Steven Grant Rogers could feel Death.
Ma said it was a Family Gift she’d brought with her from Ireland. It was strong in her, enough for people to avert their eyes when she looked at them. Growing up, Steve saw men and women both crossing themselves when she passed.
Too pale, too thin.
She drained the life out of her husband, you hear?
It’s no wonder… that poor boy…
Steve had inherited her eyes. Bright, piercing blue.
But Ma wouldn’t teach him the rituals, or the chants. Kept the books, the relics, everything locked away in a trunk under her bed.
“It’s best that you don’t know, Steven.”
She wanted him to have a normal life. As if he could, with his health failing, missing school and superstitious neighbours keeping their kids away from him every time he stepped outside.
She wanted him to be normal. He looked normal, despite being sickly and too small for his age.
Steve wasn’t normal.
Because when little Susie Hanlon cried about her missing cat, Steve knew right away it had been run over two blocks over. When Jimmy O’Toole took a fever Steve knew in his bones he wouldn’t last the night. And when Father McDowell stood, solemn-faced before the congregation, Steve already felt Sister Clara’s absence.
He didn’t let on. Ma would be so disappointed.
And he could feel Death around himself, loosely arranged, like a cape. Through every winter spent shivering in his bed, every asthma attack, every bout of pneumonia and scarlet fever. Sometimes it drew so close it almost strangled him. But it never did, not completely.
He’d be dead before he was thirty, they said. It was a miracle he’d even made it out of childhood. Everyone agreed.
Bucky didn’t, of course.
“Nah, you’re not gonna die, Stevie. Too stubborn to stay down, ya punk. You’d just get back up again.”
Unlike Steve, Bucky was one of those people who radiated Life. He wore it proudly, his own splendid, shining armour, and Steve felt warmer just looking at him.
(They read books together sometimes, when Steve was too sick to get out of bed. All kinds of things, but his favourites were the old Greek myths, the stories of gods, monsters and heroes. He’d never say so, but in his mind Bucky was Helios. He carried the sun with him and it burned the chill of Death away.)
(And perhaps he was Icarus. Waiting to be burned right up too, Gift or Curse or whatever it was and all.)
Then Sarah Rogers started coughing. Steve didn’t need to see the blood in her hands to Know.
When they took her away to the TB ward, Bucky slung an arm around his shoulder and hugged him.
“She’ll be okay, Steve. She’s tough. She’ll get better.”
She didn’t, of course.
After the funeral, Bucky squeezed his shoulder. “I’m with you, Steve. To the end of the line.”
And he’d accepted that. He just hadn’t considered whose it’d be.