Chasing Rita around in the park was one of the few times Steve got to see Bucky like this: light might be the only word to describe it, the past that buckled him under so much of the time lifted off of him momentarily. Not carefree, of course not, but maybe less burdened. Rita seemed to know it, too, partly because it was her job to—she would run hell for leather after a ball and then keep running once she’d picked it up in her mouth, forcing Bucky into pursuit, laughing all the way—and she delighted in his delight.
Sometimes he’d try to enlist Steve’s help with corralling her, but Steve waved him off, content simply to watch and enjoy. Rita completely had Bucky’s number: they’d had her only six months, but she’d risen to the job of assistance dog with minimal training; she had a natural affinity for Bucky and riding the emotional rollercoaster he lived on with him. Not that she wasn’t cued in to Steve’s particular issues, as well, but she’d been on Bucky like a rash, same as Gretel.
The sky that had been threatening rain all day was darkening, and Steve thought he felt a couple drops on his head; Bucky and Rita must have felt it, too, because they headed toward Steve—or rather, Bucky headed toward him and Rita finally figured out Bucky was giving up the chase and deigned to tag along. With a loud exhale, Bucky threw himself down on the bench and took his cap off, pushed fingers through sweaty hair, then replaced the cap. “I was built for endurance and power,” Bucky said, shoving Rita’s butt down into a sit-stay, “not speed and agility. I’m a tank, not a motorcycle.”
No matter how often he said crap like that, Steve still found himself a little floored when Bucky made those comments; he was pretty certain he could never be as resilient and strong and casual about going through what Bucky’d gone through. Bucky was far tougher than anyone had a right to be given his situation and history, but he loathed it when anyone commented on his character, even Steve—maybe especially Steve. But goddammit, Bucky was incredible and he deserved to know that, so Steve barreled through all the time and told him anyway, and Bucky would scowl but he’d learned to stop rebuffing Steve. If he hadn’t learned not to pick a fight with the world’s stubbornest man back in the ’20s, then too bad for him.
“Don’t tell me, tell her,” Steve said and pointed his foot at Rita.
Steve reached out and took Bucky’s hand, brushed his thumb over the rough skin of his knuckles. He was just about to ask if they should head back home when the sky opened up on them, a crack of thunder punctuating it far off in the distance; he could see lightning toward the water.
Steve had always liked summer storms, that brief time when the air felt charged and the humid garbage and piss odor of the city wasn’t so pronounced. Bucky snapped Rita’s leash on so they could make a break for home and they dashed out of the park. By the time they reached the apartment, both their t-shirts were plastered to their skin, their track pants soaking wet, and Bucky’s hair was dripping rather fetchingly down his neck. “Augh,” they both shouted and threw their hands up in front of their faces as Rita shook herself just inside the door of the building, showering them with warm wet dog smell.
As soon as they got inside the apartment, Bucky grabbed Rita’s towel from the peg and began drying her off—at least, as well as one could considering her fur was made for water. She was too wound up: Bucky had his hands full, so he glanced up at Steve and said, “Don’t help or anything.” Rita shook again; after wiping the fresh spray of dog-water off, Bucky said, “All right, I cry uncle.”
“Here,” Steve said, tossing him a people towel. Bucky merely laughed and took his long-sleeved t-shirt off, then pulled the Velcro wrist closure open and stripped the glove off his metal hand with this teeth, and Steve always found that so damn sexy he forgot whatever the hell he was doing.
“Look at you,” he said, laughing and waving his towel at Steve’s crotch and—oh. The glove hit the floor with a soft, wet thwack.
“Can't help how hot and bothered that gets me,” Steve grudgingly admitted.
“Everything gets you hot and bothered.”
“I know, but that’s especially sexy.”
“You act like you think I don’t know that.” Bucky smiled at him, smug, and Steve was determined to find about a hundred ways to wipe that condescending smirk off his face.
Rita was already conked out in front of the AC vent, oblivious to them, so Steve hooked two fingers in the waistband of Bucky’s pants to tug him toward the bedroom. Bucky cast a glance around the foyer. “We should probably mop up all this water before it damages the floors.”
Steve looked at their sopping shirts and the towels, the muddy water Rita’d sprayed everywhere, and shook his head—no can do. “You’re such a hopeless romantic.”
Bucky responded tartly, “Just like Joan Wilder said: hopeful. Hopeful romantic.”
“Oh, I’ve got something you can be hopeful for.”
While they’d been dozing, Rita had nosed the door open and taken over the foot of the bed, and Steve rubbed his foot up and down her back as she stretched out. He shifted toward Bucky where the bed was damp from his hair and cool from the AC, and listened to the thunder still rumbling somewhere.
