of war
December 2014, West Virginia
The church burned like a torch all through the night and yet the bell kept ringing. Each tremor and crumble of the building shifted the bell tower and the heat of the fire set the bell swinging back and forth in a hair-raising toll. Steve thought: the church was screaming.
All he could do was stare as the flames consumed the church, roaring red behind its long-burst windows. It looked like a bomb had gone off inside.
Sam shook his head. Silhouetted against the flames behind him, the expression on his face was unreadable. Snow fell and settled on his head, reflecting the fire behind him in a flickering halo. "Those bastards stop at nothing."
"No one would expect a Hydra base in a church," Steve said, trying to sound matter-of-fact when all he wanted to do was get out of this place. The burning church should make him feel horrified beyond belief, he felt numb, as if some essential part of him had never left the ice and remained frozen.
"He did," Sam said. He brushed the snow clinging to his eyelashes away. "This is, what, the fourth Hydra base we've discovered following him? How the hell is he finding them so fast?" Sam tisked. "We have the best artificial and human minds helping us out and we're still always a step behind him."
Hydra worked on a networked, but insulated cell system. Each cell only had contact with four other 'true' Hydra cells, though they might run dozens of others. None of those had any contact with each other and only one person linked to Hydra itself. Even Jarvis and Tony's best algorithms were having difficulty predicting where the Hydra cells would be. Taking down their soldiers didn't impact the real Hydra at all. Bucky, though, seemed to have some way of unearthing them. It kept him well ahead of them, sweeping back and forth across North and South America.
"I don't know," Steve said. The only thing he knew was that Bucky wasn't killing people, not even the Hydra soldiers he found in the bases he sacked. People tied up, trussed up like Christmas turkeys, yes, disabled, yes, but never killed. "I don't think it's revenge."
"Then what would you call this?" Sam asked, indicating the steeple burning like a lone torch against the night. The quickening clangor of the bell made it harder to hear him.
Steve didn't answer directly, but thought that maybe it was penance. One thing he was sure of, though. "This wasn't him. He hasn't gone on a destructive rampage so far, Sam, so why would he start now?"
Sam quirked an eyebrow at him. "He's got all the reasons. If he's regaining his memories, he's going have to issues."
Steve shuddered, losing himself in the details of Bucky's file, while still staring at the flames. Bucky would have all the reasons.
"Shit, Steve, move!"
Sam tackled him into the snowbank that the fire hadn't melted away. Above them, the steeple groaned, loud over the roaring crackle of the flames, and listed to the side like it was losing the will to fight. Wood gave, splintered, shrieked. Finally, with a great clangor, still ringing its own elegy, the bell crashed to the ground.
In the silence after, the snow still fell. Gentle.
The transmission in their latest cheap rental car busted between Roanoke and Charleston, stranding them until the company replaced it.
The Motel M in Lewisburg was full up – some sort of family reunion – and only had one twin room left. It was like a bad rom-com. Sam didn't even blink when Steve brought him the news.
"As long as you don't snore," had been his only comment. He disappeared in the bathroom for the next half hour, turning his famed military one-minute shower into a twenty minute one. The walk from the broken down car to town had been damned cold so Steve knew better than to disturb him.
Steve sat on his bed now, propped up on pillows against the headboard with his legs drawn up just enough to support the laptop on his knees. The radiator clicked and in the bathroom, the water still ran. The TV murmured, showing a local newscast, its light reflecting blue off the polished, fake hardwood floor. The hotel room reminded him of the first months in SHIELD's apartment after waking from the ice, when everything was overwhelming and he'd spent his nights learning different languages to keep his mind occupied. French, Russian, Spanish. Anything to stop himself from thinking, from remembering.
The local television channel delivered just enough background noise to drown out the sound of sirens that swelled in his memory whenever he caught a whiff of smoke from his clothes.
During his last stay at Avengers Tower, he'd asked Jarvis to provide him with all and any information he could find on Bucky. Jarvis had been very helpful and they'd followed up every lead Tony's AI had provided. Jarvis had also found some websites people had put together about Bucky after Natasha had dumped what little information on the Winter Soldier there had been in electronic form onto the internet as well. People were on the fence about Bucky, some calling him a mass-murderer, some calling him a POW, and that didn't surprise Steve – it was a discussion he'd had with Sam, too.
