Bucky, when he was Bucky again, when he stopped denying his face and started remembering Steve’s, habitually took his hat off every time he entered a building. It gave Steve a swollen feeling in his chest to see, but he still owed it to Bucky to let him know how it was these days.
“You don’t have to take your hat off indoors anymore,” he told him. They were in a bakery so Bucky could eat his weight in cannoli, which had apparently always been a dream of his.
“What, like dames?” he said, and when some women skewered him with scowls from down the counter he made faces back at them.
Steve shrugged. “I guess,” he said. “No one seems to mind nowadays. I don’t really know when it happened or why. It wasn’t covered in my ‘Welcome to the 21st Century’ packet.”
“A lot of stuff wasn’t.”
“Just as well I didn’t get one, then.” Bucky tucked some errant locks of hair behind his ears before setting his hat carefully back onto his head. He stared at Steve. Steve stared back. And then, just as carefully, Bucky took his hat back off.
“It’s all right,” Steve was saying, and other nonsense. “We’re all right.”
“I don’t know why I’m like this,” Bucky said, panting harder than he ever had when he was running through HYDRA bases with 60 pounds of gear on his back. He made a fist of his flesh-and-blood hand and thumped the concrete until his knuckles split. Steve used his free hand to circle Bucky’s wrist and hold him still. He could feel the racing of Bucky’s heart through the thin skin there.
“It was overwhelming,” he said. “That much food, and that many people, and all those fluorescent lights. It takes a while to get used to.”
Bucky cursed under his breath and sagged into Steve’s side.
“Tell me something good,” he said, and if his tone was on just the wrong side of pleading, Steve wasn’t about to mention it.
“Um.” Steve racked his brain until he hit on something guaranteed to make Bucky laugh. “So, ‘boner’ means something different than it used to.”
“Oh, yeah?” Bucky said through gritted teeth. He was shaking, but his breath had slowed down a little. “And what’s that?”
Steve debated the merits of making him guess, but he decided against it.
“I told you about the Battle of New York, right? Well, afterward, I was at a bit of a loose end and Howard’s kid invited me to come stay at his place for a while. My own floor and everything — things just seem so big now, like everyone needs all this space. But I’d get, I don’t know, low, being alone with so much room and no one to talk to. So I took to hanging my hat on the common floors, where I might find Dr. Banner or Agent Barton. The kitchen had this machine for coffee, or, um, espresso, which is very different from coffee, and somewhere 3000 miles away Stark knows I just called his espresso machine a coffee machine and he’s gonna come blast me with a laser.” Steve could feel the way Bucky laughed, low and silent, against him. He lengthened the strokes of his hand down Bucky’s back. “Anyway, so there was this espresso machine, and turns out I can get a little kick out of a triple one of those, and it only lasts a few minutes, but that’s something, right? So I really like this machine. But one day, I don’t know, I messed it up. It starts spitting out burnt sludge and it makes this giant mess. I felt bad about it, obviously, so I had to track Stark down in his workshop and he lets me in and he looks at me like why are you here, Captain Rogers, except he would never call me that because he’s always got a clever nickname up his sleeve. Anyway, I decide to face it head-on and I gear myself up and I say, ‘Tony, I’m afraid I made a big boner.’ And he — oh, man, Buck, he just looks at me all big eyed like he can’t believe his ears or his luck, and he starts shouting for his ceiling computer, asking if it got that recorded because he wants to decorate his bedroom with it, and of course I have no idea what’s going on and I sort of just… say it again. And at this point, Stark falls out of his chair and is literally rolling around on the floor, laughing until he can’t breathe. I didn’t know that could happen to a grown man.”
“But what’s it mean now?” Bucky said. “I don’t get it.”
“It means…” Steve coughed delicately. “It’s slang for ‘erection.’ Particularly juvenile slang, too.”
A muffled choking made Steve lean down, concerned, but just as his heart seized up he realized Bucky was laughing almost as hard as Stark had been that day.
“Oh God, Steve,” he gasped. “You announced your hard on to a Stark.”
