The city of Atlantis was gleaming and beautiful, sitting as it was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a fleet of Naval ships surrounding it. Steve watched it grow larger from the bow of the ship that was transporting him and the other VIPs to the city for a special tour. He itched to get the pad out of his backpack and make a quick sketch, but the salt-water spray wouldn’t be good for the paper.
“Hello, beautiful,” Tony said. He was standing beside Steve at the rail, his eyes wide with appreciation.
Tony had gotten Steve on the VIP list, which was full of high-ranking military personnel, Stark-level billionaires, and ambassadors from a dozen or more countries. Atlantis had been the last part of the Stargate program to be declassified following the Battle of New York, and the SGC had recalled it to Earth for a short PR run.
Bucky would’ve loved it.
The real draw for Steve, no pun intended, was getting to meet the artist whose pieces he’d first seen hanging in a gallery in Soho. It had been love at first sight, and now several of those same pieces hung in Steve’s rooms in Avengers Tower.
The ship docked at one of the piers, where a company of Marines waited along with the heads of each department, the military leader, and Governor Woolsey.
“Welcome to the Ancient City of Atlantis,” Woolsey said. “We’re so pleased you could join us.”
“Yeah, I just bet he’s happy to have a bunch of idiots poking around his city,” Tony said, garnering a dirty look from the South African ambassador.
“You promised,” Steve reminded him, though he didn’t disagree. Pulling the city out of its home galaxy just to show it off seemed like an incredible waste of resources; bureaucracy at work. It did nothing to quell Steve’s excitement at being there, though. When he and Bucky had been kids they’d been enthralled by movies like Metropolis, and stories of future utopian cities. And now there he was, stepping foot in one.
Woolsey greeted everyone in turn, shaking hands and smiling pleasantly. It was all very organized until Tony let out a whoop.
“Rowdy Roddy McKay? Holy shit! So this is where you’ve been keeping yourself!”
Everyone turned to look at Dr. Rodney McKay, the Chief Science Officer, who was turning an alarming shade of red.
“Rowdy Roddy?” General Sheppard asked, one eyebrow raised.
“I should’ve known you wouldn't keep your big mouth shut,” Dr. McKay snapped at Tony. “You haven’t changed at all.”
“Sure I have. I’m much better looking now.” Tony grinned. “We can save the Pacific Tech reunion for another day. You have alien gizmos I’d love to get my hands on.”
“Tony,” Steve said. “We’re only here to take a look around.”
Tony gave him a disbelieving look. “You have met me, right?”
“Mr. Stark,” Governor Woolsey said patiently. “I’m sure Dr. McKay would be more than happy to show you around the labs.”
“Richard, I really don’t –”
“Great, that’s all settled.” Tony clapped his hands together. “Tell you what, Dr. Strangelove. You show me yours, and I’ll show you mine.”
He picked up the silver case he’d brought along, rocking it back and forth, and Dr. McKay’s expression turned predatory.
“Is that the suit?”
That was the point when they lost both McKay and Tony. Governor Woolsey looked briefly amused before his expression settled back into something more solemn.
“Captain. It’s a real honor to have you here.”
“Please. Just Steve.”
“Of course.” The Governor turned and gestured to one of the men in uniform standing behind him. “Colonel?”
Steve hadn’t recognized him at first; the promotional photos from the art gallery hadn’t shown him in uniform. And they didn’t do him justice. Colonel Lorne was much shorter in person, and the lines of his face were exquisite. Steve would definitely be sketching him before the visit was over.
“Colonel Lorne, it’s a real pleasure to meet you.”
They shook hands, and Steve tried to tone down the big, goofy smile he was sure was plastered across his face.
“The pleasure is all mine, Captain Rogers.”
“Steve,” he corrected automatically.
Colonel Lorne grinned, displaying a pair of dimples. Oh, yeah. Definitely sketch-worthy. “Steve. Mr. Stark thought you might like a more personalized tour, one artist to another.”
That was just like Tony. He’d get all caught up in his projects and give off the impression he wasn’t paying attention to anything going on around him, and then he’d surprise one of them with a gift or gesture that showed just the opposite. He could be incredibly thoughtful despite his vehement protests to the contrary.
“That would be really great,” Steve said enthusiastically.
While Governor Woolsey led the other visitors off for a presentation, Colonel Lorne showed Steve around Atlantis. He recognized a lot of it from the Colonel’s paintings: backlit stained glass windows, a balcony view of shining spires surrounded by the ocean, the elegant lines of Ancient text inscribed on metal walls and consoles.
“I bought your painting, Stargate at Dusk,” Steve said in hushed tones as they stood before the Stargate in the Control Tower. “It’s my favorite out of everything you’ve done.”