There was one site in particular that had videos from people who knew or had met the Commandos during the war. Steve had been going through them one after the other, like a clockwork, each evening. He didn't want to just rely on Jarvis' help, because much as Steve was grateful for that help, Jarvis was a machine. He didn't have Steve's memories and might miss some nuance that was significant to Bucky. If Steve was completely honest with himself, it wasn't just about finding Bucky either. Viewing the videos gave him something to do in the evenings. He kept hoping that, eventually, the feeling of being disconnected from his past, as if the years on ice had put a glacier between him and the person he used to be, would give way. Listening to other people's memories of him had to help. Memories of them. Of then.
Sam stepped out of the bathroom in a billow of steam that fogged up the wide mirror over the vanity and distracted Steve from the laptop.
"Sorry," Sam said. "I think I used up all the hot water."
Steve groaned inwardly, but said, "That's okay. I can shower in the morning."
Sam padded toward his bed barefoot and checked out the TV. "Find anything good?"
"I wasn't really paying attention," Steve admitted.
"Yeah," Steve said.
Sam looked ready to say something, but shook his head instead, exhaling. He started rummaging through his duffel bag with more effort than strictly necessary, though.
From the corner of his eyes, Steve saw Sam's head snap up. "Can you turn that down?"
"Crews are still on site after the shocking fire that burned down the believed-to-be empty Mt. Zion United Methodist church near Hokes Mill earlier this evening. No direct evidence was found yet, but firefighters we spoke with said that it looked like – "
Steve paused the video he'd just been about to start. "What?"
"You have the remote, can you just turn that down?"
"We should keep listening for more news," Steve reasoned. "Maybe we'll catch a lead on Bucky."
"You're not watching."
Natasha's quip from the helicarrier came back to him and he tried to lighten the rapidly souring atmosphere in the room. "I'm multi-tasking."
The smile Steve had been hoping for from Sam didn't come. Instead, Sam pulled a sweatshirt out of his duffel and put on his jeans and boots, then grabbed for his jacket.
Steve chanced a quick look out the gap in the window shades – snow was still falling so heavily, driven by the wind that had only increased in the past hour. He couldn't see the other side of the parking lot. Was Sam actually getting ready to go out? Now? "Where are you – what – ?"
"I'm going to get us something to eat," Sam said as he zipped his jacket. He paused with his hand on the door knob and his back to Steve. "Or maybe I'll just get us enough booze so neither of us will wake up with screaming nightmares tonight. And if you tell me now that that's not a healthy coping mechanism, I might have to punch you."
Steve slid the laptop off his lap and swung his legs over side of the bed to fully look at Sam. "Sam, what's wrong?"
Sam ran a hand over his head and exhaled in a huff. "Just a little allergic to Neo-Nazi Klan bastards burning down a church." He pushed the door open. Immediately, snow drifted inside. "I need some air."
The door fell shut behind Sam before Steve could say another word. He stared at the closed door, and listened to the newscaster switch to the next subject, to the radiator kick in to warm the air, to the wind lash against the door from the outside, Sam's steps going down the outside stairs, and wondered what the hell had just happened.
What had he missed? Was it really just the burned church or was it more? The church had brought back unpleasant memories for Steve – to put it mildly. Sam was a soldier, too, and Steve had assumed the fire reminded him of bombings in war, as well. He’d taken Sam’s silence on the way back as his method of coping, of regaining his foothold in the present as Steve did.
Sam always seemed to know how to do this, to compartmentalize the atrocities he’d witnessed during his service and look ahead. But the fire had kicked something loose inside him that took more than a silent car ride to handle.
Steve didn't get it and hated that. It felt like he was failing Sam as a friend.
His phone vibrated with an incoming message. Steve picked it up and his shoulders relaxed a little when he saw the text from Sam.
Sorry, that was just a little too close to home. It's not you.
Steve closed his eyes. He wanted to kick himself. Nightmares from past wars were bad enough, but the horror of burning churches was not restricted to history or conflicts overseas: Only last month, white supremacists had set fire to a church in Tennessee. Now Sam’s earlier comment about the Klan made sense.
You OK? Steve texted back.
The answer took a few nerve-wracking minutes to come in.
Not right now, but I will be. Nothing a cold beer and some deep-fried food can't fix.
Steve relaxed a fraction. After a moment's consideration, he asked,
Are we OK?
Quit worrying and tell me what to bring you.
Liver and collard greens coming up, then.