“Yeah, yeah, yuk it up.”
“Steve.” Now Bucky gripped him by the arm and squeezed just shy of too tight. He lifted his head enough to pin Steve with bright eyes, limned with moisture.
“You gotta get me that recording.”
“Keep an open mind, okay?” Steve said. They were seated in a booth that may as well have been their own room, and it even had a privacy curtain. Steve liked this place best of all the sushi joints he’d tried, mostly because no one ever came up to him and gaped, or took sneaky phone pictures without asking.
Bucky scanned the menu, and then the piece of paper with a checklist on it. A furrow grew between his eyebrows.
“So I recognize this as English, but it’s still Greek to me.”
“We’ll start you off with some simple stuff.”
Bucky rolled his eyes. “I don’t need the kid-glove treatment, Rogers,” he said. He folded the menu and pushed it into the middle of the table. When the waitress came by for their order, Bucky swept his hand out in front of him, an invitation for Steve to go first. He ordered dragon rolls and dynamite rolls and every kind of sashimi and all the nigiri pieces he thought he could handle, plus some miso soup and edamame. Tonight would be expensive, but he had so much money now he didn’t think he’d ever be able to spend it all, even if he had sushi every night.
“And I’ll have exactly what he’s having,” Bucky said, favoring the waitress with his patented flirtatious smile. When she was gone, he gave Steve a smug look from over the table.
“If you don’t like it, we can go for burgers after,” Steve blurted. That earned him a swift kick to the shin.
“The day my stomach can’t handle something yours can, pal, I’ll eat my shoe,” Bucky said.
He took to the edamame with zeal, popping the seeds out at Steve and chasing salt from his fingers with his tongue until Steve had to look away and hope the light was too low to reveal his blush. He sipped at the miso and shrugged, declaring it ‘pretty good.’
Then, two waiters came to the table, loaded down with a gorgeous display of sushi, two huge plates for both of them, and Steve watched as Bucky’s eyes went huge and round. The waiters set the plates in front of them and Bucky stared at the array long after Steve had thanked them and picked up his chopsticks. They had had enough Chinese take out over the last few weeks for Bucky to know his way around those, at least.
“You all right there, Buck?”
“Steve. This food is not cooked.”
“I thought you could take anything I can.”
“Hey, that innocent look of yours has never fooled me,” Bucky said. “You’re enjoying this a little too much.”
Steve put on a little smile and shrugged. He picked up a piece of eel nigiri and waved it at Bucky.
“This one’s cooked,” he said. “Just watch out for the little bones.”
“The hell is this green paper?”
“Delicious, delicious seaweed.”
“And these little red sprinkle looking things?”
“Flying fish eggs.”
“Jesus Christ, Steve.”
“Hey. Try it. You never know.” Steve popped the eel into his mouth.
“Listen. Maybe if we’re real nice, we can get someone to boil this fish for us.”
With no intention of walking out of the restaurant without having finished his meal and Bucky’s if it came to that, Steve took out his wallet and laid it on the table.
“Okay,” he said. “Just let me signal someone, and then we can go get nice, juicy, American burgers.”
Bucky’s false hand curled into a fist on the tabletop as his flesh one gripped his chopsticks tighter. He squared his shoulders and his mouth formed a determined little arc. Steve knew that look, and he tried to keep his triumph on the inside.
“Don’t you dare,” Bucky said. He plucked up a piece of tuna sashimi aggressively and shoved it into his mouth as if this is how he could spite Steve. Steve watched him chew, watched his eyebrow shoot upward in pleased surprise, watched him grab a piece of salmon before he’d even swallowed.
“Yeah?” Steve said.
“Don’t say it.”
Steve mimed buttoning up his lips and held his hands up in surrender. Bucky polished his plate, and ate some mochi ice cream for dessert, too.
“What’s the difference?” Bucky asked.