“It was…very personal,” Colonel Lorne said. “I’m pleased you like it.”
It was a powerful piece. The Stargate filled most of the canvas, silhouetted against the setting sun. It was beautiful in and of itself, but if you looked closely at the foreground there were hints of battle: blackened stonework, twisted metal, and an outstretched, limp hand.
“The things you’ve seen, and been through…it says a lot that you can still see the beauty of a place despite all that.”
“Or because of it,” Colonel Lorne said. “My grandmother gave me your sketchbook for my tenth birthday. The one they published after the war. Your sketches from the front lines were less about the fighting and more about the people in the middle of it. Soldiers, civilians. Really skillful work. Do you still draw?”
The sketchbook embarrassed Steve. It wasn’t work anyone was supposed to see, just little things he did for himself, a way to capture a mood or memory. He took more care with where he kept his sketch pads these days.
“Yeah. I haven’t dabbled much beyond pencils and chalk, though.”
Colonel Lorne led Steve away from the Stargate and down another hallway. “That’s a good place to start. I’d love to see how you interpret color. You have a natural talent.”
“My friend Nat thinks I should take some art classes, build up my confidence.”
The Colonel nodded. “That’s a good idea. It would give you a chance to try out a lot of different media and techniques, see what really speaks to you.”
“Is that what you did?”
“Me? No. I was lucky enough to have an art teacher for a mother. She made sure I tried everything at least once: sculpture, pointillism, decoupage, Scherenschnitte. You name it, I've tried it.” Colonel Lorne directed Steve into one of the transporters and tapped a location on the map. “But painting is what really clicked for me. Oils especially.”
Steve’s own mother had always encouraged his artistic pursuits, probably because he was too sick for the activities most boys got involved in.
“I used to draw for my mom,” he said as the transporter door swished open, letting them out into another hallway. “And my friend Bucky. He did a lot for me, and that was usually the only way I had of repaying him.”
“It must have been hard. Losing him.”
Steve gave Colonel Lorne a sharp look, but the man looked sincerely sympathetic. He had to remind himself that people thought they knew all about Bucky Barnes. Bucky was part of American history along with Steve and the rest of the Howling Commandos.
“The history books don’t tell the whole story.”
“No, they don’t,” Colonel Lorne said agreeably. “Have you read Behind the Shield, by Marilyn Edgers?”
Steve blushed. Nat had dropped that book in his lap one day as she passed through the common room. The author had suggested, after talking with family members and friends, and looking through old documents and Steve’s sketchbook, that Steve and Bucky had been closer than friends. Apparently it was a highly contested opinion, part of a debate that was still ongoing; Steve had been asked more than once since his return if he was in fact gay, and if he’d been in a clandestine relationship with his best friend.
“We weren’t,” Steve said. “It was too much of a risk.”
“Times have changed.”
As if he didn’t know. And he was trying to change with them, but it wasn’t easy. He’d slept through decades of societal upheaval, had only been able to experience it through documentaries and books. It didn’t help that everyone he’d known was gone, or so old and frail that Steve couldn’t reconcile the person they’d been with the person they were now. It was disorienting.
If only he’d been able to find Bucky, the one person who would really understand. Steve and Sam had spent four months looking, which had turned into four months of Steve bringing his fiery wrath down upon every Hydra facility they could find. What Hydra had done to Bucky…it was unspeakable. Terrible. And Steve wanted to make it right, wanted to help Bucky find himself again, but his best friend had become too skilled at keeping out of sight.
“He’s so far away,” Steve murmured without thinking. It wasn’t common knowledge that Bucky Barnes was alive, or that he’d been Hydra’s top assassin for more years than Steve liked to think about.
“Not as far as you think,” Colonel Lorne replied.
He’d brought Steve out to one of the other piers, this one dominated by a large greenhouse.
“What do you mean by that?”
Lorne gestured, and Steve could see through the glass that there was a small group of people doing Tai Chi on a patch of grass surrounded by flowering bushes. Some little kids, but mostly adults.
“I don’t –” he started to say, and then light glinted off one man’s arm and Steve forgot how to breathe. Bucky was in there, going through the graceful movements with the rest of the group. God. Bucky.
“He came to the SGC looking for help. We offered him sanctuary here, and a chance to work on some lingering issues related to Hydra’s brainwashing.” The tone of Colonel Lorne's voice could best be described as fond. “He’s been working really hard to get to a more stable place, mentally and emotionally. We're all really proud of him.”
Steve didn’t know what to say. He watched Bucky, so different from their last meeting on the helicarrier. There was no mindlessness to his actions. Bucky was moving fluidly and he looked…comfortable. When the group finished he talked to some of the other people, and gave one of the kids a high five.
“Does he know I’m here?”
