In the Carcass of the World
Author's Note: Based on art by Puckboum for the Captain America Reverse Big Bang. The prompt: "Post-apocalyptic AU. The idea I had while drawing was that the end of the world happens some time after WS or CW, Steve and Bucky are looking for Tony so he can make a new arm for Bucky, and Natasha, Clint and Sam are looking for them so they can stop Hydra from taking control of what's left of society. That or quiet slice of life, except in a post-apo world."
Thanks to lim for heavy lifting in beta and for inspiring me, really, with thoughts of ancient Roman ruins; lim also inspired the title. Thanks too to Monicawoe for cheerleading and for some crucial beta interventions and also for laughing at my jokes, and thank you lastly to Alby for the final polish and for organizing this whole wonderful thing along with the other mods.
Puck, I hope this is the sorta-kinda-thing you wanted, and thank you for your inspiring art: you created such wonderful snapshots of this possible post-apocalyptic world.
On the day the world ends, Steve Rogers is in an impregnable cell seventeen stories below Washington, DC. He doesn't even know the world's ended, only that the lights of his cell have flickered and gone out. And nobody brings him food that day, or the next. His cell has running water, which is something, but after three days without food Steve's unease becomes a quiet, lurching terror, because it becomes all too easy to believe that he's been abandoned down here; that he's going to die down here, again: alone in a box of steel instead of ice.
He realizes something else too, there in the dark: that he no longer hears the soft hum of the air pumps. It makes him want to suck in all the air he can, but he makes himself lie down on his bunk and breathe normally. His chest tightens and burns, but he knows that's all in his mind. Suffocation doesn't work like that—but asthma does, and Steve swallows around the lump of hard irony. He's going to go out the way he came in: weak and gasping for breath.
He's drifting in and out of consciousness when he becomes aware of a faraway explosion, then banging, the shriek and grinding of metal. Steve pushes up on his elbows and tries to focus: he wants to be ready for what's coming. But he slips down, the sounds falling away.
When he next opens his eyes there is a shaft of bright light. He closes them again, orange burning his eyelids. The door, he thinks muzzily—someone's sawing through: and behind the white he can see thin metal shards curving up, like someone's using a giant can opener to cut a hole in the door. And then something comes down over his face, his nose and mouth, and he gasps, panicked, smothering. He flails, lurching up. But his head is clearing, the pain receding. The Winter Soldier looms over him, a faceless nightmare: goggles with gray lenses, black face mask, long dark hair hanging down.
"Steve?" and Steve lies back and breathes in deep, because this is an oxygen mask on his face; because this is Bucky Barnes come to rescue him. Bucky seems to realize his confusion at the same instant, because he lets go of the mask and reaches up to shove his goggles onto his forehead. His eyes are gray-blue, concerned: bloodshot. "It's me."
Steve manages to grab a hold of the mask to keep it in place, so that Bucky doesn't have to. Bucky doesn't have the hand to spare: he's still only got the one arm. He's got his supplies in a pack, like a sling, affixed to his left side where he can reach across his body for them; his weapons are holstered beneath his right hand. He's also wearing some kind of harness with the rope still attached: the cord goes out through the jagged metal hole in the door. But the more Steve looks at him, the stranger he seems: Bucky's covered with dust, and his clothes and supplies seem makeshift, somehow; scavenged from here and there.
Steve takes another few deep breaths and then pushes up. "What," he begins, but his voice cracks, his throat dry. Bucky reaches into the sling at his side and pulls out a canteen. Steve accepts it and lifts the mask to take a quick swig; it's nearly empty, he realizes.
"There's water here," Steve tells him, because this suddenly seems like an important thing to say; an important thing, full stop. "The tap—it was running the last time I checked, anyway."
"Good," Bucky replies, and something flashes between them. Steve is getting it, and Bucky can see that he's getting it, slowly, in stages; that this is a disaster. "We'll fill up before we go."
Steve moves to take the oxygen mask off, but Bucky shakes his head and says, his voice filtered through his own mask, "There's a strap," so Steve straps the mask on—and of course this is why Bucky's reverted to his Winter Soldier gear. There's bad air. And no water. Dust.
"Bucky, what's happened?" and there's hardly any of Bucky's face visible, but Steve knows him better than he knows himself and he can see a sudden shine to Bucky's bloodshot eyes before he tugs the goggles down and becomes faceless again; blank.
"Nothing I could stop," and he's become the Winter Soldier again, harder than Bucky ever was. "I tried, but I'm not you. They got what they deserved, locking you down here."
Steve's worst fears are coalescing into a hard knot in his stomach. "Bucky, what happened ?"
"Everything happened," the Winter Soldier says flatly. "Everything," but then there's a sigh and then Bucky's voice comes out of the Winter Soldier's mask; sympathetic but resigned. "Take it slow; you don't want this all at once, pal," he says. "But it's nothing you haven't seen before. It's just the war again. You remember the war," and Holy Christ, yes, he certainly does.
The Winter Soldier moves into the corner of his cell, the cord on his back trailing behind him like spider silk. Steve thinks suddenly of Natasha, who had the good sense to go underground at the first sign of superhero roundups. She's alive somewhere, Steve is sure of it; Natasha's like Bucky: cagey, pragmatic, hard to kill. Meanwhile Bucky's at the tap, which is now trickling rather than streaming. He slurps thirstily from his cupped right hand, then washes. Finally, he fills the canteens: turns out he's got a second one, collapsed, in the sling.
Finally Bucky turns and looks Steve over with disapproval: Steve is wearing only his prison scrubs: he's got no armor, no boots. "I don't suppose you know where your gear is," he asks hopelessly, but this time, at least, Steve's got good news: "I do, actually. It's outside, in a cabinet: they like to bring it to me as part of their negotiations." He smiles, thinly, tasting his bitterness. "They think I care about the suit and the flag and the shield," he said.
"Well, they don't think shit anymore," and that's Bucky's dark humor, of old. "They're all dead."
The news shudders up his spine; he knows that this is Bucky's way of getting him used to their new reality. You don't want this all at once, pal. So he lets it pass and keeps on talking: "I've thrown that shield away—I don't know how many times. Must be five or six times," he says.
"They never were very smart," Bucky says, and then: "Come on," and he's climbing back through the ragged metal hole in the door. Steve follows down the corridor. The walls are blue green metal on both sides; it's a straight shot from his door to the elevator at the end of the hall, a cattle chute picked out in dim LEDs. His cell is the only one on this block.
"I don't see any cabinet," Bucky says, but Steve pulls the little ring in the wall that opens the cover over the electric lock. Normally it glows; now it's dark. Bucky nods grimly and pulls out a tool very like the can opener that Steve had imagined. He pierces the door and wrenches the metal back, working the tool one handed, expertly—he's clearly done this many times, and Steve flashes back to the army, at how good they all got with their P-38 can openers. There are three Captain America suits inside: he takes the dark blue one, which is most like his Nomad gear, and the shield, his old friend.
