Here, Beneath My Lungs
XVII: Forever And After
A/N: This was written for jblostfan16's birthday. She wrote BTAvengers for her Big Time Bang Entry, and I wrote this around the same time inspired by her. But it's not based on that fic because I hadn't read it yet at the time (it's excellent, over on Livejournal, go check it out).
That's about as far as you get before you can't read anymore, and you're shuffling the old, yellowed letter to the back of the pile of envelopes, moving onto the next one. The words are all beginning to blur, thick black lines faded with time and memories and the sorrow lurking at the corners of your eyes. The next address is indistinct, written in a hand that used to be more familiar than your own, and oh, you could stop; you should stop, but stopping is too much like running away, and you've already sprinted as far ahead as you can possibly get.
Your thumb wrests with the glue holding the letter closed, but before you get anywhere, James tangles his fingers in the chain of your dog tags, his breath hot against your neck. It's James because it has to be James, because no one else carries the scent of expensive cologne and hair product and engine grease on their skin, at least no one that you've ever met.
"What are you doing? Something fun? No, not fun, that's, is that paper, I didn't even know people wrote letters on paper anymore, that's quaint is what it is." The blue glow of his arc reactor, his heart – what James pretends is his heart because he likes to be the Tin Man, to make believe he isn't good and decent and too compassionate for his own sake – spills over your shoulder, eerie blue lighting the page.
That blue, that corpse-white blue light, it tinges everything James does.
The first time you read his dossier, it came complete with accounts from Gualmira and the very first Iron Man sighting. His eyes glowed like a demon's, one story read, and he brought hellfire and brimstone down onto the Earth, God's hand, seeking justice. You'd believed it, then; that this man was robotic, cybernetic, circuit boards driving an unfeeling machine.
Now you know different. You know who he is and how he tries so hard to shine, like he thinks someone can take his accomplishments away from him if he doesn't prove they are his. The past is a devil that James keeps at bay with a steady influx of bourbon and girls and the cool sheen of metal beneath his fingers, sad singers wailing over the speakers in his workshop. The future is a great wide nothing, more inventions, more creation, and more often than not you can see him wondering if it's even worth it.
He won't cop to any of that if pressed, though. You recognize battle scars, and you think it's strange how James feels unworthy of the ones that line his skin, like the fights he's been through are somehow less legitimate than those of the rest of the team. He hides it well, trades stories about this wound or that burn or that broken whatever with Dak and tales of torture how-to's with Camille, but when it comes to everything he's suffered on the inside he ducks his head like he's inferior. Like his pain isn't worth mentioning.
You worked up the nerve to ask him about it once, awkwardly stumbling over the syllables, and James just stared at you.
What have I been through, exactly?
You meant to say parents that weren't there for him, an inability to make friends, love that didn't last, and that's not even counting all the slights and insults and near-death experiences anyone with an internet browser can see, but all the words died on your tongue, tasting vaguely of ash. Because the summation, there, was the same things I have.
James doesn't like comparisons, is incomparable, really, so you kept quiet.
"Seriously," he barrels on, "I know you're about eight billion years old, but I need to get you a tablet or a laptop or a netbook, you'll like netbooks, they're adorable and small and they fit right in the palm of your hand. Like teacup dogs, except better because there's no drool."
You can't keep up with half the things he says- what on earth is a teacup dog- but the sound of his voice fills the silence and chases away all your uncertainties. "James-"
"Okay, hey, nonono, stop with the Labrador eyes, I didn't mean to imply you're older than brontosaurus, brontosauri? Jarvis, what's-"
"Brontosauri, sir, however-"
"Cool see, I was right," he babbles, cutting his AI off, and there is little more that he enjoys than being right. He casts those giant, gorgeous peepers of his your way and the way he beams makes your insides feel squishy. "I'm usually right, I'm always right, hey, no, okay, I'm right at least ninety seven percent of the time-"
You talk over his small triumph, ruderuderude, but that's the only way to get a word in edgewise with James; the man appreciates rude, so. "Here to fetch me?"