“Negligible unless you’re buying loads. And look, I can get just the fruit flavoring, or I can get real fruit. Or fruit on the bottom. Or no fruit at all, just honey, or vanilla, or whatever ‘plain’ tastes like. I can get low fat or all fat. I can get Greek yogurt or not Greek yogurt. I can get mix ins: granola, or cookies, or big chunks of candy. I can get stuff that looks like pudding instead. I can get it in plastic tubes, or in a big bucket. And look at that one — it’s pure liquid. How am I supposed to decide? How is anyone supposed to decide?”
“I guess most people find something they like and stick with it, or get stuff on sale. And people are different, so there are all these different… yogurts.”
“Can you imagine us in a place like this before everything? Can you even fathom all this, this wealth?”
“It gets easier,” Steve said quietly.
“I don’t know how to do this.”
“Bucky.” His name like a touchstone. “Let’s just ditch this stuff and go to a movie. I heard the new Wonder Woman is a real firecracker.”
“You just like tough broads who might beat you up.”
Bucky let him wrest the yogurt from his hands, let him guide him out of the store with a hand on his shoulder, let him talk like Wonder Woman was the one he had eyes for.
“Quit staring,” he said under his breath. “You’re being rude.”
In his peripheral vision, he saw Bucky tuck his chin to his chest and avert his gaze to the dirty floor. He crossed his arms and spread his legs further, thigh pressing into Steve’s more insistently.
“People just do that in public now, huh?” he said, just as quietly.
Steve pressed his lips together. “Is it that they’re two ladies, or that one’s black and one’s white?”
Beside him, Bucky expanded and contracted with a deep breath.
“Don’t come over all disappointed Mother Superior, Rogers,” he said. “You didn’t tell me any of this.”
“Look around, Buck.” Steve flung a hand out at the tableau of indifferent subway dwellers. “Same old New Yorkers, too wrapped up in their own lives to notice or care about what other people are doing with theirs.”
“I want to tell them to hide,” Bucky whispered, voice gone hoarse. “I want to tell them to run before anyone decides to teach them a lesson.”
Steve turned his head to look at him. His profile, chiseled as ever, ticked with the grinding of his teeth, flushed with old fear. One of his knees bounced frantically.
Bucky’s right hand shot out and he thumped himself hard on the leg.
“You know damn well people notice and care, Steve,” he said. “The world’s uglier’n you ever want to think it is. You’d do damn well to remember that some of us know that better than you.”
The car lurched to a halt, and it wasn’t their stop but Bucky rose without staggering and beat it out the open doors. Steve swallowed and sank further into his seat.
“Are you okay?” Steve asked, up and in his jacket before Bucky could answer. “Do you want me to come get you?”
“I’m fine,” Bucky said, “can’t a fella call another fella from the john? Jeez, Rogers.”
“It’s no trouble,” Steve said. “I’d like to pick you up from the grocery store.”
Bucky laughed, and in the receiver the sound was a low, breathy rumble that tightened a coil of heat around the base of Steve’s spine. He closed his eyes and willed it away.
“Why are you so…”
“What?” Steve asked. In what way was he inadequate this time? A century and a serum and a half-confession that made Steve think Bucky did indeed swing his way, as Tony would put it, and he was still not good enough.
“Perfect,” Bucky said softly, and Steve had nothing to say to that.
Eventually, he settled on, “I’m not, Buck.”
“Yeah, I know. It must be a terrible thing, having to be perfect all the time.”
“Are you giving me cheek?”
“Naw. Just sometimes, it’s hard to be looked at like a disappointment from the man you’ve always admired most in the world, just because you’re not like him. Can you understand that?”
“Buck, you could never disappoint me.”
“Yeah, pal, you say that, but the look on your face tells a different story.”
Steve braced his free hand against the back of the couch and leaned heavily against it.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s been…hard. Adjusting to nowadays. I know that better than anyone and I’ll stop acting like you should be on my timetable instead of your own.”
“I’m just asking you to try, Steve. That’s all anyone can do, right?”
“Yeah,” Steve said. For some reason, there was a lump in his throat. He willed that away too. Bucky was only breath on the other end until Steve said, “I saw two men get married in Central Park once. One was black and one was Asian.”