While Steve suits up, Bucky goes to the elevator doors, which have buckled after being wrenched apart. They open only onto the empty elevator shaft. Bucky fiddles with the cord that's attached to his back, and Steve suddenly understands that Bucky has rappelled down here and that they're going to have to climb their way out.
"Going my way?" Steve asks; he doesn't insult Bucky by asking whether the rig is secure.
Bucky plants his feet and pulls a bit of slack out of the cord. "Apres toi," he says.
When he gets near the top he follows the light—or at least he thinks it's the light. He screws up his eyes: the air has a weird quality up here and it's a strange color: brownish. Loaded with particulates, he realizes a moment later, and he's grateful again for the mask Bucky's brought him. He swings out into an empty corridor, and waits; a moment later Bucky's scrambling out beside him. Bucky takes the lead, and Steve follows—he's never been here before, because they brought him in unconscious; tranquilized. Now he sees that it's just another anonymous government building, though the security desks are empty; the information booth: empty.
When they reach the enormous lobby, it's empty, too, and the gray granite floor is dusty and covered with broken glass. One wall is gone, and the three revolving doors stand there with jagged shards hanging or spiderwebbed cracks. The girders are bent into strange shapes.
Outside in the piazza, Steve stops, his eyes stinging from the crap in the air—or it is seeing the white stone buildings reduced to rubble, the cracked columns, the cratered dome of the U.S. Capitol building. The wind howls through the broken shells, and this doesn't feel like Washington in the 21st century—this feels like France in 1945.
Steve stands there for a long time. Beside him, the Winter Soldier stands like a dark shadow.
"Where is everyone?" Steve manages finally. "Is anyone alive?"
The Winter Soldier's mask turns to survey the rubble. "In the west," he says. "Only enhanced people and inhumans survived within the first ring. Everyone else was—I don't know. Vaporized. Burned out, like everything else on the electrical grid," and something about his tone of voice makes Steve realize, for the first time since discovering that Bucky was the Winter Soldier, that being the Winter Soldier is maybe a comfort to Bucky, a protective shell; armor. "Like those Hydra weapons we saw in '43."
"So why are we alive?" Steve asks, and it's Bucky who laughs.
"Well, that's always the question, now, ain't it?" he drawls, and then Steve has to laugh, too.
They walk northwest out of DC, taking one old road after another: the Georgetown Pike, the Leesburg Pike, the Washington & Old Dominion Trail. They cross into Virginia and keep going, moving through the ravaging wind and the thick brown air. It's less awful seeing absolutely no one out in the wilderness; they see no other human beings at all.
Except that's not entirely true. Steve thinks, after a while, that he sees—not people, but the signs of people: enhanced people, to be exact. Things abandoned when their owners vanished are lying all around, but they seem to Steve to be subtly pointing in one direction—west, the direction they're going—like a strong wind blew through here. Or maybe Luke Cage. Or the Hulk. The 1933 Handbook for Boys had a chapter on tracking: seeing broken branches in the forest, leaves all bent in the same direction. Totally useless information for Brooklyn, though he and Buck made some use of it during the war, but he really gets it now.
Bucky's seeing it too; he's moving down the trail with the kind of keen, focused attention that he had during the war, even before he became the Winter Soldier—like a pointer, a gun dog. Still, it's Steve who sees it first, though only just: a red circle with a white dot in the center, freshly spraypainted on the side of an old farmhouse. They stop in the road to stare at it.
"A target?" the Winter Soldier mutters, but Steve shakes his head.
"No. It's—a shield, I think," he replies, and feels a glimmer of hope for the first time since he felt the dart hit his neck and woke up in a white cube deep underground.
The next shield they see has been spraypainted on the trailer of an abandoned truck, and the one after that is on the side of a church: the tallest building in the town: Royalton, West Virginia, population 621. But it's all eerily empty: the town square with its World War One memorial and its dry fountain; the church; the ice cream shoppe; the drug store and the town hall.
"We should stop here," the Winter Soldier says, looking around critically. "Eat and rest up."
"I can go on a bit further," Steve says, and feels stupid a second later. The Winter Soldier somehow manages to tilt his head in a way that conveys sarcasm, and then he yanks off his goggles and he's Bucky again.
"Yeah," Bucky says, "but we shouldn't. Once we get beyond the first ring there might be horses, or maybe an old Jeep or a motorcycle, but there might be trouble, too. So we'd better eat and rest up so we're ready for—whatever it is." The grocery store is in disarray—there'd obviously been panic before the blast hit—but there are still cans of tinned fish and beans and fruit and plastic-wrapped packages of Drake's Cakes on the shelves. No bottled water or bread, but there's warm Coca-Cola in the dark refrigerator case and Steve grabs a couple of plastic magnums, remembering how Bucky'd first bought him one of the small, heavy glass bottles from Irwin's Confectioners in what had to be 1938: it had been such a luxury.
They cross the empty street and go up the iron-trellised porch into the ROYALTON HOTEL, whose door opens onto a homey looking lobby and enough relatively clean and breathable air that they can take off their masks. "Five stars," Bucky says wryly as Steve goes behind the desk and pulls a key from the rack: sentimentally, he chooses 4F before his eye lands on the tag that says Honeymoon Suite. Meanwhile Bucky is studying an old photograph on the wall—"There used to be a stagecoach stopped here," he tells Steve, turning—and then his attention is caught by the tag on the key Steve holds up, and his mouth curves.
It ends up being a good call, though, because the honeymoon suite has a living room with a table and chairs and a kitchenette, and so they're able to set to their meal of tuna fish and canned beans and Coca-Cola in relatively civilized circumstances. Bucky's still managing to do everything one-armed, so Steve watches him warily but says nothing, though he's curious.
In the end he approaches the subject sideways. "You came back for me," Steve says finally. It's a conversation starter, more than anything, because it's something he knows in his bones.
Bucky, still chewing, nods at this. "As soon as I could," he said. "They woke me to tell me. Hardest part was getting them to let me out of Wakanda; they've pulled the bridge up, you know," and then, like he hears himself, Bucky frowns and says: "I guess you wouldn't know."
"I didn't know," Steve says, but he's not surprised; T'Challa's first concern is Wakanda, always.