Steve laughed and felt a weight slip off his chest. Yeah, Sam was okay. That didn't mean that Steve could just go on assuming that he always would be, though. He'd made that mistake before, hadn't he?
Next to him, his laptop dinged its low battery warning. Steve got up to plug it in. When he sat back on the bed, his gaze fell upon the screen and the website he'd been looking at earlier. He didn't remember a lot of the names listed on the site and the faces were changed by age, but one caught his attention. Joanne Sampson. He clicked the video because something about the woman with her short, ice-grey hair and striking blue eyes looked familiar in a way he couldn't place.
"My name is Joanne Sampson," the woman said. She wore a light grey sweater and scarf in a matching color. Pearl earrings. Her English was very good, but had a slight lilt to it that made it clear that she hadn't been born stateside. She looked uncomfortable in front of the camera and kept rearranging her scarf. "I'm not here to talk about Captain America. Although he was a good, kind man, I'm here to talk about another man under his command – Sergeant James Barnes."
'Joanna Sampson was born Johanna Dittmann,' a caption beneath the woman's image said. Steve's stomach did a weird flip-flop and he stopped the video and stared at the image now frozen on the small laptop screen. The sense of connection he'd wished for, that he'd searched for since waking up, hit him suddenly. His heart beat hard against his ribcage.
Little Johanna. Steve's mind flashed back to the summer of 1944 and the Dittmann's farm in Germany, the scent of blossoming linden trees and elderflower bushes, to fresh cut grass and strawberries warmed by the sun, and a girl with dirty blonde hair and a pretty flush in her cheeks as Bucky had braided her hair. It overjoyed him to see her alive, to see that she survived the war, and at the same time it broke his heart. She had lived her life, while he slept through it all. The little girl was gone.
He pushed the wave of self-pity away and concentrated on Johanna's face, trying to match up the little girl he knew to the woman he saw now.
She wore no make-up Her features held the same kindness that had already been there when she'd been a girl. She looked solid without being heavy-set, someone who would open her arms to you whenever you needed it and shield you from the world but who would also pull your ears whenever you did something your weren't supposed to do.
Johanna looked like her mother; she radiated a mixture of warmth and sternness.. The laughter lines crinkled around her eyes, but the hint of sadness around her mouth dispirited him. What happened to Lise and the rest of the Dittmann family after the Commandos left them? What about Cat, the kitten Johanna's sister had given them before they left the farm? He hadn't asked anyone, hadn't thought of them until now.
A memory of Cat traipsing all over the map table at headquarters and loudly meowing at Phillips until Bucky picked her up, scritched behind her ears and snuck her a bit of the spam from his breakfast sandwich made Steve smile. Peggy had kept giving Steve kitten reports after Bucky fell. Even when he was aboard the Valkyrie. She was the only one who might know what happened to the feline they'd smuggled into England from Germany, if age hadn't stolen that memory from her, and Steve hadn't even thought to ask.
Steve closed his eyes, took a deep breath and shook his head to clear it out. He'd forgotten how much memories could hurt. When he opened his eyes, Johanna's face still filled the laptop screen. He started the video again, curious about what she'd say about Bucky.
The video was fifteen minutes long. Johanna talked about the resistance work her mother had done, about the day the Howling Commandos appeared at their farm. About Bucky. Mostly about Bucky.
"It's strange, you know?" Johanna said in the video and she looked away from the camera in a shy move that Steve remembered only too well. "There were these strangers, talking in a language we didn't understand, and yet we took one look and knew we could trust them. One in particular."
"And who was that, Mrs. Sampson?"
"Sergeant Barnes. Bucky. Uncle Bucky, as my sister quickly came to call him. " Her scarf had slipped and she righted it before continuing. "The trust was immediate, because he was so genuine. Funny, too, but genuinely helpful, sweet and charming. "
Steve felt a rush of warmth for Johanna. She could have made her story all about meeting Captain America. God knew enough people had made money from that. Johanna didn't talk about him at all, though. She'd only had eyes for Bucky, so it made sense that she'd come forward to tell her story when an interviewer had started asking about people who had known Bucky before he became the Winter Soldier. It warmed Steve's heart that she, too, had seen what a good man Bucky had been. Still was, to Steve.
"How was his relationship with his fellow Commandos, could you tell?"
"It was clear Captain Rogers was the leader, but that didn't seem to matter. They all acted like equals and they all clearly cared for one another very much. Sergeant Barnes always kept looking for wherever Captain Rogers would go, though, so I'd say they were the closest. He seemed sad whenever he watched the Captain, though."