“Yeah? What was that like?”
Steve took his jacket off and pitched himself sideways onto the couch. The StarkPhone was getting hot against his ear.
“I don’t know, happy?” he said. “The leaves were falling. The guests were crying. I didn’t stick around; I didn’t want to be um, a creeper.”
“Did I use that right?”
“How would I know, Rogers?”
“You’ve always been better at slang than me.”
“Only because Mrs. Rogers raised herself a gentleman and Mrs. Barnes did no such thing.”
“Aw, your ma was a saint, Buck, and I won’t hear otherwise.”
“That’s why you’re the gentleman in this whole exchange.”
“I was jealous,” Steve blurted, and held his breath.
Bucky was silent for a long time. Steve listened to his breath intently. It seemed like seasons passed with each exhale.
“You and Sam…” Bucky said.
Steve rubbed at his eyes. He couldn’t say he’d never thought about it, but time and circumstance had not allowed him to indulge anything but passing fancy.
“Sam’s… in love with someone else,” he said. “Someone gone. You don’t forget that so easy.” Steve’s mouth twisted.
“Yeah,” Bucky said. There was more silence, and then he took a breath. “I kinda had a fella in Harlem, maybe. For a coupla years before the war.”
Steve’s heart stuttered. He held his breath until he thought he could pull off sounding half-way normal. “Really?”
“I mean. Just a guy. We’d go out to, you know, the queer bars, and if we saw each other there, then that was us set. Nothing formal, you understand.”
“But he was your fella.”
“Ah, hell.” Bucky sighed. “Not really, all right? We had — an understanding. That we suited, because the ones we really wanted couldn’t know, and we might as well pass the time with each other, nothing serious.”
“Oh.” Steve racked his brain for who might have caught Bucky’s eye back then. They had a handful of friends from the neighborhood, but no one stuck out to him as keeping more of Bucky’s attention than anyone else. Who had he been pining for, while he sought solace in the arms of some guy Steve had never met?
“I don’t know whatever happened to him.”
“Hey, now,” Bucky said. “None of that. Maybe he lived to be real old and got to get married and everything.”
It happened for so few of them, from their generation. Even if they survived the war, and the HIV crisis, and the narrow, hateful beliefs of others, they’d gotten so old by the time the world had started changing in earnest. It must have been harder still for a black fella. It made Steve’s heart hurt double time to wonder.
“I hope so, Buck,” he said. “I really do.”
“It’s easier, right?” Bucky said. “Talking like this.”
“On the shitter?”
A laugh like a clap reverberated through the phone.
“You know what I mean, punk. It’s just…easier. Without your eyes on me.”
Steve knew what he meant. He felt like he could say almost anything right now and have it be a true thing that he didn’t think he could say to Bucky’s face. But that didn’t make it hurt any less that Bucky had just told him he didn’t want to look at him. Maybe he’d been selfish, wanting Bucky near him. Thinking he could help Bucky bumble through this century when he was barely above stumbling himself. Maybe he was helping only himself. Maybe he was holding onto something that had never been his to hold. So he gathered up all his nerve and he said what he needed to say before he could lose it.
“If you want to move out, I would help you find a place.”
A long-suffering sigh traveled heavy down the line. “That’s not what I meant, Steve. I ain’t never wanted to be somewhere you weren’t.”
“I can recall a significant chunk of time you did not want me around.” The last year or so, chasing him around the world with Sam, getting banged up to hell every time they came near him until finally, finally, Bucky looked at him and said, Steve, please.
“I was playin’ hard to get,” Bucky said. “And I went easy on ya, no knives or guns or anything.”
“Yeah, you were a real gem.”
“You liked me.”
“I did,” Steve said. “God help me.”
Bucky laughed, soft in Steve’s ear. Steve thought his poor heart might never recover from this conversation, serum or not.
“Remember when you had to go down to the telegram office to make a phone call?” Bucky said after a long time.
“If you were real lucky, your building might have a telephone.”
“Too rich for our blood.”
“Who were you gonna call, anyway?”