"He did his best," Bucky says defensively, though Steve hasn't said a word against T'Challa and never would. Bucky's loyalty to the king is intense, because T'Challa was the first person to forgive him. "He warned them, told them they were doing wrong by you—all of you," and the anger rises to flood Bucky's face. "Sam. Natasha. Wanda," and then Bucky abruptly shifts into a dead-accurate imitation of T'Challa's accent: "'Why would you imprison your nation's finest warriors? Why cage those willing to fight to the death for your freedom?'" and then, back in his own voice, Flatbush Avenue 1932: "He goddamned told them but they wouldn't listen."
Steve nods distantly, biting his tongue; prison has cured him of the idea that the American government cares about freedom. People do, sometimes. Not nearly often enough.
He looks at Bucky frankly now. "I thought he would have helped you with your arm, though. Armed you," Steve adds, making a face. "Ha ha."
Bucky's lips twist in wry appreciation of the joke. "Oh, he did," he tells Steve. "It broke. Fried along with everything else." He shrugged his left shoulder. "I had to take it off."
Steve sits up fast; he hadn't quite realized— "You were here already. You survived the blast."
Bucky ponders this for a long moment. "You know, pal, " he says finally, and a little wonderingly, "I think I've survived everything."
It's dark by time they finish eating; really dark—no streetlights, no car lights from outside. When they were kids, they sometimes lived like this—getting up with the sun and going to bed with the dark, to save on electricity. It's familiar, the way that stripping down and getting ready for bed with Bucky is familiar—the only thing not familiar is the room's enormous bed, a king size, which in Steve's view could easily fit a family of six.
Still, instinctively, he and Bucky slide together on one side of the bed, because sleeping entangled with another warm body is a luxury they learned to appreciate as children. Bucky's body has always been a comfort to him and a shield against cold, and sex with Bucky one of life's few free pleasures—a gift. So when Bucky noses his ear, Steve reaches down to grasp his cock, and then they're kissing and tumbling together like always, cocks sliding against each other, Bucky's tongue in his mouth—love, even here at the end of the world.
Steve moves, groggily, when the sunlight strikes his face. Bucky is pale in the cold morning light, naked and scarred and unbalanced by his missing arm; partial, a chipped glass. It makes Steve want him to put on his Winter Soldier gear again: armored plates and protective goggles. When Steve moves to get up, Bucky tugs him back down and tightens his arm around him. "Ten more minutes," Bucky mutters into his ear, and Steve realizes that this is the upside of being the only people alive in this circle: Bucky's senses are perceiving no threat, so he's relaxed for the first time since—1943, probably. So Steve says "Sure, Buck," and sinks back and closes his eyes; because what's the rush, anyway?
Over a breakfast of canned salmon and peaches they have their first talk about the future. "I assume you want to get the hell out of the first circle," Steve says, and Bucky nods grimly, "but then what? Wakanda, I guess, if we can get there and they'll have us," and the truth is he wouldn't mind retiring in Wakanda at all: the place is a paradise, and he's about ready for paradise. "Or we could maybe..." and this is the part that makes his throat close, but he has to say it. "You know. Just find a place, you and me, because—" and he does choke on the rest of it: because all I need is you and there's enough of everything now that everyone is dead and we can live in the carcass of the world and I don't care; I don't care, Buck.
But Bucky leans back and looks at him with an expression that reminds Steve that Bucky knows him better than he knows himself. "What, like a cabin somewhere?" and the way Bucky says it both makes Steve want to laugh and also makes him strangely, deeply furious.
"Sure," Steve grits out. "Why not? We could—build things. Scavenge. We've been on our own before—hell, our whole lives, we—"
"Steve, you've never been able to stay out of other people's business for two fucking minutes!" Bucky says, sounding amused and exasperated both. "We'd made it to goddamned paradise and you had a price on your head and you still had to come back and get your stupid ass arrested," and that shuts Steve up for minute, because it's true: it's not Bucky who'd have trouble dropping off the map. Bucky would no doubt be willing to end his days in a shack in the middle of nowhere; he'd been prepared to spend the rest of his life in cryofreeze, after all, for a little peace of mind.
No, it's him; he's the problem here. And somehow this makes him even angrier. "Yeah, well, maybe I've finally wised up," Steve snarls, feeling savage inside. "Maybe I've been punched in the face enough times that I've finally learned my goddamned lesson," and then he has to look away, because Bucky's face has changed into something so pained and fond and disbelieving that Steve suddenly can't bear it. The Winter Soldier shouldn't look like that.
They don't say anything for a long time. Bucky goes back to eating peaches. "We should keep heading west," Bucky says finally. "Anyone alive will be in the west. And they'll need you."
"Yeah," Steve says, resigned. Sometimes a person can be their own prison. "Okay."
On the road in Kentucky they see three shields with arrows pointing west. On the fourth sign, a different symbol: a black skull with legs curving out of it, and beneath it, the word: ORDER.
The Winter Soldier stares at it impassively; Bucky's put his goggles and mask back on. Steve stares at it, his blood rising: he should have realized that, whatever else this was, it would be an opportunity for Hydra. Order was their business, and that might be tempting—maybe even seductive—to the frightened survivors here at the end of the world.
Steve turns to Bucky. "We've got to get west," he says, and he can't actually see Bucky rolling his eyes behind his goggles, but knows that he is.
"Uh-huh," Bucky replies.
As they walk Steve realizes that the ground around them is brightening, coloring in. The dirt brown haze lifts, and then over the next hill there are horses: a whole herd of them, placidly grazing and drinking from what seems like a clear stream. Steve grins at Bucky and then the two of them are running across the meadow toward the water, the horses startled and neighing as they skid down the bank, dropping their gear. Bucky yanks his mask and goggles off, and Steve tugs off the scarf protecting his nose and mouth from the dust—and then they are splashing water onto their faces, into their dry mouths. Steve scoops water onto his head, through his hair, feels it trickling down his neck—but that's not enough. Bucky's already worming out of his salvaged jacket and tunic, shoving his pants down his hips, so Steve shucks his uniform and throws it onto the bank before jumping into the cool water—and then it's like Coney Island all over again.
When they come out they are exhausted, happy, and shivering, and so they go to kip in the nearest farmhouse—which miraculously, has been abandoned by its non-vaporized owners, who have left a sign on the door: GONE WEST. The electricity is off but everything else in here seems normal enough—in fact, they feel like interlopers sitting in the homey kitchen with its carved wood ducks and pale blue curtains, eating their way through the larder: cold canned ravioli and string beans and pineapple. Afterwards, Steve goes out and builds a fire outside and they make coffee in a saucepan and drink it as the sun goes down. They sleep on the enormous plaid sofas in the den and in the morning they go through the house methodically for supplies—food, tools, and the two rifles left in the locked gun cabinet.
They'd planned to try to saddle and ride the horses—they'd learned to do that under fire in France—but then Steve finds a beat up old motorcycle in the back of the stable: an Indian, entirely mechanical, with no computerized parts. It starts up and the engine purrs.