Sitting through another charity dinner and listening to some stuffy suit deliver a panegyric about how you're the savior, back from the dead, is completely uninteresting to you, but you know that's why he's here. James drags you from obligation to obligation, philanthropic event to political rally to speech upon speech about what a boon you are for America, which you can't really wrap your head around. Once upon a time, yes, you were weak, and you wanted to be strong, to be a shield for your country. You wanted to fight for honor and glory, like either of those things had any real place in war.
But that was the lie that so many young men told themselves, when you were alive, and they didn't know, they really didn't (the stomp of boots against cobble and the way blood looks when it overwhelms a street, shrapnel and punctured lungs, gold fillings in a dead man's pocket, gun powder on your tongue and you, big and strong but still insignificant in the long run. No, there is not anything glorious in your memories), and neither did you. You wanted to serve so very desperately, but you didn't know what it would be like, and now you do and mostly wish you could take it all back.
It's impossible, of course. No one can go backwards, not ever, not even a hero.
That's what they call you at all these events, like you're some kind of superman. If only they knew how you really felt. Sure, if it came down to it, you'd join the army all over again, because sitting idle has never been your thing, but there are moments you would change, moments you would fix. Sacrifices you maybe would not have made, and then the word hero would not be pinned to your chest with all your multicolored ribbons for honor and valor and magnificence.
James is different, James hates regret, and he wears his heroism like a blade, piercing flesh and catching the luster and making you wonder if revenge tastes sweeter than you once thought honor would.
"How ever did you know?" He asks, his attention already fleeing to schematics in his head, and you have to do something to bring him back, to ground him.
"Your cologne. Whenever you smell like a garden, it means we have ladies to charm."
James bristles immediately, snapping into the present. "I am a man, the manliest of man, and my cologne not smell like flowers, god, Kendall."
He straightens, so you can see that he's all dolled up, ready for a night on the town. He looks just like he should, straight from the good old boys' book of what a patriot should be. What is it all the magazines say? That James Diamond likes big guns and Southern whiskey, and he never ever ever tries to serve anyone but himself. It's not true, you know, but the paparazzi never seems to learn.
Which isn't exactly surprising. You spend a lot of time reading. The New York Times, books, magazines, but also other things. Blogs. Comment sections on blogs. You've been fully educated on all the ignorant hate that spews from people's mouths, and the detestable rebukes from those who should know better. You've never understood how a person who preaches tolerance can go from high and mighty to ignominious dick in five seconds flat, but it happens, everywhere, from the cradle to the grave. The media's like that; saluting Iron Man and denigrating James Diamond all in the same breath.
"Magnolias, I think," you amend, sniffing the air pointedly.
James bristles and says, "Well then, Captain America," and he only does that when he's irritated, equating your title – respect that you've earned – to a bad word, the insouciant curve of his lips completely at odds with the prickle-edge of his voice. "You're not feeling the gala, I can tell, I'm intuitive that way. What do you want to do instead? The Merry Men and Lady Fair are doing movie night."
"Pass." Movie night is always loud and raucous and completely incongruous with what you're trying to do here, reading letters from dead friends, sent during your last tour overseas, before you…uh, took a really long nap.
You can never quite manage to call it dying, because it didn't feel much like death. There was water, crushing, squeezing the air from your lungs, a gasp and then the dark. It was terrifying, and then it was over. A blink, and you were awake in a whole new world.
"But Kendall, its movie night. They're watching John Carter."
You perk up. "I read that book."
"The movie's better," James says dismissively, flapping one hand in the air while simultaneously appearing more interested in the tiny white screen of his cell phone than in you. He is absorbed by his email or his social networking account or some kind of stupid game. "It's got Taylor Kitsch as an alien gladiator sex slave named Virginia."