"Can you tell us little more about Sergeant Barnes? " the interviewer asked.
"He was such a handsome man, " she said and color crept into her cheeks, while her smile grew apologetic. "You've all seen the pictures, but they really don't do him justice, because when he smiled, it was like… " she trailed off, clearly embarrassed. "Look at me, I'm just the same as I was back then. A silly girl with a crush. " She shook her head and laughed at herself. "But you see, he didn't laugh at me. He was the sweetest person you can imagine, so kind to an awkward, mousy 12 year-old. "
She told the interviewer about Bucky braiding her hair and teaching her how to dance and Steve stopped the video again at an image of her smiling. As if it had just been yesterday, he heard the songs from the freshly repaired radio and felt the sun on his face as he watched Bucky braid Johanna's hair. That had been the last time he saw Bucky smile for real.
Steve contemplated showing the video to Sam. Sam needed to see that there was a Bucky who wasn't the Winter Soldier, that there was someone in there who was worth saving.
He started the video again and within seconds, Johanna's smile slipped. "That was the last day I was happy, " she said. "The last day I smiled for more than two years. "
Steve tensed but forced himself to keep listening. "What happened? "
"My sister, Marie, she'd become friends with Jacques Dernier, " Johanna explained in the video, while an inset image on one side displayed an aged photograph of a younger woman with the caption 'Marie Dittmann died in 1960'. Barely twenty years old. Steve curled his hand around the side of the bed to anchor himself as Johanna continued talking "When we heard the plane land the night the Howling Commandos left, she ran out with the kitten Bucky and Jacques had been playing with that afternoon. I followed her but she refused to give up before she'd said goodbye. She insisted they take the kitten with them. So they did. We stood there until the plane had left. When we got back…"
A hard line appeared around Johanna's mouth and she looked away from the interviewer. Her jaw worked and Steve's hand clenched around the frame of the bed. After a few seconds, Johanna composed herself and looked back at the camera. "When we got back, our farm was swarming with soldiers. Mama had always told us to hide if we saw soldiers with a tentacled skull on their uniforms coming to the farm. I pulled Marie into the barn so they wouldn't see us…" She trailed off again and swallowed a few times. "We heard shots being fired. Then the soldiers came into the barn. I held one hand over Marie's mouth when she tried to scream and the other over my own, yet I was so sure that they'd find us…"
"What happened, Mrs. Sampson?"
"We hid with the kittens under the straw and the mother cat, " Johanna said and laughed. It was a dead sound. "She attacked the soldiers and they shot her. After that, they didn't keep looking. Marie was crying but they thought it was the kittens."
"What happened to your family? " the interviewer asked.
"When Marie and I finally dared to go out we…" Johanna's eyes welled up and something under Steve's grip gave and splintered.
"We found our family. All shot. Mama. Opa. Our brothers. All of them dead. " Johanna wiped a hand over her eyes. "Marie and I were the only ones left. "
No. Steve shook his head and felt his hands begin to shake, the room begin to spin. It couldn't be. Phillips never said… They'd all asked about the Dittmanns after and no one had told them anything.
"For the longest time after, all I could think about was how I was glad that at least the kitten survived." Johanna looked directly into the camera now. "Jacques and Bucky having the kitten was my consolation. Isn't that insane? "
"Do you blame the Howling Commandos for what happened to your family? "
Johanna laughed. "God, no," she said. "I just told you that we were all happy that day, didn't I?"
"It just seems like such a coincidence …"
"It would have happened whether the Commandos came to the farm or not, " Johanna said with a set conviction in her voice.
"How can you be so sure? "
She looked at the interviewer as if she questioned his intellect. "I overheard the soldiers searching the barn talking and they weren't searching for Captain America or soldiers specifically. My mother had been betrayed by someone else in the network, someone Hydra had tortured until they broke and gave my mother away. They decided to eradicate the family root and branch." She shivered. "I guess two little girls didn't seem all that dangerous to them, so they didn't spend too much time searching for us." A wry twist appeared around her mouth. "Got to love it when misogyny actually works in favour of women for once, don't you?"
The video kept playing, but Steve couldn't look at it anymore. The clock on the wall ticked too loud and the mini-fridge hummed like an angry wasp. His heartbeat was loud in his own ears. Loud and hatefully alive.