"You and your motorcycles," Bucky says.
But they go a hell of a lot faster now, fast enough to figure the pattern: spray painted shields periodically following the road west, and the Hydra sigil when they intersect roads going north. ORDER, the signs read, or JOIN THE ORDER, and then, horrifyingly, at an intersection in the Great Plains, there is a woman's body strung up, hung up from a streetlight. The block lettered sign beneath her reads—
RESPECT PRIVATE PROPERTY
—and Steve, sick with rage, shouts, "That's crazy! That's fucking—What the hell does looting even mean at a time like this, when everyone's dead—" and Bucky's opened his mouth to answer, but Steve can't stop to listen: this anger's a poison and hurling it out is the only way he's going to survive, "—and it's not even tactical! They're trying to get people to come north: what kind of a sales pitch is that ?" And among the things sickening him is the death of any dream he had of staying out of this, because right now all he wants to do is head north to fight.
"A good one," Bucky says flatly. "Property rights, domination over women, hierarchy and violence. But we're going that way," he adds, pointing a hundred meters up the road to where Steve can see the red and white of a hastily painted shield. "Your way," and thank God it is.
He has a moment of doubt though when Bucky, behind him on the motorcycle, puts his mouth to Steve's ear and mutters, "Slow down," and pulls his rifle off his back. One-armed, Bucky can't hold onto Steve and aim at the same time, but he tightens his thighs around Steve's hips and smoothly lays the gun over Steve's shoulder as Steve ducks behind the shield, strapped to the handlebars; a move they perfected during the war. A moment later Steve gets the tingly feeling of being watched from somewhere higher up in the mountains, behind a boulder or craggy tree.
A hoarse voice yells, "Drop your weapon!" which is not gonna happen. Steve feels the nudge of Bucky's knees and speeds up to attack. A moment later an arrow thunks dead-center into his shield—a warning shot—and then it seems to sink in on all of them at the same time.
"Holy shit!" the voice shouts even as Steve abruptly swerves to a stop, churning up dirt and gravel, and then he's leaping off the bike and running to meet Clint Barton, who is skidding this way and that as he runs down the mountain trail, grinning and waving his arms.
"Cap!" Clint crashes gleefully into him and hugs him hard. "I don't fucking believe it! Natasha said you would come but I thought for sure you were dead—"
"Never bet against Natasha." Steve grins helplessly.
"Word to your mother," Clint replies, mock-serious, but Steve, to whom the idiom is not native, actually has a moment of longing for his mother, who would have kissed his forehead and made everything better, if only for a moment. God, what his mother would think of this. "Should've had more faith," Clint is saying, and he's serious for real this time. "But I'm awful glad you're here," and then he's raising a hand to shield his eyes and squinting downhill at Bucky, who is still astride Steve's motorcycle, rifle calmly raised and aimed, finger on the trigger.
Clint says, shrugging, "Guess he hasn't survived this long by being trusting."
"Guess he hasn't," Steve agrees, but when they come down the hill, Clint with his palms up and empty, Bucky lowers the gun and shakes his hand.
They have to leave the bike then, because Clint leads them up into the foothills and through craggy mountain passes, up and up. Steve's lost after the first three turns, but Clint seems to know where he's going. They've been up here for more than a year now, Clint tells them: him and Sam and Natasha. Sam's idea, Clint explains; Sam had trained here many years ago in pararescue, but he still had all these narrow trails and caves mapped out in his mind.
"He said the Rockies were a great place to get lost," Clint huffs, grunting a little; this last bit is straight uphill, "which sounded pretty good to us: we wanted to get lost, avoid the MP's, stay out of the Raft or the camps; well, you know." Steve nods; he knows. "But as a bonus, this place also turns out to be defensible, nearly a bottleneck—which is good." Clint's natural good humor abruptly deserts him. "You must have seen signs of Hydra on your way here..."
Steve's throat closes, thinking of the woman swinging from the lamp post.
"We've seen them," Bucky says flatly.
"Yeah, well." They reach the top of the trail; Clint stops to swipe at his brow. "After the blast, nobody knew what was going on. No phones, no radio—just word of mouth. There were people running west, Inhumans mostly, claiming that the whole East Coast had been wiped out."
Clint looks the question at him, but Steve can't speak to the whole East Coast; Christ.
Bucky can, it turns out. "All the normal people, yeah," he says.
"Yeah." Clint grinds the heels of his hands into his eyes. "Which is bad enough, but on top of that—"
"—Hydra's regrouping, and fast." Bucky's face is implacable. "Trading safety for freedom."
"In the North, yeah. They're forming militias out of survivors, building an army." Clint glances back the way they've come and adds, "They're burning what they can't consume, and they've sent raiding parties against us a couple of times—being proactive, I guess. They don't like that we're here. They want everyone to be part of their brave new world, and they're afraid we'll offer some kind of alternative—"
"We've got to offer an alternative," Steve says immediately, and Clint and Bucky exchange glances and shake their heads. He doesn't understand what's funny. "I'm serious: we've got to," Steve repeats, looking between them. "We've got to show them fascism isn't the only way!"
"I know, Cap," Clint says gently. "We know."
Bucky rolls his eyes. "Why do you think there's a fucking shield on everything, you dope?"
Clint turns to Bucky, frowning. "But Natasha says we need Tony, too—why the hell, I don't know; better alone than in bad company, but she insists."
"She's right," Bucky replies crisply, though the idea puts Steve's back up; the last time they saw Tony Stark, he was trying pretty goddamned hard to kill Bucky, and Steve hasn't forgiven him for it. Bucky looks at Steve like he can read his mind, which he probably can after all these years. "It doesn't matter whether he likes me, pal," Bucky says softly. "What matters is that, right now, at this moment, a mechanic is the most valuable thing in the world."
"Says who," Steve shoots back mulishly, just to be contrary.
"Says me," and their heads all jerk around; Natasha, looking suntanned and windburned and a little wild, is sitting on top of a nearby boulder and staring down at them all. "Are you boys gonna make camp with us or are you just going to stand there arguing all day?" and then her eyes slide over to Bucky and her tone changes. "How're you doing there, Sergeant Barnes?"
And Bucky drawls, "Just fine, ma'am; how's yourself?"
They follow Natasha single-file through a long, narrow passage in the rock. It opens into a bright and cheerful clearing—open to the sky and with smooth stone walls on all sides. People sit together in small groups. Faces turn toward them from metal bowls and paperback books and games of cards spread out on blankets—and when they see Steve, well: that's more hope than Steve's seen in one place for a long time. The weight of it comes down hard on him.
