i love laura moon so much just because she is the biggest ‘fuck you’ to the refridgerated woman trope, aka that cliche where the male hero is (briefly) grieved over the loss of his beloved and saint-like mother/sister/girlfriend/wife only to have that woman’s death serve as a launching point for his story arc. like american gods starts and you think it’s the usual ‘perfect wife is killed leading male protagonist to seek revenge/purpose’ but no, no she isn’t perfect, she’s actually easily unlikeable, but more importantly she makes a literal return from the grave in order to be an active part of the story and to act as more than just an extension of the male protagonist.
He’d had so many names over the years (many years, far too many years). The Fist of Hydra. James. The American. The Asset. Jerk. The Winter Soldier.
Once, he had even been Bucky.
He still is, according to Steve. Steve who has lived too long, and has his own string of names trailing in his wake. Captain America. Steven Grant Rogers. Stevie. Star Spangled Man with a Plan. Punk.
Steve is still Steve, he may even be Stevie. He’s not Captain America anymore, not since the Winter Soldier appeared at his window, metals fingers pressed to the bullet wound in his stomach, scratching at the glass to be let in, like some kind of stray animal.
Steve, Stevie, still had no sense of preservation. He should have closed the blinds and left the thing that had tried to kill him months ago bleed out on the fire escape. But no, he wrenched open the window and dragged the assassin into his home (for fuck’s sake Stevie).
The Winter Soldier had bled all over the bedsheets, and as far as anyone was concerned died there, leaving a ghost.
The ghost of James Buchanan Barnes.
Steven Grant Rogers, Stevie, Dumb Punk, gave up his shield. He had picked it up to save Bucky once, and put it down to the same ends.
They didn’t so much live as warily co-exist in the apartment, on the corner of a street both familiar and strange. They had lived there before, Steve told him, but the building got torn down and they built a new one. Best thing for it, Bucky had said. The old one was a death trap. His mouth did that sometimes, opened up and words spilled out, unexpected and sweet and bitter. Like a head full of firecrackers, memories popping and snapping and if too many went off at once it made him flinch. Made him shiver and tuck himself into the smallest. darkest corner of the apartment, like a stray animal.
So Steve filled the refridgerator with the kind of things the ghost used to eat. Filled the shelves with books that the ghost used to read. The apartment was never silent, a radio in the kitchen, the volume turned low, played big band and swing and jazz, things the ghost used to dance to.
Steve was always so damn stubborn.
Baby steps, the therapist said. Small victories.
He’s killed presidents, and now he’s supposed to feel pride when he walks downstairs to get the mail. He’s brought down governments in a single night but barely manages three stops on the subway.
But it’s worth it, worth all of it and more to see the way Steve lights up when he comes back upstairs with the mail and announces the mission suffered zero casualties. When Steve’s hand wraps around his on the crowded subway and squeezes.
So he walks down to the corner store for milk when they run out, and eats at least once a day, and all the other little things that keep the furrow in Steve’s brow from running too deep.
And he doesn’t punch through the metal side of the dumpster when it starts rustling.
He had managed to pick up orange juice from the store. Not the nearest one just across the street from the apartment, but a bodega two blocks away. When he walked past the dumpster down the nearby alley (old habits die hard and he’s more likely to enter Steve’s apartment by the roof than the doors on the ground floor) it rustled at him and let out a pathetic whine.
Bucky had lifted the lid and found the cat.
The thing was not much more than a scrap of fur and fleas. He had no idea what colour it was, its coat dingy grey and matted. It still had a mouth on it, giving him a half-hearted hiss as he pulled it out of the garbage by the scruff.
The Ghost stared at the cat, and the cat stared back. Then bit his finger.
He offered it a metal fingertip and it bit that too, not even slightly dissuaded by the way it’s teeth skidded over the metal plates.
For the first time in seventy years, Bucky smiled.
The bodega stocked catfood, though Bucky had no idea if the cat preferred the wet stuff in cans or the dried kibble in boxes, so he bought both, the cat safely zipped up in his jacket, it’s flat little head poking out. It’s oversized ears swivelled back and forth as Bucky held out a can of chicken chunks in gravy in one hand and salmon pieces in aspic in the other and told the cat to make up it’s damn mind.
“Mrrr,” the cat said finally, which Bucky chose to interpret as ‘both’.
He pays for the items and walks back out onto the street. The cat makes itself comfortable, borrowing down into his jacket and going to sleep. It’s needle-like claws prick at his thin shirt, digging in whenever he turns too sharply or moves any faster than a walking pace. Since Bucky doesn’t want to be completely perforated he walks slowly down the street rather than take to the rooftops, and anyway he has a bag of catfood.
Steve didn’t look up from his spot on the couch when Bucky slipped through the apartment door and kicks off his shoes, though Bucky would bet good money that he’d spent the whole of Bucky’s absence at the window, quietly worrying.
“Hey Buck,” Steve muttered with a forced nonchalance that fools no one. “You get lost?”
“Mowr,” the cat answered.
Steve’s head snaps up, “What-”
“I founds it in the trash,” Bucky blurted out. “It’s greasy and cranky and smells like crap but…” he falters at the complicated run of expressions that passed over Steve’s features. “You seem okay with taking in strays,” Bucky finished weakly.
Steve frowned silently, and Bucky tensed up, one hand curled protectively around the lump of fur under his jacket. Something in Bucky’s expression seemed to settle him though, and he dropped the book he was reading on the coffee table.
“We’re gonna need more stuff,” Steve announced and pulled out his phone.
He wasn’t Captain America anymore, but that didn’t mean Steve couldn’t get things done when he put his mind to it. Twenty minutes later a harassed looking SHIELD agent dropped off several boxes of random crap that were supposedly essential for cat ownership.