“My best pal, while I was in the bathroom.”
“Bucky. Do you want me to come get you or not?”
“I can handle buying my cigarettes and eggs, Steve.”
“Just don’t use the self-checkout, okay? Even if… talking to people seems like the last thing you want to do right now.”
“The machines never do what you want them to and it’s a worse pain in the neck than talking to someone. So get in line and use that dance hall smile of yours to charm the pants off a cashier and you’ll be set.”
There was shuffling, and then a clatter and a muffled curse as Bucky’s phone slipped and landed on the tile.
“Sorry,” Bucky said after a moment.
“I’m glad, you know?”
“Huh? About what?”
“You and me, here. I’m glad, really. Even when it seems like I’m not.”
“I’ll see you in a little bit, all right? I gotta go.”
He hung up before Steve could wrap his tongue around a so long, Buck.
“It’s not the same,” he said when Steve asked. “Typewriters had tiers, and you really had to hit ’em, you know? This is all, I don’t know. Like one wrong move and it’ll write something completely different.”
“We can turn off autocorrect,” Steve said. “And at least this way you don’t waste all sorts of paper when you make a mistake.”
“Remember making a mistake at the end of a perfect page?”
“Please, Buck,” Steve said. “I want to forget.”
But he couldn’t avoid the internet altogether. Eventually, he inserted himself nonchalantly into the doorway of Steve’s office, where Steve was very busy looking up George Clinton’s discography after overhearing an argument between Tony Stark and Colonel Rhodes.
“So, it’s like a giant encyclopedia, you said?” Bucky asked. “With entries for anything I could possibly want?”
Steve swiveled in his chair to face him fully. “Among other things,” he said. “People also use it to build little communities, or play games, or look at videos and pictures, or send messages to friends and family, or write about their lives. There’s also news, and banking, and you can buy things without ever leaving your house. It’s kind of amazing.”
“What do you do on it?”
Steve shrugged. The answer — which was that he alternated between spiraling into the abyss that was Wikipedia and watching Youtubes of baby animals — didn’t seem like the best selling points.
“Is there anything about you on there?” Bucky asked.
Steve blushed and nodded, and Bucky’s face lit up.
“What’s that look, Rogers?” he said. “I need to know what makes you turn that color.”
“There’s a lot about me on the internet,” Steve said, as if revealing a secret. “Pictures and drawings and forums and gossip sites. There’s also, um, a meme.”
“The hell’s a meme?”
“Sort of an evolving joke, I guess,” Steve said. “Someone got a picture of me looking confused one day and posted it somewhere. Everyone thought it was really funny, so they put words on the picture to make it funnier. There are thousands of them. They’re called ‘Life Alert Cap,’ but I don’t know why. Tony has a whole collection, if you want to ask him for any.”
“Can you just show me one?” And he looked so damn hopeful, Steve didn’t have it in him to deny him. He sighed and brought up one that was pretty tame.
“Jeans for $50?” the top line read. “Someone get the smelling salts.”
Bucky poked at the lost moue of Steve’s digitized face and snorted. “Priceless,” he said. “I’d’a taken a picture of that dumb mug, too.”
“Har har,” Steve said.
“I bet I could come up with funnier ones.”
“Nah, they’d just decide you were Life Alert Sarge and I would laugh at you forever.”
Bucky scoffed at him and shouldered in towards the computer. Steve rolled his chair backward to give him room, but the heat of him still seeped into Steve’s skin. His backside was just about poised to land in Steve’s lap, and he looked anywhere but there. The ceiling. The ceiling in his brownstone was great. High, and stuff.
There was clacking, and a disagreement with the mouse, but eventually Bucky whooped and when Steve craned around him to look at the screen, he was confronted with a Google image search of ‘Steve Rogers.’ Some were from the old days, some were from interviews he’d done, some were candids off the street. And some were manipulations of his face on naked bodies that were not his.
“That’s not me!”
“Psh, I know that, Steve,” Bucky said, clicking through the lewd ones. “I seen enough of you lounging around in your underwear to know this mook’s got nothing on you.”