There's a group of soldiers clustered together on the far side, wearing "uniforms" that are anything but: a mix of police gear, army-navy supply, hunting equipment, and anything else that was lying around. Then they separate, heft their weapons—a similarly eclectic mix of firearms—and move out — and there's Sam. He'd been standing at the center of them, giving orders, and to his delight, Steve sees that he's wearing parts of Steve's old uniform: the red, white, and blue. Steve grins and shoots him a lazy salute, and Sam whoops and rushes over, grabs him by the neck, and swings him round.
"You made it! You crazy bastard!" Sam says admiringly. "I never doubted you for a minute."
"Bucky got me out," Steve explains. "But you guys don't need me," he adds, and grips Sam proudly by the forearms. "You've got it all covered: you make a great Captain America."
Sam laughs uproariously. "No, no," he says, shocked, but Steve can see he's pleased.
"This is how it should be," Steve says. "America's not one man."
"Hey, I'm just doing what I've always done," Sam protests, smiling, "keeping the troops together and motivated," and Steve smiles, because that was the job in his day, too. "We're doing supply runs in teams," he explains, pointing to where the soldiers have disappeared. "There's plenty of everything, but you've got to get to it—and before Hydra does."
"Yeah." Steve makes a face.
"Right now we're stockpiling," Sam says, and points him toward another crevice. This one opens into a cave, and Steve squints and sees piles of packaged food, materiel, weapons: as well supplied as any military depot. "We've been hanging here collecting survivors—and hoping you guys would show up—but Nat thinks we should start making our way to the coast. You know, for the weather. Arable land, fishing..." Sam shrugs, looks apologetic.
"...and Tony Stark," Steve finishes, and crosses his arms.
"Yeah," Sam says. "Look, he's not so bad," he adds defensively. "He maybe never formally denounced the Accords, but only so he could keep messing with them. I swear to God he did more damage from the inside—chaos, misinformation; honest-to-God mischief, Steve — than we ever managed with our insurgency and sabotage. Being Nomad got you locked up in prison."
"The government put me into prison," Steve corrects. "And Bucky Barnes got me out."
He finds Bucky bent over a map with Natasha: they're having a low and intense conversation in Russian while tracing out a route with red pushpins. Steve's Russian doesn't come as naturally as theirs, but he gets most of what they're saying: they've set up checkpoints, found a route to the sea. But Tony's not in Malibu anymore, and together they pore over the map, weighing options—and then Bucky yanks a red pushpin off the southern California coast and sticks it again in further north, just south of Big Sur. Bucky raises his eyebrows at Natasha, and she shoots back a crackling smile—and Steve feels a brief, hard twist of jealousy and has a moment of sympathy for King Arthur: this was maybe how the guy felt seeing Lancelot meet Guinevere for the first time. Steve coughs and they turn and—
—all jealousy dissipates, because the look Bucky gives him is the look Bucky's always given him. No matter who was there, no matter whether it was convenient: Bucky's glad to see him.
"C'mere, pal," Bucky says, and draws him toward the map. "Romanov, tell him."
Natasha's smile is nearly as warm as Bucky's, and Steve feels foolish and also happy. "I think we've got a route that's more or less direct, but not too tough—it's beautiful around here, but it can be brutal, even for us: the mountains, the desert. We should pack up our rations but try not to use 'em: we don't need a lot to sustain us. Even gas stations, mini-marts, should do it."
"If Hydra doesn't get to them first," Bucky says darkly.
They leave two days later, in a convoy: hundreds of them. Sam's out in front, leading the snaking line through mountain passes and over trails that they likely wouldn't have found otherwise. They head out early each day, before sunrise, and try to get most of their miles in while it's cool and before it rains, which it does most days. Natasha informs them all that the goal of this trip is to take it slow and steady—and to have every one of them make it there alive.
That's all right with Steve. Sitting huddled with Bucky under a tarp while they wait out an afternoon thunderstorm, he realizes that he's maybe happier than he's ever been.
The mountain gives way to rock, brown dust, and desert, and now it's Steve leading the pack. Sometimes Bucky walks beside him, but sometimes Steve looks over and Bucky's melted away—because the Winter Soldier doesn't like the exposure of a particular gulch or canyon, and has gone high-up and still to survey the area with his scope and sniper rifle.
Hawkeye does it too, Natasha reassures him, with a shrug; they can't help it. Sharpshooters.
But Bucky always reappears before nightfall, usually before they've made camp. And the thing is, Steve's been here before: he came out west by himself in the long, terrible weeks after the ice, when he was trying to cope with the fact everyone he knew was dead— that Bucky Barnes was seventy years dead. And Bucky'd always talked about wanting to see the Grand Canyon. It had never been Steve's dream—Steve hadn't ever been able to make himself dream about the future, which he didn't really believe in—but here he was in the future without any dreams of his own. So Bucky's dream it was. Steve went out west, alone, and camped on the south rim, and drew, and tried to figure out what the hell to do with his life.
Now he's back in this part of the world—but this time Bucky's with him, miraculously alive, though he doesn't seem to care that they're smack-dab in the middle of the American West of all the radio shows and serials of their childhood. "Grand Canyon's a couple of hours south of here, I think," Steve tells him, one night, when they're zipping their sleeping bags together before the fire; it gets damned cold out here when the sun goes down. "You ever been?"
Bucky barely thinks, then shows him the Winter Soldier's smile. "Nah. No one here to kill."
Sadness is a knot in his throat. "Yeah," Steve says, and then: "I went there. Once," and he's trying to be offhand about it, but Bucky knows him better than he knows himself. He touches Steve's arm, then slides his hand down and closes it around Steve's wrist. Steve looks him in the eye and says: "It's a good place to go when you've lost everything you ever cared about."
"Bet it is," Bucky replies levelly. "Probably gives you a sense of perspective," and Steve cracks a grin, because what the hell is a best friend for if not to tell you to get over yourself?
Steve's up before everyone the next morning, and the morning after that—scouting ahead, making sure the way is clear. They make it to the next checkpoint and then the next, and then one morning the sun's barely cracked the horizon when Steve crests the top of a ridge and sees that what he's taken for a rocky outcropping off in the distance is actually a formation of tanks. They're old—from his era, maybe; taken out of mothballs from some army base or other—and they're rumbling along behind what Steve realizes is a forced march to the north.
There are a couple of hundred people stumbling along; survivors from parts south, Steve surmises. They move along numbly—the tanks have their guns aimed, but Steve doesn't see anyone with rifles or pistols moving among them—and why would they bother? Why walk when you can ride? These poor people won't run, they have nowhere to go—or so they think, and Steve had been planning to go back to the convoy, grab Sam and Clint, but then he sees someone fall. It's a man, older. He crumbles and lies still, and Steve suddenly grasps that all those dark puddles in the shadow of the march are bodies. The dead. And he's scrambling over the rise before he thinks about it, hand grasping for his shield.