Days like this made him wildly, uncontainably happy: easy, lazy, no Avengers business, only time for Bucky to work on himself with Steve by his side and the comfort of Rita. Rediscovering joy. And Steve had it, too—they were helping him every bit as much. He’d looked up a word he’d seen a while ago: phototropic, the growth or movement of an organism toward sunlight, and he thought that’s what they were—him and Bucky clawing out from their long, cold, dark winters, following the light and the warmth, growing toward the sun in this modern age.
As if he could tell Steve was staring at him and thinking sappy thoughts, Bucky rolled over and tucked his metal arm under the pillow, rubbing sleep from his eyes. “Ugh, I need a shower,” he said, before adding, “we both need a shower.”
“Hey, I’m not the one chasing a dog around the park all day.” Though he did reek of sex, he had to give Bucky that.
For the past few weeks Steve had been formulating a plan; now seemed like a good time to bring it up, when they were both loose and happy and there was nothing on their plates. Steve got up and pulled on some dry clothes, motioned Bucky to do the same. “I have something I wanted to run by you.” Bucky’s brow arced, but he sat up, pulled some jeans out of a drawer. They never knew when the Bai kids—who’d fallen in love with Rita when she’d stayed with them at Christmas—were going to pound on their door demanding immediate entry, so they’d quickly gotten in the habit of being at least semi-dressed most of the time.
Steve pulled his laptop onto the dining table and opened it up. “So, I’ve been thinking about this since Rita came to live with us, and I thought I’d present it to you and you can decide later if you like it. But I’ve wanted to do some traveling around the country again; I did a little after the Battle of New York, but I’ve never had the chance to do a longer trip and it would be fun if we both took our bikes, did a little cross-country drive.” He turned the laptop toward Bucky, who was listening a bit skeptically, Steve thought, and showed him the page. “There’s apparently a national monument to military working dogs and their handlers at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. Even though war dogs weren’t official till after we were gone, I thought there might be something we could do with them in honor of our girl, give us a goal of somewhere to head for on the trip. I figured...well, I figured that we could be there by my birthday if we gave ourselves about two weeks to travel, take our time.”
Bucky looked nonplussed, but thoughtful. “Texas. Huh.”
“I’ve actually been to the Joint Base San Antonio. Did a lot of specialized training after I got back and that was one of the places I went. Lackland’s where they train military dog teams. It just seemed kind of fitting, after Rita came to live here and we were thinking of Gretel so much.”
Most of the time, Steve could read Bucky pretty well, but he wasn’t at all sure what he was thinking this time. Bucky pulled out a chair and sat down, scrolling through the page with all Steve’s information.
“There are also some other smaller war dog memorials scattered around the country, and that’s why I thought it might make a nice trip—Georgia, Virginia, even California. New Jersey.”
“We could swing down to New Orleans, see the Grand Canyon along the way. Swim in the Pacific.” He was probably selling this a little too hard.
“Are we gonna leave Rita with the kids?”
He should have mentioned that first. “Of course not—my plan was to bring her along. I think she’d have a ball.” Her timidity had vanished quickly, once she bonded with Bucky and Steve and settled in to the job of taking care of them that she loved so much. All the new people she’d meet and get pets from would put her in dog heaven.
“The Deep South and Southwest in summer for a fluffball like her? That’s kinda punishing.” At least Bucky wasn’t saying no right off the bat. Though maybe he was using Rita as an excuse.
“No, I’ve thought of that.” Bucky gave him a sour look. “Really. I know you think I’m terrible at this, but I’ve got the contingencies covered. I talked to the groomer, and she can give her a type of cut that’ll be much cooler. More important, I bought a sidecar for the bike, so she can ride with either you or me.”
Bucky blinked. “When?”
“Hah! See, I can do surprises.”
“Whatever,” Bucky said with a shake of the head.
“Come on.” Steve threw a shirt and shoes at Bucky, pulled his own on, and grabbed Rita’s leash and his keys. They parked their bikes in the garage next door—Steve had learned long ago that if he left his outside, the Cap fans would inevitably find out and take pieces of it as souvenirs. Seeing the sidecar sitting next to Steve’s bike brought Bucky up short: it might have conjured up the memory of the two of them racing through the English countryside on Monty’s former CO’s borrowed bike and sidecar. That had been where Steve had discovered his lifelong love of motorcycles, Bucky too.
He whistled. “If that wasn’t in such great shape, I’d think it was as old as us.”
“The best part is that it’s called the Avenger.” Steve couldn’t help grinning, but Bucky still looked stubbornly unconvinced.
“That brings up another question: what are you gonna do when you get the Avengers assemble call and you’re in the middle of Bumfuck, Nebraska?” But Bucky approached the sidecar, running his hands over its bright red, glossy finish, inspecting the tires.
“I already talked to Sam. He’s going to step in for me.”
That snapped Bucky upright; he narrowed his eyes at Steve. “Are you sure that’s wise?”
“Look, you don’t have to be enhanced to carry that shield. I think he’d be great, and he’s happy to do it. I’m...I’m ready for a sabbatical.”