“It would’ve been detrimental to the healing process to spring that on him,” the Colonel said. “He’ll be waiting for you inside. Good luck.”
Steve couldn’t seem to get his legs moving. He watched through the greenhouse glass as the last of the group left and Bucky started doing stretches. All those months of searching and the focus had always been on finding Bucky, saving Bucky, and Steve never thought of what he’d say once they were finally face-to-face again.
How much did Bucky remember? Did he even want to see Steve?
While Steve tried to get himself under control, Bucky finished stretching and took a long drink from a water bottle. Then he shook his head and walked out of the greenhouse…straight towards Steve.
“You posing for a statue?”
He almost sounded like his old self, the Bucky who used to buy Steve egg creams at Fleckman's and made him ride the biggest roller coaster at Coney Island and followed him steadfastly into battle. But there was also wariness, and a measure of uncertainty. Steve could relate to that.
"You look good," Steve said.
Bucky's hair was still long but not as unkempt, his face clean-shaven. More importantly, he was present in a way he hadn't been before. The last time they'd been this close the Winter Soldier had been pummeling Steve, glaring at him with dead, empty eyes. They weren't empty anymore. His soul was shining out just like it used to and Steve's chest felt tight to see it.
"I feel pretty good." Bucky gave a half shrug, like he wasn't completely sure about that. "I'm not...They've been helping me. I'm better now. Getting better."
Steve struggled for something to say, some way to express to Bucky how glad he was to see him, how relieved he was to find Bucky doing so well. How much he'd missed him, every day since SHIELD dug him out of the ice. But he couldn't seem to get the words out past the lump in his throat, and the longer the silence drew out the more discomfited Bucky looked.
The awkward moment was saved by a big guy with dreadlocks, wearing leather pants and a huge gun strapped to his hip. He was headed into the greenhouse and stopped a moment to clap Bucky on the shoulder.
"Barnes. We on for sparring later?"
Bucky grinned, and it was so familiar Steve lost his breath again. "You must really like getting your ass whupped."
"Maybe. Who's this?"
"Specialist Ronon Dex, Captain Steve Rogers."
Steve shook hands with Ronon, gave Steve a lingering once-over. He had a very strong grip.
"Rogers. He the boyfriend?" Bucky's face flushed, and Ronon grinned. "Thought so. Let me know if you need to cancel. Nice meeting you."
Ronon ambled off.
"Boyfriend?" Steve asked, almost choking on the word.
Had Bucky talked about him to people that way? Was it possible he felt the same for Steve, even after all the lost years and everything that had happened? Steve didn't know what damage Hydra had done to Bucky's memory, how much of it might be gone forever, but maybe...maybe it didn't matter. Maybe Bucky remembered the important things.
"I've been thinking a lot. About you," Bucky admitted, though he still wouldn't look Steve in the eye. "The world's different now. We...we could be different too."
Steve let out a shaky breath and extended his hand. Bucky didn't hesitate to do the same, twining their fingers together, and for a moment all the years apart melted away.
"There's nothing different about the way I feel," Steve said. There was no reason to be anything but honest, now that he'd found Bucky again. "There never could be. I love you. I always loved you."
Bucky pulled him into a hug, clutching him tight enough to leave bruises. Steve didn't mind. He wrapped his arms around Bucky and held on for dear life, tears slipping down his cheeks unbidden.
"I'm sorry I didn't find you, after the train," he whispered against Bucky's neck. "I should've looked for you. Saved you."
"You did save me, idiot," Bucky replied fiercely. "I'm here right now because of you."
Steve didn't know how long they stood there, just holding on to each other, before the moment was broken by Iron Man flying overhead. Although tumbling would've been a better word.
"What the hell?" Bucky said, and he immediately adopted a defensive posture.
"It's just Tony." Steve frowned as Iron Man went into a flailing loop. "Or maybe it isn't. I've never seen him fly like that."
"That's Dr. McKay," Colonel Lorne said, seemingly materializing out of nowhere. He'd obviously been keeping an eye on things. "Mr. Stark is letting him try out the suit. There's a lot of yelling on the open channel."
He pointed at the discreet earpiece he was wearing and grimaced.
"I've been asked to show you to your quarters," Colonel Lorne said. "Mr. Stark made arrangements for you to stay for the duration of our time back on Earth."
"Of course he did," Steve replied fondly.
"Will you stay?" Bucky asked.
Over their heads, Dr. McKay barely avoided crashing into a tower.
"Till the end of the line, Buck."
Bucky kissed him and it was a thousand times better than anything Steve had imagined, gentle and sweet and full of promise. Steve knew then that he'd stay with Bucky even if he went back to the Pegasus Galaxy with Atlantis.
He wasn't losing Bucky again.