The prisoners stare at him with exhausted eyes and wind-burned mouths as he leaps onto the first tank and opens the turret hatch with a practiced twist: old muscle memory at work. "Hey!" the first man shouts at him, outraged at the insolence, but Steve flings him out and throws him halfway into the desert, then looks down and grins savagely. Turns out the men inside are unprepared for any pushback at all —they're just garden variety bullies, nothing special at all. They're certainly not prepared for Captain America, and they come at him with wrenches and tire irons. Steve makes short work of them—maybe even using a little more force than is necessary, but this is the first enemy he can actually strike against. It's boosting the morale of the hostages, too: there are stirrings of life among them, and a couple of people begin to kick at the florid-faced creep Steve's just flung out of the tank.
The gunner, Steve would have said—except he's not actually a gunner. None of the tank crews get off a single shot, because they're not really tank crews: there's no discipline or training, no teamwork—they clearly have no idea how to fire a 75 mm shell while under attack. Steve's tempted to show them exactly how to—he wants to blow something to smithereens; Happy 4th of July!—except—he catches himself: these are functioning tanks and he knows how to work 'em. Bucky and he can train others to do it and get themselves a real tactical advantage.
When he pops out of the last hatch he sees that the survivors have become people again: they've broken ranks and come together, some to help those in need, some to strip the prisoners of their weapons and gear. One tough-looking woman is clambering up onto the front of the tank behind his and Steve calls to her, "Think you can drive that thing?" and she grins and shouts back, "Yes, sir, Cap, sir!" Another guy—young, tall, lanky, with tattooed sleeves—melts out of the crowd and says, "James Wilkinson reporting for duty, sir!" and then everyone's coming forward to help, though Steve's MVP turns out to be athletic young woman named Kelly Franklin: a kindergarten teacher who kickboxes on the weekends. "I'll take ten of you," Steve tells her, because Kelly gets the old and the sick safely onto the tanks before Steve gives them all the final order to move out.
They don't head back; instead, Steve sends a messenger to Bucky with a note and plots his own way toward the coast. If he's figured things right, they'll intercept Natasha's group north of Death Valley—tanks notwithstanding, they're moving slower than Natasha's group was. But like a miracle, they come upon a little shopping complex not too far up the endless dusty road of nothingness, and so Steve pulls his troop into the parking lot of the sun-bleached Motel 6 and sends one team to forage anything edible out of the 7-Eleven at the gas station and another to pillage Big Mike's Guns and Supplies across the street.
It turns out they have two doctors, three nurses, and an EMT among them, and so that night, the weakest and sickest are quartered in the rooms in the motel while the rest of the group, Steve included, build a bonfire in the parking lot and celebrate with a feast of warm beer and soda, beef jerky, Doritos and potato chips, cans of baked beans and vienna sausages, packages of Oreo cookies and Twinkies. It's a festival atmosphere out here, which Steve understands: all around him he can see people getting their hope back, letting themselves imagine, however briefly, that there might a future worth having, a life worth living. He's been on this merry-go-round three or four times now himself, and so he sits atop a tank and drinks a brown ale and idly eats peanuts in the flickering light of the fire. It feels so much like one of those brief moments of peace during the war that he isn't even surprised when Bucky climbs out of the darkness to sit beside him.
"Could you guys be any louder?" Bucky says. "I think there's some people in Vegas who can't hear you."
Steve turns to him with a smile. "Are you close?"
"About forty minutes south-west," Bucky says, nodding that way. "We'll join up in the morning," and then he plucks Steve's beer from his hand and takes a long swig. "I see you made some new friends," he says, looking around. "Amazing how you do that, cause you're charmless, really."
Steve shrugs. "Yeah, it's hypnotism," he agrees, stealing his beer back. "Mind control."
There's a joyous whoop as something big is flung onto the bonfire: a tumbleweed? It explodes into flame, sparks flying. There are cheers. "Did your team win?" Buck asks, mock-earnestly.
"Not yet," Steve says, smiling and defiant. "But they're gonna."
They spend the night together in a bedroll far out from the fire, in the desert beyond the motel, tucked up together in the scrub grass on the far side of a rock. Snugged together, the scent of their unwashed bodies mixes in a way that's familiar from the war: sweat and grime and dust and smoke, the stink of a mission. Steve loves it—has missed it during these many long years of antiseptic loneliness. He tastes salt and metal on Bucky's skin.
Bucky's mouth moves against Steve's ear: "Can't sleep," he says plaintively, and Steve smiles, because that's code, old code, for I'm in the mood, make love to me. And so Steve murmurs back, "No worries, pal; got you covered," and slides one arm around Bucky's waist and the other between their bodies. He rolls his fingers, cupping, rippling them against Bucky's pants. Bucky's mouth, rough and stubbled, comes down on his, kissing, and he opens his mouth for Bucky's tongue—and now it's too late to unzip. They're rutting, grinding against each other so hard it hurts, cocks crushed together. They're sucking at each other's mouths, biting earlobes and lips—and Bucky's free hand is clutching Steve's ass, fingers dug in and possessive, grasping and rocking them, rhythmically, together—and Steve closes his eyes and just goes; breathes in, fingers and toes curling, and goes; lets it all flow out of him, cock jerking and wet.
He smells it—the warm salt of his come—and Bucky buries his head in Steve's neck and breathes in, then sucks on his skin and ruts against him, tasting him; eating him alive. His breath is hot against Steve's face—and then it catches, and Bucky moans softly. And it's the end of the world—they're in the silent, empty desert at the end of the world—but in his mind Steve can hear the rattle of metal trolley wheels and the faraway sound of the radio coming on in the apartment above: Gene Arnold on the Carnation Contented Radio Hour.
Nobody sees it coming, but when the first of Natasha's people become visible on the road ahead, something electric jerks through the crowd: a burst of energy that's contagious. Survivors! Friends! We're not alone out here! —and Steve, as the folks around him break out into a joyous run, feels like he's witnessing something he's only ever imagined: Christmas 1914, when soldiers from both sides greeted each other in unimaginable wastes of No Man's Land. There are embraces and backslaps and handshakes, smiles all around, and then Sam Wilson's saying to Bucky, critically: "You know, I think I missed you," and Bucky shoots back, "No, you didn't," and Sam makes a face and says, "You're right; I didn't."
"You missed me, though, right?" Steve asks, and Sam grins at him. "Yeah, Cap, you bet. You, I missed."
"No, you didn't," Bucky mutters, eyes rolling.
Sam glares. "I did. I missed him; he's much nicer than you."
Bucky snorts. "No, he isn't," but then Clint and Natasha arrive and the question is tabled.