You try not to let his lack of eye contact irritate you, because this is what you've learned about the twenty first century; life is sterile now. Families are not families, and everyone lives for themselves. You don't blame James for that, or anyone else, but you think that somewhere in translation between the forties and the contemporary world, a spark of vitality got lost. You couldn't pin it down or name it, but you know it's missing. You know that all this technology that connects people only serves to make them lonelier.
"You heard me," James replies archly, still fascinated by his phone, eyes skating across the screen. "Come on, come on, let's have some fun."
"I'm not really in the mood for fun," you tell him, glancing pointedly at the letters.
"Gee willikers," James mocks, the stillness of his fingers the only sign that he's back to focusing on you. "Color me shocked. Remind me to get you acquainted with the concept of letting loose sometime. I'll take you to Disneyland. We'll do a photo op, you and Mickey Mouse, American heroes. What are you even doing, anyway, with this whole pile of dead trees, which, hi, that's another reason you're getting a tablet. If anyone should lead by example, go green, it should be Captain Conscientiousness – hey, does that say Jo Taylor?"
He snatches the letter from the bottom of the pile, Jo's signature feathered with age.
You sigh. "James. Give it back."
"No, dude, wasn't she your old girlfriend, I mean, aside from the guy, the, you know, that guy, Beck. Oh, wow, this is some hot stuff, this is really…" James switches tack quick, trying to palliate what he's just said, glossing over the sharp crackle of jealousy that still lives in his eyes.
That has ever since finding out your first time together wasn't your first time, not by a long shot.
"Put it down," you insist, but you don't make any move to take it from him. If you have it in your hands, you might be forced to read it, and you've already decided that it's too hard.
You're stuck in time, can't go back, but too scared to go forward. Sometimes you think that James gets that, because he's more than a little guilty of trying to make days stand still.
No beginning, no end, just living steadfast in the present.
He tucks the yellowed piece of paper back where he got it and wends his hand through your dog tags a second time. "I didn't know people were so filthy in the forties."
Refusing to rise to the bait is easy. Jo wouldn't ever write anything untoward, and besides, the letter in question is from when you were off on a mission. The army's postal service was notoriously unreliable back then, and you ended up seeing her again before the thing ever landed in your hands. Everything she's put to paper, she eventually told you out loud.
You give James your best stern face, and all that does is make him grin, pulling you from your desk chair by the chain around your neck. He kisses you, hardwetpossessive, less an apology and more a brand.
With the (ridiculous, overwhelming, extraordinary) amount of coffee James drinks, you always figured that his lips would taste bitter, like the grinds left on the bottom of the cup. Instead his mouth is raw sugar, melting against your tongue. You could push James away, teach him a lesson about personal property and touching things that aren't his and driving him away completely for the night, but you're a pretty firm believer in at least attempting reform before the whole shoot-'em-dead routine. You give as good as you get, tongue and teeth and the hot press of your body.
The first time this happened left you shell-shocked and uncertain, but now this is the part you like best about the future, how there are surprises you can't see coming yet, so many potentially wonderful things lurking around every corner. You still have lonely days, dark nights and empty moments, where you wonder if there's any voice at all other than yours; yours which you loathe because you were taught to loathe it, because other people used to try to tamp you down whenever you attempted to rise up.
But you also get all these bright, shiny spots, starbursts in the future that you can feel even now, even if you're not sure that they're real. If James, and everything he offers you, is real.
It becomes a mantra in your head every time your lips touch, that it's worth it, it's worth it, it has to be worth it.
"Behave yourself," you reprimand, but you touch his face more tenderly than you mean to, giving yourself away.
Cheekily, he retorts, "Sir, yes, sir," and palms your ass. "I'm thinking we skip the gala and movie night. We could stay right here. Play capture the flag, try some apple pie, make America proud-"
Ruderuderude, but you press your lips to his all the same, because it makes him giddy when you tell him to shut up, and you want to touch him, to mark him, to turn this night into something happy and beautiful and head-dizzyingly brilliant.
Separate, you trail the ice you were trapped in and James has a giant hole in his heart, literally.
Together, right here, he is whole, and you're all too content to let him thaw your bones.