They could have saved them, he thought. If they hadn't left that night, if they had stayed just a few hours longer, they could have saved the entire family. Instead, they left the Dittmanns behind to be slaughtered.
His stomach heaved and he had to run to the bathroom where he brought up everything he had eaten that day. The guilt tried to consume him as he remembered Lise Dittmann's kind eyes and strong hands, Bernhardt's sly smile, and the boys' flushed and excited cheeks as they looked at Monty's skin mag, little Marie and her kittens, and Bucky, braiding the flowers into Johanna's hair.
When his stomach finally settled, he decided to get on the phone with Pepper first thing in the morning. He would ask her to get Stark Industry's lawyers to take the video down so Bucky would never find out. He didn’t go back to the video either, but he looked up Johanna and Marie, which was how he found out that Marie committed suicide in her twenties and that Johanna had two children. Her daughter, Lise Marie Sampson, was now fifty years old. Her son, named Michael Buchanan Sampson was fifty-five. His nickname was Bucky.
For the first night since finding out that Bucky was still alive that Steve cried himself to sleep.
He didn't hear Sam come in and Sam didn't wake him.
The air smells of pines, dry moss and summer. Coming out of a forest, he walks toward a small lake, not quite a mile long. The water is calm, a perfect mirror for the intense indigo of the sky.
An old piece of thick rope with a knot at its end dangles from the overhanging branch of a tree. It swings even though there's no wind. Faraway laughter drifts over the lake, a sigh, a whisper, "I'm here, this is real." He leans forward, sees his own reflection looking at him, younger, so much more innocent. There's a face reflected in the water behind him, but he can't make it out as raindrops begin to plop little craters into the surface, rippling away into nothing a second later.
When he looks up, the horizon boils with dark clouds. Lightning flickers and behind it, thunder cracks louder than artillery bombardment.
One word in the silence after. "Remember." He knows that voice, turns –
Everything flares white as a lightning strike hits, so close the electricity makes every hair on his body vibrate, the thunderclap deafening and immediate. The bright, blinding after-glare makes him blink –
In the morning, Steve called Pepper from the motel's still-empty breakfast room.
"No," she said after listening to his demand. It was kind yet firm. On another day, he'd have appreciated the bluntness, because Tony had told him that Pepper might be silver-tongued around executives and business people, but she made a point to be frank with the people she considered closest to her. Today, all he wanted was for her to agree with him and do as he asked her. Not for himself. For Bucky.
"He's regaining his memories, Pepper. Slowly but surely, it'll come back to him. And then he'll do just what I did – look himself up, to find out as much as possible to help him jog his memories. When he finds out about this, he'll – "
"Steve," her voice was reasonable, sad. Indulgent, he thought. He hated it. "Tell me something: do you really want to warp his reality? After everything that Hydra did?"
Something cold trickled down Steve's back as he contemplated this. Still. He shook his head, clearing the doubt that began to creep up. He knew Bucky, he knew what finding out about this would do to him. "You don't understand, this will kill him."
"Will it?" Pepper sighed. It created a loud, crackling noise in the line. "I know the video in question, Steve. And while, yes, what happened after that day is horrifying beyond measure, the main thing I took from it was the happy memory of a good day, the memory of a woman who was glad to know your friend and who admired him as someone of value besides being Captain America's second-in-command. She saw him as a person. A person she fell a little bit in love with." He heard her smile. There was a pause, then Pepper said, the smile gone from her voice, "The memory of him and that day helped her get through the horrors she faced. Is that something you want him not to find?"
"Think about it, Steve. Do you really know what it'll do to him, or are you afraid of what it'll do to you when he finds out about it?"
When Sam came down to the breakfast room, Steve was staring into some kind of cereal that he'd been stirring for the better part of twenty minutes. The complimentary continental breakfast, with its brown-spotted bananas, burnt coffee, soggy pancakes and scrambled eggs, depressed him. The mini-boxes of cereals at least were meant to sit until the contents were eaten.
"Hey, man," Sam greeted him. "Replacement car's been dropped off. We're good to go."
Steve nodded and kept stirring. "M-hm."
"Roads should be cleared by now, so we can leave when you're ready."
Steve nodded again and changed his stirring motion from clockwise to counter-clockwise. Pepper’s voice ran on an infinite loop in his head. He couldn’t make peace with her advice, much less figure out whether he agreed with her. If what she had said really was true… Was he really more afraid of finding out what it would do to him when or if Bucky found out about the video?