By the time they get to California, they've formed a unit, cohesive. The tanks are properly staffed, they've got advance troops and a rear defense; a supply team. The ground greens around them, the temperature drops, and they camp in fields of flowers and in orchards, under the trees, with a view of the mountains. Steve remembers how everyone used to act like California was some kind of heaven on earth; he can remember seeing all the film stars there in the newsreels—Betty Grable in her garden in Beverly Hills, Marion Davies laughing on the beach in Santa Monica, Groucho Marx playing golf in Palm Springs. But he'd never seen it in color.
The forest gets thicker as they go on, the road winding in and out between the trees. Bucky's beside him at the front of that day's march, rifle strapped to his chest so he can grip and fire it with his one hand—except he's stopping and reaching out to stop Steve. Steve halts, Bucky's hand pressed to his chest. Behind him, people slow, and then the people behind them, back and back, a ripple effect. Steve can hear the tank engines grind, slow, stop. "Shh," Bucky hisses, though nobody's said anything; he's wearing his hunting-dog expression. A moment later he raises his finger, slips sideways into the forest, and vanishes.
Steve is used to this, and waits—jerking his own hand up to signal for silence at the first confused murmur. The gesture is picked up and repeated down the line. The unit quiets.
The Winter Soldier re-appears between one blink and the next. Steve arches an eyebrow, and Bucky comes close and opens his hand. He's holding a hollow cylinder, a spring, and a pin.
"Tony," Steve agrees, because that's a boobytrap, part of a pressure fuse. He and Buck had seen lots of them during the war, and Howard had improved on their design—just like this. "We're getting close," and now that he knows whose terrain they're on, he spots more early warning systems: tripwires and detonators, an alarm rigged to a battery. Around them, the trees start to become enormous—redwoods—and the road narrows and grows leaf-strewn, mulchy and mossy in parts.
When the moment comes, Steve's prepared for it; he's long sensed that they're being watched, has heard the faint rustling of leaves.
"Steve," Bucky says, a low warning, but Steve shoots him a look of reassurance—and when people finally appear from around the trees and behind rocks wielding baseball bats and steel bars and even a few guns, Steve raises his hands high despite being better armed in every respect.
He's prepared for them to surround him, prepared to make a show of ritual deference, prepared to send a smaller team in to parlay with Tony. What he's not prepared for is for some guy to train his gun on Bucky and bark, "You! Kneel! Get down!" Steve's got that dizzy, exciting feeling that he gets when he's about to send whatever plan they have to hell, because he's gonna slam this guy into a tree so hard he's gonna leave an imprint in the wood like Daffy Duck. But Bucky shoots him a look that says, don't, and slowly goes to his knees, putting his remaining hand behind his head.
"It's okay," Bucky mutters, as three more people with guns converge on him, surrounding him—and of course it's okay in the technical sense, in that Bucky could disarm these guys in a second—but in fact it's not okay at all to see Bucky on his knees with a gun to his head. He should have expected that Tony wouldn't have forgiven any of the Winter Soldier's sins; Bucky himself had clearly been anticipating this kind of hostile reception.
Still, he finds it hard to control himself as Tony's guys escort their advance party through the woods. So he studies the redwoods, some of which have got trunks big enough to carve houses into. They're ten, twelve, maybe even fifteen feet wide: bigger than his first apartment.
They stop suddenly and for a moment Steve isn't sure what's happening, and then he realizes: Tony's camp isn't on the ground: it's up in the trees. He blinks and sees what looks like an entire village up in the sky—something right out of Arabian Nights: pointed silk tents in bright orange and yellow and sky blue. There are ladders cunningly cantilevered into the enormous trees, but—as has always been true—Stark's security is tighter, his tent higher up and harder to reach. Getting there involves a complicated series of ladders dropped to them in turn.
Tony's bent over a makeshift worktable, studying something in the light of a lamp—the first artificial light Steve's seen in ages. Tony doesn't look up when they step through the tent-flap--Bucky at gunpoint, though his expression is placid, patient: the Winter Soldier. Steve himself doesn't feel placid or patient; he wants to yank the rifle out of the guy's hand and swing it at his head like it's the bottom of the ninth and they're two down.
And then Tony raises his head and—he looks terrible. And also wonderful. There are dark circles under his eyes, like he hasn't slept a full night in months, but he's lost the glassy, slick, grossly molly-coddled look that he sometimes gets when he's been in the tower too long with nothing useful to do: a degenerate look, Steve always thinks privately; decadent. But now, although obviously exhausted, Tony looks strong; he's dirty, and his hands are rough and scraped up, but he looks fit. He's shining even through the sweat and grime. The apocalypse has been good for him, Steve thinks; but of course the war was good for Howard, too. And of course, Tony had done his best work in a cave in Afghanistan.
"Two hundred and twelve," Tony says, as an opening salvo; apparently geniuses can't be bothered with pleasantries.
"Why, hello there yourself," Steve replies, crossing his arms. "Nice to see you. How's things?"
Tony ignores this. "You guys have saved two hundred and twelve more people than me. They're better trained, too, or so my spies tell me—"
Steve is suddenly angry. "It's not a competition!"
"—but on the other hand, here in Starkville we've got electricity and running water, so score one for the geeks. We've also laid down fishing nets and planted our first generation of crops: we've already got lettuce, carrots, and kale coming up," he adds, shrugging and scooping a handful of nuts from a bowl into his mouth, "so you know: salad party later. I hear you guys have been living on Twinkies and beef jerky," and before Steve can respond to this, Tony turns to Bucky and says, like it's not a complete change of subject: "The Russians were the first to develop the myoelectric prosthetic arm, did you know that? I didn't know that. You probably knew that."
Bucky stands there silently, but Tony's never required others to participate in his conversation.
"It was during the fifties, for disabled vets," Tony goes on, and then adds, "It was probably you, come to think." He chomps on another handful of nuts and regards Bucky thoughtfully. "Anyway the salient point is that it started a kind of Cold War in prosthetic technology—the Russians had a myoelectric arm, so we had to have a myoelectric arm—call it an an arms race, in fact."
He pauses for laughter. There isn't any. "Tough room," Tony mutters, and goes on. "Anyway, what it means is that prosthetics got stuck on a particular design; it's like we spent the last hundred years perfecting the iron lung. Stupid," he says, turning to his work table, and that's when Steve sees that the thing Tony's been working on is vaguely arm-shaped. "But we've got the technology now to make body-powered limbs at one-tenth the weight," and when he lifts the arm—unfinished, wires hanging off and something like a hook on the end—Bucky's stoicism falters.