“Ah. That’s what this is—your birthday present is to take a long vacation.” Last year on his birthday he’d sat on the roof of Avengers Tower with Sam and Nat watching fireworks morosely, the sulfur and metal smell of sparklers in the air, letting the little sharp snaps of the sparks on his skin distract him from thinking about Bucky. They’d been searching for him, what felt like futilely; Steve couldn’t have known then they’d finally be reunited by summer’s end. Now Steve wanted a different celebration: to honor a part of their past and move forward into a new kind of future. To revel in the opportunity of making choices, not having the universe dictate terms to them.
“Maybe a little. Finally time for me to stop fighting, at least for a little while.”
Bucky took his right hand, the metal cool and smooth as he twined his fingers through Steve’s and clutched it tight. “Can I think about this?”
“Yes, of course. I wasn’t expecting you to make a decision right away.” They lived inside a fairly safe bubble these days, once the notoriety had diminished—or been satisfied by an army of SI lawyers. People knew them in their chosen neighborhood, maybe even protected them a little bit; it never hurt to have supersoldiers around, either, he supposed. So he understood Bucky’s anxiety about being out in the larger world again, the sense of vulnerability that would impart. “But hey, watch this.” Steve unsnapped the cover of the sidecar seat and Rita jumped right in like she’d been waiting for her cue. She couldn’t possibly have known what it was when he’d first brought it home, but she’d looked at it as if she was thinking, “I should sit there.”
Bucky laughed, leaning down to ruffle her fur. “I don’t know if on the open road at high speeds that windscreen will be enough. Seems dangerous for her eyes.”
“Behold.” Steve reached down into the compartment. “Doggles.” He held the goggles up to show Bucky. “The groomer told me about these, too, and there’s all these amazing videos online of dogs riding around wearing them.” All of a sudden Steve realized how much they looked like the goggles Bucky had been forced to wear once, and his heart clutched. Jesus Christ, what an idiot he was; he threw them back into the compartment. But Bucky just shook his head—a little surprised, but not terrifically upset.
“Doggles,” he repeated. “What’ll they think of next.” He sighed. “People are crazy.”
“I know! It’s great, isn’t it?” He wanted to say “let’s be crazy, too” but Bucky needed time to make his own decision.
“I don’t know if middle America is ready to see the Winter Soldier tooling around its streets trying to recapture some of his past.”
“Eh. We’re in our nineties. We can do whatever we want.”
The wheels were turning in Bucky’s mind, Steve could tell—all the places they’d once dreamt of seeing when they were young, the adventures they might still have. Bucky looked at Rita, who’d settled in to the upholstered seat, head on her paws, and she reminded Steve so much of Gretel right then, how content she’d been when they all returned from missions together. “I got some gear so we could camp out. Not like it’d be the first time we slept on the ground under the stars, we’ve had it worse.”
“Yeah, and that’s why I ain’t ever doing it again.” The corner of Bucky’s mouth tugged up. “Sounds like you got this all planned out.”
Steve slapped his thigh a couple times and Rita jumped out of the sidecar, wagging her tail and staring up at Bucky like she was trying to convince him. “When I was kicking the idea around, Pepper got all excited and wanted to help me plan possible routes and tell me where to stay. She said the posher the hotel, the better the guarantee they’ll take dogs because rich people are obsessed with their pets.” He grinned. “Since you won’t go camping.”
“What do you think, Miss Ri? Wanna go on a road trip?” She was so Bucky’s girl, every bit as much as Gretel had been, because she pressed herself against his legs, tail thumping; Rita had no idea what was going on here but she was damn excited about it all the same and seemed to want Bucky to be excited, too. “You sure it won’t be depressing for a birthday, to be reminded of all the things we left behind, all the things we lost?”
That was a concern Steve knew all too well—he’d tried shielding Bucky from the past at first, as if by not remembering all the things that had made them happy even in the midst of a war could protect him from the pain. “When I first got out of the ice, the only things I saw about the modern world were negative. So once we’d mopped up after the Chitauri, I took off, like somehow I could find the positive things out there on the road. But I never did, never found the good things, I was just too...out of place, I suppose.” He gripped Bucky’s hand even harder. “I had a list when we were young, do you remember? All the cities and landmarks I wanted to visit someday.”
His brow furrowed. And then Bucky nodded once, and he smiled, and it felt like turning toward the sun once the clouds had cleared away. “Yeah. We used to add to it out in the field, when things were at their shittiest.” Bucky glanced down at Rita, then met Steve’s eyes. “I suppose now I don’t have to shop for a present, at least.”
“Well, duh,” Steve said, smiling. “You could look forever, but you won’t find any better gift than you and Rita riding alongside me.”
They closed the door and locked it, holding hands as they walked back to the apartment. “You always were a cheap date.”