"Also, I spotted a Yeti outside," Sam said. "Dancing the conga."
Steve looked up with a frown. "What?"
"Did you hear anything I said before?"
"Sorry." Steve let an apologetic smile flash across his face. "I was thinking."
"Really?" Sam asked, smirking. "Could have fooled me."
Sam's sarcasm was gentle, not cruel and somehow, it made Steve breathe a little easier. No hard feelings between them because of the night before.
"I'd ask you how you slept, but I have a feeling that it would be a stupid question."
Sam added a thin stream of maple syrup to his pancakes.
Steve barely bit back on a snort of bitter amusement. "Whatever gave you that idea?"
"Educated guess." Sam used his fork to cut his pancakes into small triangles before thoroughly dipping them in the syrup. Watching him was meditative.
"Just so you know, you're not getting behind the wheel until you've had a proper night's sleep and fed that super soldier metabolism more than some Frosted Flakes. You sacked out and skipped dinner."
Steve snapped his gaze up to Sam's face. "It's a seventeen hour drive." He'd calculated it after Jarvis provided their newest lead and the most efficient route there.
"Exactly the reason I'm not going to let you drive if you're not up to it."
"Sam, I don't – "
"Don't give me the super soldier shtick, even you need sleep."
Steve shrugged. "Not much."
"So you do admit that you need some. Which is more than what you've been getting in the past few nights."
"I don't really have a way of winning this argument, do I?"
"Nope," Sam said with a cheerful smile and shoveled a forkful of pancakes into his mouth. Sam seemed a lot better this morning, and Steve envied him that.
He looked at the disgusting-looking mush of soaked cereal in his bowl and realized he was hungry. Maybe they could get some burgers on the way out of town.
He knew he should be packing. Sam was down in the lobby settling the bill and would be back soon, but Pepper's words kept coming back to distract him, questioning how reliable his memory, his assessment of his relationship to Bucky, was. Maybe if he looked at Johanna's video again, he'd find some answers.
"Sergeant Barnes always kept looking for wherever Captain Rogers would go, though, so I'd say they were the closest. He seemed sad whenever he watched the Captain, though. "
Johanna had been an outsider. She'd been the one watching Bucky, not him. When she said Bucky looked sad, then she had seen something Steve hadn't. The thought gnawed at him and wouldn't let go. How much had he seen because he wanted to see it? How much had he missed because he hadn't been looking? Because he hadn't wanted to see? How much of what had been in front of him had he missed between getting Bucky out of that lab in Austria and Bucky's fall?
He rewound the video to watch it from the beginning again, looking for clues he might have missed.
"He seemed sad whenever he watched the Captain, though. "
Sad. Why sad? This had been the summer of '44, prior to the lake, prior to the chateau. What reason did Bucky have to be sad? He'd been happy at that farm. The word from his dream floated back: Remember. Remember what?
"It's not going to change the fifth time around," Sam said from behind him, making Steve flinch.
Sam was leaning against the doorframe, his bag slung over his shoulder. Steve hadn't even heard him come in.
"She made him smile," Steve said.
Bucky never smiled like that again, except that night at the chateau –
He wiped a hand over his face. He couldn't let himself think of that time. It hurt too much. He'd lost Bucky, and now, thanks to this video, Steve was beginning to wonder whether he'd lost Bucky even before Bucky fell. Bucky in the chateau, had he already been a stranger, someone Steve only thought he knew better than himself? He should have looked closer.
He seemed sad whenever he watched the Captain.
"You ready?" Sam asked.
Steve stared at Johanna's face, frozen on the screen, smiling a young girl's smile in an old woman's face.
He closed the laptop's lid.
"Yeah," he lied. "I'm ready."
Seventeen hours from Lewisburg to Duluth.
With Sam driving along another long stretch of I-90 West, stubbornly refusing to let Steve take over, Steve had more time to think than he wanted.
The flatness of the Great Plains in winter got to him. It was so different from the East Coast with its cities and towns nestled together close enough it became difficult to tell where one started and another ended sometimes.
Europe had been different, especially in the Forties. Forests and mountains all around them and the scent of pine needles in the air. Clouds hanging low, especially in England, pressing down and closing the world in.
The plains ran on and on, white and barren and disappearing into the pale sky, giving his eyes and his mind nothing to hold on to except memories of other winters. Looking out the passenger side window at the white nothingness gliding past them, his mind returned to Johanna's video, whirling doubt, happiness, shame, homesickness for a time long gone, and horror into a nauseating miasma.