"Here, stick this in your socket," and Tony's talking to Bucky but he's looking at Steve—and Steve suddenly understands that this actually wasn't a change of subject at all. This is part of their negotiations, this is Tony's idea of an olive branch. Tony has realized that there will be no coming to terms between them with the issue of Bucky Barnes still outstanding, so he's taken practical steps. Now he's pushing the half-made prosthetic against what's left of Bucky's arm, and it clearly doesn't fit properly, it's all wrong—except Bucky is staring into space and blinking and then suddenly the arm moves and Tony leaps back to watch. The arm moves—Bucky's moving the arm—bending it, flexing it, rotating it at the wrist. The hook splits into a pincer which opens, closes, opens—and then Bucky's face brightens in a way that Steve hasn't seen since the war—since before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, maybe. He's forgotten that Bucky could look like that.
"Wait till the hand's right, I'm still working on it," Tony explains, but Bucky's not listening; he's moving things around on the workbench, he's eating Tony's cashews with his half-finished hand. So Tony looks over at Steve instead—and Steve's trying and failing to keep his feelings off his face, because he's moved by this kindness to Bucky more than he ever thought he could be. After a moment, Tony averts his eyes—which is odd, because Tony's the least self-conscious, least embarrassable person he's ever met. When Tony Stark stares down shame, shame backs off.
But now— "So I could maybe use somebody to lead and defend this little paradise I'm building," Tony says. His voice is studiously casual but a vein is throbbing in his forehead.
Steve pretends to think about it, then shrugs. "I could maybe use some salad," he replies.
Six months after reaching Starkville, CA, Steve comes back from touring the perimeter, clocks in at the nearest check-point, and heads for home. They've had to expand three times to accommodate their swelling ranks: twice after their rescue raids on Hydra compounds, and then again to house the slow but steady stream of immigrants finding their way to them in twos and threes. Bruce Banner turned up in one of these groups, and he and Tony are already staking out Starkville South. Steve thinks Tony has designs on the coast all the way from Monterey to Santa Barbara.
Steve climbs the series of ropes that lead to their tent, which is way up high, and then climbs through the hole in the wooden platform that serves them as a front porch. He parts the blue silk tent flap and steps inside, but Bucky's not there. He's left a note, though—GONE SWIMMING —and so Steve smiles and changes out of his uniform and heads down to the ocean.
He finds Sam and Clint and Natasha sitting around a fire on the rocky beach—they shout and wave him over, and he sees they've got a bucket of beers as well as two bottles of white wine. The most recent scavenging party must have brought beer back from San Francisco; wine, here in wine country, is more or less everywhere. "Are we celebrating?" Steve asks, sitting down beside them and near what he immediately recognizes as a pile of Bucky's clothes.
"Yes, we are," Sam agrees, tossing him a brown bottle. "We are definitely celebrating," and when Steve shows him questioning eyebrows, Sam declares: "Starkville has been officially recognized by the great nation of Wakanda," and Natasha whoops and Clint throws a fist into the air and Steve would be hooting and hollering, too, except he can't quite believe it.
"Tony got through to them?" Steve looks from one to the other of them for confirmation of this outrageous fact. "How?"
Sam grins and says, "Stark is a—"
"—jerk," Clint interrupts, "a complete asshole, but he's a genius, no denying it. He hooked a lemon up to a potato or something and—"
Natasha looks amused. "It was something with Morse code and satellites," she tells Steve, and her eyes say that Clint's gonna need a little more time on the redemption of Tony Stark.
"Whatever," Clint says, "but here's the best part: they're sending planes. To bring us supplies—but also to take anyone who wants to go back to Wakanda." Clint takes a long swig of beer and looks out at the ocean, "I'm thinking about it," he says, but then Clint glances over at Natasha and Steve will bet ten bucks that no, Clint Barton isn't going anywhere.
But then Sam nods in agreement. "I gotta say, a well-run black utopia is looking pretty good to me right now," and well, Sam's another story: Sam might go back. He'd really liked Wakanda, but he's a loyal friend and so when Steve came back to crusade against the Accords, Sam had come with him. But that battle's over; now it's the old, familiar struggle of democracy vs. fascism. And Steve just can't stand down from that fight.
He looks out at the endless blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean. "I'll stick it out here," he says, knowing that nobody is surprised—but the truth is, he himself is surprised, because when the world ended, Steve Rogers was sitting in an impregnable cell seventeen stories below Washington thinking he was pretty goddamned done with the United States. But now, sitting here at the other end of the continent, Steve feels that maybe he's got it in him to try again, because he loves this land and these people and the idea of America, however flawed. If old Europe could rise out of the carcass of ancient Rome, then maybe something glorious can rise out of these ruins, too.
He puts his beer down and stands up. "Where's Bucky?" and as he suspects, Natasha points straight out at the waves. "He goes in," she says incredulously, "and he doesn't come out. Where the hell does he go?" and Steve grins and says, "He swims. He's a good swimmer."
He goes down to where the tide meets the shore, then rolls up his trousers so he can walk barefoot in the surf. Natasha's right—there's no sign of Bucky anywhere—but Steve's not surprised. He's watched Bucky disappear into the waves at Coney Island, at Rockaway Beach, at Riis Park—a skill that Bucky weaponized during the war when he swam, silently, through a fast-flowing river with a rope tied around his waist, or snuck up on a German guardhouse by swimming up to it from the lake side, a knife between his teeth.
And just like that, between one second and the next, Bucky appears—just stands up in the waves. Water streams off him, runs down his body in rivulets—he's strong, tanned, healthy, and though his new arm is paler than the rest of him, it's firmly attached to his metal shoulder and it moves easily when Bucky lifts both arms and stretches.
Steve's throat is a little dry but he gets the words out. "How far'd you go?"
"I dunno," Bucky says, languid and happy; he's slowly wading toward Steve through the water. "Far, I guess. I got into the rhythm and lost track of time," and desire coils low in Steve's belly, because he can imagine licking the salt off Bucky's collarbone, can imagine the oceany smell of his skin. Bucky's nearly reached him now, and it's only because he's known Bucky Barnes his whole life, for more than a century now, that he sees the feint coming—Bucky lurching suddenly into motion, grabbing for him—and even so he doesn't quite dodge fast enough; Bucky grabs him by the waist and slams him down into the surf like it's the summer of 1934.
He's laughing, gasping and soaked, salt water up his nose, when he comes up. "Sonovabitch bastard," Steve says fervently. "I'm gonna get you," but Bucky just smirks at him. "Catch me first," and Steve thinks that maybe somebody's forgotten that he's goddamned Captain America, but he's going to remember it now; oh, yes he will.
western civilisation is fundamentally post apocalyptic
and can't be understood without understanding that rome fell
and all european civilisations grew up in the ruins of rome
literally, the ruins, every city has a carcass in it