“It’s just…weird.” Steve hunched his shoulders inward, feeling as self-conscious about his outburst as he did about the doctored pictures.
“Oh, Lord,” Bucky said, and then Steve was looking at a moving picture of two guys in flagrante, penises entering secret places and other penises flopping around, and one of those penises belonging to a fella who looked a lot like Steve.
“Jesus,” Steve exclaimed, and he closed his hand over Bucky’s on the mouse in his haste to get the image of the screen. “That one is definitely not me.” When it was gone he jerked away.
“Nah, the nose is all wrong.” Bucky stepped back and looked down at Steve with a wry smile. “I guess you do a Google for the most beautiful man in the world and you should expect some dirty pictures, huh?”
Steve could feel his face twisting up as he looked up at Bucky. Bucky sighed and looked away, dragging a hand through his hair.
“Don’t tease like that,” Steve said. “It’s mean, okay?”
“Who’s teasin’?” Bucky said, eyes back on Steve’s, hand a fist at his side. There was a line deepening between his eyebrows. “You have to be the most oblivious — Jesus Christ, Steve, what does it take?”
Steve swallowed and shook his head. Bucky stepped closer to his chair, slowly, as if approaching an animal that might spook any second. Then, his hands came up to cradle his jaw and the back of his head, and he straddled Steve’s lap before lowering himself carefully into it, a comforting anchor. He laid his forehead against Steve’s.
“Okay?” he said, and Steve could feel the buzz of Bucky’s voice against his lips. He brought his arms up to wrap around the small of Bucky’s back.
“I tried so hard,” Steve whispered. “Not to want too much. Not to want more than I deserved.”
“I s’pose you can take the man out of the Great Depression, but you can’t take the Great Depression out of the man,” Bucky said. “But you gotta know, Steve. How much I’ve always wanted you.”
Steve nudged his mouth into Bucky’s, and Bucky parted his lips to let him in. He shuddered, Bucky whimpered, and Steve finally let himself have everything he’d ever wanted.
“How is this even possible?” Bucky’s voice was raised, and when Steve poked his head into the kitchen, he found Bucky touching all the buttons on the oven as if they would give him the answers.
“What’s wrong?” Steve asked.
Bucky whirled around, eyes wild, and swept his hand out to reveal a casserole dish full of tiny whole chickens. Burnt to cinders.
“They’re still frozen inside, Steve! Like the tundra!”
“I did everything that Rachel Ray said to do!”
“We can go out for dinner instead,” Steve said.
“We always go out for dinner,” Bucky said. “I was gonna make you something.”
Steve’s stomach flopped around, which it was doing damn near constantly since he and Bucky had gotten their act together. He slid in smoothly against Bucky’s side and laid a wet smacker on Bucky’s pulse point. Bucky laughed and made a disgusted sound before shoving Steve off and wiping his spit away.
“I’m gonna make you something,” he said.
“Can you make me something tomorrow? My stomach’s rumbling something fierce.”
“Fine,” Bucky said. “Mexican now. But right after that we’re going grocery shopping, all right?”
“It’s a date.”
Bucky rolled his eyes and slipped out of Steve’s arms. “Yeah, you better find a way to make grocery shopping romantic.”
“I’ll kiss you in the produce.”
“Right in front of the sweet potatoes.”
“Come on, jerk,” Steve said, slapping Bucky’s shoulder. “Let’s go get dinner.”
Bucky looked long-suffering, but followed Steve out of the kitchen and shoved his feet into his boots.
“You know they got a lot of great insults these days,” Bucky said. “You can even mush words together to make new ones. Get creative, Steve.”
“I’ll stick to the classics,” Steve said. “People think I’m vintage.”
Bucky barked out a single laugh.
“Well, I think you’re an asshat and a douchenugget.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Steve said. “Get your asshat out the door before I close it in the jamb.”
On their way out, Bucky swatted Steve’s bum. Steve gave his a pinch, and then they were on the sidewalk, where they walked too close together, hands brushing the whole while.