Sam reached for the radio, and Steve realized that he was being a horrible travel companion. He hadn't talked since they left the motel.
"Sorry," he said.
"I'm not a stranger to you brooding, buddy," Sam said with a smile. There wasn't any bitterness in Sam's voice, and Steve found himself appreciating Sam even more than he already did. Even shouldering all of his own problems and issues, Sam got it. He understood the need to just be silent sometimes and not fill every moment with chatter the way that Tony often did.
The radio came to life in mid-verse of a song.
And my tears like withered leaves will fall.
But spring could bring some glad tomorrow,
and, darling, we could be happy after all.
As it is in nature's plan,
no season gets the upper hand.
"I'll definitely get the upper hand here," Sam said and reached for the skip channel button. "I should have known that the first thing we'd find in the middle of nowhere would be a country station."
Steve stopped Sam's hand in mid-move. "Wait."
Sam pulled his hand back but despite the fact that Sam was driving, Steve still felt his surprised gaze on him. "Seriously? Don't tell me you like Country."
Steve shrugged. "Not particularly." Country had been around back in the Forties as well, and he'd never been a big fan. But this song… Something about the lyrics made him listen.
"Then just let me change the station," Sam said with an uncharacteristic whine in his voice.
"Just this one," Steve pleaded. "Okay?"
"Fine," Sam grumbled. "But if you turn out to be a Country fan after all, we're taking separate cars from now on."
As promised, Steve let Sam change the station once he'd heard the name of the song. Seasons of My Heart. He wasn't going to get into a fight over which music to listen to and anyway, Sam quickly settled on NPR, one of Steve's favorites. Today’s subject was a debate over whether the FDA should force manufacturers to phase out all trans fats.
Steve tried to listen but his attention kept slipping away. The song's lyrics floated in his mind. Eventually, he got out his phone and tried to locate it on Stark Sounds. By the time they pulled into a gas station to fill up the tank, he'd downloaded fifteen cover versions.
When he came back from the restroom, Sam took a look at the Stark Sounds logo on Steve's phone screen and asked, "Got us some better music?"
Steve held out his phone and Sam groaned as he scrolled through the songs Steve had on it. "Is this an old man thing, listening to the same thing over and over again?" he asked with a half-smile.
"Ask me again when I am one," Steve volleyed back.
Sam barked a surprised laugh. "Touché" He clapped his hand on Steve's back. "If you're going to listen to all of these, do me a favour and wear ear buds. I'm not masochistic enough for this, even if you are."
That was only fair. "You got it," Steve acknowledged.
Earbuds in, he went through version after version, held captive by the verses but hating the music more and more until he found one, near the very bottom of the list that was completely different in style. Less annoyingly country and instead warm, gentle and almost blues-like.
Steve leaned his head against the window, the glass cold against his temple, and watched the long line of wire fence separating the shoulder of the highway from the snow smothered land. Not even a stump interrupted the flat expanse. He was reminded of the ocean.
Through the earbuds, the singer's low voice sounded intimate, like she was performing just for him. Steve thought of the strings of a violin in a London pub, the tinkling of a piano in France, of Lise Dittmann humming along to the radio Morita had repaired. And then, as if the singer was mocking him, came that damned verse.
But spring could bring some glad tomorrow.
And, darling, we could be happy after all.
If Bucky hadn't fallen, if Steve hadn't crashed the Valkyrie into the ice… how happy could he or Bucky ever have been?
Nothing had turned out how Steve had meant for it to be. He'd planned on going home with Bucky after the war. But could he have? Could they have? Or had it been a pipe dream, had Bucky been too far gone to ever return from the war?
Johanna had said Bucky was sad. Sad. Bucky had been sad when he looked at Steve. How had he missed that? What did it even mean?
Experience, the song said. Experience. Wasn't that the lynchpin? Experience had told him that he knew Bucky. The more Steve thought about Pepper and Johanna's words, the more he wondered how often he had failed to see the real Bucky. Looking back, he wondered if Morita and Monty and Peggy had tried to tell him and he hadn't listened. If he had, could he have changed anything?
The seasons come, the seasons go…
He sank into his thoughts and memories, recalling times of peace and times of war, trying to find the moment when he stopped looking. The moment when he really lost Bucky.