Bucky couldn’t understand the need for a litter tray and unscented, clump-forming, biodegradable whatever-the-fuck to go in the tray (cat’s went outside, right?), or the twine-wrapped wooden kitty adventure playground thing. The collar, okay, fair enough. The shampoo and the flea drops, fuck yeah.
Steve read the instructions on the bottle carefully and gave the cat a wary look. “You’ve got the vibranium arm, you can hold it.”
They covered the bathroom floor with towels, and Bucky placed the cat carefully in the bath, where it gave him an unimpressed look and sat down to wash itself.
The disdain might have been more effective if the cat didn’t stop every time it licked itself to twitch and flap it’s tongue.
Bucky poured a little shampoo into his hands and coated his fingers before rubbing them into the cats matted fur. It gave him a curious ‘Prrrp’, but didn’t freak out until Steve turned on the showerhead, checking the water temperature on the inside of his elbow.
The cat hissed and yowled and bit Bucky’s metal thumb, sending half the tub water onto the floor in its thrashing. Bucky pressed his hand between the cats shoulders and it flattened itself on the bottom of the tub while Bucky rinsed off the soap. Underneath all the grime was silky black fur with white paws and chest and a splodge of white on his nose.
Bucky wrapped the cat up in one of the towels until it was a damp and squirming burrito, it’s nose poking out of one end. Bucky cradled it in his arms, murmuring softly as he carries the cat out to the living room and sits down on the couch. The cat bites his wrist half-heartedly, teeth skidding over metal plates. Steve watched silently from the doorway as Bucky carefully dried the cats fur, working through the tangles with his fingers until it curled up in his lap and falls asleep.
Bucky glanced up when Steve sat carefully on the couch beside him, silently waiting for permission before reaching over to stroke the cats still-damp fur.
Bucky thinks of his first night back, when the Winter Soldier bled to death on Steve’s white linens. It had taken days to heal, the bastardised version of superserum that crawled through his veins forcing out the bullets and knitting flesh and skin back together.
Steve had carried him, bridal style, to the bathroom and placed him in the tub. It hadn’t mattered, ghosts couldn’t feel the washcloth passing over bruises and scar tissue. Ghosts didn’t lean into the touch of hands in their hair, carefully rinsing away shampoo. Ghosts didn’t sigh at conditioner being massaged into their scalps, large, gentle fingers teasing out the knots and tangles.
Ghosts didn’t fall asleep on the couch, wrapped in towels and blankets, half listening as their failed mission made endless phone calls in a hushed voice, pulling apart the pieces of his life and putting them back together again with a ghost shaped hole in the middle. In the heart.
The cat purred in it’s sleep, it’s claws flexing rhythmically, leaving pinholes in Buckys jeans.
Piece by piece, everything falls into place
“He needs a name,” Steve murmured.
The cats head was pillowed in the palm of Bucky’s metal hand, fingers curled loosely around it’s fragile skull. It had one paw wrapped around Bucky’s wrist, holding him in place. As if he could even consider leaving.
Such a fragile little thing, and yet it trusted him. Trusted him to keep it safe and warm and alive.
Bucky glanced at Steve. “He?”
It’s not the thing he wants to say. There aren’t words in any language for that. There isn’t time enough in their artificially extended lives to explain it all.
“I got a, uh, eyeful when he was thrashing around in the tub,” Steve mumbles. “Definitely he.”
Ghosts don’t have names. They have identities - The Weeping Woman, The Headless Horseman, The Winter Soldier. Not names.
Bucky isn’t a ghost’s name.
Bucky shrugs, feigning nonchalance. Steve knows him too well to fall for it. “You pick.”
Steve takes a long moment to consider the cat. Bucky watches him from the corner of his eye. The lines of Steve’s face, the curve of his jaw. Things that ice and time and mind-wipes couldn’t erase.”
“He’s your cat, you choose,” Steve says finally.
Bucky huffs. “I’m bad at names. You’re the one who came up with Bucky. You pick.”
Steve lights up, and for a moment Bucky can’t look at him. It’s like staring into the sun.
“You remember that?”
Bucky bristles under Steve’s look of surprise. “Yeah. ‘Course I remember.”
Steve turns his face to Bucky’s neck and has to take a deep, shuddering breath.
Bucky waits for Steve to pull himself together, Steve’s breath, hot and damp against his skin raising goosebumps.
Really, it’s frankly embarrassing. A former spy and a decorated military tactician, and neither of them had figured it out yet.
You don’t go against your commanding officer and damn well walk into enemy territory in a stage costume for a friend. Seeing an old friend doesn’t break seventy years of Hydra programming.
You don’t hand over your shield to a guy dressed like a bird for a friend.
“Tom?” Bucky asks.
Steve snorts, still hiding in the collar of Bucky’s shirt. “That’s not very creative,” he mumbles.
Bucky shifts and turns to Steve, pressing his lips to the top of Steve’s head.
Steve’s head snaps up, and he meets Bucky’s eyes. “What?”
The corner of Bucky’s mouth ticks up. “I went out to get orange juice.”
Steve coughs out a laugh. “Seriously?”
Bucky gives him a mock glare. “You gotta problem with that?”
Steve shakes his head, his eyes bright.
“You want to keep him?” Bucky asks softly.
“Yeah,” Steve nods.
“You want to keep me?” Bucky murmurs.
Steve frowns. “You’re not a thing, Buck. How many times do I gotta explain-”
Bucky leans forward and kisses him, soft and brief. Steve falls into a shocked silence.
“I mean…” Bucky whispers against Steve’s soft, warm lips. “Do you want to keep me?”
For a second, a heartbeat, Bucky thinks that he’s made a terrible mistake. Steve lets out a soft breath and kisses him back.
“Yes,” he chants between sweet presses of lips. “Yes. Yes.”